The Three C's of Reading the Water

Our summer-long run-off has drawn to a close with the rivers and streams of the Roaring Fork Valley dropping to seasonal flows. Lower autumn and winter stream flows allow the wading angler a better opportunity to fish a stretch of the river more intimately than when floating. Whether you float or wade a river, having the skill to “read the water” will put you in front of more fish more frequently.

Learning to recognize where and how fish exploit their habitat will improve your fishing skill set. Reading the water is not complicated if you take into consideration that fish need three things for primary survival: a respite from the current, cover from above and an abundant food source. These three factors can give you a number of stream channel features at which to look. When you find a place with all three elements you have water worthy of fishing.

Respite from the current can come in a couple of forms -- physical obstructions and hydraulic dynamics. Trout prefer a current speed they can comfortably hold steady while expending the least amount of energy. Look for current speed from a stroll to a brisk walk and a depth of one to four feet. Fish will hold in much stronger or shallower currents if the bottom rubble is softball to bowling ball-sized. Low-pressure gradients are created on the downstream side of rocks -- much like how an airplane wing allows airflow -- which allows the fish to hold with minimal effort.

When looking for productive water, look for hydraulic features that funnel drifting material into bubble lanes. The best way to find these bubble lanes or current seams is to look for lines of bubbles drifting in single-file lines. Observe how the bubbles and foam always seem to take the same path as they get caught into micro-vortices. That is your indication that the currents are also gathering drifting food into a defined path akin to a conveyor belt.

Adding all three elements together is not hard to do. As you move from pool to pool, look for walking speed currents flowing over softball to bowling ball sized cobble that has observable bubble lanes. Then look for other clues as to where the fish might hold nearby while waiting to ambush drifting insects.

Remembering the three primary factors of Current, Cover and a Conveyor belt of food, while fishing will help guide you to fish more productive water.

A Short List of Roaring Fork Valley Tactical Fly Patterns

I am often asked which of my flies would be the most important to carry in my box while fishing the Roaring Fork Valley. While I would like to respond with “anything you see on my site will work,” I know that is not the answer you seek.  I have developed many new tactical style patterns that have been proven very productive while fishing the local area. I will be more specific, to help you make local tactical fly choices when you visit the Roaring Fork Valley.

Glam Rocker Jigs

The single most effective new fly I have in my catalog is the Glam Rocker jig. If forced into one fly pattern to compete with, I would lash on this pattern on.

The Glam Rocker series covers several hatches very well from the Heptageniidae clinger shape to baetis swimmers and everything in between. Having a generic body profile allows this pattern to cover caddis and small stoneflies. I am confident that I can go out and catch fish consistently with nothing but a box full of Glam Rockers with various bead sizes and colors; with the top producing color being olive. In summer, when the pale morning duns and yellow sallies are hatching, the ginger brown is the best local color. A black Glam Rocker is handy all season long, but really stand out in March when we have several large midge hatches.


 MDJ jig - Mothers Day Jig

The end of April and into the first week of May is when the air fills with grannoms. Brachycentrus americanus and Brachycentrus occidentalis are the two species that hatch in overlapping waves progressing rapidly upstream. I would like to highlight, is the fish are very sub-surface oriented during this hatch, I do not bother with fishing a dry fly. Most feeding activity that you will see during the caddis blizzards is sub-surface on emergent pupae very near the surface, and not actually surface rises. Don’t be lured into the the false hope of stellar dry fly fishing, at least below Basalt.


When fishing the Mothers Day caddis, I fish a two fly rig set up with a Spring Caddis jig as a point with an upper dropper to drift high in the water column being a tactical Flymph.


Knuckle Dragger - Golden Stone

I like to fish big flies in big water for big fish. The Knuckle Dragger is my go-to pattern that gets deep and provokes a lot of river toughies. I tie the front legs extra long to activate a swimming motion with fly when used in conjunction with a loop knot. The golden stone color from March through Aug. From May-July the green drake version is my choice. I tie trailer hitches on the rear of my knuckle draggers to carry a smaller less buoyant fly such as my Green Papaya Czech Nymph.


Green Papaya

Number three on my top list is the Green Papaya. There are few days that I can’t catch fish with it. This pattern is killer during the yellow sallies. I only need a size 14. I fish the Green Papaya from mid-June through September. I usually fish this as a dropper behind a Knuckle Dragger.


Black Flashback Pheasant Tail.

From mid March through early May is a good time to use this pattern. It is a neo-traditional style of nymph with a down eye hook. These little gems mesmerize the trout too.

CDC Zika Jig

No time is a bad time to fish this fly, ergo it simply must be in your box if fishing in the Valley. This rule applies to everyone everywhere.

I could continue, but for now, this are all absolute essentials in my personal and guide boxes.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments.

to Perdigone or not to Perdigone

Choosing the right fly has been a topic in fly fishing literature since the dawn of all creation. Perhaps not that far back, but as far back as Dame Juliana Berners who penned a Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle around 1496ce. In tactical or dynamic nymphing, fly choice is at the very core of the method. Matching the fly to the depth and speed of the current is now just as important as matching your fly to the local benthic macroinvertebrates that fish consume.

The Pellet Fly

Pellet flies a.k.a. perdigones fish best in pocket water situations when you will be making frequent close-in presentations. Pocket water requires that the fly gets into the strike zone instantly while being suspended under the rod tip. During these brief presentations, the fish only gets an instant in which to decide if the item is edible or not. The only way for a fish to determine the edibility of objects drifting in these fast currents is by taking it into its mouth and tasting or feeling what it might be. The fish either ingest or reject the offering in less than a second. I have seen this behavior while snorkeling in deeper pockets. Bright, attractive perdigones get the fishes attention quickly, and through the mechanics of tightline nymphing, hook themselves on our sharp hooks in the act of inspecting the fly.

Pellet flies can be both attractive and imitative allowing the creative fly tyer room for personal expression.

The Dubbed Nymph

Dubbed bodied fly patterns fish best during extended range presentations. Extended range presentations are when a portion of the line interacts with the surface of the water or the fly drifts for longer distances. Longer drifts allow fish ample viewing time in which to inspect the fly both visually and through tactility. Another benefit I have discovered is dubbed bodied flies drift with a natural looking buoyancy when used in conjunction with a loop knot. Trout are also slower to reject the fly, which is essential during these extended drifts, thus allowing the angler ample response time to effect a solid hook-up. Conversely, Hard-bodied flies used in long range situations are rejected instantly resulting in less than satisfactory hook-ups. Some amount of dubbing is a useful feature to have a fly designed for extended range drifts.

A Frenchie or other soft bodied nymph pattern such as this Copper and Olive are well designed for long range nymphing.

Don't Match the Hatch, Match the Conditions.

This week I found myself faced with a somewhat unusual situation of not having the right weight of fly to meet my tactical angling needs. I have been dredging the depths of rivers for so long looking for the largest fish a stream might hide that I completely overlooked stocking my boxes with lightly weighted flies. My tactical focus became locked in on presenting heavily weighted nymphs in deep slots and thus ignored having a good plan for low water conditions. 

The Rivers in Western Colorado are currently flowing below average for this time of year. With our rivers so low, the pools that I frequently fish are now shallow, which causes a significant change to the hydraulics. This change in the hydrology moves fish out of the reliable pools and into other locations within the stream channel, generally, in pockets behind boulders or riffles. My attempt at drifting dense stonefly patterns into those locations was an exercise in futility. Fishing densely weighted patterns in shallow water may require more effort in maintaining a good drift, and in fact, it can be tricky.


I am re-tooling many of my favorite spring fly patterns to be lighter to make low water tactical angling manageable. I am tying Perdigon nymphs with smaller than usual beads for gently sinking into shallow pockets behind boulders and soft hackled stoneflies for drifting just above the cobble in riffles. I  even added a few smaller streamers that I can fish with my thirty-foot French leaders.

While it is necessary to match the prevailing benthic macroinvertebrates that are present in your trout waters with our pattern selection, it is also vital to match the conditions as well. This year's low water will require an adjustment in tying lighter weight nymphs, so they will slowly reach the bottom without immediately banging into or getting snagged in the rocks. Brass beads are a lighter alternative to using tungsten beads can offer the solution for this requirement.

Besides bead selection, color is also an essential factor to consider. Somber hued, less flashy patterns are less likely to turn off the fish in low water conditions. Leave the bright hot spotted attractor patterns at home until it rains. Choose materials such as pheasant tail fibers, hares ear fur and partridge. These materials are buggy and dull lending to a natural looking fly. If using reflective materials such as tinsel, do so in a judicious manner. A little glint in a fly pattern can make them more attractive to fish, but just a dash too much can ruin it.

Every Fly You Need to Cover Every Important Stonefly

I organize my fly boxes based of the insect species I frequently encounter in the field. Over the years, I have been able to consolidate the number of patterns that I need to carry with me in order to match ALL the hatches I encounter. In truth, I only need to carry a dozen to a dozen and a half patterns to match all the stoneflies including caddis and mayflies everywhere I go. 

I recently updated my stonefly nymph box and made a small chart to ensure that I had the patterns I needed to match all the stoneflies. We may not think to use Czech Nymphs to imitate stoneflies or simple little micro glint jigs, but both can also be useful stonefly imitations. We need only to match the general size shape and color of the natural for success and to have a fly in your box that serves that function.

Getting Hitched

Do you ever lie awake at night thinking about all those little ideas churning around in your head? I am plagued with them almost every night. Some ideas are jotted down on a note, and others keep rattling around for years. Like a pestering earworm whose record keeps skipping over that same chorus over and over again in your head, listening to the song in its entirety is said to be the remedy. Chasing a persistent idea just might get it out of your head. Such was the case back in 2004 with the trailer hitch.

My home water for many decades was Oregon's Metolius River. Managed as a wild river the Metolius is for fly fishing only. In addition to being fly fishing only water, regulations prohibit the use of additional weight attached to the fly line or leader. This regulation posed a problem for me, as I discovered that the fish in the Metolius are primarily hiding in the deepest darkest pools and rarely out in the open riffles. Getting my patterns into the depths required copious amounts of weight tied into the fly.

Newburys Stinger Stone version 2.0

Newburys Stinger Stone version 2.0

The Metolius river has an abundance of golden stoneflies dwelling amongst the cobble and stones. Imitating these large nymphs provides the perfect substrate in which to tie anchor flies for use in the forbidden depths. A 4mm metal bead and 15 wraps of .20 weighted wire were sufficient to bounce bottom in 4 feet deep water. Life would be perfect if all I ever had to fish were this one pattern alone, a fly pattern I developed on the Metolius for getting deep the Stinger Stone.

The Stinger stone was my first pattern that employed the addition of a mono loop in the rear of the fly. In its first incarnation, I did not initially tie the fly as a stinger style pattern, just a bead-headed stonefly on a curved shank grub hook. I found the grub hook to be problematic in that the point was too long and had killed a few fish. Pinching the barbs also caused the droppers I used to slip off the bend of the hook. I had to remedy the hook problem, so I cut off the bend of the hook and added a short shanked egg hook instead. One thing led to another, and I further complicated the pattern for Umpqua Feather Merchants who picked it up for commercial production. After sales declined from a design we all considered a failure, I kept the mono loop and started using it in my other anchor patterns.

Laying the foundation for anchor jigs

The trailer hitch has stuck around in the guiding boxes providing me with a tool in an arsenal of tactics to accomplish a task: fishing a multiple fly rig with a dropper affixed to another fly that will not slip off a barbless hook.

I have had no documented failures in the loop itself breaking or coming untied. The knots are no more vulnerable than any other knot you can use. I once had a commenter on a social media post about mono "cutting" mono. If that were the case, your poorly executed tippet repairs would all fail. No sir, you CAN use a mono loop and not have it fail if you practice good knot tying skills. The only issue that plagues me with the hitch is that I have to check it for fouling frequently.

Here is a post that SwittersB wrote a few years back about the mono loop I use .


A pile of Copper Johns sporting the hitch


You Keep Turning Me Upside Down

I have enjoyed the best summer seasons of my life as a field fisheries biologist collecting data and observing fish and aquatic insects in their natural habitat. In that time, I have snorkeled numerous rivers counting and identifying fish and benthic macroinvertebrates. My most memorable time was watching insects behaving naturally underwater. On a few occasions, I was blessed to have taken a front row seat in witnessing emergence activity and how fish feed during a hatch. In all that time I was underwater, I have seen very few living nymphs drifting upside down for more than just a few seconds in the current. Living naturals of most species of aquatic insects are remarkably adept at remaining in a dorsal up position despite the heaviest of currents tossing them about. If naturals do get inverted, they are quickly self righted through the dorsal light polarization phenomenon. However, giant Salmonfly nymphs are the most prone to prolonged inverted drifts but get soon oriented. More on that later.

A completely round fly displays the same color and profile despite its orientation in the water.

A completely round fly displays the same color and profile despite its orientation in the water.

I have heard there is a video floating around out there somewhere illustrating jig flies tumbling in the current in all orientations. However, physics will dictate a jig weighted with a slotted tungsten bead will remain in a mostly hook point up position while occasionally tumbling along in the current. This of course depends on current speed, line tension and bead weight.  

Because some folks out there seem to think that weighted jigs can be prone to a limited degree of tumbling -- depending on where and how you fish them -- I have gone back to the “tied in the round” philosophy adopted almost a half century ago by Major Charles E. Brooks who also observed salmonflies in the Yellowstone River occasionally become inverted and fish avoiding them. Subsequently, Brooks came up with his tied in the round patterns such as the Brooks Stone Nymph

My pet peeve is focused on perdigon jigs that are tied upside down with the wingcase painted on the side of the fly that is going to drift in a dominant downward position. Brooks observed fish will refuse upside down nymphs (I do not support nor deny these claims). However, It makes little sense and entirely unnatural to me to present an upside down fly to the fish based on my field observations and that of my elders.

To ameliorate my pet peeve of upside down jigs, I have omitted the wingcases altogether and have done away with the issue of fly orientation altogether. Problem solved!
Note: I still use wingcases on non-jig perdigon.

Now, let's talk about all those videos documenting unusual hominids meandering around leaving giant footprints in the woods…

You can read a short info on Charles Brooks in the round philosophy here.

Perdigon nymphs are designed to fish the fast turbulent sections of rivers where naturals are most prone to tumbling. So in all fairness, it doesn't really matter how the fly is oriented as the fish only have an instant to take the fly in water where good hook sets are more likely to occur. I would avoid using perdigons in slower sections of rivers where fish can have a better look and spit out the fly faster than the some of the best angler can detect the take. Tungsten beads are not a regular item on the trouts diet and are quickly ejected. For less turbulent water, choose a fly with some softer materials for the body or collar.

A tied in the round style micro jig #18.

A tied in the round style micro jig #18.


My Top Winter Patterns (updated)

Glenwood Springs Winter Morning

If you are fortunate enough to have a local river that has an endless season, and possess the mental fortitude to suffer through numb fingers and frozen toes, then winter fly fishing season is a great opportunity to fill your fishing logs with additional entries.

Fish and thier prey are still active throughout the winter months -- albeit with slower metabolic rates --  allowing for additional fly fishing opportunities. Only during the coldest spells of deep winter can conditions truly get bad out there leaving the most attractive option to stay home to restock fly boxes. What I find amazing is that when the mercury drops into the teens and below, a few die hard individuals will gleefully brave the elements to chase fin with a fly rod.

The following selection of fly patterns are frequently added to my winter fly box that have served me well throughout a variety of winter fly fishing conditions. 

Cased Caddis

While midges, aquatic worms and baetis dominate the buffet line when sustaining fish through the long dark winter months, cased caddis are a frequent food source. Caddis larva will engage in behavioral drift in search of fresh food supplies or to redistribute the population for better genetic diversity. This behavior makes them vulnerable to easy predation. I often find cased caddis in gastric samples beginning in the late fall and throughout the winter months. 

I often employ a heavy tungsten bead jig as an anchor fly in a multiple fly rig in tandem with an aquatic worm or midge larva imitation. Pictured left is a simple cased grannom with a trailer hitch for adding a dropper behind the fly. What better way to get down deep than with a cased caddis pattern that will both serve to look like a typical stream resident and a likely food source?

Update: I often have mallards and other dabblers feeding in the shallow riffles above the pools that I like to fish. The dabblers feed on cased caddis and often knock them loose in the drift. if I have feeding ducks upstream of me I will use a cased caddis imitation.

Brachycentrus Cased Caddis


Hook: Hanak 400BL #14-16
Bead: Raw tungsten.
Tail: Green Antron burned on the ends to make a small head.
Rear Collar: Grizzly hen hackle, 1-2 turns.
Body: Blended Hemingway's Frosty Dubbing, brown, black, gray

Breadcrust Nymph (not available in store)

Breadcrust Jig


Hook: Hanak 400BL #8-12.
Bead: Black or gold tungsten.
Band: Optional - metallic orange.
Underbody: Uni-stretch.
Body: Red phase grouse, split and trimmed.
Collar: Hen grizzly.

Aquatic Worms and Larva


The Big Pink Worm

I learned to love the Big Pink while winter steelheading in the Pacific Northwest. I used to tie up six inch long rabbit strip versions of this to swing in front of winter steelhead. My largest, a 20 pound steelhead was taken with a pink MOAL articulated pattern. 

For trout's sake, we don't have to anger them by intruding thier personal space with a massive swimming Mother of All Leeches dressed in pink. Instead, a reasonablly sized pink tungsten beaded version does nicely.

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #8-16.
Thread: pink.
Bead: Pink Tungsten.
Rear Collar: Pink frosty dub.
Body: Pink micro chenille.


OSS (Oh So Simple) Blood Worm

Blood Worms are found in the sand/silt margins of all bodies of water. After a freshet, sand/silt pockets become perturbed and blood worms can end up in the drift. This is a great fly to have on hand to use after a pulse disturbance in the flow regime. You may want to try one of these if you are fishing downstream of another sloppy angler. Think San Juan shuffle?

Hook: Firehole Sticks 321 #8-16.
Thread: Red 14/0.
Body: Small blood red D-rib, wind forward leaving a distinct gap between wraps. Mark the thread with a gray marker at the thorax area before winding thread forward.

Midges Midges and even more midges

One can never have enough midges in thier fly box, nor have enough variety of patterns. Midge patterns are like the little jewels of a fly box with beads, wires and a variety of colorful tinsels all adorning the smallest hooks. Aside from tying such small patterns, I love the creative license when tying attractive midge patterns.


#1 Holographic Warrior

A spin off of Lance Egan's rainbow warrior which is a spin off of the Lightning Bug which is a spin off of...

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #18.
Bead: Silver tungsten.
Tail: Dyed red hackle fibers.
Body: Veevus holographic rainbow tinsel.
Rib: Small silver wire
Thorax: 16/0 Veevus red thread.
Note: By far my most productive fly over the last two winter seasons.

Gun Metal Shop Vac

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #18.
Bead: Killer Caddis gun metal glass bead.
Body: Dyed adams gray pheasant tail (Nature's Spirit).
Rib: SemperFli .1mm ice blue wire.
Wing: Hemingway's white frosty dubbing, clipped short.
Thorax: Black hares mask.

The Gun Metal Shop Vac is a cross-over pattern that does well at imitating both midge pupa and baetis emergers.

D'Bling Midge

Hook: Midge hook #18, 24.
Body: D-rib, Olive green, black, tan or gray.
Flash: Small Pearl mylar tinsel, coated with UV resin.

Super simple and most effective.

Zebra Blood Midge

Though frequently referred to as a bloodworm for its worm like larva, the zebra blood midge is actually a chironomid, or a true midge fly. These active 1/4-1/2" or larger larvae are found in almost all water types all year long, but winter finds them more abundant than other available foods. Blood worms prefer soft sandy or silty substrates often found near back eddies or along stream margins to colonize. After a freshet, blood worms are often dislodged from these soft areas and sent adrift making them available for trout. 

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #14-18.
Bead: Iridescent Silver glass bead. silver tungsten for heavier patterns.
Body: Red thread.
Rib: Small silver wire.

Ble Mercury

Ble Mercury

Blue Mercury

The color purple and blue perform wonders in the winter because the low angle of the sun allows the blue wavelengths of light to dominate. This allows the cooler spectrum of colors to radiate nicely, especially when sunk deep into a trout filled pool.

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #16-18.
Bead: Iridescent silver glass.
Body: Blue and silver small uni-wire.
Thorax: Teal blue Veevus holographic tinsel.

Opal Midge

Opal Midge

Opal Midge

Hook: Firehole Sticks 316 #16-18
Bead: Iridescent silver glass
Body: Opal tinsel
Collar: Peacock herl
I found this pattern floating around on the internet and gave it a try. It has a lot of qualities that I look for in a fly pattern: simplicity, flash and iridescent qualities.


Barking at the Moon

moon activity.jpg

Today was one of those days I was skunked. It doesn’t happen all that frequently, but when it does happen, it stings. It had already been a rough week with several lackluster guiding trips in the books. Luckily, the guests that I took out this week were new to fly fishing so just catching their first fish was the goal of the day. It wasn’t easy for one particular guest who fished all day, working every inch of every productive run to catch her fish. Reports from other guides indicated I was not alone in having a difficult time.

As a skilled angler, I have an extensive portfolio of tactics from which to choose when the fishing gets difficult. For me, the most important skill is to know why fishing might be difficult and then how overcome it. In the spring, the challenge might be high dirty water with the tactic being heavier flies to get deep or searching for fish along the margins of the river where fish seek rest from the nagging current. In the late summer when water is low and clear, it might mean fishing smaller, less flashy patterns with lighter tippet. Winter may require small midges, egg and worm patterns.

This week has been an enigma to me, as I had no idea why the fishing was so difficult. I simply could not recognize the cause for my failure. I tried large searching patterns in the deep slots, small dark patterns on the edges and shiny emergers in the film. I tried the finest tippet I could use on the longest leaders that I have. I eventually started blaming the full harvest moon shining a bright light on the water allowing fish to feed at night and rest during the day as cause for the difficult week on the river. I am not one to dive into folklore, legends and myths, so I remain keen to dismiss lunar phases having an effect on fishing, as easily as I dismiss the notion that being a capricorn makes me an asshole solely based on the location where Jupiter and Saturn were located on the day I was born. 

Today, I am blaming the full harvest moon because I have also experienced dismal fishing on other days immediately following the light of a full moon keeping the river illuminated all night long. I have stayed awake late at night to watch blizzards of caddis or aquatic moths emerging and fish feeding in the lunar glow, only to catch nothing the following day. Is it possible to have good fishing during a full moon when the night sky is darkened by overcast conditions? In other natural systems, many species of fish and amphibians time thier mating cycles with specific lunar periods. Is it likely that the moon can affect fish beyond illuminating the night sky? The scientist in me is beginning to wonder. I’m now interested in overlaying the lunar cycles on top of my catch data charts to see if the peaks and valleys in my data can correlate to lunar cycles, including moonrise and moonset. Maybe the fishing will be better tomorrow as the moon wanes?

Addendum: I added a chart with full moons overlaid on top of catch data and see no relationship between full moon and effect on fishing success.

My current season catch data with full moons indicated with dates. 

My current season catch data with full moons indicated with dates. 

Catch Statistics Comparing Two Seasons and Hook Changes.

I am a certified data geek. I log every fish that I catch and how I caught them. I can learn a lot about my sport by paying attention to data trends when I analyze the numbers in my log.

This year I switched out all of my hooks from TMC hooks to new tactical hooks such as Firehole Stix, Hanak and Moonlit. I was tired of losing so many fish on hooks that I had to pinch the barb or hooks that straightened out when I tightened the screws on a big fish.

I compared my 2015 season in which I used TMC hooks exclusively to my 2017 in which I am using tactical hooks exclusively. My 2016 season had a mixed bag of hooks with some tactical and some traditional so I discarded that data in this comparison.

I am not making any conclusions or inferences between these two charts that compare the two season. Instead, I will allow you to draw your own conclusions. Needless to say, I feel that things have improved for the percentage of losses.

A loss is defined by having a fish on the end of the line for at least three to five seconds. 


As you can see in 2017 I have fewer private fishing days than in 2015 but caught more fish. What's remarkable is that I went from losing 33.1% of fish to 12.59% of fish in 2017. As in data science, there can be many variables at play including tactics used, but I will leave that discussion alone. Let's just say I love the new range of tactical hooks now readily available on the U.S. market.