When I first began to fly fish for trout in the early 1950’s the dry fly we used almost exclusively was tied on a size 12 hook. I did all of my early trout fishing in streams in the eastern U.S. I believe there were two reasons why size 12 patterns did well. Few people fly-fished, so the trout were not educated. But just as important there was an abundant food supply trout fed upon, including mayflies, caddis flies, hellgrammites, crayfish, and a host of other aquatic creatures.
Interesting, too, was the most popular fly line was a double taper number 7. During that period the double taper lines had a finer front taper, allowing for good roll casting and quieter presentation. That is not true today; many weight-forward lines designed for trout have a front taper finer than some double tapers.
The 1970’ saw a big increase in fly-fishing popularity. As more people began fishing for trout the fish started to wise-up. Excepting out West on larger rivers the size 12 was being ignored for a smaller a size 14 and by the late 1980’s most good fly fishermen were using more size 16 dry flies than larger dries—unless a specific situation called for a larger pattern.
Today a size 16 is the “biggest” dry fly in common use and many experienced anglers are using more and more smaller patterns. This same thing has occurred with nymph fishermen. The most popular fly line size now is a 5 weight—and on smaller streams and quieter water many prefer a 3-weight line for a more subtle presentation.
One reason is fishing pressure. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s streams were not so heavily fly fished—but no longer.
It’s hard to believe but for many years after 1950 most people began trout fishing sometime in April and hung up their fly rods by some time in October—or earlier. Better clothing, tackle, insulated boats and waders and an increased knowledge about the fish see successful anglers fishing all 12 months.
Another reason that smaller size flies are now demanded in eastern United States is that for decades most trout fishermen depended upon stocked fish for their recreation. These trout had never seen a fly until dumped into the water and so they took any fly that looked as if it would be good to eat.
States reduced the number of trout stocked allowing fish to reproduce naturally in streams. These were not fish raised on pellets but had learned to feed on natural food. Compounding the anglers’ problems were new regulations requiring catch-and-release that appeared on many streams.
It became more important to offer the trout dry flies and nymphs that more realistically resembled the food they ate.
A mistake made by many trout fishermen casting dry flies is to strike too soon. But to prove that fish that are caught and released a few times smarten up is to understand the way they take a dry fly or nymph. On waters that are lightly fished it is best to delay the strike a fraction after a trout takes the fly. But on hard-fished catch-and release waters, if you delay, you will surely miss most trout. These wise-up fish will expel anything but a natural the moment they realize it is not food. In such situations you almost can’t strike too fast.
If you want to catch more trout—west or east—try using smaller flies. With experienced anglers it has become the norm to offer dry flies in sizes 18 to 24 and also with nymphs.
There are reasons for this. Many of our streams are no longer as healthy as they were decades ago. Larger mayflies used to appear in great swarms over the streams during hatching periods. While they still do hatch—most are greatly reduced in numbers. The very number of mayfly species has been reduced as our trout waters degrade from over-development, and various toxic materials are leeched into them. Caddis flies are more resistant and where some mayfly hatches were the most important to anglers—caddis flies are now.
Because there are fewer hatches of mayflies and caddis flies the trout are learning to feed on other creatures. In many streams today most of the flies trout feast on are small. I am not sure if this is true because smaller flies resist the degradation of the watersheds —but today there are certainly more of them visible. Perhaps they were always there but the larger insects were more noticeable.
Another reason smaller flies will fool more trout I think is because they are so tiny. Float a size 12 dry fly over a trout in a slow moving pool and it has the opportunity to study it well before deciding whether or not to take it. But a tiny size 20 is so small that like humans, the trout simply can’t see it as well—and so it might strike, in case it is good to eat. I think is a major reason why smaller flies often fool fish into striking. Fortunately, when fishing these tiny dry flies, exact imitation is not as critical since the trout don’t see them as clearly.
Where we used to fish small nymphs, now size 18 to 24 will generally out-fish almost all larger nymphs. A larger nymph, say a size 12 is fished with a dropper of the same pattern that is size 18 or 20. In many hard fished streams today the trout almost always take the smaller nymph. These tiny nymphs require little dressing. Some of my size 20 to 24 nymphs are nothing more than thread wrapped on a hook.
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