Particularly on the east coast, popular fly fishing water gets that way because it is productive. Consequently, going to streams or rivers that provide a high probability of catching many and/or large fish also results in the high probability of fishing with company. Water in populated areas or with special regulations will always result in pressured fish. Pressured fish, and trout specifically, have the reputation of being “smart,” “wary,” or “spooky.”
While approaching such fish might require employing different tactics than trying to catch trout that only see one or two fishermen a year, they aren’t geniuses. Fish have to eat, and even the most battle-tested and hook-scarred granddaddy trout doesn’t have the wherewithal to reject every artificial fly every time. Here are some strategies and general principles that can improve your chances when fishing for pressured fish.
Pick the right day and time
Saturday afternoon might be the absolutely worst day to fish on catch and release, fly fishing only waters. Everyone is out. When I used to live on one such stream, I would only fish there on Saturday afternoons if it was drizzling or snowing. Otherwise, I know I’d be fishing over trout that had seen a few hours’ worth of flies already. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t bite, but the chances were reduced.
Mornings in the work week, subpar weather, and event-related times can contribute to fish that have had a break as well as some personal solitude. What I mean by “event-related” is local sports, pseudo holidays, and other times where people will be somewhere other than the stream. I love the NFL, but when I lived in Pennsylvania there was only so much Eagles football I could watch. I could fish while a good segment of anglers was at home in front of the TV. Similarly, throwing on that fancy rain jacket and justifying the $200 price tag will afford a more privacy than a sunny, 75-degree day would. Plus, you’ll look more intense in your Instagram pictures.
Use unconventional patterns
One night, in a caffeine and Monty Python induced state of delirium, I concocted a fly. I’m a fly tyer in the same sense that guys who put lines on the highway are painters. I’m all about just being functional, and sometimes things get a little wobbly. But on that night I struck gold. The “Nelson” was born. Named after the eponymous 80’s hair band, this was a neon streamer with every material and flash on the bench. It looked like a wooly bugger that fell into some toxic waste.
The next day, a slow start on a spring creek quickly drove me to desperation. With all of the timidity of someone pulling out a flask in church, I tied on the Nelson and flicked it into the stream. A few strips was all it took, and I had a good brown trout on. I wasn’t sure, but I think it was growling when I netted it.
Whether it be changing up the profile of the fly by a few hook sizes or switching to a bright color, something different may very well incite a strike. Fish are curious, and they investigate what drifts by them with their mouth. Even in a heavy hatch, a dry that stands out in the crowd might be exactly what can differentiate your fly from the dozens of naturals floating by.
Change up your equipment
The last decade’s emphasis on nymph and streamer tackle is illustrative of the benefits of strategy-specific gear. Presentation is as important as fly selection, if not more so. Anglers are quick to change patterns, but are much more hesitant to retie leader tapers or pop on a spool of different line. If the situation warrants it, an alteration like that can result in a new presentation to a pressured fish.
The situation may even warrant a complete change of equipment. Here is where something like Tenkara really shines. Both the technique and tackle offer up new ways of reaching and presenting flies to fish. This may eschew the problem of fishing over pressured fish altogether, as the fish you can access may be impossible to touch with traditional gear. Precision casts with a 12-foot rod, followed with a drag free drift allow for a much different approach to familiar waters that might see a lot of anglers.
The greatest imperative is to have patience. Even the wiliest trout are still just trout. They feed, rest, and feed again. A good pair of polarized glasses, a subtle approach, and the discipline to observe before you cast will increase success on pressured waters. Patterns will become evident, and fish that are usually assaulted will likely strike a fly that is much more appropriate to their actual behaviors and habits.
Popular water is popular for a reason, and it isn’t scenery or convenient parking. On every famous river there are men and women who will routinely catch high numbers of fish while many anglers struggle to hook up just a few times. Knowledge and familiarity play an important role in this, but so does thinking outside the box. For the most part, fish aren’t going to reward stubborn perseverance. If what you’re doing isn’t working, and you know that there are fish present, switch it up. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.