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Waking Flies
Issue 7 Number 3

Fall, 2009


The Original Online Magazine Dedicated Exclusively to the International Angler



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Waking - Whatever you want to call it, it works! 
The stream wasn't big, a creek only, by name and size, flowing from Lakeside Lake to I didn't know where, and still don't. The small, semi rural namesake community of Lakeside, Virginia (where I grew up), would later be gobbled up by Richmond as populations everywhere began to explode. It was 1943 and the adult world was taken up with a raging war. But not me. At ten years old I was alreadya deeply addicted fisherman. A cut pole, a hook with green string, red, green, and white striped bobber, and a can full of worms was alll asked to make life complete. Or so I thought.

Waking, skittering,drag, whatever you want to call it - it works!

On that particular early September afternoon I had been working my way down the creek from the lake's dam. Below the spillway there was always a feisty bream or two, and I had gotten my first couple of fixes; vanishing bobber, hooking jolts, and that super sensual, pulsating throb of a running fish. I didn't know or want to know anything better.

At one point a large boulder extended from the edge of the creek bank into the water, forming a deep pool below it. There were often larger fish in its dark depths. It was also a dream spot. With a light, luxurious up stream breeze moving between huge old beech trees, sitting a spell on the boulder was bound to bring on a little day dreaming.

Half in a pleasant daze, my worm rig, baited and set to go in a forked stick embedded in the bank beside me, my dog, Ching, and I spotted a mayfly floating as still as death with the current just up from our rock. What was so fascinating about a dead bug being carried downstream I couldn't say, but like slow motion tennis spectators as it went by our heads turned in unison to follow it, staring with hypnotic intensity. Then there was another, another, and one more. I didn't know it then, but I was observing my first 'hatch.'

Life changing events can sneak up on you, kind of nip you in the fanny when you're least expecting them. In fact they often appear so trivial it takes a while before you figure them out. Joining the Marine Corps was like that.

But this time what happened was so stunning I got it on the spot. Another 'dead' mayfly passed us and slowed down over the pool. Then like some old retired bush pilots I've drank with, it suddenly got a big itch to fly again -just one more time, and started struggling to get off the water. The biggest, blackest old bream in Lakeside Creek rose up out of the dark like a surfacing U-boat, and in eerie silence, opened its mouth. The fly went in, they both vanished, and my worm fishing days went with them.

A light went off in my mind, and spirit. Those oddly attractive, three for a quarter hooks with feathers wrapped around them gathering dust at Laniers Hardware Store suddenly made sense. I knew well enough that I could feed meat to fish and catch them, yet the idea of doing it by pure trickery was so much more tantalizing I never dug another worm.

What I didn't know then, was that I had learned two distinct things. First, that nothing else in angling would ever be more exciting and satisfying for me than luring fish from their sanctuaries to the surface. It has remained true for more than a half century. Second, that movement given a dry fly on the water, waking, twitching, etc., is often the best method to trigger grabs from otherwise slow taking fish. That has proven just as true over the same period.

The more I read though over the years the more it seemed that somehow the trout world was different. In fact nearly every article and book about dry fly fishing that came my way emphasized the importance of dead drifting. If there were the slightest movement, 'drag', nothing would even look at your fly. The idea appeared to be that anything other than still floating, dead drifting on the surface, was unnatural, and would turn feeding trout off.

Growing up in Virginia wasn't exactly a primer education in fly fishing. Almost no one there in those days was doing it. I went through the typical changes. Since all the adults I knew who were successful with large mouth bass were either minnow fishermen or level wind bait casters, I mowed lawns, and did other odd jobs for months to save enough money to pay a small fortune, $25, for a top of the line Pflueger Supreme level wind reel. I've never owned an automobile I was more proud of. The True Temper square metal rod that went with it was less costly though just as admired, and very quickly the floating, splashing, gurgling Jitterbug, became my lure of choice. I was a baitcasting, surface lure bass angler. That is until a couple of years after the War when spinning swept through the States.

Though there was always a fly fishing outfit in my collection, used mostly with popping bugs for bream, spinning took up most of my fishing time until 1968 when I migrated to Alaska. I wasn't there long before returning exclusively to fly fishing. But 'they' told me to throwaway my Gink, and dry flies except for grayling. Since insect activity, traditional hatches, etc. were at best scarce there prevailing wisdom had it that wet fly fishing was the only way. I bought it, tied a thousand glo bugs, wrapped my leaders with Twiston lead, and learned to fling instead of casting, 'chucking and ducking,' with the best of them. Like mixing fine scotch with grapefruit juice, I confess to having practiced this ignoble debauchery with a splendid Wes Jordan cane rod, and a Hardy Perfect. Good grief! It was similar to using worms in a hatchery trout stream, or the current craze of drifting weighted nymphs dangling from 'strike indicator /bobbers' into the mouths of visible steelhead. DEADLY! With little or no skill required. But fly fishing? Well, sort of.

It was probably the mid seventies when Ron Hyde, master fly fisher and lodge operator told me that they were taking not only rainbows, but silver salmon (Cohos) as well with surface drifted greased muddlers on his beloved Good News River in northwestern Alaska. Not long after, Mel Krieger visited me and did the same thing on the Alagnak. I had been had!

Then I fished with Ted Gerkin at Iliaska who showed me that we could consistently take Dolly Varden char on a #16 Adams from the Iliamna River. In late September on the now world acclaimed Lower Talarik Creek, a friend and I fished for four days in complete solitude. In the last hundred yards before the stream flows into Lake Iliamna, great pods of huge rainbow trout from five to fifteen pounds were visible schooled like salmon. Breaking out the lead and salmon egg imitations, we hooked, played and landed (and released) so many of these high charged behemoths, that for once my rarely satisfied catch lust was glutted. We slept like dead men that night in spite of high winds, driving rains, and occasional grunts and groans from monster brown bears passing (thankfully) our tent. The fresh tracks in the morning were huge, way too close to us, and very scary. Yet something had finally clicked in my angling soul. I took the lead out of my vest, replaced it with a bottle of Gink, and went to the water with a #12 Royal Wulff securely clinched to my tippet.

There was nothing on the water, no hatch to match. It was too windy for very precise casting. Nothing I had read or heard about dry fly fishing for trout, anywhere, would have supported trying it then. Putting all that aside I began drifting the fly over the rainbow pods. The casts were from the bank, across stream, and drifted several times to the head of each of the various pods. After a couple of hours no fish had shown the slightest sign of interest. In the meantime my buddy was kerplunking along behind me, hooking fish almost at will. It was a hard price to pay for purism. Then, sitting down to think for a minute, like a VCR at the end of the movie, my brain went into rewind.

Passing through spinning years, level wound Crazy Crawlers, etc. , it went all the way back to the rock beside Lakeside Creek. No matter what anyone said or wrote, the bream hadn't taken the still floating mayflies. It took the only one that tried to escape. Like a cat plays with a mouse. If the mouse don't move kitty just watches. If it moves to get away, boomba! Like you and I, - predators are predators. Once I yelped in four turkeys, all within easy shotgun range. There they were, maybe thirty feet away, alert, but as still as stones, and me afraid to raise my gun for fear of spooking them. Then one suddenly turned and ran. With three motionless targets in easy range, I instinctively shot the moving one as it tried to escape.

Back on the water my third cast drifted down to just over the pod. I didn't pick it up when the drag started. Instead the high floating Wulff went into a complete swing around wake. Well it would have been complete except that an eight pound, silver flashing hen fish broke from the pod and smashed it.

"Eureka!" I yelled, grinning like a nugget had suddenly appeared in my gold pan.

I remember a few years later on Montana's Bitterroot River on a guided float trip with a very nice but young guide. He wanted me to put my #16 Adams within an inch or two of the bank, let it take a natural drift, but pick it up at the slightest sign of drag, then do it again. It's fun. Once you get the casting rotation down, and learn to always be looking ahead, anticipating your next cast, at the same time keeping an eye on your fly, it's just challenging enough to keep your interest high. On about my third or fourth cast the stream bank current was a little faster than the raft was moving, a perfect chance to let my fly wake around at the end of its drift.

"Lift it! Lift it!" My guide screamed in my ear. I almost jumped out of the raft. He was a good guy, trying to be professional, to optimize my day's catch, and have me write something nice about him (which later I did).

"Pull over a minute." I asked with a smile. He did and we had a chat, me offering to row the raft and give him a day of fishing. He declined, but agreed to no more yelling. We shook hands and had a wonderful day. There were a lot of fish, with more than half taking on the wake. He wrote to me months later, thanking me for showing him a "secret."

Proof. If it wiggles enough, looks buggy and alive, trout like this are going to eat it.

On the Futaleufu in Chile, my home river, waking flies as small as #16s and even #18s is often more effective than dead drifting. Matt Henderson, one of the best young Montana guides I know, worked here for two seasons, and never got over his wonder that small waking flies can be deadly. In the British Isles where Atlantic salmon wouldn't take dry flies for several centuries, they have recently had a change of heart, with several taken by waking over the last few years. In Australia I spent a lovely eight weeks a few years back. Mike Spry, writer, instructor, and fly angler superb, was my host. His first instructions were:

"Use anything that resembles a hopper, plop it down hard on the water, twitch it every now and again, and always let it swing completely around. Watch the real hoppers when they get on the water. That's what they do."

He was so right that in all that time I never fished wet, caught dozens of healthy brown trout, some quite large, and all that struck like detonating mines. And most of them on the swing, waking.

Close your eyes for a moment, and try to put yourself in a trout's place. You're a highly tuned predator. You're not a cow standing in knee high grass munching away all day and most of the night. You live in a super competitive, limited food (sometimes very limited) environment, where most of your life you were as likely to be eaten as to eat. Your reflexes are high tuned, instantaneous, your movements as fast as light. Ninety percent of your food you find below the surface, most of the time, and your lifetime habit is mouthing anything within reach that could be edible, relying on rapid reflex to evaluate and spit out bad stuff before it can harm you. Beyond a certain size you pretty much have it made, and every now and then there is even delicious icing to go on your cake. Dry flies. Now imagine a summer evening, you've had good sub surface feeding all day, but you and a lot of your friends know that about 8:30 PM a good hatch will emerge over Rocky Run. Why not? Just before dark you're all in place, and here they come. They are only a foot or so above you, lots of them floating smoothly by. Whoa! There's one trying to get away. Go for it!

From the fish's point of view, that's what waking is all about. When your fly appears to be struggling to escape, the trigger is pulled. That's one scenario. Here's another, again from the Futaleufu, but repeated in like circumstances worldwide. It's evening hatch again. Lots of trout from 10 to 16 inchers gather for the feast. A large old brown cruises slowly nearby. He's not there for small insects, not nutritionally worth the energy expenditure. Like hungry wolves monitor caribou herds, this big guy is prospecting. It's young tender trout meat he's after, but make no mistake if a sizable enough moth or stone fly comes over him Mr. Brown will take notice. If this providential morsel struggles to get away at the right moment, not many large browns will resist the urge. We regularly take brown trout between 20 and 30 inches this way on a #8 Jim's Green. What's a Jim's Green?

Nothing very original, it's a large elk hair caddis tied on a #8 Tiemco TMC 5263 hook with a yellow Poly Yarn body. Add a full body length, palmered, long rust colored hackle. Tie in a head and wing of olive/green elk hair. The secret is a full, bushy tie. It's a not very precise imitation hopper, stone fly, moth, or whatever, that floats high with Gink, and skitters with its wing almost sail level for extra visibility. You can twitch it like a popping bug, wake it better than a bomber, and it takes fish just under the surface as readily as a muddier.

Last October I showed up as usual on the Miramichi, Jim's Greens in hand:

"It's too late for dries, water's too cold." Announced Scott Curtis my guide. I think he had two motives, one he felt bad because he knows my strong preference for dry flies, and the other he didn't want anyone who saw us on the water to think such madness was his idea. However Ireland for the previous two weeks had given me more than enough fish for awhile. We started the first afternoon dry .The amazing result; the fastest Atlantic fishing I've ever had. In one short afternoon we netted three salmon, and lost another three, each of them grabbing the fly while it was waking. It's also true that the next two days were fishless, but so was it for everyone else we talked with. And it made my six strike afternoon all the sweeter.

So if you are like me and get bigger bangs out of surface takes than sub surface grabs, here's a couple of things to remember:

First, don't wait for a hatch to fish dry. Close observation will teach you that often fish take real bugs, floating alone. Many times I have also seen the first two or three insects of a hatch taken before the rest showed up. So why not create your own hatch? If two or three real flies, before the horde arrives can entice strikes, it's logical that your own fly drifted repeatedly over the same water can create an illusion of a beginning hatch. Too good to be true? Try it now and then. It only takes a few minutes, and when you catch a fish with a method that you really didn't think would work it's even better.

Second, think like a fish. In your mind see your dry fly from underneath looking up. Several naturals are floating along with it, dead drifting. Then yours suddenly breaks away and starts struggling across stream -escaping - what will a watching trout, or salmon or steelhead do? Or for that matter what will a bass, pike, pickerel, or any other fish do? Call it waking, skittering, or dragging, it's one of the most intriguing, fun to do, techniques in the angler's art of high deception, and at times wildly effective. And when it works, it feels so good.

Some folks like vintage wine served in fine crystal, Mozart and Bach. Others prefer beer from a bottle, and Willie Nelson. Most of us bounce around somewhere in the middle. I still crave nymph fishing at times, though not with bead heads, or bobbers (a personal thing), and I still think -a lot now and then -about worm fishing. I might even do it again, at least one more time. But the highest form of fishing for me will always remain the explosive strikes and fish fights ignited by waking flies. I know, no need to remind me, that's what I said about worming fifty five years ago!

- jim


Jim Repine:


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