How to Match the Hatch: A Beginner's Guide to Fly Fishing SuccessPublished on 05/22/2023 · 9 min readFly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk helps you choose the types of flies that fish are feeding on, turning an okay day on the water into a fantastic experience.
Photo by Michael Yero
Stop me if this sounds familiar. You are surrounded by rising trout, gorging themselves on seemingly everything drifting down the river, with the very distinct exception of any fly you present.
We've all been there.
Before long, you make your way through your entire fly box, confident that whatever the fish want isn't in there. These are the great challenges of our sport and the difference between fishing and catching. Sure, sometimes trout seem like indiscriminate feeders. Who hasn't been startled to see a big 'bow rise to the water’s surface to taste your plastic strike indicator as if it was a gumball? What about catching a brook trout that inhaled an articulated streamer that was almost as long as itself?
"Trout can be aggressive predators but usually are pretty selective," says Peter Stitcher, aquatic biologist and owner of Ascent Fly Fishing. His fly curation outfit aims to address the age-old question all of us ask: What are they biting?
Many fly fishermen attempt to match the hatch, but what do experts like Stitcher mean by "match the hatch"? How can we improve our ability to choose the types of flies fish are feeding on, ultimately turning an okay day on the water into a fantastic experience? That's what matching the hatch is meant to do. It’s meant to help fly fishers, new and old, increase their awareness of fly fishing so that what is offered to a fish represents what's on the menu.
What Is Matching the Hatch?
The health of a river or lake is very much driven by its smallest inhabitants. Trout feed heavily on a variety of aquatic invertebrates that follow various life cycles throughout the water column, including riffles and faster water portions of the river. In their various stages of life, these bugs represent much of a trout's diet and are what we aim to match in our quest to catch fish. Trout are keenly aware of these cycles—owing their own survival to them—and adjusting their habits to not only prey on a particular bug but a bug at a specific stage in its life cycle.
"Whether it's Colorado, Patagonia, New Zealand, or Germany, the same family of bugs are present where trout reside," explains Stitcher.
The primary insects that trout feed on include:
Each of these families includes a myriad of subspecies. All follow a different life cycle triggered by the seasons, to which trout set their clock.
Recognizing that these insect groups undergo a cyclical and seasonal metamorphosis is a huge step. Then it is a matter of having artificial flies in the size, colors, and profiles in your fly box that can achieve a good representation of the natural insects.
Like butterflies that go through physical changes from their beginnings as a caterpillar, these insects also make tremendous changes on their way to adulthood. These changes are initiated by cues in their environment, including changes in water temperature and light. For example, Blue Winged Olive (BWO) mayflies will advance in their cycle from egg to nymph, to mayfly emerger, to adult mayfly when the water temperature approaches 40°F. The process is then continued as the adult mayfly reproduces and dies. Throughout the entire cycle, trout might be keying in on the nymph, dun, adult, or spent spinner.
Each bug species goes through a set metamorphosis over its lifespan, changing in a specific sequence that happens in pretty much any body of water. These insects offer much of the challenge in decoding what trout are keenly focused on consuming.
How Do You Match the Hatch?
You don't have to be an entomologist to match the hatch. There are plenty of ways to identify what fish might be targeting. Simply being a little more aware of the surroundings you fish can offer clues. A little awareness will even clue you into terrestrials like ants, beetles, or grasshoppers that may fall into the water. In those cases, it might be wise to tie on a Chubby Chernobyl or one of your foam hoppers. Not to mention matching streamers with the minnows, shad, and baitfish that cluster in the shallows. Add these tools and preparations to your fly fishing trip planning to set yourself up for success on the water.
Chart a Course for Success
Planning a trip but don't know what types of bugs are present? The time of year will offer clues to potential food sources for trout, bass, and other fish species. Where I live, I know that early May will signal salmonflies. Early April will have anglers tying on an Olive caddis dry fly pattern or caddis larva. While adult insects won't always be present, you can be sure that immature insects in various stages of their life cycle are always present in the water.
The seasonality of hatches is well recorded in guidebooks and downloadable apps. Check out the Flyfisher’s Guide series. These books offer a state-by-state encyclopedia of places to fish, complete with hatch charts that detail what is active throughout the year and what fly patterns to have in your box. You can also find apps for your phone that offer fly hatch charts. Just search for “hatch charts” on your Apple or Android device.
While you may need to adjust your approach due to weather conditions, time of day, or even the type of fish you're after, these charts will continually offer the best shots at breaking the hatch-match code and help you target species and larger fish.
Bonus: If you tie your own flies, charts also help you prioritize your time on the wise.
Who doesn't love to visit the local fly shop? Not only does each local shop have its own cool vibe, but they are also the best source of information on that all-important question: what are they biting, NOW?
While at a shop, ask the staff about the current hatches. If you arrive in July or August, they might key you onto the trico hatch, which peaks in the early afternoons. Maybe you stop by in early spring to late March and are told the trout remain focused on midges and to try a tiny parachute adams with a zebra midge dropper. Maybe you arrive in June just in time for the yellow sallies to start coming off. In that case, they make sure you have plenty of hares ear and a stimulator or two in the mix. The point is that local intel is key to matching the hatch.
While learning about an area’s best hatches at your local shop, pick up a fly fishing thermometer. Remember that temperature is a crucial variable when it comes to early and late-season hatches. A trout's behavior will differ drastically depending on if you are using dry flies for the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch compared to the salmonfly hatch around runoff or when you are catching the green drake hatch just a few months later. Knowing the temperature will let you know what to expect. As a bonus, in the summer, it will tell you when the water is too warm for the fish to be caught and, therefore, when to call it a day. Some anglers tie theirs to their boot so they always know the water temperature.
Don't know a fly shop in the area you're going to? Message one of Curated’s Fly Fishing Experts, and they can get you outfitted with the bugs you need for a successful trip anywhere in the world.
Leave No Stone Unturned (Then Turn it Back)
Slowing down when you reach the water is excellent advice to improve your chances. Before peeling off fly line and blindly casting, stop and look at what's on the surface of the water, sitting on logs, clinging to boulders, or hiding under stones. You may notice caddis larvae on submerged sticks, leeches, or midge nymph species under rocks. Even scanning the top of the water will reveal dragonflies, yellow sally stoneflies, terrestrial insects, or midge adults at the end of their life cycle. If you don't notice bugs, you might see fish that you'd otherwise spook. Stitcher includes spiderwebs in his list of intel-rich observations; hatching bugs, like damselflies, will inevitably find themselves caught.
In-Seine in the Brain
"Ninety percent of what the fish are feeding on can be found with a hand seine," says Stitcher. He cautions against using stomach pumps in an effort to protect the fish. A hand seine is a small net with a stiff frame that allows anglers to collect aquatic insects as they are carried along by the current. It's a handy, easy-to-use tool that should be a mainstay in your pack.
The Art of Fly Fishing
When we talk about the art of fly fishing, generally, we don't mean markers, but having a few Sharpies in your vest is a trick I have seen many guides embrace. For example, you might see dark caddisflies bouncing around what seems like the entire length of the river, but all you have in your box are cream-colored. You can grab a dark brown sharpie, and voilà! You have dark elk hair caddis to better match what is on the water.
The subtle variations in insect colors from one river to the other and throughout the season make carrying every color of fly both expensive and inefficient. Instead, having a few permanent markers to darken or brighten flies in your box can come in handy to really dial in matching the hatch. Hey, nobody said just because you're matching the hatch, you had to be the consummate fly fishing purist!
Figuring It Out
I once found myself on a tailwater one late winter in February where a massive rainbow was holding along the nearby bank. Positioning myself behind this behemoth, I proceeded to cast fly after fly, but the fish paid little attention to anything I had to offer, save for politely moving out of the way for my bead head baetis nymph to drift by.
Frustrated, I sat along the bank, defeated. I then noticed a smooth rock poking out of the water. I reached in and turned it over, revealing the missing piece to this puzzle, several dark olive scuds. I found the imitation in my box that resembled what I saw and returned to my spot on the river.
The first cast yielded a different result. While it wasn't a take, I could tell I had the fish's attention. The next drift was on target, and I watched the trout's mouth open. I set the hook, and the fish sped off. In a second, my line screamed off the reel, and then...snap!
The fish was gone. It was time to go home. It was a great day!
Matching the hatch is but one piece of the fly fishing equation. Stopping to practice a little awareness certainly goes a long way while figuring it out. It just might be the difference between a good day and a great day of fly fishing.
If you have any questions about choosing the right fly for your next adventure, please feel free to reach out to me, or a fellow Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated, and we'll be happy to help you out.