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Dry Fly Introduction and the Caddis

There is a lot of debate in the fly fishing world regarding what the "best" or "most fun" ways to fly fish are. Some people, who think of themselves as 'purists', will only fish with dry flies and never use nymphs, even if there is no hatch coming off. Then there are others who don't like to mess with dry flies, even during an active emergence because they feel that since most of a river or lake's trout feed subsurface the majority of the time, using nymph techniques will give them the best chance at catching the greatest number of fish. Finally, there is the group of anglers who fly fish to feel like they are a part of the water and natural environment surrounding them, so they will utilize whatever pattern or technique necessary in order "figure them out". This may mean using a dry fly during a hatch or a nymph when trout are not rising (or there are no bugs on the water).


Whichever type of fly fisherman you happen to be, there is always something new to learn in the sport. Those who just use dries when it is obvious that the majority of the fish are taking nymphs are in a sense addicted to seeing a trout rise to their fly on the surface. They do not care if they catch no fish or a hundred fish; usually these fishermen have spent a lot of time on the water, and they just like being out there -catching fish or getting skunked matters little. The second group, who only drift nymphs are often smitten with the fact that if the fish are biting, 90% of the time they are going to see respectable periods of action throughout a typical day on most stretches of good fly water, but they may just end up missing out on an incredible bite because of their resistance to using other techniques. There are some great nymph fishermen out there, and they catch loads of fish, but at some point in time, the sport will mean more to them than just hooking up more than everyone else - the solid majority of those who just use nymphs do not get to spend a lot of time on the water, so when they get their chance, they want to give themselves the best odds at being successful.

I had the pleasure of fishing with my new buddy Buck from MS on Dry Run Creek for two days. Buck is one of the finest fly casters I've ever had on DRC. Buck landed plenty of trophy fish on this day. 

At Blue Ribbon Fly Shop, our philosophy regarding the White River and Norfork Tailwater is that "they are what they are." This refers to the fact that water conditions are always fluctuating, so our goal is to steer either our customers or our guide clients in a direction that will lead to them having the most fun possible while out on the rivers. More often than not, this means fishing below the surface with a nymph, especially if the water is running high and even when flows are at low levels. This is because these fisheries are absolutely loaded with subsurface foods like scuds and sow bugs, so it is going to take something special to get the fish out of their primary feeding lanes to feed on something floating along. Luckily, during spring or early summer, when the lakes are at or below power pool levels, there are plenty opportunities to get out a light rod and fish with dry flies, and when the right conditions come together, some really huge fish will throw caution to the wind and rise to the surface to engulf an insect floating down the river. At times, using a dry fly will catch far more fish than a nymph, so if fish are rising, and you are not catching very many of them on a nymph, it is time to reevaluate the situation.

As winter turns to spring and temperatures begin to warm in the Ozarks, the first medium to large insects will start to hatch. Although midges are typically on the water 365 days a year, there are really only five months when the dry fly fishing could be outstanding: April, May, June, September and October. Yes, that is five months, but keep in mind that the first three listed are the best, and conditions must be perfect in order for good hatches to come off, so there may only be a handful of days all spring where using dries will be effective (or you may get a low-water spring where there is 'magic' happening every day). July and August are usually too hot and the water is too high for there to be many chances to wade and fish with dries, but long, accurate casters may be able to find some slow-water pods of risers along the banks and in backwater areas.

At this point in the day Buck is fine tuning his sight casting ability. 

The first big hatch of the year is typically a small to medium-sized caddis, and they will usually start showing up on the White River around the beginning to middle of March. Their sizes range from "cinnamon" to gray to tan, and they run from size #12 down to size #18. The really big caddis resemble a moth, and the best places to get in on the action will be from Wildcat Shoals down to Buffalo City. Both dam areas can be good towards evening, but because most bugs come off as the water warms, getting into areas where the water is not at its coldest will increase the amount of good dry fly time. Also, keep in mind that afternoons on sunny days are the best time for any insect emergence, so it is important to keep up with current water flows before hitting either river so that you are at the right place at the right time.

On the Norfork, the caddis run the same size as they do on the White River, but they don't really get going until a few weeks after they are first spotted on White. This short tailwater is a dry fly fisherman's dream, and it is also the more likely of the two rivers to be low on a typical day when the lakes are both equally low. Rarely will you see any of the bigger insects within a mile of Norfork dam, but from the Long Hole down to its confluence with the White, there are many wonderful spots. The catch and release area has the highest percentage of prime dry fly lies, and there are plenty of sight-fishing opportunities. Actually stalking and then catching a fish you were going after on a dry is one of a fly angler's crowning moments, so be sure to look for fish in the shallow areas before barging into a sweet spot, no matter what type of hatch you are fishing.

Buck's cousin Will wasted no time landing some quality fish during his first visit to DRC.

As mentioned previously, trout on the White River and the Norfork grow fat on subsurface food sources, so they can become very picky when it comes to what type of nymphs they are going to feed on. But when it comes to dry flies, Ozark fish are not overly selective. As long as you have a pattern with the right profile that is close to the proper size and color, it's likely you will get some looks; these trout are not like many of the ones out West that will refuse a fly that is tied with the wrong color of wing. Elk Hair Caddis patterns are a good place to start and you don't really have to get fancy with your fly selection during the caddis hatch. As long as your fly floats high on the surface, you have a chance.

For those that are into entomology, the caddis are an interesting creature with some very unique habits and attributes, but for the sake of catching trout on the White and the Norfork, you just have to know if the caddis hatching are egg-layers or emergers. The caddis that are laying eggs will bounce up and down on the water's surface, and when this is the type of caddis that are on the water, expect to see the fish making 'splashy' types of rises or flat out exploding on the surface. It does not take a trout very long to figure out that they have just a split-second to make a meal out of an egg-laying caddis. To imitate this form of the insect, use a skating-type of technique where you wiggle or raise the rod to impart movement on the fly. When the caddis are emerging, they often get 'stuck' on the surface before flying off, so if this is the type of caddis that are coming off, a common dead-drift technique will work just fine. Typically, you will encounter more egg-layers than emergers on these rivers, and it is common for both types of caddis to hatch simultaneously.

Buck's big bow.

Since mornings are often slow during the spring if the water is off, it can pay off to use a caddis emerger pattern in the hours before the hatch starts. Spring is the one time of year where swinging a soft hackle fly works exceedingly well on the Norfork (whereas, swinging and stripping flies catches fish all year long on the White), and there are many other types of caddis emergers that will fool those finicky morning fish. According to substantiated reports, the White River is already loaded with caddis larva and even some pupa, so spring's first big hatch is getting close to happening.

In the fall, a blizzard micro caddis hatch occurs on the White, but for the most part, any sort of big caddis hatch is going to occur from April through September. Nothing in the fly fishing world is set in stone, so if you are seeing large caddis bouncing around in March or October, by all means, fish a caddis. Fly fishing is a sport of averages, giving yourself the best odds and being at the right place at the right time, so please don't ever let an article dictate what you are going to do on the water in lieu of personal observation. 2011 has all the makings of being an excellent year for caddis fishing, but it's still too early to tell for sure if low water will be predominant. Always feel free to call the friendly staff at Blue Ribbon Fly Shop for an updated hatch report, and stop on in anytime to see which patterns are producing the most fish. Blue Ribbon strives to not just be another fly shop...we aim to be the White River and Norfork's foremost fly fishing resource.

Hire a Blue Ribbon Guide for your next White River, Norfork River, Dry Run Creek, or Crooked Creek adventure. Book your trip by calling 870.425.0447 or send us a message to blueribbonflyfish@hotmail.com

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