Cast, Count and Pull

Joe Riley

Australian Fly Fishing representative, Joe Riley shares a few tips on prospecting the depths for trout.

If the rain ever stops October and November will herald exciting times for the lake land fly fisher. Highland trout are emerging from a lethargic cold water start to the season and are beginning to feed with a gusto as the water warms and insect activity in and on the water picks up pace.
Moving into October and November, the process of fishing various fly lines, from fast sinking through to floating becomes more of a challenge if you want to achieve a good success rate in catching numbers of trout. As the water warms the various aquatic insects begin to emerge, first the diminutive stone flies start to hatch. This is followed by the mayfly as they begin to make an appearance, late September in the lowland lakes and some time through November in the highlands. Early midge hatches are becoming more stable and reliable on calm mornings and evenings and there is even the chance of a terrestrial beetle or leaf hopper fall should the weather become warm and still, although beetle falls seem a vain hope and a life time away as I am listening to wind and rain batter the roof as yet another cold front pours rain onto us.
Insect action does not just happen on the surface though, in waters like Arthurs Lake, the scud, shrimp and snail all become more active, and boy do trout home in on active scud in big numbers, feeding voraciously. If you can find these fish you are in for a red letter day, provide you get the fly amongst these trout at the appropriate depth.
The prospect of the fish following available food to various depths in the water column makes line choice important to success. There is no point fishing below a fish that is near the surface and no point fishing several feet above a trout hugging the bottom feeding hard on scud and shrimp on the bed of the lake. Even in shallow water which I regard as one metre or less, the use of a sinking line which will get your flies to a given depth and keep it there longer will out-perform a floating or slower sinking line that reaches the depth only for a moment at the end of the retrieve.

Where to start
The first conundrum is always where to start with assorted fly lines. The basic rule of thumb is simple, if fish are showing at the surface, fish high, a floating line, midge tip or slow intermediate. If there is no fish activity on the surface and no sign of insects go down with a line that will get you near the bottom.
Many of the English magazines talk about daphnia (tiny water flea that form intense clouds in the water) how they move up and down in the water column and how trout, particularly rainbows move up and down feeding on them. While we do get daphnia activity and fish feeding on them the prevalence of daphnia as a food source is nowhere near what it is in English Reservoirs. The amount of snail, scud, shrimp, nymphs and galaxias as a general rule will keep trout close to the bed of the lake, amongst rocks and weed, so if there is no activity at the top, go to the bottom.
The importance of the above statement is of course governed by how deep the water is that you are fishing. If you are wading, you will no doubt be in shallow water, so a moderately sinking fly line is all that you will need. An intermediate or type 3 sinking line will suffice. If you are in a boat in 10 feet of water, then a type 5 or type 7 line will be required to get your flies to the correct depth so you can fish deeper for longer.
Technical talk

So far all sorts of fly lines have been mentioned so it is probably appropriate to explain a few so that we know what we are on about. Some things will seem pretty obvious but some may not, so bear with me as we go through a few terms and descriptions.

Floating Line - Simply a line designed to sit on the surface of the water when cast.

Sink Tip - A fly line designed for the main running section to float but the end section to sink. Traditionally the sinking section is about ten feet long and the rest of the line floats. These lines are especially useful when wading as they avoid having to pull all of the line from under the water to cast.

Midge Tip - A recent addition to the fly fishing scene. Midge tip or Mini tip lines are used extensively in Europe but have not made much of a mark here in Australia...yet. The sinking section is two to three feet long and pulls just under the surface. While this doesn't seem like much of a difference from a floating line, flies can be presented dry, then retrieved just under the surface, a technique that can be deadly in a mayfly hatch or when fish are taking emerging nymphs.

Sinking lines - Traditional sinking fly lines are lines that entirely sink. This is a simple concept, however the nature of fly line development has lead to weight forward lines where the front section is thicker and therefore heavier than the running line, enabling you to cast longer. When applied to sinking lines the thicker heavier front section sinks quicker meaning that the flies would fish at the correct depth for only a short time prior to being retrieved upwards and away from fish feeding deep. This is also a problem with sink tip lines and why I believe their value has limitations.
Further development of fly lines has now lead to "density compensation" fly lines. These lines sink at an even rate regardless of the diameter of the line that is in the water, meaning the front thicker shooting head section of the fly line sinks at the same rate as the thinner running line further back. Density compensation is now fairly standard in sinking fly lines.
The important thing to remember with sinking fly lines is to know how they work and understand the sink rates of your lines so you can fish accurately in a given depth of water.

Sink Rates - Various fly line manufacturers all seem to have a different sink rate for their sinking lines. The sink rate for a given line can change from manufacturer to manufacturer so whatever sinking lines you have you need to know the appropriate sink rate. As a general rule Di5 or type 5 lines will sink about five inches a second, Di3 three inches and so on, but check any fly line before you buy it and know your sink rates thoroughly as it will pay dividends when it comes to fishing the depths.
Intermediate Lines - These are slower sinking lines, i.e. the whole line sinks slowly, sink rates can be around one to two inches per second. These lines are ideal when fish are taking one to three feet below the surface. Clear or glass lines fall into this category and although they give the angler confidence, I am certain they make little difference to catch rates compare to coloured intermediate lines.

Where to start - As I stated earlier, if they fish aren't near the surface, go down. If you are in a boat check the depth you are fishing and make sure you know it at regular intervals. Trout are fairly accessible to fly fishing in depths up to 15 ft, however most success comes for me from about 10 ft up. In October and November I find that fish are moving into more moderate depths looking for activity in warming water. Six feet is a really good all round depth for trout, it seems to be a depth where trout have the safety to stay down and there is sufficient light penetration for insect activity to thrive. As you drift, keep an eye on the landscape watching the rise and fall of the surrounding ground as you can notice drifts over drop offs and when you stray away from the catching depths where fish are congregated.

Cast, count and retrieve - counting down your line involves counting at a steady constant pace which multiplied by the sink rate of the line will give you an approximate depth that you are fishing. Start near the bottom-perhaps 15 seconds and if you are touching weed constantly then you can back off the count a bit until you only touch weed or rock intermittently, then you are about spot on. It is vitally important while you are counting down to keep in contact with your flies. Takes come with regularity to sinking flies. If you are in contact you will feel the take immediately. If you simply let the line sink as the boat drifts and a loose loop of fly line forms at the rod tip all of these takes will be missed or even go totally unrecognised. Take up the line to keep a nice straight line as it sinks. If a fish takes on the sink, you will get some indication of what depth the trout may be and adjust your count accordingly to fish at that depth.
If you are not finding fish and you are confident in the flies you are using, change lines rather than flies to fish different depths.
All rules have exceptions and low light is the exception here. If you are fishing dawn and dusk in near dark conditions, fish rely more on ambient light from the surface to silhouette prey. You can fish in the surface confidently in low light as fish will come upwards to take food above them as light penetration from above provides the greatest source of vision.
Mix up retrieves and if you fish multiple fly casts mix up fly sizes and colours as trout will change their preferences from time to time. Retrieves can vary tremendously and trout will definitely have preferences at certain times. Different retrieves need covering at another time as there are plenty of variables, experiment and work a few out along the way.
We all love to fish a dry fly on the surface and during October and November there will be opportunity to do this. Pay attention to fish and insect activity, and use the low light of dawn and dusk, these are important indicators for top of the water action. Unfortunately the weather will still be variable and the majority of the time trout will feed sub surface, finding them and fishing at the right depth for the longest time are the keys to catching consistently.

Joe Riley