Undersize Me

Undersize Me

Why tiny flies could be your ticket to big trout

  • By: Landon Mayer
  • Photography by: Cathy Beck
  • , Ted Fauceglia
  • and Barry Beck
Undersize Me

Streamers often coax big trout into violent takes, causing many anglers to say, “The tug is the drug.” That’s why most enthusiasts run heavy, articulated streamers through the deepest water; these flies have so much motion they may convince you to take a bite. Other anglers target big browns and rainbows using ridiculous stoneflies that appear to be part nymph/part tarantula, with legs wiggling in every direction.

Those are great imitations for large, aggressive trout, but there is the smaller side of the big-trout equation—those times when mature fish feed on small insects. And big trout do feed on tiny flies because they are opportunists and must continually eat to maintain their health and size. Still, when the biggest meal on the menu is a size 20 Trico or a ball of swirling midges, you have officially entered the ultimate realm in the trout hunter’s challenge.

But don’t think you can’t walk away from the stream without big-time reward: Trophy trout are lazy, and when it comes to obtaining food, picture them sitting in a Barcalounger, eating Twinkies, starring in a life-long episode of The Biggest Gainer. They’ll choose quantity over quality every time if given the option, and that’s your ticket to success. Following are situations you may encounter, and tactics for success, when casting these minuscule flies for massive trout.

My favorite setup for large trout on dries is a morning Trico hatch. Often these hatches are so thick it seems like they might eclipse the sun. When the mating cloud descends, about three hours after it forms, the females drop first, ready to deposit eggs on the water. Shortly after, the spent male spinners appear, their wings flattened to the side and translucent on the water. That combination makes a film of small bugs on the surface—often from one bank to the other—and the trout take notice. In fact, this is exactly what you and the trout have waited for, a buffet line of food revolving right in front, often most concentrated on current seams and in eddies. During that time, the fish simply can’t refuse—or even avoid—ingesting numerous food items with each sip. That is the key; instead of selecting one specific adult fly the trout are getting more bang for the buck by swallowing multiple insects at once.

This takes place during Trico spinnerfalls and also during Baetis and midge hatches, when there are so many small adults on the surface the trout would have a bigger challenge trying to select one specific bug. Instead, they say, “The hell with it,” and commit to all the insects in view. When that happens, an angler sees the trout tip its nose above the surface and wave back and forth, performing two to three sips before descending and taking a one- to two-second break. It is important to count during the rise and fall of the fish so you can determine when that trout is going to rise again. This leads you into productive casting and presentation instead of throwing Hail Marys, hoping a big one might see your dry.

Conventionally, when casting a dry you want a long, drag-free drift to help your imitation appear as natural as possible when it enters the trout’s view. While this can be productive in many situations, fishing film is not one of them. As my good friend John Barr puts it, “You want to fire the fly in there.” To do that, try to take a position upstream of the trout and false-cast up- or downstream with your line, leader and tippet out of view. Then, when the trout begins a resting period, drop the fly upstream of the trout by one or two feet. If your timing is right your fly should be the main course.

Think this isn’t exciting? Let me tell you, the adrenaline rush you get when a 20-inch trout explodes on a size 20 or smaller dry fly—and a pack of his buddies spooks in every direction—is tops. Experience it once and you’ll be on your toes the rest of the day.

To feel that thrill, however, you have to fish specific imitations. When fishing in the film for pattern-feeding trout you’ll want a nice selection of low-riding imitations. My go-to flies are size 18 to 24 Barr’s Drowned Tricos; size 18 to 20 Mathews’ Sparkle Duns; and size 20 to 24 Cannon’s Snowshoe Midge Clusters (or try Cannon’s Snowshoe Suspender Midge; see sidebar.) These dries sit low in the surface film and give trout confidence that the next meal can be easily consumed.

You’ve done it. You’ve seen others do it. When you’ve done it you feel embarrassed. When you’ve seen others do it you had to laugh and say, “You poor, poor bastard.” What I’m talking about are those times when you’ve desperately rifled through an entire fully-loaded dryfly box and haven’t come up with an answer—all this with scads of big trout in front, feeding repeatedly on the surface. By the end of the day you’re so frustrated, and perhaps embarrassed, you turn a back to clients or friends just so they don’t feel your pain or sense that desperation as you stare blankly into that box.

This kind of encounter is typical during sparse hatches, such as Pale Morning Duns, when the trout ignore single adult duns that look like sailboats riding on the current and look for something else. When that happens you need to pull out a secret weapon, and for me that game-changer is the cripple.

Here’s why: Selective trout have many food options just below the surface, and that keeps most of them from expending the energy to rise. Why would they rise? Adult duns riding on the surface could lift off or skitter from the surface just as a big trout fully commits.

Throwing a crippled adult imitation triggers big trout to eat because the chance of failure (i.e., that dun flying away) doesn’t exist. In addition, crippled adults often have half their body riding just below the surface and the wings stick out, above the surface, like a flower in bloom. Think that fly is going anywhere? The trout don’t, and they scarf down crippled naturals, and their imitations, like crazy.

A majority of aquatic insect species possesses the stuck-in-the-shuck state, which makes cripples a viable option during all seasons. However, my favorite time to fish cripples is during the caddis hatches of late spring into summer. Roger Hill, a well-known Colorado angler, invented a simple, effective and ugly fly that makes any caddis-eater rise. Honestly, one of the best things about tying cripples is the uglier they are the better they work, and you can’t say that about many flies. That fact makes for some easy tying: Take those flies that didn’t make the cut and throw them as cripples. My favorite is the Devil Bug, a cripple that looks like a miniature hot dog floating down the river. Any large trout that encounters this crippled caddis commits, knowing this fly isn’t skittering along the surface and quickly away like the majority of those insects.

Still, when drifting cripples for large, lazy trout, you should eliminate all movement from the fly—yes, you and the fly must make like a rock to keep the imitation in a drag-free drift. In addition to the caddis cripples, I like to carry sizes 16 through 20 of Lawson’s PMD Cripple, and sizes 18 through 22 of Russell’s BWO Pablo Cripple. Those patterns cover the PMD and Baetis emergences. You can tie those in different sizes and color combinations to cover Green Drakes, Mahogany Duns, Hecuba and other hatches.

OK, this is not a discussion about a secret fly. In fact, it is the opposite—everybody knows this fly, they just forget about it when they are in the zone, fishing standard dries. I call the fly “trout candy,” but most people know it as the common ant.

I have heard every explanation in the book for why trout take an ant over almost any other fly. Honestly, I am a simplistic teacher and know only this: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Trout like ants, and if that’s what they want that’s what they get.

This comes in real handy when the trout are rejecting every imitation you throw, with some of the best presentations you can perform. When that happens stop forcing the issue. Dryfly fishing doesn’t have to be that maddeningly difficult. Tie on an ant that is just about the same size as the food form you’re trying to match. Do so and 90 percent of the time you’re going to see a fish eat.

There are many makes of ants: Some are red, black, tan; others fly, many crawl. When selecting the right design for big trout, think simple. Some of the best patterns have foam or epoxy bodies to keep them flush in the film as they drift. This is important because ant bodies are not designed to float or ride high on the water’s surface. One of the most effective ways to rig this preferred food is greasing all of the tippet material except the last inch or two before the eye of the hook. Your fly still drifts on the surface until it hits turbulent water, like a riffle, then it sinks just below. The sinking effect is common for terrestrials; they struggle when they get wet, and it signals to trout that it’s time to eat.

A personal favorite pattern is a size 16 through 20 tan/black Schlotter’s Foam Flying Ant, which has a foam body, sparse hackle for legs, and a simple sheet along the back for wings. I like the addition of wings because it appears more natural for a flying ant to hit the surface. If I’m concentrating on the banks or underneath overhanging brush I go with a size 18 to 22 Black Foam Ant or a size 16 to 20 Transparent Epoxy Ant. Remember, large trout are opportunistic and rise for easy meals.

Small Recipes for Small Flies

BWO Pablo Cripple

Hook: TMC 200R, size 18 to 22
Tail: Rust Z-Lon
Body: Olive-brown Super Dry Fly Dubbing
Hackle: Gray dun hackle
Thorax: Olive dryfly dubbing
Post: Gray Z-Lon

• • • • • • • • • •

Cannon’s Snowshoe Suspender Midge

Hook: TMC 2488
Thread: 8/0 Olive Uni Thread
Wing: Snowshoe rabbit foot
Abdomen: Olive Midge Tubing
Thorax: Olive Ice Dub
Note: The hair of the wing should come from the front half of a snowshoe rabbit’s hind foot, 33% bleached white, 33% dyed black, and 33% pearl Ice Dub blended together.

Small Fly / Big Trout

There are two things most anglers refer to at the end of the day—either how many fish they landed or how big the monster was that they lost. The true attraction to large trout is the challenge in fooling an aged fish that is often wise to the tricks we normally find successful. Using small dries to land a trophy is one of the biggest challenges in fly-fishing. This is a personal relationship between you and the trout, and during the time you’re focused on a fish, nothing else matters. The next time you’re scanning a slick piece of water and you hear the “Big Gulp” of a large brown, think small, knowing size doesn’t always matter.

Landon Mayer is a guide, speaker and fly-fishing educator working out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. His passion is large trout and if he can take them on small flies, so much the better. His books include How To Catch The Biggest Trout Of Your Life and Sight Fishing for Trout.