Eye of the Guide

ONE FLY OR TWO (part 2)

Satoshi Yamamoto - May 1, 2017

In this article let's discuss dry-fly fishing situations – I bet everyone is waiting for! I first make a big classification: free-stone rivers and spring creeks. Let's look at each scenario.

Free-Stone Rivers

Casting dry-flies from the guide's drift-boat and anticipating a wild trout's rise are what the majority of visiting anglers have in mind. That's the iconic image of wild free-running rivers in Montana. There are insect hatches and we do our best to understand what's going on, yet due to nature of float fishing, free-stone rivers, and the trout living there, we tend to use attractor dry-flies rather than trying to match the hatch and find the closest imitations. In this scenario I prefer two dry-flies to one. I typically combine a large one on top and a smaller one below. Large dry-fly sizes can vary from a size 2 (Salmonfly), size 4-8 (hoppers and crickets), to size 10-12 (other terrestrials, Drake species, October Caddis, and general attractor patterns). Then a small one can vary from size 14 to 20.

The first theory is: we know free-stone rivers provide so many types of food sources at the same time and trout living there can be opportunistic to anything available to them. As discussed in the nymphing scenario in the previous article, two dry-fly rigging will raise the odds of attracting a trout. 

The second theory is: how to get trout attention. There are times trout are rising on our smaller attractor flies that appear to be more insect-like (caddis, mayfly, ant, etc.) than the larger one on top. Why don't we use two flies of that size and type? – I did……. Suddenly I started to have less action. So I tied back a large dry-fly on top and then I began to get more strikes. I strongly suspect that I couldn't get enough attention from the trout with two small dry-flies. Or I could interpret that one or two small dry-flies are not enough to signal trout to rise all the way up to the surface. A large dry-fly produces a silhouette and perhaps echoing sound through water column that are vivid enough to get trout attention. Then we could interpret that the trout would notice the smaller flies = more insect like in appearance.

This theory is definitely validating and worth a shot when the float season starts and in high-water years. There will be periods and days when trout seem fed up with large dry-flies floating above them, or even are scared away! Learn the season and tendency then adjust your approach and your fly selections accordingly.

Dry-fly plus a bead-head nymph combination is one of the most popular and productive methods during the float trips. Perhaps the most well-known would be the Hopper-Dropper. Two theories for the success of this method are: 1. We can search two different levels of water column and 2. Trout will notice the splash and silhouette of a large hopper pattern, swim up, and then would notice a bead-head nymph. Good tactics and validated theories yet we'd better understand the situation and when to apply it properly. When hoppers and other terrestrials are active and trout are eager to take them, hatches of aquatic insects start to wane. Also depending on angling pressure and river conditions, trout could be reluctant to eat large dry-flies. Regarding the rigging, most anglers should find it comfortable to cast the dropper tippet length of 16 to 18 inches maximum. Longer than that, it becomes awkward and eventually results in more tangling. In other words that would be the limit of this setup. When we need to go deeper, we shall have more success and efficiency with two nymphs and an indicator.

Spring Creeks

First, and briefly, there are times that I employ the dry-fly + weighted nymph setup on the spring creeks for the same reason as on the river: searching two different levels of water column. This is primarily before the hatch or between hatches when trout are not actively rising. I tie on a bead-head larva or nymph patterns under a dry-fly that can be a reasonable match for the hatch and season and that can suspend it. I wouldn't stick with this method all day because situations change all the time on the spring creeks and I usually discover efficient methods and/or productive spots that can be fished with different methods.

Two-Fly Scenarios

When I set up two flies at spring creeks, it's a totally different approach from fishing the rivers (with or without the boat). I wouldn't randomly combine rather it's more deliberate with purposes. When midges and Baetis are hatching – considered equally small – at the same time, that I could tell from aerial observation and surface seining, and it was very hard to tell if the trout would be choosing one over the other or just feeding on both. That would be the scenario when I keep changing flies – dry-dun, dry-adult, emergers, ascending pupa/nymph in different depths, two dry-flies, pupa under Baetis dun, and so on – until I (or my clients) catch one and I conduct stomach-pumping.

When I'm sure the trout are feeding on one particular species of insect, now I observe and analyze which hatching stages the trout are feeding on. The most iconic hatch on Livingston's spring creeks is Pale Morning Dun, which usually starts at around June 20th, lasting most part of July. In the gin-clear water of spring creeks, trout and their movements can be clearly seen. However, how to interpret them is up to anglers (or the guides they hire). At the initiation of hatch – I mean, both earlier in the season and the day, PMD nymphs become active and trout eagerly chase to feed on them. Anglers can see PMD duns are fluttering on the surface or flying in the air. They may even see rising trout. However trout are not always feeding on duns on the surface. Observation teaches us trout are feeding on nymphs closer to the bottom or up to the surface. That is when I suspend a PMD nymph imitation under a dun/emerger imitation. I won't totally omit the possibility of trout rises on my dry-fly. Even during the match the hatch or match the "stage", trout can still be opportunistic! I adjust the depth I target by the length of dropper-tippet and by the drift length, oftentimes by a combination of two.

I'd also like to mention one particular situation I encountered recently. One day in August at DePuy's Spring Creek, my client and I observed a constant "flow" of winged ants on the surface. I was able to observe and quickly change flies due to accumulated experience and constant seining. I tied a visible dry pattern and dropped a much less visible or a meant-to-sink-a-few-inches pattern under. As much as we expected to catch on a dry ant, and we did, the dropper was a killer. My client was truly in an awe of my observation and fly selection.
Not just this particular sinking ant patterns, but also, during insect hatches, ascending midge pupa and mayfly nymph patterns are very hard to see. Those types are meant to target "in the film" and then 2 to 3 inches below the film. "Match the hatch" and "dead-drift" are not only for dry-flies on the surface. I just can't emphasize how important it is to learn this concept. When insect hatches are going on strong trout gorge on ascending pupa/nymph or emerging adult/dun in the film or slightly below, as those are the most vulnerable stages of insects. Trout can easily feed on them with minimum effort. We can observe and decode this behavior from their rise rings and forms. Which part of their body is breaking the surface? Or is there? Most likely only dorsal fins break the surface every now and then. Achieving "match the hatch" and "dead-drift" with flies meant for this situation is actually much more challenging than with dry-flies on the surface. This is, again, when two-fly setup – a visible dry-fly plus film/subsurface fly under – comes in. When I work with dry-fly oriented anglers, I gently and gradually suggest them to try something different. Most of the time, results will follow immediately and clients understand. I never mean to deny dry-flies or discourage anglers. I do expect rises on dry-flies. It's just if you want to get in contact with trout more efficiently or not.

As for casting, as discussed in the previous chapter, there should not be any differences or difficulties between casting one fly and two flies. Also it should be fished with the same manner and attitude. Cast two-fly setups just as we carefully cast our dry-flies for perfect (or best we can summon), quiet, and precise presentations, ideally followed by dead-drift. You should not have, at least seldom have, tangling or wind-knots (aka casting-knots).

One-Fly Scenarios

Above being said, I do fish only one single dry-fly or a subsurface pattern during insect hatches when the situation dictates. The first scenario is when I observe and confirm trout are definitely keying on mayfly duns or midge/caddis adults on surface. This I can tell from their rise forms: upper jaw is the first and only one to show above the surface. It can certainly be dictated by individual trout and location. But also it tends to happen on warm and sunny days when emerging insects can relatively easily break their pupal/nymphal shucks and surface tension, yet the air is not overly dry – if so insects can quickly dry their wings and fly away, and not windy – if so insects are simply blown away (in Paradise Valley, where southwest winds are typical, I often refer "bugs are blown to Canada!").

There are situations when I stick with a single not-so-visible flies. Scenario will be: 1. When I'm spotting  feeding trout and 2. In a distance that I can track my leader even though I may not be seeing the fly. Knowing my leader length and estimating where the fly will land, I make a short and accurate cast. When my instinctive "fly locator" (aka, guess!!) and trout rise coincide, I won't hesitate to set the hook, even though I may be wrong and come up empty. As long as I apply deliberate and firm, not necessarily strong, pressure for the hook-set, i.e., as if I perform a regular back-cast, I'm positive most of the time it won't spook feeding trout even when my fly and trout are actually not connected. Now I'm mentioning something else: confidence as a caster and as an angler in general – which has to come by experience. 

Speaking of casting confidence, I know several anglers who fish with one single dry-fly. Yes, it's mostly because their choice and preferred method. But I know they successfully catch trout on their single dry-flies (mayfly dun, midge adult, or emerger types). First of all, those anglers are very accurate casters. They are very relentless and determined to pursue their will and target. They patiently wait for insect hatches and actively rising trout. They also try to read and match the rhythm of rise. When I work with this type of angler, I keep technical advice to a minimum. I may suggest changing their positions, angle of presentations, and fly patterns. Other than that I'm as concentrating and determined as they are! In other words, if one wants to be a "single dry-fly purist", he or she better be that good!!

End Note

So, there is no clear conclusion or perfect tactics when determining when to use more than one fly. Certainly an angler's choice and willingness to try different methods play a big role. From a guide's standpoint, observing and adapting to each situation is the most important factor. Then willingness to try different approaches, some of which may be new for anglers, often makes a huge differences in their fishing experience.

Satoshi Yamamoto, www.leftyanglerandflies.com, is a Livingston based outfitter and a fly dresser.

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