Leaves are turning color. In this season of balmy days and nippy late afternoons, trout fishers can have some of their finest days. The doldrums of late summer are over. The trout, like everything else, it seems, are fattening up for winter. There is plenty for them to eat.
Start with blue-winged olives. They are probably our most predictable mayfly hatch. They can come on so regularly on some waters that it seems you can set your watch by them. Here at 10:45 every morning, gone by 2:30 in the afternoon. Or, they can last all day. Or, despite their usual regularity, they can be totally "off" or sporadic.
They tend to hatch when conditions are right, and in areas of the river that provide the right habitat for the nymphs.
Blue-wings like soggy days. On some of those days, the air seems to be alive - almost electric. There is an excitement you can feel. The best fishing occurs on those days. A little overcast, if nothing else, helps. They can also come out in full sun, but heavy hatches of blue-winged olives on bright, sunny days are the exception.
The nymphs like a medium to gentle current flow with weeds for cover. That current can be just a marginal flow, and the weed can be just a single strand, and it can occur right next to a stronger flow in a rocky streambed. Wherever there is a microhabitat to support them, you'll find a few baetis nymphs. They're everywhere. Most western rivers, even those that have a reputation for salmon flies or other bugs associated with big, brawling, tumbling water, have enough habitat diversity to turn up fishable numbers of blue-winged olives. They are important to the trout - and the angler - during the fall.
The stretches of water that seem tepid and lifeless during the heat of summer may crank out good numbers of blue-wings with plenty of fish feeding on them when things cool off a bit. Give that long, slow, weedy pool that didn't produce anything but minnows sucking midges in midsummer a second look during the middle of an overcast fall day. You might be surprised.
Blue-wings usually hatch in sufficient numbers to get the trout interested and keep them interested. The main thing is to be prepared for them. Don't fish blue-wings as an afterthought. If you're totally geared up and don't find them, so what? Someday they'll be there, and you'll be ready.
Be ready with a long leader and spools of fresh 5X and 6X tippet, and, because you might need it, a spool of 7X. Be ready with nymphs, cripples and emergers, a couple of dun patterns, and some #18 rusty spinners.
Be ready to observe carefully and scope things out before you fish, and to play hunches when you can't see anything. Then tie on a fly and get into position and fish carefully, yet aggressively. Trout will go where the bugs are to feed on them, and that kind of water often doesn't offer much in the way of cover.
Blue-wing nymphs tend to come off in mats, or waves, or however you want to describe big bunches. They are little bugs and though they swim well for their size, the journey takes a long time.
The trout might first make themselves "known" when they come to the surface to take the emerging duns. When they do, most likely they have been busy for quite a while, unseen, feeding on drifting nymphs.
When nothing is showing try fishing over the weed-tops with a baetis nymph. My favorite fly for this kind of fishing is modified Cate's Turkey that has come to be called Chuck's Turkey - although I claim no more than partial credit for it. The fly is simple enough, yet it combines those characteristics that trout key on when they're actively feeding on baetis before they hit the surface. It features a heavy peacock herl thorax that effectively mimics the shiny, bulged-out wingcase of the natural. The abdomen is pale and slim. The two-tone characteristics of the natural, along with its skinny abdomen/ fat thorax silhouette, are things that trout key on. This fly shows both, with minimum fuss.
Sometimes I'll fish this fly under a big dry, such a hopper parachute. I'll use plenty of tippet -four or five feet if conditions warrant. I'll tie on the nymph with Duncan Loop. I leave the loop open, about the size of a quarter, and leave a five or six inch tag of tippet below the loop. I flick a Bic at the end of the tippet to form a monofilament ball, and then work the balled end of the tippet into a small wad of Soft Weight. The weight gets the small fly down where it needs to be. I can make ever-so-slight adjustments to the weight as required to get the right drift. I have good contact with the fly, which swings and drifts naturally in to loop. The takes are usually light but deliberate. They can be plentiful as well.
As the nymphs continue to rise, the trout rise with them and continue to feed. As this stage of the hatch you still don't see much. The fish are usually skittish and vulnerable, yet feeding greedily, although their takes wouldn't confirm that. They sometimes barely move, delicately sipping in emerger after emerger just a few inches under the surface. One false move and they're gone. I recall Sheridan Anderson's axiom from The Curtis Creek Manifesto: "Mustn't spook!"
Dead-drifting a carefully cast nymph is one approach to taking them, although the average angler will detect only a fraction of the takes. Gary LaFontaine's young sidekick Justin Baker showed me a way to up the odds. He put a small (read that pea sized) wad of strike putty at his tippet knot. Just a few inches above that, he put an even smaller wad. Sometimes he'd use a third. "Sometimes you can't tell the slight pause of a strike from current movement," he told me. "When you're watching two or three small indicators and the front one jumps out of line ever so slightly, you can usually respond in time to set up."
Stalking and fly-first downstream presentations, where possible, are the keys to success with blue-winged olive dries. A delicate lift-off when you're done with a drift will allow you to cast repeatedly to a good fish. Don't get too eager. Fish out the bad casts.
The subject of best dry fly patterns for blue-winged olives could fill a book. Here are my favorites: Bob Quigley's BWO Cripple, Brad Befus' foam-topped BWO Parachute Emerger, and Craig Matthew's Sparkle Dun are essential for shuck-draggers and hatchlings that didn't make it. To imitate the mature duns, I like Rene Harrop's Profile Dun for hard-fished trout in tough water. Size eighteen is the starting point for these flies. Go down a size as well.
The standard choice for many anglers, a white-winged parachute tie, will usually work if the body color is right and it isn't too bulky - a nagging fault of many commercial flies. Be ready with a dark-winged paradun, Profile Dun, or other dark-winged fly as an alternate. Despite our current fixation on white-winged flies, there are times when they simply don't produce. I've never seen a hatch of white-winged olives. Besides, a dark wing is easier to see on glaring water under a dull overcast sky - exactly the conditions favored by blue-winged olives when they hatch. The dark wing absorbs light. Glare reflects light, as does a white wing. In a contrasting sea of dull glare, that little dark wing stands out like a black hole in a white wall.
The main thing to remember is this: trout can get awfully fussy on blue-winged olive days. Given the glut of naturals that can be present, they tend to feed on one stage of the hatch at a time. To be successful you need to carry and fish a well-chosen variety of flies. Ask yourself again and again: "What stage of the hatch are they hitting? Is my fly right for that stage?"
Sometimes the trout will churn up the water for the opportunity to hit an oversized Parachute Adams on a blue-winged olive day. When that happens, and it does, it's glorious. But if we wait for it to happen, we'll blow a lot of opportunities for equally glorious fishing. Better to approach blue-winged olive hatches remembering the motto I learned as a Boy Scout: Be Prepared.
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