Practical and Useful

Practical and Useful

Bashful About Bright


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Bashful About Bright

How to catch bigger trout on sunny days.

Photographs by the author

practical&useful /// Dave Hughes

My father specialized in dryfly fishing for wild cutthroat trout in the forested hills along the coast of Oregon. His streams, which became my streams, were tiny, bouldered and bounding. Dad must have been familiar with J. W. Dunne’s 1924 book Sunshine and the Dry Fly, though he never mentioned it. But he did say often that “. . . small-stream trout will take a dry fly or nothing at all, and they bite best when the sun is on the water.” His theory was never disproven, at least by him, because he refused ever to show those eager trout any fly that wasn’t a dry, and though we fished under rainforest, he refused to fish in the rain.

I had the misfortune to experience many bright days on which I was able to coax only splashy rises out of those same cutts, on the same streams, and other days during which I was able to catch lots of trout, but all were tiddlers. Those trout that had attained some size, which we in fly-fishing translate into “some wisdom,” seemed to rush my dry flies—sending boils bulging up around them or even splashing them—but they stopped just short of taking. I always thought it was my fault that I couldn’t get the hook set. I assumed I was striking too slow, so I honed my reaction time to strike in an instant. Then I was striking too fast, or so I thought. No matter what I did, I couldn’t hook the fish. And I couldn’t figure out why, until one bright but disappointing day I came to rest for lunch on a patch of grass that had a view right down into a sunstruck pool. It was full of trout, and it became an important part of my small-stream education.

I bellied right up to the bank hanging over the two- to three-foot-deep pool and watched while trout from five to 10 inches long dashed around at the sudden sight of my unruly head appearing over them. They soon got used to it and settled back to the lies along the bottom where they’d been. They would move from time to time to take something drifting along near their level, but nothing was on the surface, and none of them made any moves in that direction.

I found a thin alder twig sticking into my ribs, dug it out, on an impulse broke off an inch and tossed it out over the pool. The biggest trout instantly departed the bottom, rushed the “fly,” detected the fraud, darted back to its lie. It left a boil that bounced the twig. Had that stick been my dry fly, I’d have set the hook. But it wouldn’t have mattered whether I was fast or slow, I’d have missed, because that trout never actually touched the twig.

Several twigs and a few splashy refusal rises later, some smaller trout in the pool finally began taking flicked twigs under. They’d pull them down for five or six inches, find them wanting, let them go. I’d have gotten the hook set into those trout. It gave me an idea of why I missed lots of strikes on a few bright days, and when I did get the hook set, caught only small fish. Let me make it clear, though, that small-stream trout are not always bashful about the surface on bright days. Often they’ll accept dries, and when they do, I’ll use them.


I didn’t find the solution to those refusals to dries fished in bright sunshine until I read W. C. Stewart’s The Practical Angler (1857). It is set on small Yorkshire hill streams. I wanted to fish those waters with his flies, which I haven’t done yet, but I did decide that I needed to learn how to do it before I went. So I armed myself for it with a small selection of soft-hackled wet flies. Stewart fished them in gangs of three, upstream, but I suspected that his streams were more open than mine in my rainforest, so I planned to fish just two.

One bright day I got into the familiar set of conditions: Big trout bounced my dry, a size 14 Royal Wulff, but only little ones were willing to take it. Since I wasn’t doing well, I decided it was the right day to practice my upstream Yorkshire tactics. I was on a tiny mountain stream hemmed in by brush, so I got cold feet and tied a single size 12 Partridge and Yellow to the same tippet on which I’d been fishing the dry.

Each of the plunge pools in that stream was formed by a miniature waterfall at the upper end, which dug out some dark depths among boulders for a scant few feet, after which the current lifted up and shallowed out in a swift tailout before plunging over another two- to three-foot falls to form the next pool down. The stream stair-stepped downstream; I fished by stair-stepping up it.

I crept to the foot of the first pool, crouched behind a boulder and flicked that soft-hackle to the upstream end of the pool, which was about the length of my rod and leader combined. I’d like to say that the fly sank a few inches, drifted a few feet, I saw the leader twitch and set the hook. No such thing. I had a trout on the instant the fly hit the water, and it happened so fast I had no idea what told me to strike. I just knew that my arm yanked up, a trout was there, and when it slipped into my hand it was bigger than those I was accustomed to catching from that stream on the usual dry flies.

I wasn’t able to parse things out until I’d caught so many trout, acting on instinct, that I began to refrain from setting the hook. Only then did it seep into me that my leader had a kink in it where I kept it bent around the top guide while I moved from pool to pool. That kink rode an inch above the surface. I was fishing so short that when a trout took the sunk fly, I could see the kink do one of three things: twitch toward the fly; straighten out; or simply disappear. All of these were signals to my subconscious of the same thing: a trout fooling with my fly.

A long time later I realized I’d ceased practicing for a trip to Yorkshire and was having a fine time (and some of the best fishing ever) right where I was, on a stream I’d fished with dries dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. I felt bad that my dad wasn’t around to see it happen, but he might have been disappointed. We’re always happy to find a new way to catch trout on old waters, but we’re seldom happy to have our pet theories demolished.

I’ve since discovered that a soft-hackled wet fly, or even better a brace of them, works wonders whenever trout in small streams are bashful about the surface, whether it’s because of bright sun or whatever other reason that might occur to them. A size 14 or 16 bead-headed nymph, suspended beneath a tiny fan of yarn, is at least as good and might be even better. Of course it’s never a mistake to suspend the same nymph or wet fly beneath a brushy dry fly—a Royal Wulff or Elkhair Caddis—that is one size larger. That way when trout get over their bashfulness about taking things on top, you’re the first to know about it.

It has never ceased to surprise me that small-stream trout I catch on sunk flies, now on waters all over this continent and in a few others around the world, average at least a bit larger than the trout I take on dries. These are small-stream trout, so size is relative. If you’re catching eight- to 12-inchers on dry flies, then switch to something sunk and abruptly begin catching a few that go 14 or 15; it either makes you happy, or small streams are not your natural habitat.

It should come as no surprise that trout are bashful about bright just as often on medium and large trout streams as they are on small ones. That’s one of the beauties of fishing small streams: The lessons you learn on them are almost always useful on larger waters. If you’re ever getting refusal rises, anywhere, in any weather, on any creek, stream or river, your first thought ought to be about going subsurface rather than switching to a different dry fly.

Dave Hughes is the author of Wet Flies (Stackpole Books), a book that contains many methods with which you can employ sunk flies, whether wets or nymphs, against reluctant trout.