Waiting at the Bench

The morning light catches a pair of Quill Gordon dries, one traditional and very Theodore Gordon inspired, the second enlivened with a sparse synthetic wing, both beautifully tied by my dear friend John Apgar.

The warming trend appears to be official now, with temperatures forecast to be in the fifties for four straight days next week. Fishing seems more likely than at any time since mid December’s violent descent into winter, though waiting is still required before we get there.

I had a visit yesterday, when my friend John decided to take a drive along Route 17 so we could stand outside and shiver while we talked for awhile, socially distanced. He brought me some flies he had tied recently, some intricately ribbed soft hackles, Weemoc Adams that would make creator Mike Valla blush, and these lovely Quill Gordons that made my smile widen. We both appreciate the history of the Catskills and have studied the original flies of Theodore Gordon, patron saint of American dry fly angling, and we have both experimented with Gordon’s original single clump wing design.

I love the contrast between the classic and modernized versions depicted in the opening photo. The late morning sunlight comes straight to my bench through a small, high window and it lit the classic pattern beautifully. The modern style with synthetic fibers for it’s wing simply explodes with light! I think this provides a perfect model for a discussion of traditional versus synthetic materials and flies, and how they perform in various fishing situations.

The natural lighting along a trout stream varies continuously throughout the day, and lighting should be considered when choosing the fly you present. The color, translucency and barring of the traditional wood duck gives a lovely impression of life and movement, particularly when well lighted. The synthetic really pops in bright light, and it could be too bright to suit a wary trout rising in flat water in full sunlight. Back in the shade however, or on a dark day, that fly may be your best choice, its startling light reflections tempered by the conditions, yet providing enough flashes to mimic a moving natural.

The mood of the fish you are casting to is another vital component in the fly selection puzzle. In his groundbreaking opus Selectivity, author Matthew Supinski defined three stages of trout behavior that result in variable types and levels of selectivity toward our flies: Aggressive/Active, Selective/Reflective and Passive/Dormant. An aggressive feeder, a fish actively rising and taking insects during a hatch or spinner fall may require a lifelike imitation, but not necessarily a higher level of attraction. I feel more comfortable staring with a subtle fly tied with traditional materials like John’s wood duck winged Quill Gordon, particularly if the area is well lighted. If the traditional fly isn’t accepted, then I will begin to consider something more attractive, either a CDC dun or cripple with more movement, or a brighter synthetic enhanced pattern such as John’s modernized Quill.

Supinski’s Selective/Reflective trout is well known to Catskill anglers. This behavior often results from heavy fishing pressure, and/or a diverse and abundant food supply. Catskill trout have both. When I feel certain that this situation prevails I’ll tend to start with a low floating CDC pattern, a movement fly, and I will make the effort to capture a natural to be sure I match the form, size and color of the insect with my fly. I’ll let the lighting conditions determine whether I go for a lot of sparkle or little to none. If the natural approach fails, I will eventually offer a brighter fly to bring more attractiveness to my presentation.

The Passive/Dormant trout is a tough one. I relate this behavior to a lot of my summer fishing, when there are not a lot of flies about and the water is warmer and slower with less dissolved oxygen. I love to hunt trout during those long summer days. Terrestrials can be my favorite flies, and I tie a lot of patterns that combine subtlety with attraction: think sparkle and brightness, but not from a spotlight. I messaged a friend about my Baby Cricket patterns this morning, and that fly is a good example of what I’m talking about.

The Baby is my own smaller modified version of Ed Shenk’s classic Letort Cricket. I use a peacock herl chenille body, tied by spinning the herl in a dubbing loop, fold black Antron yarn for the underwing, and tie my wing and head with black deer or elk hair just like Ed’s original. The herl gives off some subtle reflections as the fibers move a bit in the current, and the black Antron reflects light, though quietly. I confess I have not taken any nine pound browns on the Baby Cricket like Ed Shenk and Ed Koch did on the original Letort Cricket, though I did get one that was better than five!

My best trout taken on the Baby Cricket, somewhere in excess of five pounds. This one was a real hoot on a small fly and a two weight rod!

If you have not read Selectivity, I highly recommend that you get a copy. Read it several times, as there is a lot to be learned within its pages. Matt is a brilliant angler and writer and he put a lot of his considerable knowledge and passion into that book.

I have been sitting here at my bench thinking about the week to come, and the balance between warming water and snowmelt. There is still plenty of the stuff on the ground down here in Crooked Eddy and there’s more up in the higher elevations where our rivers are born. The more sun we get the more it will warm the rivers, but the more sun the more snowmelt. There may well be a point in which the negative effect outweighs the positive.

I am resigned to the fact that I’ll be working my flies past a few passive/dormant trout at best, though still hopeful that the warming trend will activate their feeding urge before snowmelt brings high, cold, off-color water and shuts them down again. While my angler’s soul may be begging for a rising trout, I know that plea will remain unanswered. I’ll have to present something with the right combination of movement and attraction and hope a few of my casts will bump off one of the rocks that has a trout behind it. I’ve got an idea…

The Hen & Hare’s Ear

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