It’s a paradox. If you want to catch big trout on a big river, use itty bitty flies.
We see it here in New York, on the tailwaters of the Catskills and the Great Lakes tributaries during the steelhead runs. Last week, I experienced it in Colorado, catching heavy, hard-charging rainbows on a nymph about the size of this capital J in this newspaper.
That’s how you fish Cheesman Canyon, the stretch of the South Platte River made famous by John Gierach. If nothing is hatching and fish aren’t rising — and when we were there, it wasn’t and they weren’t — you tie on a rig of three nymphs, each one tied to the bend of the hook in front of it on light, 6X tippet. You pinch on a few split shot above the flies, and above that you attach a strike indicator big enough to suspend the rig, and you toss the whole thing upstream so that the flies will wash down the current seams where trout like to feed.
That is also how you fish in New York, if you’re serious about catching good fish. The difference for my fishing buddy and myself was that in Colorado, we had a guide picking the flies and tying them on, adding or subtracting split shot as conditions dictated and moving the strike indicator up the leader when we needed to fish deeper or down the leader when we were snagging bottom up too often.
Of course, we could have done all that ourselves, and might even have managed to pick the right fly and fish it at the right depth. The main difference between fishing on our own and fishing with Bob Dye from the Blue Quill Angler fly shop in Evergreen, Colo., was Dye’s remarkable ability to spot fish.
“Decent brown, feeding next to that log,” he’d say. Squinting through my polarized sunglasses, I could barely make out the log, let alone the trout. Then he’d say, “Oh, man, nice rainbow, right in front of the brown. See it? Three feet ahead. It just moved to take a nymph. See it?”
I almost never did see the fish, but I took Dye’s word for it and sent the flies right where he told me, or as close as I could get. He pushed us hard to get good drifts, flipping “mends” into the line to keep it from pulling the fly off course, and we set the hook every time the strike indicator showed the slightest twitch.
And sure enough, the nice rainbow would be right where he said it was. A number of them escaped almost immediately, due to my clumsy handling, but I landed a few, and they were, by my standards, nice fish. The last of the day was a rainbow so fat, it looked like a flounder flashing in the water as the fight began.
It burst out of the water several times, thrashing in mid-air. I had to chase it upstream (keeping the rod tip high, like Bob told me), then turn around and chase it back down when the fish reversed direction (just like Bob said it would.)
Finally, our guide scooped the fish up in his big net and plucked out the little fly that had fooled so many trout that afternoon: a pattern of Dye’s own design called the Pearl Jam — nothing but a slim body of pearl flash wrapped onto a curved hook with a tiny tungsten bead at the head, in size 22 (or was it 24?). Dye also ties this fly in red and calls it the Strawberry Jam or in green, which is the Apple Jam, but the Pearl Jam rocked Cheesman for us.
Now we’re back in New York, again fishing blind, but braced with an excellent refresher course in small-fly, dead-drift nymphing. I suspect it will serve us well. There are rainbows here, too, and they might just dig the Pearl Jam just like their cousins out west.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at [email protected]