Summer Fly Fishing without Losing It

Summer. It’s the most wonderful time of the year for fly fishers. Well, it’s one of three. Spring and fall are great too. But it’s hard not to love the season of the year when the days are longer, when the warmth allows you to wet wade, and when the trout dart to the surface to take a terrestrial.

I’ve shared before about how to fly fish in the winter without losing everything from your sanity to your life. That may not seem to be an issue in the summer, but it is. Here are seven strategies to keep you safe and sane as you fly fish during the summer months.

1. Watch for lightening and venomous snakes.

Your chances of encountering both are higher during the summer months. Remember that a graphite fly rod makes an effective lightening rod. So don’t cast when you see lightening or hear thunder. Keep your eyes peeled for rattlers or copperheads or whatever venomous snakes inhabit your fly fishing spots. A wading staff can help you ward off a snake you surprise.

2. Dry fly action will typically not happen until mid-morning.

If you’re a beginner, this may not evident.

But if you hit the river at dawn, you’ll want to fish nymphs or streamers. Some of my favorite rivers for grasshoppers don’t see hopper action until 11 a.m. or so. It’s always a good idea to get intel from the guides at the fly shop. They can tell you what hatches happen on when they happen on the river you plan to fish.

3. Make sure your fly box has plenty of terrestrials.

Summer is a great time for ants, beetles, and grasshoppers—although trout generally don’t start taking hoppers consistently until August.

Make sure you have plenty of attractor patterns, too.

My brother, Dave, did well the other day on a stream near Morrison, Colorado, with a size #14 Royal Coachman. I like a Royal Wulff or a Red (or Yellow) Humpy pattern. Even an Elk Hair Caddis or a Spruce Moth seems to work well about any time in the summer when a fish will rise for something big and buggy.

4. Carry plenty of water.

You can get dehydrated any time of year. But it happens more quickly in the heat of the summer. So don’t forget to stuff a water bottle or two in your vest or satchel.

5. Hire a guide for new water.

I talked to a friend yesterday who returned from a trip to Arizona to visit family. Greg had only one day to fly fish in an area he had never fished before. Thankfully, he did the right thing and hired a guide.

She took Greg to a spot where he caught several Apache trout — one of the rarest, most endangered trout species in the world. There’s nothing like a day with a guide to help you figure out where to fish and how to fish when you’re dealing with new water.

6. Avoid the busy times and places.

Everyone loves summer.

So expect your favorite spots to be more crowded. If possible, fish during the middle of the week instead of the weekend. Plan to walk or hike a bit further to avoid the crowds. It’s better to walk an hour each way and fish a less-pressured stretch for two hours than to spend four hours on the great-looking spot beside the road where there are already four fly fishers in ahead of you.

7. Avoid unnecessary wading risks.

This is a polite way of saying, “Don’t be stupid.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m more inclined to push the safety margins in the summer. I know that I’m not going to get hypothermia if I fall into the Yellowstone River on a hot July afternoon. But that means I might wade into a deeper or swifter run than I might otherwise. I have to tell myself, “No!” It’s not worth it. Also, if you’re going to wet wade, don’t forget that the weather (especially in the intermountain west) can change in a heartbeat. So be prepared.

Have a great summer of fly fishing. The rivers in Montana and Wyoming are clearing and dropping to optimum levels. The hex hatch is about to happen on the rivers in northern Michigan. Anglers in Vermont are seeing trout key in on Caddis, Sulfers, and Drakes. Enjoy the summer. Make sure to do everything you can to stay safe and sane.

5 Tips for New Fly Tyers

Learning to tie flies can be as bewildering as learning to fly fish. There are a lot of concepts to grasp and skills to master. New fly tyers might get ten different sets of answers if they asked ten veteran fly tyers to give them five helpful hints.

new fly tyer

But here the first five tips that come to mind. I’ve found them quite helpful over the years as a fly tyer.

1. Beware of using too much material.

My fly tying mentor, Bob Granger, talked about this a lot. The temptation is to apply too many wraps of thread or to put the dubbing on too thick.

You can get away with this (sort of) when you’re tying larger flies. But with smaller flies, you’ll crowd the hook and have difficulty finding a place near the eye to tie off your thread when you’re finished. If you look at real Blue-Winged Olives or Caddis flies, you’ll notice how sparse they are. So there’s no reason to apply too much material unless you want your Caddis fly to look like it is on steroids.

2. Don’t misuse your sharp scissors.

Buy two pairs of scissors.

Spend a bit more on the one that you’ll use to trim deer or elk hair, thread, and tiny feathers. Use a cheaper pair to cut the stuff that can dull your more expensive pair. This includes the stem of larger feathers, copper wire, and elk or deer hide.

3. Tie larger sizes and easy patterns first.

It makes sense to begin learning to tie a San Juan Worm or a Woolly Bugger.

Even a size #18 (tiny!) nymph like a beadhead brassie is a good “starter” pattern. While it’s small, it’s ridiculously simple to tie. Wait to try your hand at tying an Elk Hair Caddis or a Royal Wulff or a Muddler Minnow.

You can learn to use a hair stacker, to work with calf hair, and to spin and stack hair after you’ve mastered some of the easier patterns.

4. Watch online videos for help.

I wish these were available when I started tying.

You can search YouTube for about any pattern you want to tie and find some terrific videos. Fly shop websites often produce their own. Major brands like Orvis also have excellent instructional videos, including some on fly tying. Here are just three:

    Tying a San Juan worm

    Tying a Woolly Bugger

    Tying a Brassie

5. Don’t fret over imperfection.

Your fly does not have to look catalog-ready to be effective.

What appears sloppy to you may appear “buggy” to a trout. So don’t worry about uneven hackle or a piece of hair or sticks out a bit longer than the others. Your fledgling attempt may not catch fly fishers like a commercially tied fly does. But it will do just as well at catching fish. And that’s what matters!

10 Questions to Ask Your Fly Fishing Friends

We’d like to have some fun as we wrap up our second season of podcasting and blogging. Below we’ve assembled ten questions you can ask your fly fishing friends. You can use these as conversation starters. Or, simply post them on Facebook to see if they go viral. Here are the questions as well as our answers.

fly fishing friends

We’d love to have you post your answers in the “comments” section below:

1. What is your “go to” fly rod—the one you use most?

DAVE: Now that I live in the Midwest, it’s my eight-and-a-half, four-weight Redington. When I’m on bigger rivers, it is my Sage One nine foot six weight (or at least it was until I lost the rod). I plan to purchase a nine-foot, six-weight Sage X sometime soon – in between college tuition payments. Maybe.

STEVE: My “go to” is a Winston Boron II-X. It’s a nine-foot, six-weight that’s made in Montana. If I’m on a smaller creek, I’ll switch to my Orvis eight-and-a-half-foot, four weight.

2. What river that you’ve never fished is at the top of your bucket list?

DAVE: There are so many rivers that I’d like to fish – the many in Oregon (including the McKenzie River), Washington State, and British Columbia. I’d love to fish as many rivers as I could in Alaska. I don’t have a yearning to fish a particular one – just all that I haven’t fished. Plus, I’d love to fish all the great rivers in the northeastern United States. Basically, every river I haven’t fished is one I want to fish.

STEVE: I suppose it would be the Bighorn River in Montana. I’ve fished all the other major rivers in Montana. But since I had so many other superb rivers to fish when I lived in the Bozeman, Montana, area, I never ventured east to experience it.

3. What is the oldest piece of gear you use when fly fishing?

DAVE: A pair of Dan Bailey Waders. They are going on 10 years.

STEVE: I have an Orvis fly vest that is twenty-years old. It has a ripped pocket. But it’s like an old friend! I plan to keep using it until it falls apart.

4. What is the newest piece of gear you use when fly fishing?

DAVE: I just bought a pair of Patagonia Foot Tractors (wading boots). It was time. I wore a pair of Simms boots for way too long. The soles were worn, and last fall on the Gardner in Yellowstone National Park, I struggled to wade more than up to my knees.

STEVE: A Fishpond Nomad Emerger net. A friend gave it to me as a gift. It has a slightly longer handle than my Brodin hand net, but it’s not too bulky when it’s clipped on my vest and I’m hiking in a couple of miles to fish. The composite material makes it light, as well as strong.

5. What is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done on the river?

DAVE: I locked my car keys in the trunk of my 1971 Chevy Nova. Steve and I had to wait for a rancher to drive by. We were on a road that dead-ended at the trail head of a wilderness area. We used the rancher’s hammer and screwdriver to punch a hole through the lock. Sure enough, I had left the keys in my fly fishing vest.

STEVE: I dropped the top two pieces of my four-piece Orvis eight-and-a-half, four-weight rod into the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. The pieces floated away. Thankfully, the good folks at Orvis treated it like a broken rod and replaced the two missing pieces. Actually, they gave me a new rod.

6. Which brother do you most resemble in the movie A River Runs Through It – Norman or Paul?

DAVE: Definitely Paul. I was not quite the hell-raiser that he was but I always saw myself as a kind of rebel against the system (whatever that meant – authority, status quo, etc.). I was a rebel without a cause, in many ways. Fortunately, I had to grow up (finally and reluctantly). I’m not perfect like Steve!

STEVE: Definitely Norman! I’m the oldest child who is more serious-minded than free-spirit. I’ve worked hard to be a good fly fisher, but I’m not a natural like Paul was.

7. What was your most satisfying moment on the river?

DAVE: Probably last fall catching browns, cutts, and rainbows on the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. It was an unbelievable two days of unlimited catching (and releasing). The second best may be the year previously on 16 Mile Creek in Montana when Steve and I had a banner day fishing hoppers.

STEVE: It was either catching rainbows on the Yellowstone with an elk hair caddis fly I tied with elk hair from a bull elk I shot during archer season or else watching my boys land trout after trout one spring day on Montana’s Madison River.

8. What is your most embarrassing moment on the river?

DAVE: Snapping a rod while on a guided fishing trip down the Lower Madison. I had just grabbed the guide’s rod to give it a try. It was an Orvis H2 (an expensive rod!). I had hooked a large rainbow, and it darted under the boat because of my poor ability to reel it in.

STEVE: It’s probably the time when a friend told me to be ready to fish a great run as we floated by it in his drift boat. He emphasized that I’d only get one chance, so I needed to make a solid cast. Well, I promptly cast my fly into a bush on the bank above the run. He just shook his head.

9. What is your favorite book about fly fishing (besides A River Runs Through It and The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists)?

DAVE: Probably Gary Borger’s book Nymphing which I picked up in the 1990s.

STEVE: This one is easy for me. It’s Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West by Bud Lilly and Paul Schullery. It has great stories and a lot of helpful information.

10. Who convinced you to take up fly fishing?

DAVE: It was Steve, back when we were 18. Another friend inspired me to try nymph fishing and that took my fly fishing to an entirely different level.

STEVE: It was Jerry Williams, a seasonal Ranger-Naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was in high school at the time, and he led a weekly fly fishing demonstration in Moraine Park. He was an enthusiastic teacher who had a knack for simplifying and teaching what can be a complex sport.

Alright, it’s your turn to answer these questions! Ask your fly fishing friends to do the same.

What Idaho Biologists Found in Brown Trout Bellies

Several years ago, I spent a day on the South Fork of the Snake River in eastern Idaho. I floated it on a September day with a friend from Idaho Falls. We had a fine day, catching cutthroats and browns.

brown trout bellies

But the South Fork is a Yellowstone cutthroat fishery, and lately the brown trout population seems to be increasing. So Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists have been shocking fish in the river and taking the brown trout back to a lab to analyze the contents of their stomachs. What these biologists hope to find is whether or not these browns are eating the natives.

What they found in these brown trout bellies matters to fly fishers. It’s the next best thing to an interview with the trout themselves to find out what they feed on. When you know what they feed on, you know what flies to use.

For starters, you do not need to develop a long streamer that resembles a young cutthroat.

Hatch Magazine published an article on May 4, 2017, which revealed the findings of the Idaho biologists. As it turns out, the biologists found only two cutthroat trout in the 75 brown trout bellies they dissected. The good news, then, is that browns are ostensibly not decimating the cutthroat population.

However, it’s apparent that brown trout are butting in front of cutthroat trout in the feeding lanes. So what did they find in these brown trout bellies? Why does it matter to fly fishers like you and me?

Fill Your Fly Box with Stone Flies

One significant find is that more than half of the browns were digesting stone flies. This is not a stunning development or a shocking surprise. But it’s a good reminder to keep your fly box full of stonefly patterns. Last fall, Dave (my podcast partner) and I had a lot of success catching brown trout on stonefly patterns in the Gardner River in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park.

Stonefly patterns are legion.

One of my favorite, go-to patterns is a brown Pat’s Rubberleg Stonefly. As the name suggests, it has a brown body with brown rubber legs. Size will depend on the particular river you are fishing. But I like these in a size 8-10. Other long-time favorites of fly fishers include Girdle Bug (black with white legs) and the Bitch Creek (black body with orange yarn woven into it plus white or brown rubber legs).

Don’t Forget Caddis Patterns

Another important find by the Idaho biologists is that out of the 998 items found in the 75 brown trout bellies, 444 (just less than half) were Caddis flies.

In fact, one brown had 140 Caddis flies in its gut!

Again, this is hardly a surprise. But it’s a timely reminder for fly fishers to keep Caddis flies in their box all summer along — at least in the American West. A good friend has done well over the years fishing the Madison River (just inside Yellowstone National Park) on summer evenings when the trout are rising to Caddis flies.

Streamers Are a Sure Bet

In other expected news, the Idaho biologists found sculpins and snails, along with mayflies, and some whitefish.

As the Hatch Magzine article pointed out, brown trout are river sharks. So wise fly fishers will keep their fly boxes stocked with streamers – particularly Woolly Buggers. I’m grateful for the work of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists. They have disputed what we feared and have confirmed what we already know.

The question now is, what’s in your fly box? The proper answer, if you’re fishing for browns, is an ample supply of Stone flies, Caddis flies, and Streamers.

Deeper Nymphs, Better Results

The next time the trout ignore your nymphs, try another adjustment before switching patterns. Go deeper. The trout may not be ignoring the Zebra Midge or Hare’s Ear. Rather, the nymph may be ignoring the trout. It might be drifting several inches above them.

deeper nymphs

Trout will dart upwards to track down an emerger. They will make a trip to the surface for a big attractor pattern or a hopper. But they normally will not expend energy to snatch a tiny meal with a small amount of calories unless it is in their zone. If your fly is not deep enough to drift by their noses, the trout may ignore it.

So how do you get your fly deeper? Here are five strategies.

1. Add a split shot.

This is the most obvious solution.

Yet it’s easy to be too lazy to reach into the pocket of your fly vest to put on another split shot. So don’t be lazy!

I usually start with one split shot. Then, if I’m not bumping the bottom, I’ll add a second one. I carry both size “B” and the slightly larger “BB” split shot.

Also, I prefer removable split shot which have the little “ears” you can squeeze to remove it quickly if you’re getting snagged too often on the bottom or if you decide to switch to a dry fly. I also use something environmentally friendly (non-lead). Water Gremlin’s tin sinkers work well for both purposes.

2. Use beadhead patterns.

Ninety percent of the nymphs I buy and tie are beadheads.

I use non-beadhead patterns only when I want my fly to stay in the film just beneath the surface. The beadhead patterns do not make split shot expendable, but they do add a bit of weight.

They also give the nymph some action as it drifts or tumbles through the current.

3. Start your drift earlier.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I have talked about this before on our podcast. Casting a few yards further upstream will give your nymph(s) a few more yards to sink as they drift down the stream or river. This worked well last fall on the Gardner River in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. Starting the drift about ten feet earlier enabled the nymphs to drop low enough to where the trout were located in the “hot zone.”

Conversely, if you are fly fishing from a drift boat, you may not need as much weight. You might go with two “B” size split shot or only one “BB” size since a long drift gives your nymphs a lot of time to sink.

4. Move your strike indicator.

This is not an issue if you put your strike indicator at the top of your leader. But often, on small creeks, I place it only five feet or so above my fly. This is ideal for runs where the depth is only a foot or two.

However, I’ve had to remind myself to move my strike indicator closer to the top of my leader when I come to deeper runs. Remember that the placement of your strike indicator determines the length of leader that will actually sink. A couple of split shot will not come close to pulling your strike indicator under the water to take your nymph(s) deeper. So you might need a longer length of leader to get to the bottom of some runs.

5. Switch to a sink-tip line.

I rarely use a sink-tip line when nymph fishing.

However, there are some stretches on Montana’s Missouri River where this might be advisable. Usually, adding more split shot will do. I typically use sink-tip line for stripping streamers. But some fly fishers like them for nymph fishing larger rivers.

So the next time your nymphs do not produce strikes, figure out a way to get your nymphs down to the level of the trout. Try that before you switch patterns.

I don’t always fish with nymphs. But when I do, I go deeper.

Making the Most of Your Next Fly Fishing Trip

Until a decade ago, I never took a fly fishing trip. It wasn’t necessary. I lived in the northern reaches of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. My favorite spot on the East Gallatin River was a half mile from my house. My favorite spots on the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers were less than an hour away.

next fly fishing trip

Then I moved to the north suburbs of Chicago. Suddenly, the East Gallatin was 1,450 miles from my house. Even the spring creeks in the Driftless – southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota – take three to six hours to reach. So now I do trips—from two to five days.

Over the past decade, I’ve learned what it takes to have a fantastic experience. Here are four best practices for making the most of your next fly fishing trip.

1. Plan for Prime Time

If your schedule allows, plan your trips during “prime time.”

In the Driftless, this is April and May. The creeks are full of water, and the dry fly fishing can be terrific. When I plan for a trip to Montana or Wyoming, I set my sights on April (when the rainbows are spawning), August (when trout feed on hoppers), or on October (when the browns are spawning).

I love July. But so does everybody else.

Also, as much as possible, I like to fish during the week rather than the weekend. This requires me to use some vacation days. But this allows me to avoid the weekends when the rivers get pounded.

2. Hire a Guide for a Day

Go ahead and splurge. Find ways to set aside the cash you need to make this happen.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I split the cost to make it more affordable. The benefits really outweigh the cost. You’ll sharpen your fly fishing skills, but you’ll also gain “intel.” We’ve often returned a couple days later to wade stretches we’ve floated or waded with a guide. Last fall, we hired a guide to take us on a small river in Wyoming we had never fished. Dave and I each caught twenty plus fish in a half a day. Two days later, we went back on our own and each caught thirty plus fish in the same amount of time.

Besides, unless you have access to a drift boat (and have the skills needed to row one), it’s the only way to float some of the notable stretches of the blue ribbon waters in the western states.

3. Build in Margins

I learned this one the hard way. On some of my early trips, I treated every day like the remaining drops of a chocolate milkshake. I needed to suck out and savor every last bit. But the more I tried to squeeze the most out of every day, the more I felt drained by day four or five.

Now, I’ll plan for a lighter day after a long day of driving and/or hiking. Whenever Dave and I make a six-mile round trip to a remote spot of the Yellowstone River, we try to get a later start the following day. Or we will quit earlier.

The point is, take time for a nice meal, or an afternoon nap, or browsing in a fly shop, or a visit to a historic site. Sometimes, fishing a little bit less results in more satisfaction.

4. Create Backup Options

The windows for superb fishing open and close without much advance notice. You can have great fishing one day, and then the barometric pressure drops overnight or the river rises or a heavy spring storm dumps a foot of snow.

You never know when you need another option.

Last fall, we weren’t sure we were going to be able to fish a fine river in Wyoming. The river had been a bit off-color. But it was crystal clear the day we wanted to fly fish. Still, we had a backup plan — a high mountain lake nearby that had been fishing well. We were ready to go with “Plan B” if our original plans were thwarted by weather or crowded conditions.

5 Tactics for Deep Trout

Every stream or river has its bottomless pit. Or so it seems. After fishing in a foot or two of water, you suddenly come to a hole that looks to be six feet in depth. Maybe you can’t even see the bottom. Maybe the hole is actually a long run.

deep trout

These deep holes or runs used to frustrate me as much as they tantalized me. I knew large trout lurked in the depths. But I had a hard time catching them.

Lately, I’ve been more successful whenever I encounter a deep stretch of river or stream. I still get skunked occasionally, but I practice some tactics that increase my chances to catch deep trout.

Here are five tactics, one of which or a combination of a couple, may work for you:

1. Start your drift sooner.

If you’re fishing nymphs or even streamers, casting your fly an extra five or ten yards upstream may make all the difference. That will give your fly some extra time to sink to the depth of the trout you’re trying to catch.

I had success with this tactic last fall on a deep run in the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. I was catching fall browns at the tail end of a deep pool. But the ones in the prime lie in the middle of the run ignored my stone fly.

At the suggestion of a friend, I lengthened my cast. Suddenly, the fish in the middle of the run started hitting my fly because the longer drift gave it more time to sink to their level.

2. Add more weight.

This is obvious, of course, but needs to said.

I’ve sometimes been too stubborn or lazy to find the packet of split shot in my fly vest and add another one to my leader. But if the run is deep enough, it is imperative to add more weight. Starting your drift sooner is still a good idea, but it may not be enough.

If you are fishing a large river, you might even consider switching to a spool with sink-tip line when you come to a run that is considerably deeper than the ones you’ve been fly fishing. Yes, it takes time to make the switch. But it might make a difference.

3. Switch to a streamer.

I learned this tactic on Montana’s Gallatin River. It was early in the fall, and the water levels were low.

My friend Jerry insisted that we go from big hole to big hole with a streamer. We had a great afternoon landing one trout after another. These holes or short runs did not provide the opportunity to get a long drift with a nymph. All we could do was cast a weighted streamer into the center of the pool, let it sink, and then retrieve it.

This can work with nymphs provided you have enough weight. Let them sink to the bottom, and then retrieve them to imitate an emerger.

4. Dangle instead of cast.

There is a time to retrieve your bait-fishing skills, assuming you grew up dunking worms to catch panfish or even trout.

Some deep holes are in tight places.

I remember one in a log jam on a superb little creek last spring in southeast Minnesota. Casting was going to be impossible. So I snuck up on the hole, dangled my Woolly Bugger over it like a bait fisherman, and then dropped in the bugger. On my second strip, a large trout attacked my fly. I ended up losing the fish, but not before I enjoyed the thrill of the battle.

5. Go with a big attractor.

This is a bit counter-intuitive.

I’ve suggested going deep where the big fish lurk. But at certain times of the year, you might be able to coax a big trout from its lair. I’m thinking of a hatch or a sunny August day when hoppers are hopping along the shore.

A couple weeks ago, I fished nymphs in a small spring creek when I saw a large trout dart out of the deep to grab a mayfly struggling on the surface. It reminded me of my success in deep pools with a Spruce Moth, a Red Humpy, or an Elk Hair Caddis pattern. It doesn’t work in every deep run. But it works in some of them.

So don’t let the deep runs or holes intimidate you. Vary your approach and try a different tactic.

5 Weather and Water Conditions that Affect Your Fly Fishing

A couple weeks ago, I fished Montana’s Madison River three days in a row. The first day was stellar. The second day was not. The third day was a combination of fantastic and frustrating. All of this was due to the weather and water conditions. Such conditions force fly fishers to make adjustments.

Here are five weather-and-water conditions that affect fly fishing:

1. Water Level and Color

My first day on the Madison consisted of only two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon.

I spent the prime fly fishing hours on a Delta flight to Bozeman. Yet I still caught eight healthy rainbows (and lost several more). The next day, after some good rainbow fishing at dawn on the Missouri River near Helena, I drove back to the same spot I fished on the Madison the previous day. I arrived during a prime time window.

But I noticed that the water level was slightly higher and that the color was a bit murkier. As I feared, the fishing was slow. I caught nothing the first two hours even though I tried different patterns and presentations. The adjustments eventually yielded a couple small rainbows. But nothing like the previous day.

Sometimes, no adjustment with my rig makes a difference on days with higher water levels and more color. Sometimes, though, switching to a San Juan Worm or throwing a big streamer gives me a better chance.

2. Sky

If you’re new to fly fishing, you might be surprised to know that the sky has as much effect on fly fishing as the water conditions.

An old John Denver song says, “Sunshine on the water looks so lovely.” Yes, but not to a fly fisher. A cloudy, gloomy day will often trigger insect hatches, which in turn give trout something to feed on. So whenever I see grey skies, I expect to have some decent dry fly fishing. I look for Blue-Winged Olives or whatever else might be hatching at that time of year on that particular stretch of river.

When the sun shines bright in a cloudless sky, I anticipate nymph fishing. This is exactly what I did on the Madison on day one. I saw a few mayflies on the surface, but there were no trout rising. The trout were happy to take nymphs.

However, dry fly fishing can be productive on a sunny day later in the summer when hoppers are active. A hopper pattern — or even a big attractor like a Red Humpy or a Spruce Moth — may coax a large trout from its lair.

3. Moisture

Related to the sky is the moisture in the air.

The most ideal conditions for fly fishing are not the most ideal conditions for fly fishers. Rain and snow trigger insect hatches. I had light rain throughout my third day on the Madison, and the trout were quite active.

The only adjustment to make here is to invest in a good rain jacket. If you’re new to fly fishing, never quit because it’s a rainy or snowy day! That’s a prime condition for catching trout.

4. Water Temperature

Water temperature matters, too. I used to carry a thermometer in my fly vest to check the temperature of the rivers I fished.

Honestly, it was more interesting than helpful.

But I’m keenly aware that trout are more active in colder water and more sluggish in warmer water. A guide in a fly shop in Ennis told me that the Upper Madison had incredible dry fly fishing the previous year because most of the water released from Hebgen Dam was through the pipeline at the bottom of the dam. The water at the bottom is, of course, colder than the water closer to the surface.

The stretch of the Madison I fished on day one tends to be good in the spring but one to avoid in the summer. Or, if I fish it in the summer, I fish it in the cool of the early morning — before the warmer temperatures make the trout more sluggish (and susceptible to danger if played too long).

Besides, the warmer summer days trigger the “inner tube hatch” (dozens and dozens of people and their coolers floating down the river)!

5. Wind

I can put up with moisture (which makes the fly fishing better). But nothing frustrates me more than a day where the wind whips like it does on Mount Everest. I hate wind.

My third and final day on the Madison was almost thwarted by wind. I was floating the Upper Madison with a couple of buddies, and the oarsman (a veteran rower) struggled to keep us from slamming into the bank.

Still, the fishing was fantastic — between the gusts.

Some adjustments made the difference. While I saw rising fish (due to the clouds and moisture I already mentioned), the wind made it impossible to keep a dry fly from plowing through the surface film. So I switched to nymphs. I also shortened my casts and waited to make them between gusts of wind.

Weather and water conditions are unpredictable. But that’s why it’s called “fishing”!

Trout Flies and Color

Whenever I fish Montana’s Madison River in the spring, I use a tiny red nymph as a dropper. It may be a Copper John or a Dave’s Emerger (a pattern developed by Montana fly fisher Dave McKee). But the body always has red wire. I insist on it because I have had great success with tiny red nymphs. But does color really matter?

Does red work any better than black or copper? Or is it simply, uh, a pigment of my imagination?

The truth is, the color may attract me — the fly fisher — more than it does the trout. Here are a few insights about color:

1. Trout see colors, yet water changes their perception.

Gary Borger observes that “water absorbs and scatters light.” In fresh water, red is absorbed completely by six feet down. Trout see it as a shade of gray. Perhaps the red wire on my nymphs makes a subtle difference since I’m typically fishing it one to two feet below the surface on my favorite runs in the Madison.

According to Borger, orange, yellow, and green get to ten feet before turning to gray. Blue only makes it to four feet.

2. Fluorescent materials retain their colors as long as there is light.

Borger makes this point and adds that “black is always black, and flash is always flash.” Surprisingly, black may be the most “visible” color due to its contrast. Perhaps that explains why a black Copper John or a Zebra Midge can work so well.

3. Trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Kirk Deeter made this point in a recent issue of TROUT magazine. Now I know why I’m seeing a rise (no pun intended) in purple Beadhead Prince Nymphs and in the Purple Haze patterns (essentially a Parachute Adams with a purple body) in the bins in fly shops.

4. Use something bright or translucent in your attractor patterns on the surface.

It’s always good to match the hatch. As Kirk Deeter says, go “as natural as possible.” But when you are using an attractor pattern on the river’s surface, red or orange will appear bright. It’s why I like a Red Humpy or the trusted Royal Wulff (with its band of red).

5. The amount of variables determining the way trout see color can make a fly fisher crazy.

The way trout see color depends on several variables – the clarity of the water, the light conditions (cloudy vs. sunny, evening light vs. mid-day light), and the depth of the fly.

So, the best advice may be to keep it simple: The size of your fly and the pattern may matter more than color.

Know Your Pattern: The San Juan Worm

When I was a boy, I caught trout with a bobber and a worm. I gave up bait fishing long ago. Now I use a fly rod. But I still catch a lot of trout with a bobber and a worm.

The bobber is a strike indicator. Yes, I like the little round plastic bobbers because they never get water-logged like the indicators I’ve tied with strands of nylon.

The worm is a San Juan Worm — a controversial “fly pattern.” Some fly fishers scoff at it. When they do, I simply smile, nod, and go back to catching fish. Here is the scoop on this beloved and maligned non-fly fly.

1. How it originated

There are as many accounts of this pattern’s origin as there are variations of it in the fly bins at your local fly flop.

What we know for sure (I think) is that a fly fisher developed this fly to imitate the red worms in the silt-coated channels of New Mexico’s San Juan River. The fly fisher is unknown to us, although I’ve heard several suggested names. The time period was likely the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The pattern is so simple that it is silly. It consists of a two-inch length of red chenille tied onto a scud hook — that is, a hook with a curved shank. That’s all. It’s the easiest fly in the world to tie. So it’s a great place for beginners to start.

2. How it has been modified

You might get dizzy when you think about all the colors and styles of chenille with which the San Juan worm has been tied.

I even experimented (at the suggestion of a friend) with putting a beadhead in the middle of the hook’s shank and then tying a one-inch piece of chenille on the front and then a one-inch piece of chenille on the back. This takes a lot of extra time and effort. It looks impressive, but I haven’t found it any more effective.

In the last six weeks, I’ve caught several trout in both Wisconsin and Montana on an odd assortment of San Juan Worm patterns. I’ve meant to tie some new ones, but I didn’t get to it. So I ended up using the left over patterns in my fly box — that is, some of the ugly ones I tied when I was experimenting with different sizes and colors (red, crimson, tan). The good news is that all of them worked.

There’s no need, then, to get hung up on size or color. Whatever you use will likely be “the only thing that’s working on the river today.”

3. Why it works

You don’t need a PhD in zoology to figure out why the San Juan Worm is so trusty. It imitates a worm — the kind which resides in a silty river bottom. Enough said.

4. When to use it

The San Juan Worm is a great go-to pattern in most conditions.

But it works especially well after it rains or when a river rises a bit. This results in churn that can loosen up the earth along a bank or the silt at the bottom. Worms get displaced by this churn. It’s hard for a trout to pass up such a large dose of protein for the little effort it takes to grab the worm as it drifts through the current or bobs along the bottom.

If a purist asks you later what you were using, tell him or her you were simply matching the hatch — imitating the aquatic life below the surface. You’ll be telling the truth.