Beetle Fly For Trout
March 23, 2017
I watched from my perch on the bank high above New Zealand's Hope river as the double-digit brown moved slowly back and forth in the current, carefully inspecting mother nature's offerings, taking some but refusing most. This was a rare find, a trout this big feeding within 50 feet of a busy highway. Our Kiwi guide, John Gemmell, found the big fish there earlier in the week, and kept an eye on its position until our arrival. He was carefully working Cathy into casting position, and when he looked up at me I nodded affirmatively. The fish — so far — was as the Kiwis like to say, "happy."
From her crouched position, Cathy opened her fly box, and John picked a fly, while I watched the drama unfold. Her first cast would likely also be the only cast, so I held my breath as her fly line sailed through the air, and the 16-foot leader started to turn over. The cast looked like it would reach the mark, but then a strong gust of wind slowed the fly, and it landed near the big brown's tail.
Over the wind I could hear John yelling at Cathy to get down, as the trout turned downstream toward her. And then I watched as the trout rose slowly to the fly, its white mouth opened, and the fly disappeared. And then, for what seemed like an eternity, I waited for her to set the hook.
In a situation like this, your only hope is to wait for the fish to close its mouth and turn back into the current before you can set the hook, and that really takes some discipline. Cathy waited just long enough, and when she set the hook, the water exploded, and the brown charged downstream past both guide and angler.
John set off downstream in hot pursuit of the fish — and promptly fell in. We now had both the trout and the guide headed downstream, with both Cathy and me just trying to keep up. John regained his footing and eventually scooped the trout into his net, which was awkwardly small for such a large fish. I witnessed and photographed the entire sequence, concluding with the happy grip-and-grin of an angler, her guide, and the fish.
Breaking the Rules
The icing on the cake was the fact that Cathy's own Super Beetle brought the fish to the surface. Trout of this size feed most confidently under the cover of darkness or low light, or subsurface where there is less risk from predators. Yet this trout came to the surface at 11 A.M. with bright overhead sun, simply because it couldn't resist a big, buggy beetle.
Beetle patterns are nothing new to our sport as fly tiers for many years have been coming up with ideas to imitate the beetles that find their way into trout streams. When you think that there are over 370,000 described species of beetles out there, that's a lot of bugs. Terrestrial imitations have always intrigued me, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in Pennsylvania where many of these important fly patterns first originated. The team of Charles Fox and Vincent Marinaro, for example, extended our trout season through the dog days of summer by proving the value of terrestrials when the major aquatic insect hatches ended, and trout switched to a diet of mostly land-dwelling insects. It was Marinaro's little Jassid beetle that fooled many of the most selective trout in his prized Letort Spring Run. The Letort would later also be the proving ground for Ed Shenk's Letort Hopper and Letort Cricket.
In the Catskills, fly tiers Walt and Winnie Dette developed a brown deer-hair beetle that was simple to tie, and worked wonders on the nearby tributaries of the Delaware.
Then there were the "corker years" when fly tiers painted oval cork cylinders imitating lady bugs and other terrestrial insects. With the advent of closed-cell foam, contemporary fly tier Harrison Steeves gave us countless terrestrials. Harry's wizardry at the vise created a lightning bug or firefly that looked good enough to fly away. In my own backyard, tier Jim Smethers once put a Japanese beetle pattern on my desk that was so lifelike, I was ready to get a can of Raid.
With a black foam oval body and banded legs, Cathy's Super Beetle closely resembles a common black ground beetle or American oil beetle. On a larger size 8 hook it can be taken for a cicada; on a size 12 hook, it's the same size and shape as a wood borer.'¨Whatever the size, they catch fish. Like the profile of an ant that trout readily recognize, fish seem to feel just as confident that this beetle imitation is alive and edible.
Most beetle patterns are tied on fine-wire dry-fly hooks, but synthetic closed-cell foam will support a heavy-wire hook on the surface, and after losing a few large fish to bent hooks, Cathy switched to a sturdier hook. Perfectly Barred Sili Legs add a more realistic look, while the white Hi-Vis wing material helps locate the fly. There are times when glare or a white bubbly foam line make the white wing difficult to see, so it makes sense to also have a few Super Beetles tied with a Hi-Vis chartreuse or orange wing.
Big is almost always better when you're looking for a big fish, and a #8 Super Beetle makes an excellent searching pattern. I like nothing more than to sight-fish when conditions allow, but when light or water levels turn sour I look for undercut banks, or any structure that might hide a big fish, and then plop in the Super Beetle. Yes, I said "plop." Trout hear, see, and smell, and a big fish often senses larger food items falling into the water.
A good example was Cathy's big New Zealand brown. He heard the fly land, turned, and swam downriver to investigate. He was clearly attracted to the commotion of the fly landing.
Turning over the leader and tippet can be challenging with a large beetle,'¨especially in a head wind, so I use a longer fly rod with a medium to fast action to help the fly turn over and for good presentation. Ninety percent of the time I find myself with a Sage One 596-4 (9'6", for a 5-weight line) with a 5-weight RIO Grand fly line.
The longer rod helps when I am wading deep or casting from a kneeling position. It also makes line control and mending easier for me.
The RIO Grand taper is heavier than a basic trout taper, and it matches perfectly with the Sage One. Tapered leaders and sizes must also be compatible with the larger fly sizes. Don't get caught tying a #8 Super Beetle to 5X tippet. I use a RIO Salmon/Steelhead leader with its longer, stiffer butt section for turning over larger flies, but any similar leader with a stiff butt, tapered down to 3X tippet, will suffice.
Whenever you're casting large foam flies, there is a chance that the fly may land upside down on the water. When this happens, give it a twitch and it will right itself. Sometimes this twitch will even bring a strike from an otherwise hesitant trout.
With all this talk about big trout and big beetles, I should mention that I have often gone as small as a size 20 Super Beetle with a 6X tippet to fool a few really fussy fish.
Those of us who fish in the Rocky Mountains know only too well how popular the hopper/dropper combination is on Western rivers. Hire a guide to float any of the major rivers in the summer, and I can almost guarantee that sooner or later you'll be fishing with one of their favorite hopper patterns and trailing a beadhead nymph of some kind. It's just deadly.
Cast your fly combo to the bank, the guide tweaks the boat, there's little or no drag to contend with, and you have two chances to catch a fish. We may not have as many hoppers in the East, but we have lots of beetles, and using one of Cathy's Super Beetles as an indicator dry fly, followed by a trailing nymph, can be a magic'¨"beetle/dropper" combination.
I have spent a good part of my life as a trout hunter, and I love to locate and stalk big fish. For me, the ultimate thrill is to get that fish to the surface, and if it's in the heat of summer, you can bet there will be a size 8 Super Beetle on the end of my leader.
Cathy and Barry Beck are on the advisory staffs of Sage, Redington, RIO, and Tibor Reels. They are also hosts for Frontiers International.