Fly Fishers' Republic

Trout, Fry, & Stillwater

August 11, 2006

by Raif Killips

Author with fry feeding Rutland rainbow trout

When it comes to fishing stillwaters I’ve been something of a tourist this year, fishing only the early season buzzer hatches, and the mid season sedge hatches. My local rivers have been keeping me occupied the rest of the time. However, with an eye on the reports and glances at my notes, I see another prime opportunity is upon us. It’s fry feeding time. As shoals of a new generation of baitfish gather, we can expect to see some of the finest specimens of trout we’ll ever have chance to connect with, move right into the shoreline. From here on, and right through the end of the season, the scene is set for some exciting sport.

A quiet note of warning, this isn’t especially easy sport. Trout feeding on young baitfish become preoccupied with their prey. Taking one of these fry feeders can be as difficult, if not more so, than hooking a trout sipping tricos or midge. These require the presentation of a suitable dry fly at the end of a fine tippet. All you need do, is make a drag free presentation down the appropriate feeding line. “Yeh, I know, that’s no mean feat!” All the same, a fry feeder can behave in so many ways that presentation and pattern selection are even less straightforward. If you’re up to the challenge, I think you’ll find the rewards worth your while.

Finding the action

For all our understanding of the influences of prevailing conditions upon the feeding habits of our quarry, and though light levels, water temperature, wind speed, and wave action have an effect, fry feeders will often defy our expectations. Even in hot, sunny, flat conditions, you can find trout moving into the shallowest parts of the littoral zone, sometimes coming right up to the shoreline as they chase the shoals of juvenile fish. Presumably the benefits of packing in some serious protein override the trout’s defensive instincts. So, while typical preferred conditions may be best, don’t discount the dog days of summer.

Whenever you set out to locate fry feeders, you need to narrow your search as much as possible. This is especially important on large bodies of water. The best spots are going to be in and around weed beds and other submerged structure. Shoals of baby fish seek the shelter afforded by these environments and also the food organisms found there. So, a good way to start is to follow the shoreline by foot or boat until you locate weed beds. Once you’ve narrowed things down like this, you’ll usually spot the shoals of fry moving around on mass, often dimpling the surface as they pick up tiny pieces of food from the meniscus. Having located shoals of fry you need to look for specific signs of our quarry feeding on them. There are three common methods you can employ. Firstly, look for scattering fry, which break surface as they try to escape attacking trout. Often you’ll see the trout also breaking the surface as they lunge after the fleeing fish. Secondly, look out for birds like terns and seagulls, diving and taking food from the water. When fry feeders charge the shoals, they often wound several fish. Some will float to the surface where either the trout or the birds pick them off. A third method is a little harder to spot and occurs when trout attack shoals a little deeper in the water column. The subsurface chases often create a lot of turbulence, which then erupts at the surface. This is visible as flattening of the wave action or as significant boils in calm conditions.

What to do next

Once we’ve located our quarry, the next technical challenge presents itself. To achieve success we need to establish a mental picture of how the trout pursues its prey, and how it makes its move when the time arrives for the kill. Unlike a cruising fish moving along a set path, or a river fish that has taken up station, fry feeders may appear to move about in an arbitrary pattern. In fact, the movement of trout keyed in on fry naturally relates to those of the baitfish, which are mostly of a browsing kind. The trout either follow & intercept the young fish, or ambushing them.

When the fry feeder makes its move, it usually displays one of two habits. One fish will rush the shoal (hence the scattering fish) and pick off what they can. Another trout will heard the young baitfish and then smash into the shoals, taking one or two fish on the initial attack, later picking off the wounded fish at and below the surface. Which ever of these habits the trout displays, each is that of a preoccupied and selective fish. You’re going to need to match the hatch – or in this case the fish – and that leads to the age-old debate about choice of pattern.

Fly choice may be a personal thing but there are a few guidelines to observe. It’s commonly accepted that a pattern should possess certain trigger points. These are the characteristics that provide the predator with the overall impression that what it’s looking at is alive and fits the menu! Fry, young baitfish, have several key characteristics, not least of which is a prominent eye. Other important characteristics are their overall size and profile; their shiny flanks; translucent fins and partially translucent bodies; over all colour, sometimes with markings; and finally, movement.

With these key features in mind and an understanding of the trout’s feeding habits, you can choose patterns for a number of species of fry, and for a number of fry feeding scenarios. Where trout are chasing or ambushing the fry, the Minkie, Zonker, and Polar Hair Fry are all reliable patterns. Where the predators are picking off wounded fry, try a Missionary; a Humungus variation; or an unweighted Minkie. And for the occasions when the trout are taking the dead of dying fry from the surface you could do worse than use a suspender-minkie; or full floating fry pattern. Incorporating a muddler style head is another way of having your pattern hang at the surface like a dead or dying fish.

All of the patterns I’ve listed include a good number of the trigger points I referred to. My advice is to carry all them in a number of sizes and in colour variations to match your local fish. If you have local patterns recommended to you, consider whether they include the trigger points; if they do, then you can present them with confidence.

Suspender Minkie

Suspender Minkie wounded fry pattern

Hook: 8 – 12 Longshank
Thread: White 6/0
Wing: Light grey mink strip
Underbody: Red floss
Body: Crystal Dubbing
Eyes: 3-D Black pupil on silver
Head: Booby cord (short cylinder of foam)

Polar Fry

Polar Hair fry pattern with 3-D Eyes

Hook: 8 – 12 curved short shank
Thread: White 6/0
Body/Wing: Champagne Polar Hair
Topping: Light grey Polar Hair
Cheeks: Three long strands flash & faced off with red floss
Eyes: 3-D Black pupil on silver


Minkie baitfish pattern with 3-D Eyes

Hook: 8 or 10 Kamasan B175
Thread: Whtie 6/0
Tail: Loop of hard nylon
Wing: Light grey mink strip
Weight (optional): lead wire
Underbody: Red floss
Body: Crystal Dubbing

Putting it all together

Where you find trout chasing and picking off fry then fish a 6 or 7wt rod with matching slow intermediate or floating line. Use a sturdy tapered leader ending with a minimum 6lb tippet – fluorocarbon is fine, but cheaper monofilaments are quite adequate. Make your leader about twelve feet in length. This is long enough to avoid spooking the fish, and at the same time provides good turn over on the cast. If you can manage a longer leader then by all means do so. Using this set-up, you should cast in and around the weed beds and submerged structure. Approach the water carefully and be prepared to fish the water right in tight to the shore – fish can almost beach themselves when chasing fry. Once you’ve covered the water close in, only then should you cover water further out.

It is important you think about your retrieve. Vary it until you start getting takes. At various times a slow steady retrieve will work. However, you should also try faster retrieves and also retrieves where you constantly change speed. Another successful retrieve is the pull and pause. Unweighted patterns especially the Missionary and unweighted Minkies can be deadly in combination with the pull and pause retrieve. Sinking slowly on the pause, these patterns probably look like stunned fish and are often hit during these pauses. Takes on the drop can be ferocious, so stay alert.

If you think the fish are taking dead and dying fry (look for boiling rise forms after the more violent attacks), then using a similar setup with a floating line, you can present the Suspender Minkie or Floating Fry patterns. In this situation, when a strike comes, be careful not to set the hook too soon! Often the fish can move on the fly at least once before properly striking it. First time this happens chances are you’ll strike too soon anyway – don’t beat yourself up over it! In the end you’ll either develop nerves of steel, or finish up a gibbering wreck!

If, or should I say when the action dies down, give the spot a rest for a while – take a break and check your leader; remove the fly and put it back with a new knot; and if that wasn’t enough time sit back and have a drink. More often than not the fry will shoal up again and the trout will return to feed. If everything stays quiet get your gear together and move. The trout wont have stopped feeding necessarily they’ll have gone looking for new shoals to prey upon. You’ll need to stay sharp and mobile to make the best of these opportunities. And if this all sounds hard work, remember, if these are not wild fish, they’re most likely resident fish – fully fined, fighting fit, and worth every bit of effort!

Pattern Design:

To arrive at the most successful variations of the staple patterns you'll probably need to experiment. Getting hold of fresh fry from stomach samples will help, or better still, see if you can catch some live fry to study. The principal here is that if you want to represent something, direct observation is far more informative than guesswork.

Further reading:

For another perspective listen to Denny Rickards' in discussion at Ask About Fly Fishing, where he talks about Fly Fishing for Trophy Trout on Stillwater.