Adjusting on the Fly

Adjusting on the Fly
Frank Mistretta with a colorful brown trout!

As I type this article I’m currently in Flippin, Arkansas with three of my long-time clients and good friends from back home.  They’ve been coming up here for years and have always invited me.  I finally decided to take some time off and join them.  Boy, am I glad I did!  Our guides were Taylor Wooten with Flippin Fly Guides and Matt Milner with Rising River Guide Service.  While our trip has been a blast I’ve learned that these guys experience some of the same challenges we do back home on the Texas coast.

Despite our bite being on and off the past three days we’ve still managed to trick dozens of rainbow and brown trout while fishing on the White and Norfork Rivers.  We even caught a rare Tiger Trout this morning which was a major highlight of our day. A Tiger Trout is apparently a cross between a brown trout and a brook trout.  Pretty cool to say the least!

The timing and flow of releases from the dams upstream from where we were fishing seem to be the main variables affecting trout feeding patterns on the rivers.  Simply put, slow current is not conducive to a good bite and swift current is.  Pockets in the river with little or no flow are referred to as “frog water” and are to be avoided.  The first day we fished during the afternoon on the White River.  The dam was releasing water at the rate of about 7,000 cfs (cubic feet per second).  Our bite was decent but, based upon what they told us, was not as good as it had been prior to our arrival.  For me personally, I was in awe.  I mean, here I am fly fishing in a crystal clear river surrounded by mountains with bald eagles flying overhead.  What’s not to love about that?  The seven or eight trout we caught were truly a bonus in my book.  Furthermore, I was learning tons of new things, especially since I hadn’t held a fly rod in 26 years!    

The next day we started in the White River but the flow was very weak (less than 2,000 cfs).  As a result we only caught one trout before our guide decided to relocate to the Norfork where they were supposed to be releasing 8,000 cfs of water.  Well, the flow was actually around 3,700 cfs, so it was not ideal, but it was obviously better than where we started the morning.  Our guide worked his tail off pulling every trick he had out of his hat.  I could see the frustration on his face as he was just like me when it comes to wanting to put clients on fish.  As guides we want our clients to catch fish even more than they do.  That is a fact.

It was almost noon by now and we still had landed only one trout.  Knowing full well his frustration I started telling him about some of our slow days that we occasionally have back home and how so much of it is timing.  We talked about how we were fishing two days on the back side of the full moon and how the fish were most certainly where he had been catching them, but they just weren’t hungry.  This was evident by the number of trout we had following our flies.  We even had several of them halfheartedly strike our floating indicators as if they were saying, “Here we are and you can’t catch us!”  It was kind of funny because I found myself saying many of the things I’ve heard my clients say through the years, but I meant every word.  “Man, we’re having a great time.  They simply don’t eat every day.  It’s just nice being on this beautiful river.”  In a genuine positive tone I said, “Don’t sweat it.  These fish are gonna give us something soon.  They’re gonna eat.”

After fishing streamers for a while our guide downsized to midge flies with hopes of enticing these stubborn trout with a tiny morsel.  Sound familiar?  We found a good little shallow rip current in one area that produced a few rainbows and browns so the bait change proved to be a success.  Whether it was downsizing baits, finding leeward banks during windy periods or coaching us on different techniques, our guides exhibited an uncanny ability to adjust on the fly. 

We fished our third and final day on the Norfork River as the flow was predicted to be more suitable for success than the White.  It’s amazing how our guides knew precisely when the current velocity would reach certain sections of the river we were targeting.  It reminded me of how we play the tides to capitalize on bites here on the Upper Texas Coast.  Our final day proved to be a success as our two boats landed around 20 rainbows and browns with a few solid ones in the mix.  While our guides considered it slow by their standards I thought it was awesome and I’m very much looking forward to doing it again next year. 

Here are some key takeaways from our trip –

  • Water temperature in the river was hovering around 46 degrees, which is about 2 or 3 degrees colder than the trout prefer for feeding aggressively.  Finding shallower areas with swift current, especially when the sun is high held a little warmer water which helped our bite.
  • Good river flow is a must for a consistent bite.
  • Making long casts in the crystal clear water and making sure the fly, leader, and floating indicator land softly on the surface was very important.  Landing all of that with a big plop onto the surface will most likely spook the trout, especially when they are in a negative feed mode.     
  • Reducing diameter of leader line for lower visibility and more natural appearance as well as using smaller flies can produce strikes when nothing else seems to be working. 
  • It’s entirely plausible that the moon phase as well as the position of the moon affects the feeding habits of those river trout in a similar way that it does our speckled trout in the bay.
  • Finding leeward water behind points and on the back side of bluffs makes for much easier and longer casting which increased our ability to trick stubborn fish.
  • Having the ability to understand everything as it develops in front of you, and then knowing how to react accordingly is something that comes from years of experience and having the self-confidence to trust your gut instincts to make those adjustments.
  • Going into every day on the water with an open mind and positive attitude is not only more enjoyable for everyone on the boat but typically yields the best results.

Heading into the month of April we will be faced with some of the same challenges as we were on our recent trip to Arkansas.  With up and down water temperatures and tide levels, stiff winds and billions of newly hatched forage species such as shad, shrimp and glass minnows, we’ll have to stay on our toes.  While this time of year can be tough for catching numbers of trout there will be days when we have the opportunity to trick specks in the 5 to 7-pound range and maybe even larger if we’re lucky. 

Being patient, disciplined and having the ability to understand our surroundings will take a lot of the luck out of the equation.  We must know when to downsize our lures, when to fish leeward shorelines, and sometimes even ones that lie windward. Keeping our head on a swivel and noticing a small slick or a fleeing shrimp can be the difference between an empty cast and a personal best trout.  This is a month where the pattern can change in the blink of an eye and we must have the cognitive ability to change with it.