“The first time I experienced such fishing was on the Henry’s Fork in Last Chance, ID. I was both enamored by and frustrated with these seemingly impossible-to-catch fish that would slowly move upstream in small pods. No matter what fly I chose, they never showed even a slight interest.”
Spinners in the Spotlight
It’s early morning or late evening, and you see a big fish sipping steadily, seamlessly, mere inches off an undercut bank. These are not normal rises, and to the untrained eye almost appear to be below the surface. If and when you’ve seen it, you most likely couldn’t believe your eyes as you open your fly box in complete bewilderment. If you’re sneaky enough to get within range without spooking the fish, then you have only a few casts to deliver the right cast with perfect presentation. The pressure is on! But wait, what is it sipping? You go through your mental checklist – Caddis? Nope. PMD? Maybe. Ant? Possibly. You inspect the rise again, only to see the dorsal and tail fins break the water, like a porpoising whale. What on earth is it taking?
The first time I experienced such fishing was on the Henry’s Fork in Last Chance, ID. I was both enamored by and frustrated with these seemingly impossible-to-catch fish that would slowly move upstream in small pods. No matter what fly I chose, they never showed even a slight interest. One day everything changed. I stopped into Mike Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Anglers to ask for fly recommendations. The man at the desk pointed me towards Hi-Vis PMD and Rusty spinners in size 18. Like most anglers, I was turned off by the thought of fishing with such a small fly, but decided to pick up a few, and headed out to the river to give these new flies a test run.
It was early in the morning, and it didn’t take too long to find a nice sipping fish. I waded in carefully and quietly, giving myself an opportunity to make a downstream presentation to the fish. A couple drifts over his head with the PMD spinner and Bang! I hooked him. The take was so slight that I almost missed it completely. After landing and releasing the fish, I inspected the little fly in disbelief, thinking to myself: What kind of magical fly is this? It was at that moment that I thought to look down at the water, and sure enough, sitting softly on the surface film were lots of tiny little spent PMD’s just slowly floating past.
Spinners aim to imitate the last life stage of a mayfly. Often referred to as ‘spent’, these mayflies float in the surface film of the water after falling out of the sky. Most are dead or dying, and as such make an easy target for big, hungry trout. The occurrence of this life stage on the water is aptly called a ‘spinner-fall’, as thousands of adult mayflies slowly fall to the surface of the water after mating with one another. Fortunately for the angler, spinners are easy to identify by the splayed appearance of their wings on the water, and occur in plenteous quantity. Every variety of mayfly, be it PMD, BWO, Drakes, March Browns, etc, have a spinner stage, and as such, have a corresponding spinner fly.
An angler who fishes water with prevalent mayfly hatches would do well to have an arsenal of spinners in his or her box. Like any fly, it is important to have a variety of sizes and types, but this especially holds true with spinners, as you are often targeting bigger fish in shallow water. Light tippet, and drag-free presentation are must-haves while fishing spinners, as the fish will have plenty of options on the never-ending spinner conveyor belt. In cases such as this, you can’t afford to have your fly stand out from the naturals. After you have the right spinner, a feeding fish, and correct presentation, the next step is patience and persistence. Big trout rarely take a spinner on the first try, mainly because they have so many ‘real’ spinners to choose from. To maximize your chances, study the feeding rhythm of the fish and try to match your cast with the feeding pattern.
Perhaps the single most problematic aspect of fishing spinners is their microscopic profile on the water, and the correspondingly small takes with which fish will take a spinner. Thanks to the creativity of fly-tying pioneers, we now have Hi-Vis patterns with a colored post for almost any spinner pattern that you can imagine. So, if you are new to small flies be sure to pick up a pattern that you’ll be able to see on the water in the dim light of the early morning and late evening. I also recommend carrying an abundance of these little guys as they have a tendency towards getting beat up by big fish.
About a month ago, I took a client out to catch the evening hatch on our local river. After fishing nymphs for an hour or so, we made our way back upstream towards a slower section of river where there is usually a decent hatch of caddis and various mayflies. On our way up, he and I both stopped in awe to see a number of large fish just off the bank steadily sipping . In our excitement, neither of us thought to look at the water, but instead tied on a small Parachute Adams. After numerous unsuccessful casts, we switched to caddis, and then an ant; again – not so much as a refusal. Finally, out of desperation I looked down at the water only to see a steady pile of spinners floating just off the bank. I popped open my spinner box and blew the dust off of what few I had left. Sure enough, one cast later my client had a nice fish on, and I had learned a valuable lesson. Now-a-days, when I fish one of the best kept secrets in the State of Montana, there has yet to be a day when I’ve not caught a fish on a spinner.