At one time I was a firm believer in matching the hatch in order to catch trout. I bought myself a giant entomology book and dug into the life cycles of aquatic bugs. It was going to be the pinnacle my trout fishing hobby.
While it helped a bit, it was maybe not for the best. Identifying insects in a river ecosystem at any given point of any given day at any given season of the year can be a plus. It can also cause you to think too much.
The term "matching the hatch" insinuates that you are tying fly patterns onto your tippet that imitate the exact aquatic insect that all trout are feeding on. But, trusting that trout only eat one type of insect in one stage at a time might lead you astray.
For trout to be "locked in" to a specific insect and ignore all other forms of food at the time you are fishing:
- there better be a lot of the bug in the river
- the bugs better be moving in the water in such a way to make it easy for the trout to eat
- the bugs better be nutritious (or worth the effort)
If those conditions aren't all met, then let me tell you that you don't necessarily need to "match the hatch". My insect study days are behind me. I have just enough knowledge to identify what is important to my fishing. I go about my business these days focusing less on matching a bug and more on putting my bugs in good spots.
When a trout eats anything it happens upon, it is called "opportunistic" feeding. I take comfort in this style of survival. It puts my mind at ease because I can be comfortable with the fact that I can't afford to carry every version of every color of every life stage of every aquatic insect out there.
In Colorado, almost every river (arguably all?) will have caddis and stoneflies. Heck, even a mostly dry drainage on my folks' property has caddis crawling around in their sparkly mica-laced shucks when the spring thaw creates puddles in the arroyo.
As I write this, I realize this discussion brings up a lot of ideas I'd like to touch on, but all I wanted was to talk about how I've had success fly fishing without matching the hatch. Fly fishing is part romance, and I apologize to those that take offense to not sticking to the core of what makes fly fishing what it is. Maybe you're a conventional tackle angler and you've read this far, and you're wondering why anyone would take offense to simply catching fish. I see both sides - fly fishing, casting, and knowing food sources and imitations and strategies is a puzzle within itself, a puzzle that is worthy of anyone's pursuit. Catching fish is another. Perhaps intertwined, perhaps separate. To each his own.
But what I want to focus on right now is this: matching the hatch ain't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Fire. (My daughter made me say that.)
I've been able to get out a few days this fall on a few different rivers across Colorado. We visited a few fly shops along the way, and as one would, we'd ask "what they bitin' on?" The answer's always the same - "BWOs." A whole assortment of BWOs. Enough to fill a fly box - nymphs, emergers, adults, and then some. $3+ a pop, and then some.
Fast forward a few weeks and I can summarize for you that one thing was consistent - all the rivers we fished had blue winged olive hatches going on, yep, and almost every fish I caught was on either a caddis pattern of some sort, or a streamer.
Now, I did catch a few fish while "matching the hatch" with small mayfly patterns. I even swung some emergers. But the majority of my fish came on other things. Why did I fish the caddis and stonefly? Because they were aplenty in every river, and the trout love them.
Stoneflies, if you must know, are my go-to pattern when venturing onto a new river section I've not fished ever or recently. They're everywhere, every season, omnipresent. And typically stonefly nymphs are good at getting deep, which is good for the lazier, heavier, bigger fish.
Every once in a while as one should, I check my nymph hooks for moss. More often than I expected in my recent trips, my hooks came back with caddis shucks stuck on their point. In a few instances, the larva was still inside. Gently squeezing the tail end of its casing I could see a black head pop out, followed by a bright green body. I then let it crawl back into its sleeping bag and put it back in the water to live another day.
So I tied on a caddis nymph pattern with bright green involved. It caught a fish so I added another. And I caught more, BWOs flitting about everywhere, fish sipping the surface for them in droves.
I'd have to assume there were anglers around me fishing small mayfly patterns catching fish, but I am also sure that I would've caught far less had I simply focused on BWOs. I still kept my small mayfly patterns in the mix, but they never produced consistently. Were they the wrong patterns? Perhaps, maybe I was missing the "magic" pattern. Or maybe the fish just wanted something good to eat in front of their nose, and my other patterns did the trick.
My parting thought is this: Do not be afraid to cast flies that are not "in season." Just because there's a hatch going on doesn't mean you need to stock up on the feathers and hooks to match it. Remember, fish don't want to move, they just want to eat. They'd rather sit in an armchair and have someone hand-feed them Doritos than to get up and run around the woods into a headwind to hunt down varmint. Ain't that romantic?
Put something they know and love in front of them and they'll eat.
Don't forget about caddis... even this time of year when they might not be skittering around your head and streamside bushes like they were in their prime. These juicy morsels might just be more in-season than anything you can find scampering off the surface of the riffles this time of year.