2020 has been a strange year. If on January 1 I made a list of things which were likely to happen over the next 12 months, items such as the postponement of the NHL season, the closing of public schools with required home-schooling in its place, and requirements to wear facemasks while in public settings probably wouldn’t have made the list. One item that I would have almost put money on being on or around the top of said list would have been my getting into fly fishing for trout after a good 20-year hiatus from the sissy stick. But, you know what? All that has happened and more.
Let’s rewind a bit here and see how and where that fly revival began as I’m sure you’re more than caught up on the other items. Early in the year, long before things started to go to hell, I was speaking with Fisherman contributor Jerry Audet about some upcoming editorial subjects, and he pitched a small stream brook trout column to me. I thought it sounded like a solid piece and gave him the go-ahead to write it. When the article arrived in my email I was immediately intrigued. As he spoke of stalking diminutive trout in nameless streams, I was immeidatly taken back to my youth where I did the very same thing. In short order that spark become a full-on wildfire and I was the proud owner of a 4-weight fiberglass rod and vintage Pflueger Medalist reel—perfect for small stream work. I landed a bunch of “truck trout” in short order, and that wild fire quickly turned into a raging inferno. Purchase number two shortly followed as I paired a G-Loomis 4-weight rod with a tiny Van Staal fly reel (hey, I had to find some way to bring the surf to my local trout stream!) and ordered 7-dozen flies from a local supplier. (To find Jerry’s article on brook trout, take a look at Big Rewards in Small Places which appears in the May 14, 2020 weekly issue.)
Fast-forward a few weeks and more outings than I can count, and my good friend Chris Wahl told me about an interest he had in stalking big brown trout at night with mouse flies. I had heard of the technique before, but in my mind it was something done in Alaska or Montana on big trout water. Little did I know it was something that can and is practiced locally. I poured myself into every YouTube video and website I could find on the subject, and in short order I was a certified ‘Internet Hero Mouse Pro.’ My only hang-up at this point was in my gear as I still only had those two 4-weights, but I wasn’t about to let that get in my way.
In general, mousing, is practiced with rods in the 5- to 8-weight range with most recommendations I found saying 7-weight rods would be ideal. The combination of big, bulky flies and equally oversized trout requires the use of such heavy gear in places that, by day, are more than adequately fished with a 3-weight. So here I was with two pretty much new outfits in my possession and I just had to find a way to put them to use. I began with the fly.
Again back to YouTube, I sorted through the library of videos I had saved on the subject of mousing and quickly focused on a pattern by Joe Cermele (formerly of Field & Stream, now with MeatEater) called the Master Splinter (yes, that is a TMNT reference!) This fly appeared to be easy to tie—a plus for me as I’ve never been great on the vise—and I saw ways in which I could downsize the original from a size 2 to something I could throw on the 4-weight with ease. I settled on a size 6 hook and tied up several variations, some with weight and some without, and set to testing them very carefully in my son’s inflatable pool. They all swam equally well, so I tied up ten fresh flies and told Chris we needed to hit the water, soon!
In less than a week I found myself on the banks of a local trout stream, but we had more than 2 hours of daylight ahead of us. No worries, this would give both Chris and I—neither of whom had ever thrown a mouse fly prior to this day—ample time to get a feel for things. We marched down to the water’s edge, and before I could get my first false-cast swinging overhead, Chris slapped his light-brown mouse above a nice ripple in front of us and the water exploded. He landed a good 12-plus-inch brown trout on his first-ever cast with a mouse fly! I knew this either meant the outing was jinxed or we were in for a memorable evening (as you will see, it was more towards the latter).
Over the next two hours we landed perhaps a dozen browns and one big rainbow between us, but not a single additional hit came on a mouse. Instead we had fish on nymphs, dries, wets and just about anything else we threw, but not even so much as a hit on the mouse despite fish literally rising—and at times coming clear out of the water—all around us. I figured our mouse careers may have been cut short before even having a chance at getting going.
Just as the sun was setting, Chris and I recommitted to the mice and made our way upstream to the head of a pool where three anglers had been slamming fish since our arrival. Passing the trio on the trail in the woods, we exchanged pleasantries and asked how the guys leaving had done (knowing full-well they slayed) and they gave us an encouraging, “Get up there now, they’re still feeding on flies! But put those mice away, you have a while until they’ll want meat like that!”
Not to be deterred, Chris and I marched to the upper pool and once again, Chris was tight on his first cast. He landed another quality brown, this one perhaps 15 inches long, and we started casting feverishly. We tried every retrieve we had read about and seen on YouTube—dead stick, up-stream, downstream, herky-jerky, regular pops, irregular pops, etc.)—but nothing seemed to work. But then it happened; fish started rising on our mice patterns. I missed and/or dropped at least a half-dozen fish, and then I switched to a different mouse with a larger-gap hook. I was quickly into a nice brown, my first-ever on a mouse!
A few casts later, I was tight to another fish, this time a good one that popped free on its second run. Chris and I traded missed hits, dropped fish and even a few that came to the net for the next 2 hours or so, and then my mouse stopped in the middle of a dead drift. I leaned back and felt weight, but honestly I thought I snagged a tree for a moment as nothing really happened. Then line shot from my hand and I was onto the reel with fly line screaming through my guides. The fish started heading out, then turned and went upstream, all the time taking line. I hollered to Chris that I might have a little better fish, but I felt it could just as easily be foul-hooked so I told him to keep casting. After maybe a minute, I reached out with my net and slid the fish’s head into the soft rubber basket. The fish’s nose was in the net, but its tail was hanging precariously close to the edge—this was a real fish! We took a few photos and measured the fish—just over 20 inches—and I set to reviving him for release.
I never did find that fish’s grand pappy, although I did find several of his younger brothers and sisters, and Chris added his share of fish as well, but along the way we learned a lot about what elements to look for in finding good mousing water as we worked our way up and down the river. First off, we had much more action in moving water, but not water that moved too fast. This is perhaps because in the total darkness it’s nearly impossible to get an idea of exactly what the mouse is doing—you want it to skim along and look like it’s struggling to stay afloat, but you don’t want it to look like a cigarette boat speeding back to the marina for last call. Many of our stops were in places that were popular with anglers by day while tight-lining with weighted nymphs, but often times we found the current to be too swift. Then in other places where the current just rolled over a deep hole, we had very little action as well—perhaps here the fish were given too much time to inspect our fur-and-foam offerings. When we found that Goldilocks water, action was almost immediate.
Another consideration is in casting room. While by day you can easily watch your back cast, by night the only sign that you have too much line out is when your arm moves to the forecast but the rod tip and line doesn’t follow. Again, not all spots that regularly produce well by day are prime for night work. Eventually we started piecing together a few of the puzzle pieces that would make up a prime spot, and at our last stop of the night with the clock approaching 2 a.m., we settled on a lengthy pool with large boulders causing well-defined eddies and current breaks. We both had several hits, dropped a few fish, and Chris connected with a good fish near the bottom of the pool, just above where it shallows up and enters a run of rapids. The fish fought much like my biggie from earlier, and he had it finning in his net in short order. The fish was a tad shorter than mine, and it lacked the beginning of a hook jaw which mine sported, but it made up for this in sheer girth as this was a deep-bodied, well-fed fish – a true trophy in both of our eyes and a great capper to the night’s work.
We only made a few half-hearted casts each after releasing that second big fish of the night as we were both exhausted and quite satisfied with the outing. When all was said and done we learned a lot in that first night on the water and laid down a solid base for many more to come.