It’s a complaint I often hear when we get a prolonged period of sunny weather. “Flows were low and the fish were spooky, I didn’t catch a thing!” In times of low flows, fish do not behave as they normally would. This is because the natural protection the water provides for the fish is not there, and, as a result, they can become very alert to anything out of the ordinary, particularly people waving fly fishing rod around. Add to this the fact, that fishing pressure is often at its highest when our rivers get low, and you often have a recipe for tough angling.
It is at this time that some lateral thinking comes into play. A wee bit of trial and error can see fantastic improvements in our both our angling knowledge and our catch rates.
When I first started fly fishing some 15 years ago, I had no clue as to what the trout’s diet consisted of, and the majority of my fishing was in Turangi, thrashing about in the steady flow of the Tongariro with the standard hare and copper and pheasant tail, not really knowing what I was doing – not much has changed in that respect. I got lucky a few times, and as my casting, and presentations improved, so did my catch rate. It wasn’t before I started sight fishing in Taranaki that I realised that trout don’t always feed on these standard Tongariro flys. On the lower Waiwhakaiho, a rivers running through New Plymouth, I made a major discovery. Having clearly spotted a fish at the tail of a long slow glide (which was new to me at the time, having blind fished most of the time), I attempted to catch it with a few standard flies. Pheasant tails, Hares Ears, Royal Wulff’s and the like – the standard sort of fodder imitations I was used to. Well after a few casts of these, the fish wasn’t the slightest bit interested, so without anything to lose, I tied on an unusual looking fly that I tied with human hair, that imitated a spider (well that was my plan, it wasn’t too realistic in that respect). Well the cast wasn’t perfect, being a good meter or more wide of the fish, but the well conditioned brown, didn’t mind, as it darted straight for the fly and got a bit of a wake up when the hook was set. This fish was one of the first ‘educational trout’ I caught. A fish that makes you think. One that doesn’t accept the standard approaches, and, thus teaches you a new method. And so, this, and, many others similar trout, since, have provided me with a good angling knowledge.
A common theme has developed for me, for catching fish in either low flows, or very slow moving water such as glides and lake-like pools. This is that fishing subsurface terrestrial patterns can be deadly. If there were one fly I could fish with for the rest I my life, it would have to be the sinking spider pattern. It has accounted for so many fish for me, in such a variety of situations. This one fly has completely turned my approach to angling on its head. Rather than succeeding fishing the fast water, often, the traditionally easy fish to catch, I now love the slow water – the glides, the glassy pools, the low flow situations. These are when the lessons learnt from the past really come into their own.
I think there are a number of reasons why the sinking spider works so well in these situations. I could be wrong in these explanations but my best guesses are as follows.
1) It is natural – In slow moving water, where a fish has all time and clarity in the world, anything that is unnatural has a good chance of alerting it. Often the plop of a weighted fly is enough to spook fish. I don’t find that this pattern alerts trout as much, despite the impact it makes. Spiders can naturally fall into the water, particularly from over hanging trees, and in windy situations. I have found the fly works in almost any river however, such as freestone and braided rivers. Mayfly, and caddis nymphs don’t fall from the sky – spiders can and do.
2) Rare and different – Pressured fish in slow water, will often see a range of standard patterns - pheasant tails, hare and coppers and the like. It is currently very rare that when a trout eats a spider, it ends up regretting the decision. This might be why fish in this situation often get spooked with standard patterns, or at least look at them with suspicion.
3) The tippet doesn’t really matter – Spiders naturally have a silk floss that looks very similar to nylon, so spooking the fish because the fish sees the tippet, is far less likely I have found, than with other fly patterns.
4) The Size – We all know how trout respond when a cicada hits the water. Well a spider is like an underwater cicada in terms of size. I have had fish move a long way for a sinking spider. It is also the only fly that I have consistently caught, spooked fish with – fish that are anchored to the riverbed and not feeding – they still can’t refuse.
5) Movement– I think movement often triggers fish in slow flowing water, and in my experience northing initiates a take more than the movement of rubber legs on a large sinking spider.
An added bonus is the hook and leader size, a #8 hook on 8lb tippet it is less likely to break than a #18 people on 3lb that people often try for similar situations.
So next time you see that large trophy trout at the tail of a glassy pool, instead of going to smaller flies and tippets, try the sinking spider. You can use it with an indicator if it is windy and you view if the trout gets disturbed, or without an indicator if you have a good view of the fish. You might be surprised with the results. You now have both bases covered – fish normally when the rivers are running high or normal, and enjoy the extra success of fishing slow water with this deadly fly.