When it's not all about mayflies and caddis
- By: Brian O'Keefe
- , Travis Lowe
- , Len Waldren
- and Jeff Currier
The Blackbird Hatch
Chico, california bass fanatic kevin price was 50 feet to my right as we waded 75 yards off the shore of Oregon’s Davis Lake. The reeds were so loaded with damselflies that there was a blueish hue to the horizon. We were casting poppers, searching for largemouth when the quiet morning was racked by an explosion—the kind of disturbance a big bass makes. Price stopped casting and glanced at me with a strange look. He asked, “Wasn’t a blackbird sitting there a moment ago?” There was no evidence other than concentric circles expanding across the water.
“I believe there was, and now there isn’t.”
Red-wing and yellow-wing blackbirds are common on most bass lakes and ponds. They nest in reeds and cattails and feed on a variety of prey associated with that cover, including damselflies. While poking around for food they are least wary and very vulnerable. Occasionally, mature bass snap adult blackbirds right off the reeds and lily pads. Those attacks are nerve-rattling. In addition, big bass hunt the pads and reeds looking for blackbird chicks that fall out of nests or just succumb to the elements. Easy, nutritious meals.
When fishing in the reeds with blackbirds about, I often tie on the biggest black popper I own, including a couple from Cory Koenig of Webflyz. They have red or yellow wings and red or yellow heads. It’s a perfect match, and one way to get the most aggressive strikes you’ve ever seen. Another pattern that works is the snag-proof Tweety Frog, which matches yellow-wing blackbirds and came to prominence on California’s Clear Lake.
Next time you’re on a bass lake, pack some bird imitations and if the conditions are right—meaning there are birds feeding or nesting near water level—give them a throw. Something may happen. Or maybe nothing will happen. If it does, however, you’ll never forget the explosion. —BRIAN O’KEEFE
Tigerfish are africa’s best gamefish
because of their amazing fighting strength and ability to leap like a salmon. They’re also stunning in appearance—some flash their stripes while others reflect every tint of pearl and silver. All tigers shred prey with dagger-like teeth, and they are one of the fiercest finned predators on earth.
Catching a tigerfish on the fly is no easy task. One must be able to heave heavy flies attached to eight inches of 40-pound wire shock tippet. Hooking them is a chore because tigers have rock-hard, boney mouths, plus those teeth, so there’s little area for a hook to stick. For success, you must strip-set with all your might, then jab several times to the side. If you’re lucky and hook up, raise your rod and expect numerous high, gill-rattling jumps. You may also want to prepare to duck as your fly whizzes by your ears after a tigerfish spits it out, which is often the case.
That’s what I found after a long, twisting boat ride through the lagoons of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. When we stopped I jumped to the bow and stripped off 80 feet of line, eager to get my first casts in. But my guide, Umpa, whispered, “Wait.” As our boat drifted down the Okavango, I was frozen in place. Soon Umpa pointed to the air. A flock of herons was eagerly awaiting something. He quickly zigzagged us down two bends, then cut the motor. Right then the herons harpooned in sync from above. As if on cue, tigerfish attacked from below. I cast into the fray and my first strip instantly turned into a hookset. A six-pound tiger rocketed from the water, jumped three times and threw the hook. Without hesitation I made another cast into that carnage and was immediately hooked up again. This tiger bolted upstream and leaped six times, but I stayed fast to him with the 10-weight. After a couple minutes Umpa latched a Boga-Grip on to the fish and I was able to examine an exotic I’d long waited to catch.
So why all the mayhem? I asked Umpa, and he explained that in October packs of tigerfish travel up and down the Okavango looking for sharptooth catfish. These catfish, he said, sleep far back in the papyrus reed swamp. When they are hungry they become ferocious predators and chase a small baitfish called a bullhead into the main river channel. The catfish is not perfectly designed for attacking baitfish and anglers hear popping noises during their clumsy assaults. The tigerfish hear that, too, and they key in for a feast.
During my five days on the Delta we caught more than 100 tigerfish while taking advantage of the “catfish hatch.” If the catfish/bullhead equation hadn’t served our interests we may not have caught a single fish, because blind casting for tigers offers little chance for success. To really believe the chaos, with catfish popping, herons stabbing and tigerfish slashing up the water, you have to see it. —JEFF CURRIER
Africa’s Catfish Hatch
Deep within the roots of the Coigüe tree, in the heart of Chilean Patagonia, a larva stirs after a two-year gestation period. Triggered by time, temperature and more mysterious forces, it hatches to create a regional phenomenon. Known by Patagonians as the cantaria beetle, this large, nasty-looking terrestrial lands on the rivers and lakes in even calendar years, from roughly January through March. It measures up to four inches long, the males carry massive pincers, and its bi-annual hatch short-circuits the brains of wild trout, which in turn devour flailing beetles that float the rivers with all the delicacy of an up-rooted tree in a flash flood.
To fish this hatch, I traveled to the Aysen (XI) region of Chilean Patagonia and stayed at Cinco Rios Lodge, which puts fishermen on some of the best dryfly fishing in the world, including opportunities to slap massive foam beetle imitations along the edges of sapphire-blue glacial lakes, spring creeks and rivers. It’s something that even gets lodge owner Sebastian Galilea fired up.
“The cantaria beetle hatch is an event we look forward to,” he said. “Despite its intimidating appearance we played with these beetles as kids, collecting them to watch the males fight. Trout gorge on them and our guides frequently report catching fish with abdomens stretched full.”
The fly used to imitate the cantaria beetle—the Santa Trucha—at first glance looks like a Chernobyl Ant on steroids. A closer examination reveals subtle differences that make this fly cast and float differently. Most immediately, the cantaria beetle has a fur-covered belly. The fur covers the lower abdomen between the legs and across the thorax. Locals tie the fly on size 10 or size 12 hooks wrapped first with purple or iridescent tinsel and sometimes natural fur. This gives the fly an unusual signature on the water as small air bubbles trapped underneath the fly bounce across the surface. Depending on the hatch’s progress, a guide may choose a fly without the signature pincers.
“We have a theory about the trout’s cantaria feeding habits,” said Claudio Joost, Cinco Rios’ senior guide. “Early in the year, the trout are so aggressive on the cantaria they will hit both the male and female patterns. But later in the hatch, they will only take the female [pincerless] variety. We catch trout unsuccessfully trying to pass undigested pincers at the end of their digestive tract. It seems they have to relearn this each hatch and ultimately pass on the males.”
The hatch begins in early January, when the male cantaria flies from one tree to the next in search of females, and the violent Patagonian winds blow the beetles into the water. Most guides advise an aggressive presentation followed by a very still float. On lakes, this means a 10-count after the fly lands. Sometimes, the strike on a big fly looks likes a nuclear submarine pulling a surface blow underneath a rowboat, but most often the strike is slow—more like the measured first bite out of a Big Mac. The slower strikes shred a fisherman’s nerves. These big beetles cannot be delicately sipped, they must be eaten whole, which takes some doing even for a 24-inch brown trout. After landing one such fish, I offered a humble “good job” to my guide, after which he looked at my fly and demurred, “Good job, beetle.” A good job, Mr. Beetle, indeed. —LEN WALDREN
Thailand’s Fig Hatch
Thailand’s version of a western salmonfly hatch is actually more of a ripening than an emergence. But the results are the same—large fish exploding on dryfly imitations.
In this case, anglers cast Cherry Bombs, large, red flies that match fallen fruit from madeua kliang fig trees and draw the attention of the Mae Hong Son province’s premier fish, the golden mahseer. These trees are ubiquitous along the banks of Thai rivers, and the splash of fruit on water brings the largest mahseer up from the depths.
That’s what I found while visiting Thailand earlier this year working on a film, called Thai One On, that details a burgeoning mahseer fishery. Casting those flies and watching them bounce along the surface like Christmas ornaments was surreal, especially amid a pristine rainforest deep in the heart of Thailand’s jungle.
The key to the madeua “hatch” is to find a productive run with a fig tree at the head of it. The two-inch-long, pear-shaped figs are hollow, and they float just like a big dry fly. We matched them with those Cherry Bombs, massive, red, spun-deerhair fig imitations. The results were amazing.
“Mahseer are predatory omnivores and they’ll eat anything,” said Adam Trina, owner of Montana Fly Company, which has fly-tying operations in Chiang Mai. “Leaves, insects, flowers, other fish—it doesn’t really matter to them. But the big golden mahseer, the ones that go up to 20 pounds, they definitely have a sweet tooth for figs. They’re like candy to them.
“Our Cherry Bombs are four or five wads of cherry-red deer hair, packed, spun and clipped to shape,” Trina added. “We call them Cherry Bombs because they elicit explosive takes. Its thrilling, like throwing an M80 with a five-second fuse.” —TRAVIS LOWE