If asked – Trout eat insects, right? Few fly fishermen would say no. After all it is called fly fishing. But if you’re fishing bug patterns and don’t occasionally throw an imitation of some other tidbit that might tempt fish you may be missing out on some of the bigger fish.
Certainly here in New England people are aware of streamer patterns like the Black Nose Dace or Gray Ghost. Imitating baitfish with fur and feathers is a long standing tradition here. But there are other critters that often get overlooked. Leeches for one. Or as our family always called them “Bloodsuckers” are found from Kittery to Fort Kent in moving or still water.
They aren’t hard to find. At the family camp you could safely swim off and around the dock but the area just the left with a smattering of cattails and lily pads was considered “suckerville” and avoided while swimming. And especially avoided if you were wading – touching bottom over there was a no-no. The shelter and shade of those lily pads wasn’t the only reason you could catch fish over there.
And when the family camped on the North Branch of The Dead River near Surampus Falls leeches were the reason we swam in the fast water at the head of the pool instead of in the slow water at the tail of the pool. I remember those swimming rules whenever I fish leech imitations. I look for water I wouldn’t want to swim in without a salt shaker handy and that’s the water I work my leech imitations through.
On the stream if there’s no hatch my first thought is to start stripping streamers – I just like to do that. But if that doesn’t work than out comes my fast-sinking line and an Olive and Black Woolly Bugger – my favorite leech pattern. It just seems the Bloodsuckers in my past weren’t brightly colored. But bright imitations like the ones above do indeed work and if you give a leech its due you have to admit they show purple and red highlights. I just don’t usually look at them real closely.
Anyway in streams I find a slower inside bend or the tail of a deep pool and after casting I let my fly sink before I begin a retrieve. My retrieve is slow as leeches aren’t especially fast swimmers. After a few short pulls on the line I let my fly sink a bit and repeat the few short pulls followed by a drop. If the pattern doesn’t draw a strike before it dangles downstream below me I make sure I jiggle it a bit before I pick it up and cast it out again.
For lake leeches I don’t use a fast-sinking line as I usually fish leech imitations near shore and a fast sink hangs up on bottom too often. Working that shallow water isn’t usually real productive during the heat of summer but spring and fall (or at night) the shallows can be surprisingly productive.
Sculpins are another overlooked alternate for a good hookup when the hatch isn’t happening. And the Muddler Minnow was invented specifically to imitate this seldom seen bottom-feeder. But the spun deer-hair head of a Muddler really isn’t suited to working the bottom, which is, after all, where Sculpins hang. Enter the Cone-Head Muddler.
If you can find a section of shoreline with a gravel or sandy bottom a Cone-Head Muddler is your friend. Sculpins crawl along the bottom using their over-sized pectoral fins. If they feel a need to get somewhere or are startled they will “hop” up off the bottom and swim but seldom do they go far. Instead they drop back to the bottom and count on their camouflaged coloring to keep them safe. In a relatively weed free zone (like the South East shore of Grace Pond just down from the hand carry launch site) you can crawl or hop a Cone-Head Muddler along with good results.
Another favorite Sculpin imitation is the Woolhead Sculpin. Once the wool gets waterlogged keeping this pattern on bottom is easy. But you still have to have a relatively clean bottom to work the fly correctly and not pick up a lot of debris. Which is where the Chuck and Duck Sculpin comes in handy.
The Chuck and Duck Sculpin borrows a trick from the venerable Clouser Minnow pattern and has a set of dumbbell eyes that flip the hook over so the point rides up. In mild weeds or along a windswept shore with twigs and leaves covering the bottom this type of pattern can save the day.
So if you get to the water and aren’t lucky enough to stumble onto a hatch don’t give up hope. Get out some Bloodsuckers and Bottom-Feeder patterns and go down after those fish.