Prepping the Water
By Reed F. Curry
The Manistee a mile above the 612 bridge is a series of gentle curves with a few sweepers and blowdowns obstructing its flow. The small brook trout tend to hang on the sand bottom in any slight depression, their light coloration rendering them invisible in just two feet of the cold spring water. The browns, much larger and more aggressive, have palatial homes under the logs set against the banks, seldom emerging before dark.
My companion and I had just spent a fishless two hours working four hundred yards upstream under a bright June sun, in a cloudless sky. There was no hatch on and no wind to blow terrestrials from the streamside grasses. On the plus side, the impossible conditions gave us the river to ourselves.
Meeting at a bend pool for a conference, we decided to alter our approach. I would lead the way, fishing downstream through the same barren water we had just covered, and my Aussie friend would follow closely, targeting any fish I brought to the surface. Taking the lead, I began wading slowly, placing staccato thirty-foot casts toward any cover, or ripples in the water that would indicate a change in the streambed. The Grizzly spider drifted slowly to the water’s surface to ride high on its absurd puff of hackle. Almost immediately a small brookie winked into existence, jumping clear of the water in an attempt to take my fly on reentry. The fly was too much of a mouthful for him and no hookset was possible. Fortunately, catching the fish was not the object; my task was to mark the fish and stimulate them so that they would be watching the surface when my companion’s #16 Elk Hair Caddis came drifting past. Over the next forty-five minutes, thirteen brook trout and two browns struck at the spider, one large brown cutting a wake as it rocketed through shallow water to the attack; this in water that we had already worked hard with conventional upstream casting. I can seriously say that I had as much fun “prepping the water” that day as my friend did capitalizing upon my efforts.
When to Prep the Water
A number of factors may contribute to a day when all the trout in the stream are off their feed. For example, under high light conditions, in shallow water, trout are extremely averse to rising to the surface, thereby exposing themselves to predators. Brown trout of bragging size tend to become comatose by day, aware of threats, but reluctant to feed unless the water becomes discolored or a thick hatch of insects occurs. To further complicate matters, a good daytime holding lie for a fish might not also be a good feeding location; requiring more calories to catch passing food than the food would return. Barometric conditions, the phase of the moon, turbidity of the water--- these and sundry other reasons, some known only to our piscine friends, provide us with those days when it is necessary to arouse aggressive behavior in the fish, thus provoking an attack on a fly; or, alternately, to gradually incite the fish to feed.
Among the few incentives to immediate action found in my fly box is what my friend dubbed “The Magnet”, a #16 Grizzly Spider with hackles one and a half inches in diameter. Of course, Spiders, in brown, ginger, and even black hackling, have been exciting trout for more than fifty years. The trout in the 1950’s, just as trout today, would lose all complacency, languor, and wit when the high-stepping spider pirouetted past. I don’t know what this fly represents to a cagey trout, but it has produced on freestone streams with no insect life larger than a standard number twelve. And, though it doesn’t do well in broken water, it is a star performer on fast glides, plunge pools, or on the mirror surface of a spring creek
The most telling tie for the spider is with a long tail -- one and one half times the length of the shank; tying thread for the short body -- for minimum weight; and full hackling covering half of the hook shank. In appearance, this is an over-dressed, long-hackled variant; however, while a variant may use hackle three sizes larger than a conventional dry, the #16 spider that I favor uses a hackle appropriate for a #2 fly. With the long tail this fly cocks at forty-five degrees when at rest.
But the Magnet is seldom at rest, the slightest zephyr can send it bouncing across a pool, the merest flick of the line can set it dancing. For optimum control of the fly it is best worked downstream, or quartering downstream. A long rod and light line permit the easiest manipulation, with the least surface disturbance. An 8’6” - 9’ rod with a 3-4 weight line, a short leader, and three feet of limp 6x tippet make a telling combination. With this I can keep most of the line off the water during short, downstream casts, while the long tippet will allow the fly to bounce on the slightest ripple. If the fly starts to drag, a quick twitch of the line causes the spider to leap into the air, alighting closer on its long legs, and free of drag. When a wind kicks up, and the spider begins to waltz across the surface, otherwise sensible trout rise from the depths of pools in savage charges. Fish often strike just after the fly touches the surface during one of these dance recitals; but, curiously, the same fish will never rise twice to the spider.
The extremely high float of the spider makes it difficult for the fish to grasp, it is likely to be pushed aside, rather than captured, by the rise. The springy, full, long hackles act almost as hook-guards, so don’t expect many hook-ups. Ever the optimist, I still use a #16 Up-eye hook, hoping to get the point in a fish; whereas a #18 2Xlong, 1xFine might provide a better float. I tie spiders on upturned-eye hooks for the best possible gap and, of course, use a Turle knot to prevent the fly from pivoting on the leader.
If you’re fishing alone and you encounter sulky fish, such as I described above, you can “prep the water” for yourself by working a small area with the spider, then switch to a terrestrial, such as a beetle or hopper to score on the fish you found. If you can’t get the fish to take on the surface, though they were quick enough to attack the spider, a small soft-hackle wet fly dead-drifted past them will sometimes provoke a response. However, there are several other methods for rousing the interest of logy fish.
Creating a Hatch
George M. LaBranche first presented this method to the public in his classic The Dry Fly and Fast Water (1914). “Creating a Hatch”, or “Forcing a Rise” was the seemingly simple procedure of repeatedly casting a dry fly near, but not over, the location, or assumed location, of a trout. He narrates drawing a reluctant brown trout from the bottom of a pool through the application of more than twenty-five drag-free drifts of the fly. He could observe how each cast brought the fish a few inches higher in the water column, until finally it sipped the fly.
The difficulty, of course, lies in presenting the fly many times to the same location without lining the fish, or dragging the fly. And this is with fish that are seen; how do you know when to quit when creating a hatch at what is only a promising lie? After ten casts? Twenty? Did you put the fish down on the third cast? Without a visible fish there is no clear indication of impending success or obvious failure. Nevertheless, creating a hatch is a very effective method on those days when the fish are not actively feeding. I’ll usually devote at least a dozen casts to a likely lie before moving on and, often enough to keep my trying, I’ll score on the ninth or tenth cast.
This isn’t exactly what George LaBranche had in mind. In short pools, twenty to fifty feet long with a seam of fast water, large trout will often hold in the deep water by day, reluctant, as previously mentioned, to feed. If investigations with searching flies reveal no small to medium-sized fish in the vicinity, it is a good sign that a large fish dominates that section of water. In this situation, I will tie on a Yellow Marabou Muddler, #6, well-greased to float, and with the head cut like a Dahlberg Diver. Using a short leader and casting directly across stream, I’ll indelicately “splat” the fly onto the surface on the far side of the current seam. Drag sets in almost immediately, so some mending is in order to keep the fly drifting in the strike zone as long as possible. After thirty such casts, I will begin to strip the fly back directly across the current with all speed, the diver-cut head drawing the Muddler 4-6” below the surface. Usually on the second fast retrieve the trout will charge the fly… if he misses, or you miss him, he will seldom pursue the fly a second time; so just wait for your hands to stop shaking and move on.
Stoning the Pool
This technique is probably centuries old and it still draws criticism regarding its use. Decide for yourself whether this technique falls within your personal bounds of fair play, or whether it should be relegated to the dustbin along with the San Juan Shuffle and chumming.
Its been often observed in trout that have been stimulated to flight behavior by a sudden threat, when the threat is removed, they will turn their attention to eating for a short time. This short feeding period gives the angler an opportunity at otherwise inaccessible fish. When you have reason to believe that a hook-jawed old brown is lying through the day in a deep hole, you might wake him up with one or two large rocks thrown in the head of the run. Wait twenty minutes, then send a large streamer deep through the pool, stripping it fast. This often works on otherwise comatose, nocturnal feeders. If you have a problem with such a primitive approach, or the laws of your state decry it, you can often achieve the same result through one of the other methods mentioned above.
The next time you find yourself astream and “the fish aren’t feeding”, try one of these methods of subtle, or less than subtle, persuasion to bring them to the rise.