A jingle of metal tags precedes the quick-footed black and white spaniel greeting me with a wagging tail and cheerful expression. 

“He’s friendly, don’t you worry about him.”

I give the dog a quick pat on the head, as a middle-aged man, dressed for a jog, clips a leash to the dog’s collar. “I’m always afraid he may run toward the road!” He states with a combination of concern and polite small talk. 

“Nobody wants that. Have a good run!” I nod and smile as they head up the trail. 

I fight the urge to completely rig up my rod at the truck and walk the trail toward the river. At the fly fishing show last weekend, several speakers recommended waiting until arriving at the stream to pick your flies and your approach. “Let the stream tell you what to do” was a common theme. The few extra minutes at the water’s edge gives you time to slowly approach the water to hopefully spook fewer fish and provides additional clues if there are hatching insects, changing flow conditions, or other indications of what may work best that day. 

I was hoping to put a stressful week in the rearview mirror and get my scattered mind back on track. Unfortunately, I am finding I need my trips more than I just enjoy to go. The river appeared to my left as I passed the bedrock ridge along the trail. The water was higher with the recent rain, but still had the magic color. I took a deep breath and carefully made my way down the steep trail, watching the tip of my fly rod carefully, avoiding the low branches and brambles along the slumping path. 

Stepping into the quick flow of the stream, I felt the pull of the water and used my weight to steady and anchor each step. Setting up on the opposite bank, I tied on my attempt at “The Grinch”, a streamer devised by Bill Dell of Troutbitten. I casted the articulated streamer into the soft edges of the run and around downed logs and large boulders in the deep pool. Besides dead drifting jig streamers, it had been some time since I had propelled a large fly and had to shoot a line through the guides. After a few sloppy moments of managing the rod and line, I got into a rhythm. 

Even though I was placing the streamer near my targets, no fish took the bait. No fish struck or chased the olive and chartreuse colored fly, so I switched out the short, stout 3X tippet for a lighter 5X nymph rig setup. Using a size 12 pheasant tail as the point fly and a size 18 iron lotus, blue winged olive imitation nymph, I worked my way upstream from the pool.      

The downstream half of a good run.

The deeper portion of the run also produced no evidence of feeding fish, so I moved toward the shallower, steeper riffle. Within a matter of 10 minutes I hooked four trout, landing three. All of the fish were fooled by the iron lotus fly, which I had placed on a tag line approximately 18 inches above the terminal point fly. At the head of the riffle and into the upstream glide, the fishing cooled off. I headed upstream to a long run and riffle along the opposite bank. Starting in the downstream, deeper pool, I worked my way upstream through the features similarly to how I approached the first rifle. Near a downed log, in a shallow area of the run, I quickly hooked two fish on the same fly. With a time constraint for the evening, I called it a day, feeling refreshed and successful.   

In two ten-minute time frames I’d caught all the fish I’d catch in a three-hour window. They had come in bunches. Later during a phone call with my friend and fellow angler, Brian, he shared that he had a similar experience using soft hackle wet flies a few days prior. Within a fifteen-minute window he’d caught a half a dozen fish. 

Why is it that sometimes anglers catch several fish in short succession followed by long periods of no fish? I’m certain there are many reasons which I’ll never discover, but this is a phenomenon I have routinely experienced. My first hypothesis involves seasonality, as I have found that trout tend to congregate in deeper water areas in both winter and summer, insulating themselves from extreme cold or heat. Secondly, and more frequently, I believe the rigs and flies we fish match a certain combination of depth and velocity conditions. Our angling approach can drag flies along the bottom if too heavy or travel high in the water column above the fish if too light. Very skilled anglers can adjust and dial into feeding fish at a variety of conditions, whereas I may not attune enough to find the correct combination. The last idea is that fish feed in a cycle overlapping with the increased presence of drifting or emerging insects in the stream. High percentages of fish in a river may feed aggressively in windows when more food is available and feed less at other periods.

White water in the background delineates a break in the flow path.

Ideally anglers can problem solve through the conditions presented at the time we are on the stream to catch fish. Catching fish at all on some days is a blessing, but it can be magical to feel like every cast gives you a likely chance of landing a fish. I’m happy to catch fish in bunches and continue to enjoy pondering why. 

Keep mending…          

2 Replies to “Why Do We Sometimes Catch Fish in Bunches?”

  1. Hi Scott! I’d like to make a couple suggestions just to try out. First, if you’re on a tailwater, like the Gunpowder, turn over some rocks, see if you see any big nymphs on the rocks, you may, but more than likely, this time of year , especially on a tailwater, most bugs will be on the smaller size, hence the success with the size 18 iron lotus vs the size 12 pheasantail. I wouldn’t recommend putting on a big nymph for the sake of needing a heavy point fly. If that size bug isn’t in there right now, no reason to lower your odds using one of your flies for weight reasons. I’d suggest to put on another small pattern and use a splitshot above your top fly to manage what depth you want to target, because the deeper tail end of a run may need more weight than the upper shallower riffle section. This way you can effectively manage your weight as needed sometimes differently in the same run, now with two patterns that may match their food source better. Also, if needed, experiment, step out of your comfort zone and put a small attractor on above your top fly to catch more fishies’ attention to possibly inspect your rig and now take one of your three offerings. Maybe try a micro-egg or a micro San Juan worm. You never know, give a trip up to just trying different things. Good luck!

    1. Great ideas! Thank you Scott. I tried the micro egg last week and tried smaller point flies. I caught several fish on the smaller flies. The rocks I turned over all had very small nymphs.

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