I fished a warmwater river this morning and had a mini revelation of sorts. I was fishing wooly buggers downstream picking up a nice mix of bluegill and fallfish but I was failing to hook up on quite a few fish. If I'm fishing the water and not to a specific fish I tend to keep walking slowly as I fish my downstream cast and I started wondering if maybe that was contributing to the problem, so I concentrated on staying put. My hookup rate easily doubled when I stood still and worked the cast. I'm not sure if I'm letting extra slack into the line when I'm moving or just not concentrating fully on the drift. Funny how one small change can make a difference.
Good points all. Here's more for your consideration... The San Juan shuffle phenomena, and the matter of exactly where one holds the fly rod tip viz a viz the water's surface. For the sake of 'brevity' (HA!) I'll keep this to the latter.
When I actively took up fly fishing again and when I lived and mostly fished west of the subcontinental divide, more often than not over stockers with tandem wets (with no real 'hatches' to speak of, few rising fish, and the vast majority of the water being uniformly rather slower, deeper runs) covering water and thus finding fish was the first priority. You didn't often any good reason to know what might work best on any given day, so it made sense to simply let the fish decide and inform the fisher, who could then iteratively then revise his approach to suit their color and size and profile preferences.
I had a disagreement with a mentor of mine over this not so little rod tip detail. He maintained that on balance, it was advantageous to hold the rod tip a foot or so above the water such that between twitches, gravity saw to it that a little belly of slack in the line would hang from the tip. To his thinking, and he caught many double-headers doing it his way, a trout taking a bug is not the same as a muskie snatching say, a duckling. The bug up in the water column and not yet able to fly is hardly able to get away, and is weak, tiny, by and large swimming only on the scale of fractions of a single inch. Ergo, the trout just intercepts and then hoovers up the invertebrate. An unattached natural insect of course goes where the water that surrounds it goes... in this case the trout's mouth of course. Elwin believed that unless there was a bit of 'give' in the system, supplied by built-in slack, too many ineffective 'hoovers' took place, where all the trout got was the empty water. He had a point.
However, trout in general and hatchery catchables in particular (fed a wholly passive pellet diet) will for whatever reason also follow closely behind a wet fly, perhaps not sure just what it is, and just nip at it a time or two without hoovering or engulfing the fake... and then, its curiosity sated, not give it another look. In those days I was out to catch as many trout per hour spent as I could. It was all about production, and I suppose about proving myself to whomever cared (mostly me), so I looked for and took every edge I could find.
To my mind, detecting these tentative little pecks, and connecting on as many as possible, was the greater priority, so I held my rod tip at the film, was averse to employing wet patterns that had tails (much preferring soft hackles) and was absolutely anal about going barbless and keeping that point perpetually sharp. I flat out wore out several hook hones, and still do.
I also believed, and this was key in my mind, that whatever 'special' mojo I might be able to effect by bump/twitching and stripping my end of the fly line should be faithfully and entirely transmitted all the way to that tailless fly.
"But Master, surely if only a little, your connection and tactile comprehension is somewhat compromised?"
"Ahhh, but Grasshopper, notice that I have yet another double on, and have caught as many as you while having more fun too!"
In still water at least, a 'stop' or pause in the retrieve is only really same when gravity isn't constantly causing that little temporarily drawn tight drape of flyline hanging out from under the elevated rod tip to settle, which you can prove for yourself anytime by having your pal cast and make strips past your position in calm water. I felt convinced, and still do, that fish are kind'a lazy when inactive, and that a perpetually hyperactive faux meal is therefore too often a complete non-starter. It galled me to think that my half-inch nudge and one second pause didn't start and stop again on a dime, or actually really stop moving at all over a more protracted span!
Practicing my deviant path, I often got into more singles than Elwin did, but by day's end (if keeping score) it was often a wash. Clever Elwin. He did not reveal quite every trick in his fly vest to his eager pupil. I did not recognize it at the time, but in my hurry to get one pesky little stocker off my hook - so that I could get on with the business of gigging another - I was missing a subtler edge. When a trout (or any fish) takes either the point fly or the dropper, in the course of its brief struggle the gigged fish animates the other fly in ways and in directions we could never manage, and when other fish are in proximity, they might thus find themselves tempted to commit the same mistake. Indeed, Elwin was in no particular hurry to bring his trout to hand, while I impatiently horsed mine away from the point of first contact.
Eventually a time was reached in which Elwin expressed his sincere belief that this Grasshopper had finally 'snatched many of the pebbles from his hand' and that now he was picking up some new and effective perspectives from his student, which I found strangely bittersweet. Sadly, Elwin is no longer with us, but I look at everyone's experience as a mentoring opportunity, and have had others who took me under their wing for some schooling in the finer points.
You know, I think the next time I wet a line, I'll do it the Master's way out of gratitude and respect, and for fun too!
I wonder if just the walking and disturbing the water is it. I tend to stay still and wait a minute or two before casting when wading unless I am sighting a fish to cast too.
That's an excellent point, and one that I've only just started to follow on my new love, the Gunpowder. After just a few minutes of standing still trout start to appear out of nowhere almost at your feet. They're still not gullible, but at least you've got a target as opposed to blind casting to likely spots. Most of the other trout streams I've fished over the years were so small that you barely got into the water and rarely fished a pool big enough that you could move once you got there. "Big water" trout fishing is kind of new to me (still not on the scale of your home water, Don).
The warmwater rivers I fish are quite a bit bigger (Potomac, Shenandoah, lower Patapsco) and I always seem to be covering ground while fishing out a cast. On this warmwater stream the fish have never been particularly shy, in fact my lab pup is usually raising cain right along with me (behind me, he's learning!). The current flow isn't complicated, just nice long, slow, predictable runs so I don't think they're scared off at the last moment by drag issues. My fly of choice are ants and small buggers with a short tail and the fish are big enough that they could get their mouth around it. They just always seem to be short striking and missing the hook point. I think another day or two of experimentation is in order to see if it was just something they preferred that day or if the way I fished the stream previously was causing it.
I had to look up the San Juan Shuffle, that's a new one to me. Seems to be an ethical dilemma out west somewhat on the same level as bait fishing. Fly fisher folks really need to take themselves less seriously, no wonder other parts of the fishing community look on us as snooty.
You can rest assured that we are San Juan shuffling (of a minor sort) just putting a foot in a stream. Ok, only if that one foot happens to squish a 'bug', or the turbulence just below our legs serves to lift some benthic i vertebrate i to the drift, or we become the site for egg laying adults that crawl back down our waders. Smallmouth bass exploit the activities of divers who are disturbing the bottom, seeking to snatch a scuttling crawdad.
You are right though, if nothing else, when we stand still long enough, in or near an already attractive area, trout in particular may come quite close and use us as a current break... while visiting family in northern Idaho about the nearest local trouting is on the extremely large (its the biggest river exiting MT) Clarks Fork, made further large and powerful by a series of semi run-of-river hydro dams and their substantial peaking power releases. A realy wide variety of fish call the place either home, a restaurant, or a spawning area (some making forays upstream from crazy deep (over 1300 feet I think) Lake Pend Oreille.
Well, my cousin in law is a forester and avid hunter. Despite his aversion to fishing, he caught the excitement my wife, uncle and I had after a particularly good outing, and as I was ostensibly returning solo the following late afternoon (and he'd get out of chores by doing so) he asked if he could join me, and maybe learn some basics of fly fishing.
"That would be great! We'd get in some good, undistracted (by little kids and wives and tasks) male bonding time, actually I like to teach this stuff even more than I enjoy doing it (which is really saying something), and I'll do my kevel best to put and keep you in the catbird seat the entire time."
"I don't want to get in your way or anything. After all, you're the one on vacation here, and its pretty clear you come out to fish first and foremost..."
"No way, man. Seriously, I no longer really need to actually catch more than a single fish myself, but just to be there and take the whole thing in. Once I've got 'em figured, I'm good. Seeing you get some is gooder than good! BTW, if anyone has a copy of the amusing Milford Poltroon book "How to Fish Gooder than Good" they could part with, I'll pay 'ya... its sentimental, and my folks tossed a copy I'd been given as a gift by a high school fishing pal, after I left home.
I taught him the very forgiving Belgian cast, set him first in line to work downstream swinging it across the best seam in the whole reach of river, and he was soon fast to no few fish. He'd always hated fishing, the tangles, fishlessness, falling in, etc... But was now having a whale of a time.
Long story short, the rainbows, cutts, and as evening came on the whitefish too were still tearing it up, and swinging a simple soft hackle to imitate a caddis that was emerging was the ticket to near constant action. I didn't mind in the least trailing down through 'used' water, especially since I could cast at least half again as far out as he could and so tempt a few fish hanging behind velocity refuges of various sorts under the main flow of this productive funnel.
But this WAS slower going, and after the whitefish largely took over, Pat no longer needed to shuffle along anywhere but where he stood, waist deep and just off the principal flow, which suited his newbie casting capabilities. He was in this to catch fish, and not to explore the fine points of slinging. I could see the situation you aluded to then coming into place... feeding fish hanging right off his hip basically (something skittish trout are way more likely to do in a deeper run than a shallow riffle). I said nothing about my ploy to Pat, but it became more productive for me, especially targeting trout rather than current-loving whities, to just cast a fixed length of line sufficient to barely sweep by his rear.
It was great fun to cause the fish 'using' Pat to take my caddis just a foot or two behind his back. He'd get a whitefish, and I'd get a larger rainbow. He'd get another whitefish, and I'd get a larger cutt, and so on.
"Are you still using the same fly, or are you holding back on me, trying to play catch-up now? All I'm getting are these whitefish and you keep catching nicer trout. What's up with that!
How soon we grow jaded by success, which had been rare in his prior experience of flogging basically empty water with the wrong stuff at inopportune times. After about the half dozenth straight trout splashed or went airborne, he caught on.
"Hey dude, would'ja stop doing that already!!! ... you are just toying with me, aren't'cha?"
"You could say that, but OK, enough is enough."
At that moment the water suddenly started coming up... Very, very fast. We'd already risked a deep wade to reach this mid-channel shoal, and had to make our attempted escape PRONTO, or go swimming in the cold water. What was worse, the only crossing point was both well UPstream and swift, and pocked with large sunken logs. But, we made it, if barely. It was a relief not to have to tell my cousin that the good news was her husband finally caught a bunch of fish, but the bad news is that he drowned immediately thereafter!
OK, on those short tailed wooly buggers... be sure to thoroughly wet and even press out ALL the air/dryness in those tails. Spit or fish slime or mud works 'good', or you can employ a wetting agent such as dish soap at home (rinse afterwards). It might be that the short strikes came because the fish were tentative as you say, but it might (also) be that your tailing is not quite as loosie-goosie as it could be. Marabou barbules will structurally resist absolutely full wetting. Pinch hard and roll the sopping fly and its tail after you tie one on. Then est those tails prior to fishing a new fly, by placing the tail in a palm-contained puddle of water and giving the body a little wiggle. You'll know when its right, and I'd almost bet that the fish will likewise notice this more lifelike attribute, and make a greater commitment to your offering as a result.