Fly Fishing For Trout

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Arkansas Fly Fishing Columns
By John Berry

Caddis Hatch The Fishing Vest Nymphing for Large Trout
Choosing the Proper Fly Fly Fishing from a Canoe Setting the Hook
Fishing Catch and Release Waters Hopper Time Sulphur Hatch

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Caddis Hatch by John Berry

Last Monday after the weekend crowd had cleared out Lori and I went to Rim Shoals for a leisurely afternoon of fly-fishing. What we encountered was anything but leisurely. As we approached our favorite holes I saw an angler wading through mine. I thought he would stop and catch a few but he kept wading until he bypassed possibly the most productive hole in the area. I went in behind him rigged up for nymphing and soon was into a heavy rainbow that fell for my bead head caddis nymph. In the next ten minutes I caught three more nice fish. All the while the other angler was flailing about with fifty-foot casts to no avail. He kept looking back but couldn’t figure out what I was doing and finally left in total disgust.

The reason that I began with that particular fly was we had been  encountering caddis for the last few days. As I had not seen any fish rising I began with a nymph. I continued fishing across the riffle picking up several trout along the way. About the time I began noticing insects on the surface a good-sized trout hit my strike indicator. That was enough for me! I quickly rigged up for fishing dry flies and tied on a size 14 green elk hair caddis. To rig up for dry fly fishing I just tied a five-foot 5x tippet to the seven and one half foot 3x leader that already had a two-foot 5x tippet tied to it. I selected the elk hair caddis by matching the emerging insects by size, shape and color (I have encountered this hatch before so I always carry these flies). I applied a drop or two of fly floatant and false cast the fly a few times to dry it.  Before I began fishing I called Lori on the walkie-talkies that we always carry and learned that she was already fishing dries and nailing fish in another riffle across the river. For once she didn’t seem very talkative then I noticed the bend in her rod and quickly figured that she had a good fish on.

I began fishing in earnest but the wind was blowing around twenty miles an hour making casting extremely difficult. As a result I cranked up all my fly line except for a foot and flipped the fly upstream and let it drift down just as I would if I were high sticking a nymph. On the second drift I hooked a fat fourteen-inch brown and quickly released it. I continued fishing across the riffle and picked up fish all the way across. I never went more than three drifts without picking up a fish. I caught browns, cutthroats and a bunch of rainbows. When I released a fish I dried the fly and applied Frog’s Fanny to ensure that it floated high.

When I got to the far side of the riffle I saw a huge rainbow. I decided to either catch it or move it. The first two drifts resulted in refusals and I started to doubt my skills when I saw the bow follow and refuse a natural. I put another drift right over him and was rewarded with a solid take. I set the hook and a spectacular fight ensued. I was in the backing before I knew it. I had to wade out of the riffle in order to lead him into quieter water so I could land him. His twenty-five inch frame completely filled my net. I took this opportunity to glance at my watch and realized that I had been in constant action for four hours. Suddenly I was very tired and sore. As I sat there on the bank sipping water from my flexi flask I realized that I had just had the best day of dry fly fishing in my life. I have no idea how many fish I caught but it was enough. I called Lori on the walkie-talkie and she had the same experience. For the first time since I met her she was ready to quit fishing before dark.

I learned three things. Just because someone precedes you through an area doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no fish in it. You don’t have to cast seventy feet to catch fish. Finally you don’t have to go to Montana to have a great day fishing dry flies.


Choosing the Proper Fly by John Berry

One of the most important aspects in successful fly-fishing is the selection of the proper fly. If you are fishing an imitation of the food source that the fish are keying on then you stand a good chance of success. The best way to determine which fly to use is observation.

I begin on my walk to the stream. As I pass my fellow anglers, I ask them how if they are catching any fish and what fly they are using. If they are not having any success I do not want to follow their lead. If they are having success and I am unfamiliar with the fly, I ask to see it so that I can come as close as possible to imitating it. Generally fly fishers are very willing to share their success particularly if they tied the fly themselves. The only thing more rewarding than catching a fish on a fly that you tied is to have others do the same with your creation.

I also carefully observe the stream. I look for fish activity on the surface. Are there any hatches of aquatic insects or wind blown terrestrials? I look for flashes on the stream bottom that might indicate that fish are actively nymphing. I turn over rocks looking for nymphs. The most numerous or the most active are my first choices. I then try to match them to flies in my boxes. They are matched according to size, shape and color. Size is the most important factor. If you have the right size but the wrong color fly, then fish it instead of the right color but wrong size fly. Fish tend to key into a particular size.

Finally I observe what the fish are actually feeding on. To do this I have to catch a fish. This is frequently the hardest part, but I can usually scam one up somehow. I then pump it’s stomach.

A stomach pump resembles a bulb baster like mom uses on the turkey. It has a rubber bulb on the end and a long thin plastic tube. To pump the fish’s stomach, I fill the pump by inserting the tube in the water and squeezing the rubber bulb. Then while securely holding the fish I gently insert the tube down the fish’s throat as far as I can. I take particular care not to injure the fish during this process. I gently squeeze the rubber bulb forcing the water into the fish’s stomach. Then I gently pull the tube from the fish. The suction created by the pump extracts the stomach contents.

I carefully release the fish unharmed into the water (I have never lost a fish in this process). Then I squeeze the bulb and deposit the fish’s stomach contents into my hand.  It is then a simple process to match the stomach contents to the contents of my fly box. Once again size, shape and color.  This is the best way to determine the fly to use because you see what they are actually feeding on, not what is available. I generally repeat this process for the first two or three fish and occasionally during the day to ensure that they have not started keying in on some other food source.

Give these simple techniques a try and you will be surprised at how many fish you will catch.


Fishing Catch and Release Water by John Berry

The majority of my time fishing is spent in catch and release waters. My concept is that if you want to consistently catch larger fish you need to concentrate your efforts there. Fish stay there longer and get bigger.  I am not the first person to come up with this idea and as a result the catch and release areas in Arkansas receive the most fishing pressure per river mile of any water in the state. Since the fish in these waters live longer and have probably been caught several times, they tend to become quite wary and look at any potential food source carefully before taking it. In order to successfully fish these areas you need to consider several tactics when developing your angling strategy in these waters.

Avoid the crowds, if at all possible fish during the week or during bad weather. There is nothing that will trim the herd like a good shower. Try fishing very early or late. I have found that all the most popular spots clear out about 4 p.m. leaving me the best hours of the day to myself. I rarely leave the river before dusk. If you must fish during crowded conditions walk or wade as far from the access as you can. The further a hole is from the parking lot the less pressure it gets. Remember at all times to practice water safety. If you are fishing far from the access be sure and plan your exit in case of rising water.

Use smaller and longer tippets. The trout have gotten smarter and can easily detect larger tippets. I have switched to 6x or smaller for these conditions. In addition I now use a 24 inch or longer tippet when nymphing where I previously used an 18 inch. This keeps knots, leaders and lead that much further from the fly. When fishing soft hackles or dries I use at least a 5-foot tippet.

Finally, exercise great care when presenting your fly. When fishing nymphs or dry flies make sure that you have a perfect drag free drift. This is where I think that a lot of anglers miss the boat. I continually see fly fishers casting too much line. When fishing a long line you have to contend with conflicting currents. That is the stream is made up of several different currents and one  will be faster or slower than another. If you are fishing a long line you will be crossing more than one current. These currents can cause the fly to move faster or slower than the current it is in. this is drag. If a fish observes that a fly is moving at a speed different from the water he will refuse to hit the fly. A shorter line is easier to control and you will be more likely to get a proper drift.

Yesterday afternoon Lori and I went fishing at the handicap access on the Norfork River. We hiked upriver into the catch and release area until we passed all of the other anglers and found some solitude. My first fish was a fat 20-inch rainbow. In the next few hours I probably caught over 20 fish 8 of which were over 16 inches long. Lori probably caught more fish than I did. (I say probably because we don’t count.) Around 4 p.m. we looked down stream and saw no one. We leisurely fished our way out hitting all the holes that were so crowded earlier. At dusk we left the river having enjoyed catch and release waters, as they should be.

The Fishing Vest by John Berry

The first item that most people acquire when they take up fishing is the fishing vest. This piece of gear, invented by the immortal Lee Wulff, should be the last thing you buy. The reason is simple, you tend to over buy. We all know how to choose the proper vest. It's obviously the one with the most pockets. A vest with 28 pockets is twice as good as one with 14 pockets. The problem is that as soon as you buy one with 28 pockets, you will return to the fly shop until you have filled every pocket with stuff whether you need it or not. Just because a travel iron or complete set of Ginsu knives will fit into one of the pockets doesn't mean that you will actually need them. My clients frequently complain about how tired they are or how much their back hurts at the end of the day. I ask them how much their vest weighs! I can't tell you how many times it is in excess of 20 pounds. The important lesson here is that while a lot of pockets are handy, you do not have to put something in all of them. You could even leave a few completely empty!

The fabric that the vest is made of is important. While the heavy cotton canvas models are durable but slow to dry if wet, the light mesh vests will be significantly cooler on a hot summer day and will be significantly lighter and take up less room in your duffel bag. Color is a consideration also. Lighter colors will be cooler in the direct sun while a green vest will blend in with the trees better while fishing a small mountain stream in the Great Smoky Mountain National park.

You cannot buy a vest that is too short or too large. Always buy a shortie, because with a regular vest it is too easy to wade over the tops of your lowest pockets. This maneuver causes you to stop and dry out your fly boxes or throw away that fine Cuban cigar that you were going to relish this afternoon when you caught a hog in your favorite hole. As for the proper size, be sure to try the vest on over the heaviest clothes that you will be fishing in. If you fish all winter make sure that it will fit over a down jacket or a couple of pile jackets and a rain shell. Size it for the winter not the summer when you are fishing in a T-shirt.

Finally, consider fishing without a vest. If you are bream fishing, you can put everything you need in a shirt pocket. The British don't wear fishing vests, They prefer a shoulder type field bag. Personally, I prefer a simple pouch that hangs around my neck. It has six pockets and I don't use two of them. It does have two D rings that I attach the items that I use the most to. This way I don't have to rummage through pockets to find my tippet or fly box.

The proper vest should make your time on the water more enjoyable!

Fly Fishing from a Canoe by John Berry

One of my favorite ways to fish is from a canoe. This allows you to access seldom-fished water. You can get out and fish likely spots or you can drift with the current and fish as you go. My best day fishing in Montana was one spent in a canoe floating the upper reaches of the Swan River. We took native cutthroats on the top with large stonefly patterns and didn’t see another person on the river all day. With a canoe you are self-propelled and in control of your own destiny.  They don’t weigh much and can be easily carried on top of virtually any car. They don’t make much noise so that you can drift through remote areas and appreciate nature as it was meant to be enjoyed. It is incredible how close you can approach wildlife. Last week my cousin Quinn and I were able to come within 30 feet of a bald eagle perching in an overhanging sycamore while we were floating the White River.

Canoe rentals are inexpensive and convenient. There are outfitters on just about all the rivers that I fish that can provide decent canoes at a reasonable price. What you are looking for is good equipment. Avoid renting an aluminum boat if possible because they are heavy and tend to grab rocks in low water. Go for a plastic boat instead. They will weigh less and be easier to paddle. Make sure that the provided personal flotation devices (pfd) are comfortable so that you will wear them. Outfitters also provide shuttles, that is, they take you and your canoe to the put in and your car to the take out. They can handle your shuttle if you provide your own boat.

Lori and I bought our own boat last year and we have really enjoyed it. We got a large slightly wider boat made of abs plastic. We wanted one that would be more stable and easier to steer through shallow water.  With the boat we also purchased two high quality pfds and two paddles. Our total cost was about $1200. Since then we have fished and floated the Big Piney, the Spring, the Buffalo, and the White rivers.

Canoeing requires a certain amount of skill. I first learned to canoe 45 years ago at Camp Kia Kima and I thought that I pretty well knew what I was doing. When we bought our own boat, I thought that it would be a good idea if we took a basic river course (Berry’s Law – Whenever You And A Significant Other Undertake A New Sport Seek Professional Advice). We attended the Bluff City Canoe Club’s white water course and they taught us stuff that I had never heard of. We had a great time, learned new boat handling skills, and Lori and I learned to work together. I personally feel that any two people considering marriage should spend one day in a canoe.

The front of the canoe is the best position to fish from. The person in the stern should concentrate on steering and not try to fish. Canoes require a delicate balance that requires that at least one person concentrate their efforts on controlling the boat. They are too small for more than one person to cast from. The idea here is to change positions from time to time, a concept that has not been accepted by Lori. The designated angler should keep their back cast high and away from the person in the rear of the boat and bring along a long handled net to help handle the fish. Finally, always wear a pfd. This is just common sense; you can never tell what can happen out there. My pfd has a couple of D rings and a couple of pockets so that it also functions as a fishing vest.

Fishing from a canoe, give it a try!


Hopper Time by John Berry

The other day while fishing the North Fork I observed a grasshopper struggling in the current. It drifted right in front of me where an eighteen-inch brown trout shot to the surface to devour the helpless insect. I quickly tied on a hopper imitation and proceeded to catch a half dozen fine trout, the smallest of which was fourteen inches. This was the beginning of my favorite dry fly season, Hopper Time! From now until the first hard frost hoppers can be very effective.

These are not aquatic insects like mayflies or caddis but are terrestrials like ants or beetles. They live on land and either fall into the water or are blown  by the wind. Hoppers not just a western fly, can be very effective in our area. In fact they are also my favorite flies for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park where terrestrials are an important food source. They are large enough to tempt large trout and their size allows anglers to see them. I wear glasses as thick as coke bottles and have trouble seeing small flies but I can easily see a hopper even on a long cast.

Hoppers are very easy to fish. When the naturals hit the water they splash down and struggle in the current. To imitate this action, you should cause the fly to hit the surface with a splash. To accomplish this stop your rod lower than you would for a normal dry fly cast being careful not to line the fish. A delicate presentation is not required. However, a drag free drift is the key to success.

The best rod to fish them is a stiff six-weight nine-foot rod with a weight forward line. This is a substantial fly and a light fly rod just cannot handle it. The nine-foot length will aid in mending line.  I use a seven and one half foot 3X leader with a one and one half foot 4X tippet in order to turn the fly over. I match my hoppers as to size and color to that of naturals I observe near the river. Remember that the fish are looking up so you should match the color of the bottom of the insect.

Grasshoppers are not that easy to tie. They violate Berry’s law that states, “You have to tie them faster than you lose them”. As a result, I have been known to buy a few. I prefer the new foam hoppers because they float like corks and do not have to be dressed before they are fished. If you use hoppers with a brightly colored tuft on the back they will be more easily seen.

The best places to fish would be along an undercut bank with tall grass growing alongside it and a brisk wind blowing across it. The best time would be early afternoon on a really hot day. Last week I found myself in such a situation but with the added bonus of farmer cutting hay. The hoppers were very active and several of them were ending up on the water. I had one of the best days with dry flies that I have ever had!

The next time you are out and see grasshoppers on the bank give them a try.

Nymphing for Large Trout by John Berry

One of the most effective ways to catch large trout is by nymphing. Trout feed approximately 90% of the time on the bottom and the majority of their diet is the nymphal form of small aquatic insects. Logic therefore dictates that the best way to catch them is to imitate their primary food source.

Trout feed by facing upstream and waiting for the food to come to them. The best way to deliver the fly is by high sticking. You cast your fly upstream and allow it to drift down stream to the trout. It is imperative that you achieve a perfect drag free drift. To accomplish this, you must keep your line short and your rod tip high so that nothing touches the surface of the water but the strike indicator. Allow the fly to pass well past the fish before picking it up to cast again.

To rig for this type of fishing I use small tippets, generally 5X or smaller. I prefer small bead head flies that sink quickly and I place a strike indicator on the leader set approximately at the depth of the water plus a couple of inches so that the fly would be in the fishes feed zone. Large trout have all seen the fluorescent strike indicators popular now. As a result, I have switched to the small stick on indicators in white. These blend in with the foam and more easily fool the fish. Lately, I have begun using a dry fly as a strike indicator. This creates the possibility of either taking a good fish on a dry fly or a double hook up. I prefer large high floating patterns like humpies or hoppers and I have noticed that flies tied with foam float extremely well and do not require as much attention as traditional patterns. You are not required to dress them before you start fishing or revive them after each fish you catch. If you are fishing in a catch and release area that only allows one fly, just take a pair of side cutters and remove the point of the hook at the bend creating an effective and stealthy indicator.

The best time to fish for large trout is very early in the morning or late afternoon. At any rate, you should be the first person that fishes that particular hole if you expect any success. This technique does not work at night unless you have a heck of a lot of moonlight, because you have to see the strike indicator in order to use it.

Employ stealth! Large fish suffer no fools. The first time they see you or the first time you allow your line to pass over them they are gone. Utilize natural cover to the extent possible and do not dress in bright or unnatural colors. Consider one of the camouflage fly lines. These lines are difficult to see on the water but that is their great advantage. If you have trouble seeing them, the fish will too.

Using these techniques, I recently caught several trophy cut throat trout on the upper Yellowstone during a trip to Montana on a day when everyone else was having a tough time. Give it a try. You will be glad you did. 

Setting the Hook by John Berry   

You have done everything just right. You found the right place at the right time. You studied the water, located the fish, and through observation selected the appropriate fly. You stealthily positioned yourself, made the cast of your life, and by carefully mending your line achieved a perfect drift. The fly riding the current glides past a large boulder and entices a large trout to rise from the depths and strike the fly with every bit of energy he had in his gargantuan body. Opportunity knocks and you are not ready! Some how in all of the excitement you neglect to set the hook. The trout quickly realizing that the fly he took for a tasty morsel is just fur and feather wrapped around a bit of metal spits the hook and casually swims away.

I see it over and over again. My clients do everything right and then lose the fish of a lifetime because they do not set the hook properly.  This is true no matter what technique you are using but is particularly applicable to fishing dry flies or high sticking nymphs. They generally make one of three mistakes. They don’t set the hook at all, they set the hook too late, or they set the hook too hard.

The most common mistake is to not set the hook at all. I guarantee that you can watch the fly or strike indicator like a hawk for hours and not get a strike. But the second you turn away to observe a bald eagle soaring overhead the fish will strike with a vengeance. To prevent this from happening you have to concentrate on the business at hand. Nothing else exists except the fly drifting with the current. Frequently I see clients let the strike indicator disappear into the depths and they stand there motionless. I ask why they didn’t strike and they say it was probably a rock or some weed that the fly struck on its travel downstream. You always have to assume that whenever the indicator moves that a fish causes it. It may not go down but may momentarily stop. When in doubt set the hook.

Often they set the hook too slow. I figure that you have about a half a second to set the hook before the fish spits it out. You do not have all day. To me a quick set of reflexes is a one of the most important attributes that a successful angler can possess.

Finally a lot of anglers set the hook too hard. This causes them to pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth or break the tippet. This is especially prevalent with my bass fishing clients. They are used to dealing with a fish that has a tough bony mouth that is difficult to penetrate. Trout on the other hand have a delicate fleshy mouth and it is easy to pull the hook out. Lori has a tendency to set the hook pretty hard and as a result has trouble fishing tippets lighter than 5X. You can sometimes overcome this problem by fishing with a rod that has a soft tip. The flexibility of the tip will dampen the strike and help protect light tippets.

The next time you go fishing pay attention to the way you set the hook. I think it will increase your success.

Sulphur Hatch by John Berry

The major hatch on Ozark streams is the sulphur. The hatch occurs during May and June that emerges from gentle riffles and runs in the afternoon with a spinner fall at dusk. I have observed this hatch on the White, Spring and Norfork rivers. This is the first hatch I ever had any success with.

At the time of this writing the hatch is about to start and I am fishing the nymphs. I have noted a few adults on stream but when I pump stomachs I have been finding a significant number of sulphur nymphs. While a gold ribbed hares ear or a pheasant tail always works as a mayfly imitation the fly of choice here is the copper john. It is basically a pheasant tail with an abdomen of copper wire and a bead head. The wire and the bead head give it significant weight and it sinks like a rock. The most effective size is 16 but I also carry 14’s and 18’s. Using this fly I had a forty fish day Tuesday by fishing with the basic high stick nymphing technique.

When the hatch starts and fish begin to key on the adults I use a sulphur parachute. I have done a lot of experimentation on which is the best pattern and this is the consistent winner. My brother, Dan observed that the sulphurs were orange on the bottom and as a result the dries I use are orange. You have to remember that the fish are observing the insects from below. I like the parachute wing because it sits low in the water, looks natural and is fairly easy for the angler to see. The disadvantage of the fly is that as a low floater it doesn’t handle heavy water well. My friend, John Lancaster sent me some orange parachutes tied with quill bodies, which give them a segmented body that looks more realistic, than dubbed bodies. I will try them as soon as I have the opportunity and I think they will be lethal.

To fish the emergers I use a partridge and orange or a partridge and yellow. These are some of my favorite flies because they are incredibly effective and more importantly they are easy to tie.

On a typical day I would start fishing the sulphurs with nymphs in the morning. I usually fish the copper john or a gold ribbed hares ear in likely looking riffles. I always pump the stomachs of the first two or three fish I catch so that I can key in to the most effective pattern to use based on size shape and color. I generally have the most success at the end of the drift when the line tightens and the fly starts to rise. This imitates the start of the emergence and often triggers a strike. In the early afternoon when I start seeing rises but I don’t see any adult insects I switch over to a partridge and orange or a partridge and yellow. Then later in the afternoon when I observe fish taking adult insects I switch to dry flies.  The dry fly fishing is intense because the flies are small and difficult to see. This is my favorite time and I will fish them as long as the fish are rising. If I can I will wait around to dusk to fish the spinners. I use a rusty spinner for this situation in a size 16. The spinners are difficult to see especially in the low light. Because of this I fish them with a very short line.

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