TIPPIN’ & SIPPIN’: Understanding Trout Feeding Patterns
One of fly fishing’s greatest thrills is witnessing trout gorge on a heavy mayfly spinner fall. Instead of selectively targeting one insect at a time, the trout vacuum the surface of the water with their jaws open, inhaling everything in their path.
I call this feeding behavior tippin’ and sippin’. While spinner falls often spark hopes of catching many trout, this is often not the case. Fish actively feeding on individual insects often target your fly and then move to take it.
Tippin’ and sippin’ trout target only a specific current lane—not individual insects—which means you must have great casting accuracy and be able to observe, understand, and intercept their rhythmic feeding.
Decoding Pattern Feeding
When mayflies blanket the water’s surface, as they do during a summer Trico spinner swarm, decoding a trout’s feeding pattern is imperative. Often there are so many spinners on the water that the insects can actually create a blanket covering the surface. At times like this, fish form into groups or pods and station in specific areas where the current directs their food.
Since the spinners are spent (dead) and don’t move, the trout don’t need to expend much energy, or move far, to chase them down. By timing your casts and casting accurately, you’ll greatly increase your chances of hooking more fish.
Under these circumstances, trout typically suspend themselves in the water column, or feed in shallow water so they can be close to their food source.
In order to feed on the conveyor belt of floating mayflies, the trout tip their heads, poke their noses through the film, and inhale numerous spinners with each sip. Close observation reveals that trout repeat these actions in cycles—rising to the surface and eating (tippin’ and sippin’) several times in a row before taking a longer rest period underwater.
Think of this rest period as time to “chew, breathe, and swallow.” The rest break between these rises can be as short as a few seconds or much longer—the important thing to recognize is that the rest periods are all normally about the same length of time. The fish will regularly rise about every four to eight seconds in a rhythmic and predictable fashion. Count out loud between rises if you need to, and time your casts so that the fly arrives about when you expect the trout to rise.
Become a Sharpshooter
Even though you have the timing figured out, you are still not on easy street. When targeting trout that are tippin’ and sippin’ you must present your fly into a narrow feeding zone—sometimes less than a few inches wide. You can time your cast perfectly, but if the fly is a few inches to the left or right when the trout surfaces, you are out of the ballpark. Remember, the trout is not coming to the surface for your fly.
Also remember that you are not timing your cast to coincide with the rise of the trout, but timing the fly’s arrival instead.
To be successful at this game, your fly must land 12 to 24 inches upstream from the trout. If you cast too far ahead of the trout, it becomes difficult to account for the time it takes for the fly to drift down to the trout. Also, if you cast too far upstream, your drifting fly is exposed to the random vagaries of the current and even if the fly lands exactly where you wanted it, it may end up drifting too far to the right or left.
Proper positioning can be as critical as your casting accuracy. Fish are wary of predators, and you don’t want to spook the trout you’re fishing to, or those around it. Before you approach the fish, observe the environment around the area you are fishing. Ideally you want to cast from a spot upstream or downstream and off to one side of the fish. When you cast accurately and at an angle, your line and leader will naturally be to the side of the trout and not directly over it.
Walking on a high bank and presenting a silhouette—or standing so you cast a shadow over the fish—will spook the trout, so keep a low profile. Standing in the river, at the water’s edge, is often the best position.
Once you’re in position, watch the surface of the water directly upstream of the trout, paying particular attention to how microcurrents affect the insects flowing into and through the trout’s feeding lane. Even if your cast is extremely accurate and within 12 inches of the trout’s head, you may have to account for the speed and direction of multiple currents in order to deliver your fly precisely to the fish.
If you cast from upstream, use a slip-strike—down and to the side—to set the hook when the trout takes, and use side pressure on the fish to steer it away from any other trout that may be feeding nearby. Hopefully you can land the fish without putting down a whole group of feeding trout.
When approaching from below—with an up-and-across cast—you increase your odds of hooking up with more than one fish in a pod. Target individual trout in the back of the pack first, working your way through the group one at a time. Although the fish at the top of the pack is often the largest, by trying for it first you risk losing out on the feeding fish that linger below.
Although these strategies and techniques should help you hook more trout during a mayfly spinner fall, they are also applicable to other events—such as caddis mating swarms or hatches—when bugs carpet the water. The next time you’re fly fishing, take the time to observe the hatch, the fish, and the conditions around you to improve your chances of catching more and bigger trout on dry flies.
Reprinted with permission from Fly Fisherman