One of the more difficult lessons to learn in fly fishing is identifying trout behavior as they rise to the surface to eat the various insects that are drifting downstream. While there are times when trout are feeding indiscriminately on any and all insects that cross their paths, more times than not, they are selectively choosing the insects they are eating based on several factors. Size, profile, and position in the water column are typically the deciding factors on whether a trout will commit to the fly. For myself, learning these lessons didn’t occur during a single outing, but after many failed outings where the selective, rising trout eluded just about every fly in my box. While I may have been able to coax one or two random trout from the stream, I knew there had to be a better solution to this puzzle.
Tiger Trout and Emergers
One of the first lessons I learned about rising trout was the nuance on where the trout were feeding in the column. This happened on a trip to Colorado to find my first Tiger Trout. The destination was an alpine lake just west of Denver. In the mornings, before the sun had a chance to rise above the mountain peaks, the surface activity was incredible. Hundreds of trout were steadily eating along the surface rippling the mirrored reflection of the multicolored sunrise.
It did not take long to recognize that the insects that were coming off the water were likely midges. Many recently hatched adults were crowding around the shoreline boulders for warmth on the cool mountain morning. I decided a size 20 Griffiths gnat trailed behind a size 16 elk hair caddis would be my go-to option. I had no expectation for the caddis to be of interest to the trout but act more as a better sighter to track my flies.
From any given spot on the shoreline, I could make a comfortable 30ft cast to target at least a half dozen rising trout. My high hopes for an epic morning of fishing and my first Tiger trout slowly dissipated as after 50 casts targeting different rising trout yielded only a half dozen short strikes and two small brook trout. As the sun peaked the mountain tops the surface activity faded quickly and it became apparent that I would have to work for my Tiger Trout. For the next hour, I cycled through dozens of different dry fly patterns thinking something was off or that the trout may be targeting something besides midges.
As the feeding frenzy ended and fewer and fewer trout were left feeding on the surface, I would have to target actively rising trout that would patrol the perimeter of the lake searching for food. Luckily, these trout would stay active throughout the day, needing only minimal stalking and a well-placed cast ahead of them to approach. I could now see how these trout reacted to my fly, and while some would inspect at a distance, others would approach so close to put their snout on the fly before turning away.
After more failures and dozens of rejections on a handful of flies including parasails, matt’s midges, mosquitos, and small adams fly variants, I dug deep into a small box I had brought with me on a fly fishing trip to Japan. In this box were a handful of small Kebari fly patterns popular with the local Tenkara fishermen of Nagano, that I had never landed a single trout on. These patterns are very similar to many modern emerger patterns and will sit with the bottom of the fly below the surface as the upper, feathered, portion rides on the surface. I chose a size 18 and decided to remove the caddis pattern and fish the Kebari by itself.
Two casts later, I landed another brook trout and my confidence began to rise as I stalked another trout cruising the shallows. As the trout progressed down the bank occasionally rising for a quick snack, I made a soft cast, leading the fish by 6-8ft. The trout cruised to the fly and without hesitation slowly sipped it from the surface. I had landed my first Tiger Trout but had learned a far more valuable lesson on fly selection and presentation. Over the next few hours I landed dozens of brook and tiger trout making only one more slight adjustment after a handful of refusals from occasional trout. Downsizing to a size 20 Kebari pattern and trimming the feathers slightly allowed the fly to sit lower on the surface and led to more eats.
This method didn’t end at this small alpine lake, the following day I adventured to the other side of the neighboring ridge to target Greenback Cutthroat on a small stream between two small ponds. These fish were keying in on midge emergers as well during the morning hours before moving on to larger caddis mid morning. Though I didn’t make the switch as quickly as other, more experienced anglers would, the difference in rise forms clued me in on their change in diet.
With a few quick changes, a frustrating morning became a productive weekend and an invaluable lesson in fly fishing.
This lesson in emerger fishing would follow me back to Georgia and our local tailwater on the Chattahoochee River. Here, like in many tailwater rivers across the southeastern United States, midges are king. Wild brown trout and educated holdover rainbow trout will binge on emerging midges as the water resides following dam generation from mid winter through spring. While adult midges can make the menu alongside midge pupae, more often than not when trout are eating on the surface here, they are targeting midge emergers. We take a deeper dive here into fly fishing emerger patterns and fly fishing North Georgia.