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As fish hunters we sometimes see the fish we’re after, other times we encounter “searching water” where we ply our trade, and hope the fish come looking for us. These are places where you say to yourself, “If I were a predator, this is where I would feed,” and you engage in the act of visualizing how your fly looks moving above or below the surface. Whether you are hunting rooster combs on a beach in Baja, the wolf-shaped head of a pike in a windy bay, or a navy blue pocket surrounding a rock you hope is the home of a giant brown, reading the water in front of you helps reveal what food sources you should mimic, and along with that, how you should move (or not move) your fly.
Often with nymphs and dry flies our goal is to not move the fly. We manipulate the line in an attempt to keep the fly drifting exactly with the current.
But when we hunt big fish, we often find ourselves using big flies that imitate swimming prey species. How we move that fly depends on our knowledge of the prey species, and our repertoire of retrieves. It’s just as important as reading the water—I call it “reading the retrieve.”
In many situations the movement of the fly is what triggers a fish to look, and a pause between movements triggers a strike. It is not always in this order, but you want to be ready for subtle takes in addition to the hard tug of a strike against a tight line. To be prepared for both, keep a constant connection to your fly by sight and feel. This can easily be achieved with the rod tip just at or below the surface.
All species of fish hunt in a manner that helps them achieve the nutrients they need. When dealing with large food items and larger fish you want to mimic the movement of each food source, while also considering how water temperatures affect fish in slow and lethargic, or fast and energetic states. The following deliveries are options you can try in a multitude of locations, but always remember there is no such thing as a wrong retrieve. Try different speeds, length of strips, and ultimately, let the fish tell you through productive results what movements they prefer.
Some of the most successful guide trips in my opinion are when my guests can catch fish using every discipline. Not only are you learning new techniques for drys, nymphs, and streamers, you are also building confidence with all three.
I often bring a streamer rod on guide trips to use as a cleanup. Once we have tried nymphs and drys, we often finish with streamers. There is nothing more eye-opening than watching a trout turn down a Flashback Pheasant Tail, and then chase and destroy an oversized Circus Peanut streamer.
It is easy to get stuck in the rut of using the same old techniques or rigs. The next time you are on the river in low light, or during high flows, take the time to use these four different retrieves with a variety of flies. It might shake you up to see a more aggressive feeding behavior than you’re used to.
Landon Mayer (landonmayer.com) is a Colorado trout guide and the author of three books. His latest is Colorado’s Best Fly Fishing (Stackpole Books & Headwater Books, 2011).
Strip & Give
I started using this retrieve years ago after witnessing many large trout chase a streamer to the edge of the river, then spook and disappear. Sometimes the fish would repeat that behavior numerous times. I soon realized the trout wanted to commit but would not, because I had pulled the streamer beyond the fish’s comfort zone—a covered location with deep water and structure. On most rivers there are three locations where trout hold: shelter, prime, and feeding lies. All of these locations supply quality fish but the prime and shelter lies are often deep with less turbulent water, like at the head of a run where the feeding lie is located. The answer was to create a retrieve that supplies movement and accuracy while the fly remains in the prime area for the fish to eat.
Start by casting at a downstream 45-degree angle. With your rod tip low near the surface, turn your body downstream as your line begins to swing into the holding zone. When you streamer enters the trout’s viewing lane, perform a conventional stripping movement by placing the fly line under the index finger of your rod hand (1). Then, grasping the line with your other hand, pull a few inches or feet of fly line to impart movement to the fly (2). Then, instead of pinching line with your index finger and repeating another strip, take the line out from under your index finger and allow the current to pull back the line you just retrieved (3 & 4). After you “give” line, put the line back under your index finger and begin stripping again (5). This way you keep moving the fly, but the fly stays in the “money water” where the trout feels comfortable and confident in attacking prey.
My favorite patterns for this technique are a Lawson’s Conehead Sculpin (tan/olive/black) or Cravin’s Gonga (tan yellow/olive/rusty) in sizes 6 to 10.
- Start by casting at a downstream 45-degree angle. With your rod tip low near the surface, turn your body downstream as your line begins to swing into the holding zone. When you streamer enters the trout’s viewing lane, perform a conventional stripping movement by placing the fly line under the index finger of your rod hand. Photos: Landon Mayer
In Bob Clouser’s book Fly-Fishing for Smallmouth on Rivers and Streams he wrote: “Good anglers constantly modify subtle things, such as the length of strip, length of pause, or the frequency with which they strip the fly back before pausing. Sometimes getting a fish to strike is as simple as knowing when to stop retrieving your fly and let the fish take it, or gently twitching your popper instead of stripping it back hard.”
Whether it is bass or trout tucked in tight quarters around structure, twitching your imitation using the rod tip instead of a conventional stripping method can be enough to trigger a strike from fish that are normally passed up for more conventional open-water scenarios. Like the “strip & give” (above) twitching also helps keep the fly in the strike zone, especially around protective cover such as rocks, logs, and undercut banks where fish can hold, feed, and still feel protected.
The twitching technique is simple. Keep the rod tip low and use wrist movement to twitch the fly 2 to 3 inches at a time. Around key structure like a midstream rock, I cast to the current on the opposite side of the rock (1) and allow the current to pull the fly toward the current break behind the rock (2). When the fly approaches the best holding water, use the rod tip to twitch the fly enticingly without moving it too quickly out of the strike zone (3). Take a step downstream and repeat the process (4).
Good twitching flies include Clouser’s Swimming Leech (rust/brown, #6-10) or any streamer with rubber legs. Twitching is also a blast with topwater bass flies like Barr’s Cat (#2-6). Use the rod tip to dance the fly through reeds and other vegetation.
[To see videos of author Landon Mayer demonstrating all four of the retrieves shown here, go to flyfisherman.com/reading-the-retrieve. The Editor.]
- Keep the rod tip low and use wrist movement to twitch the fly 2 to 3 inches at a time. Around key structure like a midstream rock, I cast to the current on the opposite side of the rock. Photos: Landon Mayer
Fingers Over Fingers
Also known as a hand-twist or figure 8, this low and slow retrieve is ideal for imitating crawling crayfish, and damselfly nymphs as they swim their way to shore. Often, trout and other gamefish just aren’t interested in chasing fast-moving prey, and I use this retrieve almost exclusively during the summer stillwater season with flies like Robertson’s Damsel #10-16, and Mercer’s Micro Crayfish #8. These food sources move slowly enough that a conventional retrieve of stripping line would be too fast much of the time.
To perform the retrieve, hold the line with your thumb and forefinger (1). Twist your wrist and reach forward with your other three fingers (2), and grab a few inches of line. By holding this section of line and twisting your wrist in the opposite direction, you’ll take in a few inches of line at a time (3). Drop the coil of line in your hand and repeat the process (4). This can be a smooth controlled retrieve for streamers, and at times can help you control slack on dead-drifting nymphs and drys in stillwaters and slow-moving rivers.
John Barr uses this retrieve for his passive streamer technique, and drapes the forward portion of the line over the middle finger of his rod hand for increased sensitivity in detecting strikes. Bass, panfish, and trout often vacuum up his Meat Whistle from the bottom when it is paused, dropping, or moving slowly along the bottom, and you need to pay close attention to see and feel these subtle strikes. [For complete details on Barr’s technique, see “Hop It & Drop It” in the April-May 2012 issue. The Editor.]
- Hold the line with your thumb and forefinger. Photos: Landon Mayer
Hand Over Hand
This exciting retrieve comes from the saltwater world, where it is used to move a fly very quickly like a fleeing baitfish. For fast-moving gamefish with excellent eyesight (tuna and roosterfish come to mind) it is indispensable. I also use it in freshwater fishing for pike, tiger muskies, trout, and bass—not so much for the speed but for the constant connection to the fly. (I used this retrieve to catch the Yampa River pike at the start of this article.) Unlike a traditional stripping retrieve in which you let go of line at constant intervals, this technique keeps at least one hand on the line at all times, allowing you to feel more strikes. More important, this retrieve allows you to drive the hook point home without lifting your rod tip. Just keep stripping the fly and the hook will find a home even in hard-mouthed fish like tarpon. After you’ve set the hook with a strip-strike, lift the rod tip to begin the fight.
After the cast, hold the rod butt in the armpit of your dominant arm (1). Reach and grab line below the stripping guide with one hand (2). While the first hand is pulling line, the other hand is reaching forward for a second length of line (3). Repeat the hand-over-hand motion so the retrieve is seamless, and without pauses (4). For fast retrieves, pull an entire arm-length of line at a time. For a slow but steady retrieve, use slower, shorter pulls.
In salt water, Lefty’s Deceiver (blue/white, #1/0) and Enrico’s Finger Mullet (olive/white, #2/0) mimic baitfish that move quickly and ceaselessly as they attempt to evade predators. Fly Fishing Retrieve
- After the cast, hold the rod butt in the armpit of your dominant arm. Photos: Landon Mayer