A hatch-master’s favorite hatches and his cutting-edge patters to solve them
I STILL distinctly remember my dad flipping out live grasshoppers from the edge of the stream and watching trout dash out from undercut banks to inhale them. This piqued my interest and nurtured an early preference for visually stimulating fishing.
Dry-fly fishing is at its finest during a heavy hatch—when the trout are feeding greedily—and I focus much of my energy on finding just those circumstances. Doug Swisher and Carl Richards gave a name to this experience, calling it in their book Selective Trout a “super hatch.”
My criterion for a super hatch is an emergence of aquatic insects prolific enough to bring the majority of a stream’s trout population to the surface. A sporadic hatch brings a few fish to the top. Many hatches get most of the smaller fish rising on top, and they often seem like special events. But a super hatch gets the attention of almost all the trout—even the largest ones cannot refuse a feeding opportunity like a super hatch, and they relinquish the security of their lairs to take advantage of the protein in the top inch of the river. What could be better than dry-fly fishing, unless it’s dry-fly fishing to the biggest trout in the river?
I now live in Ashland, Oregon, just a few miles north of the California border, but most of my theories and patterns were tested and formed on California’s hatch-rich waters, and I constantly return to the Golden State to test my skills on rivers with super hatches.
Hot Creek (Baetis)
I cringed as we turned off the pavement onto the gravel road leading to the hatchery and Hot Creek. Road debris thrashed out from the underbody of our ’62 Ford Galaxy, and the billowing dust reminded me of the thunderstorms that had flushed me out of the high-country lakes the day before. They seemed to be following us to Hot Creek.
Our family had been traveling Highway 395 for a few days of trout fishing in the eastern Sierras. I proposed the idea of fishing Hot Creek to my dad after reading an article in Outdoor Life written by Joe Mears.
The piece outlined the dry-fly fishing for large rainbows and browns, and also talked about a legendary brown in McDonald’s Pool that allegedly consumed live baby blackbirds.
I considered the approaching thunderclouds a threat, but they actually proved to be a blessing that day, when the storm stalled and a light sprinkling rain spread across the valley.
First there were just a few mayflies, and no signs of rising trout. But within minutes, the hatch thickened like rush-hour traffic.
The Blue-winged Olive hatch on the public waters of Hot Creek is one of the most dependable opportunities to find these well-educated trout feeding on the surface. The hatch begins most mornings between 10 A.M. and noon, depending on the time of the year and the weather.
The best months are late March through May, and again in late September to mid-November. The peak months are April and October, and the best fishing days are cloudy and overcast, with little wind and light rain or snow.
Rain seems to encourage the hatch, but more importantly it hinders the mayflies by prolonging the time they must sit on the water to dry their wings. To us, it appears as though more mayflies are hatching. In reality, they are merely there for longer, making them even more irresistible to large trout.
Hot Creek has two constants besides fantastic fishing—other anglers and weedbeds. The aquatic weed growth is a hassle, but it provides fantastic habitat for the aquatic insects, and it also provides cover and feeding lanes for trout.
In this clear spring creek, you can observe trout poised in weedy feeding lanes, or darting out from the cover of the weeds to intercept hatching duns.
Your casts must be accurate and your drifts drag-free, with slack in the tippet to allow a fly-first natural presentation in the narrow channels. All this should be combined with a slow, cautious approach, low silhouette, and a 12-foot knotless leader with 30 inches of tippet tapered down to 6X or smaller. Hey, I said it was a super hatch, not super easy.
During my first experience at Hot Creek, I found that traditional #18 and smaller Blue Duns, Hatch Matchers, and Gray Hackle Olives worked only adequately.
Although these classic patterns still produce, I find parachute or Hackle Stacker Split Flag Duns work much better. These styles allow the body of the fly to rest flush on the surface, portraying the natural outline of the adults. They spread the hackle to the side like mayfly legs and allow a perfect landing when presented. The upward wing position simulates the natural profile of the dun’s wing, deceiving hatch feeders, and the bicolor wing is easy to spot and follow on the water. Other effective patterns include hanging half nymph/half dun patterns like Quigley’s Cripple or a BWO Para Nymph.
My best new pattern for this hatch is the BWO Film Critic. This emerger’s entire body and thorax hangs below the surface film, while the stacked hackle and forward-tilted wing simulates the dun’s ready-for-flight profile. It is a two-in-one trigger of both an entrapped and escaping fly, and unlike most emergers, it’s easy to see.
Take the Hot Creek Hatchery Road off of Interstate 395. There you’ll find 200 yards of prime Blue-winged Olive hatch water on the public area below the hatchery.
Downstream of this public section is Hot Creek Ranch, a two-mile private fishing preserve restricted to catch-and-release dry-fly fishing. The ranch has guest cabins, and if you have the funds, you’ll find far less fishing pressure and the same hatches as on the public water.
Three-quarters of a mile past the turnoff to the ranch, there is a parking lot for access to the somewhat steep trail to the lower public water—about a mile of fishable river.