9 Guerilla Tactics for More Trout
By Gary Lewis
When we set out to do battle with trout, we arm ourselves with specific techniques to handle typical encounters with our quarry. But often, our opponent has seen our stratagems before and is wary of taking the fly. That's when its time to bend the rules of engagement. And time to adopt guerrilla tactics.
Guerrilla is the term used to describe a member of a small, independent band of fighters that harass the opposition by using surprise raids and unconventional tactics. That describes some of the better fishermen I know. Flexible, creative and quick to respond to changing conditions.
1. Add a Dropper
If one fly is good, then two are better. That's the philosophy that paid off with a good rainbow from Crane Prairie Reservoir. And often, the second fly improves the chances of a take on the first fly, especially if you add a heavily weighted nymph to bring your primary pattern closer to the bottom.
On the Deschutes in April and May, we deploy small flies like a No. 16 Brassie or a Copper John with a big, heavy stonefly nymph to keep the tiny fly in the zone. And in the winter when there's a blue-winged olive hatch in progress, an angler can add an emerger pattern to the dry fly cast to give the fish more options. Often, the emerger is the fly that will get the most strikes.
Adding a dropper can significantly improve catch numbers, especially when, as happened to me on Ice Lake in the Wallowas, ten or more brook trout would charge the fly. I added another beadhead soft hackle and caught two trout in one cast, multiple times. If there's a remote possibility of a double hookup, make sure to size up the tippet. Even two thrashing ten-inchers can break off a four-pound leader.
2. Take a New Twist on an Old Pattern
You've got an effective fly pattern. Take another look at it and capitalize on a big trout's innate greed. That's the kind of thinking that produced Leon's Double Bugger, a pattern I found in Gary Soucie's Woolly Wisdom (Amato Publications, 2005).
Two baitfish fighting or a pair of leeches. Whatever it resembles, to an 8-pound rainbow, it must have looked like a mouthful. I fished this pattern on a clear October day and caught my biggest rainbow of the year. The fish grabbed the teaser fly and the battle was on.
Snell a section of 40- or 50-pound mono to the shank of one hook knot it to the eye of the other. Super-Glue the snell. Kink the mono so the teaser runs behind the main hook. Tie a black Woolly Bugger on the main hook and a brown red-tag Woolly Worm on the teaser.
It's not a pattern for all seasons, but it's a good one to have in the arsenal to shock a big fish into striking. Chances are they haven't seen it before. Fish it just like a Woolly Bugger, varying the retrieve and depth until a fish falls for it.
3. Tumble Tandem Tiny Heavyweights
When fish are feeding close to the bottom, or rooting out tasties from the gravel, a pair of heavily-weighted patterns can pay off. This technique really comes into its own on intimate streams in clear water conditions where the fish ignore Woolly Buggers and dry flies because that's what every other two-legger with a long stick is throwing at them.
Don polarized glasses to cut the glare and stalk the fish from downstream. Instead of using a strike indicator, watch the fish. Spot fish in shallow water lies and cast five to 20 feet upstream, allowing the leaden imitations to sink and tumble. Divine the micro-currents at play below the surface and make adjustments. He may drift right or left to take the fly. Wait for him to clamp down and turn his head.
4. Match an Overlooked Food Source
An angler whose mantra is match the hatch will always be able to tempt a few trout when the bugs are out. But a fly-rodder with a penchant for finding overlooked food sources will often score bigger fish.
Crayfish and other crustaceans contribute major calories on many waters, yet anglers overlook them. Snail imitations, if you have the patience to fish them, produce well wherever trout make a living. For many years, chironomids were forgotten in favor of more showy bugs. They still are on a lot of waters.
Another bug that figures heavily in a trout's diet in summer and fall is the water boatman. It dives at a shallow angle then stops to float back to the surface. Fish it on a clear, intermediate slow-sink line and retrieve with one- to three-inch strips punctuated with long pauses.
A big hatch of tiny midges will call out all the insect eaters and bring the predatory browns and rainbows out to play. Instead of tying up an 8x tippet and a No. 18 Griffith's Gnat, fish a minnow pattern below the feeding frenzy. The angler that can ignore the smaller fish will have the opportunity to tangle with a trophy.
5. Shock and Awe with Gaudy Patterns
Jaded fish in heavily-fished waters don't come easy. If they bit on a beadhead Pheasant Tail and got stung yesterday, chances are they won't fall for that trick again soon.
Make a sloppy cast or follow someone else up the bank and you'll find fish with lockjaw and a negative outlook on life in the brook. Show them something they can get excited about.
Tie on a flashy leech or bugger built on a No. 6 long-shank heavy nymph hook. Make sure it's weighted with lead wrap or a big brass bead. White and orange marabou plays a key role in these types of flies. If you elect to use a black or olive bodied bug, be sure to accent with something bright. Big Egg-Sucking Leeches and all-white Woolly Buggers are good places to start. Make it something that the fish aren't used to seeing and you'll shock them into action.
6. Stalk the Shoreline
On many popular stillwater fisheries, fly-rodders take to the water in float tubes, pontoon boats and prams, like a freshwater Navy. But the goal of the guerrilla is subterfuge and deception. If bringing more trout to the net is the prize, employ a little stealth along the bank before launching the boat.
Where the water is clear and there's enough shoreside cover to hide trout (and conceal a careful angler) walk soft along the bank and watch for fish. Not whole fish, but parts of fish. Often you'll see just a tail with the rest of the body concealed by lily pads, tules or algae bloom.
In most cases, the fish will be less than two rod lengths away, reachable with a dap cast or a quick flip of the line. Keep the rod low and approach from behind the fish. At the right time of year, I'll use a hopper imitation, but in this situation, I'll put my money on a fly called a Brown Hackle, a simple soft hackle tied with a peacock body and a webby hen collar. The hackle pulsates, there's subtle shine and the fly is retrieved very slow.
7. Size Down the Dry
Fish in shallow water get a little spooky when they grab a fly and it comes out with a premature hookset. They get nothing for their trouble except a vague feeling that a two-legger is trying to put them in the frying pan.
When you miss a fish and it returns to its feeding station or cruising pattern, wait five or ten minutes before you put a fly in front of him again. This allows time to leisurely tie on a smaller version of the fly that just fooled him. Take the time to check for abrasions on the tippet and get the knot just right.
Then put on the glare glasses and watch. When he goes back to feeding, time his rises. If he's gulping a fly every 30 seconds, make sure your cast lands upstream 27 seconds later. Hit your target with that next cast and he's going to take your fly. You can bet on it.
8. Slack Line Sculpins
Big fish move a lot farther to take a mouthful of protein than for a tiny morsel. That's why everything from a twelve-inch brown to a twelve-pound bull trout will streak up from the bottom to nail a sculpin imitation. Give them a chance to see it. Here's how I like to do it.
Cast across, angling downstream, (upstream mend optional) then let the fly swing. The riffle will catch the belly of the line and drag the fly across the current. Strikes can come as the fly sweeps or as it swings at the end of the drift. Instead of reeling in and recasting, throw micro-mends right and left to allow the fly to cover holding water directly downstream. Lengthen the line to cover more water, then mend the line out into the riffle again. Once cast, the line need not be cast again for five minutes as the angler covers water.
Strikes will be savage, but the fish don't hook themselves on a long line. Watch the end of the fly line and be ready to set the hook hard. Oh yeah, you'll want to go with 2x or 3x tippet to keep from breaking off the big ones.
9. Stillwater Ambush
Stillwater trout can't rely on current to bring the food. They must seek it out. Some fish follow a route that may take in an acre or more of underwater area. When the sunlight, breeze and water clarity cooperate to open windows into the underwater world, sit and watch for a few minutes. If a trout, or a group of trout pass by, these are actively feeding fish. Time the circuit. The fish may pass once every five or ten minutes. Make the cast and presentation coincide with their expected appearance. Show them a morsel – something small and subtle – and one of them will eat it.
Fish learn by processing information about what goes on around them, through vision, hearing, vibration, taste, and smell. Their response to our lures and baits is based on instinct and memory.
Similarly, any angler's success is based on experiences and lessons learned over time on the water. That means to be more successful, you must go fishing more. Not a bad trade-off. And when the fish are wise to your conventional strategies, don't be afraid to bend the rules of engagement.