The first test many fly fishers experience in their streamside education is gently casting a mayfly dun imitation to sipping trout, and delicately mending line to achieve a drag-free drift. Whether you are dead-drifting a Sulphur imitation on a Pennsylvania limestone spring creek, or presenting a Pale Morning Dun emerger on the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, casting small dry flies to rising trout loosely defines our sport, much like walking with a double shotgun behind a good pointer in the ruffed grouse woods of the Northeast could be considered the essence of upland bird hunting. Many Western fly fishers, however, while tipping their hats to the subtle grace of these long-standing traditions, eagerly anticipate a few months each year when they can replace a delicate dead-drift with a frantic twitch.
Almost all stoneflies and terrestrial insects that end up on the water wiggle, squirm, kick, crawl, run, and skitter, eliciting predatory strikes from trout focusing on the motion of their prey.
Our match-the-hatch traditions inform us that trout identify food forms by their size, profile, and color. However, in many instances motion is just as important, as any fisherman who has swung a soft-hackle wet fly through a tailout, or skated a large hackled spider across the surface, would agree.
Trout often chase down a tantalizing buggy meal before it gets away, just like a wolf programmed to chase a running elk. At home on the Snake River, a wiggled cigar butt would probably trigger more strikes than the hottest dead-drifted fly. Add rubber legs to the cigar butt and you might really be onto something.
“Take a stonefly or grasshopper, throw it in the water and see what it does. Stoneflies are scurrying on the surface laying eggs or if it’s a grasshopper that has jumped in the water, it is flailing,” says Will Dornan of Snake River Angler in Jackson, Wyoming.
Approximating the size, shape, and color of the natural insects is important when fishing stonefly and terrestrial imitations, but the X-factor is motion. We have the ability to make a fish eat by manipulating the fly.
A perfect example of this happened to me a couple of years ago on Wyoming’s Salt River. I went to one of my favorite spots on the river to spend the afternoon, and discovered a Salmonfly hatch in full swing. Salmonflies clung to the riverside grass and willows until the wind picked up, blowing the big stoneflies into the water. They struggled on the water, wiggling their bodies and legs while frantically beating their wings.
I didn’t have my supersize dry-fly box with me, and not wanting to waste valuable time driving home, I picked out a smallish red-bodied Stimulator. It was the closest a thing I had to imitate a Salmonfly. I matched the spastic natural behavior of the naturals with my undersize Stimulator and had an unforgettable afternoon—even though my fly was several sizes too small and the wrong color. I never let the trout get a clean look at my unmatched fly. The catalyst for their feeding response was the frantic twitching I imparted to the fly.
After landing a few nice cutthroats and browns, I spotted a large nose breaking the surface below a tangled willow along the bank. I eased into casting position and carefully extended each cast to gauge my distance, not wanting to lose my only pattern that approximated a Salmonfly. The fly landed near the bank just below the willows, and after just a few lifelike twitches, the 20-inch brown gobbled the fly and made a screeching run before he was finally eased into my extended hand.
Snake River cutthroats, native to Wyoming’s Snake River and its tributaries, are particularly fond of Chernobyl-style flies—especially if you fish them with plenty of movement. Brown and rainbow trout certainly have a curiosity for foam flies with pulsating rubber legs, but cutts attack them like foxes in henhouses.
My guide friend Yancy Perkins has the uncanny ability to book many of the greenest fly fishers in the Jackson Hole area. Getting his clients to cast past the tips of their rods is the first order of business. Whether they accomplish this first task or not, he moves on to the next important detail: twitching the fly. If the clients can’t do the wiggle, the whole day might be lost (with the exception of the scenery).
As a reminder of what they need to be doing with their rod tips, Yancy recites the instructions “jiggy, jiggy, jiggy . . . jiggy, jiggy, jiggy” all the way down the river. Many of the area guides are challenged getting their clients to grasp the idea of the twitch, especially those who hail from Eastern spring creeks where delicately presenting mayflies with a drag-free drift is the norm.
Guides often initiate the skating of the fly by manipulating the drift of the boat. “Sometimes I can actively lean on the oars and get them (clients) to move their rod tip. As soon as I can get that fly to come to the end of the drift and start ripping and dragging, which goes against all the dry-fly fishing books, the fish will eat it because it is live meat,” says Dornan. “You take a good Snake River fly fisher and the end of their rod is moving a zillion miles an hour. It’s twitching and jerking and yanking and pulling.”
When you’re moving the fly correctly, there should be slight V-shaped wake on the water like the fly is running across the surface. You can also wiggle and twitch the fly with short intervals of dead-drifts between.
Being a keen observer of the insects you are trying to imitate can be helpful. A grasshopper that falls into the water kicks and struggles with very little progress in any direction. An occasional twitch will suffice if you believe the trout are likely interested in grasshoppers. Stoneflies are more at home on the water and move about more easily. They can land on the water and fly off again, but most commonly use their legs to “run” across the surface while flapping their wings uselessly.
Salmonflies are the most flamboyant of all stoneflies while on the surface, eagerly beating their enormous wings and creating a large disturbance in the process. Golden Stoneflies are usually more subtle on the water, often wobbling and kicking their legs but with relatively little wing movement. I take these natural observations into account when simulating a natural on the river, and also into my overall fly design when I am sitting at the vise.
The methods a fly fisher could use to twitch a fly are limited only by creativity, but there are four techniques I ordinarily use. Wiggling, skating, mending, and stripping all transfer motion to your fly.
Wiggling the tip of your rod from side to side or up and down sends waves down your fly line and through your leader. The amplitude and frequency of your waves can easily be manipulated to achieve the desired effect.
Skating is the simplest way of generating motion. All you need to do is cast across-stream, raise your rod, and let the current swing your fly in an arc to a position directly downstream. It is the same technique used for swinging a soft-hackle wet fly or skating a steelhead dry. I’ve never attempted skating a trout fly with a riffle hitch, as I’ve used for steelhead in the past, but plan on trying it. The extra wobble the riffle hitch creates might just drive the trout crazy.
You can cover a lot of water by skating a dry fly, which makes it an excellent tactic when there’s little apparent surface activity. If you want to target a particular feeding lane, you can dissect it with a series of swings where you don’t fish out the entire arc. Just hit the meaty water where you suspect the fish are holding, then step down and cast again so the fly swings through the lane a little farther downstream.
Mending can speed up or slow down the fly while it is swinging. You can also make a mend that adds a subtle twitch in an otherwise dead drift.
I use mending most often because it is an effective way of twitching a fly without pulling it out of a desirable fishing lane. It’s also my preferred method of fishing terrestrials, particularly grasshoppers, where a steady succession of mends gives the fly a struggle/dead-drift sequence common with hoppers.
Stripping is as simple as the name implies. Use your free hand to retrieve line and create a wake. This method naturally involves starting and stopping the fly, and works well when trying to imitate a stonefly running across the surface. I’ve heard of people using this “motorboat” approach with smashing results on subtle spring creeks or other smooth water after all their attempts at matching the hatch have failed. Motorboating a fly across a spring creek probably wasn’t what guys like Swisher, Richards, and Schwiebert had in mind, but you can’t argue with off-the-wall success.
I often find myself using two or more of these fly fishing retrieves during a single drift. It’s fun to treat the fly like a remotely controlled motorboat using alternating methods. There is no end to the variations and combinations of twitching your dry fly, and as with the retrieval of a streamer, you might find the fish prefer a certain speed or action on any given day.
We learn that productivity, like any other form of trout fishing, begins with fishing the right water. Secondary to fishing the right water in our Rocky Mountain region is motion, no question about it. Motion signals fresh, scared, and vulnerable meat. Stoneflies and terrestrials offer dry-fly enthusiasts the chance to catch aggressive fish using active topwater tactics. In western Wyoming, where the spectacle of trout gobbling huge foam and rubber-legged dry flies in the summer months rivals the riverside scenery, we quickly learn that it’s all in the twitch.
Ryan Ragain owns and operates Jackson Hole Ridge and River (jacksonholerandr.com), setting up clients on hunting and fishing trips in the Jackson Hole area and beyond.