When to Ignore Your Flies

6 mins read
By Spencer Durrant

I threw a cast and watched my dry-dropper rig land in the middle of the beaver pond. The water was cloudy and slightly off-color from runoff, but that apparently didn’t stop the fish. Through the murk I saw the flash of trout as they nipped at the size 16 Frenchie nymph I’d dropped 18 inches below my elk hair caddis.

As the trout nibbled at the Frenchie, my caddis never moved.

If I had only been watching my dry fly, waiting for a telltale stop in its drift, a twitch, or for it to shoot completely underwater before setting the hook, I would’ve missed seeing the fish go after the nymph. And, I wouldn’t have caught any fish, either.

That’s why it sometimes pays off to ignore your flies and watch the fish instead.

Missing Takes

In the instructional film “Modern Nymphing” with Lance Egan and Devin Olsen, the point gets made that the traditional indicator-nymph rig doesn’t react every time a trout takes a fly. Trout can swallow and spit out a fly before a strike indicator ever moves. That’s part of Euro nymphing’s enormous popularity – it allows anglers to see more takes as their flies drift through the water.

The same holds true for a dry-dropper rig. Missing takes is easy if you’re only watching the dry fly, especially if you’re in off-color water. I’ve also missed a ton of takes in low, clear water during hatches, too. Trout can ever-so-softly eat emergers and small nymphs right under the surface, spitting them out before the dry fly moves. If you don’t watch the fish, you’ll miss those big subsurface eats, too.

The following situations are the ones where you should ignore your flies and watch the fish, instead. This is a skill that’s worth its weight in gold once you get a feel for what trout look like when eating your flies. I’ve caught some of the best trout of my life because I ignored my flies and just watched the fish.

Still, Slow Water

When throwing a dry-dropper rig in slow water – like a beaver pond, for example – you’ll be surprised at how often a fish can nibble at your nymph without moving your dry fly.

So, when fishing beaver ponds or similar water, try to watch the fish instead of your flies. If you’re fishing in dirty water, or you’re too far away to see the fish, watch for the telltale bright flash as trout move quickly to gulp down your nymphs. Set the hook when you see that flash.

Hatches and Low Water

During early-season blue-winged olive hatches, you’ll often be fishing in low, clear water to trout that are easily spooked. With the water so low, the fish don’t have to move as much to eat their share of the bug buffet drifting downstream.

Since fish don’t move as much in these situations, it’s not uncommon to watch a fish gulp bugs while barely moving its head. If you’re fishing a dry fly followed by some sort of emerger or unweighted nymph, it’s easy to a fish to take the dropper without moving your dry fly.

So, I like to tie my dun blue-winged olives larger and bushy, so I can easily spot them on the water. Once you spot your lead fly, watch behind it for a fish to eat. If you see a fish move its head, even slightly, and your dry fly doesn’t move – set the hook. A slight movement of the fish as your dropper gets into the strike zone is as surefire sign it ate as a splashy rise.

Seams in Clear Water

Another instance where you’ll want to watch a fish instead of your flies is when fishing seams in clear water. As currents meet and form a seam in the river, fish gather to eat the steady stream of easy food. Often, these currents have weird hydraulics that can spin flies around or keep them floating even if a fish eats your nymph. If the water’s clear enough, watch for trout to rise up in the water column. If they rise, stop, and start to move, set the hook.

When You See the Fish

Finally, I recommend using this tactic in any and all situations where you can see the fish eating. If the water’s clear enough that you can see fish as they swim to your flies, watch the fish. While flies – especially a dry-dropper rig – can bounce and move and look like they’ve been eaten, trout can’t really lie. Watching them to see if they eat, then setting your hook based on their behavior, is a surefire way to put more fish in the net.


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