Breaking the Code
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Idaho and other Rocky Mountain States have numerous high elevation prairie lakes with excellent trout populations. The lakes also have the advantage of being very fertile which results in quick growth and large fish.
Whenever you decide to fish unfamiliar water there is a steep learning curve before you can consistently catch fish. This is what I was facing on my first fly fishing trip to Idaho. It took me a day and a half to break the code.
The items discussed below are the most important things to consider when fishing new water.
This is the single most important factor you should research. You can have the absolute perfect fly with a flawless presentation but choose a location ( lake / pond / stream) with a low concentration of fish and your trip is likely to be challenging no matter what techniques you are using.
Fish density information is available from a variety of sources. Check what is offered by the Fish and Game office in the State you are fishing, talk with local fly shops and talk with knowledgeable fishermen. However, be careful the information you are receiving is impartial by correlating a couple of different sources; not everyone will give you the real scoop on fishing opportunities.
Part of a great fishing experience is enjoying the solitude and majesty of nature. Swarms of people will detract from the atmosphere and the fish will be difficult to catch if the water is constantly being pounded with flies and lures.
You will generally have a better experience at a location that does not receive a lot of fishing pressure. Do yourself a favor and opt for a remote fishing spot when you have the opportunity.
Your next challenge is to understand where the fish are located in the water you’ve selected. Are they concentrated in shallow coves, near drop offs, by rocky shores, on points, in deep water, along the dam, etc.? Try different spots until you find the fish.
Also keep in mind that large reservoirs and lakes are particularly difficult to fish because of the sheer size of the body of water; the fish can literally be anywhere and at any depth. You will be better off to select a smaller lake or good sized pond for your trip.
The best time to fish is two to four days before a low pressure system arrives. Cloud cover and chop on the water is also helpful.
When a strong wind stirs up the water fish may aggressively feed on minnows, crawfish and insects that are flushed out of their usual hiding places by waves along the shore.
The worst fishing weather is a bright sunny day with no wind and no chop on the water. In this situation the fish will be deep and may not be feeding.
Wind Direction and Strength
Wind direction and strength may dictate where you will find fish. Some wind is good and ideally you should fish along the shoreline where the waves are rolling in. If you are in a float tube cast to the bank and retrieve your fly toward deeper water.
If the wind is strong and the waves are large, look for a location where there is some shelter from the wind and fish along the transition zone between the waves and calmer water. Many times, fish will stage in this area because the waves are stirring up food from the bottom and the fish can hang in the calmer water waiting for dinner to appear.
When the moon is full (bright) many types of fish will tend to feed after dark. In this situation try fishing at dawn, sunset and after dark if permitted.
When the moon is dark (no moon) or there is cloud cover, the bite may last all day and you should be prepared to stay.
Time of Day
Generally, the best fishing will be two hours after dawn and two hours before sunset. Fishing before dawn, after sunset and at night can also be excellent but check your fishing regulations to determine what is legal in your area.
However, this is not always the case. For example, trout fishing can be excellent in the middle of the day when insects are most active, but this is location specific (does not apply to all trout water) and generally does not apply to aggressive fish such as largemouth bass.
Distance from Shore and Depth
The fish can be located in shallow water near brush, suspended in deep water and all points in between.
In addition to testing your fly at different depths, pay attention to where other fishermen are having success. Are they casting into shore, trolling in deep water, etc.?
Speed of Retrieve
Insect patterns are usually most effective when fished slow and streamers are usually most effective when fished fast but this is not always true.
The only way to figure out what the fish want is to vary the speed of your retrieve until you are consistently receiving hits.
Target Fish / Size of Fish
The type of fish you are after will influence the fly you select. Some flies are specifically tied for trout. Others are specifically tied for bass and other species.
Trout under 14 inches generally prefer an insect pattern which is a small fly with muted colors and a sparce profile (limited hackle and no long feathers).
Bass and trout larger than 16 inches are looking for a big meal (such as a minnow or crawfish), so they prefer a large fly with a lot of action (like Bear River Tackle flies). However, once again this is not always the case.
Let your actual fishing results using different types and colors of flies dictate what you decide to use.
It is unusual to hit on the best fly pattern with your first try. Typically, you have to cycle through a number of flies before you discover what the fish want.
Pay attention to the color of flies that are being used by other fishermen: olive, black, chartreuse, purple, peacock, etc. These are the color flies you should consider testing. Also, consider if your fly may be too large, too small, too bulky, or too sparse and try a variety of patterns.
I've seen fishermen stubbornly cling to their favorite fly even when the results are poor. For example, during this trip we encountered a fisherman who was using his favorite black leech pattern and had not received a hit all morning. Eventually he came to talk with us because we were reeling in fish with virtually every throw.
Also, just because a fly looks cool doesn't mean it works. Unlike Bear River Tackle flies, many flies are not tested under actual fishing conditions. Why is this important? I started out using two new fly patterns tied specifically for this location but the results were not exceptional so they will not be offered for sale.
When the new patterns flamed out, I moved on to my standard fly patterns and eventually determined the fish would aggressively strike the Ashley Special Golden fly.
This is a picture of an Ash Special Golden fly after it caught about 25 trout. One of the forward feathers is almost chewed off and the peacock body is starting to fray but the fly was still catching fish. They really wanted this fly!
Trial and Error
All of this takes time and effort to sort out; there are no shortcuts. When something doesn't work try a different fly, depth, approach, or location until you find the winning combination.
The Idaho Trout Fishing Trip
In this case, I already knew the target location had good numbers of large trout because my friend had fished the lake three weeks earlier. It was also located in a very remote location which kept the fishing pressure to a reasonable level.
Knowing this information was a critical first step but I still had to figure out what the fish wanted (break the code).
It took me a day and a half to sort everything out before I started to consistently catch good numbers of big fish.
This is a 19 inch Rainbow trout caught with the Ash Special Golden fly
Following are the steps we took to find the winning combination:
· First, we looked at the direction of the wind which ruled out several places where we knew fish were located. This meant we had to find a new spot so we started driving the back roads to see if it would be possible to access a promising looking point on the other side of the lake. The dirt roads were a bit rough, but we eventually found our way to the area and looked it over. It was immediately obvious there were plenty of fish because of the large number of rises. As an added benefit no one was there; we had the entire shoreline to ourselves.
· After trying 7-8 different fly patterns, it became clear the fish wanted a sparce fly with an olive or peacock body and not much else. Some of the flies caught nothing at all. In particular the bigger trout wanted the Ashley Special Golden so that is what I started using exclusively.
· Surprisingly, the best fishing was in the middle of the day with chop on the water and some cloud cover. Nothing much happened before 9:00 AM in the morning and the bite shut down after 4:00 PM in the afternoon.
· Generally, the fish were in five to ten feet of water and were located about fifteen feet from shore, so you needed either a sink tip or a medium sink fly line. A floating line did not work, and a fast sinking line also did not work.
· The majority of my big fish were caught trolling behind the float tube while simultaneously stripping the fly (who would have guessed) or casting from deep water toward shore when moderate sized waves were breaking on the bank.
· All of the fish were caught out of a float tube. The location did not lend itself to fishing from shore due to significant aquatic weeds, dense shore cover and steep banks.
· The best fishing was with a steady wind, significant chop on the water, moderate wave action and cloudy skies.
· Some outstanding fishing also occurred in a transition zone between moderately calm areas and large waves. On the last day I caught 5 trout that were 18-19 inches using this tactic.
The only way you could figure all of this out was to put in the time and effort to methodically work your way through the factors we have discussed.
So how did we do?
Over six days I landed over 200 Rainbow Trout and 50 Yellow Perch using the Ash Special Golden fly. Most of the trout were 14 to 18 inches in length and I also caught a dozen or so that were 19 to 20 inches in length.
My friends also did well with insect patterns. They landed an even larger number of fish, but many were in the 12 to 14 inch range which is what you would expect with an insect pattern.
This is a picture of fish we kept during one afternoon toward the end of the trip. Many, many others were released. The Trout are 14-19 inches, and the Yellow Perch are 12-13 inches.
There is no way I could have guessed this was the winning combination at the start of the trip.
It was only by working through the details, a little luck and a lot of trial and error that the code was broken, and the fishing turned magical !
Go Fly Fishing!
Bear River Tackle