In Techniques & Tactics: Part 1 we discussed the environmental factors which influence and help dictate the techniques you’ll want to try when fly fishing in and around Jackson Hole. In Part 2 we’ll get specific and cover techniques for dry fly, nymph and streamer fishing.
Dry Fly Fishing In Jackson Hole
Lets start with a quick recap of environmental influences which may affect how we go about dry fly fishing in Jackson Hole:
- hatches tend to be sparse
- there is a wide variety of different food sources
- those food sources tend to be moving in some way rather than being docile
- trout will be hiding from the many predators in the area
- despite the predators, cutthroats are aggressive, opportunistic feeders that will readily rise to dry flies
The Snake River and most of it’s tributaries have swift currents with broken surfaces. You won’t find many glassy spring creek-like glides here. Factor in the sparseness of a typical hatch and you are left with a river system where you will not spot all that many rising trout. But don’t be fooled. You can still, and often do, have great dry fly fishing.
Knowing this, your approach will be a lot different than, say, on the Railroad Ranch of the Henry’s Fork where most anglers won’t even bother casting unless the trout are rising. In Jackson Hole we fish the water with searching, or attractor, patterns. Fishing the water means, in essence, casting to likely looking trout lies as opposed to casting to trout you have already spotted.
Reading the Water
To fish the water properly, you must “read the water” in an effort to determine the most likely holding lies for trout. Since currents are swift, look for places where structure such as logs, rocks, shelves, cutback banks and so on create zones of calmer water. I like to call these zones the strike zone, and if your fly is not in it you may begin to think there isn’t a trout in the entire state. Being near the strike zone is not good enough, your fly must be in it.
While reading water is not particularly hard to describe, in real world situations it is somewhat more difficult. In addition to obvious structure as described in the previous paragraph two other conditions will usually need to be met for trout to be present – those being optimal speed and depth. If the water is too fast…no fish. Too slow…no fish. Too shallow…no fish. Too deep…yes, there may be fish, but they won’t be willing, or have the time, to rise through the water column to feed.
The moral of the story is that in addition to physical structure such as rocks and trees you need to find the proper speed and depth of water for trout to feel at home. In fact, by simply finding the proper speed and depth you will often find trout too, even in the absence of obvious structure.
So how do you learn to “read the water?” Unfortunately, there is really only one way. The good news is that you’ll have to go fishing! Even experienced anglers can have trouble reading the water in Jackson Hole due to the characteristics and idiosyncrasies that this, and all, areas possess. Some holding lies are not obvious at all and require experience to spot. But given time and patience you’ll eventually develop a sixth sense about these things.
Why the big emphasis on attractor, or searching, patterns? Why not just put on a fly that imitates the hatching insect, even if the hatch is sparse? The answer is that you certainly could. Not only that, you’ll catch fish. But if you want to maximize your efforts, it’s usually better to fish attractor patterns for several reasons.
Remember the type of water you’ll usually be fishing. Fast and turbulent. Most “match-the-hatch” style fly patterns are not designed for this type of water and will either sink or be too hard to see. These are the conditions in which a well designed attractor pattern comes into play.
Attractor patterns tend to be beefed up versions of “match-the-hatch” style flies which not only float better, but are much easier to see. But there is an additional benefit. Attractor patterns do not imitate any one specific insect, they are impressionistic. They look a little bit like a lot of different types of bugs. With the wide variety of different food stuffs trout have to feed on in Jackson Hole it is not hard to see how this could be an advantage.
Move Your Fly
Fishing the water with attractor patterns is all well and good, but it still leaves open the question of how one should present the fly to the trout. The time honored, traditional presentation that has been espoused in just about every book and magazine article ever written is, of course, the dead drift. And despite what I’m about to say, the dead drift is still probably the single best presentation method available. However, it is far from the only one and sometimes pales in comparison to other methods.
Perhaps the simplest variation, and one of the most effective, is the twitch. Normally this will work best with larger patterns, especially if they incorporate rubber legs. Simply use your rod tip to impart a slight twitch on the fly and return to the dead drift. The strike will often come immediately after the twitch.
Other alternative presentations include drowning (intentionally pulling your fly under water on a dead drift), stripping your fly under water, and skating the fly on the surface. All have their time and place. Which one works best can change from day to day. Experiment in an effort to determine what the technique of the day is.
Like dry fly fishing, the traditional presentation for the nymph fisherman is the dead drift. But as you may have guessed by now, there are alternatives which can be very effective.
Try stripping smaller nymphs (and soft hackles) through riffles and/or foamy areas, especially seams where currents converge. Use a short (1″) quick stripping action.
Larger nymphs can be fished with a slow bounce or pumping action. Once you’ve established a dead drift, slowly lift your rod tip to lift the fly, then drop the tip to let it sink. The pumping action would be similar to the slow lift, but with a little pop to it. The strike will usually come as the fly drops, so be ready.
Thanks to the inherently aggressive nature of the cutthroat trout, streamer fishing can be very effective and is often overlooked by the average fisherman.
Streamer fishing is all about the action you impart upon the fly. Using your rod tip, pop the streamer along at a medium speed. Your fly need not necessarily be deep. When the trout are in a particularly aggressive mood they’ll nail streamers right on the surface, though normally you’ll want it down anywhere between 3″ and 18″. If water temperatures are low, fish your streamers a little deeper and slower.
A helpful technique is jig your streamer vertically through the water column. In other words, using your rod tip, impart an up-and-down action to the fly. Again, the strike will usually come as the fly drops.
Remember that when you are streamer fishing you are often trying to imitate small baitfish that large trout like to prey on. Making your fly appear wounded is much more likely to trigger the predatory feeding instinct than a no-action presentation. This can be accomplished with an erratic retrieve and frequent pauses. The biggest mistake I see beginning streamer fishermen make is not putting enough action on the fly, often because they are trying to create that action by tugging on the fly line rather than using their rod tip. The rod tip will create a much more life-like action than simply stripping in the fly by hand.
As you can see, while traditional techniques will work quite well in Jackson Hole, many non-traditional techniques will work as well. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to experiment. As always, have fun and best of luck.