There’s been a hatch on at the lake. It’s a prairie lake, a lot like Duck Lake over toward Browning. There’s no natural reproduction in the lake. It’s what fisheries types call a put, grow and take water.
Like many pothole lakes, it grows big trout. That’s because it’s filled with scuds, small freshwater shrimp, maybe a quarter of an inch long or so, that thrive along the weedy shoreline. Scuds are the chicken nuggets of trout cuisine. When trout are eating scuds they pack on pounds, fast.
I was distracted, however, by trout rising across the lake. In the ginny water I could see they were of the scud-fed variety. There were sailboats on the surface, callibaetis, about No. 14 and light gray. I watched those bugs drift about, and though there were boils everywhere, each mayfly I watched lasted long enough to dry its wings and fly away.
Those fat trout were eating something on the surface, but it wasn’t the obvious thing.
I leaned over and peered closely at the surface film. There weren’t any discernible stand-ins for the sailboats.
The trout were porpoising out of the water. I saw backs and tails and only the occasional head. That usually means emergers rather than the ignored adult mayflies I’d seen. Emergers are bugs on the surface, or at least on their way there, but still struggling to hatch from their nymphal shucks and reach the final stage of insect metamorphosis.
There are many reasons why trout key on emergers rather than adults. Reason No. 1 is convenience. Those bugs are easier to see below the surface film, and unlike adults, they don’t fly away.
When confronted with evidence of emerger-eating trout my go-to fly is a Quigley Cripple. A cripple isn’t really an emerger, but with a wing of elk hair at the head it’s easier to see on the water. And like an emerger, the butt end of the fly hangs down below the surface.
Once the cripple hit the water a trout promptly ate it. It turned out to be a brown, about 16 inches. I was pleased.
That was the last fish of the day, however. The hatch lasted another hour, but neither the cripple, nor anything else I tried, worked.
When I got back to the truck I noticed two things. The first was the buzz of midges hovering above the sagebrush. Swarms of tiny black bugs. Easy critters to overlook when they’re still in the water.
Then I took off my wading boots and the folds around the tongue were crammed with greenish scuds. I scooped handfuls out, and more fell to the floor of my truck after I took my boots off.
The next day I gave it the old Duck Lake method, suspending a scud fly below an indicator and waiting for a fish to cruise by and snack. None did, but the same hatch as the day before was on. I went through my fly trying a variety of cripples and emergers. The lake boiled with hungry fish, but none cooperated.
Finally, I pulled a tiny fly, a No. 20, dark bodied DOA Cripple, from the box. I hesitated as the smallest tippet I had was 4X, but gave it a go. A big fish whacked it and suddenly I felt fortunate my tippet was a bit oversized. Then I caught another, and missed a couple more fish that rolled on the fly.
The trout of the day turned out to be a legit 20-incher — there’s a mark on my rod I measured it against. The fly was embedded in the trout’s jaw, outside its mouth. I don’t know how it stayed hooked.
As I released the fish the fly dangled in the surface film. Then one of those dark midges rose next to it. A perfect match on a perfect day.