al ritt trout
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Throw a Curve

We have the right imitation and are using a textbook presentation, but the trout don’t care. What to do? Colorado guide Al Ritt says we should toss the fish something unexpected, and hold on!

It began as one of those days: pale-morning duns were hatching, and the trout were rising. It was a perfect fly fishing scenario—or was it?

I caught a few trout using nymphs before the hatch, then the telltale little sailboats began appearing on the surface of the water, followed by the noses of fish. I’d come for this event, and switched to a dun imitation. After 30 minutes and no takes, I looked closer and realized the trout weren’t eating the adults.

No problem: I switched to a Hackle Stacker Emerger with a Soft-Hackle Pheasant-Tail Nymph trailing four inches below it. Smug in my detective work and with restored confidence, I resumed casting to the nearest pod of feeding trout. After another fishless half hour, I sat on the bank to watch and think.

We’ve all been in this frustrating situation. We know the fish are there, but for one reason or another, our best efforts go unrewarded. We observe, we adjust, and we try again. Sometimes we think we have solved the puzzle, only to discover that we have not; we have missed some important piece.

What to do? We could pack it up and return on a more predictable day, or we can just keep changing flies and fishing, hoping to stumble onto the right pattern. Or, it could be time to throw a curve.

You Have to Have More Than One Pitch

Sitting on the bank that day, watching the trout eat PMDs, I racked my brain trying to figure out what was wrong with my strategy. I was sure I was fishing the appropriate stage of the emergence because I could see trout feeding on insects in the film and inches below the surface.

Adams

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, sizes 18 to 14.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Wings: Grizzly hen hackle tips.
Tail: Coq de Leon hackle fibers.
Body: Adams gray Super Fine Dubbing.
Hackle: Mixed grizzly and Coachman brown dry fly hackle.

I’d seined the feeding lanes and found no masked hatch or spinner fall. My patterns were tried and true, and had performed well many times in the past. Nevertheless, to cover all my bases, I tried a few different flies that mimic what I saw the fish eating. It seemed that the trout were keying in to some trigger that my flies lacked.

Poking around in my fly box, my finger bumped into a fly I’d used on other days when I was having trouble matching a hatch or when no hatch was occurring. It was a size or two too large, and it looked nothing like the emerging PMDs the fish were preying on. In fact, it was a high-floating dry fly, not an emerger at all. I tied the Royal Wulff to my tippet and resumed casting.

Gray Hackle Yellow

Hook: Regular wet fly hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread: Yellow 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Red spade hackle fibers.
Body: Yellow wool

I cannot say that every trout that struck my fly had lost its mind—in fact, most ignored it—but I did catch several fish using that attractor Royal Wulff. This trick doesn’t work every time, but it can salvage a tough day and is worth remembering. And don’t think that there is something specific to the Royal Wulff that makes this tactic work; I’ve had similar results using attractor patterns such as the Humpy, Adams, Lime Trude, Gray Hackly Ugly, and others.

A baseball pitcher uses a curve ball to trick a batter; at the last moment, the pitch takes an unexpected turn. We can apply a similar strategy to our fishing. Cast something the trout do not expect to see, and you might catch more fish.

Tactics for Other Tricky Problems

There are other times when fishing something unexpected can provide favorable results. Check the boxes of any cold-weather trout angler, and you’ll almost certainly find an ample supply of midges, perhaps alongside an assortment of egg or annelid patterns. Midges are one of the most widespread aquatic insects and are active throughout the coldest times of the year. While productive, however, fishing midges can be tricky.

Bead-Head Halfback

Hook: 3X-long nymph hook, sizes 8 to 2.
Thread: Brown 6/0 (140 denier).
Bead: Gold brass bead.
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers.
Abdomen: Peacock.
Ribs: Coachman brown dry fly hackle and copper wire.
Dorsal stripe: Butt ends of the tail fibers pulled over the abdomen.
Hackle: Coachman

Trout sometimes become very critical of our patterns. On a typical day, you might encounter midges of several sizes and colors, any of which could be the one the fish are eating. Additionally, trout may be keying on a specific maturation stage, making the number of variables even greater. If that’s not enough of a challenge, consider that the fish might see a steady assortment of midge imitations for four straight months.

In addition, due to their lowered metabolic rates, they often hold in slower currents and feed less; during the winter, the fish can get a long look at any drifting flies and become adept at picking out the naturals from the forgeries. It’s no wonder there are days when the fish seem to be asleep. If you find yourself in this situation, try the following tactic.

Royal Coachman

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, sizes 16 to 10.
Thread: White 8/0 (70 denier).
Wings: White calftail
Body: Red floss and peacock

While midges may be the most active food source, many trout streams host another group of insects that is available throughout the year. Most stoneflies take multiple years to mature and are always available to the fish. Stoneflies don’t swim, so they are almost helpless when they become dislodged and drift with the current, making them easy, large meals for the trout. I’ve enjoyed many productive December and January days using large patterns such as Girdle Bugs, 20 Inchers, and other stonefly imitations—even Woolly Buggers—while other anglers struggle in the frigid temperatures to tie size 22 midges to their tippets.

20 Incher

Hook: Curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 10 to 4.
Thread: Brown 6/0 (140 denier).
Head: Nymph Head Evolution Stonefly Beadhead.
Underbody: Nonlead wire, two strips approximately the diameter of the hook wire tied along each side of the shank.
Tail spreader: Small ball of hare’s-ear dubbing.
Tail: Brown biots.
Rib: Gold wire.
Abdomen: Peacock herl.
Wing case: Pheasant tail fibers. Coat the top of the wing case with UV light-cured resin or epoxy.
Legs: Speckled hen.
Thorax: Hare’s-ear dubbing.

Some streams have reduced visibility during the winter. Periods of warm weather might result in a surge of snowmelt, clouding the water until the temperatures drop again. Although trout have the ability to find food, even small midges, in the less-than-ideal conditions, it makes sense that a more visible fly will catch more fish.

Yellow Humpy

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, sizes 16 to 10.
Thread: Yellow 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Deer hair.
Underbody: Butt ends of the tail fibers tied to the base of the wings, and then folded back beyond the end of the hook.
Body: Yellow tying thread.
Shellback: The butt ends of the deer hair folded forward, tied off at the base of the wings, and clipped.
Wings: Deer hair.
Hackle: Brown.

Cranefly larvae are some of the largest and most conspicuous sources of food in many waters. Increased flows often cause reduced visibility and make it difficult for trout to locate small midges, but these same elevated flows may dislodge cranefly larvae and make them susceptible to the hungry trout. And because few anglers use cranefly larva imitations, the fish don’t see them and might not spot a fake.

Cranefly Larva

Hook: 3X-long nymph hook, size 8.
Thread: Olive 6/0 (140 denier).
Underbody: Nonlead wire approximately the diameter of the hook wire.
Tail: Yellow grizzly marabou.
Back: Olive Scud Back.
Lateral stripes: Olive Flashabou.
Rib: Gray monofilament.
Body: Light olive Sow-Scud Dubbing for the

Solutions to Summer Challenges

Sometimes, even during the summer, success is fleeting. Even though there may be a hatch and feeding trout, on some days the fish just don’t respond to my match-the-hatch patterns. Sometimes the situation is even more difficult because the trout do not even react to the natural insects. This is when attractor patterns can solve the problem.

Jassid

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Body: Dark brown or black mole dubbing.
Legs: Black dry fly hackle trimmed

Later in the summer when the fish have been exposed to a range of patterns and warmer water leads to lethargy, I employ another strategy. Terrestrial activity picks up in the summer. Grasshopper imitations are popular at this time of the season, but the fish see a lot of hopper patterns.

Foam Beetle

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Shellback: Black closed-cell foam.
Body: Peacock.
Spot: Yellow foam.
Hackle: Grizzly.

Using beetle, cricket, and ant imitations offers the trout a little variety. These flies have enjoyed periods of popularity in the past, especially in places such as the Pennsylvania limestone fisheries, but are used infrequently in many parts of the country, such as the West, where grasshoppers reign supreme. And I add another twist to fishing terrestrials.

Crowe Beetle

Hook: 2X-long dry fly hook, sizes 10 to 6.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Underbody: Black deer hair.
Body: Black tying thread.
Legs: The butt ends of the deer hair pulled back.
Shellback: Tips of the deer hair pulled forward over the back.
Head: The tips of the deer hair trimmed even with the hook eye.

Most terrestrial insects are poor swimmers. Once in the water, many are unable to escape and they often sink and drown. If the trout do not take my floating patterns, I often find success by fishing my flies as drowned bugs. Try fishing a submerged grasshopper or other terrestrial as a dropper under a floating hopper imitation or other buoyant pattern; if trout do not strike the dry fly, they might eagerly accept the drowned pattern.

Fur Ant

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread: Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
Abdomen: Rusty brown Super Fine Dubbing.
Legs: Coachman brown dry fly hackle.
Thorax: Rusty brown Super Fine Dubbing.

The next time you’re not enjoying good results, try adding a twist to your fishing tactics. While all the other anglers are throwing fastballs down the middle, give the fish something different to look at. Throw them a curve.

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Al Ritt is a guide, author, and all-around good guy. Al lives in Colorado and works for Peak Engineering, the manufacturer of the Peak Vise.