We all want to catch a large WILD trout. These are the fish that we have interactions with that keep us coming back for years to come. Whether we’ve hooked into one and landed it or lost it at the net or have seen the angler across the river from you release a hog back into the water, these are the fish that “most” of us are after on a consistent basis.
The point in my blog post is to help you figure out when you should target these fish and what you should use, however every river will be different. By no means do I consider myself a pro on catching large trout. I’ve landed and guided many 18 - 20” trout into the net in Maine, and we’ve lost some that “I swear” are bigger. I know that Maine ponds and lakes hold some large trout, but for all intensive purposes, this post will be about targeting large trout in Maine rivers.
The first question that should go through your mind is trying to figure out what the biomass is (or what the largest current food supply is). Knowing what food sources are abundant around the current time of season is very important. For instance, fishing dry fly caddis in northern Maine in April is not going to yield you any takers. Come back in June, now we’re talking a different story. Understanding the food sources and when they’re abundant takes experience, and you need to spend a lot of time (or talk to a trustworthy source) about what food sources are currently in high demand. These food sources that I list are in no particular order, but they are the ones that I see the most of on the rivers that I frequent.
In Maine, we have several different species of baitfish, but the one that I am the most familiar with are smelts. The smelts spawn right after ice-out and move from lakes into the rivers to do this. Generally, when water temps hit around 40º F is when you can expect them. In some rivers, you can fish smelt patterns anywhere from 1 ½” to 5” long. Some rivers an active smelt imitation works well (think strip, strip, strip, pause then repeat), and in others, a dead drift smelt pattern can do the trick. If rivers are pretty high, I like to fish a sink tip line to keep these patterns down. With low water temps, the fish won’t move a lot so getting your fly down to them is important.
I’ve come to discover some rivers that have a large dam at the headwaters often have smelt that are chopped up in the turbine. This means that dead smelt are just floating down the river, and big fish love to gorge on them. Marabou black ghosts patterns work well for me, but I’ve been doing some fishing with articulated white streamers in recent spring seasons and those have gotten the attention of really large brook trout. In the fall, trout are aggressive due to their own spawning habits and also are looking to fatten up for the winter. Wood Special and Mickey Finn streamers are two fall patterns that I go to in the fall.
If you’ve ever done some river camping in Maine and been on dish duty down by the water, your headlamp would most likely show you crayfish anywhere from 2 inches to 5 inches in link. Heck, some of them look like mini lobsters! I’ve seen crayfish in every single river that I’ve fished in this state. Brook trout love to eat them (as well as many other species) and they’ll attack larger crayfish several times to get them to fit in the mouth. If you’ve ever seen a crayfish flee, they shoot themselves backwards like a squid, so most trout will take them tail first in an ambush attempt. Patterns like woolly buggers (olive and brown) work well in various sizes. I love the Meat Whistler pattern because it’s a jig hook that rides up. Crayfish are on the bottom and they don’t really move up the water column. It’s so important to keep your fly on the bottom of the river. Fishing crayfish patterns late May through July 4th can be very productive, and in some rivers they’re great all summer and fall, also.
If you flip rocks over and you see a ton of small mayfly nymphs, throw a pattern like a pheasant tail nymph on. If you’re seeing many green caddis, throw on a green sparkle maggot pattern. If you’re seeing large stonefly nymphs in abundance, throw on a Pat’s Rubber Legs or your favorite stonefly nymph pattern. The point is that when you’re seeing a large number of the same nymph in the water, there’s a decent chance that fish are keying on that bug. However, there are times (and we’ve all been there) when these bugs are everywhere and the fish won’t even sniff your imitation. I could write pages on nymph fishing (and I do have a planned blog post on nymph fishing for beginners), but the biggest takeaway here is that large fish will just sit on the bottom and let the nymphs come to them. The big trout pick the prime lies and get the first pickings in their feeding lanes most of the time.
I like to compare nymphs to potato chips. Humans love to just sit on the couch and eat a big bag of small chips. We don’t sit on the couch and eat 10 cheeseburgers in a day. Well, the fish are the same way. Sometimes they want a few burgers, but most of the time they want to pig out on small bugs just floating into their mouth. If you get to know what nymphs are in your river, just take a look at what you see for dry flies and this eliminates half of the battle. For instance, some rivers have very few stoneflies, if any, and others have very few mayflies. However, the one bug that seems to be the most common is caddis. They are in most rivers and can be found in the air or under rocks most times of the day. Fish the caddis life cycle in the months of May, June and July, and you’ll entice some big fish.
Getting a large trout to take a dry fly is the ultimate. Seeing the take, and knowing that you got that fish to travel a long way out of their comfort by fooling them is an extremely satisfying feeling. While you have a better chance of doing this on some of our ponds that have Green Drake hatches in late June/early July, there are several times when you get opportunities on Maine rivers to make those big fish move for your dry fly imitation.
The Hendrickson hatch is the first big mayfly hatch of the season, and those big fish that have just moved up into the rivers are tired of smelt and eggs, so they’re onto different food sources. Hendrickson mayflies usually start hatching in the northern part of the state right around Memorial Day weekend. I have different variations of high riding Hendrickson patterns and some lower riding dry Hendrickson patterns because the bigger trout can be really picky. This is always the first shot that I know that I have to land a big brookie on a dry fly each season.
The other very notable event is when the first big stonefly adults begin to shuck their skins and gain their wings. You can fish every day from late June to mid July and maybe hit these hatches once or twice, but when you do it creates one of those “you should’ve been here” type days. Watching trout come up from the bottom and slam your giant, foam stonefly pattern can be just awesome. I remember casting a large stimulator dry fly into a pool and a 17 inch brookie took the dry fly on the first case before it even hit the water! Although I don’t have that on camera, I have that etched into my brain and that’s just fine with me. I know where I’ll start first next season when stonefly hatches come around.
I won’t write much about another big dry fly opportunity each year, but terrestrials (ants, hoppers, beetles, etc) can make some big trout leave their comfort zone. The interesting thing about these bugs is that you often can’t see them with the tannic waters that we have, but they’re all over the place. Make sure you tie a nice parachute post so that when you fish these patterns (often smaller than size 16) you can actually see them!
I wouldn’t call this a big secret or anything, but when low light periods (or even pitch black) come around the big fish start to move a lot. They aren’t worried about predators and they know that they can sneak up on unsuspecting creatures like mice, small birds or big leeches. On a floating line, chuck on a good mouse pattern or a big black leech pattern (think striper flies) and you’ll be amazed at the takes that you will get. I’ve had some really fun days just sleeping during the midday heat, having an early dinner, fishing a hatch until dark, and then staying on the water until 11 p.m. or later fishing mouse patterns. We’ve all fished until we couldn’t see, so why not adapt to staying out just a bit longer and exploring your curiosity about night fishing? I love to sit around the campfire and have a cold one as much as the next guy, but hooking into a big trout when the fishing has been slow all day takes the cake for me sometimes!
Some keys to night fishing are having a headlamp, but not using it when you’re in the water. I like to go to “red light mode” just to make sure my line isn’t all coiled up or in a tree. Knowing your water and your surroundings really well helps you stay comfortable and confident while you’re out there fishing. I had a night last summer where I was fishing a mouse pattern and kept getting strikes, but no takers. I was aggressively swinging it across the current. I switched it up a little and just let it dead drift with the occasional twitch, and that did the trick. I landed a nice 18” brookie on a Morrish Mouse pattern that I’d tied up for an occasion like that. The coolest part of that night was my buddy flashing his headlamp on the rocks and seeing two sets of mouse eyes peering back at him!
So if you’re looking to land the biggest trout of your life in a river in Maine follow some of the tips above and give them a try. A lot of it seems like (and it is) common sense, but sometimes we try to get too technical. Plan your outings so that you’re taking advantage of the best times to try to locate these big fish. Don’t plan your trip for August when you know that most of the time these big fish will show early in the season. But if August is your best opportunity, be prepared to grab your headlamp and tie a big fly on the end of your line.
You have to fish with the mentality that the biggest trout of your life is coming to you on the next cast. Believe in your abilities, have confidence in yourself and learn from your experiences. That’s what fly fishing is all about!
Fly of the Week: Pat's Rubber Legs
We are trying out something new this year. Each week, we'll post a fly that we use during the season. We'll include a picture of the, a list of materials so that you can tie it, what the fly is supposed to imitate, what species it fishes best for, and sometimes we'll post a video of how to tie it.
Pat's Rubber Legs
The Pat's Rubber Legs fly is deadly in the spring and early summer for trout, salmon and smallmouth bass. Typically the fish that we catch on this fly are not small fish. This fly produces so well for us that we've named a spot on one of our favorite rivers "Pat's Hole". While this fly is known to imitate stonefly nymphs, we've found that on rivers where cased caddis are present in large numbers that it works really, really well.
We fish the Pat's RL dead drift as the lead fly in a two-nymph rig setup. We usually add splitshot about 8 inches above the fly to keep it down. The fly itself is tied with lead wire, so this is clearly not a fly you want to fish in the middle or the upper part of the water column. Clients landed some of the biggest brook trout of the season on this fly. At times, we'll fish two of them in tandem. This fly has quickly become my favorite nymph fly, and has inspired me to tie rubber legs on some of my smaller nymph patterns!
Hook: Any 3 or 4XL nymph hook sizes 6 - 10
Thread: Black UTC 70
Weight: .015 or .020 lead wire
Body: Variegated Medium Chenille in black/coffee
Legs, Antenna & Tail: Black or Barred Brown/Black Crazy Legs
The month of April is gone and over with. Before the lakes lower their levels, there's a small window where fish start to come up the rivers as the temps rise. This is usually mid-April in the southern part of our state and late April in the Western Mountains. It's a REALLY short window. The first fish, usually some of the biggest, come up the river looking for food. The fishing days are long and slow, but you make those 200 casts to have that one shot at a monster. The smelt are starting to run and trout know that. As the water temps hit the lower 40's, the smelt make their spawning run and the trout follow them to corner them in the smaller river setting. Much easier to get them there than in the big lakes.
Then, all Hell breaks lose and the dams rush open. Coupled with natural runoff from the mountains, this can create some really epic flooding events and some really poor fishing waters. As I write this report, the Magalloway is sitting at about 4 times a fishable level, the Rapid is in the woods and the Andro is coming down quickly. The rivers to hit are the smaller rivers running into the big ones. The fish find refuge here and follow the food sources that will be more likely to hatch. Again, this is a REALLY short window, but the bigger fish will take over the prime spots and you have a chance at catching some of the biggest trout of the season. Streamers are the ticket. If you want to target smaller trout, and maybe the occasional larger trout, there are small march brown mayflies hatching right now in the later afternoon. Pretty fun to go from 35 degree air temps to 60 degrees and seeing those fish poke their noses out of the surface.
It's all about the windows. Coming up next we'll have the sucker spawn happening in the Western Mountains. After that, we start to see the first mayfly hatch of the year, the Hendrickson hatch. A Hendrickson Parachute that rides low can be deadly or the emerging Hendrickson or quill gordon patterns work well dropped below the dry. The caddis hatches start next and then we get on to the stonefly hatches in later June. Be ready with plenty of caddis and stonefly nymphs as well as plenty of dry flies. Soft hackle emergers in green are a game changer as June starts to open up in the Western part of our beautiful state.
Put the yard work aside and take advantage of those windows before they close.
Does this image look familiar? A couple of big late season snowstorms have us feeling like Spring will never get here!
Many folks forget that our lakes in the north country don't usually ice out until late April and snow is still on the grade for the first week of May. We're all anxious to get out there. There will be a number of folks who venture out on opening day, which happens to be on Easter Day this year. Dead drifted streamers and small nymphs will help your chances of hooking up for most of the month of April, depending where you are. April is always pretty slow, but as fish come back to the rivers chasing smelt and bugs, you can catch some of the biggest fish of the season!
March is a great month to get all of your gear ready to go. Here is a checklist of things that I do to prepare for the coming season.
I go through all of my fly boxes and make sure to check all of my flies for rust or damage. I do this earlier in the winter typically so that I know what I need to tie or buy for the upcoming season. This can also be a great opportunity to crimp the barbs on all of your flies. We almost exclusively practice catch and release, and crimping the barbs on the hooks of your flies will make C&R that much easier.
Rods, Reels and Fly Line
Generally there isn't much to inspect on fly rods and reels, but it can be a good chance to see if you have any damage to either that you either want to fix or replace. Fly lines on the other hand need some pretty thorough inspection. Check your lines for cracks or cuts. If you have either, you really should look at replacing the fly line. I replace lines every one to two years. To increase the lifespan of your fly lines, you should be cleaning them. RIO products has a great video on how the best way to clean your fly line. The first sunny day over 50 degrees in March (if there is one) is a great time to get outside and clean your fly lines.
Any leaks from last year? I find it so difficult to repair waders. It might just be me, but I have a hard time finding the exact leak spot. If you had leaks last fall, look to repair or replace your waders. I know this can be expensive, but many companies will repair your waders for less than $50. Nobody wants to be standing in the river in late April with a leak in their waders!
March is the month that I whip out the calendar and see what I have available for dates to do some primetime fishing. During the winter, I find myself on Google Earth researching new water or scouring the internet looking for information on new trips that I want to take for the upcoming season. Now is the time to start booking lodging and guides. Lots of good dates are already filled up for both of these so make sure to do this as soon as possible to ensure that you fulfill those trips that you've been dreaming about all winter!
A difference. That's what a guide makes!
I'm joking. I couldn't resist quoting the Taylor Mali TED talk video about "What a Teacher Makes" where he talks about people dumping on teacher salaries. It's a classic. You won't regret watching this: What a Teacher Makes
Hiring a guide for a day is a somewhat expensive activity if you compare it to other things you can do for a day for cheaper than four or five hundred dollars. I've hired many guides when fishing in other regions or places that I don't know. I would say that I'm a little biased in that hiring a guide is a worthwhile use of money and time, but I've also never had a bad experience with a guide. I've heard of people having experiences where guides didn't teach them very well or provide a poor lunch or showed up late and didn't even apologize! In those rare cases, I would say that the money is not worth it.
But what are you getting for your money?
You're receiving intel about an area that you're probably not familiar with. Your guide should know the ins and outs of the water that you're fishing. A guide teaches you how to cast a fly rod and fish it efficiently. A good guide will fix your bad habits or teach you the right habits if it's your first time. You're often using gear that would cost you hundreds of dollars. Heck, just renting a boat for a day can cost $300 or more. Flies may be small, but they can add up, especially if you lose multiple in one day. A "gourmet" riverside lunch is provided when you take full day trips. Lastly, at times I feel like a good guide is often used as a bit of a therapist. Many clients who come out like to talk about their lives and airing your issues out while floating down a relaxing river isn't the worst place to do it. However, I do NOT advertise myself as a therapist!
When I first hired a guide back in my early days, I thought to myself "What a sweet gig. This guy gets paid to hang out on a river and help people catch fish all day." I love this profession, but there's not a guide out there who is making corporate money. Sure, the river is a better office space than a cubicle, but you have a ceiling on how much money you make. After all, there are only so many days that you can fish each year.
In some places, there are people who guide as a full time job. In a state like Maine, you don't have many of those people because of a shorter season. Since my full time job is teaching math, let's run some numbers. A guide in Montana typically makes $500 per day. If you multiply that by 120 days, that's $60,000. That's a great number, but the problem is that they can never make more than that. Yes, they chose their profession, but we all like to make more money. A guide in Montana, however, has to pay an outfitter usually about one-fourth of what they make, so now that number is down to $45,000 before tax. Now factor in guide liability insurance ($500-$1000 for the year) and all of your gear costs and food/beverage expenses. You're now looking at less than $40k. Many guides only have so many days to make their "nut" that they often work 60-70 days straight without a day off. (I'm assuming they schedule dentist visits for the offseason). While the job has many great perks, like any other job, there are parts that flat out stink. Not having a day off for 2 ½ months has to get old at some point.
Now, if you're working in a place like Maine as a guide, you either need to have a spouse who makes great money or you need to have another job to supplement. The fishing is Maine is typically only good from the month of May through the month of October. There are 183 days from May to October, but let's assume you do work full time, which is about 100 trips on the water. I've never met a guide who does more than 120 trips a year in Maine, but if you're out there I'd love to hear your story. The going rate in Maine is around $400 for a full day, so with 100 full day trips that's $40,000 before tax. After taxes and all expenses, you're looking at around $30k per year. Yes, you could live simply, live "off the land" or have a Sugar Mama, but $30k is not much money during this day and age.
You're probably thinking that I haven't figured in the gratuity piece of guiding. Most people tip their guides 10-20%. I think this is a reasonable number if you're satisfied with your day. You should be looking at how hard your guide worked for you rather than how many fish you caught, but look at it however you want. I've had people catch only a couple of fish and tip me 30%. I've also had people catch 20+ trout on a half day trip and not tip at all. There's a great debate out there about tipping guides. My argument is that it should be a person's preference whether they thinking tipping is appropriate or not.
Your expectations from a guide should be that they are on time, respectful, knowledgeable, and safe. They should provide you with quality equipment and patient instruction. A guide should tell you everything you need for the day, as well as give you recommendations about places to stay and eat if you're visiting from away. They should teach you enough to get you hooking into fish and provide food and drinks to help you enjoy your day!
Every guide differs on there expectations for clients, but I have a few expectations that I relate to clients before they step into the boat or on the river. The first thing that I always ask for is being a great listener. The most "successful" clients are often the best listeners. At least for safety's sake, it's important to listen to your guide as they know their waters well and warn you about potential dangers. If you can, be willing to go out early in the day or late in the day as sometimes the fishing can be better in periods of low light. I've never understood the 8 am to 4 pm float trip for folks looking to catch a lot of fish. Typically, the fishing is better before and after those times, but every place is different especially in different seasons. My other expectations are that you remain patient and have a good attitude. Sometimes, the fish just aren't really biting. Trust me, your guide would throw fish onto your hook if they could. Keeping a good attitude and persevering throughout your day will help you have a more enjoyable experience!
The Freestone Drifter: Tying Flies
If you're just getting into fly tying, it can be overwhelming to say the least. I'd like to share with you a system that I've found to be helpful over the past few years as I've increased the number of flies that I tie. I find fly tying to be a rewarding use of my time, which I don't always have a lot of. With a 2 ½ year old and a 3 month old, and on the verge of getting our house ready to sell, let's just say time has not been something that I have an abundance of. I have bad memories of starting the season and not having all of the flies that I know I'll need for the coming season. This acts as my motivation to find as much time as I can during the colder months. It can be painful to be sitting at the vise while you know the fish are rising. A good fisherman is well prepared!
Fly Tying Tools
You'll need the following to get you started:
You don't need the most expensive vise, but you usually get what you pay for. Something in the middle that holds hooks of all sizes is what you need. If you can get a good price on a rotary vise, don't hesitate to buy it.
I would get a ceramic bobbin. It doesn't happen often, but there are times when thin thread can cut on the edge of your bobbin. A ceramic bobbin isn't much more expensive.
Get all purpose scissors to start out with.
- Bobbin Threader
- Whip Finisher
Buy a Matarelli.
- Head Cement and Bodkin
Zap-a-Gap is the best.
- Styrofoam Cups
For drying your flies out on after you apply head cement.
Fly Tying Resources
Books are great, but if you're anything like me, I need to watch someone else do it so I can replicate it to the T. There is no shortage of videos out there in the fly fishing internet world. The amount of fly tying videos is unbelievable. I've subscribed on YouTube to a few different channels, but Tightline Productions is hands down the best. This channel is run by Tim Flagler, and Orvis heavily endorses him. In fact, if you go to the Orvis website, pretty much all of their fly tying videos are from Tim Flagler.
Fly Tying Materials
My greatest advice with materials is to watch videos of the flies that you want to tie first and then make a list of what materials you'll need. Often, materials between fly patterns overlap and you'll find yourself using the same materials for many different flies. I've had a package of peacock herl for 8 years that I use frequently and I'm not even close to running out. Don't get upset if you don't have the exact material in a fly tying video. You can usually substitute a material for the one that you don't have. Let's be honest, do the fish really know if your Mickey Finn streamer is made from bucktail or calf tail? Probably not.
If you're into tying dry flies and woolly buggers, I would really suggest buying hackle from Whiting Farms. It will be expensive at first when you buy a cape, but you'll get hundreds of flies out of that cape. It will take you years to tie that many flies, so spending $40 on a cape isn't bad in the long run. Whiting farms makes a great hackle, and with the use of a hackle gauge, you'll find that you can use hackle for pretty much any size fly. I would try to find a double cape package that has black/grey on one side and brown/dun colored on the opposite site. I've picked these up for under $40 at many fly shops.
Every winter right around Christmas, I like to empty and reorganize all of my fly boxes (which is 8 boxes by the way). It gives me a good opportunity to see what hooks are bent, what flies are potentially rusted and how many I need to tie of a certain pattern based on what I have left. Now, I'd be lying to you if I said that I tie EVERY fly that I make. There are several patterns out there that are too tedious and require great patience and skill that I don't necessarily have. I've found that the flies I lose the most are nymphs and streamers. This is because these get hooked on the bottom the most.
Therefore, many of the flies that I end up tying are nymphs and streamers. I still have dry flies that I've used over and over again, and nothing is wrong with them, even after catching multiple fish on them. If you're just starting out, tie some Mickey Finn streamers or some beadhead woolly buggers. After you've played around with streamers, move to nymph patterns and start with something really easy (although small) like a zebra midge.
I buy most of my dry flies because I don't like how mine come out, even though the first don't seem to care. There's something about having the perfect looking dry fly and having a fish put it in the corner of its mouth. It's the way it should be and I can't get over that pure art form of fly fishing. I feel that I would be doing the fish an injustice to catch it with the ugly dry fly patterns that I end up tying. The biggest reason I buy most of my dry flies is because I don't really lose that many of them, plus they can be a little time consuming compared to nymphs.
Part of me wishes that I just had a few boxes with the "essential" flies, but I can't help but be a sucker for trying out new patterns to tie or picking up a few at the fly shop that are the "only thing they're hitting". I almost wish I was being forced to narrow it down to 15 different patterns and that's all I could have in total.
To finish off this post, I'll leave you with some of my favorite flies to tie. I wouldn't post them if they didn't work. Go check them out on YouTube, tie a few up, and accomplish that sense of pride when you land a nice, big trout on a fly that you tied on a cold February night when you were dreaming about standing in a river!
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Parachute Ant
- Griffith's Gnat
- Parachute BWO
- Zebra midge
- Bead head pheasant tail
- Green caddis larva
- Pat's Rubber Legs
- Various egg patterns
- Klinkhamer (could be a dry also)
- Soft hackle (very low profile body)
- Lafontaine Sparkle Emerger
- WD-40 Plus
- Black Ghost
- Woolly Bugger
- Clouser Minnow
- Mickey Finn
- Galloup's Barely Legal
You still have plenty of time. Tie a few up, meet me on the river in the spring and we'll compare notes. I don't have an artistic bone in my body, but the fish keep taking what I'm throwing. So either I'm good at fly tying or they're just not that picky. I'd put my money on the latter!
I had a rare day to myself this past summer where I was able to take a whole day and just go fish. No clients, no dad duty, no honey-do list. Just me and the fish. I grabbed a box of nymphs, emerges and dries with a few streamers on my vest. Not every day is as productive as this day was, but catching a dozen brook trout in the 14-17" range on mostly dry flies is a solid day on the water. I'm never disappointed with a day like that, but I always leave wondering about the fish I lost that day and if that elusive 20 something inch brookie was one of them. As I left the river, I ran into a guy who said he had been fishing for 9 hours straight with few breaks. He was landing a beautiful, 20 inch brook trout as I showed up and I took a picture for him. In 9 hours, this was only the second fish he landed, which isn't very good, but I was still jealous. Would you rather catch a dozen solid fish or the one big fish you're always after? Neither day is bad in my mind, but it got me thinking about streamers.
When bugs are on the water or emerging through the surface, it's very difficult to put away the dry flies or emergers. Watching a trout or salmon take a dry fly is just about the coolest thing you can see while fly fishing. Why fish any other patterns? I thought about spending a whole day just chucking streamers, no matter what was hatching. I tried it for about an hour with one fish to the net and couldn't resist changing over when I saw fish exploding on caddis all over the water. I know a few guys who pretty much just throw streamers and seem to know something that I don't know about it. I attribute this to my lack of discipline to keep fishing these patterns, even during great bug hatches. So, in other words, I do NOT consider myself an experienced streamer fly fisherman. I will tell you some of what I do know about fishing streamers from my observations over the past 12 years.
When to fish streamers
I find that streamer fishing for trout is best from ice out to Memorial Day and then again in September through November. It has a lot to smelt in the spring and ravenous/territorial eating habits in the fall. The smelt spawn in rivers across the state as they work themselves out of the lakes after the ice goes out. On one river that we fish, the smelt run can be downright epic (if you hit it right) in the month of May. Fish a black ghost pattern, keep it pretty active and you'll find fisher. On another river, the smelt get chopped up in the dam turbines and float down the river either on top or near the top of the water. Dead drift a white streamer pattern in fishy looking spots and be ready to set the hook.
I've fished streamers from June through August, but often with more limited success than the month of May. As the water heats up, using a sink tip line to get these patterns lower in the water column during the day can be effective, but I still find this slow. My favorite time to throw streamers in late spring/summer is first thing in the morning for the first hour or so after first light or right before it gets dark at night (if you can stand the mosquitoes). Stripping a big, black striper fly two inches under the surface at dusk can entice a big fish. I don't know what they think it is, but this can be very exciting. At other times, it just doesn't work.
In the fall, streamer patterns are great up against the banks as fish move there to fatten up a little for the winter. These shallow spots often warm up quickest and baitfish like the warmer temps, so the fish will follow. Usually by fall, I'll have several spots where I (or clients) have missed or caught some big fish throughout the year. I love to revisit these places in the fall for one last knock on the door to see if anybody is home!
Streamer Fishing Techniques
If I'm in a river that doesn't get very deep, a 9 foot 6 weight rod with floating line and a 9 foot tapered leader is usually my weapon of choice. If the river holds some deeper spots, I like a 9 foot 6 or 7 weight with sink tip line and a 4 foot 12lb mono leader. No need for a long leader as the sink tip gets the fly down there.
If I'm dead drifting streamer patterns and giving them no motion, I like to cast upstream and high stick them to the end of the run. I don't usually fish them back to me, as I'm trying to imitate a dead bait fish.
If I'm actively fishing streamer patterns I'll practice several different techniques:
- The first thing I'll do is cast it straight out about 25-30 feet, throw a good mend in the line and let it swing across the current. At the end of the swing, I'll try various strip retrieves to bring it back in.
- The next technique I'll try is similar to the first, but this time I strip it across with a strip-strip motion instead of the swing. Therefore, this gives a more active look, which sometimes excites the right fish.
- My next presentation is called bumping. I'll cast out in front of me again, but this time as it "swings" I'll pull the fly line in about 4 inches and then it slide through my hand to go back out. I'll do this three or four times as I retrieve it. The change of direction can excite fish.
- One of my favorite presentations is casting upstream if I'm standing on the bank and instead of letting it dead drift, I actively strip it back downstream using several different types of retrieves. This has been a surprisingly success presentation recently. I do find that stripping it back in upstream, even in slack water, is pretty unproductive for streamers. I don't catch many that way.
From the drift boat, I look for structure and patiently let it sink for 5 seconds, then begin the retrieve. When working from the boat, you have to take advantage of every cast because you often can't cast to the same place more than once (which can be a great thing!)
Favorite Streamer Patterns
I like to fish this in the spring when smelt are running. Dead drift can be great to show a dead or stunned smelt. This is effective on rivers with turbines that chop up the smelt. What an easy meal for trout or salmon.
My favorite colors are black and brown with coneheads. I fish these a number of ways: dead drift, active retrieve, under an indicator. These work great on all different bodies of water.
Brook trout love them on the retrieve. This is usually the favorite streamer that I throw on, especially on a sunny day. One of my fall favorites for sure.
Not just for stripers and smallmouth. Trout love them too.
These are something I've been fishing more of lately. If you're looking for big fish, especially early in the morning or late in the evening, these can be your ticket.
I'd be lying if I said streamer fishing is my favorite. Because it's not. I love to dry fly fish and nymph, but if I'm looking for the biggest fish then a streamer is almost always the best option. My best advice is that if you're fishing a spot where you suspect a big trout, put a streamer on for the first few casts. It's a great searching pattern, but it will sometimes land you a big fish. So, be ready!
The Freestone Drifter: Nymphing
If you're unfamiliar with the term "nymphing" then you're probably new to fly fishing. And there's nothing wrong with that, but you better get to know about fishing with nymphs if you want to increase your catch rate. If you're not sure what a nymph is, it's pretty simple. A nymph is basically the first stage of an aquatic bug's life cycle. Nymphs are generally found on the bottom of rivers, lakes and ponds. Some swim, some crawl, some cling. Whenever you see a mayfly, a caddisfly or a stonefly in its adult form (aka a dry fly) this means that it's at the last part of their life cycle. They were once a nymph and they were lucky to escape. Because fish eat lots of nymphs.
There's a general term in fly fishing that you'll often hear about fishing eating 80% of their food subsurface. I don't know where they get this title from, but let's just say the feed a lot under the surface. If there isn't much going on for dry fly fishing then nymphing is probably your best bet. The first time I heard about this term was when I was getting into fly fishing for the first time and an old time fly fisher that I know, who loves to fish dries and streamers, was talking about this thing called nymphing, and he wasn't really sure what it was all about. The second time I heard about nymphing was at LL Bean when I asked an employee if he could educate me more about this term. I'll never forget that he drew a great diagram on an orange piece of paper. It's one of those things that I brought around with me in my fishing vest everywhere for a little while, and I wish I had taken a picture of it as a memoir.
On the infamous orange sheet, this employee, who was extremely german and reminded me of an actor from a James Bond movie, drew an explanation of how nymphing works. Basically, he explained it like this. You want to have about a 9 foot tapered leader with a nymph (usually a somewhat weighted/heavy nymph) at the bottom. From there, you take about 18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet (because it's more invisible to the fish) and tie on your second (usually smaller) fly. The piece of tippet is attached by a simple clinch knot to the bend of the hook of the first fly. Now you have two flies in tow. The heavier fly will be bouncing along the bottom and the trailing fly will be suspended a little in the water column. He wasn't done there. About 6 inches above the first fly you pinch on some non-toxic split shot. How much you attach depends on the speed of the current. More on that later. The last piece of the puzzle is attaching a strike indicator somewhere further up your leader closer to the actual fly line. This strike indicator will twitch/sink/move awkwardly when your fly gets interrupted, either by rocks, logs, or fish. He said the general rule for the placement of the strike indicator is 1 ½ times the depth of the water you're fishing. (e.g A 4 foot hole would require your strike indicator being 6 feet above your first fly)
After several hundred flies (easily) and about 10 years of nymphing, I'm still using the original tactic that this nice German gentleman taught me that late snowy night in the LL Bean Fish/Hunt Store. I've caught many trout and salmon using his tactics. However, I have made several tweaks over the years that have drastically improved my hookup rate. Next, I'll talk about strike indicators, weight, leaders, techniques, flies and rods.
I started out using a strike indicator called a Thingamabobber. It is what it sounds like. You simply loop your leader through the little hole on top of the indicator and undo it anytime you want to adjust it. I caught lots of fish on Thingamabobbers. They work well and do what they're supposed to do: Alert you when a fish has taken your fly. The big con to Thingamabobbers is if you're a cheap ass like me you don't want to keep replacing your leaders. The Thingamabobber throws a giant kink in your leader that is hard to get out. Anytime you move it, you get more kinks. Not ideal if you plan on using that leader later for some dry fly or emerger fishing.
A couple of years ago, the Airlock Indicator came onto the market and has been a game changer for us who don't like to mess up our leaders. This is essentially the same thing as a Thingamabobber, but it has a twist cap on the top so that your leader doesn't kink. Problem solved. I've now switched to this indicator and don't see myself going back. The only drawback is that if that little screw-on cap falls in the water, you're out of luck. Best to carry several different colors and sizes of these indicators. I like to carry several, not just in case of losing that piece, but for lighting conditions and strength of current. I find that on sunny days it's harder to see white indicators on the water, so I like to carry bright orange and pink to help myself focus on the indicator. Lose it in the glare and miss a big fish and you'll want to be buying different colors. It's also important to carry different sizes because the smaller indicators do very well in slow moving, quiet trout water, but often sink quite a bit in heavier currents. Naturally, the more powerful the run, the larger the indicator.
There are other types of indicators that use corks and stickers, but these are the two that I prefer. I've been experimenting more with what's called a strike indicator fly line. It's a fly line that's made up of several different, very visible colors. You high stick nymph, another term I'll get to later, and watch for movement in that fly line. This is a method that is centuries old and produces often. I'm trying to practice this more, but with lots of success on the Airlock indicator it's hard to pry myself away from it.
As a general rule, you should place your split shot about 6 inches above your first fly. I've never wavered from this rule and have had good success. I usually start out with a smaller split shot, depending on the speed of the water, and add on more if I'm not hooking up. You want your flies to be as close to the bottom as possible, so if you aren't catching bottom every now and then you probably don't have enough weight on. Without proper weight, those flies are fishing higher than normal in the water column and fish won't likely be enticed. I find myself adding two small split shot and then adding more and more until I either catch fish or the bottom. I typically crimp on the split shot with small pliers or my teeth.
The faster the moving water, the more weight you'll want to start with. Nymphing can turn into a royal pain in the ass if you're constantly getting snagged on the bottom. I feel very, very lucky when I get hung up, but manage to get my whole rig (both nymphs and weights) back. Sometimes you just lose the bottom fly. Sometimes you lose both flies, but not the weight. And other times you lose the entire thing. I can tell you that I don't get frustrated much when I'm fly fishing, but when I spend a good 3-5 minutes putting together a nymph setup and I lose it all on to the bottom on my first cast the profanities start flying around.
To summarize, faster water equals more weight. Start small and work your way down the water column.
I like to buy a 3x or 4x leader with 9 feet in length for nymphing. I cut off the first six inches of the leader because the tippet at the end can be real fragile. Something that has come to help me land more fish in the past couple of years has been extending my leader significantly. I typically add about 3-4 feet of tippet material with a double surgeon knot or a blood knot to the end of that 9 foot leader. I find that I keep more leaders this way, but for some reason, which I can't explain, the longer the leader the more fish I've been catching. I think it's as simple as my flies are just hanging around the bottom a little more and I'm getting a longer drift out of that leader than i would with only about 8-9 feet of line. I wish I could pinpoint a reason for you, but all I know is that 12 feet has been the magic number for me on the freestone rivers that I fish. I don't buy fluorocarbon leaders (because again, I'm a cheap ass) and I just tie fluorocarbon tippet to the leader. And that's all I have to say about that. (Forrest Gump voice)
Sorry if you didn't like my Gump reference, but if you don't have a sense of humor and a long line of movie quotes then you're not really somebody I want to fish with! My wife has a decent sense of humor, but is absolutely horrible with movie quotes. Probably a big reason that she doesn't fish with me much. Or it could be the ravenous black flies and mosquitoes. Love you honey. I know you'll never read this far down my blog, so it's okay.
Back to nymphing techniques. I love showing first time fly anglers how to nymph because you basically don't have to be able to cast for shit and you can still catch fish. Overhead casting is almost unnecessary. The key to being an efficient nymph angler is not about long casts. The longer the cast, the more likely it is that you'll have to mend a lot. Because there are different currents in front of you (some move faster than others) the longer you cast the more you'll need to work hard and mend like crazy to get that perfect drift. A perfect drift is constituted as having your indicator moving at the same speed as the bubbles on top of the water or even a little slower, if possible. What I like to have clients do is cast at a 45 degree angle upstream, lift all of the line off the water by holding your elbow up high in front of you and just keeping that indicator on the water. By doing this, you're eliminating the need to mend.
Often, I find myself getting stuck in one spot and wanting to stay there for a while. Well, by using the high stick method I just mentioned, you need to move around a lot. You basically need to dissect every piece of a run by simply moving your body. If it's a run with a little white water, you moving around slowly will not spook fish. Just the other day I caught fish that were within 5 feet of me. The key is to keep that line off the water and keep that indicator moving at the same speed as the surface water. After you cast upstream at a 45 degree angle, keep that rod tip high and that elbow up, follow the indicator with the tip of your rod and as the indicator gets to a 45 degree angle downstream of you, lower the rod tip down to the water and continue to follow the indicator with your rod tip. This part is called the swing. What is happening is that your flies are now moving up to just under the water surface and imitate emerging nymphs. Swinging your flies at the end can be an extremely effective way to fish your nymphs, especially if your trailing nymph is imitating an emerging caddis or mayfly.
After the swing, your line is now directly downstream of you. Simply pick your rod tip back up, lift the strike indicator about a foot off the water and recast back upstream. No need for false casting or lots of backcasts. Just keep it simple because a lot of casting will result in your flies getting tangled with your weight. The less "hero" casting you do and the simpler you keep things, the more your flies stay in the water.
I basically employ the same technique that I mentioned above when making further casts, but the big difference is that my line is now on the water and demands several mends for each drift. By mending, I mean that you're simply moving your line upstream of your strike indicator to keep it from pulling it through the water column. I've watched people fish with nymphs and have their line in front of their indicator all day, just dragging your flies through the water at light speed. Yeah, that's not going to catch you fish. It's best to mend as much as possible to anticipate further drag. If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, hire me for a day and I'll show you how to nymph like a champ!
This is a topic that I could write about for days, and days, and days. After fishing certain rivers long enough, you trial-and-error enough flies to know what kind of works for each part of the season. There are several flies that just seem to work time and again. Instead of going into "why" I like these nymphs, I'll just refer to several that I like to use and when I like to use them. A general rule for nymphs is that the colder the water is, the smaller the nymph that you use. This doesn't always apply, but nothing does in fly fishing. It's just a general rule. As the water starts to get almost too warm (high 60's), it's time to get back to using those small nymphs again.
Beadhead Pheasant Tail- Works best in early spring, spring, and summer. Not my favorite fall nymph, but it still can be effective. This pattern imitates a lot of different nymphs from caddis to mayflies, but is a well known mayfly nymph pattern. It works great in freestone rivers.
Prince Nymph- This is a great pattern for imitating stonefly nymphs. The white wings, I think, represent a dislodged stonefly nymph's belly. I like the beadhead on this fly because it just gets it down a little quicker. This is a great pattern throughout the entire season.
Copper John- This pattern imitates a lot of things, especially scuds. I find this pattern to work really well in landlocked salmon heavy waters. I've caught trout on it, but salmon seem to love them. They can be a pain in the ass to tie, so going with a brassie pattern (basically the same) has become my go-to pattern.
Pat's Rubber Legs- You'd think I wouldn't just give this information away for free. This fly is a brook trout sniper. Just tie a bunch of them in a coffee pattern and fish them in the spring. Enough said.
Zebra Midge- A great early spring and late fall/winter pattern. A super, simple tie and very effective as your trailing fly.
Green Caddis Larva- These little leprechauns are all over the rocks right around Memorial Day. If you see these all over the place, put two on your line and get ready. Trust me.
Egg Patterns- I don't even know where to start. So, I won't. Just fish egg patterns during times of spawning and bring a camera.
With all of the high sticking methods that I'm a big fan of, the longer the rod the better. A 10 foot 5 weight rod will get the job done for most freshwater species in Maine. If you want to have some more fun, go down to a 4 weight. If you're going to fish for 18-24 inch trout and salmon, don't be stupid. Go with the 5 or 6 weight and land your fish. Any 9 foot 5 or 6 weight rod will get the job done. I just prefer that extra foot to get extra length I need for longer drifts.
Believe it or not, there is a lot more to nymphing. If you don't know anything about it, hopefully this article has been helpful to you. Get out there and try it. Once you start hooking up, don't be afraid to try different types of nymphing to expand your horizon. If you're a "dry fly only" type of fisherman and don't view nymphing as "pure" then that's just fine. You can cast your dries all day and watch them continue to float by you, fishless. Last spring season, I watched a renowned Maine Guide fish with his client for 4 hours, while I guided right across from him. His client only fished dry flies and didn't connect with one fish. My client landed 7 fish in the same timespan. I am NOT a better guide than this person and have a lot fewer years of experience under my belt, but I don't know why he continued to let his client fish with a dry fly. Some people only want to fish dry flies, but if you go out with me, I like to put you in the most successful position to catch fish. My final word of warning is that nymph fishing can get addicting. If you have an addictive personality, go fish with nymphs and keep feeding the beast!
A lot of us fly fishermen not only like to fish the outdoors; we like to fish on the internet, as well. It has become common practice for fly anglers, outfitters, lodge owners and guides to utilize social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to promote their business or show off their fly fishing skills. I find myself, when I have a down moment or two, perusing the web looking at fly fishing videos, blogs, forums and social media posts. I'm a big fan of being able to personalize your social media accounts to just showing what you want to see. My Instagram page is pretty much all fly fishing and a few things about sports. I'm surrounded by it and I love it. It gives me a place to go reflect on my days on the water and dream about the days ahead.
I often find two types of social media posts when I'm cruising around on the web. There are the grip-and-grin big fish pictures or the pictures focusing on the beautiful scenery and landscape when you're out on the water. Very few posts focus on the average and small fish, but I would say that these posts are generally socked under the scenery posts. Now I didn't say that "nobody" posts the average sized or small fish pictures, but these posts are far and few between.
You see, there are four different things you are looking for as you head onto the water: big fish, lots of fish, scenery or a mixture of all three. On some rivers, I'm looking for big fish. Take the Magalloway River for instance. I know there are trout in that river over 20 inches. I've seen them landed time and again by friends and strangers. I've caught many trout in the 18 inch range, which tells me that there are bigger fish in the river. I'd be lying to you if I said that every time I head up there I'm looking for a fish count, and the "big one" doesn't matter. When I'm in a big fish mood, I don't care if I catch 20 trout all under 20 inches. I just want the big guy.
On other days, I'm looking to catch as many fish as possible, regardless of size. There's something about just hooking up cast after cast that leaves you talking to yourself and saying that today is a really great day. I've hit hatches or spawning periods when the fish are just plain ravenous. You can't keep them off your fly. Now these days don't come along very often. The average day is working hard for multiple hours on the water and picking up a few quality fish. But when these days come along where there's lots of action, I tend to change my mindset from "one more cast" to see if I can entice anyone to "one more fish" because I know that my next few casts will likely result in a hookup. These are days that will be etched in your memory for a long time.
We have some of the most unique and beautiful waters in the world right here in the state of Maine. I seem to find myself staring more at the landscape the closer I am to the mountains. There's something about being surrounded by millions of trees, large mountains (the skyscrapers of nature) and animals that we don't often see, all while pursuing the game fish of our choice. Now, I have clients that say "Oh, I don't care about the fishing, I just want to see an eagle" or "I just want to relax today and enjoy the views". If you really wanted to do these things, you would not hire a guide and you'd just walk up and down the river to view these things yourself. While I understand that they are just setting the bar low for the day and would love to exceed their expectations by landing a trout or two, I know that they're here to catch fish first and enjoy the scenery second. In other words, you find me a person who goes fishing just to look at the scenery and I'll find you a liar!
The older I get (and I know I'm only 30) the more that I'm looking for a mixture of big fish, lots of fish and beautiful scenery. Luckily, if I can't get either of the first two I know that beautiful scenery here in Maine will never let me down. Social media is a great place to post pictures from some of our finest moments on the water. It's great to share these personal accomplishments of the biggest fish you've ever caught or #100fishday to boast about the good day that you've had on the water, but let's not forget that this sport can humble us.
Have I had 50 plus fish days on the water? Yes. Have I caught big fish? Yes, by my standards. You see, as a guide, I'm hesitant to post big fish pictures or brag about the number of fish that myself or clients caught today because those days don't come everyday. On most days, you'll get a fair amount of action if you present the fly well and then still maybe not hook into the big fish or large quantities of fish that you're looking for.
The more we post these big fish pictures, the more likely it is that newcomers to the sport will have expectations of always catching big fish. Catching fish on the fly is not an easily acquired skill and can take years to master. I do consider myself a good teacher and I'm still blown away that I can have clients, who have never picked up a fly rod, learn to cast alright, hook a fish or two or three and play them into my net. It amazes me that this can be done! Think about it. If you were handing somebody a golf club for the first time and playing a round of golf at the same time, what are the chances that they'd shoot a relatively good round of golf? Pretty poor!
All in all, we need to show the realistic side of fly fishing sometimes on social media. Otherwise, we'll have people, myself included, feel a little putdown if we don't go out and hook that monster every time we pick up the fly rod. Live for the moment while you're out there and create lasting mental images, not ones you need to look back at on your phone. I watched a guy the other day fly fishing with his 8 month old daughter in a backpack on his shoulders successfully fly fish and land a beautiful 16 inch brook trout, with no net to boot! This image is not something I recorded or photographed, but it's an image in my head that will stick with me for years to come. These are the pictures that matter to me. Hopefully, you can put the camera down and enjoy the moment while you're out there because you never know if you'll get that moment again!
The Freestone Drifter: New Blog
The Freestone Drifter is a blog that I'll try to update weekly. This blog will consist of talking about fly fishing techniques, conservation efforts, the life of an avid fly fisherman, fly fishing gear reviews, fly tying, and many more fly fishing related topics. I've spent the last 12 years of my life learning as much as I can about fly fishing. From learning from famous guides, to listening to and reading just about everything fly fishing related, and spending countless (blessed) hours on the water I've learned a lot in this time.
Although not a full time job for me, I consider myself a professional in the fly fishing industry with a lot still left to learn. Many old timers say that they love fly fishing because you never stop learning. You can think you have it all figured out and then things happen to you that seem to make no sense. Catch 25 trout in four hours one day, go back the next and get completely skunked. It doesn't seem likely, but it's happened to the best of us. I still have a lifetime left of learning ahead of me, but I doubt that will even be enough. Join the adventure with me as I continue to live the life of a passionate, almost obsessed, fly fisherman.
Aaron Broaddus is a passionate fly fisherman and a Maine guide.