Freestone River versus Tailwater

The Fly Fisher’s Dilemma

Every fly fisher probably dreams of fishing a true Freestone River where the waters flow unhindered from some distant range of mountains.  When casting a dry fly on these sacred waters one can imagine being at the pinnacle of our wonderful sport. The very mention of Freestone is evocative of those wonderful scenes that played out on the silver screen during Hollywood’s rendition of that delightful novella “A River Runs Through It”.

The reality of fishing a Freestone River is the fact that one has to choose one’s period on the water almost perfectly to achieve success.  If catching fish is how one rates an outing, so many things can affect that success; water temperature, run-off, flow rate, clarity, oxygen level, insect activity etc, etc.

On the other hand all one has to worry about when fishing a Tailwater is flow rate; well maybe a couple of other things like water temperature and oxygen content.  An established Tailwater will even have insect activity although probably less varied than its Freestone brother.  Even water temperature isn’t a major concern because on some Tailwaters the release can be adjusted to provide a reasonably constant temperature throughout the year.

So on one hand we have a river than provides stable fishing conditions through the whole year and another river that requires numerous variables to fall into place for good fishing.

Therefore, what makes someone chose a river where they may be unsuccessful as opposed to another where success is almost guaranteed.  When put that simply, one might consider it a very easy to give a definitive answer.

However, having just returned from a Western fishing trip that included both types of fishery I will endeavor persuade you that the answer isn’t that simple.

I am often asked which of the rivers I have fished could be classed as my favorite.  My normal response to that question is the upper section of the North Platte River which flows from Colorado into Wyoming.  I have even gone so far as imagining that location for an overnight camping and fishing trip with my son and daughter who live back in Jolly Old England.

The Upper North Platte checks all the boxes for a Freestone River; its wild, surrounded by delightful scenery, has extensive insect populations and holds some truly memorable fish.

North Platte (1) (Large)   North Platte (2) (Large)

Although I haven’t caught my biggest fish there or the largest number in one session, there is something about that river which captivates me.

However!  For the last four years or so, every attempt to fish the Upper North Platte has been frustrated by adverse conditions; high water temperature, low oxygen, flooding etc.  These are typical scenarios that one should expect when planning to fish a Freestone River so one shouldn’t be really surprised.

This year was beginning to look far more promising than previous attempts.  There had been a pretty good snow pack, cooler daytime air temperatures and local guide service fishing reports were looking positive.  This is a direct quote from one of those reports “Sallies, PMD’s, Green Drakes, Caddis, the list goes on and on of bug activity up there right now! The Salmonflies have tapered off but don’t be afraid to still throw the big foam dries if you go”.  A dry fly fisher’s dream and obviously we couldn’t go wrong.

So 2014 saw the North Platte reappear on our agenda for the annual pilgrimage to the West.

I will say that even with these glowing reports we added a Tailwater fallback option; the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam.

On arriving at the North Platte we were still having positive thoughts; the water registered at about 62 degrees, color was good and levels were suitable for safe wading.  Wow, things really were looking good.

A few warning signs were around for the observant; no insects in the spider webs, no flying insects of any kind and no rising fish.

Not to worry, hatches are sporadic on the North Platte and not as predictable as rivers like the Henry’s Fork.

The first morning high up at Bennett Peak saw me flay the water with giant stonefly patterns, caddis imitations and sweet little PMD’s.  Apart from a couple of excitable young Brown Trout, nobody seemed interested in my offerings.  So a change of tactics saw me work long sections of bank with my normally irresistible hopper patterns.  I even stalked the back eddies looking for the Trico sippers we so often found there.  All to no avail even when clouds came and went with the promise a potential hatch, the surface didn’t reveal a single rising fish.

After four hours my enthusiasm was waning and my hands were reaching for my Soft Hackle box.

Anybody that has read my Blogs entries will know that dry fly fishing is as far up there as pint of beer (real beer) in an English pub.  However when in Rome!  So on went the trusty cased Caddis soft hackle and the catching began.  Over the next three of four hours my net dipped to receive arriving fish sufficient times to satisfy any fly fisher.

The only problem for me was that the darned fly had to be submerged to catch the fish and even though I occasionally switched back to a dry, the fish consistently refused any surface offerings.

Our second day on the river was further upstream and offered miles of water.

North Platte (4) (Large)   North Platte (3) (Large)

Conversations in the parking lot included talk of BWO’s so once again the vest pockets bulged with dry fly boxes. Arrival at the water revealed that the only creatures populating the air above the river were tiny Diptera.  Not to worry, I had my midge box too, so all was well with world.

The only problem was that none of the fish seemed to have read the fishing reports and none appeared willing to show a snout above the surface.

I covered miles of water and worked every pocket, bank edge, back eddy and run with only one rather unhealthy looking fish showing any interest in a dry fly offering.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize that if I wanted to catch a fish then the soft hackle box needed to be easily accessible.  These subsurface offerings did the trick and once again my soft hackles earned their keep.

So at the end of two full days of fishing the Upper North Platte the score was dry flies 2 and soft hackles 25.  A figure that most other fly fishers I spoke to in the parking lot seemed to envy as they shuffled passed despondently.

Not a bad couple of days fishing if one counts fish although that lack of dry fly fishing really had me crying in my weak beer.  I dare say that if I wasn’t such a dry fly purist and had been prepared to tie on a streamer the “catching” would have improved, although I’m not sure the pleasure rating would match.

Anyway onwards and upwards, so off we head for the ever trusty Green River.

Green River (2) (Large)   Green River (1) (Large)

Over the next four days the fishing was incredible.  Almost all fish caught were taken on dry flies and every one of them measured just short of that magic 20 inches.  Only a couple of times did the soft hackle box emerge from my pocket and that wasn’t until each and every run had been closely searched with a dry fly.  I even found solitude in some of the most beautiful red rock countryside while I caught fish on dry flies.

So there we have it; my favorite Freestone River provided a couple of fish taken on a dry fly while our Tailwater choice provided beer swollen tales of trout gulping dry flies.

Over that last ten years we have fished the Green River almost every year and had great success.  In that same period we have attempted to fish the Upper North Platte and been disappointed on most occasions.  On at least one occasion the water conditions made me think the river would never revive.  It was somewhat reminiscent of the Big Blackfoot which featured so prominently in Norman Maclean’s beautiful story.  Even Robert Redford had to relocate the filming to the Gallatin because the Blackfoot was in such a sorry state.

You may now ask if my love of the Upper North Platte was diminished after so much disappointment; strangely the answer is yes and no.  I still love all those aspects of the river that first attracted me although there is only so much scenery I can admire on a fishing trip if I’m not catching fish.  So should I give up on it; well I’m certainly tempted because there are other Freestone Rivers I have yet to fish and maybe one will become my next favorite.

Why not switch my allegiance to a Tailwater like the Green; again it’s difficult to give a definitive answer because I’m loath to replace a Freestone River with a Tailwater.

Exactly what is it that holds us to our believe that Freestones are the rivers of our dreams?  So often I hear other fly fishers say, “Oh it’s a great river for Tailwater” or “It’s pretty good if you don’t mind fishing a Tailwater”.

Maybe it’s the mystic of a natural Freestone River rather than the manmade dependability of a Tailwater.  There is definitely something that stops me throwing in the North Platte towel although I can’t quite put my finger on it.

One thing is certain though; if you only have a limited time to fish a distant river then one that provides consistently good fishing conditions should figure high on the list.

At the end of my six day trip, the Green has risen up my list while the North Platte had slipped further down the list.  I haven’t totally given up on it, although I will have to be convinced that the fishing has returned to the previous quality before I pay for another airline ticket.

So did I provide an answer to the question of “Freestone versus Tailwater”?  I suppose not, although I hope I have provided the reader with the thinking behind our love of Freestones waters.

My next adventure will feature a Freestone River in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales with native Grayling who absolutely adore dry flies; more about that later.

If you want some visual accompaniment to this article then take a look at the short video I compiled of our Freestone and Tailwater adventure.

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White River Fishing Report

White River stream report:  Jan, Feb, Mar, April and May 2014 (not to mention Oct-Dec 2013)!

Wow is it really that long since I put my fingers on the keyboard and wrote a fishing report!

The delay in posting was initiated a lot earlier; and probably started after I had returned from a less than satisfying trip to Utah and Idaho last fall.  To be fair the fishing in Utah was stupendous but I made the mistake of not preparing for one of the worst Ragweed encounters of my life!  Added to the abundant Ragweed was a nasty little character called “Rabbitbrush” which grows prolifically alongside the Green River.  Those of you that know me will be aware of my allergy problems and top of that list is said Ragweed.  Unfortunately I hadn’t thought allergies would be a problem on the trip because Missouri’s Ragweed season had finished prior to our trip.  Well what do you know, the Utah season was in full swing and this little Englishman arrived after gleefully quitting his allergy medications some weeks before, duh!!!

It was a tad difficult to enjoy some of the best dry fly fishing we have ever had on the Green when one’s head feels like the Spanish Inquisition is applying one of its instruments of torture. Oh well, my journal now has highlighted notes on that subject for future reference.

So what else went wrong with the trip?  Well a few days diversion to one of our favorite rivers, the Henry’s Fork showed that it’s a river to avoid in late summer because of weed (moss) growth and generally “yucky” water conditions, not to mention a tornado warning (in Idaho!) and really heavy summer thunderstorms.  Another note to self in journal!

Anything else? Well I could tell you about some of the heaviest rain the west has seen in 50 years or snow in September but I will save you from any more of my complaining.

When I arrived back in White River country it took a long time to recover from that little escapade and of course closely on its heels came one of our coldest, snowiest winters in many a year.

Oh well there is always the Springtime Caddis hatch to look forward too isn’t there; remember all those amazing reports from last year.

2014 rolled in with the pleasure of hosting my beautiful daughter and her delightful friend for a couple of weeks which started the year off in a most splendid manner.

So enough of the personal stuff what about the fishing?

Well those lovely folks who decide when the White River needs to by allowed through the dams chose the spring of 2014 to begin one of the longest runs of generation since I have lived here.  Days, weeks, and then months rolled by with hardly any respite in the flow through the system.  In fact it wasn’t until half way through February that I managed to dip my wader clad toes into the waters of Taneycomo, and the middle of May before I hit the White below Bull Shoals.

When I did find myself casting a fly onto the waters below Table Rock dam it was generally to be found that those flies were in the range considered small.  My micro soft hackles (#20) came to the fore on many occasions and when they were not being used it was those wonderful grey midge adults that produced the results.  I could have found more days to cast loops over Taneycomo as generation was off a few other days and its waters still produce some great fish  But yours truly has been spoiled by those waters about two hours drive south of here.

What of all those other wonderful Missouri streams you might ask, well once again the noise of fluttering Caddis on the White River has all my attention these days.

Now I was a little unfair on those power generating folks in my earlier comment because to be honest they are trying to do their bit by introducing “minimum flow” below Bull Shoals dam.  This practice creates flow even when there is no planned generation and aids oxygenation throughout the river system and I wish it would catch on with those who operate Table Rock dam.

It would seem the flow that has been agreed on is in the region of 650 cfs which provides a level (measured at the dam) of roughly 452.5 where “no flow” is usually 450.  One can see that the additional 2.5 feet will make inaccessible some areas previously accessible when wading.  Although it does make those areas that dry during no flow very fishable so there is some balance to be found.

The plan has caused some controversy, although in my opinion minimum flow is good for the river system.

Folks will find the water level during this routine rather more difficult to negotiate and need to exercise extra care when wading particularly near the dam as increased flow can happen without the normal horn warning.

So anyway here we are in mid May and I can’t believe that I have only just made my first White River journal entry of 2014.

Having missed the olive Caddis hatch of late March, April and early May, I had no expectations of finding too much surface action on my first visit to the water.  What a pleasant surprise when a reasonable number of Tan Caddis made an appearance once the water temperature had risen to around 50 degrees.  Water currently being released from Bull Shoals is edging past 40 degrees as the warming sun begins to act on the lake and river.  By the time it reaches Rim Shoals it is in the mid 40’s by mid morning, so hatches are late in the day when water temperature is optimum and the sun is passed its zenith.

Those who arrive earlier in the day may find spotty action with a Caddis dry and the best I located was in the shallow water riffles.

For consistent action throughout the day I rely on my trusty Partridge and Peacock Soft Hackle or maybe John Berry’s Greenbutt as there are still a few Olive Caddis around.  Midges are present as always and tipping your soft hackle offering with a trailing micro soft hackle or maybe a WD40 is going to increase your chances.  As you may know by now I am not a fan of “buggers and nymphs” but there is no doubt that these are catching fish if you are so taken.

I did make one pass up the bank to see if my large friends were back in residence, but it would seem that I will have to wait for the warmth of summer to increase the population of terrestrials for this action to hot up.

For the main event of the Caddis hatch I would recommend a lightly dressed Tan Caddis with a natural Elk hair wing and tan foam body on a #16 dry fly hook.  A slightly larger pattern is useful for the heavier riffles where the fish are less discerning.  Some of the naturals are smaller although I haven’t found the need to use a smaller artificial.  Cover all the agitated riffles and pocket water and try for natural drag free drifts.  Expect fluctuating action as the Caddis hatches come in waves but stick with it because the fish are certainly keyed in on those tasty bugs.  My journal shows reasonably consistent Caddis action into June then switching to terrestrials for the summer months if you want to target those White River monsters.

Generation still remains variable although as we move into the drier months we can expect less of the heavy flows and more consistent wading conditions.

See you on the water.

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White River Fishing Report

White River stream report  29-30 August, 2013

At long last I was able to drag my Texan brother away from his busy life as husband, father and airline pilot for a few days on the White.  Unfortunately it seemed that the generation gods had chosen this week to run water through the system.

The forecast was for hot weather and high water.  The 90 degree heat didn’t actually bother us although 14,000cfs was a bit more difficult to handle.

Higher water has always made me look to Wildcat Shoals for better fishing and so that was where we launched my trusty fishing machine onto a misty river.

Not surprisingly we had the river pretty much to ourselves as we headed upstream towards the Narrows.  During the day we only saw about four other boats on the water, although some might deem that as something of an omen.

Drifting the banks with hopper patterns produced a few fish although none were of any great size and neither of us wanted to switch to a streamer.  The best fishing was the few back eddies we discovered where rising fish were nicely evident.  Our hoppers produced pretty good results although ant patterns were equally attractive in the scum lines.  There were midges in the air and a few caddis although not in any numbers.

As the afternoon drew to a close the fog descended and I thought I would have to break out the gong if it got any worse.  It swirled around and muffled the sounds making the river something of a mystical setting although it made sight fishing somewhat more difficult.

For the second day we decided to head for Rim Shoals hoping that a slight drop in level might open up a little wading.  Sadly this wasn’t to be, in fact if anything the water was slightly up and the morning fog was thicker.

I decided we would drift down to a bend in the river where I have always found pretty good fishing even in very high water conditions.  My decision turned out to be a good one and we found fish feeding in the back eddies by the corner and up among the grassy troughs.  Once again the hoppers came out and the fish readily took to them and later in the day the tan caddis on the water had me reaching for my caddis box.  The better fish were holding right out by the main flow seam and eagerly rose to our drifted hoppers.

Although we worked every nook and cranny for numerous miles there didn’t seem to be any big browns up in the shallows so we had to content ourselves on smaller rainbows and a couple of reasonable browns.  It actually turned out to be a rather productive two days and every fish was caught on a dry without resorting to a streamer or nymph proving that even with so much water flowing we could still find good dry fly fishing.

The good news is that Bull Shoals is almost down to power pool and hopefully that will bring back minimum flow and some excellent fall fishing.

What our two days also did was re-charge my friends batteries ready for a return to the hustle and bustle of living in Dallas.  Having re-charged, he is ready to return when the levels are more in our favor.

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Putting theory into practice

White River stream report – 19 August, 2013

After a week of unseasonably rainy weather and high water levels coupled with higher rates of generation, it was time to put my Brown Trout theory into practice now that the levels were back in our favor.

Bull Shoals appears to be sticking with their “minimum flow” routine and allowing the extra water to flush down the river is maintaining cooler water temperatures and good daytime wading conditions.  The water had its normal crystal clarity and seemed to be holding at 64 degrees even on a warm 85 degree August afternoon.

We arrived at Rim Shoals to find the extra water providing some really good fishing on a few of the riffles that are normally rather shallow with no flow.  The fish seem to hold in these areas while the water level provides easy access for them although they will migrate away as the level drops.

August doesn’t provide much in the way of aquatic insect hatches although the terrestrials come into their own at this time of year so that particular box was to the front of my pack.  I had spotted tan grasshoppers along the bank in addition to black crickets and large black wood ants.  Some of the ants were probably a size 16 and maybe a little larger.

Tying on my tan foam hopper pattern I worked one nice run which produced about ten fish to hand and about the same amount of misses.  I tried slower sets and faster sets although neither appeared to produce better results and I finally resorted to bending the hook over to give an offset gape which seemed to improve matters.

None of the fish were particularly large in this section and I contained the urge to head for the section where I suspected the bigger fish to be holding; although not for long!

Once in this area I slowly worked my way upstream, landing my fly in every likely spot without any initial success.  I worked one particular area quite hard without any takes and then as I moved up through it, a huge Brown shot from under a log and almost went between my legs.  It had been completely hidden until I spooked it and was one of about four big fish that I disturbed from under cover as I moved through sections.  No doubt with some sort of large sinking fly I might have had a chance with these fish, but you should know by now that I hardly ever carry any!

Just a little further upstream I landed the fly in the shadow of an overhanging tree; as the concentric ripples of its landing moved outwards, a huge wake moved towards it and the unmistakably large jaw of a Brown Trout broke surface to engulfed the fly.

The next part of the game plan was to guide the fish away from the mass of tree trunks, limbs, weed and other structure designed to take a tippet beyond it breaking point.  This fish didn’t resist my efforts and moved into clearer water without too much problem and where I could apply steady pressure to bring him to hand.  I did receive a couple of reminders that one can’t “horse” these fish in, and my 4x leader probably ended up slightly longer than when I first tied it on.

Soon I had the results of my labors in the net and it proved to be one of the most beautifully colored Browns I have so far caught in the White River.  I didn’t have my usual landing net which is marked for length measurement, so I “guesstimated” the Brown’s length using my fly rod.  It was well over 20 inches and probably closer to 23 making it the best fish I have caught on a dry fly in that water.  This fish turned out to be the fish of the day although I did miss one later on that might have been in the same range; and I missed it because I didn’t practice what I preach, DON’T walk and cast at the same time!

Further upstream I alternated between hopper and an ant patterns with reasonable success although no big heads appeared as I worked the bank closer to the top of the main riffle.

So was my theory proved, well as they say “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and so I suppose the picture below is all the proof I need.  What is a fact is that on every occasion during the last three trips to the White River, I have caught a Brown Trout over 20 inches on a dry fly!  So the words of that guide in Utah were ringing in my ears;

“How many 20 inch fish do you expect to catch in a year”?

White River Brown  Aug 19 2013

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Hunting for big Brown Trout using dry flies on the White River

More and more these days I hear about the use of gigantic articulated streamer flies being used to catch big brown trout and I have seen the photographs that show it’s certainly a successful method of catching big fish.  However, these huge flies are going to require a heavy weight rod and anyone who has swung 7, 8 or 9 weight rods around their head will know it can get rather tiring after only a short time.

Being the person I am and having a distinct preference for lightweight rods and dry flies, I have set myself a challenge of catching a 26 inch brown (or bigger) on a 5 weight rod using a dry fly.  A rod that size loaded with the correct line is capable of casting up to a size 6 dry fly which equates to a small mouse pattern or a very large hopper, so I feel sure we can still offer a tasty morsel.

Another prerequisite of mine is that the fishing is performed during the hours of daylight, something of a problem if one is to believe that the BIG browns only hunt at night.

Most early reading that I have done on Brown Trout led me to believe that big ones are reclusive, feed only from dusk to dawn and prefer deeper water.  So something of a challenge if I want to catch one during daylight and using a surface fly!

Well surprisingly I recently found that some worldwide research shows that Brown Trout may actually change their feeding habits through the year to the point where they will favor the daytime fly fisher.

Here is an extract from an article entitled “Seasonal Activity and Feeding Pattern of Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) in a Dartmoor Stream in Relation to Availability of Food – by I Chaston”

In laboratory tests, brown trout were most active between dusk and dawn from spring to autumn, but the percentage of the total activity that occurred during daylight was higher in the summer than in the other two seasons. Analysis of the variation in the weight of stomach contents during 24hrs in the three seasons showed a higher peak in weight at noon in summer than in the other seasons. The difference was related to an increased consumption of material of terrestrial origin, which other work showed to be most available to the fish between 09.00 and 12.00. No relationship was found between the times of maximum occurrence of benthic and emergent items in the stream and of their consumption by trout. The increase in daytime activity during the summer was also evidently related to increased consumption of terrestrial material.

Alright so it seems that Brown Trout do favor feeding during the middle part of the day in the summer months, particularly for terrestrial “material”.

Studies have also shown that Brown Trout change their feeding habits as they increase in size.  Young Brown Trout of less than 12 inches will feed primarily on insects drifting freely in the stream currents and become particularly active during aquatic insect hatches.  Once they grow beyond 12 inches, Brown Trout will shift their diet to larger prey and become more of an “ambush” predator; waiting for the food to come to them.  Diet for these large fish will often include crayfish, other fish including trout, salamanders, frogs, small mammals and birds, although they will often return to feed on large aquatic insects when the conditions are favorable; during a large stonefly hatch for example.

Most authorities report that once Brown Trout reach a certain size they will begin to feed on anything they can get in their mouths!  Have you seen the size of a 20 inch Brown Trout’s mouth?  So finding something sizable is probably the reason they hunt the shoreline.

Here is another interesting extract from an article called “Feeding habits and diet of Brown Trout (Salmo-trutta fario) in the upper streams of Kashmir Valley – by Nusrat Rasool”

The presence of the terrestrial ants in the gut contents revealed that the brown trout had a greater tendency to eat larger prey from wherever available. Merz (2002) in another study found bird feathers, mammalian hair and terrestrial ants in the stomachs of steel head trout. These findings indicate that the brown trout like steel head trout eats everything that is smaller than the trout itself and looks alive.

Did you catch that?  Eats anything that is smaller than itself! 

Also the mention of “mammalian” hair makes me think of that amazing movie “Once in a Blue Moon” by Carl McNeil.  If you aren’t familiar with this cult classic then check out a preview here:

Where does this leave us?  Well to be honest most of us might already consider carrying the terrestrial box during the summer months and leaving it at home during the cold days of winter.  Although I would suggest that these studies show a particular importance of casting large terrestrial patterns throughout the summer months if you want to catch BIG fish and maybe even during distracting aquatic insect hatches when the smaller fish are active.  It is also worth remembering that the trout often have a residual memory of eating large terrestrials and I have often heard reports of them continuing to take those kind of flies many weeks after the insect activity has ceased; the Green River Cicada hatch is a good example.  So don’t leave that box of terrestrials behind too soon!

My fishing buddy asked me the other day if I thought a big Brown Trout would come up from the depths to a big fly if it were cast mid stream.  I commented that I thought it unlikely because the trout would consider it too much effort to rise from the deep.  As I commented earlier, big trout become more of an ambush predator and will place themselves in situations where an instant attack will reap a reward.  Therefore during the period of terrestrial activity (summer months) I expect to find big trout in very shallow water during the day, most probably within a foot or so of the bank and often in less than one foot of water.  Placing themselves in these conditions is extremely hazardous to the fish, although most likely there is going to be good bottom structure to camouflage the fish’s profile and provide some protection.  

Three good examples of this feeding situation are streams I have fished regularly; the White River in Arkansas, the Henry’s Fork in Idaho and the Green River in Utah.  These streams hold some amazing fish and all the fish over 20 inches that I have caught on dry flies have been within a foot of the bank.

I tend to use 20 inches as measurement for “trophy” fish since a guide in Utah once said to me “so how many 20 inch fish do you expect to catch in a year”?

Experience has shown that fish in these conditions are very sensitive to their surroundings and are most difficult to approach either on foot or by boat.  They are probably working an area they are very familiar with and know all the escape routes.  In rivers where the flow extends to the edge of the stream (all rivers experience reduced flow at the edges), the fish is most likely to be found facing upstream (into the flow) so an approach from downstream is obviously beneficial.  However, in low flow streams, like tailwaters at low water, they could be facing in any direction so trying to approach from behind the fish becomes almost impossible.  This is also true in back eddy conditions similar to those I found on the Henry’s Fork where huge cruising trout in the shallows of “Bonefish Flats” are almost impossible to approach.  In this situation the most successful method is “patience”!  I have observed fly fishers stand for hours awaiting the arrival of those huge Rainbows that the Henry’s Fork is renowned for.

Stalking the banks of the White River has often revealed a holding spot that a big brown likes to frequent and I have practiced this patience technique.  Standing in the stream awaiting the fish’s return I have enjoyed some success although more often the fish will spot me and leave in a hurry.

I have tried a stealthy approach along the bank till I have a visual on the fish although then the cast most commonly spooks the fish.  So sight fishing in such conditions is very difficult.

Floating the bank from a “castable” distance is obviously in the fly fishers favor if one is lucky enough to either; own a boat, have a friend with one, or afford a guide.  Under these circumstances the boat handler needs to maintain the correct distance to allow accurate casts without encroaching on the fish’s “comfort zone”.  The caster needs to work every nook and cranny with the expectation of a fish on each cast so one is not surprised when the take comes.

Although I own a boat and do enjoy using it to reach new areas, I much prefer to fish on foot and I have found the best approach while wading is to work the area from a distance of approximately 25-30 feet parallel to the bank.  Even in low flow conditions it is preferable to begin your “stalk” from downstream and use a long enough leader to avoid overly slapping the water with your fly line.  My preference is a 3 or 4x leader of about 9-12 feet although if you can lay down a large fly without line slap then the shorter length is better.

Large flies are going to hit the water with impact and that is exactly what is required; don’t be concerned if that hopper lands with a decided splash, just so long as you don’t drive it hard into the water.  Once the fly has landed give it some action, but not straight away.  Using poppers for Bass taught me that “little is good” and the impact should have got the fish’s attention.  If there is no initial reaction, give the fly a distinct twitch; then stop, don’t overdo it.  After a couple of twitches I will reposition the fly 2-3 feet either side although my preference will always be right on the land/water margin.

Start by casting about 25 feet although I see no reason not to land the fly a few times on its way out to 25 so you cover the area closer to you.  Once you reach 25 feet, re-position the cast 10-15 degrees either side so you quarter that area.  If you don’t get a fish after covering 25 feet, extend your cast another 5 feet and repeat.  Continue until you reach a manageable distance of say, 40 feet.  Now is the time to move up on foot.  Do it stealthily!  Point your toes as you move forward and place the feet gently.  Be sure one foot is down firmly before moving the next.  Continue moving upstream for about 10 feet then repeat the casting so you extend into a new area.  In the video below you will see good stealth technique; slow forward motion and hardly any concentric circles to be detected by the fish.  If you want an example of how to stalk fish, watch a Great Blue Heron!

Always shorten up your cast and shoot line to the target area; don’t “line” the fish by over casting and don’t overdo the false casting.  Using foam flies should all but eliminate the need for false casting.

Keep your rod tip down once you have landed the fly so you can eliminate slack and use your line hand to “manipulate” the fly, don’t use the rod.

Once you have reached the end of your “beat” take a break for an hour or so then walk back downstream away from the water and run through the area again particularly if you spooked fish on your way upstream.  Experience has shown me that large fish will return to the area they like to hunt particularly if that area provides the protection they require; so you may get a second chance at them.

If you want to catch a big fish then you have to put the effort in and not get distracted by rising fish in the main flow.  Big fish know where to find the size of food they want and most often this not within the aquatic insect hatches further out in the flow.  So stick with the program and work the close inshore area because that’s where they reside and eventually it will happen.

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White River Fishing Report

White River stream report 15 July, 2013

Looking back at my Journal, I see that July has normally been a “dry” month for fishing down on the White River in Arkansas.  Last year was particularly hot and the generation schedule not to mention the water temperature was not particularly conducive to good fishing.

This year we have received something of a reprieve and have been enjoying relatively mild mid summer temperatures although as always, a little rain would always be welcome.

The generation at Bull Shoals has been providing some minimum flow during the nighttime hours and slowly ramping up from 50 cfs at mid morning to about 1300 by late evening.  This has been providing good wading during most of the day followed by a flush of oxygenating water overnight.  The minimum flow has helped keep the daytime water temperature down although my mid afternoon reading showed it to be running at 67 degrees.  With this high a water temperature the fish would be congregating at high oxygen sources and deeper water during the hotter part of the day.  The lower daytime ambient temperatures have probably helped with keeping the water temperature from moving into hazardous levels although I would recommend that you try and conclude your fishing by early afternoon to prevent stressing the fish.

Also be aware that these slowly increasing levels can be deceptive and you should stay aware of your location at all times so you aren’t caught out by rising water.

As conditions seemed to somewhat favorable we decided to make a slightly earlier start and arrived at Rim Shoals to find an empty parking lot and an almost cool air temperature.

The last time we fished here I had waded the bank downstream to see how many big browns I could spot on the shoreline.  I counted about ten fish in the 18 to 26 inch range and a couple that were probably somewhat bigger; just about all of which I spooked without getting a shot at them.  This time I decided to hike downstream before entering the water and then wade back up to approach the fish from a better angle.

Just after entering the water a couple of rising fish further out caught my attention and so I offered them the tan foam hopper I had intend to use for those browns.  It proved irresistible and I landed a couple of ten inch rainbows in quick succession.   While attending to the last fish I heard a distinct “click” and down my line slid the tip section of my beloved Helios!

After reverting to my native Anglo Saxon language for a few moments I considered my dilemma; should I continue with the top eight inches of my fly rod missing or walk back for my other rod.   A couple of trial casts proved I could use the top ferrule as a tip-top and so I decided to continue with my plan although once I was close to the car I would exchange rods for the remainder of the day.  I’m not sure what the Orvis rod builders would think of this but they didn’t have a hot half mile walk in front of them!

I am so glad I made this decision because after only a few yards of stealthy approach, a bank-side cast was rewarded by a swirl and a large head engulfing my fly.  My next worry was would my rod allow me to fight the fish without the tip section; well I satisfied that very quickly and landed a male brown of just under twenty-one inches.  After the obligatory photographs and a few moments to allow him to recover, I released this master mariner to grow into the monster he may one day become.

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Moving upstream and steadily working every pocket I caught a few smaller fish, both rainbows and browns until once again my presentation was rewarded with another swirl and a short battle.  This time it was a fat (one is allowed to use this word when describing fish!) healthy female “blue-spot” brown stretching the tape at eighteen inches and one of the best conditioned fish I have encountered in this section of water.  She was almost perfect with great fin structure and hardly any blemishes on her body.  A few more photographs and then she too returned to the watery realm.

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During the rest of my journey upstream I spooked about four more large fish and missed the take on two others although I was extremely satisfied with the day’s work and the possibility of doing it all over again at a later date.

After returning to the car for the rod exchange, my fishing buddy and I headed back downstream for the remaining hours of the day.  The heat was starting to press down on us and the humidity was adding to the amount of moisture saturating my shirt.

The middle part of the afternoon was very slow with only a few fish were taken on a variety of flies, both dries and soft hackles.  The occasional fish was rising and a few caddis were on the water although I suspect the high water temperature had sent the fish for their afternoon nap; not a bad idea.

As the sun began its slide towards the horizon I finished the day with a flourish of fish taken on an orange Stimulator from one of the better riffles.  Although it wasn’t obvious, the water had also began to rise and I assume to flow induced a stronger feeding activity.

It’s always a nice way to end the day with a few nice fish although my memories of those two browns taken on dries by the bank will stay with me for very long time.

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Taneycomo Fishing Report

Taneycomo stream report – Thursday 20, 2013

Wow it’s been a long time since I last wrote a Taneycomo report and you can blame all those Caddis that kept us heading south for the Arkansas section of the White River.

Although I much prefer to fish the White River one State downstream, it’s always fun trying to solve the midge equation that always presents itself when fishing the stretch of water below Table Rock Lake.

We have been subject to long stretches of generation recently following some heavy rain in the northern watershed and so it was nice to be afforded a chance to hit the stream if only for a few hours.

Although the day was forecast to hot, the waters issuing from Table Rock Dam were a chilly fifty degrees and the day started with mist hanging over Taneycomo.

Misty Taney morning - Photo by Will St Clair

Misty Taney morning – Photo by Will St Clair

Arriving fairly early we were presented with low water conditions, a few other fly fishers and plenty of midging trout.

I’ve mentioned many times in previous reports that regular stomach content checks have revealed that the trout have a distinct preference for the midges that seem to have populated the waters of upper Taneycomo.  Invariably one will see fish heavily midging when the water isn’t running although deciding on what pattern to offer is sometimes a dilemma.

The initial response to seeing regular rise forms on the water is to reach for the dry fly box, although closer observation would reveal that very few of the adult midges were being taken.  Looking along the surface it was easy to see the skittering adults and having chosen one to watch one, it was possible to see that they managed to cover long distances without being gobbled up by a hungry trout.  What was also noticeable was the variety of rise form shapes, from dimples to complete heads breaking the surface tension. Occasionally a splashy rise would be followed by a midge adult breaking free of the surface close to the rise.  I believe this phenomenon is caused by the trout targeting an emerging midge and the trout’s attack assisting the midge, or it’s close neighbor, in breaking free of the surface tension. Therefore my strong belief is that most midges are taken during that transition between pupa and adult, most commonly while held below the meniscus.

So instead of the midge dry box coming out, this morning I reached for my midge pupa box.

Most of the midges that I was able to capture or see leaving the surface had light cream or even white coloration so my choice of fly to begin this day was a cream biot midge pupa in a size 22.  There was very little flow while the generators remained off, so instead of my regular choice of 5x tippet, I added an extra foot of 6x fluorocarbon to the 5x leader.

My choice was rewarded immediately and I worked my way downstream taking fish with nice regularity although I did notice that other fly fishers weren’t having as much luck apart from one chap who declare he was using a zebra midge. So midge pupa rule!

Another fun thing to do during low water situations is to work the streamside shallows and it has never ceased to amaze me how little depth of water and how close to shore some of the big fish will work.  During lunch we watched fish cruising the shoreline picking up food from both surface and bottom.  One particularly nice fish headed in our direction and so I quickly tied on a Tupps Indispensable which was still hanging in my drying pouch from a sulphur hatch we had fished in Arkansas.  I dropped it six inches from the edge and eagerly awaited the fish’s arrival as she slowly worked her way towards my fly.  When she was within a couple of feet, a slight twitch was all it took, the fish dipped its head and inhaled the fly.  A few minutes later the nineteen inch rainbow was in my hand – nice!

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