A Fly for all seasons, Part 2

In the first part of this story, I talked about a recent winter trip to Lake Eucumbene and my decision to fish a single fly virtually the whole time: a jig head Woolly Bugger variant I call the Black & Gold – and how to tie it. In this part, I’ll offer some insights into how to fish it right through the angling year.

Around the boulders

After consistent success on that winter Buckenderra trip, on day four we headed north up the lake to Brookwood. Here, some boulder outcrops, underwater and invisible just a few weeks earlier, had re-emerged in the middle of the bay – something to send a cautionary shiver down any boat operator’s spine.

With Philip and Stephen on the bank, and both regularly catching rainbows close to shore, I was having a slow patch in the boat, fishing my Black & Gold. Perhaps it was my tendency to overthink things, but I started obsessing about those boulder outcrops. I used the electric to motor quietly about 50 metres offshore, from where I could see a dozen or so looming rocky shapes surrounding a boulder island. Immediately, my mind turned from investigating potential danger, to the fishy nature of this structure-rich environment.

I drifted through the boulders, allowing the fly to sink deep, 3 metres or more, with relatively short, precise casts. I wanted to lure out any fish skulking in the rocks, but I also wanted to draw in any fish swimming nearby. I imagined the light-coloured granite rock would make a highlighting backdrop for the dark fly, perhaps making it stand out to any cruising trout from further away. Meanwhile, I was working hard not to be distracted by the regular background noise of whooping and carrying on as the shoreline success continued unabated.

After twenty minutes or so, and a few prospective taps (small fish I thought), I saw a definite line twitch and instinctively lifted the rod, immediately feeling the weight of a better fish. I soon knew from its lunging power this was a good brown. Landing big fish in a boulder garden is not without challenges. Recalling a massive rainbow which had broken me off on a boulder two years earlier (and not far from where I was fishing) I gently used the electric motor to take the boat into five metres of hopefully snag free water, and spot-locked. Incidentally, I was fishing a six metre leader, which meant I’d need to make a very careful decision about when to bring the leader through the top runner of the rod. Even with a good line-to-leader connection, it can still catch – if a trout times its run right.

Landing big fish from a boat can prove harder than landing them from the shore, because they have a third dimension to play with more easily. As well as being able to swim away or leap, they often seek refuge in the depths, because they’re not being slowly drawn horizontally into shallower water. Instead, the angler remains directly above deeper water while he battles the fish – and right to the end.

Three or four kilograms of brown trout can sit doggo on the bottom and really test your confidence in leader strength and knots. Even applying as much pressure as I dared, it took twenty minutes to net this trout – to the delighted cheers of my shore-based audience! And there was that nervous shiver again as the barbless hook dropped out unassisted.

The brownie from boulders. Phew!

The drop, the wriggle and the hang

It’s important to talk about retrieves with the Black & Gold, and their relationship to hookups. There are times when every fish you catch is an aggressive attack during a pause in the retrieve; and other times when if the fly isn’t moving, nothing sticks.

Sometimes, you may want the fly to drop when you pause a strip retrieve; at other times you want the fly to hover. Changing fly bead weight gives you this choice. Then there is a figure-eight retrieve with its minor variations in retrieve speed; anything from sharp twitches to a smooth almost-constant-speed.

A strip retrieve provides a huge range of options from strip-stop; to a faster constant movement achieved by pushing the rod away from your body on the strip, then pulling it back before the next strip. Then there’s a two handed roly-poly, with the reel tucked under your arm for a super-slow to a super-fast retrieve.

The right retrieve can make all the difference, so mix it up until you find what works.

And you can add still more fly animation to any of these. Lifting and dropping the rod, wiggling it, lifting and twitching it. I flyfished a lot with an elderly gent who liked to fish close to the boat every time we got out onto the bank. Rightly or not, he was convinced the trout followed the boat into the bank to feed in the shallow water disturbed by the motor. He’d cast a Woolly Bugger 15 metres, take up the slack, shrug his shoulders and rock from foot to foot, then let the fly settle. After a countdown, he would start his retrieve, shrugging and rocking, all the way in, always ready for a hit. It took a long time for me to realise he wasn’t suffering from an affliction. Instead, he was doing all that twitching and rocking very deliberately, to make his fly puff up, contract, and look alive. And it worked!

A couple more things that help animate the fly, which don’t involve shrugging and rocking. During a strip retrieve, wiggle the rod left to right during the strip and after the strip – or during the push away in a constant speed strip retrieve (wiggle-wiggle, strip). With a roly-poly, the rod hand sits under the rod; it’s easy to lift it up and let it bump the rod during the retrieve to give the fly a stop/ start (a roly-poly bump).

The absolute key to Black & Gold fishing is to mix all these up, all the time, until you find what works. Vary the depth and speed of the retrieve, and the animation. Imagine every stage of the cast as potentially catching a trout, and be ready. The speed a fish can sprint to grab a fly is extraordinary. I’ve had trout grab a heavily-weighted fly a millisecond after its landed, as if it plopped into the fish’s mouth.

And I’ve had trout follow to shore, miss the fly, and grab it on the recast. And I’ve hooked up at every other point of the cast and retrieve cycle. My plea is to always expect a fish to attack the fly.

Having said that, there are definitely times to be even more alert. As per the description above, when the fly first lands, any self-respecting trout within earshot (or in a fish’s case, lateral line detection distance) will be alert to it. True, a nervous trout on a bright, flat, clearwater day, may swim away imagining danger. However equally, it may swim over for a curious look. Those who regularly polaroid for trout will witness this a lot. You have to imagine your fly landing five metres from a trout; then imagine it swimming over to investigate. Ease the slack out of the line, animate the fly as its dropping, and watch the line or feel for the slightest change in tension, and strike. On the other hand of course, the rod could be literally ripped from your grasp!

The hang, at the other end of the retrieve, is more visual… or at least it should be! You’ve finished the retrieve and you’re preparing for the next cast, lifting the rod, looking over your shoulder to check for obstructions, and that five pounder which followed your fly all the way in sees you and bolts… and you had no idea. I’ve seen that more times than I want to remember. Sometimes, it’s too cruel to even mention it – especially when the fishing has been quiet, and I’ve struggled to get a friend or client a fish. The trout is gone now, there’s nothing to see.

Fish the hang like you mean it, or be prepared for regret!

So, fish every cast back until you can see the fly under the water, and then let it hang there for two or three seconds. If a trout looks but doesn’t take, there are a few options to try to induce a response. One is to move the rod gently and horizontally towards the non-rod hand, then give it a twitch back in the opposite direction to animate the fly (the layover) then stop. What happens next is in the lap of the gods, but if the fish inhales the fly, don’t forget to strike before it exhales!

Everybody I fish with has a preferred or default retrieve; a natural style. Philip often defaults to his very focused figure-8 retrieve; Stephen to a fast strip – his saltwater fly influence no doubt. But no matter the preference, the level of concentration is a constant. And we all mixed it up: from the initial drop through to the final hang, the depth, the speed, the animation. Each time a few minutes passes without a take, someone does something different. Personally, I tend to mix it up so much that after a scrap with a good fish, when I’m asked what I was doing, I often don’t precisely remember! And not one of us is always a reliable witness. I’ve heard my mates say they ‘got it on the drop’; when I quite clearly saw the fish hit on the strip. Sometimes, it can all be a bit of a blur.

One final note on retrieves. After 50 years of flyfishing, I’ve caught a lot of trout on the wind-in, i.e., getting the line back on the reel before a move to a new spot, or even at the end of the day. Be ready when you do this, and don’t miss the opportunity for a last fish. If you wind fast with the occasional pause, you can’t help but wiggle the rod – which automatically creates a wiggle-strip retrieve.

Floating line or sinking?

I often use a floating line, a sink tip, and fast sink line. I am not a particularly technical angler, but these three options allow you to fish different water in different ways. A floating line will keep the fly coming up on the retrieve, which is good for animation, and the depth of the fly is more or less governed by the length of the leader. I can fish the Black & Gold deeper by using an indicator (yes, you read correctly) and/ or by lengthening the leader. It’s a great technique in the right water, and the best thing is that your boat partner (and even the guy on the shore if you’re close enough!) watches your indicator, so you never miss a take. If the water is choppy, the bobbing indicator will animate the fly; otherwise, you can just work it back to the boat slowly with the odd wiggle and strip. A surprisingly successful technique.

Sinking lines can be tricky to cast. You can’t easily lift them off the water to present to a rising fish, and they tend to tangle a bit on the deck of the boat. However, a fast sinking line on a 15 metre cast will typically give you another couple of metres of depth; more if you fish it slowly. But, the animation is less because the tow point is pulling the fly straight through the water, not up towards the surface. And you can’t slow the retrieve down too much or you’ll be snagging on the bottom. The contact with the fly is however very direct. Hot tip: I like the sinking line for a particular ‘harling’ technique with the Black & Gold. If you can get a good boat drift parallel to the shore, cast at 45 degrees behind the boat towards the bank, then mend the line forward in the direction of the drift before it sinks, and give it slack to allow the line and the fly to sink. Start the retrieve as the line comes towards the back of the boat at around 80 degrees. If you use the drift and the swing, the retrieve is mainly about animation, until the line is trolling right behind the boat, and you can strip it back for a recast.

In water like this, a floating line is the obvious choice.

A sink tip line is a cross between the two. It will give you a bit more depth, though again, the line is submerged, the fly animation reduced, and the lift off not quite as easy as with a floater. Bottom line? Because the Black & Gold is so heavy, I can normally get the depth I want with a floater. However, I always have the other two line types with me, and I will always try them if I can see fish at depth on the sounder which I can’t get to with a floating line. But first I will try a longer leader; second, I will use a sink tip (or a fast-sink polyleader). Only if those changes don’t produce will I try a full sinking line.

Where and when to fish the Black & Gold.

Really, this should be where not to fish it. Which is in shallow water, anywhere with shallow snags, or anywhere that’s too weedy. It’s a heavy fly, and if you’re going to make full use of that feature, you need to find at least a bit of deep, ‘clean’ water. That means steep drop-offs or channels near the bank if shore based, and two metres or more of water if fishing from a boat. My best water is usually two to four metres. Deep soaks, submerged rock faces, and clay banks are particular favourites.

The only time I would have been tempted to take off the Black & Gold on my winter trip, was when there was a really good midge hatch, and the fish were on the surface. Apart from that, the scarcity of food in general during winter makes the fish opportunistic, and this fly was in its element.

More than one fly?

Generally, I quite like fishing two or three flies, and mostly, you can get away with it; and probably increase your catch rate. So, on the winter trip, I started with the Black & Gold on point, and a nymph on the dropper. When the nymph dropper eventually tangled itself on the leader though, I took it off. I was catching all my fish on the point fly anyway, and a downside of a dropper when there are big fish around, is the risk of snagging the fish-free fly. My biggest rainbows this season and last were both lost to snags, and both when I was fishing two flies. There is no better example than ‘The battle of Brookwood’, when a well-hooked but unstoppable fish took me for a long walk up the bank, went well into my backing, and found a rose bush to snag my 2X dropper on, 30 metres offshore, in five metres of water! We always remember the fish we didn’t manage to land…

The unnatural advantage?

I’ve enjoyed developing the Black & Gold Jig Bugger, and it’s caught me a lot of trout – although arguably no more than similar patterns fished by other competent fishers.

Hooked up to a good rainbow on the Black & Gold just a few days ago. I tied it on first cast of the morning, and it was still there when I wound in my last cast. Summer or winter, this fly works.

But it’s been great fun to go through the development and improvement of the tie, and it’s fun to fish. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of using at least a 3X (8lb) tippet, but preferably 2X. I like fluorocarbon in the top brands – I’m happy to pay a little more to minimise heartbreak! Big trout can hit the fly very hard.

I think of flies like the Black & Gold Jig Bugger as a teaser. In terms of imitation, they’re at best only vaguely like anything a trout would see in their usual diet, but flies like this do agitate them. Trout which are unaware they’re being watched, will often swim right up to a Black & Gold, flare their fins, suck it in and blow it back out again. At other times, they will stare at it for ages, as if daring it to move. Their behaviour is not unlike a cat being teased by wool. The jig head on this fly makes it move in a unique way. When you fish a ‘food’ fly, like a nymph for example, you expect a cruising trout to take it as it’s moving slowly through the water, or when it’s floating or stationary. A stick caddis, suspended in the water column, is hoovered up just like all the other stick caddis. Yet the Black & Gold (and other patterns like it) stand out from most things in nature. They excite a trout’s curiosity. Giving it a little wiggle induces a trout to attack it.

So, there you have the Black & Gold Jig Bugger. Does it have magic powers? If I’m honest with myself, probably not. But if fished well in the right environment, there’s no fly I’d recommend more.