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How to Match the Hatch

Matching the hatch is a 'buzz phrase' that permeates fly fishing culture the world over. It is something that is so fundamental to what we do as fly fishers that regardless of whether we know what it is, we all do it to some degree. Made famous by Ernest Schwiebert in his book of the same name, it has become the catch cry of the thinking angler, its mere mention almost as much a short cut to acceptance among your peers as knowing how to give the correct handshake at your local Freemasons gathering.

So what is it?

Matching the hatch refers to the practice of deciphering exactly what a fish is eating and selecting an appropriate fly pattern. It is that simple. When a trout sees a large number of a certain insect it locks onto it to the exclusion of all other food items on the water. This is what is known as selective feeding and often the reason for those occasions when a fish will not look at any fly pattern you present. At these times unless you can work out what is going on and present the right pattern you will be unsuccessful.

Sometimes working out what is going on is not that easy. There may be a 'complex' hatch of several species of insects in various stages of emergence at the one time. Just a few days ago down in the Breakaway section of the Goulburn River we experienced a very interesting situation where there were two types of caddis both emerging and egg laying, three species ofHere a small beetle is taken from the water's surface mayfly dun on the water and emerging as well as spinners of the various mayfly mating and egg laying. In other words a smorgasbord of options for the trout.

First you must determine which stage of the hatch are the fish feeding on. Are they slashing from the top? leaping clear of the water? gently rising with head out of the water? or push/swirl rising just beneath the surface? Slashing from the top indicates the fish are chasing something that can get away that is on the surface, often a caddis, leaping indicates the fish is taking the insect in flight which is often a sign that spinners hovering just above the water are on the menu. Gently rising with heads breaking the surface will quite often mean duns are being taken and a push rise or swirl just beneath the surface could indicate emerging caddis or mayfly.

In this instance it was a gentle rise with head breaking the surface which indicated to us that the duns were being taken. A quick seining of the drift line revealed three types of duns; the March Brown size 12, the Rusty size 16 and a Grey size 14. As it was hard to see exactly which insect was being taken two flies were chosen; a #12 March Brown pattern and a #14 Grey pattern. The fish soon showed their approval by taking the #14 grey in preference to the March Brown with not one single take on the larger fly. Simple skills of deduction and observation allowed us to select the correct patterns. This is something all of us can do and Clouds of caddis sometimes cause fish to leap clear of the waterwe can all then achieve better results while out on the water.

So why were the fish taking the Grey. Well we know that fish will lock onto the food item most prevalent. The success of the pattern told us that although a lot of insects were out and about the #14 Grey pattern was the most prolific and therefore the one being targeted. Don't be fooled by the size of the insects. Often we are lulled into tying on the larger pattern because we attribute our own logic to the fish, that is a larger meal must be more attractive and therefore likely to bring success. This is not the case. The insect that makes up the greater mass will be the food item sought by the fish. While the bigger insects may be easier to see there is often a much larger number of the smaller bugs hatching at the same time despite our eye's tendency to focus on the bigger item. This situation is often referred to by experienced fly fishers as a 'masking hatch' i.e. the presence of a few larger/brighter colored insects masks the presence of more numerous but smaller/duller colored insects.

The Four Rules

The most important thing you can take from this brief outline of Matching the Hatch are the Four Rules. They are 1.Size, 2.Shape or Profile, 3.Colour and 4.Presentation. Size is the most important of the fly selection rules and equal in importance with Presentation. When trying to match the hatch grab a sample of the insect and measure it off against your imitations. We often refer to patterns in sizes e.g.. #12, #14, # 16 etc and this is a universal system. All this does is allow us to gauge the insect's size against a hook size allowing for an accurately chosen imitation. Remember, while there may not be a big difference between a #14 and a # 16 to us, to a trout it can represent a nearly 50% increase in size. A fish locked into a prolific food item will obviously not look at such an inexpertly selected pattern. You must be reasonably close when choosing a fly size. I cannot recall how many times an incorrect pattern in the correct size has been taken while the right fly in the wrong size is refused. Get the size right and you are in with a shot.Size, Shape and Colour

Shape is second on the list of rules and refers to the profile that the fly has. For instance if it is a mayfly dun you must have a low riding body, prominent wing, slim abdomen and larger thorax. If it is a beetle you must try and mimic the round, stocky shape of the natural as well as getting it to sit in the film like the real thing. A spinner must sit on its hackle points and tail causing it to ride high like a hovering natural and an emerging caddis pupa must hang in the resting 'tuck' position just like the hatching pupa.

Hook selection is important when it comes to shape. A scud or midge pupa must use a curved hook to give the correct shape, a short shank will often assist when tying beetles and a larger one when representing grasshoppers and crickets. Choose hooks carefully with the desired effect in mind.

Also important when keeping this second rule in mind are 'triggers' that the fish are likely to key in on when targeting various insects. Duns have a definite trigger in the upright wing so obvious to all who see them. Caddis pupa collect air bubbles on their body during emergence well imitated by using sparkle yarn in the pattern, a very definite trigger. Rubber legs on grasshoppers, wiggling tails on damselfly nymphs, a flashback on a nymph pattern. The list goes on. Try and work out what triggers are present and imitate these in your flies.

One last point when talking of shape must be made although it could be seen as a part of presentation. That is, how does the fly behave or sit. As mentioned earlier a mayfly spinner should sit high on the film, a dun low on the film and an emerger hanging beneath the film. Knowing how to imitate the various stages of the insects takes a little time to come to terms with fully. Reading the rise form, knowing whether the food item came from below, in, on or above the surface is most important. While too complex to be comprehensive here we have included a rough list below (see table at bottom of page).

The importance of colour is being constantly debated and both sides have their ambassadors with their supporting arguments. Just how important colour is remains to be seen (no pun intended) and hopefully this will always be the case. More often than not getting the first two parts, size and shape, will get the desired result.

Sometimes however changing colour will be the key to success. Grasshoppers are one of the insects for which colour of the pattern plays a critical role. In December the hoppers are immature and the colour of them is very different to later on in summertime. They are usually green and shades thereof at this time of year and the standard natural deer hair patterns fail to work. However switching to the exact same pattern using green chenille as the body and green deer hair for the head will bring success. Also with Blue Winged Olives in Autumn you will find that getting the size and shape right will often not interest the fish without the correct olive/grey dubbing for the body.

While not always the case we would recommend that you try and get the colour as close as possible to the natural. If the mayfly you are attempting to imitate is a slightly different shade of grey when compared with your pattern do not despair. To try and get it perfect would drive you insane and unless you live on the river and have access to a multitude of different materials you will never precisely imitate any of these insects. Be content to approximately match the colour of the insect.

Last but definitely not least is presentation. While this is made up of several parts in the end it can be seen as the way a fly arrives at the fish. First of all you must not spook the fish while casting. This means dull colored lines, laying the line an leader away from the fish i.e. casting from behind and to the side and generally being careful when presenting the fly. Depending on the situation you may need to cast from downstream of the fish, upstream, the side even from directly above. The trick is to be aware of just what the fish can see and to present the fly without the line spooking it.

So you can manage your casting sufficiently well to get the fly to the fish without spooking it. How are the naturals behaving? If it is an egg laying caddis the insect will be seen dipping and crashing to the surface and so must our imitation. Fishing from above the trout and swinging a dry fly down and across to it will work as will an upstream presentation with a twitch at the appropriate moment. A mayfly dun will be found drifting with the natural flow of the current and again so must your natural. A long leader and fine tippet are needed here to allow the fly to drift free of any drag just like the natural. If you were to swing the mayfly dun down and across like we do the caddis you would likely never hook a fish just as dead drifting a caddis over a fish chasing the egg laying adults will also likely fail. Work out what the insects are doing and get the fly to the fish without spooking it as well as accurately imitating what the naturals are doing.

While this seems rather difficult and complicated it isn't really. Remember capture a natural if possible and use it to select your fly. Choose the correct size, get the shape and approximate colour right and then present it well and you will catch more fish than you miss. Sometimes unlocking this code will seem to make things almost too easy with every fish taking the fly making you think you are invincible. Then something about the hatch will change, perhaps the rusty duns are less significant as more spinners come out over the water leaving the angler wondering why the fish have stopped taking his fly. The key is observation, be aware that the fish will swap over to other food items or stages of the hatch if they become more prolific and be prepared to change as well.


Matching the hatch has become famous over the past 20 years and with good reason. As simple as observing and understanding the various stages of the hatch and choosing a fly and method of presentation to suit, it should be the first thing a new fly fisher learns, after the basics of casting. This common sense approach to the sport will hold all who follow its principles in good stead whether they are fishing the mayflies of the Breakaway here on the Goulburn or the caddis hatches of the Missouri in Montana. So next time you are fishing a hatch and cannot get a take, capture a natural and compare it to the patterns in your box before choosing a fly. A little time doing this investigative work will pay off in the long run.


Learn to tie the Basic Goulburn River Matching the Hatch Fly Box (only main groups)

Emerging Mayfly :    
  Pheasant Tail Nymph
Mayfly Dun: Rusty Tailrace Dun
  Kossie Dun
  March Brown
  Sulphur Dun.
Mayfly Spinner: Black Spinner
  Rusty Spinner
  Caenis Spinner
Caddis Pupa: Emerging Sparkle Pupa
  La Fontaine's Emerging Sparkle Pupa
Caddis Adult: Creel Caddis
  Elk Hair Caddis
Midge Goulburn Griffiths
Beetles Cochybondhu
  Backwater Beetle
Grasshoppers Miss Knobby X