One of my first jobs in the fishing tackle industry was working for a UK tackle retailer. We had a number of different businesses offerings one of which was letting our private beats on the River Test to high paying customers. The best part of the deal was when the beat was vacant I was able to fish the it. In true River Test style the beat was restricted to dry fly only and although I must admit to have slightly fractured this rule from time to time, I did for the majority of the time stick to the regulations and made every effort to fish the surface. In fact I began to revel in the challenge of trying to get every fish I came across to take from the surface.
To put this into perspective, prior to this I had caught plenty of fish on dries back home in New Zealand, however my overall experience fishing dries had been limited to either skating caddis flies or fishing large high floating buoyant American patterns such as Royal Wulffs, Humpies and cicada patterns to suicidal back country rainbows. In fact it would be fair to say my dry fly fishing had really been limited to when fish were obviously on the surface feeding either on terrestrials or during an evening rise.
On the Test there were certainly days when the fish were up and feeding and of course the magical change of light when you could be guaranteed of a few fish. However the real challenge when restricted to dry fly only was, how you would get a subsurface feeding fish to slide to the surface to pick off your fly. One of the first flies I found that fished well during these periods was the Klinkhammer Special, designed by Dutch angler Hans Van Klinken. The Klinkhammer is based around a parachute pattern, but instead of being tied on a traditional straight hook the fly is tied on a curved shank similar to a caddis nymph. The result is a small section of the fly sits in the surface film whilst the abdomen of the fly curves down below the surface to represent an emergent caddis pupae breaking through the surface film. Trout that were obviously feeding on subsurface nymphs seemed happy to slide to the surface to engulf this pattern. One of my favourite mayfly nymphs is the classic pheasant tail, so I tied a pheasant tail version of the Klinkhammer to represent emergent mayfly’s and had equally good success with this.
After gaining confidence with the Klinkhammer I moved onto other film flies from nymphs with CDC wing cases that suspended them in the surface, to deer hair shuttle cock’s and a variety of other low riding CDC patterns. On the Test there were certainly days when anything would have worked, however over the course of the year I noticed time and time again that the fish came to the surface much more consistently to flies fished right in the surface film, rather than the high riding traditional patterns I had tended to fish in the past.
Now to put this into perspective back in New Zealand, I’ve found that when the fish are up and feeding especially in our back country rivers in high summer that 99% of the fish I come across are more than happy to go out of their way to engulf large terrestrial patterns. A friend of mine even had me fishing size eight Royal Wulffs last season. And if they work then why wouldn’t you? They’re easy to see, they float like corks and to keep your options truly open you can safely hang a nymph of the back of them to pick off a nymphing fish.
All of this taken into consideration I’ve found fishing the film an important part of my approach to tackling New Zealand rivers. Firstly there is the odd day or certain rivers where trout actually lock onto surface film feeding. This is either at the emergent nymph stage where the klinkhammer style patterns really come into their own, or it’s during the other end of the hatch when spent spinners are falling back onto the surface. Secondly I’ve found fishing the film an effective way of targeting our large wary browns that characteristically lie in shallow water along the edges of rivers. A large dry fly presentation can often be a risky choice as it may spook these wary fish, whilst even lightly weighted nymphs can hang up on the bottom during the drift and spoil your chance of success. On the other hand a light weight surface film fly lands softly around these cautious fish and wont hang up along the drift. Lastly for me there are days when I just want to pull fish on top and time and time again surface film flies have proven to be the best way to do this.
Last year I was fortunate enough to fish Idaho’s Silver Creek. A stream that’s famous for difficult fish during the tiny Trico hatch. And when I say tiny, we’re talking 24’s here with a size 20 as an indicator. I didn’t even own flies this small so had to bludge them of my fishing buddy for the day. Actually I found the fly size to be the least of my problems, during the hatch there would be literally pods of fish feeding in front and around you. The important thing about the fly size was to simply match the size of the naturals, which as I said was tiny. The next important thing was to match the profile, which meant the right impression in the surface film. I was lucky enough to have a local with me who could advise me on these first two factors. The third and most vital factor was fishing the flies correctly, and I had to work this out myself, whilst I watched my buddy pick up fish after fish. I must admit after the first hour and a half of watching the water literally boil in front of me I was still fishless. In fact during this first hour and a half I’d even convinced myself that the reason I wasn’t catching was because there were so many insects on the water. Although there were plenty of options in front of the trout, this wasn’t why they weren’t picking off my fly. The reason was I was fishing the tiny flies like I would a larger pattern, the result was fly drag and short drifts. The first change I made was to lengthen my leader, until this point I’d always tried to build my leaders for ultimate turn over but this time I lengthen the tippet section to the point so it wouldn’t turn over perfectly, the result was consistently slack presentations right down to the fly. Once I’d made this change, the first fish I covered slid to the surface and picked off my fly. I picked off a few more fish before the rise finished but had certainly missed the largest portion of the hatch due to my consistently poor presentations.
Overall I’ve found to fish the film effectively, I’ve tended away from fluorocarbon leaders for the softer and often thinner copolymer tippet materials. This along with an over built leader helps to create better drag free drifts by creating extra slack around the fly. In addition fluorocarbon leaders tend to drag the ultra light flies under, which either creates drag or simply ruins the presentation. I always degrease my leader with a fullers earth mix, this helps the leader to break the surface whilst also taking the shine of the copolymer. Dressing the flies correctly is also important as you need to remember to not put floatant on the parts of the fly that aren’t supposed to float, for example on the Klinkhammers I only dress the hackle so the abdomen with waterlog and sit under the surface nicely. The only other tip for fishing these flies is that in low light or broken water they are often really hard to see and as a trout only needs to pop a nose out to engulf them takes are easy to miss. The solutions are to either put a tiny ball of indicator putty a couple of feet up the line or fish a two dry fly rig, with a larger deer hair pattern up the top and the smaller surface film fly down the bottom, you may be surprised at how often fish will opt for the film fly over the larger pattern. If you do this make sure you have at least fifty centre meters between the two flies, so the larger fly doesn’t drag the film fly.
So next time you spot that trophy brown sitting just off the bank instead of fumbling a nymph at him try lengthening your leader and give him something he really wants in the film.