Trico fishing techniques are usually not included in the typical “Fly Fishing 101” package. Successful trico fishing requires advanced fly fishing skills and many inexperienced and even experienced fly fishermen find in extremely challenging. So great is the frustration for some fisherman that they would rather avoid a trico hatch altogether. Fisherman who fail miserably during a trico hatch typically blame their lack of success on inadequate fly patterns, but in truth, poor technique that results in fly drag is usually the main culprit. The Montana guides, in their typical concise and effective brevity, have a slogan that says it all, “It ain’t the fly; you suck!” To that adage, they’ve recently added another about fishing a trico spinner fall, “Dead flies don’t swim!”
I’ve been known to say that success in any endeavor can be reduced to a mathematical equation. Success in fishing small dries flies, in order of importance, is as follows: Proper positioning + proper fly presentation + proper leader design + proper dry fly design + proper dry fly tracking. While the exact proportions of the above factors can be argued, if a fisherman is lacking in any above aspects, I can guarantee he will not enjoy consistent success fishing small dry flies.
Most fisherman are taught to present a dry fly by positioning themselves below the rising fish and casting upstream. While this technique can certainly be successful, it usually results in a very limited dead drift. Whenever possible, the best approach is anywhere from to the side of the fish, to directly above the fish. I’m amazed at the number of fisherman who have never learned this simple fact. Even the experienced guides on the Big Horn typically position their client below the fish, forcing them to cast upstream to the rising trout.
Proper presentation of small dry flies requires the utilization of advanced casting techniques. I typically utilize my version of a cast that is commonly referred to as the “stop and drop” cast. Starting with a high angle cast, just before the cast rolls out, I drop the rod to the water surface and pull back hard on the fly rod. When done properly done, it creates a cast that rolls out at a high angle, and then piles the leader just beyond the fly line. When used in conjunction with proper mending, and feeding slack line during the drift, this technique allows for some incredibly long dead drifts (sometimes as much as 25 -30 feet), as opposed to the inches to a few feet attainable using an upstream cast. Another advantage to using this downstream approach is that if your fly doesn’t land in the proper lane, you simply pick it and recast without “lining” the trout.
Leader design is probably the most overlooked aspect of dry fly fishing. While you can get away with poor leader design while fishing wet flies, streamers, and nymphs, proper leader design is critical to consistent success with dry flies. I don’t understand the need for and popularity of braided or furled leaders. I have very little use for either. I also have very little use for single strand commercial leaders when fishing small dry flies. I favor compound leaders that I construct myself, adhering to Art Lee style leader formulas, which are available online with a simple Google search. These leaders meet my needs perfectly. Compound leaders are inexpensive and therapeutic to construct, and they present a dry fly like no other commercially available single strand leader I’ve tried. You can also incorporate a combination of soft and stiff leader material into the leader design to meet your needs. If the thought of tying a blood knot makes you see red, then you need to find a spool of tippet and start practicing until you can tie the knot in your sleep.
I can’t imagine a serious fly fisherman who doesn’t tie his own flies, because tying my own flies adds another dimension to my fly fishing enjoyment. I especially enjoy tying flies on location, when the need is imminent. I find it very rewarding to identify a need on the water, and then return to camp later that day to tie a fly to meets that need. My trico dries are typically constructed on short shank Dai Riki 125 hooks, sizes 18-20. The short shank hook allows you to tie a fly with a size 18 hook gap, but is visually to the trout the same size as a fly tied on a conventional size 20 or 22 dry fly hook. This adds greatly to hookup success rates. Three flies with which I enjoyed excellent success on the most recent Montana trip were simple patterns that utilize a compilation of the designs ideas from other tyers:
Spent Wing Spinner
- Hook: Dai Riki 18-20
- Thread: White 8/0 thread
- Tail: Microfibbets, barred, splayed
- Abdomen: White 8/0 thread
- Wing: White zelon; top with 2 strands of pearl Crystal Flash
- Thorax: Black Superfine Dubbing
- Hook: Dai Riki 125, sizes18-20
- Thread: Back 8/0 thread
- Tail: Barred Microfibbetts, splayed
- Abdomen: Black 8/0 thread
- Wing: White zelon, tied as upright, comparadun-style wing
- Thorax: Black Superfine Dubbing
Trico Improved Sparkle Dun
- Hook: Dai Riki 125, sizes 18-20
- Wing: Dun deerhair
- Tail: Mayfly brown zelon, tied sparse
- Wing backing: White zelon tail extended to back the deerhair wing
- Abdomen: Black 8/0 thread
The biggest complaint heard from fly fisherman when trying to fish small trico dries is they can’t find or track the fly on the water. I’ve developed a few tricks through the years that add greatly towards finding and following your tiny dry fly on the water. First, tie or buy visible flies. The white zelon wing incorporated into my trico dries glows brightly in any kind of sunlight. Zelon is also hydrophobic, so it makes a great dry fly wing. Some trico patterns incorporate brightly colored posts that are easy to see on the water. Second, whenever possible, position the sun at your back and try cast your fly into the shade of an object, like a tree, where there is no glare. Third, darker flies up show up very well when there is significant glare on the water. Finally, utilizing the high angle, stop and drop cast, find your leader in the air and follow it down until it lands on the surface of the water. This will help you initially find and consequently track your dry fly.
By 8:00 AM the spinner falls was full blown and pods of trout were rising within casting proximity. Utilizing the downstream approach, I could “bowl” my trico dry through the lane of several rising browns and rainbows on any given cast, often predicting to my friends when the fish would take my fly, “There he is right…there!” There were so many fish rising, and the achievable dead drifts were so long, that it was a rare good cast that didn’t get interrupted by a trout. An embarrassingly high number of browns and rainbow trout were hooked and landed, or and hooked and lost, over the course of the next two and a half hours. It was as close to a fly fisherman’s dream as is achievable. The spinner fall and rising trout finally petered out around 10:30 AM. Reluctantly, I broke down the lovely “Elizabeth Ann” bamboo rod I had been fishing (an 8 foot, 5-weight, hollow-built Dickerson 8013 I made for and named after my life partner), which was perfect for the task of technical dry and wet fly presentation. I then removed the Hardy Perfect and tucked it safely away in my vest. Walking slowly back to the drift boat where my companions were waiting, I found myself in an almost euphoric state. When I reach the boat, I announced, “That, boys, did not suck!” It was the perfect Montana morning to close out a 2-week fishing trip with 6 good friends.
Finally, a word of warning to the brethren of Big Horn fishing guides: We’ve already made our reservations for next year, and while we may not be able to out-row you, older fly fishermen are willing to gut it out and sacrifice more sleep (and that third night cap) than you (and especially your clients) in the interest of securing good trico water. We’ll be back, come hell, or as was the case this year, high water.