I was out with a new fishing buddy recently and had one of the worst times on the water I’ve had in a long while. We were on a stretch of river that usually fishes well. The weather was a bit muggy. The insects were hatching. Basically, the evening had all the markings of a serious trout fest. My friend and I fished with similar rigs — he caught a couple, and I caught zero. It rattled me to be honest, and two questions kept running through my mind: why, and, what was I doing wrong?
In this particular case, truthfully, I think it was because I was putting too much pressure on myself to impress my new compadre. I was focused on landing fish rather than the streamcraft and techniques that would actually help me hook up. I had the wrong mentality going into it and it resulted in me getting frustrated rather than catching fish. It got me thinking about all the other tough fishing trips and the factors that contributed to them being hard. So, I’ve decided to document them here as a way to help you avoid similar heartache.
Fly fishing is a skill that needs time and patience to master, and a lot of problem-solving and resilience to work how to catch fish. So, having a positive mindset is crucial for success. This is true for all anglers but particularly so for beginners who can sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed or dispirited if things aren’t going to plan. While it’s totally natural to feel annoyed if you’re not getting the results you think you deserve, it’s best to take a bit of time out to reset if you’re feeling frustrated. In this situation, I usually reel up my rod, take a deep breath, and take in the chilled vibes of the river. This is usually when I spot a platypus playing in the water, or a nosey roo, or even a snake keeping a beading eye on me (which still startles me after all these years! Luckily, I’ve never had any hassle with them though). And it’s these kinds of encounters with wildlife, and the inspiring nature of my surrounds, that makes my head happy. And when my mind is smiling my fishing gets more fluid and good things often follow.
Fishing a river that has been hit hard by a bunch of anglers before you can have a massive impact on your success. Fish in these waters tend to be wary because they’ve seen plenty of hooks, and will therefore be less likely to take yours. This particular problem is common on rivers that are easily accessible — i.e. near main roads or footpaths. There are a few ways I get around this. First, I steer clear of popular rivers on public holidays and choose waters that are further afield to avoid the crowds. If can’t get to more remote rivers, then I’ll select sections of water that are hard to access or are a bit overgrown because it’ll put off those who can’t be bothered walking/bush bashing or are not skilled enough to fish twig water. While I’ve worn out many pairs of boots and lost numerous flies to trees in these areas, it’s been a small price to pay for the awesome fish I’ve caught. Finally, I’ve got access to a couple of stretches of river on private property — this seriously reduces pressure and increases the odds of a decent catch.
In fly fishing, we tie natural and manmade furs and fibres on hooks to imitate the insects and small animals trout feed on. Now, there are literally thousands of fly patterns available, many of which are tied to represent specific insect species. However, you don’t need to be an entomology professor to choose a fly to tempt a trout, you just need to know a bit about bugs and the various life stages they’re at when you’re on the water to choose something suitable. I’m going to talk about this in more detail in another blog soon, but for now, I’m just going to focus on my fly selection strategy.
I usually start the day rigged with an attractor pattern like a Royal Wulff and a Pheasant Tail nymph. Why? Well, the Royal Wulff is a dry fly tied to represent the general appearance of many flies that might land on the water, and the Pheasant Tail sinks below the water surface and looks like a number of nymphs the trout might take — this allows me to double my luck by targeting trout that might be feeding on the surface and below the water. I’ll fish this rig for around 20 minutes, working the trout holding hotspots hard, and if I don’t get a strike then it’s time to change my tactics. At this point, if I haven’t seen any surface level feeding activity, then I’ll remove the dry fly and re-rig the rod with a strike indicator, my Pheasant Tail, and a heavier bead head nymph to reach the deep areas where trout are more likely to be holding. This often results in more success, but Mother Nature is a tricky beast and I’ve sometimes drawn a blank doing this too. In this situation, other factors may be at play, and it may be a case of sticking with the nymphs but changing their size, colour and weight to get a bite, or going home for a beer!
When trout are feeding at the surface, I usually pay close attention to what’s buzzing around or dropping in the water and then fish a dry fly that looks similar. For example, when the grasshoppers or cicadas are out (usually late spring and summer in Victoria) and the trout are clearly gorging themselves, then I fish these patterns. Or if there’s a bunch of caddis flies that have just started fluttering about then I’ll use a clinkhammer and/or elk hair fly. I love it when trout are feeding at the top because there’s just something so wicked about seeing a trout rise to smash your fly.
Time of day and weather conditions
This can have a big effect on fish behaviour, which in turn can impact success on the river. Trout, like many freshwater fish, need cold, well-oxygenated water to function optimally. In hot weather, the water temperature can rise and reduce the oxygen levels in the water — making life tough for trout. If the water rises above 22°C, they generally stop feeding and head to the deepest, coolest, parts of the river where conditions are more comfortable. On scorcho days, I tend to hit the river early or head out again the evening when temperatures are usually cooler. If you do fish during the hottest part of the day, then think about where you’d like to hang out and target those areas on the river. I don’t know about you, but I head straight for the shade, a deep pool, and a preferably a place where the drinks and nibbles are nearby. In my experience, trout do too. Oh and sunny days can also cast shadows — which can spook fish — so watch how you approach and tread softly to increase your chances of sneaking up on them.
Barometric pressure is the scientific measurement used to calculate the weight of the air. The weight changes depending on the temperature of the air. Cold air is heavier resulting in a low barometric pressure, and hot air is lighter resulting in a high barometric pressure. Some anglers say high and low pressures effect trout feeding behaviour, others think that’s bullshit. And there’s no easy way of proving who’s right or wrong. However, if the headaches I sometimes get before a storm rolls in are anything to go by, then I reckon barometric pressure is a force fish might feel too.
Scientists have hypothesised that when the barometric pressure is low, the increased force the heavier air exerts on the water makes it uncomfortable for fish with large air bladders like trout. In response, the trout stop feeding and descend to the depths to escape the changing atmospheric pressure from above. It certainly provides a good theory for why fish tend to feed more actively a few days before a cold front, and then go deep and quiet during bad weather. Armed with this knowledge, you can either plan your trip to coincide with a favourable barometric pressure or use heavy nymph or streamer patterns to try and temp a trout that might be lurking at the bottom of the river bed.
Mother Nature can be cruel so don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t catch a fish. However, to increase your chances of success, check a map for a good stretch of water, the weather before you go, take a good selection of dry flies and nymphs, pack a positive mind-set, and a good selection of craft beers to celebrate or commiserate with at the end of the day! Here are the craft brews I’ll be taking, see you on the water soon!