Figuring out what is working is something I am pretty good at and have a lot of confidence in. I typically have a different approach on familiar waters than I do on streams I have not fished recently or previously. I will share my approach to familiar waters - specifically Driftless trout streams - in this post and will dig into approaching unfamiliar waters in another post.
Driftless Area streams are my home waters and I have a pretty good handle on what to expect throughout the course of a season. I know the hatches, when and where to expect to find different terrestrial insects, and I have my fly selection narrowed down over decades of trial and error. I generally have it worked out so I can carry a single fly box in a shirt pocket, throw a spool or two of tippet in another pocket - maybe a leader just in case, and snap a forceps to my shirt and go. However, more often than not, I am carrying a few fly boxes in my sling pack since it is so convenient and wears so lightly.
A Seasonal Single Fly Box
The flies change a bit over the season. Early in the year, it full of buggers, Milwaukee Leeches, and Itty Meaty Things along with a sculpin pattern or two for streamers. I carry a few small nymphs and some scuds because these are always likely to work. Lastly, I have a couple of midges and a few dark stoneflies in case I run across a mid-day winter stonefly hatch. By April, I am carrying many of these same flies but starting to add some more dry flies - particularly some CDC and Elk to cover the American Grannom caddis hatch and some patterns to cover the blue-winged olive (BWO) hatches (I've probably added those in March). And I am starting to carry a few Hippie Stompers and User Friendlies. In May and June, I have reduced the streamers a bit to make room for some crane flies and a few sparkle duns to cover the hatches I might come across. As the season continues to progress, the box is full of terrestrials, those CDC and Elk, and a few parachutes. It is maybe carrying a leech or two and a few small nymphs and a scud or two - all of which I hope not to have to use. In August into the fall, I am carrying trico spinners and am sure to replenish those BWO patterns - often really small ones this time of year.
It took years - hell, decades - to figure that all out and be confident in being able to travel light. Maybe you fish elsewhere and your hatches and choices are different. I think it is an effective exercise to configure your one fly box, it really makes you think about what flies you really use. More often than not, I am carrying a few boxes in my mini-sling pack which recently replaced my waist pack so I have more back up patterns but honestly, they rarely are getting touched when I am fishing my home waters.
Tying on that First Fly
On familiar waters, it is less about "figuring it out" and more about using your experiences and preferences to know what will be likely to be effective. It is also why knowing a few hatches in your area is pretty important. I would never be on a Wisconsin stream in mid-April and not have some Grannom caddis imitations as I might miss the best dry fly fishing of the year. Nor would I fail to carry a few BWO patterns anywhere in Wisconsin.
Most of the time I tie a fly on at my vehicle then make my way down to the stream. What I tie on first depends upon the time of the season and my past experience. Early in the year, I start with a leech or streamer and move to a nymph if that is not working. If I have overcast skies, I am probably fishing a scud imitation. As we move into April, more likely than not I am fishing a dry fly first - that dry fly is almost certainly a CDC and Elk - and moving to small nymphs or scuds - particularly on overcast days - if the dry is not working.
By late-April or May, hatches are picking up. The first key to being able to figure it out is to have some expectations. I know in May, I am likely to see caddis, crane flies, and midges during the day and mayflies (sulphurs, maybe March Browns and Hendricksons) as we move into the evening. If fish are rising on an overcast day and I am not able to catch a natural, I am throwing on a #18 BWO and moving smaller if that does not work. As we move into late-June through the end of the season, my choice of fly, more likely than not, is a terrestrial dry fly. The choice of the specific pattern varies a bit upon when and where I am fishing as well as my whims of the day.
Once I tie on a fly, I am probably going to give it at least twenty minutes or at least three or four riffle-pool sequences most of the time. I am not a big fly changer unless I have good evidence that there is a better option. For example, if I started with a hopper but have not seen any of them moving, I will switch over to a cricket, beetle, or ant. But most of the time - based on my experiences - I have a pretty good feeling that what I tied on first is likely to work.
When it is Not Working
Herein lies the rub, that approach does not always work and you are left scrambling to figure it out. Trout are fickle creatures and sometimes they are just not feeding actively, or at least you are not catching them.
If you are a somewhat loyal reader, you know me as a dry fly snob - I make no bones about it. If there is a good chance to catch fish on a dry fly, I will choose that over a nymph or streamer 99.62% of the time. So in figuring it out, I am probably going to go through another dry fly choice or three before "slumming it" subsurface. You may get to the right answer faster than me because of my snobbery and stubbornness - and I am OK with that.
It is early-May and I have a CDC and Elk on - odds are really good that is a true statement - and it is not working - odds are fairly low that happens which is why I fish that fly so often. But it is certainly quite possible. The next thing I do is to try to move the fly and see if that gets the trout's attention and makes them hit. Assuming there are no rising fish, I have probably tried a Hippie Stomper, in part because it works and because if I have to go to the dark arts, I have my bobber already tied on my leader. If they are just not interested in being civilized rising trout, I drop a small nymph off the Hippie Stomper. If that fails to work and I think I need to get deeper, I take off the dry, replace it with a better bobber, and lengthen my tippet, and tie on a nymph. Or I put on a streamer - likely a Milwaukee Leech, Itty Meaty Thing, or something similar.
Later in the season, I am going through choices of terrestrial dry flies and dropping nymphs from them if the stream allows (some are so weedy by now that nymphing can be limited). Maybe I start finding the faster moving water knowing that, if there are trout there, my odds of catching them are much better than in the places where trout have more time to inspect my offering.
Absolutely NOTHING is Working...
I don't know how long I give it but after an hour or so, I am throwing up the white flag. Some days, it becomes quite evident that they just are not active. There are any number of reasons for this ranging from timing (should have been there an hour ago or two hours later), I unknowingly was following other anglers, the conditions are poor, the list of excuses, err, reasons goes on.
My next choice is to try somewhere quite different. If I am striking out on a larger stream, I go find a smaller tributary. If I am fishing a wide open pasture, I find a wooded section or one with a lot of grass canopy - particularly on a sunny day. Or the other way around - maybe I seek out a place where the sun has warmed the water and made the fish more active. This is especially effective early and late in the season as well as on summer mornings on days that start out really cool. If I am fishing an East/West stream, I find one that runs more North/South. I lengthen my leader, maybe drop down a tippet size if I seem to be spooking more fish than I am catching. (Rarely have I found tippet size to be the issue.) In other words, whatever is not working, I go George Costanza on it and do the opposite.
None of that is working, go grab a beer, a book, or both. Trout can do that to you. More than most fishes, they run hot and cold. Being there at the right time is huge part of fishing and there is probably little that anglers can do to catch more fish than to understand the best times to fish. On Driftless streams, maybe the biggest saving grace and why really bad days are few are far between is because the streams have so many fish. Don't think too hard about how many fish you didn't catch, even on your best of days, or it might be a little too humbling.
Wrapping It Up
That is a good bit of my approach to fishing a Driftless stream I am familiar with during a non-hatch time. My choices are all a bit personal as I prefer to fish dry flies and do not mind having maybe a little slower day due to this preference. I will often take the opportunity to see some cool topwater rises over watching a bobber or stripping a streamer. That may not be your approach. My approach is also informed by my experiences. Your experiences are different from mine and you likely have different confidence flies than I do.
I am interested in your experiences and your process for figuring it out on your home waters, comment below.