There’s no question finicky trout sometimes shun everything but the most lifelike flies. When this happens, matching the hatch can mean the difference between success and failure, particularly when waves of bugs are coming off your favorite stream. Sometimes, though, there are no insects rising from the water and a fly fisherman is left with a choice—get creative and keep fishing or pack up and go home. Giving up isn’t an option, especially if you’ve driven a couple hours or more to wet a line.
One of the deadliest alternatives when trout aren’t rising is tying on an attractor pattern. The attractor family includes dozens, even hundreds, of different flies that imitate nothing in particular. Some are gaudy contraptions that include a bizarre combination of clownish colors, alien appendages and flashy material that looks like nothing in nature; others are much more subtle, but nonetheless designed to attract the attention of disinterested trout. They can resemble a big, meaty meal or a tiny, irresistible nymph drifting with the current. No matter their appearance, or what they represent to the fish, attractor flies have one thing in common. They catch trout when even the most reckless of fish turn up their noses at more realistic offerings.
Prime Time The benefits of attractors aren’t lost on Brian Trow. Countless hours spent streamside, coupled with duties as co-owner of Mossy Creek Fly Fishing—purveyors of fine flies and guide services—have taught the Harrisonburg, Virginia, trout authority to reach for an attractor pattern under a variety of circumstances.
One of his favorites is when targeting brook trout in one of the numerous streams barely a roll cast from his shop. Generally infertile, his local waters lack an abundance of aquatic insects. That’s true of brook trout streams in other regions, as well, which is why brookies often snatch anything that remotely resembles a bug drifting overhead. A number of attractor dry flies work on these native fish, but instead of throwing a tiny Parachute Adams, Trow ties on a bright Royal Wulff, a white-winged, brown-hackled pattern that sits high on the water. His reasoning—virtually any dry fly draws strikes from hungry brook trout during the warmer months, so why not use something you can see?
“I almost always use something with pink or white or orange or yellow in it, because brook trout tend to live in darker streams with a lot of shade,” he begins. “You can miss a lot of fish if you can’t follow your fly across the water. It doesn’t look like a real insect, but that usually doesn’t matter to brookies.”
It often makes no difference to browns, rainbows or cutthroats, either. Just as brook trout are frequently found in infertile waters with low insect populations, plenty of other streams hold more fish than food to support them. As a result, trout are far less choosy about what they eat, grabbing just about any bug-like creation that drifts past their noses.
Insect Overload Ironically, sometimes the problem isn’t too few bugs, but too many. Trow has battled insect hatches so heavy, rising trout ignored his fly in favor of the millions of real bugs drifting with the current. When that happens, he turns to something completely off the wall like a Stimulator or other big, meaty attractor like a Chernobyl Ant, particularly during a heavy hatch of tricos or other tiny mayflies.
“Splatting an attractor pattern down on the surface gets a fish’s attention,” he says. “Once I time a trout’s feeding rhythm, I like to drift a high-riding fly right over his head. If a fish is coming up every five seconds, I put my fly on the water so it drifts over it five seconds after the last rise.” It doesn’t always work, he admits. But when what you’ve got tied on isn’t working, it’s worth a shot.
Some attractor flies do resemble a specific insect or class of insects, and are a great choice when hatches are light, or a variety of insects are coming off the water. Stimulators, for example, can mimic stoneflies, but some anglers use them as a substitute for various grasshopper patterns. Others, like attractor ant or beetle patterns, don’t really look like an insect, but catch fish.
“It’s not a matter of what we think is realistic, it’s what the fish see and what they like,” he says. “We sometimes get too wrapped up in what fish think, when they often just react without thinking.”
Make The Right Move How you fish an attractor fly depends on what you want it to imitate. For example, a Stimulator meant to mimic a grasshopper can be dead-drifted with the current, but a couple of quick twitches of the rodtip can bring it to life. Ever toss a grasshopper into a trout stream only to watch it frantically kick its way toward the bank? Sometimes the ’hopper makes land, but often it doesn’t.
Make no mistake, you don’t have to imitate something in order to catch trout on an attractor. That’s the whole point. A fly that looks like nothing and everything at the same time does not require some sort of lifelike action to fool fish. Case in point: I once spent several frustrating hours casting a variety of flies to super-spooky browns and rainbows in a Colorado spring pond. Midges, scud patterns and other perfect imitations of real bugs were shunned with equal discrimination. Each time the fly settled on the water, trout raced up to it, then hit the brakes when they got a closer look.
Only when I switched to a Stimulator did I start catching fish. However, it wasn’t as much the fly as the action. Instead of allowing the fly to rest on the surface, I pulled it across the water— not with a twitching action, but with a steady, fast rip. The fly’s fall, along with the ensuing rings that radiated from it, got the fish’s attention; the fast action convinced them to take a swipe at it. It didn’t matter if the fly skittered over the surface or swam a few inches below. What mattered was that is was moving away from the fish—in a hurry.
“Trout have the same instincts as bass. They don’t know what it is, but they’ll hit a fly out of reaction, even if it doesn’t look like anything they’ve seen before,” says Trow, who also guides on the nearby Shenandoah River for smallmouth bass and muskies. “Sometimes pulling an attractor quickly triggers strikes when nothing else works.”
Choosing attractors is an imprecise science. Sometimes, your first selection won’t draw so much as a casual glance. Don’t get discouraged, though. A slight change may be all it takes to convince tight-lipped trout to eat.
Trow follows a process of elimination. When one color bombs, he tries a completely different color in the same pattern and size. Forget subtle changes. He spins the color wheel, boldly jumping from yellow to red or blue. Remember, many attractor flies are tied in various colors of the same pattern. If such courageous changes don’t pan out, he tests different sizes, changing to a completely different fly only after he’s exhausted every size and color combinations of a particular pattern.
Whether you tie on a dry or a nymph, choosing an attractor can feel like blindly drawing a card from a full deck. Sometimes you grab a pay card, other times a joker. The important thing is to keep trying colors, sizes and patterns until you find an ace that catches trout when others fail.