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Secrets of Sight-Fishing Dapper Don

by John Randolph   |  February 9th, 2012 11
John Randolph photo

I wear camo hat, high quality polaroids and sungloves to hunt for large trout and protect my eyes and handsfrom sun glare.

Tenkara rods and dapping are the new rage for some fly fishers, but dapping flies has been an historical way to fly fish (perhaps the original way) for hundreds of years. But for the past 40 years Don Miller has been hunting, and sneaking up on, large trout and dapping flies to them in his unique way, using very long, light graphite rods, special hand-tied leaders, and flies he ties. All fly fishers can learn from his special techniques of catching large trout and the wisdom and lore of his years on the water.

Here are Dapper Don’s techniques in his own words:

“Four decades ago I started visually stalking and dapping for trout, the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding way of fly fishing. I would rather catch and release one large trout over 22 inches than 100 under 20 inches. These trout are special. Large trout get that way because of exceptional  survival instincts. Fishermen seldom see them because they (the fishermen) inadvertently betray themselves from 50 to 100 yards away. I believe there are more large trout now than ever before due to catch-and-release fishing and to so many anglers walking the paths along river banks and making all kinds of noise. Catch-and-release fishing has actually made it more difficult to catch large trout. But by using my techniques catching the trout of a lifetime (repeatedly) is still possible.

“I seldom fish blind, except when float-tube fishing deep nymphs on lakes or ponds, and I sight-fish only for large, mostly brown, trout. My experiences have provided me with the ultimate rewards—quietly observing large-trout behavior in streams and learning the unique dapping techniques to take them on primarily large dry flies. The rewards are thrilling because they are allvisual: I hunt the fish, present my fly in a special way, and watch the take using techniques that are as valuable today as they were in the 16th Century. I’d like to explain them as my gift to new generations of fly fishers. My wife describes me as “the extreme perfectionist.” That may explain my specialized behavior around trout streams.

Locating Large Trout

“Dominant large brown trout usually need large pools for their homes. Ideally their home pool is relatively deep (at least 6 to 8 feet), with big bushes or low-to-the-water branches, or downed trees, or large rocks for overhead cover from winged-predators, otters, and mink for their resting lies and, if the currents are right, for feeding lies. Large brown trout feed most actively in low light, late evening, night, and early morning, often moving into the shallows to chase smaller trout, baitfish, and other large food items including mice, crayfish, moles and voles, frogs, and the occasional small mink or duckling.

“If undisturbed in a major way (road construction for instance), a dominant brown spends its entire life in one pool (unless it migrates for cooler water or special feeding opportunities), and it can be caught, released, and recaught using my techniques. Large rainbows have similar behavior, but they often feed actively throughout the day, especially in highly oxygenated riffle water. Most of my sight-fishing is to large browns.

John Randolph photo

An extended grip allows me to hold my light, 20-foot graphite rod for dapping without arm fatigue.

“If a large brown has a resting area deep in its pool (deep water can provide excellent overhead cover), in late evening it usually moves toward a bank to begin feeding. On overcast days (especially in heavy rainstorms), it may leave its hiding cover for the banks or shallows and gorge on hatching aquatic insects, crayfish, terrestrials, or anything that may be washed into the turbid water.

“When searching for prime large-trout lies, you should search for the following: A large deep pool, with large rocks, ledges, downed trees with some dark deeper water underneath, large backeddies (Lazy Susans) where trout can lie beside or under the main current bringing food that it can dash out and grab. This relatively calm food-rich bubble-line channel should extend to the end of the pool, where it curves back upstream to the head of the pool, thence down and under the main current, completing the Lazy Susan back-flow (food-carrier) effect.

“The fairly shallow bank areas should have overhead cover (undercut banks, an overhanging tree or branch) from which the trout can pick off drifting food. As light falls in evening, a large trout gradually moves out from its overhead cover into the shallows to feed actively.

David Siegfried Illustration

On populated rivers, a large trout lies by a log or rock close to an edge, undercut bank, or overhead shelter where, if alarmed, it can dart into deeper water to hide. A dominant trout can feed in this channel with security, knowing that anything with drag spells danger. The main feeding channel is marked in yellow, and if the trout is feeding at position (A), the prime fishing position is at (X). Kneel (behind high grass cover) with a long dapping rod and a 4- to 6-foot leader and a 4- to 12-inch tippet, and dap with only the dry on the water. Fish up-current and down-current, and get a 2- to 30-foot  drag-free presentation to the fish. If the trout is feeding in the (B) position, kneel at (Y) to get a perfect drag-free dapping drift in the main feeding channel. Unless you dap the fly (instead of using a conventional cast), you cannot get a drag-free drift. The main feeding channel fluctuates between the main current channel and the backwash current channel. If you cast directly into the main current you will get fast (and immediate) drag. If you cast into the backwash current you will get slow drag. And if you parachute-cast down into both currents, your fly drifts into, and across, both currents, and it drags. Dapping is the answer. If your presentation is perfect (drag free) and you have not spooked the trout on your approach, you should hook 9 out of 10 large trout on the first presentation. (Every presentation thereafter reduces your chances.) If you get a refusal, allow your fly to drift as far below the trout as possible, then pull the fly toward the main current as you pick up. (Don’t pop the fly straight up or wave the rod tip over the fish. If you move the thin rod tip slowly over the fish it will not spook him.) Then make a second dapping presentation. You should check each pool carefully to determine the trout’s prime feeding lie and your best dapping position. Presentations differ for each pool and each feeding lie. This provides the visual challenge.

” A dominant trout is jealous of its prime territory: It chases off smaller trout, but sometimes allows them to feed during hatches in the shallows. It usually lies at the head of the pool under or beside the relatively calm main backflow current, where it can take a maximum amount of drifting food without much effort. Over time you will learn how to high-grade the large-trout pools, separating good from average so you can ration your fishing time more effectively in this one-on-one game. The only way to catch a dominant trout is to spot it before it spots you. Stealthy hunting is the most rewarding way to fish.

Secrets of Stealth

“Understanding and practicing stealth requires self-discipline, the right equipment, and patience for success in locating large trout. Most anglers walk swiftly to the water, wade in, and begin fishing. Before they begin, they frighten most of the fish, especially the large ones. Stealth requires: wearing muted-color clothing (preferably with no flashy objects showing), staying away from the water, moving slowly, keeping screening brush between you and the pool, wearing high-quality polaroids, hiding and observing pools for long periods, learning to  recognize the movements of fish, or their parts (tails, dorsals) and their shadows. Learn to “comb the water” and its holding and feeding lies with your eyes. Learn to use “stream windows” (moving calm-water patches in surface currents) to spot trout on bottom.

“For extreme stealth I use elbow and knee pads (pull-on type inside my waders and strap-type outside) because I spend hours on my knees stalking and dapping. I use amber clip-on polaroids for hazy darker days and gray for bright, with side-shields (cut from inner tubes) on my glasses: They cut surface glare greatly. (I wear a full-brim, long-bill hat, with black under-brim, worn with the brim down to shade the sides of my face and my neck from sun. And I wear felted wading boots if I must carefully enter the water to make the presentation. (cleats and wading staffs make under-water noises that terrify trout.)

“Learning to spot the prime difficult-to-fish feeding channel is most important: It’s a small slick or current window (with a hiding cover—especially an undercut bank—nearby) where the trout feeds, and any drag alarms him. Fishing pressure has educated him to survive, and he feeds only if you don’t betray yourself. When disturbed, he flees, not to return and feed again for hours.

“During the day, when the sun is high, it’s easier to locate trout but more difficult to approach and hook them. Early morning or late evening low light offers the best fishing to relaxed trout, but in low light it is more difficult to spot fish, so I pre-scout in high light (without a rod) and fish at sunup so I can observe the fish I hook. (I prefer not to fish after dark because it’s difficult to see, play, and land fish, which I might inadvertently injure in handling.)

Large Trout Behavior

“Large trout have individual behavioral habits or rituals. Depending on the side of the river they favor, or current structure of the pool, some fish circle clockwise while others circle counterclockwise. When not feeding and relaxed, some large trout cruise down the pool, then feed back upstream in the channel, then move downstream again in a circular patrol, casually exploring and not feeding unless something drifts by that they can easily grab. They may continue this procedure until they tire of patrolling and feeding and move to their resting spot in the pool (see illustration). Very large brown trout only exhibit this behavior in daylight if they feel totally secure. But they periodically feed off and on all night.

“On heavily fished waters, large browns feed habitually in their feeding channel, unless they move to feed in the shallows in low light. Experience has taught them that to feed outside it is dangerous. To catch these shy browns you must avoid exposing yourself and make a perfect drag-free drift on your first presentation. You have just that one presentation, and if you cannot get it (the wind is blowing and causing the fly to drag, for example), you should delay your drag-free dapping presentation (even for days) until conditions improve. It’s worth the wait for that brown of a lifetime. A large trout in the feeding channel will drift downstream under your fly, inspecting it for 5 to 10 feet before  tipping up to suck it in.  He knows from experience that a dragging fly represents danger. I have never seen a large fish come up directly and suck the fly in (except in hopper time)  This suggests that you need at least a 10-foot drag-free drift of your fly.

[Editor’s note. Before active casting of the fly came into practice in England some time in the 16th or 17th centuries, long wooden two-handed rods were used with the wind (from behind the fly fisher) blowing the line and fly to the trout, with the dry actively “dibbling” on the water’s surface and enticing trout to rise and take. The practice is used widely, and successfully today on Scottish, and Irish lochs and English impoundments. Fishing from a small boat, anglers use a collapsible drogue as a sea anchor to slow their drift while dibbling a cast of flies downwind.]

My Rod/Line Rig

“I use light 13- to 20-foot very flexible (noodle action) , and relatively light (3- to 4- ounce) G. Loomis graphite rod blanks designed by rodmaker Steve Rajeff and made to my specifications. I build them with relatively long, permanent fighting butts so I can use my forearm as a lever to hold the rod for long periods of dapping. I use a spinning-rod-grip handle, and a large-diameter reel seat so the reel keeps the line away from the grip for better line control. I use 30-pound Dacron backing, a DT1 to DT4 line (cut in half so if I lose my position when fighting the fish, I have less line in the water to cause drag. The 30-lb. Dacron backing creates less drag in the water than even a DT1 line.).  I use a 4- to 6-inch permanent mono butt/loop, looped to a 2- to 3-foot tapered butt, looped to my 3- to 4-foot tippet. The short, fine leader allows for more line/fly control when dapping, especially in wind.

John Randolph photo

Large trout like large flies, which I tie in sizes #4-10 at my summer home on the Henry’s Fork.

“My normal dapping leader (from 6 to 7 feet) is tapered to a tippet for the type of water I’m fishing as follows: Madison (4-5X), Missouri (4-6X), Henry’s Fork-Box Canyon (3-4X), Slough Creek (5-6X), Gallatin (4-6X). Normally 5X covers most waters except in the large-trout, turbid, Henry’s Fork Box Canyon. However, if the wind is blowing hard, I use leaders as long as 20 feet. I pinch a 2-inch Velcro strip just above the butt loop to prevent the line from slipping back into the guides when I fish.

“I use a Hardy featherweight reel. (Most palming-rim reels are too heavy, and palming is too inaccurate.)  I squeeze the inside of the spool to create very fine drag (you always have enough line out to expose the inside of the reel for controlled squeezing) for fighting large trout on ultra-light tippets.

“I tie my own dry flies that are specially designed for dapping.  Large trout like large food (#4-#10 flies), so my favorite arsenal of drys includes: #6-10 hoppers; #6-10 damsel flies in blue, mahogany, red or gold; and #4-10 salmonfly adults; and #4-10 beetles. I also tie and fish in season #8-12 green and Brown Drake emergers and adults, #8-12 hatching caddis and #10-12 black ants.

“Fighting a fish when using a long rod is not difficult if you do it properly, fighting it from slightly below and gently but firmly pulling its head toward the bank. Normally you will land the fish above or below you, always pulling its head sideways gently toward the bank shallows as it tires. When it tires, slide its head to the bank, and it will lie quietly on its side, pumping its gills. (With the long rod you cannot bring the fish close enough for netting.) Then slowly let line from your reel, keeping slight pressure on the line as you move to the fish and pop the barbless hook from its mouth. It will recover in from 5 to 15 minutes, allowing you time to photograph it in the water. (I seldom touch the trout—which could damage its protective slime coat–and I shade it from sun while it recovers). If it needs help to move to deeper water, with wet hands I ease it gently and slowly. Releasing it to fight another day is my main objective.

“I hunt large trout, and eighty percent of my fishing time is spent observing from points of observation—high on overlook bluffs, from behind screening trees, shrubs or grass, or by crawling on my hands and knees close to spots where I can secretly spot fish. I even climb trees, without waders and rod, to spot large trout.

 

John Randolph photo

Large trout like large food, so my flies are tied large and float hig and long, ideal for dapping on the waters where I fish, from the Henry’s Fork to Slough Creek, and the Madison. Above are my hoppers and stonefly imitations.

“Once I have spotted a large trout, I plan how to best present the fly to him without drag. This can take some time. I first study the currents to determine exactly where to dap my fly so that it drifts drag free over the trout down its feeding line while I remain concealed in a position that still allows me to see the fish. I know from experience that my rod tip passing slowly over the fish will not frighten it, but if it sees my moving rod arm, it will panic.

“A large trout on slow-moving, heavily fished, clear water (such as Slough Creek) has seen it all—every dry fly fished every day by some of the world’s best anglers. If unsurprised, it will slowly rise up under the fly, drifting and examining for the micro-drag that betrays it as an artificial. Then it will drift back down and sulk or wait for the real thing.

“First become a large-trout hunter. Nothing is more satisfying than watching that same large trout (one I took there last summer) rise confidently, inhale my large dry and turn down, throbbing my rod. To be a successful dapper, first become a good large-trout hunter. The dapping will come easily with practice. The memories will last a lifetime.”

—Donald G. Miller

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