Selective Trout and the Spark Of Life – April 2, 1999

My first fly design of 2021, The Shad Fly Emerging Caddis. Can’t wait for May!

The Fly Fishers Club of Harrisburg is one of the oldest and most unique angling clubs in the United States, begun by Charles Fox and Vincent Marinaro with a luncheon in the winter of 1947. A dinner banquet was included the following year, attended by Fox and Marinaro and an estimable group of fly fishers from the region and elsewhere including Edward Ringwood Hewitt, George Harvey and Alfred W. Miller, aka Sparse Grey Hackle. The club became noteworthy for the papers presented by various members at the annual luncheon, as these men proved to be some of our nation’s most forward thinking anglers.

In 1997, the club published the papers from the first half century in a book entitled Limestone Legends, that year embarking upon its second half century. During my years in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley I was a regular attendee at the dinner banquets, though I had always been interested in the smaller gatherings for the luncheons. Having fished the limestone springs albeit daily for six years, and having written a weekly outdoor column for the Chambersburg newspaper for four, I stated my desire to present a paper myself. I was warmly received and offered Selective Trout and the Spark of Life to the luncheon gathering on April 2, 1999.

Since those days, and with more than two decades of additional experience in chasing and deceiving selective trout, or not, I find myself more firmly entrenched in my own theories as shared in that paper. I would like to share it now with any who choose to visit this blog and read a bit. Perhaps it will inspire thoughts and ideas and lead some of you to observe and experiment.

I have been a fortunate angler. I have enjoyed the privilege of learning much of what I know of this divine avocation on one of Nature’s grandest stages; the limestone springs of our Cumberland Valley.

These waters have been an inspiring classroom, their intricate currents, astounding bounty of trout foods, and sleek, shy wild trout have offered an amazing mixture of beauty, challenge, thrill and bafflement! These trout are truly wild, as wary as any the fisher might find, yet they are also schooled in the ways of man: the looming predator with is skinny sticks.

I have been blessed with the knowledge of many of our sport’s finest anglers. Hundreds have freely given their words, all through the great literature of fly fishing. Fewer in number, but having even greater impact, are those with whom I have shared time on bright waters, and precious moments in conversation in lesser environs. Ed Shenk, Joe Humphreys and Gary LaFontaine are chief among these, and to them I offer my sincere thanks for sharing their insights and friendship.

Selectivity: Classic and Modern

What is a selective trout? By the classic, and purely scientific definition, he is a creature acting at the peak of his marvelously adapted instincts. He feeds on that specific stage of one specific aquatic organism which is most abundant during a discreet interval of time, and which, through a combination of it’s behavior and the existing stream conditions, requires the least expenditure of energy to capture.

The primary demonstration of classic selective feeding that anglers are apt to encounter, occurs during an emergence of aquatic insects. A superb example: an emergence of baetis mayflies experienced last winter on a Pennsylvania limestoner.

Emerging in a riffle, where it diffused into a flat pool, caused many of the tiny flies to struggle to cast off their nymphal shucks. The trout of the pool found these struggling, half emerged nymphs the most easily available fodder. Various duns, both hackled and otherwise were refused, until a CDC emerger of my own design was offered, changing the tide abruptly.

I caught wild browns readily for close to an hour, then found the fly had lost favor. Scrutinizing the surface, I found primarily drowned, yet fully emerged duns scattered in the film. A change to a CDC comparadun brought several more trout to hand. Classic selective feeding; met, observed and mastered!

I believe that many of our fisheries have evolved another form of selective feeding behavior, which I shall refer to as modern selectivity. If you angle the hallowed waters of the Letort and Falling Spring, I feel assured you have born witness to this modern selectivity, whether you have considered it as a phenomena or not.

I define modern selectivity as a behavioral response, and I believe it is a learned response created by the trout’s marvelous adaptive abilities and the ever increasing angling pressure found upon our catch and release waters.

How many times have you observed trout feeding ever so selectively on a specific natural which is anything but abundant at that point in time? Perhaps you have encountered some of the Letort’s curious sippers; fish who take only three naturals in an hour’s time. A prime example comes to mind.

The scene is Centre County’s Spring Creek, three weeks into the sulfur hatch on that stream, and a lovely procession of duns floats through a large, flat pool; a picture book hatch. The trout take a natural only occasionally, with no rhythm or regularity. Three anglers combine to take one small trout during two hours of intense and careful fishing.

After trying thirteen distinctly different sulfur patterns representing various life stages and shades of color, all to no avail, I contented myself with close observation of the scene before me. Perhaps one or two of every few hundred duns exhibited movement, a slight tremor of the legs and wings, and only those were taken!

I do not make this assertion based upon casual observations. I watched dozens of duns drift exactly over the lie of a particular trout with no response whatsoever; nary an inspection rise was revealed. I observed several different trout from a distance of a few feet, and noted the identical behavior for each individual. I believe this was indeed a learned response, induced by three weeks of nightly, heavy fishing pressure.

Few anglers of experience would dispute the notion that that we educate our catch-and-release trout with poor casting, unduly heavy lines and leaders, and poorly tied flies. But think for a moment of our wildlife’s wonderful natural ability for adaptation – do we not also educate them to our better presentations, flies and finer tackle?

In five years of intense fishing on the Falling Spring, I have seen the trout become more difficult to deceive. I have had to continually adapt my tackle, flies and techniques to take these fish consistently. Gentlemen, I believe in this phenomenon of modern selectivity because I have lived it!

An Approach, Perchance A Solution

As I alluded to in my opening statements, my theories and approach to fly design have been shaped in no small way by my association with three of our finest anglers and writers. My own inquiring nature has led me to explore the topic further, and the pursuit has been the seed of great joy for me.

If asked to describe my approach to fly design, I would synthesize it’s essence with the phrase, the heart of imitation and the soul of impressionism. I firmly believe that consistent success on wild, yet educated trout, can only be achieved with due attention to producing patterns that are good imitations of the natural food organisms. Yet imitation alone is not enough.

To consistently fool difficult trout, our flies must give a strong impression of life! Wary, heavily pressured trout see far too many common, yet well tied imitations. While some take them at times, many have learned to be more selective. Life, more simply movement, is the key to triggering the more reticent, modernly selective trout to take a fly.

The traditional approach to tying lively flies has involved the use of soft, natural materials: marabou, various aftershaft feathers, ostrich herl and soft hackles are standards in this regard. More recently, cul-de-canard feathers have triggered a small revolution in tying. CDC feathers move, and offer natural flotation and wonderful translucence, due to their ability to capture thousands of tiny air bubbles within their matrix of fibers.

Bugginess, that wonderfully spiky, disheveled appearance derived from dubbing with hare’s mask or squirrel furs is successful because the tiny guard hairs and bits of underfur move, not because these flies appear nondescript!

Today we are blessed with innovation from many quarters. Synthetic materials offer new and remarkable properties to enhance our fly patterns. Some tiers have gone the route of making all synthetic imitations, while others have used only dry fly hackle as a concession to tradition in their synthetic based patterns. I have found my needs best served by combining the attributes of both natural and synthetic materials to create my original trout flies.

I developed an early affinity for blending dubbing furs, due primarily to my attempts to match the subtle coloration of naturals without buying every shade of dubbing ever marketed. Meeting Gary LaFontaine increased my interest in Antron, and I began to incorporate some of the material in most of my dubbing blends. Our conversations caused me to think more about light reflection, and I realized that tiny glints of light, and streams of air bubbles emanating from a drifting fly created the impression of movement and thus life.

When I first saw Lite Brite in a fly shop in the early 1990’s, I immediately seized it and incorporated a small amount into various nymph blends. Multiblending was born! Blending Antron and Lite Brite with a base of fur of natural or dyed squirrel gave me the ultimate nymphs. My flies were buggy with natural mottling, thanks to the short barred guard hairs of the squirrel, and the thin Antron and Lite Brite fibers both moved and reflected light!

Observing the wonderful translucence created by the combination of fur and Antron made me delve further into this aspect of blending. When I set out to create a better, more realistic imitation of the ubiquitous Gammarus scuds of the limestone springs, I sought to replicate both the clear exoskeleton and the colored internals of the natural with a dubbing blend.

The blend derived utilized three materials, and is so clustered with air bubbles when wetted that it perfectly duplicates the effect of the natural’s olivish underbody, viewed through it’s clear exoskeleton. Imitation achieved, with a strong impression of life, and strong properties of attraction! Mark’s Limestone Shrimp has become my most productive and reliable fly for the limestone springs.

As I continue my personal inquiry into solving the puzzle of modern selectivity, I concentrate my efforts toward replicating both the appearance and movement of the natural. CDC has been invaluable when working up improved dry flies, cripples and emergers. It is a material best suited to scruffiness and disarray! That is to say it is most effective when not clipped just so.

While natural furs predominate in my dubbing blends, it is rare that they don’t include a little Antron or similar synthetic; something to add some sparkle, collect a few air bubbles, or quiver a little as the fly drifts by.

Ed Shenk’s influence is felt every time I form a dubbing loop, and I use the technique frequently in my tying. Furs, feathers, synthetics: all can be utilized to great advantage with a dubbing loop technique. The key is the fact that the fibers of whatever material you use are anchored to the hook on one end, and free to move with the subtleties of the currents on the other.

My thousands of hours of on-stream observations and experiences have convinced me that this approach, utilizing both natural and synthetic materials to produce lifelike and lively imitations, is a key to the future of angling in the face of modern selectivity. A second avenue exists to dealing with this phenomenon, that of modifying our tackle and techniques of angling.

Clearly, despite great strides over the past two decades, there are solid limitations inherent in our tackle. We fish today with lighter and more buoyant lines than a decade ago. Four weight rods are common on our Eastern streams, replacing the sixes once though ideal. Two and three weight outfits have become increasingly common among serious fly fishers, as the need for improved presentations has evolved. Orvis’ One Weight, considered an affectation at it’s introduction, has been joined by an ought weight today, but there is very little frontier left in that direction.

The same hold true for fly lines, the gentlest tapers available today being near the minimum needed to present long leaders, long tippets and a fly. 6X tippet is routine for most anglers today, even for larger flies. Five years ago I sold very little 7x in my fly shop. Today it is a constant seller, and 8X gathers no dust. A new player in the tackle arena has introduced 10X tippet material for 1999, but is it 10X in truth? By the existing standard of 0.001″ difference in diameter per “X” it is not. Measuring 0.0027″ it is only 3 ten thousandths thinner than 8X – another frontier exhausted. We must connect the fly to the leader with something.

If we accept that our tackle has reached the practical limit of refinement, only our angling techniques offer hope for advancement. Fly casting is a lifelong pursuit, and challenging oneself to improve is requisite. The process, once a reasonable level of skill has been achieved, is a slow one, though certainly worthwhile. The tactics of approach and wading offer some room for improvement, and patience and streamside observation may be the best teachers of these lessons.

When all is considered, creativity at the tying bench may indeed be our best avenue for advancing the art of fly fishing into the future. Our goal is simply the adaptation of our practiced art of deception to match the marvelous capacity for adaptation inherent in our finned adversaries.

Mark’s Limestone Shrimp: the pattern that lead me willingly down the garden path.

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