Lessons Learned and Re-Learned - Dave Whitlock's Article in Flyfishing and Tying Journal
Every other year Em and I host a group of couples to that fly-fishing paradise, New Zealand, and we've just returned from our sixth visit. Each time we go I'm always so impressed by how much this unique trout fishery keeps teaching us about how to be better fly-fishers.
New Zealand's trout are large, mature, self-sustaining wild fish. They are extremely wary in their pristine, clear, stream environment. It's hard to believe, but in some areas the trout see only one or two anglers a week or month. They are often spooky to the point that when they do see a fisherman they either quit feeding or leave the area. Then it could be a day to several days before they return to that spot to feed. So you don't want to inadvertently scare them before you get a chance to cast to them. To be consistently successful catching these big beauties, you must first locate the fish, and then cast to it with utmost stealth from a downstream position. You usually have one to three presentation chances before the fish disappears.
This sight-fishing scenario always teaches me very promptly what I'm doing right or wrong. I'm convinced that these lessons apply to not only New Zealand trout, but also to most trout that we fly-fish for, in any state, province, or country. Even where trout are not visible to the fly-fisher, I'm sure these stealthing techniques will catch more fish. Let's discuss what I learned or re-learned from my latest New Zealand classroom experience.
Lesson #1: Noise Reduction: Part One
Sound travels fast under water. Any unnatural noise will distract or scare a trout farther away than will the sight of you. Make your approach slowly, and with the least amount of footfall or wading-wake noise that you can. Felt soles are quietest; metal-stud soles are the worst noisemakers. Also, you'll want to cover the metal tip of your wading staff with rubber, if you can. If you know you made some noise on your approach, wait at least five minutes (longer is better) before you begin casting. Most trout in North America will calm down by then.
Lesson #2: Sight Reduction: Part One
You can get closer to trout if you approach them from a low, downstream angle, putting you behind them, ideally at a distance of about 30 to 40 feet. What you wear, and how bright the daylight happens to be, are also factors in whether fish see you. Wear muted, natural-colored, low-contrast hats and clothes, and expect better fishing on cloudy days, or early and late each day, during low-light periods. Never approach clear water that you intend to fish from the side, at a high-bank angle. That scares all fish! If you are passing by other fly-fishers, or are looking for fish in that area of the stream, be sure to stand or walk well back from the high shoreline.
Lesson #3: Noise Reduction: Part Two
Sudden, unnatural noises on the water's surface near a feeding wild trout will cause it to stop and go on guard. These abrupt sounds can be caused by three tackle components: your fly line, your leader, and items attached to your leader. Most of us can hear the noises we make while wading, but those tackle noises, 30 to 40 feet away, seem very slight to us. However, they can really startle a spooky fish! The more I fish and observe trout reactions, the more I'm convinced that it's this type of sound that puts feeding trout down the most.
To help prevent this, change the angle of your cast a little so that you are not bringing your rod tip down so far on your forward cast that it drives the body of the line down hard on the water before the line tip lands. Practice until you consistently can land the fly-line tip, leader and fly softly on the water. Next, have the smallest line-leader connection possible. For stealth fishing you'll want to forget about the loop-to-loop, line-to-leader connections because they make a definite splash on the water. I suggest the knotless connection or at least a small knot. Use as long a leader as you can handle to distance your fly from the line's impact noise. Nine feet is okay, twelve feet better, sixteen feet great! In New Zealand, 12-footers are mandatory, with 16 to 20 feet often being required to cast up and over a big trout holding in a shallow-water feeding lie. The splash-down from big indicators, heavy-split shot, and large or weighted flies are noise generators, too. I try to keep my indicators as light as possible and I feel that small yarn or dry-fly indicators are the quietest. Keep split shot small or use two or three small shot spread out, rather than one big guy. If my fly is heavy, or if I'm rigged with an indicator, shot, and nymph combo, rather than use an overhand cast, I use a full sidearm or underhand cast to present the rig so that it lands quietly on the surface. Some fly noise can be good. It's often an important trigger to catch the trout's attention, especially when fishing terrestrials or streamers. But patterns for mayfly duns, spinners, and oviposting caddis adults, etc. should all be presented as silently as possible.
To help prevent alarming other nearby trout when casting to large trout in calm-surfaced, clear water, use a low-contrast colored fly line, such as olive, a small line-to-leader connection and at least a 12-foot leader. It's also better if you can stay downstream and near the stream's shoreline.
Lesson #4: Sight Reduction: Part Two
A trout will often be frightened by the sight of a fly line flashing back and forth several times in the sunlight. You can do a couple of things to eliminate this bad visual for the fish. First, use a fly line that reflects the least amount of light. Line colors of dark gray, willow green and brown are ideal. Next, eliminate or reduce your false casting over the fish and use side-arm casts when possible, rather then overhead, because it's not as visible to the trout.
Lesson #5: Nymphing
Nymphing for trout with indicators is the most popular method today. But indicators can distract a trout's eye from your nymph, so use one that's as small as possible. Pick colors that are similar to the natural objects that might be floating on the surface. White yarn indicators work very well. New Zealand guides mostly prefer a natural, off-white tuft of sheep wool, and they can often collect it right off the barbed-wire fences.
What fly-fisher doesn't want to catch more and larger trout like this NZ beauty. If you'll apply these lessons I've learned to your own fishing, you should have more success with larger trout in ANY stream.
Lesson #6: Hook Setting
When dry-fly or nymph fishing, it seems to be almost human nature to do a couple of things that make us miss hooking our fish. So often we strike too soon with a dry fly and too late with a nymph and indicator. Just the opposite is best. It's natural to get more excited when we see a trout rise to a dry; it's such a rush that we tend to over-react. It's also natural to see an indicator twitch and question momentarily if that really was a fish, or just the bottom, and therefore under-react. With a dry fly, it's usually best to wait a full second or two after you see the fish rise before you lift on a surface take, to insure that the fish has time to inhale the fly. Our New Zealand guides advise us to say, "God Save the Queen," and then set the hook. It works great! The problem of reacting too slowly to an indicator movement is that in most cases the unseen trout has inhaled the nymph a second or so before the indicator reacts to the take. The fish is already trying to get rid of the fly by the time we know it's even taken it. So, immediately strike when you see the indicator make any unnatural move! Occasionally, while you are drifting a dry or a nymph-indicator combo, do a practice strike just before you pick up for the next cast. This will tune your strike response and timing for the next real thing.
On this last trip, I had a remarkable experience on hook-set timing. Em and I were fishing an awesomely lovely New Zealand river with Tim at Tongariro Lodge. He spotted a real shadow-hefty brown tucked next to a shady ledge just below an overhanging beech tree limb. I made an elegant presentation of his cicada tie directly to the browns tail, easy to do under the pressure of the circumstances. The brown luckily didn't move at least not until the cicada had floated three or four feet downstream and I was in the motion of lifting for the next, hopefully better presentation to the eating end of the trout.
It spun around, dashed downstream, rose with snout and shoulders out of the water, and came down on my fly. I struck out of adrenaline reflex, not technique, but I got lucky and hooked the big guy. About fifteen minutes later, after a long downstream run over a whitewater rapid, the hook just came out. I turned to Tim for sympathy, and asked him, "What could I have done better?"
I expected him to say, "Nothing, Dave," or, "You might have used more pressure fighting the fish." Instead he totally surprised me with a suggestion that I might have struck the fish about one second later. He was right, of course, because that way, the fly would have imbedded deeper into the trout's massive mouth cavity. What amazed me was that he'd remembered how I'd reacted, and it had registered even after the long, knockdown, drag-out battle that the magnificent fish had dished out on me. Guides work very hard to put us on big fish, and especially New Zealand guides. They know more than most how important every detail of an episode can be when stalking these big trout. These details can make you and me better fly-fishers if we pay attention to them.
You'll have the best chance of netting a big trout if you stay in deeper water and keep low as you lead it to the net.
Lesson #7: Cast Above the Fish
That story also sets the reason for the next lesson. When casting to a sighted rising fish, or to a prime holding spot, look and focus not at that spot, but at the area your fly must land in order to float for a distance or sink down before it reaches the trout's position. I made the mistake on that big brown of looking at him, so my cicada dressing landed on his tail.
You'll be amazed how well this rule works, especially if you only have one or two tries to make the right presentation before the fish spooks. Too many of us make our first presentation short. Realize that you need to focus ahead of the fish to get the fly upstream from its position. If you cast short or wide, don't jerk the fly off the water in haste, because that will make quite a commotion on the water and is a kiss of death reaction! If you make a bad cast just let it float through, and then quietly pick it up and try again. Besides, eating a bad cast can sometimes have a positive result like that tail- spinning, late take of my cicada-eating brown.
New Zealand's trout have taught me the importance of a low-contrast fly-line color, like this Scientific Anglers dark willow floating line.
Lesson #8: Fighting a Big Trout
When I first hook a big trout, I initially let it be the boss to prevent premature break off. I let it have its head while I compose my slack line and reposition myself to the shallow- water side of the bank, so that I can move quickly and safely to keep to the side or below the fish. If you just stand in your original position, sooner or later the fish will swim below you, giving it 90 percent of the advantage. You'll be fighting it, plus the current, and both are always pulling at the hook, working it out of the front of the trout's mouth, a sure formula for loss, or an over-fatigued fish.
I was again reminded of a useful technique that I've used in the past to save not only big trout, but also steelhead and sea-run trout. When a big fish tries to leave a pool and go over the rapids below, you can often prevent a break-off by just slacking off on the rod pressure and giving it five yards of slack line. It sounds nuts, but it works! When you give the fish slack, it first feels free and slows or stops; then, as the line moves downstream below it, the fish feels that tug and darts back upstream toward you, moving away from the pull of the line. It's hard to make yourself do, but it can have amazing results..
Reason to celebrate ... a successful climax to the right approach and good fighting techniques.
Lesson # 9: Landing a Big Trout
A trout is ready to be captured when it begins to surface regularly and starts to turn on its side. When this happens, don't drag it into shallow water, because that can cause it to panic and dash away. Move into mid-thigh deep water and coax it slowly to your calmly waiting net or hand, without forcing its head out of the water in the process. I've noticed that most New Zealand guides keep their profiles really low and their nets deep as they prepare to capture my fish. This makes good sense, because these big trout spend their lives avoiding the likes of us, and if they see us looming over them they'll panic and rush away. Lots of big fish are lost at this final episode of the encounter. New Zealand, I'm convinced, has the most unique trophy-trout stream fishing in the world. The lessons we can learn by watching and catching these big fish can make us much more successful fly-fishers in any waters. I know New Zealand is a long way to travel (a 12-hour flight) to go to trout school, but if you can get there, it's worth it. I only wish I'd started going sooner, and so will you, I'll bet.