As I make my way down the riverbank, I see a couple shadows flash and disappear.  I curse myself for not being more wary.   I start to think about what makes a trout selective, I’m sure we could get into the debate about how smart trout are, but I tend to think that the first instinct for these fish is to run.

Over the years the term selectivity has taken on an almost mystical meaning of its own, independent of its intended job of using a single word to sum up certain fussy fish.

Selective Brown Trout on San Juan River
Selective Brown Trout on San Juan River

Let’s face it, the word selective sounds pretty cool.  It sounds like something a fly flinger would say.  What better way to describe getting skunked than to talk up how selective the trout were, or perhaps even to mention how you failed to “match the hatch” accurately?

Flipping the conversation, what better way to enhance your aura than to succeed where others have failed? It’s one thing to have caught a bunch of trout, but quite another to have caught a mess of trout that were feeding “selectively”.

But is trout selectivity fact or myth? Do trout habitually shun all but a single insect species?  I know from experience that during the Michigan HEX, it’s nearly impossible to catch trout on anything else.

Here are my tips for catching “selective” trout – but these tactics work on fish that are actively feeding.

1. Look at What Food is Available and Match it. 

The reason flies like San Juan worms and Squirmy worms are effective is because the trout are used to seeing this type of food.  When you get riverside, sit down and slowly put your fly rod together and observe your surroundings.  Bugs, wind strength, shadows, and sun position – all of these things affect how trout fed.

After a rain, just as the water starts to clear, rig up a buoyant dry fly with a “wormy” dropper.   If the water your fishing has a population of trout, this setup will usually work

Guide Tip: On summer days with moderate winds, terrestrials will be a popular table fair for our finned friends.

 2. Learn to Tap a Trout on the Nose

Before you switch your nymph adjust the depth by increasing the weight or increasing the distance from your indicator to fly.  I’m not saying trout won’t move to take your fly, more that you’ve got a much better chance if the fly is drifted at the same depth as the trout. 

I’ve written a whole article about adding weight to flies, this is your chance to execute on this information.  Read the article here – How to Use Split Shot and Add Weight to Your Fly

3. Think about Fly SIZE first

I’ve tried this next experiment, if you have an “underwater camera” lay it lens up and record a video of what a fly looks like floating over it.  Now this isn’t scientific, but the first thing I notice is that the general size of the shadow becomes apparent.   Next is the light refraction around where the hackle is touching the water.

Midge Flies for Fly Fishing small size 18 22
Midge Flies for Fly Fishing small size 18 22

Heck, I’ve been known to select a fly using this criterion – “I see the fishing rising, but whatever it the fish are taking is so small I can’t see it.  Tie on a size 22.”  I don’t even care what fly it is as long as it’s small.  

4. Start Fishing 30 Feet from the Water

Most riverside trails are doing one of two things.  Either taking you to a fishing spot or taking you to the next fishing spot.  Productive water gets fished, and humans being a bit lazy will go from one spot to the next.  Where I see so many fly fishers fail is charging into the water – spooking those “selective” trout. 

Vibrations from feet, splashing and casting shadows onto the water are triggers for trout to run.  Start fishing 30 feet from the water, means get into the stalking mindset well before your toe touches the water.  This also means quietly, slowly, intentionally wading.

 5. When Nymphing Assume Everything is a Bite

I can still hear the chuckle from a friend and guide Steve Martinez.  Steve was on the paddles and positioned me for a perfect to drift an indicator rig through a deep run.   I asked what the joke was, and he said that those taps weren’t the bottom and was wondering if I was going to fish or just watch my indicator float down river.

NYMPH FISHING
Strike often Nymph Fishing

The point was as quickly as a trout will take a fly; they’ll spit it out even faster.  Learn to execute a strip strike, it will effectively set the hook, but doesn’t disturb the drift so much that you need to re-cast.

Guide Tip A strip cast works best with minimal fly line on the water.  This sounds obvious but executing is tougher than you might think.  Learn to feed little mends into the line to provide a natural drift without lots of slack.

6. Be First to the Fishy Water

My most productive fly fishing days start at 3am.  Yes, it’s painful, but a 90-minute drive followed up by 35 minutes of launching my canoe and stopping at my first spot.  Improves my odds exponentially.   Doing this puts me ahead of most folks fishing the river I love.  Funny thing is the best fly-fishing guides will be the next boats that float by. 

Want to know the secret that puts clients’ money in a fly fishing guides pocket ?   Be first to the fishy water.

7. Casting Accurately Trumps Distance for Catching Trout

35 feet, most of the fish I hook are less than 35 feet away.  Another way to view this is less than 25 feet from my rod tip.  Why do I catch fish this close?  because at this distance I know I put in a fly into an umbrella all day long. 

This tip builds on number 3 above learning to quietly approach to within 35 feet ensures a good cast.  Please remember your accurate casting distance might be different than me.  (I’m a bit of a wimp)

8. Learn How to Recognize Fishy Water

Our time on the water is limited, whether it’s daylight that kicks you off the water or the takeout spot.  Something is going to limit how long you’ll be fishing.   To make the best of that limited time LEARN TO READ THE WATER. 

If your interested to take your fly fishing to another level, please check out my >>Free Fly Fishing Video Workshop and Workbook at how2flyfish.com << Link

Three basic water formations

Seams and Runs, this is when the gradient increases slightly and a defined channel forms and where most of the water “runs”.   Typically, the start (head) and end (tail) of the run will have bigger stones and boulders.  These boulders are homes to trout.  They’ll hug the front, sides and back eddies formed by these stones. 

Bend Pools, especially when filled with woody debris are like trout hotels.  Fish the inside of the bend (usually some kind of structure has kicked the water out) and the deep dark water that forms the bend. 

Trout Love River Bend Pools
Trout Love River Bend Pools

I like positioning myself on the inside of the bend and casting streamers ¾ across as I approach the apex of the bend.  Swinging the fly up into the shallows on the inside. 

For the deep dark water, I switch to an indicator setup to drift a nymph just above the woody debris.  

Pocket Water is a micro-environment usually found on high gradient streams where boulders form a pool of with an entrance and exit.

Best described with an illustration or video.  What I love most about pocket water is that it can be dissected with short accurate casts.

9. When to Match the Hatch Fly Fishing

If you’ve spent a bit of time casting flies, you’ve heard the term “match the hatch”  it’s fun how a hatch chart will use the Latin name for the fly then say when during the year to expect the hatch – but then not tell you what fly to use….odd.  Someday I’ll fix this.

Guide Tip: Float or wade past “dead water” the excitement of being out fishing can get a fisher obsessed with casting to every inch of water.  If the water doesn’t look fishy – move.

When fish are actively rising and you can see what they’re taking – select something that floats, is close to the same size and kinda matches the color.  That’s what I call matching the hatch.  You can get more scientific if you want, but if the fish isn’t willing to eat something that generally meets my definition of matching, then move.  

adams flies floats well
Parachute Adams Dry Fly

Here in Michigan we have a predictable hatch called the Hendrickson.  A high floating medium sized mayfly is a bit darker brown than most Michigan mayflies.  My go to fly for this hatch is a Parachute Adams size 14.   My parachute Adam’s has a big white post and is mostly grey – a Hendrickson doesn’t look much like it.  I’ve learned, though that I need to see how the fly is drifting before perfectly matching the hatch.

10. Position for a Natural Drift

Most times casting to the biggest wariest trout, you’ve got one chance.  If you see him, visualize everything before stepping into the water.  How is the water flowing, what’s hanging over the water, where’s the best place to stand?   A memory that could last a lifetime comes down to a single cast. 

Position for the Perfect Drift of Fly
Position for the Perfect Drift of Fly

I’ve exited the water and walked a hundred yards downstream to cross and quietly walked back to a single fish. Take your time and plan your cast.  The fundamentals you learn on a single monster will roll over into every fish you cast a fly too.

11. When to Break the Rules – Not Matching the Hatch

I’ve caught piles of fish on stimulators.  During heavy hatches, when the bugs are crawling into your coffee cup the odds are stacked against you.  With so much food floating it’s nearly impossible for a fly fisher to compete.  On these days, start out with a fly that matches, but WON’T dwell on it.   I recommend after a dozen casts – CHANGE.

I’ll usually switch up to a stimulator like a Madam X, Kauffmann or a popular Michigan favorite the “Skopper”.   Presenting something different can turn the attention to your fly.  Make it something big like a stimulator in size 10 up.

Stimulator Flies for Catching Trout

Bonus Tactics for Selective Trout

This is the hardest tactic for most of us with busy lives – spend as much time as possible casting to fish.  I don’t care if it’s bluegill or marlin.  My most productive years are when I’m fishing a lot.  When the act of casting and mending becomes second nature, I catch more.

When you can “sense” where a trout should be, or even recognize a shadow as being a big trout when others can’t see it.  That’s when true magic happens. 

Selectivity and the Fly Fishing Formula

Trout are built to gather food, so long as it provides maximum nourishment for minimal effort.  I’ve seen trout inhale everything from pieces of pinecone to cigarette filters, but that doesn’t mean a selective trout will just eat anything.  During the day big browns skulk in shadowy depths, but at night can become reckless and take anything that floats.  Mice, Ducklings and Snakes 

Guide Tip: Trout seek; easy food, shelter from predators, while conserving energy.

Unfortunately, though, this does little or nothing to support the selectivity concept, since each of the same trout might take something decidedly different should it pass over the fish’s nose. The doubter might try slapping a streamer on the nose of a big trout he observes it feeding on midges but is refused when a midge is cast to the same trout.

Ecological and Selective Trout Work Together

A couple years ago I played with a stomach pump and noted my findings.  What I learned is that the fish did feed selectively in an ecological sense. During a heavy trico and spinner hatches, for instance, a typical rainbow had a higher percentage of spinners relative to tricos.

Now, this showed a selective preference, but the factor that caused this was a mystery.  If my memory is right, I think most of the fish caught were with terrestrials. (ants and beetles)

Skillful fly fishers will interpret trout behavior to their own ends, but in my experience, time is usually the deciding factor in catching selective finicky trout. When trout appear to be eating just one species of fly, of course you should attempt to match it as closely as possible.   You’ll recognize this with time.

Casting to Selective Trout
Casting to Selective Trout

The more I fish, the more I’m inclined to admit that occasional periods of trout selectively do exist on many waters. However, such periods may be initiated more by the presence of anglers than by the natural inclination of the feeding fish.

Often, I’ve found that selectivity represents a response to angling pressure and that it evolves in direct proportion to increasing pressure, particularly when the pressure is exerted by careless or inept fishermen.

Don’t think that trout ignore you just because they feed at your feet. Trout have exceptional eyesight and highly refined instincts to recognize danger.

I’ve got to believe that a trout pricked by a hook or two in their time, gains some knowledge.  Not that eating a particular fly was bad, but more of the awareness of a fly fishers presence, either by seeing you or because of poor fly presentation.   

The result is an adjustment in feeding behavior as well as their choices of food.  Feeding rhythms are likely to change as well with trout suddenly looking over every fly carefully before deciding whether it will eat or pass.

If a selectivity is perceived as a response or reaction, the problem for the fly angler is to recognize changes and to compensate as a reaction.  This goes back to the idea of Not Matching the Hatch. 

The Options When Chasing Selective Trout

Often the thrill of the chase is more important than numbers of trout netted. You could call this trophy fishing, but I tend to think of it as an evolution in this sport. 

I’ve learned to have a bit of a ritual when I get to a proven spot.  Usually it involves a cup of coffee then:

First, I reconnoiter the overall scene, trying to get a handle on how the environment is laid out. Are fish rising? If so, where? Are insects on or just below the water surface?  Is the water speed and level higher than usual? Where is the sun? Which direction is the wind blowing?

Next, I’ll consider some specifics. If trout are actively rising what does the rise form tell me?   Splashy aggressive takes or tiny sips, the real fishing starts when it’s time to choose.  A fly, your position and the accuracy of the cast.   

Analyzing the feeding rhythms of at least some trout and relating these to the behavior of the insects on the surface helps advance your experiences and it seems that lose implant knowledge as much as success.

Brown Trout
Brown Trout

With the recon complete then, I plan the precise approach that offers the best shot at the best fish with minimum risk of spooking the trout. This step is critical, since experience has shown me that the biggest wariest trout know how to stay alive. 

Now, I ready my rod and reel to work my plan as best I can.  Is my leader the correct length, my tippet long enough, fine enough or strong enough? And, lastly, what fly shall I try?

Use the fly selection tactics I’ve outlined above, match size and generally the color. 

Finally, I execute the vision of how I’ll approach and cast.  I do this carefully but deliberate, pausing only to make sure the trout isn’t aware of my presence.

If I see a change in feeding rhythm, it’s wise to wait until normalcy returns. Here, I make fine adjustments. Am I in the ideal location to present my fly as I want my objective trout to see it? Do I have its feeding rhythm timed? And, above all, can I make my first presentation count?

When the answer to all these questions is yes, I know it’s time to let it fly.

Regardless of your skill level, it’s normal for your fly to get refused.  Take three to four more casts and adjust something.  Your fly or position, but if the trout stops feeding and moves off consider whether to wait or move.  

A trout feeding selectively demands that you observe in the minutest detail the surroundings and adjust.  Seeing how the naturals behave then, selecting a fly that represents a reasonable facsimile of the natural. 

A Couple More Tricks for Catching Wary Tout

Some trout opt to take only insects that show obvious signs of life while ignoring those that float motionless on the water. Among hatching mayflies, for instance, spinners will cause a commotion on the water that seems to draw trout like a magnet.

Another example is the flutter caused by a moth, butterfly, or damselfly.  Imitate this behavior by twitching your rod tip vertically ever so slightly can trigger a take.

Something else I’ve noticed; some trout will turn in a predominant direction when taking a dry.  It seems silly but placing your fly on the preferred side has worked for me.  This might mean wading away to cross the river and approach from the opposite side.  This allows a cast, without “lining” the fish.

Emerger Fly
Emerger Fly

Often, when trout feeds exclusively on midges, the fish take the insects drifting just beneath the surface or in the surface film.  Don’t dismiss these fish thinking they’re small juveniles.  Tie on an emerger, and disregard your concerns with not seeing what you’re doing.  Plan your cast and drift and anticipate the take. Then, when you perceive a rise where your fly should be set the hook. Usually you’ll connect.

Last Cast for Selective Trout

I’ve said it throughout this article, putting in the time pays big dividends.   I keep a fly rod stung up in the garage and cast for a couple minutes most days.  Not for distance or strength, but to keep my muscles memory.  Being completely comfortable with a fly rod in your hand is a receipt for success.


More Nymph Fishing Articles – WHY because NYMPHS Catch Fish!


Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How 2 Fly Fish