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Flies for the Trouts

by Skip Morris
illustrations by Carol Ann Morris

Choosing Flies for TroutQuestion: “Do you consider the species of trout you are targeting when deciding which flies to take along to a particular river? And would you target different places to fish in a river or stream based on the type of trout that inhabit that water?”  — Glenn D.

Yes. And yes. Sort of… I’ll explain.

But first I must say that normally I answer only one question in this column because two or more answers each get half or less treatment. In this case though, it seems a good answer to your first question naturally touches on your second.

Since we’re essentially talking about how trout differ, let’s meet the trouts. There are four main trouts in North American waters: the rainbow, cutthroat, brown, and brook trout. (Technically the brookie is a char, a relative of the true trout and so far as most fly fishers are concerned might as well be one.) Each species has its own amazing color scheme.

But the trouts vary by a lot more than coloring. In my experience, the brown is inherently the fussiest of the four, and a lover of soft currents. The rainbow can be just as fussy as the brown if well fed and tutored by anglers, and likes quick currents on the whole. The cutthroat tends to like the same easy water as the brown but is regarded as a pushover, despite that he can turn nearly as fussy as the brown (trust me…). The brookie is another lover of lazy currents who’s supposed to be as easy to catch as the cutthroat, but although the brookie’s the species I know least among the four, I have doubts that he’s always easy. I know he can be moody.

All these trouts (including the one near-trout) can thrive in standing water—lakes, beaver ponds, etc. And they’re all stunningly beautiful.

Clues to the answers to your questions lie among the descriptions above, Glenn—did you catch them? Take a shot. Done? Okay, here they are. Let’s see how you did. That quick water loved by the rainbow is also choppy water, so bushy buoyant dry flies make sense for this fish. The slow water of the brown trout (though I’ve sometimes caught browns in screaming currents), cutthroat, and brookie logically call for lightly dressed dry flies—not much buoyancy required on smooth water. The smarts of the brown and rainbow suggest especially convincing flies, accurate imitations of the prevailing feed; the supposedly simple minds of the brookie and cutthroat make sense with general and showy fly designs.

The rainbow’s nature raises problems, at least in theory. As I said, it often holds in or around quick currents, quick currents try to drown floating flies in the chaos, yet the bushy flies that suit quick currents tend to make less-convincing imitations than sparely dressed flies—yet convincing flies are required for the rainbow because he’s smart. Compromise is the solution. For picky quick-water rainbows (or browns or cutthroats—despite their preferences, both will feed in such water) we fly fishers try to use flies that convince despite their bulk. So, especially if there’s a hatch going on, we turn to such reliable hatch-matchers as the Parachute Adams and Henryville Special but tied on the heavy side, and if the trout won’t take those, we throw sparser flies (Compara-duns, Thorax Duns) and do the best we can to keep them afloat. If all goes well, they won’t need to float long.

If there’s no hatch, no insects for those discriminating rainbows to compare with our flies, we can try Humpies and even Renegades. And with the difficulties trout have with seeing a fly through a choppy surface, they may work.

Nymphs and streamers, since they’re not supposed to float, are easier than dry flies to figure out—pretty much, anything goes. Still, in soft water, neat, lightly tied nymphs and streamers are the norm while rougher, fuller patterns are common where the water sweeps and tumbles through, where trout have little time to consider each potential bite as it swiftly passes.

There’s truth behind everything I just said, but something of great importance—make that two somethings—are missing. Specifically: when choosing flies for a particular river and its trout, the characters of that particular river and of its particular trout are critical, which is only partly about trout species, and then there are the bugs to consider.

Each creek, stream, and river is unique—elevation, volume, the infinite ways riffles and pools and runs configure themselves, and a hundred other variables may account for that. I don’t know. But I do know that in that water live trout that are also unique, for reasons I also don’t know. My point is this: no two trout streams fish quite the same, and some fish not even nearly the same. Weird, eh?

I know two cutthroat rivers only a valley apart where in one the well-fished nymph is always deadly while in the other it’s typically useless. I know rivers where the larger rainbows simply won’t come up for a dry fly except on the rarest of occasions and others where they do often. In different rivers trout hold in different kinds of water, feed differently, respond to different flies. My point: it’s wise to know the river you’ll be fishing before choosing flies for it—you could easily collect scads of plausible dry flies for a river where nymphs are almost always best, or just scads of flies that absolutely kill on another river but not on the one you’re fishing.

Beyond their individual natures, rivers (streams, creeks…) come in broad categories, and those categories can dictate which flies work best. Most free-flowing waters (undammed, which fly fishers call “freestone”), especially back up in the mountains, tumble and rush. But some, especially through high meadows and in and below the foothills, wind and coast calmly along. Freestone rivers can be near-sterile to feed-heavy or anywhere in between. “Spring creeks,” flows of any size that are fed by springs, usually meander at a snail’s pace (though some rush downstream) and are typically rich in aquatic insects. “Tailwater” rivers emerge from dams, and that’s the only thing they all have in common—some are quick and wild, some are peaceful and unhurried. A tailwater river can run insect- thin to bug-heavy, and is typically of the same makeup as it was before the dam was built.

Fast currents, slow currents, boulders or cobble or beds of water plants, fertile or infertile, tinted or clear—all these factors of your target river may influence the flies you’ll bring, regardless of trout species it contains.

A month ago I fished a river containing browns, cutts, and rainbow trout in about equal numbers. How do you select flies by species for that?

On to the bug business I mentioned. Trout feed mostly on insects in nearly all rivers, streams, and creeks. Any trout—brookies, rainbows…—will likely want you to offer them flies that look like the bugs they’re eating if those bugs are ample. So if the river’s full of scuds (a puttering little shrimp-lookalike that’s actually a crustacean rather than an insect), for example, or puts out a heavy hatch of Western Green Drake mayflies, better bring flies that imitate them. Doesn’t matter if those trout are brookies or browns. Get it? You’ve got to consider what the trout in your river feed on when selecting flies for your trip there.

Streamers, of course, imitate small fishes that sport-fish, including trout, eat. All trout, especially big trout, eat little fishes including their own young, so imitations of baby brown trout for a brown-trout river is a logical strategy. (That logic extends, of course, to imitating baby rainbows in a rainbow river and so on.) But a trout river may hold dace, sculpin, sticklebacks… Knowing what small fishes inhabit your trout river is a real benefit when it comes time to selecting flies to bring to it.

Finally, there are the attractor flies to consider—the Royal Wulff and Chernobyl Ant dry flies, the Copper John and Prince nymphs, so on, and so on… You’d expect these peculiar, unnatural flies to suit the supposed dunderheads of the trout world, the brookie and cutthroat, and they do, but they are also deadly, when the time is right (whatever time that is… It’s up to the trout), on wise old browns and rainbows. Attractor streamers? All four of the common North American trouts love them (that is, again, when they’ve decided they’re in the mood for them).

Okay, I’ve really made this longer and deeper than it needs to be—but I couldn’t help it: you asked a question that intrigues me.

Time to sort everything out and simplify. So,

  1. In general, simpler, showier, and bushier flies make sense for the simpler trouts (cutthroats and brooks).
  2. In general, sparser and more-convincing flies make sense for angler-trained browns and rainbows.
  3. All trout tend to become open-minded when no hatch is happening. All trout can go for attractor patterns, especially when no hatch is happening.
  4. As important as trout species is the particular river you’ll fish—the flies and techniques and strategies that work on it. So get on-line, call a fly shop in that area and drop by when you arrive, buy a fishing guidebook that covers your river—in other words, do some research.
  5. While you’re researching all that, also check out the river’s feed, the bugs and other critters the trout eat, and then consider those when you select your flies.
  6. What I haven’t quite said yet is that if I were heading to an unfamiliar river, I’d bring some flies to suit the species of trout, some of the locals’ favorites, and some to imitate that river’s feed—the predominant feed for the specific time of year I’ll be there. That’s what I’d do in your shoes, Glenn. In fact, that’s exactly what I do every time.
MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Skip Morris ( www.skip-morris-fly-tying.com) has written 18 books on fly fishing and fly tying over the past 25 years (among them, Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, Western River Hatches, Trout Flies for Rivers, and Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes) along with over 300 magazine articles. He s served among the hosts of a national fly-fishing television show and on several instructional DVDs. As a speaker, Skip's performed in California and Arizona, Michigan, Iowa, Texas, and Alabama, and a bunch of other states, three Canadian provinces, and overseas. The spring 2014 issue of Fly Tyer magazine announced Skip as a winner of the magazine's lifetime achievement award. Skip's wife Carol provides much of the photography in Skip's work and all the illustrations. They live, currently, with one willful cat on Washington's lush Olympic Peninsula with its myriad opportunities for both fresh and saltwater fly fishing.
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  • Brian L

    This is great advice. My general preference for high floating, bushy flies may partly explain why I find browns so challenging. (By the way, those are super cool illustrations!)

    • Skip Morris

      Hi, Brian,
      Glad you enjoyed the piece. I think we trout fishers
      all have a yen for heavily tied flies that stubbornly float, but I agree
      that trout are sometimes less enthused about them than we are. Carol
      will be delighted with your kind words about her painting/photo.

  • Glenn Dotterer

    Wow, Skip, thanks for your thorough answer to my question(s)!! It seems like I just read a book on some great ways to help narrow down the decisions when it comes to fly selection and how and where to fish them. You definitely gave me lots of ideas to think about. It is strangely comforting to know we still don’t have it all figured out, right? And I totally agree with Brian L.’s comment, awesome art work!

    • Skip Morris

      Hi, Glenn,
      Glad to help. I could have been more concise but it wouldn’t have been as interesting. I hope I did set out the important points sufficiently down at the end for you. Trout are an intriguing bunch, eh?

  • Jack Wells

    OK. Now we know what kind of flies to use for what kind of trout in what kind of waters. Please tell us what five dry flies you are never without. That means, if we looked in your fly boxes, what five flies would we be guaranteed to see?

    • Skip Morris

      Hello, Jack,
      Good question–I’ll run it through the gauntlet and see if it comes up as one I can answer on MidCurrent. I’ll tell Carol what you said about her illo (though I fear that with all these accolades she may decide she deserves better and toss me out…)

  • Kurt Buss

    Great information, Skip. Thanks! I also enjoyed your writing style. I’m becoming a fan of reading author/anglers, and I’ll look for your books in stores and online. Also, to echo the other comments, I love the illustration your wife created. Is that available for sale anywhere?
    My 25-year old son and I have really gotten into fly fishing here in Colorado over the last few years, and we’re actually starting to catch fish (and release them, with a few exceptions). I was intimidated with all the gear and knowledge necessary to “match the hatch”, and my old(er) eyes have a hard time with tiny hooks and tippets; but time and practice are making everything easier.
    Keep up the great informatin download, and tight lines to us all!

    • Skip Morris

      Hi, Kurt,
      Thanks for your kind words–glad you enjoyed my ramblings (ramblings that passed through a few rewrites of course). Carol and I have fished Colorado a fair amount, and you’ve got clear water and wary trout in my experience. Fine trout water though.
      Thanks for your interest in Carol’s illustration. Go to her Etsy site and send her a message and she can discuss options with you (CarolAMorrisFlyFish).

  • john Smith

    hello