I planned to write this column more than a month ago, but I got to "field test" its techniques again 10 days ago at Mossy Creek, near Harrisonburg, Va.
As a prelude to the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association (M-DOWA)/ Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) joint conference in Staunton, a half-dozen of us were invited to sample the local trout fishing.
The guys at Mossy Creek Fly Shop warned us our outing would almost surely to be in vain: the river was cold, high, muddy and ripped by swirling winds. We opted to go anyway. The guides said that probably our only choice was probing holes and channels - largely obscured by mud - among beds of emergent weed.
Their recommended fly was a heavy, black Clouser minnow pattern.
I had success with the Clouser but thought at the time, and especially later, that I probably could have done better with my own flies and rigs I created for such conditions.
An article entitled "Close Encounters" by Andy Weaverling in the January/February issue of "American Angler" helped crystallize my developing thinking on fishing for trout in small, deep, hard-to-fish lies. In summary, Weaverling recommends using standard fly tackle with heavy flies and bass fishing's underhand flipping technique or upstream or across stream "mini" roll and waterhaul casts with large floating flies and dropper flies to reach trout in difficult lies. I had taken trout in years past improvising some of these rigs and techniques on my own. Weaverlings's article presented these techniques in a comprehensive, organized way.
At Mossy Creek I used standard casts, roll casts, waterhauls, flips, jabs, lobs, bow-and-arrow casts and several other casts without traditional names that I dub "whatever it takes to present the fly" casts. (Sometimes, to paraphrase Zen, "The cast that can be named is not the cast.")
Counterintuitively I used a longer, tough, 1X tippet to create an 11-foot leader. I could still make the standard, roll and waterhaul casts with the heavy Clouser with this rig.
But when I moved upstream and began working from willow-lined banks I switched to the heaviest fly in my vest, a conehead, rabbit strip streamer pattern, added a couple of split shot above, then basically used the weight of the fly and shot to cast the long leader and pull out only a few feet of fly line to make pitch, flip and "whatever" casts to drop the fly into small holes. I only hung in the willows twice, once on a missed strike.
So a heavy, comparatively large fly and creative casts are one approach to take trout from small, difficult to access lies.
Two points should be noted. First, flies specifically designed for this purpose, such as the Weaverling patterns shown in "Close Encounters" are far preferable to the jury-rigged flies I used. Second, you cannot present these flies with standard casts.
If you try you will likely: 1. Break your tippet, 2. Whack yourself and plant the fly in your head or other body part, or 3. Worst of all, break your rod.
A real klutz might accomplish all three. So the short flip, roll, waterhaul and "whatever" casts are needed not only to deal with obstacles but also with the weight of the fly.
But there's another way, one that might have worked better and that I would have tried if I had more than the couple of hours allotted on Mossy Creek: Czech nymphing. Or at least my version of Czech nymphing. (Orthodoxy has never been my strong suit.)
I sometimes use a standard, two fly (point fly and dropper fly) Czech nymphing rig. But I often go to a rig built with two dropper flies tied off via surgeon's or Seaguar knots and add several non-lead split shots clipped loosely to the terminus of the leader. To some this is a fly fishing bottom rig or salmon/steelhead "chuck and duck" rig. You can add an indicator above the flies to create a "Bounce nymph" rig. (Here we go with the names again.)
Whatever. My choice of flies would be size 12 or 14 beadhead soft hackle versions of Prince and Pheasant Tail nymphs.
Since this rig has a lot of moving parts, casting options are limited, and slow and deliberate movements are required to avoid tangling. It's also not the best choice in brush-filled banks.
But slow flipping and waterhaul casts can deliver the nymphs in a very natural manner to small holes and runs. My suspicion is those Mossy Creek trout would have been more receptive to the nymphs. Certainly this technique has worked for me on trout, salmon, grayling, steelhead and whitefish in Alaska, New York and lots of places in the West and mid-Atlantic.
After returning from Mossy Creek, I had several email exchanges with the very personable Andy Weaverling to clarify details of some of the four fly patterns listed in "Close Encounters." (Change "ounce" to "inch" in the pattern recipes.) You can create your own patterns, but I particularly like Weaverling's size 4 "Sloppy Joe" fly, basically a heavily dressed Clouser pattern with extra large eyes and extra wraps of lead wire (or non-lead substitute) on the hook shank. His size 4 Tungsten Strawberry Twizzler is a weighted worm pattern that also looks promising. The Duane Arnold fly is a big surface fly/indicator variation of the Chernobyl Ant. (I took a 24-inch cutthroat in Wyoming using my version of this rig.)
His size 6 Big Frank nymph is a Mega Prince nymph pattern with added bling.
I'll probably stay with my nymph rigs described above, but this fly would probably be a better alternative in brushy, snaggy situations.
Anyway, I'm off to my tying vise.
And I'll be ready with a box of these specialized flies this spring.