Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grilled Trout, Fiddleheads, and Ramps in Nettles-Bacon Broth, Part One: Catch a Trout

Overcast days are fine for trout fishing, and rainy days can be even better. It's May, time for mayflies, which do not emerge only during May, but it's fitting to take advantage of their appearances in their namesake month.

Cloudy, drizzly days early and late in the season are prime time for a miniscule class of mayflies that fly fishers generally describe as "blue-winged olives." Lots of bugs are clustered under this heading; what most have in common is that their newly emerged wings have a dull, slatey blue-gray appearance, and their bodies are usually a dark olive green. And they are small. Tiny. Even an experienced fisherman, seeing swallows swarming above the stream, and fish rising avidly, can fail to perceive what all the fuss is about until he crouches to examine the river's surface.

There he will see a flotilla of lilliputian sailboats, the mayflies with their wings erect, actually standing on the surface film, their wee feet dimpling the surface. They may seem a little stunned at this sudden transition from their bottom-dwelling lives in the year-long nymph stage to the light and air and perils of an existence out of water. More likely they are just waiting for their wings to dry, which may take a while in cool, damp conditions.

While they wait they are subject to having their famously ephemeral lifespans truncated even further. The nymphs have waited underwater a year for their chance at airborne glory, and a date night (which, however much fun it might be while it lasts, is bound to end badly); the birds and the trout have been waiting for this moment, too, but for them it means it's time to strap on the feedbag.

On the day that I brought home this trout, a 12-inch brown, just legal, the blue-winged olives began to emerge in late afternoon under a cold drizzling rain. They couldn't get off the water at all, it seemed, and the swallows were in a frenzy. Usually you will see these thrilling flyers picking the mayflies out of the air as they rise from the river's surface. This day, with no flies flying, the swallows had to adapt their strategy. Instead of working an airborne circuit over the water, they appeared to be dancing in place, hovering and bobbing down to snatch the flies from the surface. It was remarkable, breathtaking, a little comical, as well.

From below, the trout took advantage. You wouldn't think that big trout would bother much with tiny flies, but they do. It doesn't matter that the flies are tiny, because there are lots and lots of them, and the picking is easy, and who knows when you'll get a chance to eat again? Because trout are always hungry, and opportunistic, that's why we can catch them on our poor imitations of nature's handiwork.

From a fly box I took out a dry fly, size 18 "Cap's Hairwing" variant. The hook on a fly this size is about 1/4-inch long. The shank of it, the straight part on top to which one can attach the materials meant to mimic a natural fly, is probably just over 1/8-inch. Onto this minimal space I had attached, with black 8/0 thread: a wing and a tail made of deer hair; a gray body of muskrat under-fur; and the hackle--fancy chicken feathers, two of them, brown and grizzly (black and white), a combination called Adams after a famous dry fly, of which mine is a variation, wound around the hook so the barbs stand out, imitating the insect's legs, more or less, letting the fly sit above the water the way a dun--the newly emerged mayfly--does.

An 18 is a small fly for me. The smallest I've tied is a 24 (higher number, smaller hook), and I've only done a few of those. When I finish tying a well-proportioned size 18 fly, I feel accomplished, like I've done really fine and delicate work. People who don't fly fish are always impressed when you show them a fly that small. They think you're some kind of Einstein of the tying bench.

But when you look at the artificial fly next to the natural--Lo, how Clumsy is the Hand of Man, compared to Great Nature's Art! When I looked at the fineness, the intricacy, the exquisite proportions of the blue-winged olives (probably of the genus baetis) emerging that day, well, I was a little embarassed to tie my poor handiwork to the end of my leader. Nor was I particularly hopeful, for, as small as it was, relative to most of the flies I tie, it was easily twice as big as the naturals. You might think, offhand, that that would be an advantage, but in the midst of a hatch trout do not take a "bigger is better" approach; they quickly figure out what the real food looks like and will often simply ignore an artificial that doesn't match. I've seen trout literally knock my fly out of the way to take a natural just beside it. That's annoying.

But sometimes, if your timing is right, your presentation proper, your casting adept and stealthy, you can fool one or two. That 12-inch brown was my best fish of the day, though trout kept rising even as I left the stream, and the swallows kept dancing, mayflies kept emerging; and I knew, stepping out of the water onto the wet grass in my clunky wading boots, that as much as I feel at home and at peace on these, my home waters, I would never be anything but a spectator, a tourist here.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

What a cute little brownie!!

All kidding aside, can't wait to hear about the methode de cuisine.

My palate is slowly shifting to the spring, despite its deficit of ramps or morels or fiddleheads. I've made do with green onions garlic! And asparagus of course.

I described your horsehair line tying the tiny fly to the line and Tom of course knew what it was called, was all over it, etc. Like your cheese kit, I gave him a completely mothballed fly-tying kit during our courtship. Sigh. One day maybe he'll get into it again.

mdmnm said...


I'm always grateful when a size 18 dry comes out with decent proportions as well, especially a hair wing. That said, a hair wing Adams is one of my very favorite flies, suitable for almost any hatch or occasion. With Blue Winged Olive hatches I've also had success with a parachute Adams.

Size 24, now, that's too small for me. 22 is about it. Lovely brown, by the way!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: It was cute, but more important, delicious. I've got to get on top of the ramps and fiddleheads--with the super early spring, they're passing us by faster than I expected.

If you're back here for a visit, and Tom wants to wet a line, I'd be happy to hit the stream with him.

mdmnm: I've been whittling my fly selection down bit by bit over the years to where I really tie about a half dozen patterns now. The Cap's Hairwing, named for Cap Buettner who lived and guided on the Wolf River in Langlade County, WI, is one. Mind you, on the Wolf it's used to imitate brown drakes and other big flies, usually in a size 10 or 12. In a Cap's Hairwing you do a divided deer hair wing (I dispense with dividing now), dub the muskrat body, then tie in a deer hair tail that covers the entire top of the body, humpy style. You tie back from the wing to attach the tail-back, then tie forward again with the black thread, crosshatching over the thread already there. On the small versions I tie, I just tie in a bit of deer hair for the tail, and dub over it.

These flies were quite heavily hackled, to bounce around in rocky pocket water on the Wolf and other big wild rivers. When a big brown emerged from the froth to grab your It gives me goosebumps!

Parachute Adams, yes, absolutely. I believe one of those in a size 18 can catch fish almost anywhere, any time.

Happy fishing~Brett