It was not the first time I had found myself in this situation on the river, and it would not be the last. I was casting to a slow spot in the river just downstream of a long riffle I fished most of the morning. The canyon walls had kept me in the shadows and cold. Finally, the sun was starting to reach me. I had caught a few rainbows nymphing the shallow water and fishing to the seams off the boulders. The South Platte River flowing through Eleven Mile Canyon was one of my favorite spots to fish in Colorado. It felt good to be back.
I was taking my coat off when they started to rise. It was slow at first, then faster. Then more. Then a lot more.
By the time I had switched my set up from nymphing to dry flies, the surface of the river was popping with round ripples of trout slurping insects from the top. The water was so alive with feeding trout that it looked as if the river was being hit with a steady dose of rain.
My excitement rose. I forced myself to slow down and focus on my presentation. After several minutes of no luck, I reeled in and tried another fly. Again, no luck. I reeled in again, but this time I took the time to snag a fly that was buzzing around the bank. It was one of many that were quickly forming clouds hovering over the shining water. I searched my fly box for a match to the yellow mayfly that I had pinched between my fingers, then proudly tied on what I considered an exact replica. Several unsuccessful casts and my excitement had changed to frustration. I reeled in again.
Those Who Have and Those Who Will.
There are those who have and those who will experience this scenario. The hatch you have been expecting or hoping for starts up, fish are rising everywhere, and you are not catching a thing.
It is easy to begin to doubt your fly fishing abilities when conditions do not get to look much better and you are still coming up with nothing. This conundrum may be compounded when you notice, as I did, an older gentleman wading upstream and having a banner day, while casting to eerily similar water.
If and when this happens to you, try to avoid frustration. After all, at the end of the day it is all part of the journey. Try to remember you are on the river, you are witnessing an amazing fly fishing scenario, and this is a great problem to have!
AND, you have a plan… Well, maybe you don’t have a plan. If not, let’s make one. Here are a few possible problems you might have that you can address to help get trout while the getting is good.
Six Considerations When It’s Raining Trout.
- You Have the Wrong Set Up. “Changing my set up is gonna be a pain” is the wrong attitude when you are nymphing and the dry flies take off. Time is of the essence. Once you see the hatch developing, make the switch early. You want to be fishing dries well before the peak of the hatch, deciding late to switch can mean lost time and catching the down-slide of the action.
It might be worth making the switch before it even begins if you know that it is coming. The hatch could last a while or be short lived.
The caveat would be if I am already catching a bunch of fish on nymphs, why switch? In that case, I might stick with what is working, but catching trout on the surface is something I truly love about fly fishing. Odds are I will make the switch.
- You Have the Wrong Fly. In the “raining trout” scenario there is something very specific going on. The fish are eating a specific fly, at a specific water temperature and outside air temperature. I almost always fish a dropper, whether I am nymphing or fishing dries. If you have two flies on, you are doubling down on fly experimentation. You can leave the lead dry fly alone and then cycle through other flies with the dropper. If tying on droppers is frustrating for you, stick to one. Tying one dry on at a time and cycling through may be more efficient. Try to match the hatch to what you see. Do not forget the value of actually catching a bug, examining it, and attempting to match it. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | When and How to Fish a Dropper. It Depends.
- The Trout Are Not Actually Feeding on the Surface. If you look closely, you may see that it is not the trouts’ heads and mouths churning up the water. It can be difficult to tell unless you are really looking, but you may be seeing their backs or tails breaking the surface. If this is the case, you will see less specifically located, longer, and darker objects mixing with the top of the water. This has become easier for me to recognize with time, as it is one of the first things I look for.
A great solution to this is to tie on an emerger. Often, the fly is hatching underwater and floating or swimming to the surface. Trout may be hitting the bugs as they approach the surface, and before they hatch and fly off to form the swarm of flies you are seeing in the air.
For example, if you see caddis in the air, or you know that the caddis hatch is on from experience or talking with a guide, try a caddis emerger. This is a great opportunity to fish a lead dry fly with an emerger as a dropper. This covers the possibility that the trout are eating the insects on the surface or just below. Your lead fly works as a strike indicator for the emerger.
Do not forget a deliberate hook set. I have had many experiences with getting excited and yanking the fly out of a trout’s mouth.
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | The Art of the Missed Hook Set.
- You Need to be Patient. Allow some time to see if your fly set up will work. When there is enough insect activity that it appears to be raining trout, the fish can be very particular about when and what they eat. They may pass on your fly just because the timing was not right. READ: WADEOUTHERE | Four Tips for Hooking Up When the Hatch is On. Your fly may need to bump that bubba in the nose to entice a hook up. Pick a rising fish and cast back to it several times before you move to the next riser that sparks your attention.
- You Have the Standard Problems. Casting. Mending line. Drag. Tippet type and size. Each one of these could be its own blog post and each one is important. It is possible that you are just not fooling the fish with your presentation, regardless if you have the correct fly. Try to focus on the basics and work hard to get that natural drift downstream at all costs.
- You Were Not Prepared. One of the best ways to prevent lost time on the river figuring out the hatch is to anticipate and prepare for it before you even wet a line. Asking questions or simply looking online can get you in the ballpark and prepared. This mistake seems obvious, but I have made it many times. Going to a new river cold turkey is not a recipe for success. Speaking with someone that fishes that river often or recently can be gold. Guides will be able to tell you if the dry fly fishing has been good and what bugs have been hatching.
I wish I could say that I executed the plan that day. That I can end this story with recollections of all the fish I put in the net and the joyful memories of tight lines and hard fighting Colorado native rainbows. Maybe even a beautiful blog post photograph of the triumphs and trophies of the day. Alas, I cannot.
Shortly after it began for me that day, it ended. Not in the gradual tapering of the feeding frenzy, but in the abrupt snap of my rod tip. Reaching to gather my leader, I pushed my graphite stick beyond its limits. It would not be that last time that my efforts to rush landed me in an unfortunate circumstance.
I still get that building feeling of excitement when the fish begin to rise aggressively on the river. I hope I never get tired of it or complacent to the great joy it brings. One thing I know that has helped when the status quo is not working is having a plan. It helps to settle the nerves, keeps me focused on problem solving, and over time it helps me catch more fish. The next time you are on the river and it starts “raining trout”, try some of these techniques and enjoy something very special in fly fishing as you Wadeoutthere.