Blind Faith – Part Two

Continuing on from his spring article, Steve adds to the angler’s repertoire when the trout in a lake aren’t visible.

When I started writing about blind fishing lakes, I should have known it would take more than one article to do the subject justice. To recap, last issue we covered (among other things) distinctions between blind fishing and blind flogging: blending in, approaching the water, casting, and the beginning and end of the retrieve – namely the drop, and the hang. Let’s now deal with the bit in the middle, being the retrieve itself.

Totally focused on the retrieve at Lake Wartook.


After the drop but before the hang, the actual retrieve is important. There are three main options:

  • A strip or draw, being a steady pull on the line which moves the fly anywhere from a few centimetres to a metre through the water, followed by a short or long pause, and a repeat.
  • A figure-eight or gathering retrieve, where you roll the flyline smoothly through your line hand, to keep the fly moving slowly and steadily rather than erratically.
  • The roly-poly, where you tuck the rod under your rod arm and use both hands to move the line (fast, slow or mixed up) in a constant motion.

Within these three options are a wide range of styles and speeds, jerks, pauses, and twitches. There’s possibly yet another article (and maybe some training material!) required to get through all that in detail, but trying different options until you hit on a successful one, is a key message. For example, on a recent trip, we were trying different retrieves and noticed we were getting takes on the first two steady draws after the drop. The tungsten bead was causing an interesting splash that brought fish over for a look, but they wouldn’t actually eat the fly until it moved.

For blind fishing, my ‘If I could only have one retrieve’ retrieve, would be a slow figure-eight – after the drop. It’s no coincidence that when you’ve been blind fishing off and on for a decade or three, you’ll notice you catch a disproportionate number of fish on a slow wind-in when you’re either heading off to a different spot or finishing up for the day. It’s a steady continuous retrieve (a bit like a figure-eight), with a bonus fly animation from the rod tip as it constantly wiggles around. So be ready.


On lakes, I tend to use indicators more for when I’m sight-fishing. However, on the subject of mixed-up retrieves while fishing blind, I always have an indicator in my jacket pocket which I can quickly fix to my line. I would rarely spend a day on a lake and not use it and it can be a real game-changer. Indicators allow a unique presentation, both in terms of how wet flies hang position-wise (versus their position when retrieved), and their inert or almost inert behaviour. If you’re blind indicator fishing along a shore with a following breeze, try casting ahead at 45 to 60 degrees and walking a few paces as the fly settles under the indicator. This stops a belly forming in your line and gives you better contact. Watch the indicator closely and strike on any movement, because by the time the indicator has moved the fish may well have felt the resistance and tried to spit the hook out. There’s only a small time-window to react.

A beautiful brown caught while drifting a flashback nymph ‘blind’ under an indicator.

The Tug is the Drug

One evening I was fishing at Providence on Lake Eucumbene, stripping Woolly Buggers on a sinking line in some deep water. There was a fellow flyfisher in another boat and we always ended our respective drifts just few metres apart no matter where we’d kicked off, because the currents pushed into a single point. So we started a bit of general chatter. Then the wind dropped and I could see a patch of rising fish a few hundred metres away, so I used the electric motor and headed over. I caught a few small rainbows before the rise stopped, and I went back to the original water over the river channel. Sure enough, our boats came together again at the end of a drift and I asked him why he hadn’t come across for a bit of dry fly action. His short answer? “The tug is the drug.”

Moments after the tug at Tantangara while fishing a big black Woolly Bugger deep and slow.

So there it is, and he’s right. An aggressive hit on a fly retrieved blind, is a unique thing. Setting a hook after a rise, or after an indicator goes down, or on the drop or hang is cool, but your brain has already processed the outcome visually, and it can all be a bit mechanical. A hard take on a stripped fly is pure adrenalin, and even a 200 gram rainbow can nearly pull the rod out of your hand in that instant. Sometimes, I’m just happy to cast a full line and strip big wets long after I should be nymphing under an indicator, for no other reason than I want the tug.

The Blind Dry

For many years I had a giant pink Dog Nobbler (a quaint English term for a type of big wet) on my fly vest. My first double-figure lake rainbow was caught on that fly – in 1984 from a massive gravel pit trout fishery near London. I cast the fly out and it would not sink; instead, this mass of pink feathers just lay on top of the water. The act of casting on a bright summer day dried it no matter how much I tried to drown it. Frustrated, I was searching for my pack of split shot, when the fly disappeared in a huge swirl and a fifteen minute scrap ensued.

One evening recently, and for no other reason than the rod was rigged up with two dries from an afternoon river session, I launched the boat and started lake fishing with the same rig. What an evening that was. There was no hatch or rise of consequence, and yet every drift brought multiple fish to the surface to attack my Royal Wulff and Elk Hair Caddis combo.

Blind fishing the ripple with two dries at Lake Augusta in Tasmania, can be very effective.

On another day I was fishing Wentwood Reservoir in South Wales. Stopping for lunch on a windless afternoon with the sun beating down, I took off my nymphs and cast out a daddy-long-legs pattern, which was hit by a good fish whilst I was relaxing horizontal after my chicken drumstick and KitKat! And last Christmas, on a warm sultry Lake Eucumbene morning, we blind-fished big dries close in around the rocky shores in a light breeze. We got far more interest from the trout than I would have expected if we’d fished wet flies.

For this blind dry fishing to work, you need to believe the fish will be looking up, which usually means there must be some kind of general insect activity. It could be hoppers, moths, blowflies, cicadas, gum beetles… anything that could be a random floating meal for a hungry fish. The quantity doesn’t have to be enough for a ‘proper’ rise (that would no longer be blind fishing) but it needs to be enough for the invisible trout to be keeping one eye on the surface. Use short casts, say 5 metres, and let the fly bob for a minute or so before you move along and recast. Sometimes, in the shimmer of a calm lake, the rise to a beetle or blowfly pattern can be a mesmeric now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t take. Just sipped down, with only a tiny ripple to tell you to strike.

Blind Flies

I like the term ‘prospecting’ to describe the flies I cast when I haven’t really decided what’s going on out there. I tend to start with something big for prospecting, usually a Woolly Bugger of some description, usually with a bit of weight or a bead. Notwithstanding the ‘blind’ dry fly just discussed, if the fish aren’t on the surface, I take the fly down to them more often than not. Try a mix of retrieves and depths, maybe even change the colour. If there are fish around, you will usually get at least a soft take or a tap or a follow. Then start to think about how you’re going to catch the fish if they won’t hook up.

Choosing a blind searching fly carefully at Lake Fyans – you need to believe!

Have a big selection of Woolly Buggers, big and small; brown, black and green; weighted and unweighted; beaded and plain. My favourite Bugger at the moment is black and blue, tied on a size 12 wide-gape nymph hook with a bronzed tungsten bead, a blingy straggle-string chenille body, and a ginger hackle. You can’t actually buy it, and it’s a pretty scruffy looking fella, but it’s caught me a heap of fish this year – as did the black Christmas tree Bugger I’ve fished for the last two years. Black with sparkle is good.

Size 12 or 14 nymphs with a bead, fished very slowly are another blind option (for the Snowy Mountains lakes, olive green is a very popular colour) with the second choice a black flashback nymph. The use of tungsten bead nymphs with beads in dayglow colours has taken off in the last few years, so definitely have some of those, especially fluoro orange. Never be without a variety of different size stick caddis and for the surface, a size 12 Carrot fly (or Red Tag). I regularly fish these as a duo in summer, hanging the caddis 60 centimetres under the Carrot – if the lake is a bit choppy the Carrot will sink within a minute and you can fish it wet on a very slow retrieve. Small browns in spring seem to love it.

In summer and autumn, after-dark fishing on a clear moon-free night is amazing. You need some big surface flies that mimic a mudeye or a moth.

Eucumbene rainbow on the Black Muddler.

I usually fish two flies and sometimes even three, depending on local regulations. If you are not completely comfortable fishing three, then think of shortening the amount of line you’re casting to reduce the number of tangles. A common strategy is to tie a prospecting fly onto your top dropper, with two smaller nymphs or wets on the first dropper and the point. I was talking about this with a well-known competition fisher who called the big fly a ‘water mover’ to attract curious fish, and the other flies as ‘food flies’, which is a useful way to think of this rig.

Whatever flies you choose, fish them with the confidence that made you tie them on in the first place. If you’re not confident, then change flies.

Lake and weather conditions

Full sun, flat calm days are difficult for blind fishing. Countless generations of natural selection have persuaded trout that they’re extra vulnerable to predators under such conditions and they’ll often go into hiding, so look for a light breeze and at least partly overcast conditions. Some days, the takes will come and go like clockwork as the clouds cross the sun. Rough conditions are great for fishing blind if you can find a good shore where the waves are stirring up the shallows and you can walk and cast close in, say 2 metres to 5 metres off the bank, at an angle of 10 to 45 degrees.

If it has recently poured with rain, every temporary rivulet will carry food, so use that to your advantage. Fish in, and adjacent to, dirty water. As a kid, I used to stir up the creek and rush downstream to fish in the dirty water. Worked a treat!

If the lake is falling fast after a period of rising or stable lake levels, the trout often retreat to the depths and sulk. Again, I suspect that’s a natural selection response to potential stranding. In these conditions, enjoy the walk and look for deep water banks and drop-offs, and watch the slippery mud and quicksand close to the edge. If the lake is rising, especially after a long period with no water covering the ground, the fish will be right at the bank feeding on whatever is wriggling out of the grass and ground. It’s a feast for them.

A midwinter rainbow fished up blind on a Magoo. Don’t let the cold deter you.

The coldest water in most southern hemisphere trout lakes tends to occur in August. The brown trout have finished spawning and are looking to put on condition; the mature rainbows are still spawning or are yet to run. In other parts of the world, trout are caught by drilling holes in the ice so don’t let the cold water deter you.

In the height of summer, the water temperature in the shallows can get into the high 20s which is lethal to trout if they spend too much time there. So as with a falling lake (and these conditions often go together) look for deeper water. But a lot of the food is in the shallows, and the fish will often come in after dark – even if it’s in feed-and-retreat bursts. Evening and night are frequently the most productive times in summer.

Shoreline and lake-bed types

Observe the terrain near a lake edge to try to determine what happens once it disappears below the water. A gully that runs into the lake will still be a gully underwater and that’s a good place for fish to hide and ambush food. Most gullies will be great spots for midge, caddis and mudeyes. The soil has been settling in these areas for thousands of years, perhaps long before the lake was there, and the midge love that nutrient-rich base.

A gently-shelving or flat lake shore will often be the same as it continues under the water, but if you’re wading, watch out for drop-offs and flooded wombat holes! In spring and early summer, these flats are my favourite spots in the evening. Stand out there, 15 metres from the bank in thigh-deep water and the fish will be feeding all around you, even between you and the bank.

A peninsula will often have deeper water on both sides, and if a wind has been consistently blowing from one direction, there will be a food eddy on the lee shore. Walk straight to the end, fish while you wade out, then cast with the wind behind you. If there’s a bit of breeze, the eddy should be fairly obvious and is often marked by stirred up sediment.

Yabby beds are a fish magnet. Make a note of where they are and fish them carefully – particularly in low light or rough, stirred up conditions.

I often target yabby beds. These are mostly in clay (sometimes dusted with a thin layer of sand or silt) and are easy to spot – not least because of the thousands of holes! Anywhere there are yabby beds, sooner or later there will be fish. On bouldery rocky shores with semi-submerged petrified trees, you will usually find yabby beds: the clay is what keeps those trees upright.

Playing the odds

In 2004 I was in Vancouver giving a keynote speech at the World Fisheries Congress and, as you do, I took a day off to go fishing. I chartered a jet boat on Pitt Lake, one of the world’s largest tidal lakes, to try and catch my first cutthroat trout. We blasted off across the lake, travelling for about half an hour through beautiful Canadian wilderness, before pulling up 100 metres from a village of log cabins! We fished bright purple Woolly Buggers on fast sinking lines and caught a heap of cutthroats, and something called milkfish.

Satisfied the mission was a success, I began to wonder why, after motoring all that way through deserted wilderness, we’d pulled up next to a settlement? When I asked, Mike the guide replied, “Why do you think the cabins are there”?

The point is that the trout are seldom everywhere, nor eating everything. In some ways, blind fishing is simply about playing the odds: finding where the trout are likely to be and then finding what they’re likely to eat.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – Blind fishing lines and leaders

Floating, sink-tip, intermediate or sinking lines – I’ve used them all. Yet in the same way I sometimes fish for the tug by stripping streamers when I probably should be fishing something else, I often stay with a floating line when the alternatives make more sense. Most of the time, I would rather crimp on a big split shot than change my line because I want to be able to quickly change tactics if I see that cruising fish in a metre of water. Everything is easier with a floating line – but I do carry the others and I do use them all, especially from the boat.

I rarely fish light leaders when blind fishing and whilst I fish fluorocarbon most of the time (even when fishing dries) I am equally confident with mono. I use a 1X or 2X leader from the fly line, with 3X or 4X tippet. In pounds breaking strain, that equates to something like 12, 10, 8 and 6, depending on brand. All winter, I fish with 3X tippet. Hot summer days, I may go down to 4X.

When using more than one fly, my droppers are usually 100mm to 150mm long, and anywhere from a metre to two metres apart.