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Guerrilla flyfishing
Chapter VI

Combat ready!…Stalking Fish

"Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves."

George W. Bush

"Reading a stream" is a term used to describe the act of studying the structure and mood of a stream where fish are more likely to be at a certain time. Here are some of the characteristics of a stream to look for when "reading" and tactics to use.

  Feeding Rocks

One of the first things I look for when reading a stream for fish are what I call "feeding rocks." Feeding rocks are small boulders where fast moving water scours out worms, nymphs and other munchies from the sand and silt. Hungry fish feed on these anywhere from a few inches downstream from the rocks to ten feet or more.

I look for feeding rocks that are close to the shore first. I ask myself "which ones can I get to first with the minimum of effort?" Because I am basically lazy and because fish know when something enters their feeding area. Remember swimming as a kid and ducking under water to yell at your submerged buddies? Sound travels ten times faster under water and just that much further.

Call it superstition, but fish know when I enter the water. There have been too many times when I’ve caught several nice trout right when I first arrived at a place, and then it turns off for a long while. Then it’s hit and miss but not as hot as that first fifteen or twenty minutes. I believe it’s because of the footwork we do getting to those choice spots, "way over there" when we should play out the closest areas first and then slowly ease over to the other areas as we work toward them. That footwork grinds the bottom gravel and bumps stones and logs giving off an alarm louder than a tornado siren in a Kansas town.

Another thing feeding rocks do is allow moving water to dig deep trenches behind them for big fish to hide in. Big fish like to watch what’s going on without being seen and they are big fish because they have learned to keep out of sight. These troughs are great places to sneak up to and toss nymphs into…letting the current naturally take the nymphs down the troughs and into the feeding zones of the big fish.

Currents create patterns as they cut across and into the sand and mud. Some currents form what is known as a riffle or a "rif" and this looks like a series of V’s or an old washboard and this washboard does the same scouring of the stream bottom as a feeding rock. Insect larvae, nymphs and worms are sifted up and delivered efficiently to feeding fish waiting in these riffles.

  Think deep

Look at the stream. Are there deep areas where a wary trout may like to hide? Fish these areas close to the bottom with a weighted fish imitator like a "Woolly Bugger"! Woolies are probably the most versatile fly around. They can be used for trout, bass, pike, etc. A woolly is usually a marabou feather for a tail with hackle wrapped around a chenille body. They are effective in white, black, green, brown, purple and other colors.

Play minnow imitations by "stripping" (pulling in line a strip at a time with your free hand with a one, two, three…rest…one, two, three…rest). This gives the feathers a chance to wiggle and flare like gills and a tail.

Stripping a streamer along is one of the best ways of attracting big fish. Streamers are longer, most times flashier flies and are presented by casting far out and then stripping in towards the caster. Streamers can be fished at all levels of the water with various styles of retrieve and different types of line.

  Windows to the eye of the tiger

Barry Reynolds showed me how to fish for tiger muskie with a sinking line and his floating oversized flies and this is a great technique for big fish all over, because you’ll see it covers a wide range of angles and depths. The more angle and depth variations your fly covers, the greater the odds of a fish spotting it and attacking. Barry has authored several books since his first, Pike on the Fly and each is stuffed full of techniques for catching a variety of fish on flies.

Back to Barry’s technique: the idea is to load your reel with sinking line, using a rod of nine feet or longer so you are far enough away from your quarry not to spook it. Your reel should have a disc brake unless you don’t mind breaking a big fish with your palm and you should have lots of backing on your reel in case of long runs. Now, once the fly has landed in the area where you suspect your fish is lurking then wait a few seconds for the sinking line to sink and then began a methodical…strip! …strip! …strip! …wait, until you have stripped in the fly and are ready to cast again. Be careful to reel in the excess during some of the "waits" because a big fish on the run is not easy to hold by grasping the line.

The sinking line being lower than the floating fly pulls the fly down vertically on each strip as it is also moving forward horizontally. This is very important because of the angles and points of vision various species of fish have.

Dewey Thornton is one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to tigers. When he was a ranger at Quincy Reservoir in Aurora Colorado, he kept a journal of every state record tiger musky caught since the species was introduced to that lake. Dewey knew the time of day, the color and size of the lure, line test, and even the barometric reading at the time of the catch.

We used to talk for hours about the feeding habits of tiger muskies and here is what makes Barry’s technique so deadly: According to Dewey, tiger musky have a very narrow window of vision, giving the fisher a limited field to cast into. This field of vision lies at a forty-five degree angle up and forward from the tiger’s eyes, rendering a cast right in front of the fish, just to either side or below this forty five degree angle useless.

However, a cast of a floating fly attached to sinking line, with a series of strips causes the fly to cover a great deal of area, increasing the odds of that fly entering that forty five degree strike zone resulting in a graphite bending, "C R R R A C K!" and "W Z Z Z Z Z Z! As line strips down to the backing in a matter of seconds.

Now, I’m not forgetting the lateral lines and vibration sensing used by these freshwater sharks, but vision is the prime sense we want to attract.

Each fish has it’s own particular characteristics and strike zone. Using the technique I’ve described combined with sinking line and floating flies, will get more fish on your line.

  Think structure

Trout like structure, such as rocks, stumps, rapids and riffles, anything that causes the water to slow down and deposit protein-rich insects, snails, worms and other food. Look for these types of structures in the water and more times than not there will be a feasting trout right there waiting for your expertise. This is also true for most game fish.

  Think stealth and camouflage

Fishing is more like hunting than any other sport. With the increased pressure on most fishing spots, there is more reason to be careful not to bring too much attention to yourself while trying to hook up with the big one. Remember, we are after a wild creature. A fish spends its life trying to eat as many things as it can, while not getting eaten! The law of survival is in full swing in a mountain stream and we need to understand this law and fit in with it, obeying all rules of the hunter.

Bright colors will strike you out! White or other bright colors can be seen by a wary trout way before you can see the trout. Even ball caps with bright patches will be seen as a movement that shouldn’t be there and your trophy will dart to the safety of deep, deep water, before you know it.

Dull, natural colors are best for stalking the wild and wise trout of the mountains and watch out for shiny things such as line snips, buckles, watches, or knives.

A sudden reflection of light can startle a fish and make it lose its appetite. Even your eyeglasses or sunglasses can reflect light, so it is best to keep your head down so that your hat brim will shade the lenses from direct sunlight.

Second to being attacked by other fish, the primary danger our fish face is a predator from above. Birds, animals and man are all waiting to take a shot at a scaly dinner. Fish are created with instincts to flee from movement above the water because a flash of sun off of a wing may mean death in the next instant.

  The better to SEE you with

If you can see a fish then it can see you–the edge we have is to aid our eyesight with the best sunglasses we can find. These don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be polarized for the clearest vision through water. Polarized sunglasses can make the difference in spotting fish and going home with no stories. My good friend and world-class fisherman, Joe Butler told me, "I believe in polarized sunglasses so firmly that if I should forget my glasses, then I may as well turn around and go home!" Joe is the author of Trout’s Choice, the best book ever written on spotting trout and combination spinning and flyrod techniques. Joe’s other book, Big Trout With Flies, is also one to stalk and has great tips on going after the BIG trout

  Sneak, crawl, hide and move slowly

The faster you move, the more noise and vibrations you will make and these vibrations will transfer right into the water. When you reach the water, take baby steps. Slowly step to a spot downstream from your quarry. Trout always rest in the water with their heads facing upstream, so when advancing upon a structure or hole where your fish is, approach from downstream where you are less likely to be noticed. Cast the line just ahead of the fish or where you think the fish may be and let the current take it to the fish. You may have to cast the line over and over until you get a take…just be persistent and make slow moves. Practice so that you can make a splash-less cast.

The best way to get wary fish is to rig your line with a long stretch of monofilament so that the flyline won’t spook the fish. Nymphing can be done with just mono loaded onto your reel and has been used successfully in swollen streams or where the current is too fast and pulls to quickly at the floating line. Normally, however, you will want six or seven feet of clear leader and then your tippet, according to the length of your rod. Just remember the fly line is solid and moves. This is enough to turn off a skittish fish.

How many colors of floating flyline can we find on the market? I lose count. Most people would chose a dark color for fly line, thinking the dark would blend in with dark rocks and stream bottoms. My theory is to use light colors matching white clouds and blue sky when in open water and greens where trees and foliage tower overhead. I think matching what is over the water is more important than matching the bottom, since fish usually are striking from below and floating line should blend in with what is above. Line will still look dark because of the bottom side of it being opposite the light source but the top half should disappear. This theory is null and void when the sky turns gray or black, then dark works.

Finally there are clear fly lines out on the market today which blend almost perfectly into the background. I think I would mark them every so often with a tiny dab of bright red nail polish just to be able to sight them.

Use plenty of clear mono for the leader and this will keep some distance between your fish’s sight and the fly line. Remember fishing is more like hunting than anything else and you should use stealth, cunning and silence to your advantage.

Sinking line should be darker since it needs to blend into the darker surroundings. If you look around you can even find some camouflage line. Camo is great because it breaks up the continuous streak of one color.

A rule of thumb for choosing fly line is to view it from the eye of the fish not the angler. Will the fish be looking up? Match the line to the skyline. Will the fish be attacking from the side of a bank? Match the line with the color of the water…the combinations are endless.

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help".

Ronald Reagan


  When tying knots on a windy day, use your nose to hold the loops stable. This helps keep the line in place. Should you inhale a micro nymph in the process don’t panic! Your body’s natural acids will dissolve the hook in about three years.

Text by Harry P. Davis © 2003

This was a chapter from a the book "Guerrilla flyfishing" by Harry P. Davis
More info about the book can you find at




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