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The Power of Observation in Fly Fishing, with Guide Cliff Weisse

Description: Careful observation, active instead of passive, is the hallmark of a good fly fisher. They pick up patterns by observing exactly where in the river a fish came from , or how it behaved when feeding, or what weather patterns preceded a particularly successful day. Head guide Cliff Weisse [46:15] of Three Rivers Ranch in Warm River, Idaho tells us some things many fly fishers don't pay enough attention to, and thus lose the ability to improve their skills.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi, and welcome to the "Orvis Fly Fishing" podcast. This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And my guest this week is Cliff Weisse. Cliff is the head guide at Three Rivers Ranch in Warm River, Idaho. Cliff has been a lifelong fly angler, and he's one of these very, very thoughtful and analytical anglers. And I always enjoy talking to Cliff. He's also an incredible ornithologist. So, he is a fascinating guy to talk to. He also raises English setters. So, Cliff's a pretty cool guy. A podcast idea he suggested to me when I was out there this fall was, why don't we talk about the power of observation and the value of observation in fly fishing? And what Cliff meant by that was not just kind of a passive observation, you look at something and say, "That's interesting," but looking at something and say, "Okay, why did that fish do that? Why did I hook that fish there? What's going on with the currents there? Why did it behave like it did?"
And really kind of question everything and think about it. And so, it's a more active form of observation. So, Cliff's gonna give some examples, and I think it'll change the way you spend your time on the water observing both the fishy stuff and the non-fishy stuff that goes on around you when you're immersed in a trout stream. But before we get to talk to Cliff, we're gonna do the Fly Box. And the Fly Box is where you ask questions and I try to give you an answer if I can. You can either email me your question at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I read them all, and I don't answer them all. Or, you can send me a voice file. Just attach a voice file to your email, and if I can, I'll read it on the air. So, let's start out with a phone call. Let's do something really wild. I always start out with an email. Let's start out with a phone call. First one is from Lance.
Lance: Hey, Tom. How's it going? I am sort of a new fly fisher, and I'm trying to learn and stuff, and it can be frustrating. So, I don't have one answer to things. However, like, I'm reading this book, it says, "I use gel floating to grease all flies." Well, is that true? Do people really grease all of their flies, even nymphs? I know they can grease their mergers, but do they grease them or do they use desiccant to create bubbles to simulate emergence? Anyway, I appreciate all you do and all Orvis does for the community. I get confused on stuff like this, and it's tough. Is it me not being open-minded enough and not understanding the nuances of things, or is this just simply a wrong statement? I mean, I don't know.
Tom: So, Lance, you're right. There is a lot of nuance in fly fishing, and whoever said, if this was what it stated in a book or an article or whatever, "I use gel floating for all flies," I would kind of question that. It may not do you any good for nymphs and streamers unless you want them to float a little bit better. And even so, most of the nymphs and streamers we use these days are just gonna sink because they've got a bead or some weight on them. And even if it's an unweighted streamer or nymph and you want it to float, I guess that'd be okay. I've heard of some people putting powdered floating on nymphs to create air bubbles next to the body of the nymph to kind of make it look like an emerging fly, and that makes sense.
But to put gel float...gel floating doesn't create the same kind of air bubbles, and I'm not so sure why. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I think that that person just meant that they used gel floating on all dry flies. Now, even so, that doesn't make sense to me because there are some dry flies, particularly flies tied with CDC, which is a fluffy feather from the back of a duck, from the butt of the duck, actually, the lower part of the back. If you put gel floating on that stuff, it loses all its flotation properties and it also loses the allure of CDC. It has incredibly tiny fibers that as far as I know, can't be created with a synthetic material. And these little fibers move in the current, whether it's used on an nymph or on a dry fly.
And I wouldn't put gel floating on CDC flies. There's certain liquid floating you can use on them. Most people use some powder or dust, some of the dry stuff, on CDC flies. But I wouldn't recommend putting gel floating on it. So, I really think you can discount that statement. I think the person was in error when they said that. Okay. Now we'll do an email. This one's from Gregg from Northern Virginia. "First and foremost, a big thank you to you and Orvis for all that you do for fly fishing community. I have a question and a comment, or maybe even a suggestion. First, my question. I'm a longtime fly fisher and tier, but primarily for trout, and I've never been out in the salt, but I'm looking to change that with an upcoming trip to The Bahamas for a day of guided bonefishing."
"I'll be taking my 8-weight rod along with my Mirage reel. So, my question is, what other fishing gear do I need? I have leader and fly suggestions from the local guide, but what I'm not sure about is the quantity. Do I need two leaders and a spool of tippet or do I need four leaders or more? Do I need a couple of flies of each size pattern, or do I need a dozen? Will I break leader's tippet often? Will I lose flies often? I know what I'd pack if I was doing a day trip on the Farmington or the Beaver Kill for trout, but I'm struggling to know how much stuff I should be packing for a day on the flats. I certainly don't wanna overbuy or overpack, but I also don't wanna be out in the water and be caught without a critical item or run out of flies. Hoping you can provide some clarity on what you think would be appropriate for a single day of guided phishing."
"And for my comment. I know you don't often plug Orvis products into your podcast, but I'd like to make a suggestion to all my fellow listeners out there, and be sure to support Orvis as well as your local fly shop this holiday season. In addition to fly fishing gear, Orvis carries a wonderful selection of high-quality apparel and goods for everyone on your list. So, I'd urge folks out there to remember how much we love our free podcast and try to support the company as well as the folks that work there this holiday season." Well, first of all, Gregg, thank you very much for that plug. I couldn't have said it better myself. So, appreciate that.
Regarding your trip to The Bahamas, yeah, you wanna make sure you have enough stuff because as far as I know, there are no fly shops in The Bahamas. There may be, but I don't know of one. And depending on the guide you're fishing with, they can have some flies and some leaders and tippet and wire and stuff, or they could have nothing, maybe a bottle of water. And that goes for guides everywhere. But since stuff is a lot more difficult to get in The Bahamas, your guide may not have too much on the boat. So, regarding leaders, I would go with four leaders, just in case. And I'll get into why in a minute when we talk about breaking leaders and tippet.
You know, I'd take a couple of 16-pound and a couple 20-pound leaders. You can always step down from the 16 or the 20-pound leader if you need to go a little bit longer and finer if you get into some really spooky fish with smaller flies. And I would also make sure that you have a good full spool of 12-pound, 16-pound, and 20-pound tippet. You're gonna want to have those because you are gonna break break off and it's really gonna vary. You know, some areas of The Bahamas are just white sand or soft mud, and you typically don't lose many flies on the bottom. But other areas of The Bahamas have big expanses of limestone along the shore and on the bottom, and that stuff is really sharp, and you can get abrasion in your leader.
You know, if you got a spool of bonefish coming in and you get your fly hung up on the limestone because it sank a little bit too quickly, do you wanna risk spooking that whole school of bonefish and go and get the get the fly back, or do you wanna break it off and try to tie another one on in time? I know what I would do there. I'd break it off and tie another one on. So, you know, it depends on the area, but you should plan on losing a bunch. You don't lose that many flies to bonefish, again, unless there's a lot of that sharp limestone around. You generally don't lose a lot of fish to bonefish. But the other thing that happens besides the sharp limestone is that occasionally, a small barracuda or a needle fish will grab your fly, it'll come outta nowhere and grab your fly. Even an old tiny barracuda can chop your fly off.
So you wanna make sure that you have, I don't know, I would take more than a couple flies of each size and pattern. I think I'd take a dozen. The flies aren't gonna go bad, and you can always either give them to your guide or use them on your next trip. So, I don't think it'd hurt to have too many flies. And then, most important on those flies is, in the patterns that the guide recommends to you, and I'm sure somewhere in there's gonna be a gotcha and probably a spawning shrimp because those are the favorites of The Bahamas, and probably size four and size six, which are the most common sizes there. But most important is to have each of the patterns, if you can find them, in varying sink rates, because you need flies either without eyes or with plastic eyes. You need some flies with bead-chain eyes, which are the ones you're gonna use most often, probably, for the average depth of bonefish.
And then you might want some with really heavy, solid metal eyes for deep channels and maybe the occasional permit that comes along where you need to get that fly down quicker. Sink rate is so important in bonefish flies. It's the most important part of your presentation, is getting the right sink rate. So, make sure that you have different sink rates in those flies. And, you know, whether you have fours or sixes probably isn't as important as getting the sink rate right. So make sure you have those. And if you can't get a particular pattern, one with heavier or lighter eyes, then pick another pattern that looks close to it. Bonefish are not terribly selective. And yes, guides, they have their favorites and certain areas, certain flies seem to work better, but bonefish are nowhere near as selective as trout. They pretty much eat anything that moves if it looks edible in most places if your presentation is good. So, that's what I would do.
As far as other things to take, make sure you have either a pair of forceps or a pair of the new Mirage pliers, which are the smaller-jawed Orvis pliers. Those would be for, you know, holding a fly while you're tying on your fly for cutting wire and for removing the hook quickly and for debarbing hooks, because you should be using barbless hooks for bonefish. They work quite well, and it makes handling time a lot less. The other things that I would have, you know, you're hopefully gonna have sunscreen and a hat and polarized sunglasses. Those, I think, go without saying, and maybe an extra pair of polarized sunglasses in case you lose a pair and an extra hat. I would take some wire for cudas, either some pre-made wire leaders or just some twistable bite guards. You can find those on the Orvis website.
Cudas are a lot of fun, and depending on what time of year you go, they can be pretty aggressive. They're a great fish on a flyer up, particularly on your 8-weight. And you may wanna fish for small sharks. And if you do, you're gonna need some wire. Don't use the wire for bonefish. It won't do you any good. A few cuda flies, poppers will work for cudas and sharks. A long skinny chartreuse fly is usually the best thing, but they'll also eat a big white deceiver, a green and white deceiver, blue and white deceiver. So, those are the things that I would make sure that you absolutely have with you. I probably forgot some other things, but those are the things I would make sure that I have in my pocket all the time when I'm fishing for bonefish.
Here's an email from John from Central Idaho. "I listen to all your podcasts, and have learned a lot from the Fly Box, questions, tips, your guests, and you. Thank you very much. Two questions for you today. One, when I hook a fish in a smaller hole or riffle, mostly trout, and lose it after some fighting, I struggle to get more takes in that hole or riffle for quite a while. My theory for that is that the fish I hooked and other fish nearby gets spooked. And I would assume that the longer I fight the fish, the smaller the chances become that I will get another take thereafter. What do you think? Do you keep targeting a spot or even a fish after losing it, or do you tend to move spots? Number two, I have lost quite a few fish when switching from stripping to reeling them in, particularly when I hook them close to me and have a lot of line hanging from my reel."
"I generally only switch to reeling when I feel the fish is bigger or when the fish is downstream of me. I recently hooked a large trout and carefully stripped all the way in while trying to mimic some drag by having a little pressure on my trigger finger and letting the fly line strip through carefully to not break the tippet, and it worked surprisingly well. Do you use, or can you recommend any techniques to strip in larger fish or how to switch to reeling more successfully in those situations?" All right. So, your first question, John, as with most things in fly fishing, it really depends. But if you're in a small stream or you're in a small pool or a riffle, yes, the chances are pretty good that if you hook a fish and lose it, you may have spooked whatever else is in the pool, and not just from the fish swimming around, but, you know, you're probably gonna be making more overt movements by playing the fish, by moving your rod around, maybe changing your position.
So, it can spook any other fish that are nearby. Now, when you're in a bigger river, sometimes you can catch four or five fish from the same little slot or riffle. If you think there's more than one fish in a spot and you can lead it out of there quickly, just use side pressure and get the fish out of that spot quickly, and then rest it for a couple minutes, you are likely to be able to take more than one fish, sometimes three or four fish from the same slaughter, or from the same riffle. And you know, the faster the water and the foamer the water, the greater the chance that you're gonna be able to do that in really flat, slow water. You know, the disturbance is magnified or it's not covered up by the riffle. So not as good of a chance in flat or smooth water.
But, you know, yeah, in small streams, probably you're gonna spook whatever else was nearby. And you're right, the longer you play the fish, not only the fish swimming around the pool, but you moving around in the pool is gonna spook it. Now, regarding when to switch from stripping to reeling them in, here's the philosophy I use for better or for worse. I don't put a fish on a reel until the fish tells me it wants to go on the reel. In other words, that fish takes off, I know I'm not gonna be able to stop it without breaking my tippet, and it pulls line through my fingers. I try to hold my line hand off to the side with maybe a little a little pinch on it to keep it from wrapping it around the reel seat. And when the fish goes, you just let it go, and then you will be on your reel, and then you'll have to play the fish from the reel. The fish should tell you that.
And you'll know it. You'll know it when they really wanna take off. If the fish doesn't take off, I would strip it in all the way. The reason is that when you try to get a fish on a reel and it really doesn't need to be put on the reel and you've got all that slackline that you wanna reel in, while you're reeling, you're not gonna have much pressure on the fish, and you're gonna be bouncing the tip of your rod around, and that's a really good way to lose a fish. So, keep the tension on it by stripping it in. Sometimes when you get it close to you and there's a lot of line floating around you and you wanna net the fish, you know, if you had to strip in, you know, 30 or 40 feet of line, there's a lot of line around you, you may wanna reel it in. But again, you're always taking a chance when you switch from playing a fish by stripping it to reeling. You always have a chance of losing that fish. So, I wouldn't do it unless you absolutely have to.
Here's an email from Cade. "Hey, Tom, thank you and Orvis for a big part of my fly fishing knowledge. I am 13 and have been fly fishing and tying for about five years. Today, a buddy and I went out to a local river. We're both using nymphs under an indicator. We both missed and lost a whole bunch of fish, only landing one small white fish. There is a healthy population of cutthroat rainbows and mountain white fish. We both fish this river quite often and have never had a day where we both miss and lose almost 100% of the fish that hit our flies. We tried both setting quicker and setting later. It did not seem like we were doing anything wrong when it came to the hook set. Is there a reason why we missed so many fish today, and I haven't ever had this occurrence before? Thanks, Tom. I love the podcast, especially when I'm sitting at my bench tying flies."
Well, Cade, you know, you're gonna have days like that. I have days like that too. I think that some days, the fish are a little more hesitant at taking our flies, and they don't really inhale them, they kind of pick at them. It shouldn't be that way, they should either accept a fly or reject a fly. But I think some days, they're just a little more hesitant in taking the fly. And you said that this only happened to you once. I wouldn't worry about it. I don't think you're doing anything wrong. I don't think changing the timing of your hook set is gonna make any difference. You know, if you were using much smaller flies than you normally would, smaller flies do tend to come out a little bit easier of the fish, but I wouldn't let one instance like that bother you. I don't think you did anything wrong. I think the fish were just being funky. So, next time you go out there, you probably won't experience the same thing.
Here's an email from Micah in Little Rock, Arkansas. "I've been watching, enjoying the podcast for some time, especially in the deer stand. However, having huge 40-pound brown trout in our tailwater and a new shocked world record. It is winter right now, so shad, baby rainbow, sculpin, and smaller brown trout are common prey items. But here's a question. One, these fish see maybe 50 to 100 flies and lures each day. So, how can I catch them? Two, do you know some huge flies that mimic shad baby rainbows, sculpin, and smaller brown trout?" Well, Micah, there are a lot of streamer patterns. In fact, most of the streamer patterns you see in some way are gonna mimic those shad, baby rainbows, sculpins, and smaller brown trout.
You know, for shad, you want a fly that's got some depth to it, so something like a one of the EP patterns, or something that has a flat wide profile from the side. It's probably gonna be best to imitate shad. Baby rainbows, anything with a little white and pink and blue in it might suggest a baby rainbow, a skinnier fly than the shad invitations. Sculpins are gonna be any big streamer with a big wide head, either made outta deer hair or some kind of synthetic mask or something, usually, those big pectoral fins sticking out of the side. And then a smaller brown trout, you know, anything with a brown and a little yellow in it will mimic those. However, since those fish are seeing a lot of flies and lures, what I would do in a situation like that is find out what the most popular flies and lures are and use something that's entirely different.
Because those fish are seeing a lot of those other flies, maybe if you use a fly of a type that they haven't seen in a while, you may do better. And by the way, one of the best flies for imitating both small large bait fish is the Game Changer series. There's various sizes and colors and types of Game Changers, but these are an articulated fly with only one hook that really do imitate bait fish well. And I'm a big believer in Game Changers, I think they work extremely well. And they're expensive, so maybe people aren't using many Game Changers on your river. I would try Game Changer first, and then just pick some weird stuff that's big and obnoxious and bulky and see what happens. Good luck.
Max: Hey, Tom, this is Max calling from the DMV. I just wanted to provide a response to a listener question from last week where you're suggesting ways to see your sighter in difficult glare situations, or if you have the sun in your eyes. And one that I use all the time is called the backing barrel. I found out about it through Troutbitten. Essentially, you just take a piece of Dacron backing and a fluorescent color like yellow or orange, tie a uni knot to your sighter of short piece of material, clip the lower tag, and then leave like a 1/2 inch or an inch tag pointing up. And this gives you a really good reference point on your sighter that's easy to find, even when the sun's in your eyes or you can't really see the rest of your sighter because of glare.
And it also gives you an additional information like'll kind of twitch more or it'll start spinning if you've made contact with something. So, I really like it and I use it all the time. And then the question about fly-tying specifically Sparkle Duns. How do you determine the color of the shuck material, the Antron Shuck that comes out that represents that trailing shuck? On the mayfly, they do it based on what color you know the mayfly nymph is? Do you kind of just make it a shade darker than the dunn's body, or how do you determine that? Or you kind of just pick color random? It doesn't seem like there's any consistency even commercially type wise. So, I just wanted to get your thoughts on this. Thanks for all you do with the podcast. I really enjoy it. And have a good one.
Tom: Max, that's a great tip. That's a great tip. I forgot about those backing barrel tied onto a sighter. Another way I forgot was George Daniel often, when he ties his sections of sighter together leaves, long tag ends so that they kinda wiggle, and those might also be a little bit more visible than just the sighter itself, but they do tangle a little more frequently. But that's a great tip, and thank you for that. Regarding Sparkle Duns, if I know that the nymph shuck is a dark color, in other words, I've seen certain mayflies have a really dark brown shuck. And I'll obviously tie my shucks in dark brown. Most of the shucks that you're gonna see are kind of a light tan, you know, they're translucent.
So, I don't know, when I tie my Sparkle Duns, if the fly is a fairly dark-colored fly as an adult, I'll use a brown shuck. And if it's a light-colored fly, I will use a tan shuck. But, you know, just to be on the safe side, as long as you're tying them, I would tie them both ways and see which works better. Here's an email from Tim in Colorado. "I have a question that I have found differing answers to. Do brown and rainbow trout utilize the same reds, rainbows and spring browns in fall, or do they search different structures and locations to reproduce? I would think that if they do utilize the same locations, it would be easier to know where to avoid fishing during any spawning times."
Yeah, Tim, that's an interesting question. If we fish the same area all the time, or if we know there were brown trout reds there in the fall, we should avoid stepping on those places throughout the wintertime because those eggs aren't gonna hatch probably until March for brown trout, they over winter as an egg. So, you wanna avoid those right through March, through the end of March. I'm sure in some areas, browns and rainbows utilize the same reds or the same areas, but from what I have seen, brown trout generally prefer a little bit slower water and a little bit coarser gravel, and rainbows are more likely to be up in the finer gravel.
So, I'm not so sure that they would utilize the same locations. And I'm not sure if anyone knows that because rainbow reds are often difficult to identify because the gravel's often really clean in the spring because of the higher water. And it's sometimes difficult to tell if there's a red or not. And in the fall with brown trout, the rocks and the gravel usually have a little algae or a sediment on them, so you can see them easier. They stand out better, but rainbow reds are a little bit harder to see. So, generally, you see the spawning rainbows in the water before you actually see a red at all. So, I don't know, but I would avoid stepping on any place that you know has had a red at any time.
There's an email from Phil from the Pacific Northwest. "I've been struggling with nymphing my local river since dry fly season has really slowed down. It's spring fed and highly pressured, which I'm sure contributes to the difficulty. I think part of my problem is the complexity of the river's currents. I'm worried that using a bobber-style indicator is hiding more subtle strikes since the micro currents on the surface cause it to bounce quite a bit. There are also a number of eddies where the currents at the seams are absolutely chaotic, unpredictable, lots of water, vortexes, etc., or vortices, I guess is more proper. It seems foolish to cast into these seams, yet there are visible fish feeding at these spots almost every time I'm there. Should I attempt to avoid these complex currents altogether? Are there ways of casting into these currents and getting a better presentation, maybe using a dry dropper will or wool indicator? I have heard you mention in previous episode recommending not using an indicator while nymphing. Would you recommend that in situations like this?"
Now, Phil, there's a couple of things to consider here. One is that, are you sure those fish are really inside those vortices or are they on the edge of them? Typically, trout don't like to be in the really swirly stuff because they can't hold their position very well and it's difficult for them to grab their food because it goes in unpredictable manner, it drifts in unpredictable manner as well. So, first thing I would do is try to fish just on the edge of those really strong vortices. And yes, you know, a dry dropper is gonna be more sensitive or a yarn indicator than a plastic or hard bobber or a cork bobber. They're gonna be a lot more subtle and sensitive, so I would definitely recommend those in this situation.
The other thing I would recommend is that you keep as much line as possible off the water and maybe all of your fly line on the water and, you know, use a longer rod and hold your rod high and keep everything including most of the leader off the water just so that your bobber or your strike indicator drifts without any influence from fly line or leader that might be on the water. You can't do this on a longer cast, obviously, but, you know, if you can get it in there and get a short cast, try to keep everything off the water if you can. Just get your indicator and your nymph in there and then hold your rod high and try to have a straight line in the air right to the indicator, kind of like Euro nipping with an indicator.
Here's an email from Daniel from Kentucky. "I got a couple questions, one about fly line and one about watercraft. My first question is, how do you suggest storing and managing a number of different fly lines? Growing up out West, I spent pretty much all my time with dry fly fishing for trout. So I had just one line. As I've started to pursue more species while living back East, I've started to accumulate more lines. You often recommend that people get different lines for different purposes. Do you and others buy a new spool for each new line? Prices being what they are, that seems like it could get expensive fairly quickly. Do you take a line off the reel and spool and then put a new one on? I've also heard of cassette reels. Is that a viable option?"
"Second question also has to do with past experiences out West. I remember seeing lots of ore-driven one-person pontoon boats on those rivers and lots of float tubes and belly boats on still water. Now, in these days of social media and YouTube fishing vlogs, I hardly ever see these sort of watercraft either online or locally. It's all drift boats or multi-person rafts or canoes and kayaks. Are those other boats just not cool anymore? Is there some other practical reason they seem to gone outta style? Of course. Maybe I'm just wrong in my impression." So, Daniel, as far as storing fly lines, there's a number of things you can do. And yes, I do have of extra spools, sometimes extra reels for each new line, but they're not as expensive for me as they are for you. So, I'm sympathetic to having to buy a whole bunch of reels and spools.
There's a number of things you can do. The cassette reels have not really caught.... Cassette reels have an inexpensive cartridge that you put your fly line on and that pops into the reel. It's usually made out of plastic. And they're often not the greatest reels as far as drag and aesthetics are concerned. They're pretty popular in the UK where do a lot of still stillwater fishing. So, they have an awful lot of lines for various steps. But you don't see many used in this country. There's a number of ways you can store your fly lines when you wanna switch them out. When you buy a new fly line, save the spool and you can wind the line back on that spool and keep it.
There's also a number of line storage winders that you can get. You could use a paracord winder that mountaineers use. You could use the old spool from your fly line. And Scientific Anglers sells a thing called a regulator spool that's only about 30 bucks, and that's something that you can put your older or non-used fly lines on. What you probably wanna do is to tie a bimini twist in your backing, leaving a very large loop. This is done on most Orvis lines now when you get them. And then when you wanna change a line, you don't have to tie a nail knot or an Albright or anything, you can just loop to loop the new line on there, wind it back on the reel. First you have to take the old line off, but you can put that on one of those regulator spools or whatever.
You can even use a piece of cardboard and wind the line around the piece of cardboard. But, you know, it depends on your budget and what you wanna do. Regarding your second question, yeah, I don't see as many one-person boats on Western rivers anymore either. I think it's probably due to the fact that an awful lot of the people that you see are on guide trips and they're not fishing on their own. And so, you know, they're obviously not gonna be in a one-person kayak or raft or whatever. Even people that aren't guides, they just love their drift boats. And drift boats are fun and people like to use them, but there's no reason. It's not that they're not cool and there's no reason that people shouldn't be using them. I see an awful lot of them on Eastern rivers. I see a lot of one-person rafts on Eastern rivers. I don't know exactly why you don't see as many on Western rivers, but it seems to be the case these days.
Here's an email from Kevin from Alberta. I've been fly fishing for 20-plus years and have encountered all types of people on the rivers. Most encounters are typically the formality of, "How's it going? Any luck? And, have a good day." But recently, in the last several years or so, I've noticed that the negative encounters we have been having with other anglers has seemed to become more frequent. And the common denominator on these encounters is that they're usually from guides or prominent social media figures. I like to believe that we fish with a reasonable amount of river etiquette. We always make sure that if we do come across someone, we have a brief conversation, come up with an understanding on where we will go or what we'll do to ensure everyone has a chance to enjoy themselves."
"However, on more occasions than one, we have been approached by guides, read the third degree on river etiquette, and we're basically told how we are going to fish and share the water, and we are just gonna have to deal with it. I don't think getting a guide's license gave the authority on the river. Shouldn't guides be leading by example on river etiquette, not acting like they're entitled to the river because of the occupation they choose? I'm sure you've had similar experience at some point over the years. Any advice on how to deal with this? Would you go as far as contacting the outfitter or employer?"
Well, Kevin, I have to admit, I've never had a guide or a social media figure lecture me on etiquette, but that may be because I don't like to fish in sight of anyone else. So I don't generally get the lecture. I'm surprised that a guide would do that. The only thing I can suggest is, did you maybe walk in a pool where someone else is fishing or the guide was anchored and then they gave you a lecture, or was it just totally unsolicited and the guide came up to you? If that's the case, if a guide just came up to you out of the blue and lectured you on river etiquette, I'd just nod my head and say, "Yeah, that's a good idea," and walk away.
I wouldn't contact the guides outfitter or the shop's owner or anything. You know, you're out there to have fun, why turn it into a battle? I don't think you're gonna experience it that much. I'm surprised that you have. As long as you stay away from other people and don't crowd them, I don't think you're... I can't believe you're ever gonna have that many people lecture at you. I wouldn't do anything about it. That's not your job to police the river. You're out there to have a good time, have some fun, catch some fish, enjoy nature. So, I would just roll with it.
Here's an email from Pepe from Iowa. "Tom, I'm fairly new to fly fishing. Just started the hobby this year on my 40th birthday. I live in Iowa and fish for trout in the driftless region where we have native brook, wild brown, and stocked rainbows. You definitely have to try fishing this region someday. One question for you. We mainly fish spring creeks with tall vegetation and most of the time branches on top. Well, I have been using a graphite 9-foot, 5-weight rod, and it works fine. I recently bought a fiberglass 7 1/2-foot, 4-weight rod that I want to try next season. But I would like your opinion on the fly line. All the casts are short in the 15-foot range, usually without false casting. Is there a fly line you would recommend for this shorter cast? I rarely, if ever, have needed to cast longer than that by using a traditional line. Am I loading the rod enough without too much fly line? Would a special line help in this situation?"
So, Pepe, there's two things you can do here, and I do agree that you probably... Even a 7 1/2-foot, 4-weight, there's still typically optimized for casting, you know, 25 to 35 to 40 feet, and you're casting shorter than that, which a lot of us do in small streams. I would overline that rod. I would put a 5-weight line on that rod. The other option is to try a line called a power taper, which is a half-size larger than a normal fly line. Maybe you can take it to a fly shop and try out both a 5-weight and a 4-weight power taper and see if that works for you. But yeah, I think that for those short casts, you're probably better off overlying the rod just because it's gonna make that rod bend a little bit more on those shorter casts and the rod that bends is gonna cast better for you because that's what they're designed to do to form a loop and shoot it out there for you. So, I would try one of those things.
Ryan: Hi Tom, it's Ryan from Maryland. I'm primarily a trout fisher, but with our rivers warming up here in the summer, I've started to go after small-mouth bass more often. And I've done a few float trips with guides and found them to be super aggressive and had some really fun days out there. But when I've tried to go on my own waiting to smaller rivers, I've found the small mouth to be really spooky. I may catch one or two in a pool, and that's it, and then see them daring away. So, my question is, when wading especially in smaller rivers, do I need to use different techniques, perhaps lighter lines, smaller streamers, maybe things less aggressive as big poppers, or should I just assume I will not have the same success as floating and just need to cover a lot of water and a lot of different parts of any river? Thanks for considering the question, and take care.
Tom: Ryan, it sounds like you're, you're fishing smaller waters than you do when you're drifting in a boat. And yeah, small mouth can be pretty spooky, particularly later in the season when the water gets low and clear. A lighter line will help, a longer leader will definitely help. That'll give you a little bit more stealth. I would use the same stealth that you would for trout fishing. Make sure that you try to approach the fish from downstream and keep your profile low, don't make a lot of fast movements. And yeah, you're gonna have to cover more water because when you're floating by in a boat, you're probably spooking a lot of fish too, but you're covering a lot more water and you're seeing a lot more fish.
So, you're gonna have to cover more water, and you're gonna spook some fish, you just move on and find one that you can get a little closer to. The other thing, you might try some nymphs and really small streamers like a size 10 or a 12 or, you know, a bigger nymph, like a 10, 12, maybe even a 14 on those fish. The noisy poppers can spook fish in these really clear streams and having a more subtle subsurface fly might help, but longer leader, little bit more stealth and subsurface fly, hopefully, you'll be able to spook fewer of those smallmouths. That's the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Cliff about the powers of observation. My guest today is Cliff Weisse, and Cliff is the head guide at Three Rivers Ranch, which is, people that know me and have listened to the podcast know it's one of my favorite places in the world and the guides are some of my favorite people. So, Cliff, welcome to the podcast.
Cliff: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Tom: Good to talk to you again.
Cliff: Oh, likewise.
Tom: I'd rather see you in person, but, you know, if we have to, it's over the phone, we do it over the phone.
Cliff: Yep, I hear you.
Tom: So, Cliff actually approached me when I was out at the ranch this fall and said, "You know what would make a good podcast is a podcast about observation." And I think, Cliff, you meant not the usual kind of, there's fish rising, I should use a dry fly, but the more, I dunno, discreet things that good anglers notice that maybe a casual angler wouldn't notice and how to kind of develop those skills. Is that a fair summary of what you wanted?
Cliff: Yeah, that's fair. More subtle maybe, just not noticing, if you see something maybe not realizing it's important.
Tom: Okay. Good.
Cliff: Or not even seeing it in the first place.
Tom: Yeah. All So, let's talk about some.
Cliff: You wanna start? You want me to?
Tom: No. You're my guest, I just ask the questions, you gotta do all the talking.
Cliff: Oh, oh. Basically, just over the years, it's something that, especially my wife and I have talked about quite a bit relative to fishing into who we breed English setters to the dog breeding too. It doesn't seem like most people are really good at seeing what's right in front of them, just naturally, that's something you sort of have to think about and apply yourself to. And it's sort of a learned skill that I feel like is one of the biggest keys to being successful. I mean, you can go to the shop and they'll tell you what fly is gonna work on the river, and you can go down there and put it on and wait it out and throw it out for a half hour and say, "Well, geez, nothing's going on," and leave when right in front of you, there's fish rising or there's opportunities that you miss.
Tom: Give us some examples that you've seen on the river about observations that people might not make.
Cliff: A couple that stand out for me, years ago when I lived back East, I used to fish at the Beaver Kill a lot, and there's a great big Eddie at Acid Factory, and springtime fish will get in there, and eat midges, and they're mostly leftover hatchery fish from last year. They're not very big, but they're in there sipping, and it's March and there's really no other game in town. And I have had days there where it's really good fishing on midges on dries, and everybody else around is, you know, dredging nymphs and really not seeing it to the point where one guy even, I've been catching him for an hour and I hear him yell over to his buddy, "Hey, they're starting to rise over here." And they've been going the whole time right in front of you, but you're not looking for that. You're doing your thing and not really looking for the other opportunities that are there.
Tom: Yeah. I've seen so many nymph and streamer anglers just, you know, either whizz by in a drift boat or on, you know, waiting, just walk by rising fishing, not even see him because they're not paying attention.
Cliff: And if you were looking, like, if you walked along there, said, "Okay, I'm gonna just walk slow and look and see what I see," and not be thinking further ahead than that, I think you'd notice it more. So, other things, plenty of times, plenty of places, both on the Beaver Kill and out here on some of the big rivers, you see big fish someplace, whether or not they're feeding, they're not out there like getting a suntan. So, if you see like a 20-inch brown trout laying in, you know, a foot of water out with no cover anywhere, that fish is out there looking for something to eat.
Tom: It's not an accident. It's not an accident, right?
Cliff: No. No. Nothing's a fluke. Chasing big fish out of place, "Geez. What was he doing in there?" Think about that because he was there for a reason.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I've actually got one that happened out in your part of the world this fall, and that is, people don't seem to pay attention when they have rising fish or feeding fish, you know, if they're sight fishing with a nymph or something, they don't notice, they don't observe the changes in a fish's behavior or rise pattern when they get close to the fish. So, one of the things I always do is I'll watch a fish from a distance, see it rise, see, you know, is it moving or is it staying still? In particular, this is on the Henry's Fork, and the fish crew's there a lot, but, you know, you look and sometimes they'll stay put, and a lot of people will just jump right in and start fishing over that rising fish.
Well, if it's cruising, it could be somewhere else, like right where you're gonna walk into the water and you're gonna spook it. So, you need to watch them for a while. And then the second thing is once you approach the fish to a casting position, did that fish change its behavior? I mean, if it spooks, it's pretty obvious there's a big wake and the fish is gone. But, you know, sometimes they'll just move off a little bit or up a little bit. They know you're there, so you say, "Hmm, okay. So, that was kind of a mistake because I'm gonna just keep pushing that fish up through the pool. I'm never gonna get cast over it."
Tom: And then I think the third thing is when you present the fly, so you're standing in your spot, you let the fish settle down, let it rise, you kind of gauge its rhythm and how much it's moving, and then you make a cast. And a lot of people don't realize that that individual fish that they were casting over might have stopped because they cast over it, they got their line a little bit too close, the fly slapped down on top of the fish, and they don't notice that that one fish has stopped rising.
Cliff: Or slowed down, like all of a sudden they're not rising steady anymore, they're coming up once in a while. And maybe you didn't do anything wrong. Just fish to it and they've been beat up and they're just used to the pressure and they know you're there and they're gonna change their behavior to keep them having their lips stuck again.
Tom: Yeah. I know that on this same day, the fish were just incredibly difficult. It's late season on Henry's Fork, they've been pounded all year, the water was low. I like to cast upstream to rising fish if I can. I know a lot of people prefer the downstream approach, but I like to cast upstream. And I approached a couple of fish and I made a cast, and boom, they were gone. I mean, they waked out of there. So, I said, "Hmm, okay, that's not gonna work." I said, "Okay, now I'm gonna try to get above them." And so, the next group of fish that I saw, I got above them so that I could present my fly first before the leader in the line went over them. And they didn't spook, but I noticed that they would stop rising as the fly passed over them. And then after a while, they'd start feeding again.
And I think that someone who wasn't observant and had seen this kind of stuff for many years would think, "Oh, I got the wrong fly on because they're not taking it." Well, it doesn't matter what fly you have on, and it probably didn't matter, the pattern probably didn't matter that much, but I just could not get a cast over these fish. I finally had to make a long upstream delivery way upstream of the fish and finally got a small one to take. But it wasn't exactly successful, but, you know, I knew that there was no fly in the world that was gonna help me there. So, I probably should have lengthened my leader, or again, I should have made longer upstream deliveries, but anyway, if I hadn't...
Cliff: You know, some days...I hate to cut you off, some days, they're just not gonna tolerate it. You can make the leader 25-feet long and 5-feet if it is 6X, it doesn't matter. If you cast at them, they're not gonna like it and they're gonna change behavior, move away, quit feed, and whatever. And then you might go back the next day to that fish and they gobble it right now, they don't care that you're there, they're gonna feed right in front of you and they're catchable today. You know, it varies day to day even.
Tom: It does vary day to day. And of course, we'll never figure it out, and that's probably a good thing.
Cliff: It is a good thing. If you knew what was gonna happen, then you wouldn't even go that day you're not gonna catch them. But what fun, you know?
Tom: But you always wanna try anyway.
Cliff: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you kind of have to.
Tom: And then, how about insect behavior? You know, what should people really actively observe about it? Not just the fact there's insects in the air, but, you know, what should they really pay attention to?
Cliff: There's a lot there. I've seen days on the Henry's Fork when every single Pale Morning Duns that comes down is upside down on the surface. So, it pays to look at what's actually happening there. Are there a lot of bugs stuck in the shocks? Are you seeing a lot of spinners mixed in? What's hatching? What specific insects are present? If you have a fish feeding real steady and there's a ton of Pale Morning Duns and then an occasional Green Drake, let's say, and they're going steady, they're not eating the Green Drake, they're on the one that's the latter and vice versa. If you have a fish that's every once in a while coming up and there's a blanket, a little betta or something on the surface., and every once in a while here comes a Mahogany Dun, even if you don't actually see them eat that Mahogany Dun, which, you know, is something you should look for also, you can tell they're not eating the bug. There's a million of them on the surface because they're not rising that steady.
Tom: Yeah. That's a really good point.
Cliff: Just little things like that, and what is the rise like? Is the fish being aggressive? Is it something that's getting away? Is the fish feeding real sedately? I don't see it so much here, but back on the Beaver Kill in those flat pools, those fish would lay just a couple inches under the surface when they're eating spinners, just barely tip up and stick their nose up, and then, you know, little dorsal little tail, very slow, very little movement up and down, and they just lay just under the surface and pick those bugs off. And you could tell... Like I've had fish on, I can remember Cemetery Pool fishing to a fish and couldn't catch him. It was a really nice one. I wanted to get him. So, I was working, working, working. All of a sudden he laid flat and started doing that spin rise. I knew, "I got you." And I started on little 16 Rusty, and he ate it the first time it came over him.
Those are the types of things that picking up on can make the difference between a mediocre day and, you know, a really memorable day.
Tom: Yeah. How about observing weather patterns? You know, let's say you have a partially cloudy day and you got clouds sometimes and then you got sun sometimes, is that worth noticing what the fish are doing?
Cliff: Absolutely. And there are places where I feel like it's more important than others. The lower Henry's Fork, fisher particularly shy of sunshine. If you have that partly cloudy day where there's, you know, little patches of sunshine and it's on and off cloud cover, I've seen them not feed when the sun is out and go right back to rise when the sun goes behind a cloud over and over and over through the course of a day. And longer term if you've had cloudy, stormy weather, you know, three or four days, and then you get that first bluebird sunshiny day , they're not gonna be out that day. It's just in general, they're not out the first high-pressure day, especially on that lower Henry's Fork, that first day of sunshine after a storm, they don't like it.
And, you know, getting used to places that you fish regularly, where you know that's gonna be the case today, if you have a choice between today and tomorrow, you might wait for that second sunny day rather than go down there when there's a higher probability that, you know, it's gonna be dead today. Nice to be out anyway, but if you have your one shot, it makes sense to high-grade it.
Tom: I've noticed that in a lot of rivers that the first bright day after a cloudy period is not really good. Yep. Once it stabilizes, it gets better. But do you think some of that's due to the insect activity too?
Cliff: I'd say, yeah, I do. I think they don't like high, I shouldn't say high pressure, they don't like rising barometer, it seems like. That day after a front when it's blowing from the North, that's a crappy day. But I think some of it is due to the fact that those stormy days, the bugs tend to hatch for longer periods of time. And I think maybe they just kind of, they all did it yesterday when it was storming and that first sunshiny day, there's not gonna be as many bugs hatching, especially with mayflies, you're gonna see that. Stoneflies, obviously, they like the temperature regulated, and a storm in the beginning of say a salmon fly hatch can stop the hatch and then you need a couple of sunny days to warm it back up to get them going again.
But stormy days for, especially bettas, but all mayflies, they really tend to hatch more. I think the temperature rises slower, so the hatch extends for a longer period of time through the day. They might, you know, just really blow off today and all the bugs that were ready did their thing in the last couple days, and now there's not as many around, the conditions aren't as good, so you do have fewer insects on that sunny day.
Tom: Yeah. Well, it comes from long periods of observation. It just comes up from paying attention.
Cliff: Absolutely. And things like that, you've gotta be paying attention and you've gotta be looking at a specific place long term and fish it a lot. And, fortunately, I get to do that and I spend a lot of time, especially on that Henry's Fork, and you do notice those patterns over time. And, you know, everybody who fishes there a lot notices it too. And, you know, you can just tell which days are gonna be the more crowded days by the weather sometimes.
Tom: Yeah, that's for sure. Thinking of things that you might observe in the shallows when you're, you know, walking through a riffle or walking to a spot and you're looking in the shallows, what are some of the things that you might observe that other people might miss?
Cliff: You know, sometimes if the fish are laying in shallow and you walk up on them, they're gonna go. And awake is pretty easy to see, but you'd be surprised how many times people miss that. And even with the drift boat, if I'm going down, let's say Railroad Ranch on Henry's Fork and I get a little too close to a fish that's feeding along the bank with the boat, usually they're pretty tolerant of the boat if you're not standing up. But you start fishing to them and all of a sudden that wake moves upstream or you just see that quick push of water where a fish decides, "I'm out of here. I'm not gonna let you push me like that." And it's surprising how often people don't notice that. Fish is long gone, you blew it. You know, I got the boat too close, whatever it is, you walked up to close through a cast over their back, like you were talking about earlier, and if you see that wake, if you're paying attention and see that, you know, this one's over, move on to the next one.
And other things, I've seen big fish chasing minnows in shallow, and if you see that wake and commotion happening, and a fish pushing a big wake for no apparent reason in shallow water, it's usually chasing minnows, and it's usually a brown. I've seen that on the Beaver Kill, I've seen it on all the rivers out here. I've had him eat the fish that were on the line quite a few times out here with little fish on the line, and all of a sudden, you know, there's a big brown laying there with a fish in his mouth. And it's really wild. It's a fun experience. But noticing that chase behavior, or not necessarily even in shallow water, you see the bait fish trying to get away, skipping across the surface with a boil or a wake behind it. If you can get a streamer out there quick and that fish didn't catch the little one, you're gonna get them. They're really aggressive when they're worked up like that.
Another thing that comes to mind, I have seen fish on the South Fork has those big gravel islands and there's really shallow riffs with lots of fish sometimes stacked in eating mayfly hatches, and it's really fun. You can see them laying there. I've pulled in on those fish and they're just going to town, rising, rising, rising and just sticking their whole heads out. And as you get out of the boat and walk up to them, not even casting to them yet, the rises flatten out and they start getting real sedate and they're not pushing their nose out as much like, "Oh, oh, here they come," they've already noticed that you're there. And, you know, you have to realize if that happens, maybe you want to cast them a little further away, use a little bit finer and longer tippets, smaller flies, whatever you have to do, because they just told you, "I hear you coming and I'm gonna be careful."
Tom: Yeah. I guess those fish are pounded pretty hard, so they know when you're there.
Cliff: Yeah. And they know when you're left, because you look back up there and they're back to sticking their heads up as you pull out, like, "Okay, they're gone. We can go back to normal and not be as cautious anymore." It's really fascinating to watch.
Tom: It is. I mean, fish behavior itself is fascinating and I think that we all need to pay more attention to what they do in our presence. You know, if we can see them far enough away and then observe how they change when we get closer, we learn a lot.
Cliff: Right. And that sitting there, especially if it's a bigger fish or some bigger fish, it's hard to sit there and just watch. You know, you're out, you want to catch them, you're excited, there they are chowing, I'm gonna go get one. Sometimes it really pays to just stand there and watch for a while, like you were talking about on Henry's Fork, watch the fish, watch how he's feeding, see if his behavior changes when I start fishing to them, or throw a fly at them. But getting that baseline on the fish's behavior first makes a lot of sense. And then you realize when things change, it was because of you.
Tom: Yeah. One of the things that I notice when walking in the shallows is if there's crayfish around or sculpins, and, you know, people walking through shallow water usually don't pay much attention to looking straight down because they usually gravel and, you know, you don't have to worry about where you step, you're in shallow water. But one of the things that I always look for, first of all, crayfish and sculpins and about what size they are and, you know, the basic shade, because that's gonna tell you, you know, you're flushing those and a big trout's gonna flush them too. And so, you know, what are they seeing as far as prey? But everybody looks at bait fish in the shallows, but, you know, you kick up things a little bit and you see a crayfish. One of the things I noticed many years ago is that crayfish and sculpins, when they're spooked, almost always scoot downstream.
Most of us fishers stream upstream. We cast them quartering across and strip them or cast them straight across. I've found that from a drift boat or for waiting, I do a lot better, it's a lot harder work, but I do a lot better by casting upstream along the bank and stripping back. You know, there's the old saying that prey doesn't come at a predator, like, you know, a bait fish doesn't swim at a predator, but when they're flushed out of their hiding places, they can't swim upstream, they don't have enough power.
Cliff: Right. That's interesting. The downstream escape direction is not something I've noticed, but I have noticed stripping streamers downstream, it can be really effective. And the place I really like to do it, if you're fishing a river that's got a lot of boulders, you've got those big slicks behind the boulder, you don't wanna throw it across that like perpendicular to those currents and the fly darts in and out of that slick. Wait till you're below it and throw it straight upstream at the rock and strip it straight through that slick. You'll get a lot more takes in places like that, and any other way you can fish that streamer through there.
The prey isn't gonna run at a predator necessarily, but fishing it that way, presenting it that way, the fish see it coming, they have the chance to see it coming where it's not just there and gone. And, you know, that can elicit just a reflex strike, but this way, they see it coming, they have a much better opportunity to grab that fly on the way by when they know it's coming for longer. And that's the way I've always looked at that, but, you know, maybe there's something to them being used to those particular fly species swimming downstream and leeches maybe kind of thing.
Tom: Yeah. Leeches can't swim upstream. Not very easily.
Cliff: No. No.
Tom: Another thing I've noticed in the shallows is when swimming nymph like a big Isonychia or, you know, getting active, you'll see them and they really look like little baitfish and they swim just like minnows. And in fact, I think some people call them minnow mayflies.
Cliff: Okay. I hadn't heard that, but they definitely look like minnows.
Tom: They look like minnows. And, you know, that's a sign that, hey, maybe I should be swinging a wet fly or actually stripping a nymph instead of just fishing at dead drift. That's, you know, something that I don't think most people are gonna notice because they're just gonna think they're little minnows in the shallows, but they're actually mayflies.
Cliff: I agree. And we see it here on the Teton with Gray Drakes in the fall. And I have seen days where there's four or five big fish laying on top of a weed bed making big wakes like they're chasing minnows and they're eating those Gray Drake spinners. Pardon, the nymph says they're swimming across the top of those weed beds. And of course, they're being aggressive because the nymph is swimming and getting away. And it's really fun to watch. It's really difficult to imitate. It's hard to catch them on those in that situation, but, you know, there they are and they're really eating aggressively, and those are big nymphs. And if you can do it like Isonychia, same kind of deal where if you had even current, you can get a nymph over there and make those short little, you know, dirty strips. You can really have some good fishing.
Tom: Cliff, how about wind? Because we get it often, particularly on bigger rivers, we get wind often. What have you observed about the wind's effect on trout?
Cliff: That's kind of a tough one to quantify. It more blows the insects around and has more of an effect on the insects, so indirectly, affects the feeding behavior. I've seen days on Hendrickson's where the fish wouldn't eat any insects drifting down the river, they wanted the ones blowing back upstream. If they tumbled upstream, they'd grab them. And I've seen, well, wind will push all the bugs to one side or the other of the river if it's across the river. And there's sometimes are banks that are just blanketed with insects where the rest of the river, it's kind of sparse. But everything's getting blown in there, into that buffer along the bank, and they can't get up very good because the wind's blowing so hard. So, those fish will move in there and, you know, key on that, right on the bank sort of not a scum so much is that dense concentration of insects along the bank.
Other than that, I'm not sure on lakes, the fish don't like to rise if it's blowing at all, back waters like some of the slower pools, it'll definitely have an impact on whether fish will come up. And I tend to fish dry flies a lot, and so most of what I'm observing is gonna be relative to dry fly. But as far as the impact directly on the fish, I don't think I can say I've seen that much. But maybe you can tell me something to look for.
Tom: No, I agree with you. I think it's the winds effect on the insects. I know that your examples illustrate perfectly what I've always observed is that if it's a big insect, like a big caddis or a mayfly or a stonefly, the wind isn't gonna bother the fish much. But if it's little bettas or tricos or something, I don't know if it's they don't like rising to little stuff on a riffled surface or they can't see them, but I've noticed particularly on Catskill rivers, I've noticed that when the wind blows, the fish, they just plain stop rising. It's not that you can't see them, they just plain stop rising, and as soon as the wind drops, they start feeding again. But it's mainly smaller bugs.
Cliff: Okay. That's interesting. And your bettas in that are gonna be a lot smaller than they're here.
Tom: Yeah.
Cliff: I wonder if it's the size of the insect because I definitely have had good fishing on stormy windy days with bettas. Betta seemed to like those days.
Tom: They do like those days, but there's a lot of rivers that I fish. Not just the Catskills, where, you know, if the wind riffles the surface, the fish are gonna stop feeding on the surface.
Cliff: Interesting. We don't see that so much here.
Tom: Okay. Interesting. Well, what else do people miss, Cliff? What are some things that you maybe notice that clients miss when you have them on the river where they're not paying attention to something?
Cliff: Maybe number one is drag. It's, you would think really super easy to see when you're line bellies and starts to pull a drive fly straight downstream. But I can't tell you how many times see a fish rising. We're trying to cast to the fish and you cast too far above the fish, the line's gonna belly and the fly will be like going back and forth on the S's and the tippet dating downstream as it goes over the fish and, "Geez, it went right over him. He didn't take it." I don't mean to make fun of people, but they don't recognize that that's lies going twice as fast as the current and it's not gonna happen.
As you know, most of those fish are not gonna be fooled by something that's acting that unnaturally. And it's hard to like understand how they could not realize that. But that's one of the biggies. And with a micro drag where you've got little tiny currents, there's times when you can't see the drag or you don't realize. I remember one particular fish on Henry's Fork years ago on the Railroad Ranch, I was fishing Mahogany Duns, he was rising right against the weeded bed alongside it. And I was casting down to him, you know, dropping reach casts and I could see that the fly was landing.
I'm getting these, he's definitely in slower water along that weed bed. And I finally put the fish down, he just quit feeding. And I thought, "Well, I'll go find another one." And as I waited downstream away from the fish, I'm now below the fish, he comes back up, and I just got pissed and gunned went over there at him like, you know, with the same fly I put him down with, and he ate it the first cast. So, it was like, "Wait a minute, I thought I was getting a good drift from up there. And that was the right spot. But clearly, it wasn't because he just ate the fly I put him down with presented from a different angle.
Tom: So, as drag you really couldn't see.
Cliff: I couldn't tell. It made perfect sense that I was in the right place presenting it the right way, but something funky about that particular spot made that fly drag or something was wrong from above. But soon as I threw it at him from below, oh, there's one, he gobbled it. And that had to be a change. You know, my experience, if you throw a fly at a fish that you put him down with and he just comes back up the next time you put it over him, all right, I'm done, you're gonna keep throwing that thing. That doesn't work. They're just not gonna tolerate that. And the fact that this one just ate it, you know, I was missing something there, clearly.
Tom: Yeah. Well, you know, that just goes to the power of observation, the value of changing positions sometimes on feeding fish. You just get a different drift.
Cliff: Absolutely. One other thing. Not seeing what's actually there as far as insects, you might have to get right down on the surface and, you know, just forget fishing and look at the surface and what's floating by, you know, is there a lot of bugs? Are they big? Are they little, mayfly, caddis, duns, spinners? You know, what's there? What are my options? Doesn't make much sense to throw an X Caddis at a fish if Pale Morning Duns are hatching. So, pay attention, you know, these are the three bugs that are hatching today, and sort of go out and randomly, try the patterns they sold you at the shop. Actually, look and see what you can see. And sort of my light bulb moment with trying to figure out when I realized I had to be observant, and this was back in the '80s on Cemetery Pool on the Beaver Kill.
I'm fishing in the evening, lots of fish up, and I could not catch one. And I thought I was doing just fine. And I decided, "Well, let me look at the surface." And I had read about spinners and I had spinners in my box, and it was sort of almost back then presented as like Sasquatch or something, like this was this mysterious thing that you can't see. And I had bend down and start watching bugs go by and one of the first things I saw was a Light Cahill spinner go by. And I thought, "Jesus, you know, there's a spinner." Started pulling outta my box and tied it on and I had a great night. They were all over that. And that was a real, like, wow, that worked. I saw that thing on the surface. I matched what I saw on the surface and kind of made my day with it.
In hindsight, that probably wouldn't have mattered if I saw any spinners on the surface, they would've ate that anyway. But there it was. And, you know, seeing that bug and matching it with what I had in my box made the difference. And ever since then, that's been something I've done regularly.
Tom: Do you think that people pay too much attention about what flies are in the air and not on the surface?
Cliff: Sometimes. Yeah. Especially with caddis. Oftentimes those caddis will come out and they're having their mating swarms, but they're not really hitting the water yet. And as you know, you're not gonna get them if they're not on the surface, they're not seeing them. You might catch a few fish, but that's not gonna be the main event if they're not hitting the surface yet. You see them on the surface, dipping over depositing, and, you know, they have access to them or even hatching and skidder, and hatching is different, but those swarms of bugs in the air sometimes fool you.
Tom: Yeah. They sure do.
Cliff: They're not really seeing what you're seeing. So, maybe in that case, your observation is misleading you.
Tom: How about streamer fishing? I know you don't do a lot of nymph fishing because you don't have...
Cliff: Actually like streamer fishing quite a bit.
Tom: Yeah. But I know you don't do a lot of nymph fishing because you don't have to out there.
Cliff: Right. Exactly.
Tom: But streamer fishing, you know, in your observations, when you get fish that are just chasing and not eating what do you do?
Cliff: Go back to drive-wise.
Tom: No. Come on, Cliff.
Cliff: No. I think some days, they're just gonna chase and not eat, it's not gonna matter what you put on there. You can change colors, change size. I like to go smaller if I'm having chases or nymphs and they're not actually eating the fly. Sometimes that'll help you out, sometimes a color change. But usually in my experience, that's usually just kind of the day. Maybe put on a streamer with a little stinger hook on the back if you get in those short strikes and they're nipping at the tail as it comes by. But usually, it seems like...I mean, there's different things, different days. Some days every fish that comes after it eats it, every single one.
Other days you get tons and tons of chases, you see the fish, it's fun, but you're not catching them. They're not actually eating. And sometimes there's not a whole lot you can do about it, but my typical approach would be to change colors and size.
Tom: So, you don't change your retrieve speed at all when you have situations like that?
Cliff: Sometimes, but it's like they're getting excited with what you're doing. So, you're close maybe, is kind of the way I look at it. And, you know, you can mix it up and I've heard people tell me, "Just stop stripping when they're chasing, then they have to either eat it or not." Well, my experience is they don't. If you stop, it's over. But you can sometimes get fish to take a different slower retrieve or try more hesitant, like a couple of quick strips and then a long pause. But mostly I find it's the day. There are days when they're gonna be hard to get to take the fly. .
Tom: Fair enough. It's fun.
Cliff: How about you?
Tom: Yeah. I think I don't even change patterns really. I might go to a smaller fly, but if they're just chasing, I just keep trying. It's fun to swim them anyway. And I don't believe that changing a streamer pattern matters that much. They're just looking for something to eat and they're aggressive and, you know, if they see it, they're probably gonna either eat it or chase it. I don't bother changing it much.
Cliff: Yep.
Tom: And there are those days, you're right, there are those days.
Cliff: It's fun. Like I said, it's interesting to see them. You see a lot of big fish on those days, but it gets frustrating when they just won't take it.
Tom: I think water temperature sometimes. When the water's a little too cold, that'll make them do that.
Cliff: Yeah. And then I actually, if it is really cold, I think slower is better. They're not as inclined to chase when the water's cold. Evening time, wind up fishing stream is quite a bit to brown trout here. And the biggest difference I see, brown trout, you almost can't strip the thing fast enough to get it away from him if he wants it. You can't get it. Rainbows don't like it fast. They don't want it moving. They want that fly to stop. Even to the point where I'll strip maybe one strip every two seconds when I'm at Fox Canyon where you're fishing Pocket Water for rainbows, they wanna see that fly dart, but then it's gotta stop and they're gonna eat it in between strips. It's just gonna get heavy. You don't get those big crushing takes with rainbows, at least here.
Tom: No. And I have a theory, totally unproven that rainbows when they eat a streamer, mostly think they're a crayfish. I think they like crayfish, but I don't think they eat a lot of bait fish, at least in rivers. That's just my theory, because of the way know, it's generally a smaller streamer, generally kind of crayfishy-looking that the rainbows like, and it's generally that strip stop action which would more mimic, you know, a crayfish. But that's just a crazy theory of mine.
Cliff: Interesting. And I don't know if I've ever had a rainbow eat a fish I had on the line.
Tom: Yeah. I don't think I have.
Cliff: Cutthroats hybrids, yes. Usually browns, but I've had those fish on the Teton come chasing after the fish I had on the line. But I don't know that I've ever seen like a pure rainbow come eat a fish I had on the line. That's a good point that maybe baitfish aren't their gig. They eat Zonkers and they eat flies that I assume they're eating for baitfish that sort of look like little rainbows, but it's with that strip and stop approach, you know, presentation that they seem to like better or that might just be more of a crayfish thing.
Tom: Yeah. I mean, even a Zonker can look like a crayfish if you squint and it's moving through the water, because crayfish don't look like much when they're swimming. They just look like a lot of wiggly stuff moving through the water.
Cliff: Yeah. That's interesting. I'll have to think about that next year when I'm fishing box.
Tom: It'd be interesting. Well, of course, the way to prove it is to put a live crayfish on your line and throw it out there, and see if the rainbows eat it.
Cliff: Sure. Well, you can't do that in box, but we can fish in a crayfish pattern, it can work better.
Tom: Well, you let me know how that works out for you.
Cliff: I'll do that.
Tom: All right. So, what else? Any other things that you think people need to observe more? I mean, I know you observe more birds because you're like the bird police of Idaho, aren't you?
Cliff: Yeah. I review eBird observations, checklists, and I just volunteer to do that. And I'm really in the birds and I feel like if you miss the peripheral stuff, you miss half the reason for being out there. Have you read John Gierach?
Tom: Of course.
Cliff: One of his stories has a quote, something to the effect, "We don't fish so much to catch trout as we do to be where trout live."
Tom: Yeah, that's true.
Cliff: And when I read that, I thought, "Okay, this guy gets it." For me, it's not about just did I catch, it's the whole experience. I mean, when it's bugs are hatching and the fish are going good, I'll miss everything else, I'm focused on that. When it slows down, you know, it's a long day, there's other things to do and see. And if you miss some of that other cool stuff that's going on out there, I feel like you just miss part of the reason for being there.
Tom: That's a good point. It's part of the experience is to observe everything, you know, the geology, the plants, the flowers, the birds, the rattlesnakes, all the cool stuff.
Cliff: Right. A few of those as possible.
Tom: All right, Cliff. Well, you got anything else to add or do you think we covered...?
Cliff: I don't think so. I think we pretty much covered everything I feel like is important.
Tom: Okay. Well, I want to thank you for taking the time today, really appreciate it.
Cliff: My pleasure.
Tom: Always good talking to you. We've been talking to Cliff Weisse who is head guide at Three Rivers Ranch in Warm River Idaho. In fact, Three Rivers Ranch pretty much is Warm River Idaho, right?
Cliff: Yes, it is.
Tom: There's nothing else there.
Cliff: And the owner is the mayor.
Tom: Yeah. And the owner of Three Rivers Ranch, Lonnie is the mayor of Warm River, so you pretty much got Warm River locked up. Anyways, it's a beautiful part of the world and I look forward to seeing you guys next year.
Cliff: Likewise. I look forward to seeing you there next fall.
Tom: Okay, Cliff, thanks very much.
Cliff: Thanks, Tom. Take care.
Tom: Bye-bye.
Cliff: All right.
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