Refusal Analysis

Refusal Analysis

Why trout snub your fly, and what you can do about it.

  • By: Trapper Badovinac
Trout have a blind spot immediately in front of their nose  which can lead to false refusals
It was the first downpour in weeks and we headed to the river, my driftboat in tow, excited about the prospect of finding rising fish. After reaching the landing, as I readied the boat, my friend Rick stood mesmerized, staring at the river. Mayflies were everywhere and pods of trout methodically picked them off with gentle rises.

"Baetis?" he asked after plucking one from the air.

"Yup." I replied. "Did you tie up some of those cripples I suggested?"

"Sure did," he said.

We launched the boat and I rowed over to the far bank. As I cut across the river, the fish were momentarily put down but were back up before I could drop anchor. Rick was out of the boat and casting to rising fish and I hadn't even taken my rod out of the case. However, I could tell from his muted expletives that things weren't going well.

I watched his fly drift toward a rising trout. The fish ascended, as if to engulf the fly"only to drop away at the last second. It was a classic refusal.

"I drift the fly over a riser, it comes up and looks but then turns away." Rick's voice had an incredulous tone.

"Why do you think that is?" I queried, not wanting to let him off the hook.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe it's seeing my tippet?"

It happens to all anglers: Conditions are perfect, you're dialed in, but the trout just won't take your fly. They swim up to inspect it, but then give you the trout equivalent of flipping the bird (or fin, as it were). Refusals can be frustrating, but by examining and analyzing the factors that cause a trout to refuse your fly you'll have the information needed to adapt your techniques and get more hookups… Read More »In my years of guiding and fishing out West, I've come to the conclusion that there are two reasons why a trout will refuse your fly:

There is no trigger. A trigger is any characteristic that causes a trout to eat a fly. Triggers include vulnerability (such as with a crippled emerger) as well as size, silhouette and sometimes movement. If a fly possesses the proper trigger, a trout will ignore just about everything and eat it. But if the triggers are absent-for instance, if you're using the wrong pattern or size or color-the fish will ignore your fly.

Your fly behaved unnaturally. We're talking about drag here, of course. Drag isn't always as conspicuous as a visible V-wake trailing your fly; most drag, in fact, is imperceptible to anglers, but to a trout even a minute amount of drag screams "danger." Hence the refusal. Yes, the fish was triggered to inspect your fly but on closer inspection saw that it was unnatural.

To get more hookups and fewer refusals, you need to select a fly that will trigger a response in trout; and you must eliminate drag so the fly behaves naturally. Here's how to do it.

Think About Drag. Tying on a smaller tippet is most anglers' first response (after letting loose a long string of expletives) to repeated refusals, and it works-but not in the way most people expect. Conventional wisdom argues that trout see the tippet and get spooked, so, the thinking goes, tying on a lighter (and less visible) tippet will solve the problem. Sometimes reducing tippet size will allow the fly to move more naturally, thus reducing drag, but refusals rarely come because the fish saw your tippet. Think about it: Trout, which we all know have a hard time spotting the giant chunk of metal sticking out of a fly's butt end, can somehow distinguish between 5X and 6X tippets? We're talking millimeters here, so that's unlikely.
What trout do notice, though, is drag. Natural insects move downstream unhindered by tippet, leader and fly line. They make random 360s as micro-currents push them downriver. The value of lighter tippets is that they allow your fly to drift and turn more freely, which is the key to catching more fish; the visible nature of the tippet has nothing to do with it.
Try this: Tie on a length of heavy tippet (3X or, heck, 1X) and attach a dry fly with a loop knot. The loop allows the fly to drift and turn in a more natural fashion than a tight, closed knot, and you'll be amazed at the number of fish you'll catch even with this heavy tippet. Again, it's all about a drag-free drift and the fly's natural movement; the tippet's visibility is not a factor.

Get Into Position. As I've said, most refusals are the result of drag. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting a drag-free drift, and this is easier to achieve if you begin casting from a good position in the first place. Here's a typical scenario: The angler casts across currents that immediately cause the fly to drag. Sometimes this drag can be so subtle that it's not detected by the angler who's standing 30 or 40 feet away, but it's highly detectable to trout. One solution to this problem is to move upstream of the fish and make a downstream-and-across presentation that allows the fly to drift drag-free to the fish.

Reach for It. Another option is to use a reach cast to get a drag-free drift as soon as the fly sets down. The reach cast is invaluable when making long casts over complex currents. When done properly it establishes a drag-free drift as soon as the fly touches down, which can be extended by mending line. A practiced caster, using a reach cast to accurately present the fly, will be more successful than an angler who changes flies and tippets to solve the problem. Here's how to make a reach cast:
Before the fly touches down on your final forward cast (the presentation cast), quickly move your rod tip upstream so that rod is parallel to the water and 90 degrees to your body. Do the opposite if you want a downstream reach cast. When the fly hits the water, bring your rod tip up as normal and add mends to continue the drift.

Slacken Up. When guiding clients, I've always been amazed by how many of them keep their fly lines tight while drifting a fly. Perhaps they believe that if their line isn't taut they won't be able to set the hook? But different river conditions call for different presentations and often a tight line can lead to immediate drag once the fly touches down. Controlled slack in your line can be a good thing.

Tie on a Cripple or Emerger. Trout, like all predators, feed in a manner that maximizes their energy intake while limiting their caloric expenditure. Given the choice between a fluttering, nearly airborne adult and a vulnerable, motionless cripple, the trout prefer to eat the latter. But cripple and emerger patterns have another advantage over adult patterns beyond the vulnerability factor-cripples and emergers are more visible to trout.
Trout can see an insect suspended below the surface at a greater distance away than those standing on the surface. The adult insects on the surface only show the trout a vague silhouette and several indentations where their legs push down into the meniscus. An insect that is struggling to punch through the rubbery surface meniscus while trying to break out of the nymphal shuck, though, is both very visible and very vulnerable-two key trigger characteristics.
Gentle riseforms and sips indicate that trout are taking emergers, cripples or dead insects. During blanket hatches, for instance, if you see subtle rises and sips, and your high-riding adult pattern is getting refused, switch to an emerger or cripple pattern, like the PMD Cripple shown here.

Try Again-Ignore False Refusals. No animal is 100 percent efficient in their food-taking skills and trout are no different. Trout have a blind spot immediately in front of their nose end, which means they might rise to take your fly only to miss it due to the blind spot. (This is shown at the intersecting lines, left). This looks like a refusal but in truth is not. Another situation that can be mistaken for a refusal is when a small fish rises to a large fly but is unable to fit it into its mouth.
I've also seen fish rise to my fly, only to miss it because they hit the tippet on their way up and knocked the fly out of the strike zone. This is particularly common on a straight upstream presentation-the fish actually lifts the tippet going after the fly. Look for these feeding faux pas and try a different presentation.
Refusals can be gut-wrenching affairs, but using the tactics described here-namely eliminating drag and using the right fly patterns-will go a long way to taking the guesswork out of the fish-feeding equation.

Trapper Badovinac is a freelance writer and former fishing guide who lives in Montana.

Convincing the Skeptics
More ways to win over finicky trout.

While passive resistance, in fishing as in life, is apt to confound the adversary, I think this assessment of refusals is spot on: most are caused by drag, whether from faulty presentation, improper positioning or leader problems. But on those occasions when you know you've nailed the cast, the drift looks like money in the bank and you still can't close the deal, everything points to the fly. And when several trout window-shop the same pattern, you can't ignore the obvious conclusion.
I can hardly claim to have solved the problem of refusals, but I have made headway at times with a handful of calculated fly changes, arranged here in order of increasing desperation.
Go sparser. I generally interpret refusals not as a lack of something in the pattern, but as too much of something. In changing flies, stick with same silhouette and size, but try something with a trimmer look: a quill body instead of a dubbed one; a parachute instead of a collar hackle; a Comparadun or No-Hackle instead of a parachute. Commercially tied flies are notoriously overdressed; with a small pair of scissors, you can thin out or shorten the fibers on a hair-wing caddis or a yarn-wing spinner, or trim down excessively heavy tails. Try any barbering within reason to give the fly a leaner appearance.
Go smaller. Sometimes the problem of excess in a pattern is comprehensive-there's just too much fly altogether. Staying with the same or similar silhouette but dropping down a size or two, making tippet adjustments as necessary, is old-school stuff but still standard operating procedure because it frequently works.
Go down. Fishing subsurface during a hatch is never my first choice, but it's sometimes the best one. Weighted flies and a split shot aren't necessary (though you might be surprised how successful they can be), but get something beneath the surface film, from a inch to a foot down. My favorite gambit here is a brownish or grayish soft-hackle pattern sized to match the naturals, moistened with a little spit, and dead-drifted down to the fish or swung on a tight line across its nose.
Go terrestrial. I have pretty much abandoned any hope of ever understanding fish, but for some reason, trout that decline the logical choices of fly patterns during a hatch will sometimes fall for a terrestrial. Try a black Crowe Beetle (right) or a Black or Cinnamon Ant-from size 16 down to as small as you can stand-fished dry or damp.
Go different. As a last resort, and at the risk of putting down a rising fish, I'll take a shot with an attractor pattern like a Humpy or a Trude, again in smaller sizes. It's not exactly by the book, but the first time I tried this approach, during a trico hatch on Idaho's Silver Creek, a persistent naysayer that had refused all else clobbered a size18 Royal Wulff. I then proceeded to raise several other fish, and this un-matching the hatch strategy has worked for me, on occasion, in the years since then.-Ted Leeson

Ted Leeson is this magazine's gear tester and is the co-author of The Fly Tier's Benchside Reference, with Jim Schollmeyer.