Practical and Useful
Practical and Useful
A Few Tiny Flies, A Few Tiny Tactics
- By: Dave Hughes
A Few Tiny Flies, A Few Tiny Tactics
Be prepared when trout focus on diminutive insects.
I FISHED A TROUT POND THE OTHER DAY WITH AN old friend. The conversation, while we sat sipping wine at the end of some very satisfying midge fishing, turned to previous trips that hadn’t gone so well. He recalled a moment on a famous river when he got into a hatch of size 22 olive mayfly duns, had no flies nearly that small, and was able to catch nothing but frustration.
Rick Hafele and I, on the opposite hand, got into a hatch of size 22 mayflies on another famous river last summer, had no flies that precisely matched it, but got into sufficient trout, so long as our presentations were close to perfect. When Rick and I compared flies later they had almost no resemblance to each other. His was a puff of CDC over a slender dubbed body that didn’t even have a name. Mine was a Sparkle Dun with a Z-Lon trailing shuck, a slender dubbed body, and a flared wing of Comparadun hair. The only thing they had in common, outside the body: They were both the same size 22 as the mayfly dun that hatched, and on which trout fed.
When the deciding factor in a trout’s take or refusal becomes size, not necessarily form or color, then it’s easy to speculate that a few fly patterns would cover a wide range of hatches. In my own experience, that’s very close to correct. A narrow selection of tiny flies solves a lot of difficult situations, though it’s also true that it won’t solve them all. Some rare times, though far less often than you’d think, the precise imitation will work and nothing else will interest trout. Even then, it’s a certainty that more than one right fly will take fish.
A working selection of tiny flies would fit into a very small fly box, if you cared to buy a new one for it, or in a small corner of a larger fly box, if you’d rather fit them into what you already carry. The selection need not be extensive at first, though success with it might lead you into further research, and to more time at the vise. Until then, it’s best to begin with a few patterns, surface and sunk, that have a history of catching lots of trout. Depending on your skills at the vise, or your purchasing power at the fly shop, they should all be tied on size 20 to 24 hooks.
The first tiny fly in a box of them, for me, would be that Olive Sparkle Dun, based on the Blue-Wing Olive mayfly, because there are so many BWOs, they hatch in such a wide-spread number of places, and trout are usually selective to them when they’re on the water. Most, though not all, tiny mayflies turn out to be olives. When they’re not, the same dressing seems to work well enough, even when its color is not correct. A second dressing, to fish sub-surface during the same mayfly hatch, would be Rim Chung’s RS2. It has worked often enough for me that it has a place alongside the famous Pheasant Tail Nymph, a dressing that no tiny-fly selection should be without.
The pattern I use for small caddis is similar to Rick’s pattern for tiny mayflies in two ways: It has nothing but a dubbed body and CDC wing, and it has no name, though I’m sure it’s been invented and named by somebody else. Because of its simplicity, elegance and effectiveness, it just seems to be a no-brainer. I tie it in tan and dark dun, which covers most small caddis that I encounter. I’ve used it during hatches of tiny midges as well, and it’s fished equally well for them. Rick used it over that BWO hatch. It seems that the same CDC dressing catches trout when almost anything tiny is on the water, so long as the size is right.
To fish under hatches of small caddis, it’s difficult to beat tiny soft-hackle wet flies. It’s impossible to buy them so small; you’ll have to tie your own. I think the Starling & Herl is best, and it ranges down to size 16 and sometimes 18. Smaller than that and starlings fail to provide small enough feathers. It’s easy to substitute black hen hackle, which I suppose then makes the fly a Black Hen & Herl. Like the floating CDC caddis pattern, it works for midges as well, especially on moving water.
Specifically for midge adults, it’s always wise to be armed with small Griffith’s Gnats. They’re the standard, and fairly easy to tie, just peacock herl bodies overwound with grizzly hackle. But remember, more midge naturals are taken as pupae, beneath the surface, than are ever taken on top. A small fly selection would be incomplete without a few Zebra Midges, tied on curved-shank scud hooks, with black thread bodies, silver wire ribs and a bright glass bead braced against the hook eye.
THAT’S A SHORT LIST OF TINY flies, but it will take you a long way in your trout fishing. If you already have favorites, it would be foolish not to add those to it. Even if you tie or buy just a few of them, and only in sizes 20 and 22, you’ll at least never get caught with nothing to try when trout feed on insects that are almost invisible. Be sure to add one thing to your vest, if you don’t already carry it: a spool of 6X tippet. Make it 7X if you habitually fish waters that are smooth on top and heavily pestered by other anglers; trout on those waters will be wise, and you’ll need to be wiser to fool them.
Most standard tactics for flies of larger size work as well for tiny flies. The most important adjustment will be in your position, not your presentation. Work in as close as you can, sometimes just a rod length or two from feeding trout, if they’ll allow it. The second adjustment is to refine your tackle. Go with a lighter line, longer leader, more supple tippet. When trout are snotty and you catch nothing but refusals, try adding three to four feet of 6X tippet before beginning a litany of fly changes. As often as not, the rigging is causing the problem. Lack of delicacy in your gear or your cast, or drag that you’re unable to notice, cause trout to turn away at least as often as they refuse because the fly is wrong, especially when the subject is tiny.
If a common problem exists when you downsize, it’s that the flies are much more difficult to see on the water, and it’s harder to detect takes when they’re fished subsurface. Getting close is the first solution, if you can do it. If not, one trick is to add a small yarn indicator, or a larger dry fly, a few feet up the leader, even when you’re fishing dry. This draws your attention toward your fly, and will help you spot it on the water. If you still can’t see it, then you can set the hook whenever a rise erupts anywhere near the indicator. Often enough it will be a trout taking your fly. Set the hook gently, though, so if it’s a miss you don’t yank it out of there and spook the trout you’re trying to catch.
Another trick, when you’re fishing dry flies, is to simply tug them under and fish them as wets or nymphs. This works especially well with down-wing caddis patterns, but I’ve had trout whack a small submerged Sparkle Dun that they refused while it was afloat. You can fish sunk dry flies upstream to rises, just as you would fish them floating. You can also fish them as dries on the upstream part of any cast, then give them a pull to drown them, and fish them on a very slow swing after they reach your position in the water.
When fishing mayfly, caddis or midge nymphs in low light, it can help to use a couple of pea-size yarn indicators, one black and one white, four to six feet from the fly or flies, and four to six inches apart on the leader. When your drift passes through dark water, say the reflections of trees on the bank, you can see the white indicator. When the surface reflects the sky and shines, you can see the black one. Either way, you’ve got the trout surrounded.
A single small indicator lets you suspend midge nymphs at any depth in a lake or pond. In my experience, when trout feed so shallow that it looks like they’re taking midge adults off the surface, I still catch more of them by dropping one or two Zebra Midges a foot or two deep, allowing them to hang there, enticing the trout.
At times, with tiny flies it’s difficult to decide whether to fish a dry on top, a wet or light nymph just sub-surface, or a heavier nymph a bit deeper. One way to solve this dilemma is to rig all three, or two of the three, and fish them as a gang, as droppers a couple of feet apart. A sample rig would be the Pheasant Tail on point, followed by a Black Hen & Herl dropper, and lastly a dark CDC Caddis on top. Sometimes one of the flies will work while the others fail, and you’ll know which of them to use. More often, it seems that the sight of the bunch of them instills greed in the trout, and they take the flies at random.
Trout are often mysteries, but if you carry a few tiny flies—and add a few minor tactics to fish them—you’ll figure them out more often. That translates into catching more fish, which I would guess is generally your goal when you go fishing.