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In one of his great books on fishing, Hewitt said that an expert nymph fisherman could clean out a trout stream. That statement is so true that probably the only saving feature is that there are not many good nymph fishermen. Most of them seem to think that nymphs can be presented to trout without stealth and that all that is necessary is to cast them out and let them ride down with the current. It's true that the occasional fish will be taken that way, but to be consistent and make the most of those situations that call for a nymph, the angler must use special tactics.
Sometimes fish will hit only nymphs floating free in the current, and other times they will only take an artifical that matches the struggles of the natural nymph swimming to the top to emerge as a fly. Therefore, sometimes the nymph should be allowed to float as a wet fly, and again it should be moved fast, in jerks, right under the surface. And other times it may be thrown upstream and allowed to float down much as a dry fly, only deeper. At such times strikes are very hard to see, and the angler must almost sense them, or strike every time the line seems to hesitate as if a fish had mouthed the fly. Now and then it will be bottom or gravel, but it pays to strike anyway.
While nymphs are usually fished just under the surface, there are many times when it is necessary to get down into deeper holes, and for this reason, many nymphs are weighted so that they sink slowly. Those who tie weir own nymphs can soon discover how much weight to add for best results-usually the amount is very slight and therefore does not interfere with casting.
In deep pools, the nymph should be cast well upstream so it will sink as it comes down with the current. By the time it reaches the angler it will be deep enough to be spotted by the trout. Both leader and nymph always seem to float on top when you want them to go down, and sometimes a good stiff jerk on the line is needed to make the nymph sink, even though there is some danger of disturbing the pool by the commotion. A lot more trouble, but worth the effort, is the application of leader sink to the entire leader. If you are caught on the stream without a commercial leader sink, mud will do the trick, or if you have already landed a fish, then the slime from it will serve even better. And that old saying "Spit on the bait for luck" is no idle talk, either. Spittle on the nymph will also help to put it down.
Lots of times in deep water you never do see the fish working and then all you can do is float the nymph through the pool, deep, watching the line for signs of a strike. If you feel you are not getting down deep enough, a wrap-around lead or a pinch of split shot on the leader will get the nymph down. With that much extra weight, you will think you are getting hit after hit, when most of the time it is just the nymph catching on the bottom. But when trout are nosing into the bottom you can really cash in by letting a weighted nymph roll along and bounce off the rocks. You have to strike every time you feel anything on the line, and every time the line stops, but if it's a fish instead of a rock, you have him.
Many times when weather, or muddy water, or feeding habits, were keeping fish down, ants have saved the day for me. One such day, Dan Bailey and I hit the Yellowstone when the water was still high and roily after a hard rain.
"It's clearing," said Dan. "But it's not ready for dry flies yet." He moved on upstream, while I went right in where I was.
I soon spotted a few ants drifting by. Some place up above, the flash storm had washed a colony of them into the river. They looked like a choice item for trout and I took the cue. I dug into my fly box and picked out a black ant, size 12. I was busy tying it on the end of a 3X tippet, attached to a 10-foot leader, when Dan called to me.
"Try an ant," he suggested, pointing to the river. He had spotted them, too.
We both got busy. Trout seemed to be everywhere and we caught them consistently. They all acted so hungry that I decided to see what else they would hit. I put on a yellow wooly worm, took one fish on it, and then didn't get another strike for 20 casts. I put on a royal coachman, size 12, wet. I made 15 casts. No strikes. I tried a leadwing coachman. No soap. Here were three of the best known wet flies on the Yellowstone River and trout didn't want them. I hastened to tie on the black ant again and in four casts I hung two trout, landed one, lost one. It was ants they wanted.
When fishing an ant, I usually use the same technique as in fishing a wet fly for Atlantic salmon. I start with a cast of about 12 feet, thrown across and slightly upstream, mend the line and as the ant reaches the end of the downstream float, I bring it back across the current in short jerks for about three feet, let it swim free for a couple of feet, then repeat the jerks. At the end of the swing through, when the ant is directly below me, I strip it my way for about three feet, again with jerks, then pick it up for the next cast. This time I lengthen the throw a foot, repeat the same procedure as before, and continue thus, lengthening each cast till all the near water has been covered. Then I move downstream to about the farthest point where the ant has worked and begin the series of casts all over again.
But if the fish are passing up such a presentation, there are other ways of getting to them. A short cast straight across current, then a retrieve in short jerks just under the surface, will often get a hit. And when fish are rising, sometimes they will not hit a drifting ant but a cast across and a couple of feet above a riser, brought back in eight- or nine-inch jerks, will get that baby nearly every time.
A few days after I had fished with Dan, I hit the Yellowstone again, this time with Edwin and Allen Nelson. It was clear and fish were rising, taking naturals. We fanned out and started to fish and soon I saw Edwin hook a nice cutthroat on a dry. A pair of rainbows fell in succession to my big number 10 hairwing royal coachman as it danced along the waves of a fast ripple. They looked like brother and sister, both 14-inchers. It was a good start.
Then a fast-moving black cloud dropped its burden, putting the fish down and making us run for the willows. After the rain stopped, the wind came up. It scuffed the surface, making for very poor dry fly fishing. We only landed one fish in the next hour. Finally we joined forces, compared notes.
"I like a wooly worm," sad Allen, showing me the gray one he had just tied on. "They really catch fish."
"You're right," I agreed. "But have you ever tried this?"
I showed him a black ant with a red tail, tied on a number 10 hook.
"There's something that really takes 'em," I said. "It's as hot as a Yellowstone geyser."
"I still like the wooly worm," he said. But he pocketed the ant just the same.
Ed and I went back to dropping our dry flies on the surface, while Allen moved upstream. Suddenly we heard him yell. "Yippee!" he shouted. We saw a pound and a half rainbow flash in the air.
"Yippee!" he shouted again, as the crimson-streaked jumping jack reached upwards for a second time.
We watched him land the fish, then turned back to our dry fly fishing again.
"Youie!" we heard him yell, ten minutes later, and we saw another rainbow trying for the moon.
I changed to a big dry fly, then a small one. Edwin was busy tying on different flies, too, but none of them got action. At last we gave in.
"Sure must be pay day for wooly worms," Edwin shouted to me. "I'm going to put one on." "Me too," I yelled back.
But 15 minutes later we were still hitless. Then Allen really let out a yell. We jerked our heads around in time to see a huge trout thrashing on top. Allen's rod tip snapped back as we watched and Allen turned and started for shore.
"Where are you going?" shouted Ed.
"I'm getting out of here," said Allen. "They're eating me up. And besides that, that last fish took my fly."
As he splashed up to me, I pointed at the lamb's wool on his vest, where he had an assortment of flies showing.
"You've got another wooly worm there," I told him.
"Wooly worms?" he said. "I've been using that black ant you gave me. How about another?"
Edwin and I got ants on in a hurry. After that we had hits and we caught fish from then on out. The trout menu that day consisted of a single, all-in-one dish-black ants.
Ants are good medicine in high altitude lakes, too, especially for cutthroat. On a pack trip to Charlie White Lake, near Emigrant Peak, Montana, Eleanore and Arnold Schueren and my wife Mary and I fished from the shore to trout that were swirling within easy casting distance. On dry flies we didn't do much, so I shifted to a black ant and those natives went to town. I had such fast and furious action that pretty soon everyone else wanted in. I dug into my fly box and produced what I had-three black, a couple with red tails, and two white ones. I divied up and we all went back to fishing.
We had decided to eat fish for dinner that night, so we were keeping some for that purpose and when there were enough, the women headed back to camp to start the fire. Arnold and I went on fishing, less carefully now, because we had all the fish we wanted-fishing just for the fun of fishing. We hooked into several pretty good ones that took us under the brush and around fallen logs with which the shoreline was littered. By the time we started for camp, we had lost all the ants.
Suddenly as we neared the tents, we heard yells. We rounded the curve in the path in time to see both women wielding frying pans at a totally unperturbed burro that was busily eating up our dinner fish. He was holding one fish headfirst in his mouth and every time he chewed the tail would flap up in the girl's faces. A couple more whacks with the frying pans finally drove Jack off to finish his dinner with the rest of the pack train, and then a quick count showed us the damage. We were short three fish for dinner. We had to go back to the lake, and this time, minus ants, it took us almost an hour to get those three fish.
I remember another time, too, when nothing but ants would take fish in one of those high altitude lakes. We were 9000 feet up, at Lake of the Woods, in Wyoming. Mary and I were in one boat with Pete Redman of Dubois, while his son, Duane, had a couple of fellows from Texas in another boat.
Duane had told us that there were grayling in this lake.
"But sometimes they're awful hard to catch," he said. "Can't figure it out. They'll be rising all around, but they won't take anything."
I dug into my fly box and found five black ants. I gave him two.
"Try these," I said. "Sometimes they're good in these high altitude lakes."
They were good that day, all right. Mary and I had great fun taking one grayling after the other. We whooped and hollered as we landed them, removed the ants from their mouths, and put the fish back.
Nothing but a great and gloomy silence came from the other boat. We could see the men casting and casting, but with never a strike. They moved closer to us.
"What are they hitting?" asked Duane.
"Ants," I replied. "Haven't you tried the ones I gave you?" He shook his head.
"I left them in the jeep," he said. "Can you spare a couple more until we go in for lunch?"
"Sure," I said. "Come on over."
I handed him two more. They pushed off and soon their whoops and hollers were blending with ours. They were into fish, but good.
Similarly, although beetles are an occasional, rather than a regular food for trout, there are times when almost nothing else will do. During the height of the Japanese beetle migrations, I've opened trout whose belly linings were cut clear through with the bites of these insects before they perished.
A couple of years ago I was fishing the Laramie River in Wyoming, on the Lazy W Cross Ranch, near Glendivy. Strikes seemed few, and the fish seemed lethargic. Most of those that did show came up slowly and looked the floating fly over carefully, then just nudged it with their noses. I switched to nymphs and if anything, the going was slower. Then I spotted a couple of black beetles floating along. I tied an artificial beetle, black, size 12, on my leader tippet. No hits. Thinking that perhaps those drifting beetles had been dark brown, rather than black, I changed to that color. They scorned the brown beetle, and then a green one. In desperation I put on a size 18, black, and hit the jackpot. For the next half-hour I was busy taking trout. They hit that little beetle like they really wanted it. There wasn't any hesitation, there was no careful scrutiny. They just charged it and took.
Not content with that demonstration, I tied on a size 18 green beetle. They let that color go by. I put on a size 18 brown. They didn't even know it was there. They wanted a size 18 black, and nothing else would do.
Occasionally, when the usual underwater presentations fail to interest trout, I grease all of the leader and the bottom of the beetle with line dressing and let it float on top. At times I bring back in a smooth, even retrieve that makes the artificial look like the real thing skimming across the surface. It works, too. In fact, the angler who isn't afraid to use a little ingenuity can find some mighty odd but successful ways to fish a beetle.
On one occasion when I was fishing a clear spring lake in Montana with Red Monacle, we could see the fish cruising so close to the shore that it was like looking at them through a window pane.
We heard a familiar story. "No one can catch these trout," we were told. "The water is so clear that they see you every time, and won't hit."
One look convinced me that regardless of the fly, those fish would not take anything unless it were on the end of a very long fine leader. This place called for a 12-foot leader tapered to at least 4X. Even with that already set up, I added another 16-inch length of 4X tippet, then put on a size 12 black beetle.
Such slick water beetle fishing also called for the same greased line and leader as nymph fishing, with the last three inches of the tippet treated with leader sink. Quietness, a lightly dropped fly and line, patience to wait before imparting even the slightest motion, careful timing of the retrieve, and a sharp lookout for the very slight leader movement that signifies a strike-these are all even more important in still, clear water than in riffles and ripples.
There was a barely perceptible current and I cast the beetle out and let it float there for at least a minute, then moved it my way, very slowly, in six-inch jerks, for a couple of feet, then let it stay motionless again for another quarter minute. Then I repeated the jerks and picked it up for the next cast.
I worked the black beetle that way for a few minutes, then, when it didn't get a strike, changed to a green, size 14. Immediately I had a fish. After watching me land it, Red went down the shore a way, to try his luck. When I next saw him, he had a couple of nice fish taken on the same green beetle.
"I had to do some figuring," he said. "I missed several strikes because I couldn't see the line and leader moving when the trout hit. But I fixed those babies. I put on a number 10 hairwing royal coachman, then tied the beetle on an 18-inch length of tippet as a dropper. The hairwing worked like a bobber, and boy, did it bob when those trout hit. I hooked them good, too."
Even if your fly box doesn't contain a single beetle, and the time comes when you suspect that a beetle is what is needed, there is a way to fake one. Once on a small Eastern stream in Maryland, I was using a size 20 dry fly and couldn't make those bulging trout take it. It was a limestone stream and this was my favorite fly, a black flying ant, and they should have liked it. But those nymph-feeding trout wouldn't take it, nor would they take a nymph when I finally gave in and tried several. They rocked the dries as they bulged right beside them, they pushed aside the floating nymphs to get at whatever they were eating. But they would have none of what I offered.
I sat down on a log and pulled out all of my fly boxes. I went through them carefully. Down in one corner of a dry fly laden section I spotted a small black beetle, size 18. I scattered flies in all directions as I grabbed that beetle and tied it on the 5X tippet.
And I was right! The first float brought a hard strike and I was so keyed up that I laid back on the rod like I was striking a 100-pound tarpon and left that one and only beetle in the trout's mouth.
Disgusted, I staggered back to my log and again fingered through the fly boxes. Not a beetle or a nymph that looked the least bit like a beetle!
Then I saw a black gnat, size 16. I grabbed that baby like it was peaches and cream, cut the wings off, snipped the tail off, and held it up. It looked almost like the beetle that had just brought such a rousing strike. The third time I floated that makeshift thing over a bulging trout, he took. I set the hook lightly, this time, and fought the fish boldly then, because I knew that I had at least half a dozen black gnats in my box that I could metamorphose into beetles.
Nature is wonderful, but sometimes man can do a good job, too.