Paul Procter turns his attention to fry and baitfish, a prolific and important food source for stillwater trout...
Be it a lowland reservoir, natural lake or small stillwater, most of our fisheries contain lesser prey fish of one kind or another. Many large reservoirs are home to a thriving population of coarse fish, the offspring of which provide a proteinpacked diet for trout. Where the more obvious coarse fish species are absent, minnows and sticklebacks are often found, especially in remote, upland waters. Many of the natural fisheries in my native Cumbria are no different. Even on the apparently barren hill waters, some minnows will congregate in the margins – in other words, baitfish or fry are available to trout for most of the year, although fry-feeding activity does appear to heighten at the back end of our season on the reservoirs. The little fish provide sustenance for overwintering trout.
Following spawning in spring, the young of coarse fish begin to appear throughout summer. Almost transparent, their pronounced eyes usually give them away. Any structure providing shelter is a natural draw to these small fish we know as “pin fry”. Places like dam walls, valve towers, weed beds, reed beds, sunken trees and walls are all potential hotspots. The day-to-day struggle for life may even occur right under your feet on the boat jetty!
On my waters, weed beds seem the most likely place to find pin fry, and the closer this vegetation grows close to the banks, the better. In calm conditions these tiny fry may be seen dimpling at the surface. Usually, though, a ruffled surface will mask their whereabouts, but trout are never far away. Because of the explosive strike of trout, many fry-feeding situations are exciting to watch, to say the least, yet there are times when trout feed on fry in a more discreet manner.
Fry explode from the surface in an attempt to escape the attentions of marauding trout
Perched on a high bank, more than once I’ve witnessed a small group of trout harvesting pin fry in this way. Had it not been for my elevated vantage point I would have missed the spectacle. I remember watching three trout in particular. With nervous fry hugging the shoreline, two trout acting as flankers approached the fry shoal (one at either end) to drive them out into the path of a third, waiting trout. Unaware of the presence of this third predator, the fry were deftly pounced upon in slightly deeper water. Clinically efficient, there was little or no surface disturbance to betray this attack (see diagram 1). On the other hand, a single trout hunting a fry shoal stands its best chance in shallower water, where the fry have fewer escape routes. Such trout try to round up the shoal before charging in, and this results in a dramatic commotion as small fish attempt evasive leaps with their pursuer close on their tails.
Don’t underestimate a trout’s ability to tackle more substantial prey. I once extracted a seveninch trout from the throat of a 13-inch wild brownie, so imagine what a 3lb reservoir trout would be capable of. Fish up to seven inches long regularly feature in the diet of resident trout. As the season progresses, the surviving and growing coarse fish are more than aware of marauding trout, which now use speed and strength to secure a meal. They hurtle at full throttle into a ball of baitfish, hoping to stun some of the shoal. Soon after this initial attack the trout return and quietly pick off injured or dazed fish. Such “frybashing” is what we fishermen look for, and nothing else gets the pulse racing so fast.
Tactics can differ day by day. Sometimes the trout respond best to a lure pitched into the fracas. On other occasions it’s a static Floating Fry or semi-submerged pattern that is more likely to be accepted. When trout are in a chasing mood I’ve had my best results casting to the edge of any disturbance, rather than into the thick of it. Retrieval rates are not written in stone, and the quickest way to succeed is to keep an open mind. Sometimes you can’t move your fly quickly enough. On other days it’s a case of trundling back a highly mobile fly quite sedately. Whatever the speed, I try to keep it erratic and, where possible, change the direction of the fly to try and mimic an injured or escaping fish. Gently twitching the rod tip up and down during the retrieve imparts a lot of movement into our imitations, (see diagram 2)as does moving the tip from side to side (see diagram 3). This last ploy is especially effective at close quarters, when the angle of change tends to be most pronounced and most likely to trigger a following trout into an attack.
Exciting as it is to experience that heart-stopping wrench from a chasing fish, for me the cream of the sport is presenting Floating Fry patterns to trout. Anglers like Nigel Savage and Dave Doherty have influenced me hugely in this respect, and I agree with them that nothing compares to the magic of watching a huge trout sidle up and engulf a fry pattern. We talk about ‘Floating Fry’, but often the trout respond best to a partially submerged pattern. To achieve this, simply squeeze a Floating Fry in the water just before you fish it. Both deer hair or ethafoam flies can be persuaded to adopt neutral buoyancy, but I reckon the deer hair patterns have the edge. It can also be worth adopting the everpopular NZ style dropper or “duo” with Floating Fry tactics. This gives you the best of both worlds. Use 8lb mono minimum and attach a large nymph or small fry pattern to the hook bend of a buoyant fly (see diagram 4).
Whatever method you adopt, be sure to use an appropriate leader. As ever, it’s all about balanced tackle, and flies with a lot of wind resistance are best offered on 7-8 weight outfits with stout leaders. Even when fishing diminutive fry patterns I’m reluctant to drop below 8lb breaking strain. That said, I always try to make my flies behave as naturally as possible, and I have found the Lefty’s Loop very useful in this respect, especially when presenting static fry patterns. (see Lefty's loop sequence below). This imparts unhindered movement to the fly, but many people shy away from this open loop knot because, in effect, two strands of nylon protrude from the eye of the hook. All I can say is that it works for me, and I now use it in many nymphing situations. Whenever you go afloat, be aware of wind direction and any gulls working the water. Sometimes a prevailing wind will concentrate fry shoals in specific areas or bays. Loch-style drifting is often the most successful method, but anchoring a boat just off an area of activity can also bring blistering sport. Floating and intermediate lines have brought me more success than sinkers.
Cutting my teeth on small hill tarns, I didn’t really get an opportunity to experience fullblown fry-feeding, but the humble minnow provided me with many interesting hours of fishing. Minnows spawn throughout the spring, when they can be found en masse along the more gravelly margins of our fisheries. Preoccupied with finding a mate, they advertise their intentions to passing trout, which make frequent sorties into the tightly packed shoals. Back in those days brown trout were my quarry, and trout of only 12oz would take a minnow just as readily as their larger kin.
Early and late in the day proved the key times to target trout feasting on minnows, or any other baitfish for that matter. Locating a shoal of breeding minnows or noticing frequent disturbances, I’d position myself to one side 15-20 yards away. With line stripped from the reel I could make a quick cast when the action began. In more breezy conditions, it’s worth just prospecting along a bank as dusk approaches. In low light, rogue trout often move in to patrol the shore, picking off any careless fry. For this approach a lightweight pattern prevents you hooking the bottom too soon. Even better, a semi-buoyant pattern that can be cast and momentarily left until the time is right to begin a retrieve.
Dawn and dusk will see many trout venture into the margins to feed on invertebrates such as corixa. When they do this in shallow water they often create a ‘bow wave’ disturbance as they home in. I’ve mistaken these trout for fry-feeders in the past, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Ever the opportunists, if these trout chance upon the occasional small fish then it will quickly be snapped up. I’m more than happy to explore the shallows with a small to medium sized lure at such times.
Trout hunt primarily by sight and small fish are constantly on the move, reflecting light off their flanks, so it’s as well to address this in our imitations. Dress your patterns with mobile materials with plenty of flash. Marabou is an obvious choice, although rabbit hair and Arctic fox tend to be more durable. Following close on the heels of the Zonker, the Minkie revolutionised my approach to stillwater fishing, especially in the suspender style.
Large, bulky flies and tandem lures dressed with materials that shed water when lifted off are by far the easiest to cast. Although a tad stiff, bucktail takes some beating here. Sometimes, flies that create disturbance can give you an edge, so carry some patterns incorporating spun deer hair, ethafoam or large cock hackles. The standard Woolly Bugger, for example, has caught me countless trout.
Finally, it’s easy to get carried away when fishing fry patterns. Impressive tandem lures are needed to match the size of some coarse fry, but dressings on size 12-14 hooks can have just as much impact. Biggest is not always best.
Lefty's loop sequence
Make an overhand knot in the leader and thread the leader through the eye of the hook.
Pass the end of the leader back through the overhand knot.
Twist the line around itself two or three times and pass the end back through the overhand knot. Moisten before pulling at positions 1&2.
Tighten the knot to finish and trim the end, leaving the fly free to move on the loop.