Around the time the sun is setting, many river residents are just getting going, writes Philip
The line between fishing pleasure and pain is never finer than when you arrive late for a rise. The dun hatch you planned to be ready for at 1pm, but a work issue means you don’t make it until three. Or the dawn midge hatch where you slept through your alarm and arrived just before a blinding sun poked above the horizon. Or the evening rise you were always going to struggle to get to the river for, but roadworks cost you a precious half hour.
In each case, you just manage the last of something; a session which could have been great, but instead turns into a mad rush of fly choice, location choice, and quite possibly a bad knot or two. Yes, you might catch a trout, even a couple, but you walk away flustered; contemplating what might have been. In these situations, I sometimes wonder if it would have been better to have simply cut my losses and not turned up at all, leaving the fishing for when I’m not racing the clock. I never do that of course; maybe one day when I grow up!
An evening rise on a river is the definition of this narrow window of opportunity. Even if you arrive on time, there’s certain to be a period of rushed-ness; one that’s amplified by every minute the rise is delayed: the later it starts, the less time (i.e. useful light) you’ll have.
So how do you make the most of an evening rise? Well, a confession first up that even after decades of doing this, I’ve come to reluctantly accept that uncertainty is part of the deal with evening rises. There are things you can do to improve the odds of success, but a sure-fire formula to get the best from every evening rise simply isn’t achievable. As with many flyfishing situations, the inputs on a given evening are so many (some of which we can scarcely detect) that you can’t cover every possibility. On a more cheerful note, there are several evening elements you can control which greatly improve your chances of success – even if they don’t quite guarantee it.
Time of year
Evening rises on Australian streams are more-or-less a feature of the warmer months, with the best action likely between November and March. Smaller streams and tailwaters can produce a rise somewhat earlier in spring if flows aren’t too high and the water isn’t too icy. Then, sometime in April, the rapid onset of cold temperatures as soon as the sun is off the water, seems to kill off the action. You might get a flutter and the odd stray dun, but the daytime fishing is usually better.
Time of day
More often than not, the best evening action won’t begin until true sunset: that is, the time of day when the sun has set beyond the actual horizon, not when it dips below the trees or ridgeline. If you’re impatient and inclined to wonder if it might not happen, check the sunset time for your location and look at your watch. Depending upon your exact latitude, midsummer sunset time in trout country is at least 8.30pm; even later the further south you go.
I usually head out well before sunset though, because it’s nice to have a bit of stress-free time to scout your location (see below), and it can be worth a cast. Some evenings, it seems the trout begin ‘looking up’ in anticipation, even when most insects are yet to appear, and these fish can be caught fishing dries blind. A more exciting prospect is a ‘pre-rise’ rise – a hatch or fall rarely as heavy as a true evening rise, but enough to bring trout up to cast to. Termite or ant falls in thundery conditions can create a classic pre-rise, as can late afternoon spinner falls.
If you’re really lucky, you may get a genuine evening rise which begins well before sunset and keeps going. I’ve only seen a few of these in my life, but if you’re there anyway, you won’t risk missing out.
At the other end, as touched on above, evening rises often continue into dark. While the main event may dwindle as night approaches, trout almost always continue rising in certain quiet pools, backwaters and edges where the food accumulates and takes much longer to disperse. Finding these fish can be as much about listening as looking!
And then there are rises which don’t even begin until after dark – one classic being to falls of giant Coloburiscoides (Kossie dun) spinners. How late you finish can be as much to do with the quality of your night vision and your need for food, drink and sleep, as anything fish-related.
There are very few stream fishing locations I can think of where there aren’t at least a couple of creeks or rivers close by to choose from. And if you have this choice, go for the stream with closest to a ‘goldilocks’ flow: not too high or too low. While you can find an evening rise during big flows, they’re often isolated, inaccessible and easy to miss. At the other extreme, low flows just don’t seem to generate the same quantity of aquatic insect activity (although terrestrials may end up on the water regardless).
Surprisingly, discolouration, even down to a couple of feet of visibility, doesn’t seem to have the negative impact on evening rises you might expect: hatches and falls appear to be unaffected, while the trout have no trouble finding the food – and your artificial!
This can be the most maddeningly unpredictable bit – although without it, I guess we wouldn’t feel the same sense of victory when we do find a decent evening rise.
Even under perfect conditions, evening rises are never equally distributed along a length of stream. Depending on what’s hatching or falling, the most action might be in broad tail-outs, smooth glides, bubble-lines, backwaters; perhaps riffles and rapids. So the first thing to do, is pick a reasonably compact stretch with as many of these different features as possible – that way you’ll be able to scout a lot of possibilities within a short distance.
If you can manage it, there are two other luxuries to look for. First, water where you’re facing the western sky can provide a lot of extra twilight: up to half an hour more fishing time. I wouldn’t choose a section of stream purely for western aspect, but I’ll always look for that possible bonus during a pre-rise reconnaissance.
Second, while evening is often calm anyway, if there is enough wind on the water to ruffle the surface, it can hurt your chances – particularly for spinner falls. Shelter from trees or hillsides can make all the difference, to the point that on really windy evenings, I will start by finding shelter, and then hopefully good water to fit.
Incidentally, fishing with a friend will double your chances of finding a rise. Despite an aversion to mobile phones on the river, if signal permits, this is one time when they’re invaluable. You can scout separate stretches, and then call or text each other if you find the fish up. Even without phone reception, a prearranged whistle or coo-ee can alert your companion that they may be missing out.
On the water
You’ve picked a likely stretch of a stream that’s in good condition. It’s almost an hour until sunset and you could be forgiven for just sitting on that log in the lengthening shadows, tidying up your vest patch and redoing your tippet – all while keeping half an eye on the wide, smooth tail-out in front of you. You noticed one noisy leap from a tiddler as you sat down and, while you’d like to think that means something, the reality is, it doesn’t. The best evenings can be preceded by nothing at all, while a smattering of rises might fade to a dud. This early, you’ll only know what the evening will be like when you walk back to camp in the dark maybe 2 hours from now.
Once you’re satisfied all the gear is in good shape, you begin a stroll upstream. From the tail-out, the river merges into a progressively slower pool, with a bubble-line trailing lazily near the willow and tea-tree on the steep far bank. You make a note that some late rises may appear here, but it would be a long cast and a hard drift.
At the top of the pool, a rubbly rapid ends in a plunge over a dark drop-off. There’s no way you could spot a rise in the white-water even if a trout braved the torrent, but a few metres upstream, the rapid widens and the gradient is less. While it’s still more a rapid than a run, this is the sort of water where you might find a trout slashing at newly-emerged Kossie duns, which love rubble and fast water. Further up still, the water charges out from under a big willow on your side where it departs from the deep run above. The exit point provides a few metres of softer water and you make a note to check this spot again. Beyond the willow, the trout will be safe from you this evening: it looks like a difficult crossing or a long walk to the next entry point upstream.
Having investigated this upper stretch, you walk downstream to check out the wide riffle below the tail-out where you started. On your way, you spook a nice fish out of the gravelly shallows on your side – whoops!
The riffle is a ripper: fist-sized stones and fairly even depth: maybe a half to a metre deep all the way across to the willows on the far side. A hundred metres downstream, the riffle blends into a deeper, smoother run – also a nice-looking spot. Then the river splits and charges into another deep, narrow rapid, lined with scrub and probably hard to fish from either bank.
So, it looks like the crescent-shaped bend you’ve chosen for evening is quite closed-off at either end, but in between there’s a few hundred metres of decent variety, and it’s easy to walk up and down on the open and sparsely-treed inside of the bend.
While you wait for something to happen, you might as well have a fish. It’s important to stress again that trout activity before evening is no indication at all of what the evening rise will be like. I’ve had streams appear totally lifeless while pre-fishing, only to have them explode into rises within seconds of the start of a hatch or fall. Still, on average, there’s usually a trout or three with an eye on the surface which can be coaxed up with a searching dry fly (or two) well before the evening rise begins. If there are obvious clues towards what fly to use, by all means follow them, but if you’re looking for a good pre-rise searcher, it’s hard to go past a red parachute spinner in about size 14-16. No matter what fastwater stream I’m on, I feel confident with this fly in the hour or so before sunset. If it’s difficult to see, try fishing it in tandem with a Royal Wulff or a large paradun.
It’s even better of course if you find the odd early rise to cover. Look hard in the shadows and the pool tail-outs.
The main event
Once the true evening rise begins, the trout will quickly focus on the most numerous/ easily caught bug. That’s the nature of selective feeding: sufficient abundance of one insect (or even, heaven help us, a lifecycle stage of one insect) causes the trout to adopt a narrow search image, and pretty much ignore all else. In theory then, it should simply be a case of identifying the abundant bug, copying it with the right fly, and catching lots of trout.
Sometimes it really is that neat and tidy, but other times, perhaps not… Two challenges facing the evening rise fisher are often lack of time, and (to state the obvious) poor light. It can be hard to see exactly what insect is causing the fuss, especially if it’s, say, small, dark, flush with the surface, or all three. Should you identify said insect, you then need to find and tie on the right the fly. It doesn’t matter how good you are, head-torch or not, rummaging through fly boxes in the gloom and then attaching the hatch-matcher to your tippet (maybe even changing tippet if you go from a big fly to a tiny fly or vice versa) is never quite as quick and easy as in broad daylight.
While all this is going on, the clock is ticking: that particular hatch may only last for minutes, and if the hatch or fall starts late, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to see rises, your fly, and takes.
In practice then, I often prepare with a two dry setup, much as I described above for the pre-rise: a larger fly which can double as a decent sighter, and a smaller pattern. Good combos include a paradun, particularly a Kossie dun (white mast) or a larger Shaving Brush (very dark to black – surprisingly visible), with a smaller spinner, emerger, F-Fly or Antron Caddis off the back.
I’ll also have three or four likely flies ready to go on my vest patch: these might even be different sizes of some of the flies above.
The double dry downside is imperfect drift, but the upside is of course the capacity to instantly deal with a couple of possibilities. And about that drift: I reckon a bit of micro-drag can actually help attract attention on evening, and it may mimic the struggle and twitch of fallen or hatching insects. (More about this shortly.)
Stand somewhere which gives the best light, get close, and cast across rather than directly upstream – sometimes you may even benefit light-wise from standing a bit upstream from a trout and drifting the flies down to it. All this is possible because with focused trout in lower light, spooking them is now a negligible risk, and the main objective should be to cover a given trout as accurately as possible; and to then detect a rise to your fly.
Pick a fish
As with any busy rise, river or lake, try to pick a conveniently-located trout from amongst the masses and really focus on it until it’s pricked, caught, or you spot a bigger one! The scattergun approach is inefficient and messy.
As flagged above, this can be a difficult decision. When the trout are rising flat out, the most technically perfect fly can still be overlooked as the fish drift up and down the current to eat, or swing side to side. Even their feeding rhythm can mean they are simply ducking under while your fly floats over. So you need to be convinced you’ve actually given your fly a fair go (be honest!) before you make the decision to change – and there’s going to be a significant opportunity cost making the change.
If all has gone well, you may be content to walk away once the main rise is over. It’s getting hard to see, maybe it’s cooling down fast in just a shirt, and you’re overdue for a drink and some food.
That’s all fine and understandable, but be aware there are almost certainly going to be trout – often big trout – mopping up the rise remnants in backwaters, eddies, and the bubble-lines of long, slow pools. This can go on for ages after the general activity has ceased, but because it’s now almost dark, it can be difficult to immediately find the rises. I often change angle several times while approaching a likely piece of water (usually a spot I’ve earmarked during my pre-rise reconnaissance) to find the best light, or I’ll even stop and listen for the quiet sips and snips of rising trout.
The effort can be worth it because, unlike during the main rise, the trout are less overwhelmed by the quantity of food available and are quite methodical. And either because of poor light or more bits and pieces floating by, the trout are usually less selective: if you think that was a rise to your fly, it probably was!
Like I say, this can go on for an hour, even more if you let it. And if you’re not careful, it may merge with a genuine night rise. These days though, I’m inclined to call it a night after one or two late fish – I want to be fresh for the next evening.