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Although fishing a dry fly on lakes calls for a slightly different technique than fishing one on a stream, the "match the hatch" rule holds good on lakes, too. One August day, as I came upstream to the outlet of Widewater Lake, gooo feet high on the Montana-Wyoming line, I saw a sight I'll never forget. Silhouetted in the last glow of the setting sun, trout of all sizes were showing on the glassy surface. There were at least a hundred of them up at one time. some leaping straight into the air, others just bulging and some sticking their noses out for a choice tidbit. They swirled right under my rod tip and farther away, and as far as I could see down the lake, fish were splashing.
I saw the object of their attentions, too. There was a double hatch on. Midges swarmed over the surface and at the same time a bigger fly was emerging, a fly that could be matched with a size 12 light Cahill.
Because it was getting dark and I like to be able to see my fly, I chose to match the Cahill and I got ready for a picnic. A big trout swirled only 30 feet out and I dropped the fly on his nose. He didn't notice it.
A small trout came up so close to that Cahill that he made it shake with the waves he put out. A foot away another one splashed at a natural. But my fly sat there, not getting the first nod. And all the time I knew that right under it was a fat twopounder.
I cast for ten minutes without getting a strike, trying all the tricks I knew to make that fly do business. I imparted a quivering motion through the rod tip to the fly by holding my right hand high and making like a quaking aspen, sending the impulses down the line so the fly shimmied like a dog shaking water off its fur. Then I brought the fly across the surface in short jerks, making it jump over the water in six-inch leaps. It still went untouched. Then I made it come smoothly along, like a natural fly taxiing for a takeoff. But not a single trout out there in all the feeding multitude would have any part of it.
So I dug down into my fly box and found a size 20 midge, a tiny gray hackle. I knew it would completely disappear out there, but those fish were feeding on one of two things, and it wasn't the larger fly. I would have to strike at the splash, when a trout hit.
On the first cast I let the midge sit there for a second, then pulled back with my rod and gave it the slightest motion. That did the job. A foot-long trout fell all over it and we were off to a flying start. For the next zo minutes, until dark drew the curtain, I had fishing that was out of this world, and every fish that hit did so only when I laid it on the line with that little size 20 dry fly.
You seldom hit such a bumper hatch as that on a lake, and many times you won't see any flies coming out at all. But it's a sure thing that in almost any lake where there are trout, sooner or later there will be a rise, and the angler will be able to do business with a dry fly. And during the good old summertime, the natural feeding periods of early morning and early dusk usually bring cruisers to the top looking for food.
Best of all, dries will often take trout in heavily fished lakes when other methods of angling draw a blank. In some of the clear and shallow lakes, and along the shorelines of deep lakes near large centers of population, the fish have been hammered down by constant fishing so that they flee at the sight of hardware. The heavy splash and the brilliancy of brass, silver and mother of pearl get to be warning signs rather than beckoning gestures. True enough, those lures will often make fish mad enough to charge them, but after a while they catch on and the weird assortment of odd shaped and brightly polished jingle bells will wend their way, without hits, through the lake waters.
But a delicately dropped dry fly, tied on the end of a long, fine leader, does not scare them away, and more and more "fished out" lakes are yielding fine catches to fly men who realize this.
To make a consistent catch with dries, you must know how to work the surface flies, and this technique is the same on any lake, anywhere from northern wilderness to city reservoir, and whether the fish being sought is brook, brown or rainbow trout, cutthroat, landlocked salmon, Atlantic salmon or grayling. The fly must be made to imitate all the actions of a downed natural.
The first time I fished at Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Montana, my fishing partner, Lee Elliott, looked doubtful when I broke out my dry fly outfit.
"There are a lot of big fish in here," he said. "I've taken plenty of them with spinning tackle. But I've never tried a dry fly."
"A dry will take them if they are hitting at all," I said. Fisherman-like, we headed for the far side of the lake. In six feet of water we looked down at thick weed beds, with patches here and there rearing up to the surface. There was scarcely any breeze, so we let the boat drift.
"I'm going to watch you for a while," said Lee. "I've never seen a dry fly worked on a lake."
I tied a 2X tippet on the end of my leader and put a size 10 gray Wulff on that and threw it out in the direction of one of those weed patches. I let it sit perfectly still for a few seconds, like a natural resting on the surface. Then I made it shiver and shake, like a natural freeing its wings or drying them off. Then I let it rest a second and then gave it a pull so it jumped across the surface a couple of inches, like a downed insect buzzing around a bit. Once again I let it sit still, then made it jump nine or ten inches, like a fly deciding to take off and not quite making it. Then I rested it a second and then brought it back in a smooth, even pull across the surface, like a fly really on the way, gathering speed to become airborne.
As I squared away for the next cast, Lee stopped me.
"How did you make that fly come across the surface so smoothly?" he asked.
"By using the `strip' method of retrieve," I answered. "Strip an arm length of line at a time with your left hand, then, holding the line between thumb and middle finger of the right hand in case of a strike, bring the rod tip upwards for a yard, smoothly, and that continues the evenness of the fly's movement. Then reach for the line again with your left hand and make another strip, and then the rod action again."
With a retrieve like that, the fly can be made to come a long way across the surface without any sign of pause or interruption. Just strip, raise the rod, strip, raise the rod, and so on, for as far as you want to bring the fly toward you.
Lee caught on in a hurry and before the day was out he had taken his share of fish on a dry fly, too. We didn't break any records but we caught enough three- and four-pound fish to make it a standout fishing trip. And by using dries we had a grandstand seat when those far-better-than-average fish came up and hit those tantalizing dry flies.
When fish are cruising just under the surface, darting here and there for fallen tidbits, rather than feeding on one spot,I shoot the fly out and drop it four or five feet in front of them. If the cruiser keeps on coming, I make the fly shiver out there, like a natural drying his wings, and that usually turns the trick in a hurry. If the fish should turn off while the fly is in the air, a good hard jerk as soon as it hits the water will often attract the trout's attention, and if he sees it, he'll rush it fast. If he doesn't see it, then the fly must be carefully retrieved before it is lifted, far from the fish, for the next cast. More trout are scared by an angler ripping thirty to forty feet of line off the surface than have ever been caught.
All the time I am working the fly, over feeder or cruiser, I try to imagine a trout under it, looking up at it and wondering whether or not to take. By believing and thinking that a fish is under the fly, you can work real enthusiasm into the retrieve, and suddenly he's there.
For fishing the smaller, clear, glassy lakes, an 8-foot fast action dry fly rod is best, with a matching HDH nylon fly line and a I2-foot leader tapered down to 4X. With that outfit a small fly can be cast a goodly distance and still drop like a feather. For bigger lakes where there is a lot of wind, and for casting some of the larger, fluffier, wind-resistant flies, the 8Ifoot medium action rod serves better, with a GBF nylon fly line and a I2-foot leader tapered down to a 2X tippet. But if limited to one rod, the smaller one is preferable, and with a heavier tippet it is still possible to throw a line far enough to take plenty of fish.
In the still, clear water of a lake, the leader is doubly important, and the longer and finer it is, the more strikes will come to the fly. Contrary to general opinion, a long leader is not difficult to cast provided that it is properly tapered. Most leaders are too light at the butt section and too heavy at the tippet. The weight and diameter should be where the leader is tied to the line and then the leader should taper down to the fine section. This heavy-to-light taper gives it the guts to shoot out and turn over the fine tippet and the fly.
Because of the way a dry fly is played on lakes, the angler will leave a lot of flies in fish if he sticks to the 4X tippet and sometimes it is necessary to choose between more strikes on thelighter tippet and fewer strikes but more fish landed on the heavier one. Usually it is best to start with the light tippet in a lake where you expect the fish to be small, and move to the larger terminal point if necessary.
Probably the most important part of dry fly fishing on lakes is to have a high-riding line. If the line is heavy and inclined to sink, it is hard to cast, slaps noisily down on the surface, pulls the fly under so that all efforts at imitating a natural are lost in the resultant dunking; and a sinking line delays the strike impulse when you do get a hit, and therefore may cost you a fish. The line should be well greased, as described in the LINES chapter of this book. That is, rub the line dressing on with the fingers, then run the line back through the fingers again to spread the dressing thoroughly and evenly, and then wipe it clean with a cloth.
Fly buoy is also an essential part of lake fishing with dries, or, lacking that, the fly can be greased with line dressing to help it ride high on the surface. A waterlogged dry fly is tough to handle, doesn't have the verve or dash needed to bring strikes, and is both difficult to pick up and to cast.
The best dry flies for lake fishing seem to be the big, highriding ones, hairwings, hairbodied flies, variants and spiders. This may be more important from the angler's point of view, than from that of the fish, because it is easier to make them perform the way you want them to, and they float better and remain buoyant longer than the small ones. A big fly, properly worked, can be seen a long distance by a trout.
The hairwing flies-the gray, brown, and white Wulffs, are good floaters and have trout appeal, as do the black Wulff and grizzly Wulff. The red variant, the badger variant and the Donnelly's variant are good on lakes and so are Bailey's bi-fly, the Whitecraft and Carmichael's indispensable. The hairbodied irresistible is also one of the best for lakes. For that matter, any of the flies tied with deerhair bodies float well and handle easily.
Any of the above flies, on hooks from 12 to 6, may fill the bill but lake fishermen will also need smaller flies, particularly the midges on size 18 and 2o hooks, and flying ants on size 20. Sooner or later he will have to match a hatch of one or both of those tiny insects. And while color does not seem to be as important as size, except that trout in lakes perhaps show a slight preference for darker colors, I always carry just as great a variety as I do for river fishing, and then I am ready for whatever hatch may occur.
On one trip to Vera Shultz' Canyon Creek Ranch above Melrose, Montana, we were fishing Crescent Lake for rainbows and cutthroat trout. For half an hour we showed all the old reliables to trout that were rising along the shoreline, without a strike. At last I tied on the single hairbodied grasshopper I happened to have in my box. It took a fish on the first cast, and another, and another. Those trout were feeding on grasshoppers that day and they didn't want anything else. I would throw it out, let it sit still a moment, then give it a slight pull my way. They whacked it, and before we were through they had chewed the feathers right off the hook. But we had a nice mess of trout for dinner.
While it is usually possible to judge just what a lake will hold with a fair degree of accuracy, there are many that will pull a surprise on you. Once in Newfoundland I was fishing Serpentine Lake for sea run brook trout. They had just come up the river and now were rising here and there around the shores of the lake, targets for a size 8 salmon fly, a fluffy looking gray hackle that rides high on the surface.
I gave it a short jerk and struck as a fish took and I was busy with that four pounder for fifteen violent minutes. After that I took three more of the same size. They chewed all the feathers off that fly and I put on a royal Wulff next. I took another fish, and then, on my next cast I let the fly sit still for at least half a minute, then started it back in an even retrieve for six feet, then let it sit still again. Once more I started the fly my way and then the water erupted and I struck. A I5-pound Atlantic salmon came flying out like he was shot from a cannon, and that scared me so much that I struck again, with all my strength, and snapped the 3-pound test leader like it had been a spider's web.
When I had time to get my nerves settled down, I realized that it was perfectly logical that there should be salmon in that lake. They had been in the rivers for a month, now, and more than likely a few would stop in the lake to rest before heading on through the river above.
Not long afterwards I saw another salmon leap clear of the water, a quarter of a mile down the shore. I headed for the spot and on my eleventh cast he took, and then when I set the hook he soared up high, a bright fish of 12 pounds. He fell back in and started for the middle of the lake. I stopped him after 20o feet and he came out again. Then he went off for loo feet, on a sizzling run that left me shaky. But that effort tired him and I got him headed my way and finally landed him.
Even in such large lakes as Superior you can get some superlative dry fly fishing if you hit them on a calm day and know where the fish are. The first time I fished Lake Superior, Don Gapen of Nipigon, Ontario, took me out to St. Ignace Island for coasters.
"Coasters are brook trout that have moved out of the rivers and live along the shores of the lake," he explained.
"How big?" I wanted to know.
"They average about two pounds," he said. "But it's not unusual to take a six or seven pounder."
We started casting in toward the rocky shoreline. The water was so clear that out there, 6o feet from shore, you could look straight down through 45 feet of water and count the pebbles on the bottom. That first look was enough for me. Even though I knew a big old mossback might wallop my fly, I tied on a longer, finer leader for that clear water.
Don and I both started casting in toward the rocks, let the fly sit there, then gave it a six-inch jerk, then brought it along the top, evenly. Between us we covered the shoreline pretty well, with never a strike. Then Don pointed.
"There's a rise," he said. "And that's right where the fish should be, over those big rocks."
Inshore we could see the big boulders on the bottom, an ideal place for fish to hang out. I put my fly in there, right at the corner of one of those boulders. A coaster fell on it with a thump and dashed off, making the reel sing. Ten minutes later I landed him, a deep and plump brookie that weighed 2 1/2 pounds. Before I could get my fly out there again, Don was into one. This baby knew how to fight. It took Don a long time to get him in. He went 3 1/2 pounds, a swell brookie in any water. For the next hour we had wonderful sport. We took a dozen between us, that 3 1/2 pounder of Don's going top weight.
"Ten more minutes," said Don at 4 o'clock. "Then we'll have to head back to get to camp before dark."
I took a nice two-pounder. Then I looked up in time to see the water boil, out where Don's fly had been. And right before my eyes, Don's rod jumped out of his hand and I saw him clutch harder at the fly line in his left hand and make a wild grab. He caught the rod before it hit the gunwale of the boat and began to strip in line a mile a minute. But there wasn't anything there. That coaster was probably a mile away, wondering what all the excitement was about.
Don sat down. "How big?" I asked.
Don opened his mouth but he couldn't talk. He waved his arms wide.
"As big as Lake Superior," he croaked.
And that's the kind of fish you're always expecting, when you float a dry fly over the surface of a big lake.