This phenomenon is known as combat fishing, fishermen line the banks of streams with hardly any space between each other, due to the ever-growing popularity of fly-fishing. Shrinking public access to good fishing isn't helping matters. While fly-fishing is becoming more popular, there's still plenty of open water to be fished in almost every state. Combat fishing creates what I like to call "heavy-traffic trout."
Heavy-traffic trout watch your dry fly or midge float by with absolutely no interest in biting it. Was it the right pattern? Was the drift too fast? Are they seeing my line? A myriad of questions will run through your head as the frustration continues to build up.
So why do these trout act the way they do. First, they have seen it all, literally. They have seen probably every pattern imaginable and every presentation in the book. Second, they are constantly pressured by fishermen and have grown accustomed to them. I had my first run-in with heavy-traffic trout on a trip to the Big Thompson River in Estes Park, Colo. Who knew that a couple minor changes to the way I was fishing could make such a difference?
It was mid-February, and I fought the cold weather to try and get a few early-season hookups under my belt before the warm-weather rush. Despite my efforts, I was greeted by 15 cars in the parking lot, so I knew I was in for a day of combat fishing.
I was contemplating where to hop into the stream without getting dirty looks from the guys to my left and right. I finally settled on a bend a couple hundred yards from the parking lot with only one fisherman to my left. The fishing was pretty slow there. I ventured off to find my own stretch of untouched water. I searched for deep, slow-moving water, knowing the fish would be stacked. Once I found them, there were probably 20 to 50 trout just sitting in this little pocket on a bend. I looked around, saw no one was within 150 yards of me and thought to myself, "This is going to get ugly quick."
Since it was so early in the year, the water was crystal clear, spotting fish was as easy as it gets. I could see my prince nymph sink down, taking my disco midge down with it. I had plenty of line out to make a good drift, so I waited, anticipating a strike at any moment. I watched my indicator get farther downstream and I was more than perplexed. All those trout and they just watched it go right on by? I made drift after drift for almost two hours and never had so much as a bite.
I had done my pre-trip homework by calling the local fly shop and asking them what patterns were working and what time of day they worked. I spent the entire week before tying all kinds of patterns, adding my own variations to them as I saw fit.
I knew my pattern choice was good because I was using exactly what the guide had told me to use and how to fish it. It wasn't my tippet. I couldn't have gone much smaller than 8X and actually expected to land anything.
It then occurred to me what the first problem was — it was me. I looked between my feet and saw two rainbows, just sitting there, using my feet and legs as a break for the current. I was in shock. I picked up my feet expecting them to dart off and they didn't so much as move an inch. At other streams, the trout would have already sensed my presence and bolted off upstream by the time I would have stepped into the hole. Now, here I was, walking around, wading the stream and the fish never so much as cared.
This is what I call a classic encounter with heavy-traffic trout. They clearly know you are there and what you're going to do. The key to catching these trout is in your presentation. You have to try to make it different than what all the other fly-fishermen have been doing there day-in and day-out. Instead of doing the slow, precise drift I had been using, I started to leave a little more line in front of my fly, speeding up the drift downstream. This gave the trout a faster presentation to catch their attention. The same pattern at the same speed over and over again wasn't triggering a response, so that's why I decided to speed it up. Because trout are such opportunistic feeders, a faster presentation, like the one I tried, could change your day in a hurry. As if they think a free meal is going to get by them fast if they don't grab it right away.
Because everyone would go to the local fly shop and do what the guides told them to use and how to fish it, the fish had grown accustomed to the same old fly and presentation. This is a common occurrence so it's important to make sure you are fishing perfect presentations with perfect mends or dead drifts in order to maximize the effectiveness of your fly.
Once I knew that these fish couldn't care less about me being there, I gave up on the idea of trying to catch them right in front of me. No matter how I was going to present that fly, as long as they could see me, I wasn't going to be very successful. So I moved out of the water and positioned myself about 20 yards downstream.
Before I got back in the water, I changed my fly to a disco midge that I had tied. Halfway through my first drift, BAM! The indicator disappeared and line was immediately being taken. A couple of minutes later, I landed a nice 14" brown and took a second to reflect on what just happened. Hours of fishing this spot with no results but a headache had just paid off. I fished the rest of the afternoon, hammering trout every couple of drifts. I noticed other fisherman getting closer and closer to me as the afternoon went on.
A few of them got within rod's reach and asked, "What are you hookin' them on?" I told them I was using a disco midge. They stood there, their facial expressions saying "Hmm, I'm using the same thing." They would slowly wade back into the middle of the stream and pickup right where they left off — not catching fish. What I didn't tell them was that I was using a very small disco midge, but not just any number 24 disco midge. Instead of making it look like the standard midge you can pick at any fly shop, I tied a few subtle changes into the pattern. By adding a little different color here and a little flash there, I was able to make the fish bite. Sometimes a fly pattern is too intriguing for trout, and it's just instinct to go after it.
This trip wasn't the best for catching a lot of fish, or big fish at that. But what made it worth it was that I learned a couple very important keys to catching heavily pressured trout. So if you find yourself fishing an area with heavy-traffic trout, try to be as stealthy as you can, keeping movements to a minimum. With proper technique/presentation, fly/tippet choice and little movement, you will have more success than the guy standing in the middle of the stream next to you.