Bring on the season of wrist flick syndrome

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If October’s shorter days and chilly temperatures cause “trigger itch” among hunters, blame April’s longer days and warmer temperatures for “wrist flick syndrome” among anglers.

Along secluded isolated streams and crowded public waterways, fishermen will soon be flicking flies, lures and live bait to hungry trout.

At least, that’s the general idea. But filling the creel requires a basic understanding of why trout eat what they eat.

The good news is that trout are generalists. They feed visually and opportunistically on just about any live prey they can fit into their mouths. In fact, it’s safe to say that a trout is limited in what it can eat only by the size of its mouth.

As newly hatched fry, they concentrate on tiny zooplankton. As they grow, they graduate to insect larvae, adult aquatic invertebrates, frogs and small fish. Larger fish eat larger prey because there’s more nutrition in larger prey.

Anglers should keep mouth size in mind when deciding what fly, lure or bait to use. Bigger baits may catch bigger trout, but in any population there are always more small fish than big fish. So the chances of catching a big trout are limited by the smaller number of big trout.

The primary source of food for trout in moving water is invertebrate drift. These are the invertebrates that literally drift downstream in the current. Drift consists primarily of larval stages of aquatic invertebrates.

Dispersal strategy

It is an effective dispersal strategy in an unpredictable environment. Spring floods can scour large sections of streams. Drift permits invertebrates located in protected stream sites to repopulate scoured stream sections almost immediately after flooding.

Many of these drift species live most of their lives as larvae. When they transform into adults, they live only a few days with one purpose – to reproduce.

These “hatches” are familiar to trout anglers, and sometimes become the stuff of legend. During a mayfly or stonefly hatch, fly fishermen in particular understand the importance of using flies to match the hatch.

A few years ago in June on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, I observed a mayfly hatch so massive sidewalks had to be cleared with snow shovels. Locals told me about another year when front-end loaders were required to clear the streets of Sandusky.

Unlimited food supply

Such hatches, though short-lived, provide fish with an unlimited food supply, if only for a brief period. Just before a hatch, insect larvae drift to the surface where the adults emerge.

Though hatches are short-lived events, myriad invertebrates can be found in the water column at any time. Fortunately for both hungry trout and anglers, invertebrate drift peaks in spring.

This may make trout fishing sound easy. Bait a proper sized hook for the size trout you wish to catch, or match the hatch when insect populations explode. But it’s not that simple.

Aquatic invertebrates don’t exist only to feed trout and other fish. They strive to survive and reproduce just like all biota.

To this end, invertebrate drift occurs primarily at night with numbers peaking at dawn and dusk. Though this is an effective strategy to reduce predation by visual predators, trout still feed heavily at these times. Anglers trying to take advantage of these peaks in crepuscular prey activity should keep in mind that under low light levels, vision is impaired.

At these times, general form and how lures and flies are presented are probably more important than the visual appearance of lures.

Impedes vision

Similarly, muddy water that results from heavy spring rains impedes visual predators.

Again, colorful flies and lures are less effective under these conditions. A basic understanding of trout foraging ecology can improve angler success.

Live baits such as worms and mealworms mimic elongated drifting prey, and are probably best for first time trout anglers.

Mealworms, in particular, resemble a variety of larval flies and can be effective under low light conditions.

Experienced trout anglers graduate to fishing with artificial, hand-tied flies. But even experts are sometimes frustrated because food availability is just one of many factors that influence whether fish bite.

Water volume, temperature, and pH, for example, are beyond the control of even the best anglers.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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