Philip works through some strategies for evening fishing on the mountain rivers.
As I write, I’ve just spent several evenings over the space of a fortnight fishing around Eildon and the NSW border.
I should say that I hardly ever plan a trip when sunset is going to be the only time I fish, or even the main event. There’s too much potential daytime action through north-east Victoria and the upper Murray, to have an expedition hang on the hour or so before dark.
Still, evening on these streams is in my DNA. One of my earliest flyfishing memories is watching Peter Julian cast a Royal Coachman to prolific risers on the upper Mitta Mitta while I fruitlessly threw a Celta. It was one of those key moments in my angling life. I can still smell the eucalyptus after a hot day, see the white flashes on the dark water, and hear Peter’s victorious ‘woohoo’ as he hooked another good brown. If I needed something to really focus my flyfishing, this went a long way towards it.
To this day, the most prolific rises I see on streams occur on evening. It’s worth staying out late just to get a glimpse of how many trout are in the river, let alone for the angling opportunities.
The best thing about an evening rise is it basically wants to happen. While some flyfishing events rely on a fortunate alignment of conditions, if it’s any time from October to mid-April and not pouring with rain, there will be a rise somewhere. Too many trout stream insects rely upon the cover of low light to complete an important part of their lifecycle, whether that be emerging from their aquatic form into a winged insect, or mating, or laying eggs back on the water. Quite a few terrestrials also prefer this same time of day to get busy, particularly flying ants, termites, and beetles.
There are however some conditions which make an evening rise less likely; or, if it occurs, less prolific. Very cold air and/or water temperatures tend to dampen evening action – one reason why tailwaters can provide good evening rises earlier and later in the season. (Upstream dam releases tend to artificially moderate tailwater temperatures, making them cooler than natural streams in summer, but often warmer in late autumn and early spring.)
Meanwhile, very high flows don’t stop evening rises, but they do tend to limit the parts of the stream where they happen. However, discoloured water is less of a downer than you might think. On its own, turbidity has to be pretty extreme to stop the bugs hatching and falling, and to prevent the trout from rising. I am constantly amazed how easily trout in milky water can find a size 16 mayfly – and my imitation!
Wind is an interesting one. I would always prefer a calm evening to a breezy one, and yet I can think of two occasions on two different rivers in recent months when it was blowing a gale, and but the actual evening rise was superb. So don’t let the wind stop you, but do think strategically about how you fish, and where you need to physically be to fish effectively – more on these points shortly.
One of evening’s big challenges is to be on the right piece of water at the right time, yet unfortunately, there is no tidy formula which can be applied in advance. Even last night’s hot spot can be this evening’s fail. Really, there is no better strategy than finding a section of stream with a variety of accessible water within a couple of hundred metres: rapids, gravely riffles, smooth glides with neat bubble-lines, and flat tail-outs. Clumps of bankside trees and bushes can help (especially for caddis). Then walk back and forth looking carefully, and maybe even stopping here and there for a few blind casts. This forces you to slow down for a minute or two to perhaps see or hear subtle rises you might otherwise miss. And you may be surprised by fish that come up ‘blind’ for your fly.
If you can manage it, an added luxury is good visibility. The most obvious example is a clean view towards the afterglow of the setting sun: either a clear far bank or the river ‘lit’ upstream. Even some glow downstream can be used. However, I would always focus first on finding rising fish, and then think about light. It’s surprising what works sometimes when the light is tough, including bright fly posts or wings visible against dark water, and the ‘flashes’ of rising fish.
What time should you head out? During Daylight Savings, if you have the convenience of camp nearby, I’d suggest an early evening meal, then planning to be back on the water an hour before sunset. You’re not going to miss much in that generally quiet late afternoon/ early evening slot – say, one to two hours before sunset. So, a break and something to eat & drink (save the alcoholic kind for later) will ensure you’re fresh and focussed for the best evening rise slot, and less tempted to pull out early. (A big mistake, and a common one.)
Outside Daylight Savings, it gets too dark to fish beyond a civilized hour anyway, so fishing the evening rise works in well with a meal and a drink afterwards.
Even an hour before sunset is arguably still too early to be looking for an evening rise as such. BUT it will give you time to scout possible spots, find shelter from the wind (if needed) and generally plan without too much time pressure. And as mentioned earlier, have a cast, even if you don’t have a rise to cover. It’s a good chance to check leader performance, and to try flies or fly combinations – and with the distinct possibility of a pre rise trout or two. Although the fish may not be visible, the fading light does seem to make them more alert to what’s to come, and dry fly takes in bubble-lines and other feeding lies become more likely.
The witching hour
And then suddenly, it’s on. One moment you’re struggling to see a single rise, then the next moment, you’re having to choose which fish to cover. After all these years, the transformation gets me nearly every time. Just as I’m thinking I’m in the wrong spot or it’s the wrong night, out come insects and up come the trout.
One thing I have learnt, is you don’t actually need masses of rising fish – as exciting a spectacle as that is. Just a few trout rising regularly can be enough. Often, these less frantic feeders are easier to cover well and take a fly better.
If you do find yourself fishing to a frenzy, try to pick a single trout and focus on it. Avoid the scattergun approach.
In effect, the evening rise often comes in two parts. First, the major emergence of duns or caddis and/ or the egg-laying caddis and spinners, and/ or fall of terrestrials like beetles, ants or termites. This is, if you like, the big, flashy rise that you and your mates will talk about over a drink later. Step right up!
But then, when many anglers are folding their rods and walking back to the car or camp, comes part two. In the very last of the light, uneaten spent spinners, caddis, stillborn duns and other bits and pieces, drift into the slow bubble-lines on broad pools, and into backwaters, eddies and corners of the river. Here, in the remnants of daylight, trout quietly mop up this secondary bounty. The rises are usually subtle – was that one? Or just a pulse of current? Ears start to trump eyes as you listen for that clip or sip, although someone seems to have turned up the volume of the river and the crickets as the light slips away.
This is virtually fishing by instinct – a single dry, often at close range. You look and listen as hard as you can, but mostly, when you strike, you’re far from certain your fly was eaten. In fact, it can almost be surprising to lift into weight, but when you do, that weight can be significant, because many of these twilight sippers are the best fish in the stream.
Time to go
Lately, I’ve enjoyed more great evening rises than I could reasonably hope for. Once or twice, I’ve even had the luxury of winding in while there was still a trout or two clipping away in plain sight. I was sufficiently content that it felt right to ‘declare’, rather than fight it out to the last fish.
Mostly though, it’s the first stars in the sky that are the signal that I’ve given it a good go, and that evening at least, is over.
FLYSTREAM FACTS – FLIES, AND DOUBLE DRY OR SINGLE?
When setting up for the evening rise, my default rig is roughly a 10ft leader ending in 3X, tied to a relatively large and visible dry fly, then roughly 2-3ft of 4X to a smaller and more subtle pattern. This system offers three significant benefits:
- It allows you to have an each-way bet on what’s likely to appear on the water, without having to make a mid-rise fly change.
- It allows you to fish a smaller or lower-floating fly, while still being able to track it thanks to its more visible companion.
- If the trout are really locked in on a few centimetres of water overhead, two flies increase your coverage per cast.
This season, a typical combination for me has been a size 10 Kossie Dun with a nice bright mast as the big fly (it’s been a really good season for the naturals), then either a size 16-18 red spinner or Antron Caddis tied off the back. So far, this combo has worked well on a wide range of waters and evenings. However, it may not work forever, and if on-water evidence or reports from trusted sources suggest a change is needed, I’ll make it.
One important note here: because evening rises are relatively short, and fly-change light is steadily diminishing, I’d recommend working hard to present your fly(s) well, before making a change. In other words, I’d rather be focussed on fishing imperfect flies to the best of my ability, than frantically changing tiny patterns by torchlight. It can be a hard call – if you’re clearly being ignored or refused cast after cast, I guess a change is needed. Just don’t panic too early!
The other important point is, the two dry option has its failings. The most prominent problem is, it works poorly cast into a headwind. For the system to be worthwhile, it requires each fly to be separate on landing and drift, yet a headwind means the flies often crash-land together or even tangle. Similarly, if real precision is required: under a branch, hard against a rock wall, or in complex backwater currents, fishing two dries isn’t ideal. On many evenings, I’ll start with two flies, but change to one at the end, when low light is making precise presentation and drift more difficult anyway.