This piece originally appeared in the FOSAF publication “favoured flies” in Oct 2008
Brown Trout have been tickling my fancy for over twenty years. There is something about a Brown that is appealing, fanciful, and frustrating all at the same time, and whatever that something is, it has me hunting them regularly. I struggle to define what it is about a Brown that holds appeal for me. Perhaps it is simply that there are less of them around than the Rainbow, but I suspect it runs deeper than that. Whatever it is about Browns, it keeps me coming back. Stippled beauties they are.
What I have noticed about these wily fish, particularly in rivers, is that they will decide whether or not they are “on the prod” as I call it. And if they happen to decide that, you will feel as though you are tripping over them. At every bend, every pool and run in the river, you will see them doing something, and often something crazy. They will rise, knock the fly, get caught, swim into your leg, grab something off overhanging grass, and just generally let you know that they are about. In all likelihood you will scare a lot of them and see them dart off at alarming speed, but at least you will see them. Days when the trout are “on the prod”, are to be treasured. Call home and tell her you are going to be VERY late!
On the other hand, when they decide not to be “on the prod”, you will doubt their very existence.
A couple of years back, I was fishing a favourite stretch on the middle Umgeni River in KZN: a regular haunt of mine. I had set aside the entire day. 5 am to 8 pm. I was going big. This was to be it: Just those Trout and I for a whole glorious day.
Well, I fished my heart out. I tried every pattern. I waded up the river covering every conceivable hole, where those odd fish sometimes decide to hang out. And once I had fished those, I walked right through them to see if I couldn’t perhaps kick a fish out.
And I couldn’t !
They just were not there !
The light was falling perfectly on the water, and I could see every pebble on the riverbed all morning, but nary a fish.
By evening I was frustrated to say the least. I sat on the river bank watching the bird life, taking in the scenery, and trying to tell myself that it had been a good day out, despite the lack of fish. The river slid by silently. It started to get late. Black. And then suddenly the fish started to rise.
They rose everywhere. There were so many rises that I wondered if all these fish wouldn’t displace all the water out of the river and onto the fields behind me. It was remarkable. How could these fish have eluded me all those hours? Where had they come from?
Oh well, that’s old “speckled-belly” for you !
On still waters in particular, there are a few ‘truths’ about Brown Trout that seem to apply: Firstly, they prefer low light conditions. In other words, late evening, or alternatively inclement weather. It is from this fact that fishermen have developed a saying that ….the more ‘filthy’ the weather the happier a Brown Trout is ! (….And remember, it is said that in low light conditions, a dark fly delivers more contrast, and is therefore more visible).
Another fact is that they more inclined than a Rainbow to turn cannibal, and eat of their own species. That is probably about as much as one can surmise about Browns, because beyond that they are unpredictable fish, to say the least.
With the above in mind, I tend to fish a dark fly for Browns. First on my list for still waters would be my “puff dragon”. Those who have fished with me in the last fifteen years will know that I can be somewhat boring in this regard, in that I start out with this fly, come what may. But the reasons for doing so are sound. It simply catches a lot of fish.
Hook: #8, #6 or #4 nymph hook
Body: Clumps of marabou tied all around the shank, to give an even spun look, and then snipped into a coffin shape, with a flat bottom.
Legs: a single turn of soft speckled partridge hackle, tied in just behind the thorax
Thorax cover: Dark turkey or Raphine
Thorax: a blend of dark, wiry dubbing, such as a seals fur blend
Eyes: Looped black tuff chenille
The secret of this pattern is the shape. Take your time to clip it carefully, since the pattern does use up a lot of your marabou stock! Tie in the marabou first, whip finish, and remove from the vice to trim. Cut the underside of the fly flat. Cut the back off flat about 1/8th the length of the shank behind the bend. Then cut the short end of the ‘coffin’ to a widest point top and sides, about opposite the barb of the hook. Trim forward to a sharp point just behind the thorax. Now replace the hook in the vice, tie in the eyes, the hackle, the thorax cover, and then the thorax dubbing in a figure of eight around the eyes. Pull the thorax cover forward, tie in and whip finish.
When fishing this pattern, retrieve it very slowly. Whether or not you are fishing it deep, I believe that a slow retrieve is vital to its success.
The following fly does not fit the ‘dark fly’ rule, but I cannot ignore the success I have had with this one, on both Rainbows and Browns on stillwaters:
The slinky damsel:
This fly tries to emulate the fact that the damsel is sleek, and yes “slinky”! In other words it is not fuzzy.
Hook: #12 or #10 long shank nymph hook: You will need to use a round bend hook, as opposed to a limerick bend, in order to get the bead on.
Tail: a slender bunch of olive marabou, or sometimes I use three fine hackle points.
Body: High sheen olive floss, with a strand of olive flashabou lightly twisted in just before wrapping.
Legs: three a side, fine olive rubber legs, cut quite long, lanky and exaggerated
Thorax: Continue with the floss, wrapped up through the legs. This can be a bit tricky as the legs get pushed out of the way by the floss, and lie flat against the body. Practice makes perfect.
Bead: a translucent green plastic bead
The trick with this fly is finding the right beads, and getting them onto the hook. You will probably break a number of them. Persist, or if you are struggling, widen the hole slightly with a pen knife.
Now with that cannibalistic tendency in mind, I use the following Muddler variant, which can be particularly effective on Browns after dark. This is pattern is also effective in our waters that have a population of minnows:
Hook: #6 streamer hook
Tail: a pair of grizzly hackle points tied in spade-wing style
Body: gold tinsel, ribbed with round gold wire
Wing: a pair of grizzly hackle points tied in spade-wing style
Under wing: some bright red or yellow calf hair or marabou tied in under the wing
Head: the usual spun deer hair of a Muddler, but I tie it very sparse, so as not to make the fly too buoyant.
I mentioned that there are truths for Brown’s on Stillwater in particular. On rivers I am inclined to believe that Browns are that much less predictable, but also that, fitting the ‘small, lean, hungry South African river trout’ profile, they are whole lot less fussy about choice of fly. It is for this reason that I tend to be very lazy about changing fly on a river. Maybe that is just an excuse, but it works for me. I tend to choose something small and dark, and stick with it all day, changing fly only for the purpose of changing size or weight. In fact on a river, all my tackle attention falls on tippets and strike indicators, and fly weight. So with that in mind, here is my current stock standard fly for browns on a river at the moment:
The Plaited nymph:
Hook: #16 to #10 nymph
Tail: a few strands of dark dun hackle fibre
Body: plaited body of the following: Dark dyed ostrich hurl, pearl flashabou or similar, and a strand of thin copper wire twisted with a peacock hurl. Trim the protruding ostrich hurl top and bottom once done.
Thorax cover: dark turkey feather or similar
Thorax: a wiry dubbing mixture of dark colours.
The beauty of this pattern lies in the body that sparkles ever so slightly (but in a very understated way), and which, by virtue of the ostrich hurl, has a wonderful set of gills down either side of the body.
The black nymph:
When one gets to a long slow pool on the river, a really deep and sluggish piece of water, such as one finds on the lower Mooi and the middle Umgeni rivers, I do occasionally turn to the following simple little fly that is a secret weapon of mine:
This is a ridiculously simple pattern. Don’t let that put you off it!
Hook: #16 or #14 nymph hook
Body: Black seals fur or similar, dubbed.
Ribbing: fine copper wire
Thorax: continuation of the body, tied thicker, and without the rib.
No list of flies for brown trout would be complete without a dry fly pattern. The following is a hopper that I have been tying for a few years now. While it is rather complex, it certainly is easy on the eye of the fisherman. That should not be important of course: it’s the fish that count, but I reckon if it does instil some confidence in the fisherman, that might just have you fishing it more expectantly. And if you fish that way, you tend to fish better, and catch more Trout!
Andy’s Exo hopper:
Hook: #10 or #8, when you are practiced, you can tie it on a #12 or smaller!
Body: deer hair or klipspringer, tied as though in a long tail, then pulled forward to the 2/3 mark on the shank, and bound down with strong Kevlar thread
Wing: some bright red calf tail, overlain with black Raphine, splayed out.
Legs: prepared separately and then tied on either side afterwards.
Knot a large black cock hackle, and then trim the fibres off the section ‘below the knee’ such that one side is clean, and the other shows a row of short barbs. Then tie a bunch of klipspringer fibres to the ‘thigh’, tied in near their points, at the knee, and using a loop of thread. Trim the short ends (at the ‘knee’), and add a dot of superglue for strength. When tying in, gather the deer hair fibres, with the hackle hidden in the middle of the bunch, tie in at the 2/3 mark, and trim away the excess.
Head: More klipspringer, tied in facing forward over the eye of the hook, then pulled back, all around the hook shank, and secured at the neck, leaving short fibres protruding backwards around the base of the wing.
The overall appearance of this fly should suggest the smooth hard exo skeleton of a hopper, and it floats like a cork.
This is a great pattern on a windy day, on both river and stillwater.
So, if I had to choose just a few flies with which to hunt Brown trout, I guess the above would be my current choice