April 2017 Davidson River and Pisgah Area
Its been a more typical spring here in Pisgah Forest. It looks like the drought may be past us as we have been getting very regular rains and thunder storms. The Davidson and other area streams are running high and clear after this week's rains, but should be dropping into normal flows by the weekend. While this week's weather was cool and windy next week is looking to shape up nice with most days in the high 70’s and clear weather. The high water makes for good flow and happy strong fish. On the cooler days hatches and spinner fallsare occurring late morning and early afternoon. Nymph fishing with patterns that represent the larval forms of the current hatch is productive during the day.
Spring started out cold and windy after a very warm winter. The big dark bugs of spring (Quill Gordons and Blue Quills) arrived along with wind and snow storms. Blue Winged Olives made their appearance as well on the overcast and nasty days, with a spinner fall returning with the first morning of good sun on the tree tops. There were days in early spring where fish were rising in the middle of snow storms and every few cast resulted in a hooked fish or a sprint toward the bank to jog in place and warm up enough to get back into the water.
Last week brought us warmer temps and new water. Rains began to move into the area and the Quill Gordons and Blue Quills seemed to disappear from the river. It was over for these bugs. I had tied dozens of patterns for them and used them often but I was looking at a dry fly box packed with bugs that were no longer valid. There seemed to be nothing on the water. The weather was perfect, the water was perfect, no fish were rising. The river was devoid of activity. I went to my favorite spots, places where only a week or two ago I had caught more than my share of rising fish in brutal weather and now on a warm comfortable day, a day that should raise air temperatures and water temperatures, days that should trigger hatches, there was nothing.
But the problem was not with the bugs, the river or the fish. As usual when your not catching fish its probably you, and in this case it was probably me. No, it was me. It’s just that today’s obvious can be easily clouded by the confidence born of yesterday’s success. Today was a new day and it was time to put down the rod, and watch the river.
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."--Heraclitus ("The Weeping Philosopher")
The first clue came from a violent slashing rise near the far bank. I walked and fished a bit on up river with little success and soon saw a very large bug splashing and flopping in the water. I keep a pair of binoculars on me when dry fly fishing and so I pulled them out to get a better look at the bug. I could see without their aid that it was big, a 12 or larger. Looking through the glass I could see it was a dark tan to gray color and had the speckled wings of a March Brown. It seemed a bit early for these bugs but the size, color, wings, and behavior all pointed to a March Brown hatch.
This was why I wasn’t seeing rises. This particular bug does not hatch in mass as most may flies do. It comes off sporadic. One here, one there. It struggles to get its large cumbersome wings and body from its shuck and spends a considerable amount of time making a commotion on the surface of the water. Where as most may flies use the blitzkrieg assault tactic to overwhelm the fish and are happy to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, the March Brown tends toward a more special ops approach. They aggressively pop in small numbers here and there and gather over the course of days, and weeks in the trees. While its not the smorgasbord of protein found in say a Sulphur hatch, the bugs are large enough and loud enough that they begin to attract the attention of the fish. The trout begin to develop a sight picture for the bugs and take them randomly and aggressively.
With the changing tactics of the flies, the trout also begin to change tactics, and so must the angler. Standing in one spot and fishing a buffet line of bugs and rising fish was not happening this week. I changed patterns to a large Ginger Quill, which was the closest fly in my box and which I had exactly two of, and began to move upstream fishing to likely holding water. When the fly landed I would allow it to drift for a moment before giving it a twitch or skitter. The take usually came just after the movement, and was usually violent. The trout were eating the dry fly like it was a streamer. Over the next few hours I covered close to a mile of water and encountered around 15 to 20 fish placing about a dozen in hand. While fishing to a rainbow of about 14 inches that I had just saw take one of the random naturals, I stepped on a brown trout the size of my leg. Im familiarwith that big brown and have a picture of him but he was not in his usual spot. Again things had changed and he was laying dead middle of the river looking for random floating t-bone steaks rather than sitting in a quite corner munching on potato chips.
After feeling like I had caught my fair share I left the river and rushed home to tie up enough March Brown patterns to fish, use on trips, and give away to friends when asked “what are you getting them on?”. The next several days were the same. Around 11a. m. the March Browns would begin to pop, and moving quickly upstream fishing to likely water produced good results.
Then the rains came. For the past few days heavy thunderstorms have hit the area and the river is flowing steady between 200 to 400 cfs depending on the weather. The water is high clear and cold and Sunday and Tuesday evenings brought the Hendricksons into the game. These little pink bugs are still an early season fly and prefer cooler temperatures for their hatching and mating flights. The the hot dry days of Sunday and Tuesday pushed the mating flight and spinner fall to about an hour before dark. Action was hot and heavy once it started. The flies are about a size 14, a dirty pink when hatching and when returning the males tend to be a bright pink and the females a dark chocolate brown with a bright lemony pink egg sac.
Tuesday was a day with a customer who enjoys fishing hatches. Who pretty much only fishes hatches. With the unpredictable and quickly changing weather patterns my suggestion was to show up around 1 p.m. and wait for the bugs. I had no idea when they might show without some kind of consistent weather pattern to go by. At 7 p.m. we had enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of staring at water, guessing and pontificating on when the bugs will or won’t show. Proclaiming one moment that the fish were full of earth worms from the recent rains and not interested in eating and in the next moment convincing ourselves that the lack of activity was due to an impending feeding frenzy. We had sat on the bank for 6 hours drinking water, hiding from the sun and eating cheese crackers more out of boredom than hunger. At 7:15 my customer began to feel that he had kept me out and away from my family long enough and that it wasn’t going to happen. That he would be happy to pay me for my time but that we would just have to come back and try again. I reminded him that I was just as much of a dry fly junky as he was, so he was welcome to head back but I was staying till dark as planned. At 7:30 the first of the Hendrickson spinners began to hover over the water and move upstream. It was happening. But no fish were rising in the pool we were in. We fished to a few random spurt rises, hooked a few, and lost a few but nothing like we were looking for. He had suggested earlier in the day that I move about. That he liked his time alone as much as he enjoyed hanging out and there was nothing wrong with me going upstream for a while and see what else is going on. With the obvious bug activity and the lack of fish activity I could sense his frustration as well as mine, and so decided to take his advice from earlier and go for a walk.
I made it about ten yards up the trail when I saw rises in the back of the next pool. The bugs had moved past our pool and were dropping eggs in the riffle above the next. Heavy rises were leaving wakes across the slick in the back of the pool. I ran back down to where he was currently standing in the bushes with his waders down relieving himself of the excessive amount of water we had toted down to the stream and spent the afternoon drinking in the hot sun, yelling “get your rod now its happening in the pool upstream.” He could feel my excitement and I could see him pondering whether to finish up or stop “midstream” and get his gear. With a hurried anticipation he jerked up the waders and I grabbed the rods. Just upstream in the next pool were fish rising to Hendrickson spinners. We waded carefully into position and the first cast never happened. While trying to shake out line downstream a large brown grabbed the fly and took off upstream. The fight was brief as the hook was never set but it was a good sign. We fished the back of that pool until we were listening for rises. The trout ate reckless and one rainbow in particular put on a great show with several 5 ft leaps before throwing the hook. When its like this a thrown hook is a welcomed thing as it gets the angler back to casting to rising fish. Unless its 20 inches, the take and the first run are the exciting part. Shake 'em off and get the next one.
The activity finally wound down and we walked out with headlamps on, making plans to chase the hatch the rest of the week. We had another 2 or 3 days on the books and were excited to have hit this famous and fabled hatch. Our boxes were full of patterns to represent the pink bugs and we felt dialed in on the air temperature. Well, the wisdom of the Scottish poet Robert Burns given to the lowly mouse is also one to take to heart when you are a fly fisherman chasing bugs, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft a-gley.” or “ the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
J.D. Salinger would have appreciated the sudden change in our angling fortune. The next morning the weather turned foul. Our plans to catch the hatch in the early morning turned into a 2 hour soak in the rain until deciding that a hamburger and a nap sounded like a better idea. The rain has continued into the night and the river rising another few hundred CFS. My customer headed back this morning with plans to return next week.
The short term forecast calls for cold and windy conditions today and tomorrow with the weekend warming up, and comfortable spring temperatures all next week. The hatches and spinner falls of the Hendrickson should continue for the next few weeks along with the big March Browns which should continue sporadically hatching on into May. Next week should bring good nymph fishing during the day with March Brown and Hendrickson nymphs as well as good hatches and spinner falls of the Hendricksons in the mornings and evenings. If one were a dry or die fisherman they should spend the day covering water with a large March Brown pattern and switch to the Hendrickson when they see the clouds of pink bugs moving upstream during the evening. When the evening air temperatures drop to the point that a t-shirt is no longer comfortable and a light jacket is required you should start to see the first of the Hendrickson mating flight.
Sulphurs and Sallies should be next up toward the end of April and if you are a fly tier then you may want to go ahead and get those patterns built now.