Backcountry Lessons

Ollie Bassett offers some tips and tricks for when the fishing gets hard

Here in New Zealand we are lucky to have a huge array of epic backcountry fly fishing options on public land. From most of our major cities a three-hour drive will give an enormous choice of rivers, and the quality of the fishing can be spectacular. But it is not always easy. The season opens on the first of October on the majority of backcountry fisheries and runs through summer until April 30. At the start of the season the fish are much less wary, having seen no angling pressure for months. Catch rates can be high if the fly is presented in a natural manner and the fish is unaware of the angler, but throughout the season the fish become harder to fool. A week after opening last season I visited my favourite backcountry river. It’s a four-hour walk to reach, but the hut logbook told me it had been fished by at least two other anglers before me. I expected the fishing to be slow, but it wasn’t, and I had my best backcountry trip of the season, catching nearly twenty fish in two afternoons. I fished a dry and dropper on my European nymphing rod and caught most of the fish I saw, especially those in the riffles and pools. A variety of stunning rainbows and wily browns came to the net for a quick picture before going back to their domain. 5X tippet and copper beaded nymphs were necessary, however, as the first brown I saw really didn’t like the sight of a silver bead, spooking after checking out my fly. But the fish were still relatively easy to catch and I left the river very happy, hoping to return as soon as I could. A month later I visited again, and the logbook told me a lot of anglers had been there since my last trip. I had left the nymphing rod at home this time, expecting that approach would be less successful, as even for late November the river was very low. It was a good move. The half-dozen beautiful fish I landed, and the few I lost, acted very differently to how they had only a few weeks before. Every piece of holding water held fish, but they were incredibly cagey, with a single cast either resulting in an eat or a spooked fish. Crawling to the river’s edge and fishing from my knees became the norm, as did a single natural dry fly on an 18-foot leader with the fly connected to 6X tippet. If a nymph was used, it was small and natural, with a matt black bead. Even the copper beads that had worked so well the previous trip freaked the fish out. I still had an amazing trip. Fish numbers after all mean little, and just being out in the wilderness is the draw for me. But the lessons learned stayed with me on subsequent trips when the water was even lower and the fish seemingly had eyes in the back of their heads. Although they are only trout after all, they are still very wary creatures, which of course is why we, as anglers, find them so fascinating. DULL BEAD-HEADS Over the summer I spent some time applying the more natural presentations I’d taken from the backcountry into my day-to-day fly fishing on local rivers — likewise my competition fishing. When European nymphing, copper and nickel beads with less shine became my confidence colours, having seen many fish get turned off by brighter beads, especially in clear water. In dirtier water brighter beads do have a place of course, and probably improve catch rates as they add a trigger element to the fly. But in clear backcountry rivers and spring creeks it can be easy to overdo it with sparkle and flash. This was also cemented for me at my last session of the Youth Worlds (2019) in the Czech Republic. The beat I drew was a slower glide, around 300 metres long. Four competitors had each fished the beat for three hours over the previous two days, and many fish had been caught. A dry and dropper fished on a European nymphing leader was my best method for the session, but the key for me was the 0.084 mm (8X) tippet and size 18 dull beaded nymphs. The fish (a mixture of wild browns and chub) had seen their share of presentations and bead colours, so we’d decided that this would be the best tactic for the last session. The approach was very successful and I landed 14 fish — the most from that beat during the competition. This session helped me realise the deadly effects of light tippet and dull flies on pressured fish, and it influenced the way I now fish in the backcountry. LIGHT TIPPETS Thin tippet is not only much harder for fish to see, but it also allows the fly to move more naturally. I prefer to fish nylon as it is more supple and has stretch that helps cushion the strike when using thin tippet. My favourite brand is Stroft GTM, although it’s mostly about what you have confidence in. When the fish are not as pressured and are sitting in fast water, 0.16 mm (4X) tippet is perfect (or even 3X if very large fish are around), although 0.14 mm tippet (5/6X) is a better option if the fish are very wary in the backcountry, or are smaller in size. Using 0.14 mm and finer tippet comes with the risk of breaking off on some fish, but on the flipside it will allow you to hook more. A soft tipped rod is definitely very helpful when using these fine tippets, as stiffer fast-action rods offer less cushioning. LONG LEADERS A long leader is also important for spooky trout, and also just to gain a natural drift in general. When fishing dry/dropper, a 12-foot leader with 3 feet to the dry fly (total 15 ft) is often necessary, as it allows for the fly line to land away from the fish and is long enough for the fly to drift naturally. When fishing a single dry, a 12-foot leader with at least 5 to 6 feet of level tippet at the end is best, as it allows the leader to turn over and the tippet to land loosely to the side, providing a far longer drag-free drift. The idea is that the leader doesn’t land in a straight line to the fly — only the tapered part of the leader turns over, and the fly lands to the side and has plenty of slack to behave naturally. Another approach is a single nymph, where the trout is visible and can be watched for the take by estimating the nymph’s position and observing the fish’s movements. However, if the trout is harder to see, a dry/dropper is a better option as the dry fly serves as an indicator. A general rule is that the clearer the water and the smarter the trout, the longer the leader. The Spanish and French sometimes take this to the next level with leaders well over 20 feet in length (see FL#87), although these are difficult to cast and a shorter leader of 15–18 ft is normally more practical. If you are accustomed to short leaders, jumping straight to a long one can be tricky, so slowly increase the length as you become more comfortable handling it. SUBTLE FLIES In terms of fly patterns the presentation of the fly to the fish is usually more important than the fly itself, and other than when fish are keyed into a specific hatch, a small buggy nymph in various weights and a general purpose dry fly like a CDC caddis or small terrestrial is all that is needed. That being said, there are a few things that often work better than others. Usually in clear-flowing backcountry rivers a bright fly with lots of sparkle and flash or a bright bead can put fish off as it looks unnatural. A subtle amount of sparkle or a tiny hotspot can sometimes be of benefit, but bright flies are best left for non-backcountry rivers. A fly that is more buggy and natural with a dull black or nickel bead (if weight is needed) is usually less alarming, resulting in more takes from wary trout. A fly that is too heavy can make an unnatural splash that will spook fish, so only use weighted flies as heavy as are needed, and cast weighted flies further ahead so they don’t startle the fish when they hit the water, and also have time to sink. As is always the case with fly fishing, there are exceptions to the norm, but generally a delicate and natural drift with a buggy looking fly is best for backcountry trout. STEALTH Often when we talk about catching spooky trout we talk primarily of the tackle and techniques best for targeting them, but it is easy to overlook other factors that are just as important. Even the best fly fishers will struggle to catch a trout that has spooked before they have a chance to cast, and for this reason stealth is vitally important. If you’ve ever watched a heron stalk its prey you will notice how slowly and softly it moves through the water, and this is a good source of inspiration. Kneeling on the bank or casting from behind brush or other cover from downstream of the trout is often the best approach, and when nearing the river move slowly, stay low and be wary of loose rocks than can be dislodged under foot. Dull coloured clothes are of course useful to help stay hidden. Backcountry fishing is regarded as one of the best experiences fly fishing has to offer. It’s challenging and yet very rewarding, and of course takes place in some epic settings. For me, fishing stealthily, light and delicately has been the best way to trick the smart trout that live in the back- country streams of my local area, but of course these are only some of many ways to do it. After all, in fly fishing there is no right or wrong. Just enjoy your fishing, try new techniques and, in the rivers where you fish, simply let the trout decide the best ways for you to catch them.

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