Overabundance? Stop Choking, Here’s Help
You’ve been there and so have I. Fish everywhere, food everywhere, rods abound and, yet, not a hookup in sight. It’s even spring and conditions are prime…what gives? We all have a version of this rousing good time where nothing works – the right fly, the right line, the right approach…none of it. Is it me? I thought I was pretty good at this. And as your confidence and sense of fly fishing self-worth sink to the lake floor you find yourself looking for ways to cope. Before you throw in the towel, let’s rethink the circumstances. Is it really you, could something more be going on, and are there other solutions that can at least brush the skunk off?
Anymore I usually know it when I see it. Worse than slow conditions if you ask me, an overabundance of a food source can make it more difficult to attract strikes than the proverbial lake full of not much. Think of it this way, a virtual smattering of endless fare requiring zero effort on the part of a trout can be overwhelming competition for your fly. Out here that little snow cone or damsel nymph is literally lost among thousands of viable choices, all within eyeshot of those fish you’re after.
Overabundance is a relative term, as defined here by such a volume of food that it becomes difficult, seemingly impossible at times, to lure and take trout. The possible culprit food sources are probably endless; midges, may flies, minnows and damsels to name a few in my own experience. How can we know for sure when it occurs before us? We really can’t, not 100%, but look for the signs and decide for yourself when it’s a very realistic factor that can explain the lack of activity on your fly. For me that means the sheer appearance of too much food in the water, the outward behavior of trout visibly moving and feeding on said hatch or occurrence, and certainly the blatant unexplainable avoidance of any contact between fish and fly when I otherwise know better.
So how then do we decipher between user error and overabundance? In other words, how do I know when it’s me vs. victim of circumstances? In a word, experience. See it enough and it becomes really obvious. If that’s not you yet, I’ll tell you what I know.
First off, I wouldn’t rule either out as, often; it can be a hybrid of both. For lack of being all knowing (that’s you, me and everyone else) we have to use the next best thing – applied logic of course. If the shoe fits: It pays not to overthink here. When faced with reasonable evidence of overabundance, and knowing I’m not Joe Pro in all situations, I can assume that frenzy on fat heads in front of my face is having an effect on my unattended minnow pattern.
Once I’m convinced of an overabundance issue, I tend to immediately lower the bar where any expectations were concerned. It goes back to understanding the hand I’m dealt for what it is and playing that hand out to its fullest, even if that means a fish or two vs. the twenty I had in mind. Really it’s the same game and, to me, a hard earned trout means the same as twenty when each came with less effort. Know also that tough fishing makes for tough fishermen so I’ll always take what comes from running a drill like this.
From there I’d start considering a more abstract and creative approach as opposed to attempting a pure match on the food source. Often the abstract route can be simpler to perform and succeed at than the matching method, even though our work is still cut out for us. More on creative angling in a minute.
If we could only see beneath the surface at times.
Let’s discern between concentrated and scattered activity. In an overabundance situation this matters.
Concentrated Activity – Here you have the option of moving outward from the area of concentration and attempting to find strikes in locations of less dense feeding activity, or even in places altogether away from the commotion. Where your fly faces too much competition, try backing away or simply turning around and casting into the so-called transition water where the food and fish begin to thin out. More times than I can count, my first ability to get hit happens here instead of at the center of fury. But make that a finite attempt if success is limited, then move another layer outward into the open where no appearance of action exists at all. Don’t be surprised if that ends up your best option. I see that a lot.
In some cases you’re better off fishing away from the visible movement, instead pursuing unassociated trout that are unseen. So yes, that menagerie of minnows may serve as useless, disappointing as that is, but may have potentially served as a detriment that robbed you of precious time with nothing to show.
Chopaka comes to mind here, as my esteemed colleagues, Rick and Steve, can attest. In an outing last spring one side of the lake was absolutely suffocated with damsels and predator trout, nice ones, while many an angler attempted to put a hook in them. I found very limited success in going at them with a direct match on the nymphs until it became futile. I had never seen such a mess of Mother Nature going on in the water and it was obvious that a fly of any type would go unnoticed and untouched. I took the liberty of backing away, unintuitive as it felt. In about a minute I was hooked up on a leech out in the open water, nowhere near the visible fiesta of damsels and oversized trout. On that sign I kept moving across the lake to distance myself even further from all of it.
Oddly enough (to me) the opposite shore held similar activity on may flies, with trout leaping into the air in some cases to take the newly emerged adults. Once again I had to satisfy my curiosity, and was quick to think I could be onto something big. And before long I was taught for the second time not to think too highly of myself or my prospects. Zero this time but at least I had a direction to go. Back to the center I’d wander, now to stay and play out my hand for the rest of the outing. In the end Chopaka took pity, allowing me some level of triumph out in the shallow middle where six-ish feet of water covered a healthy blanket of vegetation for acres. Not my proudest showing by any stretch but, then again, I didn’t hear of anyone having better success that day.
Post mortem on Chopaka, I’ve had countless successes on both damsels and may flies over the years, and many of you can say the same thing. Coincidentally, I stopped at another lake on my way home the next morning where another damsel hatch was underway. Only this time the hatch was much less prolific showing a lot less outward evidence of its occurrence. I found the bite, not by knowing the hatch was on, but merely by trial and error where the fish began answering my call along the banks. My discovery of the reason came in time once the hatch had evolved some. Once all the pieces came together and I had it fully dialed, the strikes came on nearly every cast.
My main observation compared to the prior day was that this activity was very subdued when measured against Chopaka and, as I would identify it, much more in balance where the odds of taking fish with fly were concerned. To widen that out, I always look for the ideal balance in any incidence of a food source where too little or too much activity is equally detrimental.
May flies are marked by a notably short duration when they decide to appear. Highly concentrated, they may come on with a vengeance but when it’s over it’s over.
Scattered Activity – I always think of midges here but this can include any number of trout foods. With more scattered or at least less highly concentrated activity, we may lose the option to search transition areas and the open “abyss,” but all is not lost. Shift your attention in this case to the aspect of timing and where you might best take advantage of trout behavior in a constant state of change.
What the hell does that mean?
Glad you asked. Consider that every hatch, or occurrence of food, has a beginning, ramp up, peak, taper off, and eventually an end. Plus don’t forget a before and after. That’s a lot of phases to work with. Does it seem reasonable to think that your predator might move, react and behave differently in each of these phases, including the before and after periods? And in the case of an overabundance, is it also possible that the peak of the hatch could be the worst time to offer a fly to them? If you follow me so far, you can start to see that some amount of opportunity, however slight, may present itself in one of the other phases, quite possibly toward the beginning or ending, or both, or even before or after altogether.
Admittedly that’s a mouthful, and not exactly intuitive. That said, give it a try and attempt to identify the instance of those phases that aren’t peak, even the before part when you know a particular hatch or food source is on its way. That’s very achievable and I’ve been taking advantage of that very thing for a long time. Trust me; the trout themselves will take a lot of the guesswork out of that by way of answering yes when called upon by you and your fly. And for what it’s worth, I tend to throw an offset when manipulating the various parts of a cycle like that, meaning I don’t look to match. As many would guess, I just throw a leech at them.
Realistically, your target won’t suddenly wake up and play ball when the hatch begins to taper off. It doesn’t work like that. What you’re trying to do is creatively intersect a point of change in their behavior, whereby your odds of getting hit are better than they were at the height of frenzy. And if you can accomplish a reaction of any kind to your fly, that’s saying something. One more thing, your odds of setting the hook and landing that fish may be every bit as low as getting the strike itself. But as you can imagine, developing the talent to lure and catch trout in this circumstance makes for a rather skilled fly fisher if that matters.
While we’re on the subject of timing, remember that some form of it is usually the first and best answer to any situation on the water. I can easily say that anyone who learns to work with time as a first priority is way ahead of the game compared to those who are indifferent toward it. Without going into detail, just know that there are many ways to make elements of time work for you out there. And with our issue of overabundance I always go straight there first when looking for answers.
Cycle of Cycles – We talked about the cycle of a hatch or food occurrence within a single day, but what about the entire duration of days which, incidentally, could last for weeks depending on a lot of factors? Just as a hatch goes through phases over the course of a day, so does the series of them for a period of time. And again, in a similar way the series has a beginning, a ramp up and so forth. Only now you have to account for variation among its daily occurrences as it evolves over that longer period of time.
Why in the hell does that matter?
As always, glad you asked. In the event you make repeated visits to the same lake during the same occurrence of a food source, understanding the long term cycle and how it progresses can be a deadly weapon. On this one I wish I could set forth a good set of instructions but, once again, it doesn’t work that way. I’m pointing it out as a very worthwhile area of focus if you’re fortunate enough to spend consistent time out there. Start following the activity, noting all the changes along the way, and you’ll start showing up with an insurmountable head start compared to the average stick swinger. No one can predict the chain of events in any day on the lake but, armed with stuff like this, you’ll be a lot closer to doing just that.
Last tip, are you alone out there or do you have company on the lake? Next time you suspect an overabundance issue as the reason for your unbent rod, start looking around. If you’re not the only angler on the water, see if the other rods are as quiet as yours. That’s usually the best gage for knowing if you’re on track or not. Pretty simple stuff but it works.
When hatching, midges like this can appear in rather scattered fashion about the lake compared to other food sources. For you and me that makes an overabundance scenario twice as tricky with fewer options to search among variations in activity. Look instead for variations in behavior among fish as the hatch cycle progresses.
I’ll button it up with a report. This one was tough. Not even spring and I found myself afloat and on the move, looking about in all directions on the hunt for holdovers. I wanted my fair share before the truck would come to screw it up for another season. Leading up to today, a rather premature midge hatch had been forming. They started late winter, maybe three weeks before you’d expect to see them on our lakes. I was off to a quiet start; you could say a dead one for sure. I made my way at a troll along a wide open and shallow expanse, hoping to stir something while proceeding toward an old favorite area of structure.
I’m no retiree but even at middle age I don’t see like I used to. So I wasn’t surprised that it took me ten or fifteen minutes before eyeing a band of swallows working away in the middle of the lake. I didn’t expect the hatch to be active at this hour, at least not this active. And since I was now approaching my spot I would give it a few obligatory casts before heading full steam for those birds. But hold on. Now stopped and set up, I started seeing rises and swirling in the shallow water between me and shore. These were nice fish and it seemed they were numerous in this location.
Next I observed a steady supply of adult midges in the air that seemed to be blowing in from the open water. The wind was at a constant haul, blowing toward the northeast, which meant it was hitting me square in the back as I faced the bank. As the airborne bugs glided inward they would touch down on the surface just out from land. You can guess the rest. About now I’m licking my chops, thinking I hit the jackpot for late winter dry fly bliss. When does that ever happen? Well, as it turned out, not today. But I only found that out after a spool change to go along with several fly changes. You can bet I worked above, below and directly inside of the film. While in progress I also observed those adults weren’t the only available food to be had. The fish were slowly and effortlessly cruising in a few feet of water, right in front of my face, with plenty of subsurface chironomidae to choose from. What I saw on the surface was incidental icing if one of the many predators happened to run across it; convenience takes as I called them.
About now it finally hit me. Could this be a futile attempt on my part to fool trout among a blatant overabundance of food? Going it alone, I didn’t have anyone else to test me here. Next best thing, I took a swift tour of the open water, then off to another section to keep working and observing. In short order I had more than enough information. For one, regardless of selection or approach they simply weren’t interested, period. For another, there were more bugs, shucks, birds and fish than I could recall ever seeing before, and that’s saying a lot for a midge hatch. To understate, I’ve seen some good ones. And from what I could tell, this had to be about peak time for the day.
Hard evidence: Empty midge shucks can tell us a lot, not only about the occurrence of a hatch in progress, but also what stage the hatch is likely in. With some experience, a look at how numerous they appear to be, along with observed activity among emergers, feeding fish, swallows, and even your fly can paint a pretty accurate picture.
From there I took a short break, did the usual, poured some coffee and waited for a little time to pass. I’d shift gears and instead let them come to me as the hatch tapered off. This would be an altogether different approach, requiring less effort where gear and execution were concerned. The plan was plain vanilla and simple, the way I like things. With a full sink I’d drag and twitch something hairy down through a few of my favorite lanes. Oh, and I’d sprinkle a dash of patience over the top of it all.
The hope was to cross paths with a few stragglers as they shifted gears of their own to transition out of feeding mode. I figured any strikes would likely transpire out of agitation, or possibly curiosity so that would mean a less than ideal hook set if I got that far. Sure enough, an eventual bump came and, sure enough, it didn’t hang on. But that’s new information. I had a strike to react to and key in on. From here I’d continue looking for repeat business, letting the strikes tell me how to move and where to be.
I’d love to say they came on fast and furious but, as you might guess by now, it doesn’t work that way. Remember, in a true overabundance we’re scraping bottom in a desperate attempt to find anything at all, often just to avoid the skunk. The hits did keep coming, but not frequently and seemingly more of a swat than a take…can you say “short strike?” I decided my only play was to continue on, taking these strikes where I could get them, and pray hard in hopes of being remembered for some good deed I couldn’t remember myself; and damnation if it didn’t happen.
In reaction to another miss, I resolved to work back and forth across a bottleneck area from shore to shore, over and over dragging my lonely leech, convinced my ship would eventually come in. Against the odds, some unfortunate soul of a fish took a bum swat that stuck in his lip. Thirteen inches of pure trophy, man I was elated. Of course I followed protocol and made an attempt at more but, sure enough, the small handful of subsequent hits (misses actually) told me it was time to hang it up and “go out a winner.”
Did I mention that outing was tough? I’ve had better success in overabundant conditions but they can be downright nasty at times and, not to mention, hard on one’s confidence. Give that some thought next time it’s “on” and somehow you find yourself on the outs. What I know is it’s not always you and sometimes the cure is a simple downshift to something much easier that turns out to be the answer. With any luck we might be onto something.
Lone Lake on a day when fish and food were both in check. And given this crew, the most likely scenario of an overabundance would surely involve Crown Royal.