A Seine Answer to an Insane Question,”Which Fly to Use?”

At first glance, the fly fisherman’s dedication to the sport seems almost unconditional. It appears as though there is nothing an angler will not do to tip the odds in his or her favor. It seems there is no limit to the amount of money they are willing to spend or the time they will invest. They wake up long before the sun comes up and at times they travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to reach a desired fishing destination. They spend countless hours reading books and studying charts that predict what to use and when to go. They willingly endure extreme weather conditions and gladly miss a meal in trade for a few more hours on the stream. It is no big deal to spend several hundred dollars on a high tech graphite fly rod and many hours in the park perfecting the art of casting. But buried some where in the ongoing list of things that define the fly fisherman’s devotion to the sport, there is a mystery, an irony that runs counter to all of the angler’s apparent dedication to the sport.

After all the preparation, money, time and long meaningful conversations about trout and insect behavior, the angler arrives at the river only to ask the million-dollar question.

Dressed to the hilt in a sort of ceremonial set of gear, the angler stands over the water staring blankly, and as if the river will speak back to him, he asks, “Which fly should I put on?”

All anglers are not as unsophisticated however. Some of them figure out that the fly that worked last time, will probably work today too. These are the ones you see rigging their fly rods at the gas pump at the base of the canyon, or the ones at the trail-head that have already determined how long the leader should be, what size the tippet should be, and have already selected and tied on, the proper fly in the proper size. For these anglers, if they don’t catch any fish, the fish simply aren’t biting. To heck with the theory of fish being opportunists.

Next, there are those of us who take all of the guesswork out of it. The ones who leave nothing to chance, the anglers who value their time spent fishing so much that they’re not willing to waste it experimenting. They are the ones who trust in the experts. The ones who go to the local fly shop to ask what’s working.

What they don’t realize is that the fly shop must give them an answer whether they have the correct one or not. Most of the experts in the fly shops realize that it is wrong to assume that whatever worked yesterday, will work today. They also know that at any given time, on any given body of water, there is a multitude of flies, which if presented properly will catch fish. With the exception of the very brief but intense hatch periods, they also realize that it is wrong to assume that there is only one food source available to the fish. And most importantly, our experts know that without actually being there, there is no way to tell you exactly which fly to use at the exact time and in the exact place you will be fishing.

Never the less, because they are the experts, and because they are in the business of selling fishing stuff, they have the burden of giving the angler the best general information that they can, as well as the burden of selling the fly that in their opinion, will produce a fish. In order to instill confidence, and ensure the customers return, the experts simply must succeed in their task.

Finally, there are those who seek out other fisherman on the stream that appear to know what they are doing and ask which fly they are using. There are only two problems with this. Although the selected angler may appear to know what he is doing, there is a high probability that he falls in one of the categories mentioned above, and if he does, then he may not have the best answer to the question.

The second and biggest problem with asking another angler which fly to use is that if he really does know the answer to the million dollar question, the chances of him being completely honest with you are slim at best.

It is certain, that when we fish a fly with confidence, we fish it better, get better presentations and consequently catch more fish. I personally know people who lack confidence in certain highly commercialized flies that are proven fish catchers. And because they don’t fish them with confidence, they simply don’t catch fish with them.

So the question remains. How can we determine which fly to use, each and every time we go fishing. The answer lies under the water. The river will answer our question for us, but we must ask it in a language that the river understands.

The real irony is that despite the hundreds and even thousands of dollars that we so willingly invest. The answer to the million-dollar question lies in a seine that costs no more than the price of a ball cap. A seine is nothing more than a screen used to collect items that are floating in the water. The most surprising part of all of this is the fact that only a very small percentage of anglers own a seine, and only a very small percentage of those who own one, actually use it!

Many people prefer to enjoy the sport of fly-fishing without getting a degree in entomology. After all, the fish don’t speak Latin and why get involved in seining if you don’t even know what you are looking at.

But the truth is that the art of proper fly selection isn’t the result of a college degree. In fact, it isn’t an art at all. It is common knowledge among fly fisherman that one should match the size, shape and color of the natural. So if you have the natural in hand, even a child could match the size shape and color of it. It doesn’t matter if it is a stonefly or a caddis. It doesn’t matter if it has a complete or an incomplete metamorphosis. It only matters that you match it, and you don’t even have to match it exactly, you only need to get close.

DSC_0283Proper use of a seine can place the food source in your hand. It is important to know that at any given time, there are all kinds of insects in all different life stages, in any body of water. The trick is to understand that most of these insects are not available to the fish at all times. Most of them are hidden in the bottom structure or in the vegetation. But depending on a whole host of variables that we need not trouble ourselves with, they will all be available to fish at different times. Usually, there is more than one insect type available at a given time and many times there are several.

Seines are commonly referred to as kick screens. This is not a good name for them because it suggests how we should use them. There are three ways to use a seine and each will yield different results.

The first way is to simply place it in the water, preferably in a current seam or somewhere that has a moderate current speed. Then just wait. After a short period of time, remove the seine from the water and inspect the contents. This will tell you exactly what, if anything is drifting in the water for the fish to eat right now. If you get results with this method then you have solved the mystery. You know exactly what the fish are eating right now and you only need to match it.

If the first way doesn’t offer up the answer, then put the seine back in the water. This time, GENTLY disturb the bottom just upstream of your seine. This is where most people go wrong. All you need to do is step lightly in one area and then remove your foot. Take a couple of steps if you need. But don’t dig up the bottom! Or you can turn over a single rock and do nothing else. This method tells you what insects may be readily available to the fish. The insects that you dislodge with this method could easily be dislodged by another fisherman, a change in water flow or just be caught in the current while moving about. These are the insects that the fish are used to seeing and fish will readily eat them. These are the ones you should match.

The third way to use a seine is to place it in the water and have someone stand upstream of it kicking up the bottom and rubbing the rocks bare with their hands. This is a method that biologists and entomologists may use to determine total numbers of insects and to get a clear picture of exactly which insect species live in a river. But it has little value when it comes to proper fly selection. The problem is that although all of these insects live in the river, all of them are not available to the fish right now.

Once you take your sample, it is easy to determine which fly to use. I always enjoy the reaction I get from people when they see this for the first time. There are several things that become immediately apparent upon looking at a properly extracted sample.

The first thing people notice is the size of the natural insects. They are almost always larger or smaller than people would expect. The next thing that becomes apparent after a closer observation is the diversity in color. But the most surprising discovery is that in most circumstances, the naturals don’t look anything like many of the locally popular flies.

After sampling a river properly, anyone can pick out a half a dozen fly patterns that they know are reasonable imitations of the fish’s food source. Once you know for sure that you’re using the right fly, you will automatically fish it with more confidence. You will not doubt your fly, and if you’re not catching fish, you will look in other areas for the answer, such as leader length, tippet size and length, and presentation techniques.

This whole process seems much worse than it really is. Seining a river takes just a few minutes and if you’re fishing the same place time after time, you will only need to do it occasionally. Once you realize how easy and informative the seining process can be, you will find yourself seining whenever you are in doubt.

Most anglers learn to fish their home waters well. They learn that when they go to their favorite river, stand in their favorite hole, and put on their favorite fly, they catch fish. But when they travel to new waters, they rarely enjoy the same success.

I know people who own seines, who have never used them. They say they just don’t want to invest all that time in it. But let me suggest that if you spend multiple hours fishing, which most of us would prefer to do whenever possible, and you’re not catching as many fish as you’d like, which includes about 99 percent of us, the five minutes it takes to seine the water can make the difference between a day spent fishing and a day spent catching fish.

It is so ironic that the same people who invest thousands of dollars and hours doing what they enjoy the most, don’t want to spend five minutes to learn how to do it better.

There are several different seines on the market. I think the key is to find one that fits easily in your vest or chest pack. But my favorite one is a commercial version that mounts on the handle of my net. I can pull the screen over the bow of my net in a matter of seconds and tuck it away just as fast. I like it because when it comes to seines, if it’s not easy to carry, you simply won’t carry it. If you can’t find one you like, it is very easy to make one. Just buy two-¾ inch dowels and a piece of fiberglass window screening material. Then with a hand stapler, fasten each end of the screen to a dowel and you’ve got a seine. This large seine is very effective and I use it occasionally, but I have also used a small six-inch version that fits in my pack. Other than the size, the only difference is that the dowels are ¼-inch as opposed to ¾-inch in diameter. I have also used a small dip net that I bought at a tropical fish store. It works great for capturing flying insects.

Seining is easy and educational, and I’m convinced that anyone who does it will catch more fish and have more time to worry about the finer points of fly fishing. If you take the time to seine, then you will never have to ask the insane question “which fly should I put on?”