Chance and choice are two important variables in life and in fly fishing. Sometimes committing to one thing and sticking with it until you find success helps you to focus and find your path. I believe the more choices you have and the more chances you create, the more opportunities for growth and moving ahead. In fly fishing, my preference is to fish two flies. Two flies equal two chances to feed the fish and two chances to occupy different depths in the water column. 

Tandem rigs with more than one fly can be set in a variety of arrangements. When fish are rising to emerging or stranded insects, a dry-dropper setup is advantageous and one of my favorite ways to fish. Without bugs on the water surface, multiple nymphs below the surface can help the angler provide two different depths, weights, and sizes of flies. When I first started nymph fishing, I tied one larger fly to the end of the tippet and then tied a smaller (12-24”) section of tippet off the bend of the hook to add a second smaller, lighter fly. This is an inline rig. As I’ve become comfortable tying double and triple surgeon’s knots, I’ve learned to connect a second section of tippet to the end of my line and leave a 4-6” tag of line to attach a second fly above the end of the line. Troutbitten has a wonderful article on using tandem nymph rigs which provides an in-depth description of these options. 

Tag Fly – Graphic by Kayla Smith

Fishing the inline rig keeps knots simple and if the first fly is the heaviest, it keeps the flies closer to the stream bed. This can present more flies to fish holding near the stream bed, but it can also hang up on the bottom and potentially you can lose multiple flies frequently. I like fishing inline tandem rigs when I am using egg flies, early to mid-winter. 

My preference has become using the tags for fishing multiple flies. I find I lose less flies, I feel more in contact and in control of my drifts, and the tag fly can be slightly higher in the water column. Most of the fish I catch are on the heaviest, bottom fly using this rig. Mop flies, Pat’s rubber legs, Frenchie’s, Polish woven, and Walt’s worms are the anchor flies I use most often. Fish holding under boulders, in deep runs, and near obstructions can be tempted into a larger meal by using these flies. 

Winter River Scene

I will select a lighter, smaller fly for the tag. In winter, turbo midges, black France flies, Frenchie’s, or hare’s ears are my go-to tag flies. My thought process is that smaller insects dislodged from the substrate are more likely to be dispersed through turbulence in the water column or are more likely to be swimming nymphs, capable of moving through the water. I have also found this helps to minimize tangles.

Looking back through my fishing logs and photos, approximately 90% of the fish I have caught have been on the anchor or point fly. In the last few weeks, especially yesterday, 80% of my fish caught have been on the tag nymph. I cycled through different flies in each position and the result didn’t vary. This abrupt change got my attention. What could cause this change?

To help find answers, I went to the data. Available USGS data on streams I fished includes stream flow, stream depth, and water temperature. Over the past several years stream discharge and depth have varied, but they are within consistent ranges. The Gunpowder River is a tailwater, so control of the releases from the dam or the occasional overtopping regulate the flow and temperature. Even in warmer periods, stream temperature holds in the 50’s and 60’s. The highest amount of change in the Gunpowder River water temperature appears to be the consistent drop of water temperature each winter. This winter I did notice one difference. Stream temperatures have been 3-4 degrees higher than the previous 3-4 years. Winter temperatures in January have been 37-40 degrees, but this year most days have varied from 42-46 degrees. I’m wondering if the slightly higher temperatures are changing the bug and fish activity in the stream. That’s my guess, more insects are present through the water column than in a typical winter.

Observations made while fishing and my interpretations of gage data aren’t exactly scientific measurements, but I seek to understand how my techniques can be improved to catch fish and learn about the streams. When results change, understanding the triggers of those changes intrigues me. One of the great aspects of fly fishing is that the angler is interacting with nature and all the complexities of the system. Ideas can be investigated, speculative conversations held, and different approaches to fishing can be undertaken to understand how to improve. Listening to podcasts, asking questions of experts, and discussing our observations with friends helps to connect us and to grow in our knowledge. 

We may never know why certain fish take specific flies or refuse them, but seeing the patterns and trying to explain them is part of the fun of fly fishing for me. Why do you think fish would take the tag fly more often?

Keep Mending…

4 Replies to “Why Do Trout Take the Tag Fly? ”

  1. Hi Scott!
    Like you said, the unusual warm Winter we’ve had is definitely making bug activity happen earlier this season. So the increased bug activity is putting more active bugs into the water column which will get some of the fish off the bottom and feeding in the column , thus taking the higher tag fly. But when this bug activity stops or just flows down, expect those suspended fish to be back on the bottom feeding.

  2. Another test to consider is, use the same fly pattern on top as your tag, and the same pattern just with a heavier bead as your bottom point fly and see how the results turn out. Another big factor would be at what time you’re fishing this rig, during a hatch or non-hatch period. A host of factors can influence which fly the fish chooses. A would presume rather hard to see correlations. I don’t know, but interesting 🤔.

    1. that is a great idea Scott. I need to try that out. I’ve almost always used a much lighter fly as the tag.

  3. How great that your blog connects with others who speak the language and can benefit from your experiences!
    I am sure there is a lot of sharing and learning!
    Plus your love of the environment and the process of fishing educates and inspires others!
    Keep sharing !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *