Tactical Alterations

Lower flows, bright sun and…cruisers?

A lovely overcast day, one with the promise of Green Drakes hatching, drew me to the river yesterday. I was more than ready for a day of fast fishing to multiple risers locked in on drifting duns. The trout and the mayflies had other ideas.

Much of this prime time of the season has required a tactical shift, for the groups of rising trout I associate with the season have not been observed. I have seen some Drakes, some March Browns and sulfurs, and some trout have partaken, but the cruising behavior seems to have become the new standard.

Fishing pressure grows more relentless each season: drift boats, pontoons and waders everywhere, crowding some pools to the point of insanity. On the second of my two West Branch floats a few weeks ago I turned around and counted seven boats bearing down upon me, two of which were anchored not too far upstream watching me like a hawk, ready to pounce on the poor bank sipping trout I had found as soon as I lifted my own anchor. Science admits that wild trout learn from their experiences, and pass that learned behavior on to their offspring genetically. The fish adapt, and it appears to me that more of them are adapting to this manic fishing pressure by forsaking the classic feeding lie.

During one downpour yesterday afternoon, the temperature and light penetration dropped, triggering a few Drakes to emerge and drift down the pool. I watched as one trout made three tremendous bulging rises in mid-river, in three different locations. Three quick snacks and he was gone, before I could even stalk into a casting position. There wasn’t another rise in that entire area for the balance of the afternoon. It was like fishing for ghosts.

Instead of watching known feeding lies and approaching stealthily when a trout comes to dinner, my tactic of late has involved standing in the middle of the river and searching for little sips or wakes from moving fish. Even the big duns have been taken softly, on the move. A good trout glides up, sucks down the drifting fly, and keeps moving. If he takes another it will be in a different location. I have seen this type of feeding more often over the past several seasons.

It can be a very tense way to fish, this standing for hours, with dry fly in hand and line in the water, waiting for a quick shot at distance. There will be only one or two casts, and it may be a long time before the next cruiser reveals himself. Old habits die hard, and I tend to make additional casts to the area after the moment has passed, though better judgement tells me that trout is no longer there. The truth is, taking those extra casts on hope is self defeating.

Twenty years ago I first encountered this roving feeding behavior on the Mainstem. The Delaware rainbows exhibited the habit of making little milk runs during a hatch of flies, working upstream along a bubble line with several feet between rises, then swimming back downstream to begin again. It was a phenomena that seemed unique to drift boat trips on the big river, and we learned to judge how far a particular fish moved between rises and cast ahead of them accordingly. The zigzag patterns of today’s cruisers are not so predictable.

I managed two trout during that long, rainy afternoon yesterday, each of whom were kind enough to keep their roving controlled for a couple of rises at a time. Both were quality fish, and the second severely tested my tackle as I finally brought twenty one and a half inches of burly brown trout to the net. I also made a tactical error that cost me dearly.

The late morning was dead calm, and I spotted the object of my attentions sipping suflurs as he glided around in the glassy, clear water. The distance between nose and dorsal raised my heartbeat. Try as I might, I could not manage to send my cast to the spot he was headed for. The glassy conditions got the blame, and I finally resigned myself to go light, trimming my leader and adding four feet of 6X fluorocarbon before retying my sulfur dun. It always amazes me when I test my knots twice after tying, and then one fails at the moment of truth.

I calmed my heart and steeled my nerves, making a pitch just when that dorsal tickled the glassy surface. The little dun alighted perfectly and drifted flawlessly until the water stirred and it disappeared. I lifted gently, felt nothing, and saw the boil of a startled fish. The entire tippet and fly was gone when I retrieved my line, the knot failing where the 6X met the 4.5. Another day perhaps…

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