By Bill Christmas
In the Winter 89 issue of the American Angler & Fly Tyer, Eric Leiser wrote an article, on “Unusual Materials” in which he accurately describes the history and methods of tying the “Usual”.
That fly was originated by Francis Betters and popularized by Bill Phillips, both of the Lake Placid, NY area. In the March 89 issue of Fly Fisherman, Art Lee describes variations of the Usual in his article entitled, “The Usual with a twist”.
While both of these authors recognize the unique qualities of the Usual, it’s unusual characteristics have lead me to, dare. I say it, an “Un-Usual” technique in fly fishing.
Since it is best done as a step by step discovery, so come with us as we retrace the development of the…..
We stayed at George Renner’s Catskill Lodge (purchased by Art Lee after George died). Along with us was Jack Imhof, a fisheries biologist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Warren Yerex, a biologist with the Grand River Conservation Authority of Cambridge. Since it was also Warren’s first Catskills trip, we all paid close attention to advice from Jack, our area veteran.
The afternoon we arrived at Roscoe, we discovered record highs for the Beaverkill River and its tributaries. In our ignorance Helen and I started fishing the Beaverkill River at Horse Brook Run which resembled a millrace at this point! Not being able to wade in the treacherous torrent but anxious to get fishing, we fished the shoreline weeds. We reasoned that the fish would be out of the heavy current and into areas of greatest insect population, the grassy shoreline and former footpaths.
While knowledgeable anglers sat in their lodges and restaurants waiting for the water to become fishable, Helen and I caught over a dozen brown trout on our first evening of fishing. We didn’t know that what we were doing was not done; we just did it!
All of this preamble may be a bit self-serving, but it is to set your thinking on the right path.
Use your ingenuity and imagination to discover innovative approaches and methods.
On our second trip to the Catskills region, we stayed at the Roscoe Campgrounds. In the adjacent rental trailer was the venerable Bill Phillips, also an Izaak Walton Club member. He was the one person who brought the Usual fly to prominence in Canada, where it has been a standby for years. Bill looked critically at my creations, noting that the wings were too far forward. He also couldn’t accept my various coloured versions. He felt the original pattern, using snowshoe rabbit-foot underfur dubbed over fluorescent red thread, was the only pattern necessary. He did agree with my practice of submerging the fly and retrieving it slowly underwater as a nymph, after having fished the fly as a dry with a drag free float. (I can’t recall how often Ontario’s rainbows had taken my sunken Usuals with this tactic).
One of the many tips Jack Imhof had imparted on our first Catskill trip was particularly significant. He said during the Blue Winged Olive hatches, the brown trout rarely feed on the duns, preferring the emergers. He called them “limey green” and mentioning that they change to an olive colour only after reach the surface.
Later on the same trip we met IWFFC stalwart, Del Bruce and his long-time fishing companion, Dennis Voigt. Dennis also works for the Ministry of Natural Resources. With all that expert help at hand we were able to pick up lots of valuable advice.
It was on the 1985 trip that we first heard the word “Cornuta”. Dennis had confirmed Jack’s advice when we, with Jim and Anne Wenger fished the Barnharts section of the Beaverkill River. We had only moderate success during a hatch of seemingly oversized blue winged olives. They were larger that the ones back home, I thought. It wasn’t until I read Hatches II by Caucci & Nastase that I realized it was an entirely different subspecies!
We concluded the fish were taking emergers because the rise left no telltale bubble as they feed on the surface.
In this instance, because of the larger size of the duns we correctly concluded that they were Cornutas; this meant that the emergers would be lime green. We had solved the mystery of proper size and coloration, but with fearless fish feeding around us we did not engage a single fish on the emerger. This despite the fact that we could see several fish obviously taking emergers within 6-8 feet of us in water 18 to 24 inches deep!
We tried several tactics. Dead drift in the surface film, alternating between olive, Rusty brown and lime green colours. Then, using split shot and an extremely short line, we used a tension rise down stream. This created some obvious interest, but no takers. Reverting to an upstream tactic, we tried lifting the weighted lime green emerger to the surface almost under my rod tip. This trick sparked some success, but though getting closer, it was still far short of the desired effect.
With the fish so fearless, the conditions and visibility so clear, this was the perfect opportunity to solve the problem with further experimentation. We noticed, perhaps because of the shallowness of the area, that the trout captured the nymphs near the surface, as opposed to working deep. This was fooling the anglers into thinking; they were taking duns; “I must be getting drag; the tippet is not fine enough; my fly is the wrong size, there are too many naturals for them to find my fly”.
Haven’t we heard them all?
We, Ontario anglers come to the Catskills for much of our quality trout fishing. We have to work so hard for our local fish that the learning process is slow and often frustrating. Ontario expert angler and author Ken Robins once said it was easier to learn in Montana or the Catskills because of the large trout populations in these areas. If you do something right, you very often get a strike, even if you are just pounding the water. Here was a chance to prove Ken’s theory.
At this point I decided to test the wariness of the local browns by some unusual line handling techniques.
I felt that because the trout rejected both sunk and floating flies, it may have something to do with how the naturals rose to the surface. Perhaps ascendancy rate and the rate of downstream drift had to both be right.
Sounds simple; but how do we accomplish this?
First, we need a naturally buoyant fly, drifting to the surface at exactly the same speed as the current. How do we get a buoyant fly down deep enough in the first place?
At first we tried fishing straight downstream tugging the lime green usual underwater above a visible feeding fish; letting the fly rise on a slack line.
WOW! It worked like a charm for a few fish, provided we were directly above the fish and the current was dead straight. This method was taking the smaller, more mobile fish, but it was not working on their larger, smarter brothers and sisters.
Some refinement was obviously necessary, but we were getting closer to the solution.
If the downstream fly was hindered in its action, perhaps a longer finer leader was needed.
Then it happened: ‘it’ was an excellent 16 inch brown just upstream and to my left. feeding in a very shallow area near the weedy shore! He’s breaking all the rules I thought, but I’d better try for him.
No chance to wade closer without disturbing him, so I’ll try to sink the fly above him from my present position.
A low side-arm, cross-body cast out of his cone of vision, underpowered to leave a large upstream loop of leader above the fly. Classical dry fly fishing huh? “Not likely!”
I quickly made three upstream mends of the line; so I now had several feet of upstream line and leader above him.
Now, lets try to sink the fly by sharply twitching my rod tip, which was almost in the water.
The water’s surface tension on the bend of the line made the fly jump upstream like a twitched caddis, (I would use this technique later for the Caddis hatch I thought). However, I needed more than just a twitch.
Drastic steps would be needed to make it work properly.
Ignoring all caution, I recast above the fish in the same manner then yanked on the line so that the fly was pulled under about two inches. The buoyant-lime Usual popped back to the surface; its little white snowshoe rabbit wing like a flag on the water.
Now I was getting somewhere!
As the fly came to within two feet of the trout, I repeated the violent jerk with the rod tip, sinking the fly.
A second later I was rewarded with a confident take and a splash of the brown’s tail, as he had been doing for the past several minutes, only this time he was on my line! I’d love to say I landed the fish but I can’t. In the process of experimentation and many changes I had gone down to 7x tippet, and with this big a fish I had to “feather” my reel to keep from snapping him off.
In the course of the struggle the fly pulled free, and I was left with the bittersweet feeling many anglers experience. Success and failure as only a fly fisherman can appreciate”.
I have often told friends and anyone who would listen, that catching a wary fish on a fly you have tied yourself is the ultimate high in angling.
The ultimate high is solving problems like the one I have described, and being rewarded as I was.
In the next three hours I had a field day with the Bamharts Pool trout.
It seemed that even when I did the technique wrong, it didn’t frighten the fish.
Apparently, objects going upstream do not scare them at all. In fact, when I got too far downstream with my emerger, I simply did some hard upstream mends yanking the fly past his nose, then letting the emerger rise in front of him, often taking that same fish.
The key is the normal buoyancy of the fly, drifting from below to the surface unhindered, so it travels downstream at dead drift speed.
Of course, the proof on any new idea lies in its success under variable conditions and its consistency.
The “Submerger” routine has proven effective for me on many occasions over the past five years. The most noteworthy occasion occurred last year in the Catskills.
Helen and I had made our normal trip to Roscoe NY in early June, but we had an opportunity to go back again in July for some “Fine fishing, far off” as they say. We expected low water conditions and tiny flies to test our skills with size 22’s on 7x, 8x tippets for the spooky summer browns.
As I said earlier, the Catskills trip is a learning experience.
We were wrong about one situation and right about another.
We were right about it being a learning experience, but wrong about the low water.
An unusually wet, cool period preceded our trip, leaving the Beaverkill watershed with conditions resembling late spring. On top of optimum water flows we had water temperatures at 68 deg F at 8 am every day!
What made conditions abnormal was that all the normal hatches had been delayed, and we were faced with a notice board outside the Beaverkill Angler fly fishing shop that had virtually every type of insect on the water, all at the same time!
What a learning experience to go to any run or pool and see 6 or 7 hatches going on!
We had to become more adept at reading rise forms, as an indicator of the trout’s preferences.
We saw sipping rises to terrestrials, porpoising rises to spent spinners, slashing rises to adult caddis, leaping follow-throughs of caddis emergers, and most of all the nose-down tail-trashing of emerger feeding trout. (NO BUBBLES!).
During an especially tough session on Willowemoc Creek, where we focused on an emergence of light cahills, we used the submerger method using a sparse yellow Usual.
This was the crowning achievement in four years of using this method, because when we went back to the Orvis shop to buy more tippet material we heard of a couple who “must have the secret, they took a fish on almost every cast under Hazel Bridge this morning”.
Of course, the “couple” was Helen and me.
We had lost count of the number of fish we caught and released, and when we tried to explain our technique, the anglers weren’t really listening. All they wanted to know is what fly we were using, not how we were using it!
Our answer: “Why the Usual, of course!”
I think the local felt we were crazy. Yankng a dry fly under. The method is heretical, something between Leonard Wrights “Sudden Inch” as described in his book “Fishing the Dry Fly as a Living Insect” and the snagging method used by some Steelhead/Salmon anglers with their weighted treble hooks!
As I said early on in this piece, innovation and imagination combined with a bit of luck and some perseverance can solve many of life’s mysteries.
I’m happy to share this experience with you in hopes that you will not only add this submerger method to your own repertory, but that in your fishing adventures you will also try new, exciting and even outlandish methods.
Change is the spice of life, especially when it gets results.
P.S. I’m still working on that Caddis emerger method. Gary LaFontaine told me to stick with dead drift subsurface using a sparkle-yarn sheaf, but there has to be a better way!