Friday Fly Day - Willowgrubbing


Willow grubs are tiny terrestrials that pupate within the small galls, or blisters found on willow leaves, and the first really warm days of December usually signals their emergence. As willows line the majority of our lowland streams, many of these grubs find themselves upon the water, struggling within the meniscus. This phenomenon often continues through to late summer on some waters, and provides technical dry fly action to rival the choosiest of Mataura spinner feeders.

Trout love willow grubs; they will position themselves within a feed lane downstream of a willow line and sip voraciously as large numbers of these morsals drift past. This is exciting - trout focus in on a tiny prey but a few inches in front of them with such clarity, and everything else in the background becomes a blur, much like the effects of a telephoto lense. It is possible for the angler to regularly approach to within a rod length of a grubbing fish, and cover the fish time and time again from extremely close quarters.


Now every Southland angler has his / her own special pattern. Some tied with foam, some with CDC, come with the sparsest of hackles. The trick is in imitating these tiny, yellowish grubs which often range in size through to the high 20's in hook size. Your fly must remain sparse. Floating such a tiny pattern is tough, for the adddition of hackle, or other traditional floating materials will put off the silouhette, and simply see refusals, as the trout lock on to the sparse prey image of the tiny natural. Manic Tackle Project produces four great little grubs, two in foam, one CDC, and a sinking grub to help you cover the water column effectively. Both in a tiny size 18. Pack both so you have a couple of options on the river if the fish are being extremely choosy, and they will be.

Sinking Willow Grub by Manic Tackle Project

Sinking Willow Grub Sz18

CDC Willow Grub Sz18

CDC Willow Grub Sz18

Yellow Foam Willow Grub Sz18

Yellow Foam Willow Grub Sz18

Green Foam Willow Grub Sz16

Green Foam Willow Grub Sz16


Long, powerful casts and heavy tippets are not the name of the game, so leave your stiff tipped casting cannon at home - this is smooth loading 4 and 5wt country baby! A shorter rod will aid in accuracy as well as become more maneuverable beneath the trees and a softer tip will vastly improve hookups and aid in protecting the lighter tippets often required when chasing grubbers. My Scott 8'8" #5 G Series rod is the perfect willowgrubbing tool I have found, performing often with only leader and a couple of feet of flyline outside of the tip, and absorbing the heavy headshakes of a big brown trying for the willows. A soft, clear flurocarbon is essential for remaining just subsurface and moving around the many microcurrents: never is defeating drag so important than when chasing willowgrubbers in the often smooth water. Trouthunter is the clearest and most supple fluoro I have found, and I'm looking forward to throwing it towards a grubbing fish over the next couple of weeks.

Scott G Series Presentation Fly Rod

Scott G Series Fly Rod


Many find willow grubbing fish rather frustrating, as they continuously sip at the surface and seemingly refuse all offerings. A multitude of patterns are tried, without success, and the anglers frustrations grow.

I believe the key trigger for grubbing fish is not in the pattern itself, but in imitating the movement of the natural. These minuscule terrestrials omit the smallest of movements, only just perceptible by the small wavelets their wriggling form puts out in the meniscus. If your imitation doesn't act like the natural,and ride low in the surface, it will be ignored.

Q: So how does one impart such tiny movement in a fly so small?

A: Presentation, and pinpoint casting accuracy!

Twitching your fly wont often work; the movement will be too large, too noticeable no matter how subtle your attempt. As mentioned, the movement of the natural is barely perceptible to the human eye, yet so crucial to the trouts decision as to whether to take.

Aim to land your fly time and time again but a foot or two upstream of the trout. The fish will notice the tiny splashdown on the edge of its vision, and hopefully lock onto your pattern right there and then. If you are landing your fly a metre or so upstream of your fish, he wont see it land, and consequentially, wont see any lifelike action in your fly as it drifts down to him.

Long, light leaders are a must to ensure a controlled, delicate touch down. Such leaders take time to come to grips with, so practice, practice, practice.

Also practice your reach casts, and other aerial mends. You want a drag free drift, and to keep the line away from the trout. I find this more efficient to perform in the air whilst the loop is traveling towards its target, as opposed to after the line has dropped to the water. Water disturbance is non existent with an aerial mend, and the line lands 'ready to fish'.

The ability to throw a pendulum cast, or upside down loop will also assist greatly in popping your fly well in beneath low hanging branches, as will learning to cast off different planes.

Want to learn some of these fly casting techniques? Check out our Youtube series of Lockdown Lessons.

Sometimes you will strike it when the trout are not yet locked on for the day, and are still open to the occasional mayfly, and it all seems too easy. However I personally look forward to those more technical days where trout are hoovering grubs and grubs alone, and where nothing short of my 'A game' will do.

Presentation after presentation may be ignored, only to finally tighten up on a solid fish after forty something casts. Now THAT is a satisfying reward for hard work!


Chris Dore is a battle tested fly fishing guide with over 15 years of professional guiding experience, battling the demanding, ever changing conditions that our New Zealand rivers throw at us.

In 2006 Chris became one of the first New Zealanders to successfully pass the internationally recognised Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructors examination and has since taught many thousands of anglers to up their skillset.

For more in person and on river fly fishing advice and upskilling why not book Chris for a day or three?