Tricky trout: Fly fishing downstream is tough catch

"What the heck are you doing?" Tony Petrella asked in amazement as I missed yet another nice trout that struck the fly drifting 30 feet ahead of his boat on the upper Manistee River. "How many is that that you've missed?"

Pondering a miserable effort so far, I said, "I'm 3-for-22. I can't figure it out, but I've missed 19 strikes. I guess I'm just not reacting fast enough."

Simply getting all of those strikes in a couple of hours was remarkable. We had launched after noon at Whispering Pines Campground near the 612 Bridge, planning to float about four hours downstream to Long's Canoe Livery.

The Hexagenia hatch was on, and while most anglers were concentrating on the big flies at night, we figured we'd try midday to see if any fish were still looking up.

Petrella is one of the state's most experienced guides, fishing trout in northern Michigan in summer and tarpon and other saltwater species around Sarasota, Fla., in winter.

Usually we do well when we fish together. But on this day I was having trouble hooking fish on everything from a hopper pattern to a beetle to a Hex emerger Petrella invented .

I cast the emerger along some logs on the left bank and managed to hook and release a fat 10-inch brook trout that shot out from under the cover. A minute later another fish hit the emerger as it drifted across a deep pool, and again I missed.

Petrella was watching from the rear seat of his Au Sable riverboat . He said, "I don't think you're late. I think you're striking too fast and taking the fly away from them."

The next time a fish struck I hesitated a bit before lifting the rod. Bingo! Fish on.

My normal hook up rate when fly fishing is about 80%. I'd like to say that after Petrella's observation I returned to it. Unfortunately, it didn't happen .

Petrella tried to commiserate, saying, "That Hex emerger isn't easy to fish from a boat. You're getting some strikes as it sinks, and they're hard to see."

But that wasn't the problem. Thinking about it, I realized that 99% of my fly fishing for trout is done while wading upstream. The fish are facing away most of the time. When they take a fly and turn down , the hook is pulled back into their mouths.

But when we're fishing downstream from a boat to trout facing us, there's a good chance that striking too quickly will pull the hook out of their mouths without sticking them.

When we started the float, skies were overcast and we saw a few dozen big Hexagenias hatch on the river in front of us. Every one was picked off on the water by a swallow or just above the river by a waiting blackbird. But we didn't see any taken by the trout.

That's why we decided to start with the hopper and beetle flies, which had moderate success. Then the sun came out and Petrella said, "Try this Hex emerger I came up with. From the rise forms, I think most of these fish are taking nymphs."

He said that because the few trout we saw rise weren't hitting splashily, which would signal that they were snatching hatchers off the surface. Instead, they created swirls and boils as they grabbed nymphs just under the surface.

Petrella's CDC (cul de canard) emerger mimics a hatching nymph. He ties in it different colors and sizes, and he thinks the mottled gray marabou overwing is the key.

"I'm convinced that's what makes it work so well," he said. "It wiggles like a hootchie-cootchie dancer. I like to give it a little twitch with the rod tip every now and then, and 90% of the time the strike comes right after a twitch."

Being a dry-fly hardhead, I false cast a lot to dry it off so it floated in the surface film. I got a lot of strikes that way, but I got more when I let the fly sink a few inches and used Petrella's twitching technique.

Petrella certainly held up his side of the team. We had 42 strikes in 4½ hours, and the tally included 11- and 10-inch brookies, a 10-inch brown and the rest mostly 8-10 inchers.

But I missed three fish that would have gone 14-18 inches, and it was hard not to think about the 29 misses rather than the 13 caught. My glass on this day definitely looked half-empty.


Petrella can be reached at 231-585-7131 , or through his Web site at