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There’s a sweet fly fishing run on my favorite stretch of the St. Joe River, ranging from a few feet deep to over my head. There’s plenty of rock and feeding lanes for native cutthroat trout, and usually they’re willing to rocket up from the bottom to hammer a grasshopper.
Not always. That’s the way of it with cutthroat trout. So often they’ll hammer anything that hits the water and at other times make you wonder if they exist at all. My favorite trick for reluctant trout when the water is clear and low in September is to throw a hopper-dropper combination (I’m talking fly fishing lingo, of course, for the newbies). The hopper is a large grasshopper imitation, and the dropper is usually a much smaller fly, usually an ant, beetle, or gnat.
Bait and Switch: ‘Hopper Dropper’
Here’s how it works: The trout spot the obvious grasshopper and start coming for it, only to realize that hey, maybe that’s not a real live grasshopper. Rather than lose a trout that’s so close to biting, the dropper snags their attention, and boom, they can’t resist hitting it. You either fooled the fish or triggered a feeding habit, and either way, you can catch a lot trout this way.
But in September on the St. Joe on my favorite stretch, my buddy Brian and I were getting nothing. The floats were perfect, no drag, but no fish. Maybe the trout were scared and disrupted by someone pounding the run right before we arrived. Or maybe some hot chick with a black lab had been throwing driftwood out in the river for her dog right in this very spot all morning. You never know.
But we knew there were fish in there — had to be. The section is catch-and-release only, and too good of a feeding spot for fish to avoid for long.
After working the run for a half-hour without hooking a decent fish, Brian was about ready to give up. After all, we’d been catching St. Joe cuts on hopper dropper combinations all day. Why change what was working everywhere else? He’s a good fisherman, but I have stubborn streak. There had to be some nice fish here. Had to be. So I changed up the presentation. I could try bumblebees or a red humpy or an elk hair caddis with a mosquito. But I decided to go deep.
I tied on a size 12 bead-head prince nymph, a heavy and shiny pattern that I didn’t really expect would do anything more than sink my dropper and attract attention. And the dropper? I stuck with a little black ant. A damn fine pattern and wickedly effective when you can’t tell what kind of insects are hatching or what the trout are feeding on. Of course, I’ve caught plenty of fish on ants that lost their float and sank below a hopper, but I’ve never tried one down deep on purpose.
On my second cast, I saw a fish flash, my strike indicator twitched, and I hooked into a nice cut. After a solid fight, I netted the largest cutthroat I’d ever caught on the St. Joe — 18 inches of pure wild muscle. Which fly did he take? The ant.
We hooked and landed a few more nice fish out of the run on that combination — and then that combination went cold. Brian hit the run again by going back to an ant on the surface and promptly hooked — and lost! — another large trout.
Then we jumped on our bikes and took off up the river to the next spot — the ultimate change up for reluctant trout, of course.