By Vic Attardo
We’ve all heard, through the song, that buffalo roam, but are you aware that trout also roam?
I’m not speaking of a long-distance migration, though trout do that as well. No, I’m talking about while feeding, trout roam around flats and pools to pick off the insects they’re pursuing.
In these common occurrences trout aren’t staying put but actually moving sporadically to catch sparse bugs. One minute the fish can appear somewhere sipping on the surface and minutes later they’ll be somewhere else, and you have to be quick, very quick, to catch them in the transition.
This tactic of roaming to feed happens more often than you think but isn’t the easiest thing to recognize.
I’ve heard anglers express the belief they saw one trout rise in a spot, saw nothing else at that place, then minutes later observed what they think is another trout rise somewhat nearby. Under this misconception, the perceived multiple trout are popping up here and there but not at the same time.
While there certainly can be different trout intermittently rising in a pool, what the observer doesn’t recognize is that the first trout they spotted did not rise there again because it actually swam away and rose somewhere else. That is a roaming trout.
I grew up thinking that a trout acquires a prime feeding station and remains there. Maybe it moves around a foot here and there to grab what’s floating down the surface, but mostly it remains logistically stationary.
While that certainly happens during a heavy hatch – activity that an angler can lock into, time the cast and drift to the tempo of the rises – these occurrences are not the total schematic for rising trout. In contrast, during light or widely intermittent surface or emerging appearance of bugs, trout roam to find the individuals that are present in much smaller numbers. This is an entirely different game for the fly-fisherman, one that requires understanding and commitment.
I’m thinking back to a cloudy afternoon when I was fishing the Beaverkill in eastern New York. It was a Blue-Winged-Olive day for sure, and I spotted an occasional BWO floating by. However, the limited numbers were not enticing a bunch of trout to come to the surface though a few fish were willing to browse topside.
One such fish popped up about 20 feet out from me, and I saw it rise and take that little something off the surface. I switched to a BWO but when I presented the fly I got nothing. I presumed the fish was showing no interest. Minutes later, about 20 feet downstream, what I thought was another fish appeared and took a BWO off the surface. I first labored under the misconception these were two different fish rising in different places for the same insect species. I had a choice to remain where I was and continue to fruitlessly cast to one spot, or wade downstream to work another fish. This part of the Beaverkill doesn’t offer easy wading and I realized the downstream fish had only risen once and wasn’t worth chasing.
For a few minutes I kept my fly-rod at present arms, without casting, when suddenly a good rise appeared very, very close to where the first trout had appeared. I went to cast but – and you know how this goes – my leader got wrapped around the rod tip and my presentation was delayed. The fish didn’t rise again. However, minutes later the supposed second fish came to the surface downstream not in the same exact spot but close enough. Again it rose only once.
It made me wonder if I was chasing a phantom.
I was making short, false casts, keeping the fly in the air, when the first fish rose again 20 feet out. Immediately I laid the fly in its path. That trout took like a trained seal after a beach ball. Landed and released it was a chunky 12-inch brown.
While I kept watch downstream – which was far enough away from the fight not to be disturbed – there wasn’t another rise despite the intermittent drifts of natural BWOs.
By this time I had spotted other rises far enough upstream that I exited the water and took a new position. Again, I ran into a roaming trout. I tried to dead-drift the BWO in the area but nothing took. Suddenly, a trout rose some yards away and I immediately laid the fly in its path and it took. But “another fish” I’d seen rise up and to the side disappeared. It was then I realized this was just a single fish and it was roaming around looking for the sparsely appearing bugs.
Bottom line: if I continually dead-drifted a fly at no distinct target I got nothing, but if I waited for a rise and made a quick presentation to the same spot, I got the trout that had just arrived. The fish were simply roaming.
Since then I’ve learned to recognize this feeding scenario for what it is.
Yes, during heavy hatches trout will stay in a lane and, within reason, that’s about as far as they go. But for roaming trout you need to sit it out and wait for a fish to return. Then you pinpoint and time your cast and can reasonably expect to catch that fish.
Usually, those trout that suddenly appear practically at your feet, were not there the whole time, but just came in to take something they saw, then moved on. It’s like the arcade game of Whac-A-Mole played with a soft mallet and abruptly appearing moles, in this case, the trout coming up at random. The faster your reaction, the higher the score.
That’s what fishing to roaming buffalo, I mean, roaming trout, is like.