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 of
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 we
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
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.
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
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
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)