How often have you cast a dry fly, watch it settle on the water, float with the current, when suddenly a trout rises from the depths like a Great white shark straight to your fly. Your heart races a bit as you get ready for the take, anticipating the feel of the strike and just as suddenly the trout descends back to the deep leaving you and your fly high and dry. If you haven’t experienced this situation, believe me, you will. Here are my 5 reasons why trout won’t take your fly and what do you do about it?
My 5 Reasons Why Trout Won’t Take Your Fly. The fly is the wrong color, the fly is the wrong size, you’re using the wrong sized or type tippet, the fly has too much drag, the trout are simply not feeding.
Trout can get extremely picky at times and leave you scratching your head trying to figure out what fly they are willing to take. We have all heard “match the hatch” and we fill our fly boxes with everything we can find to try and match whatever the hatch may be. But even the best “match” at times seems to fail us. When this happens there are other factors that we need to consider to solve the problem of trout refusing our fly. For me, I have found that I have five choices beyond fly selection that I need to pay attention to, and many times getting these right turns out to be the fix I need.
The situation We Call “Take”
The art of dry fly fishing is matching the insects that are hatching and presenting your offering in a way that fools a trout into “taking” your offering. This “on the surface presentation game” we play with trout is full of anticipation and drama. Nothing may be as exciting as watching a trout come to the surface to “take” your fly and sipping it off the surface except the pull of the rod when he turns to dive down.
But sometimes good old Mr. Trout doesn’t “take” that fly you offered, yet it matches the insects flying around or floating on the surface. Worst yet, he has the gall to come right up to your fly, even swim along with it at close inspection, only turn away – no “take”. Having suffered the frustration of “no-take” many times over the years here are my 5 reasons for why trout won’t take your fly. First, let’s start with color and see why you may be fishing the wrong color.
What Does Color Have To Do With It?
How we humans see things doesn’t mean that’s the way everything out there sees things. This sounds kind of stupid but we judge everything based on how we see things. Sure, we are aware other “critters” on the planet see things differently than us, but because we can’t see through their eyes we have no real idea as to how they see things. Even among us humans, not every person perceives color exactly the same, while still others are “color blind”. As the term goes, they may not be able to detect reds or greens.
The retinas of humans eyes are constructed of two kinds of receptor cells; rods and cones. We can distinguish light from darkness with our rods while cones work in brighter light and allow us to see color. The eye of trout also contains rods and cones which enables them to see color. But they have an added element in their world which we don’t. Trout have to see through the water. The combination of water and light changes color. As light penetrates down through the water the deeper the water the more color is altered. The way this works basically is light is divided into waves consisting of short and long waves. Long wavelengths, like red and orange, are absorbed in water quickly. This means the depth to which they can penetrate is limited and will be seen in shallow water but not at deeper depths. Short wavelengths, like green and blue, can penetrate much
A trout’s perception of color is affected by water depth and the water’s clarity. The detection of color at differing depths and water clarity by a trout’s vision is being altered as light waves penetrate down through the water.
So Why Is Color Important To Fly Fishing?
Color choice depends on the time of year when trout fishing. The color of flies you use will vary accordingly. Early spring, late fall, and into winter, flies are usually of a darker color. From mid-spring and until about mid-autumn natural insect colors are more towards the lighter side. Yellows, pale colors, light greens are some of the colors that work well through the later spring and summer seasons.
Another factor where color is important is the kind of day or type of day you’re fishing. Bright days usually call for lighter colored flies while cloudy or dark days find the use of darker color flies a better choice. A cool example of this is a fly, “The Grey Duster” Davie McPhail ties.
Davie McPhail, a fly tier from Scotland, ties a pattern he has been using for 28 years and he loves it. He refers to it as “the Grey Duster”. He suggests when you tie this fly to tie one light-colored and one grey-colored. Grey for cloudy dark or grey days and the lighter colored one for bright days.
For Davies’ pattern, click this link for his video
The Underwater Perspective
How colors appear to trout is dependent on how far away the object may be and at what depth. As light penetrates down through the water column, red objects turn from red to gray to black and blue objects will turn white before turning to gray and eventually black. When a trout detects something in or on the water, depending on the distance, it could appear as a different color to him than what we picked from the box. Changing the color of your fly and keeping everything else the same can often be the ticket.
Water clarity is the next element that influences what colored fly to use. Some streams or creeks can be clear as gin while others are stained or even muddy depending on weather conditions. From a trout’s perspective, the color of a fly can help it stand out or make it disappear depending on the clarity of the water. When water is clear, it’s not a bad idea to use subtle shades of color like maroon, indigo, or purple, or black. Whereas using orange, yellow or chartreuse may be a good choice in stained or muddy water conditions. So, in clear waters, subtle shades produce well. Black, red or generally dark flies provide better contrast in both dark water and cloudy days (low light conditions). Black forms the best silhouette against a dark sky.
Why Change Fly Color?
To sum this all into a working example, say you are fishing a size 14 Elk Haired Caddis in tan and trout are refusing your fly. Two reasons may be at play here. The actual insect coming off is really brown not tan like you think. Or reason number two, the trout sees a different color than you perceive. He is looking up through the water and what he sees at distance turns out to be different once he arrives at the fly, so he refuses it. Changing to an olive color or a yellow or brown might make the difference. Remember, what you see may not be what a trout sees, so trying to match the
hatch becomes a bit more challenging.
Does Size Really Matter?
When it comes to fly fishing, yes it does. The size of the fly matters. For example, insect life is vastly different depending on the time of the year. Winter doesn’t have prolific hatches and most insect activity consists of Midges and small insects. During this time, small flies in sizes 16 – 22 makes natural sense because most insects are of smaller size this time of the year. Spring and summer on the other hand provide the opportunity to “go bigger” since insect life is more abundant and hatches more prolific. Many of the flies hatches produce during spring and summer are larger, for example like March Browns. Fishing flies in sizes 12-16 is normal for this time of year.
Now, what I just described is a good general rule to follow. But what were really talking about are those days when trout rise and refuse your fly. I can’t tell you how often have drifted a dry fly past a feeding trout who comes to rise only to refused my offering. Many times the solution is changing the size of the fly. That said, the second reason for “my 5 reasons why trout won’t take your fly”, wrong size.
The Subtle Difference Size Can Make
Next time you are standing in a line at the grocery store or overlooking a crowd of people you’ll obviously notice not everyone is the same size. Some are tall, some are short and then everything in between. The same is true with insect life. Not every bug of a given species is exactly the same size. As we see bugs on the water it is easier for us to see the larger ones than it is the smaller ones. Naturally, when we go the fly box our tendency is to pick the fly that resembles the ones we are looking at. But, again, that may not be the bug Mr. trout is looking at.
As an example, I was fishing one of our local streams close to where I live. I had a trout that was feeding on something but it was difficult to know exactly what it was he was taking. I stood for a while watching the water and decided to try a size 16 Griffith’s gnat. Griffith’s gnats are great flies and generally mimic a cluster of midges along with other smaller insects.
I managed several good drifts and the trout rose to my fly several times as well, but on inspection passed up my fly. Because he rose several times I felt he liked the fly. I figured at this point I would change to a smaller fly rather than change to a different fly. My game plan was to drop to an 18 from the 16 and go to a 20 before changing to a different fly altogether. I made my cast and drifted the fly into position. The trout came to the fly hesitated a for a second and sipped it in, fish on!
Why Size May Play Into It
Consider also a trout’s feeding habit. Trout, when it comes to surface feeding, prefers to feed on emergers more than a fully developed adult. Insects that get trapped in the surface film are easier targets and require less energy on the part of the trout to catch them. Emergers also appear smaller than the adult simply because their wings have not fully extended or they have not completely left the shuck.
Like everything we do when fly fishing, the bottom line is to “test the water”. Did you like that? Kind of puny, don’t you think? Sorry about that, anyway, trying different sizes and color combinations can prove to be just the thing needed. Also, don’t rule out going bigger, but a smaller sized fly usually works best. Now let’s move to reason number 3 of “my 5 reasons why trout won’t take your fly” – wrong sized or type tippet.
Check out this post too: “4 Things to Know to Fly Fishing Emergers Effectively”
Let’s Take A Look At Tippet
Leader and tippet technology has come a long way over the last 50 years or so. The materials used today are mostly monofilament, (nylon and fluorocarbon), and are available in a huge number of sizes, stiffness’s and strengths. Several years ago, fluorocarbon materials were introduced to the
market and by now most of you are familiar with it. For the most part, when we purchase tippets or leaders we usually choose between nylon or fluorocarbon.
Tippet, in the general sense, is material added to the end of our leader to extend leader life and length to our tapered leader. Adding a tippet can also continue the taper of a tapered leader by using a smaller diameter tippet.
Fluorocarbon, in general, has some qualities that make it a good choice, depending on your use. For example, a lot of guys use fluorocarbon leaders when nymph fishing because it has a higher resistance to abrasion. It is also a more dense material so it can sink more easily. It can help with hook sets too because it doesn’t stretch. But best of all it is nearly invisible in water.
But, like all things, it has its cons to go along with it. If it gets nicked or scratched those areas become highly visible. Fluorocarbon is slippery which allows for knots to work themselves loose. You need to check knots often and use additional wraps when tying your knots. Lastly, the fluorocarbon is more expensive. Ok, all that said, why would I change my tippets? For more on Leaders and tippet: “Why Use A Tapered Leader?”
Why Change Tippets While Dry Fly Fishing
Changing or replacing tippet falls into two categories in a sense. The first is simply replacing your tippet with new material. It may be that this new piece lays better on the water. It could be that any small kinks that may have been in the old tippet are now gone or it could be the knot attaching your fly is less noticeable to good old Mr. Trout. Whatever it is, I have found this simple change has worked and helped me catch that trout.
But most times, after scratching my head for a while, when I make a tippet change it is usually to go with a smaller sized tippet. For example, I might reduce from a 6X to a 7X. Sure, it seems ridiculous considering the difference between the two is so subtle. But I can’t tell you the number of times after making this change I have caught trout when previously all I was getting was a trout to rise and turn away.
The second category is changing the type of tippet you’re using. Generally, I don’t use fluorocarbon tippet when dry fly fishing. Fluorocarbon has a tendency to sink where mono will sit on the water surface. But sometimes changing to fluorocarbon is a plus, so let me explain why I use it sometimes.
Trout Can Be Leader Shy
I have had this discussion often with “the Professor”, my friend Paul and we believe trout can be leader shy. We have a few Catch and Release streams near us that we fish regularly. Trout in these streams see a lot of fishermen and in turn a lot of offerings. So call us crazy if you want (wouldn’t be the first time) but we believe trout can see our leader at times. Especially on bright sunny days when the sun can reflect off of the leader. Could this be a contributing factor to a trout refusing your fly? In my opinion, if something doesn’t look right to a trout, he simply won’t take your fly.
It’s with this train of thought, “leader shy”, that had me experiment more often with fluorocarbon tippets. I tested them against regular nylon and at times fluorocarbon seemed to outperform the nylon tippet on clear streams and sunnier days. But to be honest, I really don’t know if this is true or not. What I do know is I carry fluorocarbon tippet material and will use it as another tool.
Wrong Sized Or Type Of Tippet All Summed Up
Adjusting the tippet as a possible solution for a trout not taking your fly comes down to a few factors. Usually, I start by making a simple tippet change by changing my tippet for a clean new tippet. Sometimes I make it a bit longer than the last one, otherwise, I just go to a smaller size. If trout continue to avoid taking the fly then I consider it to be a “visibility problem”.
One of the things I adjust is the knot connecting the fly to my tippet. Ever notice when the fly is drifting, a loop in your tippet coming from the fly goes up then down to the water? It is a very small loop and usually, it has to do with the knot holding the line (tippet) up. My mind tells me a trout can see that and shies away from my fly. Many times it’s a simple adjustment of the knot to let the line layout flat on the water. This easy adjustment has many times solved the “take” problem.
Change The Type Of Tippet
But if this fails my next consideration is changing to a different type of tippet material altogether and I break out the fluorocarbon. To reiterate, I don’t use fluorocarbon regularly for dry fly fishing. But I have found that it helps sometimes and I think it’s because of two things. Fluorocarbon is nearly invisible in water and the second thing is it sinks.
I think the fact that it sinks slightly as it comes off the fly makes it hard for a trout to see it, along with its natural ability to be “invisible”. When I use fluorocarbon for this purpose I use shorter pieces in an effort to keep this sinking to a minimum as to not pull my fly under. If this change works then the tippet problem solved. Let’s move on to reason number 4 of “my 5 reasons why trout won’t take your fly”, drag.
The Biggest “Evil” In Fly Fishing – Drag
Although I have chosen to place “drag” in the fourth spot of my list, it really is the number one problem for most of us. Drag is created as a result of a fly line laying on the water. The weight of the line and its interaction with the current can pull you fly and slide or skate it across the water.
It is amazing actually, how little a fly needs to move unnaturally for a trout to pass it up. Drag not only causes trout to refuse your fly but many times spooks them putting trout down. This is especially true if the fly has been repeatedly dragged over the fish.
The ultimate goal is a drag-free presentation. That is the ability to drift a fly to a trout so that it floats with the current with no pulling or unnatural movement. If you recognize drag it may be the most important factor between your catching trout or not. So pay attention to your drift because the slightest drag often is the reason your fly gets refused.
How To Best Avoid Drag
Eliminating drag is all about line maintenance and being in control of your fly line. Typically the less line on the water the greater the chances are you will reduce or eliminate drag. When possible the closer you can get to the trout without spooking them lessens the amount of line needed to reach them. This also lets the angler hold his rod higher to keep line off the water. But this isn’t always possible and the longer your casts need to be to reach a trout’s holding position, the more line may be on the water. To help control this situation we use a technique referred to as “mending”.
Mending is lifting your rod tip up to lift the fly line off the water and reposition it on the current. Sounds easy enough but it takes practice because doing right means moving the fly line without disturbing your fly’s drift. It is normal for us to watch our fly as it drifts along on the current but it is also important to watch your fly line at the same time. Watching how your line is moving with the current continuously looking for clues as to when the line will begin to outpace the fly is what you are looking for. The mend needs to take place before the line’s drift can affect the fly’s drift. You may mend the fly line several times during a drift to keep a fly “dead drifting” for any length of time.
High Sticking Isn’t Just For Nymphing
Another way to help avoid drag is to use a high sticking method when possible. High sticking is a technique generally used to keep the fly line off the water as completely as possible. It requires you to use as much arm extension you can to hold the fly rod up as high as you can. Casting is usually a shorter distance and you need to be closer to the trout.
Whenever I approach a spot to fish I spend a few minutes evaluating how I’m going to get into a position to fish it. Reading the water and trout behavior is always a top priority. Trout residing in clear high-pressured streams are sensitive to drag, as we talked about earlier. If you can position yourself to take advantage of the current the better. Casting upstream to lay the fly on a seam and letting it drift into the trout is a good approach. It also means mending the line by retrieving it at the speed of the current. This additionally takes advantage of stealth as you are behind the trout and out of his vision.
The opposite approach is to drift a fly downstream into a trout’s holding position. Using a longer leader and smaller tippet is helpful for this endeavor. Changing your position and casting from different angles will change too how your line reacts as it lays on the varying current speeds. Stream currents cause drag so dissecting the current is equally important to eliminating drag. Watch the stream for a while and take notice of the things floating on the water. Watch how they float and place your fly so it floats similarly to these objects, or better yet, the bugs in the water.
Micro-drag may be the most difficult of things to detect. In slow water and conflicting currents, Micro-drag seems more prevalent. These conditions favor the trout because he has more time to look things over. Micro-drag is still “drag”. It is by another name, but what it means is your fly is not “dead drifting” and trout don’t like it one bit. It’s up to you to figure a way to improve the situation by mending, high-sticking, or positional change. You’ll know if you have it right when your fly gets taken. The last item on the list of “my 5 reasons why a trout won’t take your fly” is, the trout are simply not feeding.
Trout Aren’t Feeding
We ran into this very thing last month fishing one of our mid-state streams here in PA. We had a great day, catching trout on Stimulators of various colors, and pretty much we caught fish all day. In camp, that night had some good tales and conversation about the day, and expectations for the following day were running high.
The next morning we returned to the sections we had fished the previous day only to discover the trout basically “hanging out”. They showed little interest in anything we put on the water or in the water for that matter. I floated several different offerings down through with trout coming to inspect each but no takes.
My buddy ran a few nymphs through as well and again nothing. The trout we very lethargic and uninterested in most everything either watching it float by or literally getting out of the way. A bit frustrated we found ourselves sitting on the side of the stream watching it while munching beef jerky and sipping a beverage scratching our heads. When trout aren’t feeding in most cases you better off finding something else to do or searching for the few opportunistic trout that are about by covering a lot of water.
Work The Box
The next thing is to work the box. I managed to pluck a few that day by changing my flies up often. After several casts, several inspections, I would change flies. I systematically went through my fly box, literally. I would return the fly in use back to its spot in my fly box and use the next one adjacent to it. If a trout rose to the fly and refused it, I’d offer up another and another.
Situations like this are really challenging to say the least. Trout are curious about things in their world and will come to fly even though they have no interest or intention of taking the fly. This is often misunderstood by fly fishermen. They don’t understand that trout aren’t feeding but are still interested in seeing “what is that”. Naturally, the assumption is “I’m fishing the wrong fly” and all the things we have mentioned throughout this article, but the reality is trout aren’t feeding.
It was easier for us to figure this out that day. We had been on the stream for several days of fishing. Trout have a tendency to feed earlier in the day and then shut down during mid-day and pick up again towards evening. This seems to be a normal condition we experience pretty regularly, but when trout shut down for a day or two it becomes more difficult to detect. The best advice I can offer on days like this is to work the box and cover more water. As I said, you’re trying to take advantage of opportunistic trout. More about “Working the Box: Nymph Fishing: Working The Box
Over the years I have seen trout refuse flies and I’m still amazed when they do. I have often declared to my buddy, “man that was perfect, but he didn’t take it” only to hear him say, “well something’s wrong”. My 5 reasons why trout won’t take your fly is a combination of circumstances, situation, technique and plain “ole luck”. But the solution more times than not fits one of the 5 reasons. Football is a game of inches they say and trout fishing is a game of subtleties. The difference between a size 14 dry fly and the exact same fly in 16, to me, is so small it is natural to think, “you have to be kidding me”. But to Mr. Trout, it may be all the difference in the world. Fish on!
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How Long Should My Leader Be For Dry Fly Fishing?
Generally, the length of your leader can be anywhere from 7 1/2 feet to over 9 feet. When dry fly fishing the use of a longer leader is often an advantage. But it still needs to be a manageable length. If the leader is too long casting will be affected and your presentation sloppy and not on target.
Are Emergers Considered Dry Flies?
Technically emergers fall into their own category as they can be fished anywhere in the water column. Typically they are fished just below the surface whereas dry flies are fished on the surface.