Fish Close to the Bottom and Don’t Look Them in the Eye
By Gary Lewis
From where I stood, on the bank of a small lake, I could see at least four good fish. Moving in and out of the weed beds, the trout were feeding, but I couldn't tell what it was they were taking. It was the middle of the day and if I could see these fish in the low, clear water they could certainly see me.
There was one that stood out from the rest. It was a fifteen inch rainbow, no bigger than the others but behaving differently. While the others seemed to move randomly, browsing among the standing weeds, this one followed a very definite pattern. It swam in a large oval that took it 75 yards down one arm of the lake and then back again to turn in front of me.
Every time its feeding journey brought it to a weedless patch, it would put its nose down, feeding on insects below the gravel. This fish was the only trout I could see that was feeding this way. I watched it for a few minutes and even followed it along its path. It was working a series of these bare spots, prospecting for grub beneath the gravel at each place it came to.
Nothing else was working, so I decided to have a try for this one. Pawing through my fly box, I found one I'd tied the day before. It was heavily weighted and ugly, a white leech pattern with a red head. Waiting for the cruising fish to pass by again, I cast to the patch of gravel and let the fly sink to the bottom where it sat for the next few minutes. Soon, the rainbow was in sight again and, nosing down, it took the fly in its mouth. Watching the take, I reacted too quick and pulled the fly out before its mouth was closed. I lost the fish but caught an idea.
Of course, I knew that most of a trout's food is taken below the surface and that is where to fish when no surface feeding is evident. But watching other fishermen, I saw most people using dry flies, or casting and stripping in wet flies or nymphs. The fish are conditioned to seeing our imitations above them, either on the surface or our clumsy attempts at imitating naturals beneath.
Recently, I had the good fortune to fish a pod of trout in the downstream sweep of a fallen tree. They wouldn't take a dry fly and they wouldn't take a wet fly unless it came right to them. There was about two feet of water between the trout and the surface. Most drifts, my fly would sweep over their heads. With a weighted fly I could get my presentation at their level or below. The trout were most willing to take if the fly was dead drifted, bounced along the bottom.
Moving upstream, I came to a spot that was just about fifteen inches deep. The fish stood out against the yellowed pumice bottom. Most of the trout were six inches and smaller though in the best lies there were a few fish that would go over ten inches. The bank offered no cover and it seemed to me that catching one of these would be a challenge in the low, clear water. Bigger flies intimidate most smaller trout so I tied on a #8 weighted Muddler and knelt behind a stump to cast to the waiting fish.
A few trout chased the Muddler as I fished it in the usual way but I couldn't get one to bite until I remembered that a Muddler is supposed to represent a sculpin. Sculpin move along the bottom, feeding on whatever is smaller than them and can't move fast enough to get away. They move in quick bursts traveling a few inches at a time. So I fished it like a small feeding sculpin and hooked all the larger trout in the run.
When they have their noses in the gravel, you probably won't catch them on the surface. Let a heavily weighted nymph tumble along with the current and watch your fly line for a stop that means a trout is mouthing the fly. Fish a small weighted Muddler with shorts strips, pausing to let it rest on the bottom.
This isn't classic fly fishing practice and a dry fly purist might look down his nose at you. That's about the worst that'll happen.
One last rule concerns streamside etiquette: They're going to ask you how you're doing. "Got a couple," is all you need to say and don't look them in the eye, but let them see that far away look in yours and a half-smile. They're going to want to know what you're using but you've told them enough already.