Fishing the Unhatches

by Al Marlowe

Hatches like the Salmon Fly, March Brown, or Green Drake offer exceptional fishing. When the duns are on the water, trout lose all their instinctive caution and will recklessly attack a well-presented imitation. The problem is the hatches don't last long enough. Even at their peak, the adult insects are around only a short time. Mayflies like the Trico that hang around as long as a couple of months appear for only a few hours each day. That is, providing conditions are ideal. If the weather turns cold, they may even be no-shows. What's the solution? Fish the unhatches.

So what is an unhatch? A look beneath the surface of our streams and lakes will reveal myriad life forms that rarely or never appear on top. These abundant species constitute a significant portion of the biomass in our rivers, lakes and ponds. Though nymphs supply a trout with up to 90-percent of its diet, other organisms are also important. This means that imitations of crustaceans, worms, leeches, and many other aquatic critters can be effectively fished throughout much of the year.

Unhatches also include insects that get into the water by accident. Grasshoppers, ants and beetles are frequently victims of an errant breeze that turns them into instant fish food. During the spring when rainbows are spawning, many an egg laid ends up feeding a hungry fish. In short, unhatches are what keeps a trout's belly full when the Light Hendricksons, Yellow Stones and Green Caddis are not around.

Trout Fishing Colorado Hatches
Fishing the unhatches can be productive in streams or lakes

One of the most widely available unhatches is a crustacean, the scud. Three families and about 90 species are found in North America. Mature scuds vary in length from less than a quarter-inch to nearly one inch. They are abundant in both streams and still-waters, making them an important food source throughout the year. Scuds come in a spectrum of bright colors from green, tan, gray, pink or white to shades in between. Each location will often have a color that produces best. On a number of Western rivers, a dirty-yellow or burnt-orange scud takes trout when other colors bring only yawns from bored fish. Mahogany-brown is also a good color.

When ever fishing the scud, make sure to have several colors and sizes. If one is unproductive, perhaps another will work. Tailwaters are especially good places to fish a scud as there are usually quite a few that make their way from the reservoir into the stream. Fish it with a dead drift. Use weight on the leader rather than on the fly to allow it to tumble freely in the current.

In a lake or pond, look for scuds in weed beds and debris in the shallow water near shore. Observing them there will yield clues on how to fish imitations. Near weed beds is a good place to use them. Retrieve the scud with short jerks to duplicate their energetic swimming motion.

Like scuds, earthworms are also abundant. There are estimated to be more than 200 species in North America, many being found in aquatic environments. While it may have been named for New Mexico's famed trout stream, the San Juan Worm is just as effective on other rivers. Like the scud, these small - one to two inches in length - worms come in a variety of brilliant colors. Easy to imitate, the fly usually consists of nothing more than a strip of Ultra Chenille tied to a hook. While red is the most popular color, burnt-orange or purple also works well. The worm is helpless in a current so fish your imitations with a dead-drift.

Speaking of worms, anglers should not overlook leeches. Ranging in length from less than one-half inch to a foot or more, these variously colored, flat-bodied worms are found in a variety of habitats. One of the more popular imitations is the Woolly Bugger. Favored colors are olive, black, brown and purple in large sizes, Nos. 2 through 12. It is equally effective in lakes, ponds or streams.

In a lake, Woolly Buggers are especially effective when fished from a belly boat on a sinking line. A leech moves by attaching its forward sucker to the bottom or to weeds, contracting its body, and then attaching the rear sucker. Twitch the rod tip or retrieve the line in short jerks to duplicate the slow undulations of a moving leech. It should be fished deep, on the bottom, so it may also be necessary to weight the hook when tying it. Be prepared to have the line suddenly ripped from your hand as a heavy fish tries to swim away with your fly.

Perfect your roll cast. Throwing a heavy Woolly Bugger with a conventional cast is a good way to hit yourself in the head, especially on a windy day.

In a stream, fish it with a dead drift, using just enough weight to get the leech near the bottom. Though effective in deep runs, don't overlook slow back-waters near the bank. Strip line in short jerks to make the marabou tail come alive. Other good patterns are the Chamois and Bunny Leeches.

Trout Fishing Colorado Hatches
San Juan Worms are easy to tie

Trout anglers have two additional opportunities to fish the unhatches. Each spring, rainbows and cutthroats give in to natural urges to reproduce, as do browns and brookies in the fall. When a female lays her eggs on a redd, other fish wait nearby to gobble up any that drift away. A yarn egg is the fly to use at spawning time. It works in deep runs and shallow riffles. It works on browns, brookies, rainbows and cutthroats. The fly is simple, a short piece of fluorescent pink, red, orange or yellow polypropylene yarn tightly tied on a hook so that it flares into a ball. During the brief period of spawning activity, the egg will take lots of trout. Some anglers speak of 30-fish days then. Fish it dead drift near the bottom.

Summer brings trout a cornucopia of delectable morsels in the form of ants, beetles, hoppers, spiders and cicadas. These and other terrestrial insects become available as a result of falls, wind or some other mishap that deposits them in the water where cruising trout await such morsels. Their ensuing struggle to escape has an effect somewhat like ringing the dinner bell for a starving brown. Fish terrestrials close to the bank. If a hit doesn't occur immediately, retrieve it with short twitches and jerks to impart the appearance of a struggling insect. Then hang onto your rod.

A graphite fly rod and a single-action reel having a smooth drag is preferred for fishing the unhatches. The rod should have enough backbone to handle weighted flies as well as bulky, wind resistant terrestrial patterns. A nine to ten-foot, six-weight is a good choice.

On streams, a floating line will do just fine. If fish are finicky feeders, try a tapered leader with a fine tippet, especially when using small patterns in clear water. Otherwise, three to six feet of 3X or 4X material will make a good leader. Weight the leader a foot or so above the fly. Use enough to get the fly down but not so much that it snags frequently. A strike indicator combined with the short-line technique will help detect takes when hits are subtle. As with nymph fishing, the angler will often be drifting a fly close to visible fish. Eight to ten feet of line plus the leader is plenty. Set the hook any time the indicator hesitates or moves in the wrong direction, such as upstream. It may be just a snag. Then again, it could be a wall hanger.

On lakes, a fast-sinking line is the best choice for fishing leeches and scuds. To find the best depth, start counting when the fly hits the water, then start the retrieve. When fish are located, continue working your fly at that depth.

Terrestrials like beetles, hoppers and ants should be fished dry with a floating line. Casting into brush along the bank and pulling the fly so that it falls on the water with a "plop" can be very effective. Whether on a stream or lake, give 'em some action so they look alive.

Trout Fishing Colorado Hatches
Terrestrials should be fished with action

There are numerous unhatch flies that can be effective in addition to these. Patterns that imitate bait fish, frogs, crayfish, spiders, cicadas, and even mice can be effective. Each should be fished with an action appropriate to the pattern.

Taking a 17-inch trout that has risen to a dry-fly tied by the angler is one of summer's great pleasures. Lots of hungry trout taking hordes of mayflies in showy rises is what dry-fly fishing is about. Unfortunately, neither summer nor the hatches last long enough. For that time of day or season when things on the surface are slow, the fly-rodder who fishes the unhatches will enjoy lots of action throughout the year.


Resources/Other Info:

Colorado fishing books Click here to buy an ebook - The Colorado River: A Fly Fisher's Guide by Al Marlowe and Karen Christopherson which includes color maps and info on the Colorado and its main tributaries (Blue, Eagle, Fraser, Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Fraser). The book is over 170 pages and includes info on access, flies, hatches, and more.....