In pursuit of little bugs – and the trout that eat them
September 14, 2023
Fly fishers are a curious lot: They'll leave home and drive halfway across the state or into another, burning up two tanks of gas at today's prices to haul hundreds if not thousands of dollars' worth of gear with them to use for a few hours when they arrive. They do this because they heard rumors of a flurry of harmless bugs flying over the water somewhere else.
Here in Montana that's considered normal behavior.
This time of year we see lots of little bugs, some medium-sized ones, and a few big ones on the water.
One of my favorites is the so-called trico spinner, which in no way resembles a tricycle and doesn't spin, but hey – if that's where an admix of corrupted scientific Latin and poetic English prose have left us, that's what we'll call them.
These little black-bodied bugs can arrive in droves during a latesummer morning on virtually any local river. They're plentiful and trout can fill up on them if they eat enough of them. They're only about 1/4-inch long, maybe shorter, with wings that span about four times their body length.
We imitate them, or attempt to, with flies tied on #20 or smaller hooks.
The wings appear silvery white to us in flight, but on the water refract and reflect a broad range of colors to the trout. The most popular trico spinner patterns have solid, opaque, short white wings; the most effective ones, in my experience, have long, sparkly, sparse multicolored wings.
Just this morning I discovered a single exuvia, the delicate, frail, outer covering of a trico adult that landed and molted on my back deck screen. That little bug was a long way from home. We live, as the breeze blows, about a mile from the river.
The adults hatch at night, fly away from the water and molt this outer skin so they can successfully mate and return to the river in the morning to lay eggs for next season's hatch..
Most people won't travel far to fish this hatch of flies so tiny you can barely see them. For me and a few people like me, though, it's a fascinating sport.
For years I looked forward to visits from my fly shop customer turned friend, Dominic. He rode his motorcycle cross-country every summer from New Jersey to fish tricos at the Stevensville Bridge. He'd fish other hatches on other rivers along the way, but for a couple of weeks that trico hatch was paramount. He'd fish until he had to head nonstop back to his university.
For Dominic and me part of the fascination with tricos is that the fish have to keep coming up, and up, again and again to eat enough of them to make a meal. And even then they won't quit. They'll eat tricos for as long as they see them. That works well for the fly fisher - so long as he doesn't spook the trout.
I once caught a nice-sized female rainbow that kept rising until I hooked her. Her pooched-out belly was obviously full of tricos – and when I gently removed the hook her mouth appeared to be stuffed with black-spotted white cotton, the remains of several hundred squished or partially digested tricos, and still she tried to eat another.
Trico fishing is a far cry from the yee-haw slap-the-water excitement of fishing big #4 salmonflies during high water on the Blackfoot, Rock Creek, Clark Fork, or St. Joe. Fish tricos like that and you're inviting impatience and frustration.
There is a certain methodical patience required to get into this kind of fishing. Approached right, there's a lull of the psyche into the peaceful rhythm of making one delicate cast after another, getting those casts to land just right on the ribbon of current where you see the rhythmic rises of feeding trout. Seeing that tiny #20 fly – or learning to anticipate where it might be – can be frustrating or part of the challenge.
Another part is the leader – long, fine, and with a fine 6X or finer tippet. That means the strike must be a gentle but firm upstroke with the rod tip. Nothing more, sometimes less.
Every take is a reward in itself, every hookup a surge of satisfaction and excitement, and the occasional big one that makes it to the net, nothing short of a sublime triumph.