Thanks to the Birds!

By Scott Richmond

Sometimes birds tell you more than fish, and sometime the old flies are the best flies. I learned this lesson (again) this week when I floated the Deschutes River with my friend Ed.

We launched Tuesday evening and hit some prime spots. There was no surface activity, but Ed still hooked three trout on a green foam-bodied caddis; I caught nothing. We camped on the river and saw no evening hatch and no feeding trout. The next day we fished hard from early morning to noon, and the only action was when I snagged an eight-inch trout with a nymph. The late afternoon/early evening were a repeat of the morning, but without the excitement of snagging an eight-incher.

August can be like that on the Deschutes. The big spring/summer hatches are over, the trout have seen a lot of anglers and are well fed, and it's sunny and warm. Some days can be quite good, but you're just as likely to have days like we had--no rises, no hatches, no fish, nada, zip, zilch, skunk city.

By dusk on Wednesday Ed and I were in sight of the boat ramp; my truck stood in the parking area ready to take home two frustrated anglers. I was working my way along a current seam and saw--miracle of miracles!--a rise. Then two more! Those three rises doubled the number of rises we'd seen over the last two days. I quickly changed to a small, white mayfly pattern because I thought I'd seen one lift off the water. By the time I'd tied on the fly, the rises were over.

Then I saw a dozen swallows about a hundred yards upstream. They were swooping over the water, coming close to the surface and taking insects. But the trout weren't doing anything so obvious--not where the birds were, and not where I was. There were no splashy rises like you'd expect during a caddis hatch; no head-and-tail rises from just-below-the-surface pupa feeding; no sipping in the nearby backeddy. No sign whatsoever of feeding fish.

But the birds were out, so something was going on. I tried three different dry flies, a caddis pupa on a dropper below a dry fly, a caddis pupa dead drifted on the bottom, a diving (egg-laying) caddis dead drifted on the bottom, and a diving caddis on a wet fly swing near the surface. None interested a trout, if indeed any fish were left in the river.

I wasn't ready to quit and decided to give it one more shot. My reasoning went like this: the swallows are either taking freshly emerged caddis or egg-laying caddis; I'd seen many tiny Glossosomas, or saddle-case caddis ; these size 16-18 dark-hued caddis lay their eggs by plunging through the surface, then swimming to the bottom. Trout will take them anywhere on that journey. But what fly to use? I'd already tried patterns specifically tied to imitate that stage of the species.

I've learned from experience that a small, dark Soft Hackle fly can be just the ticket for Glossosomas. So I tied on an unweighted size 16 Soft Hackle with a peacock herl body and a partridge wing and presented it with a wet fly swing.

I hooked trout on my third cast, my sixth cast, my seventh cast, my tenth cast, my fifteenth cast . . .

What are the takeaways here?

  1. Many caddis species lay their eggs by swimming underwater. Trout may be taking them without giving you any signs on the surface.
  2. Watch the birds. Sometimes they tell you more about what's going on than the trout will reveal.
  3. General, impressionistic fly patterns such as Soft Hackles can sometimes out-produce those fancy new-fangled patterns. The sparseness and simplicity of the pattern is a key to its success.
  4. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never ever ever give up!

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).