When to Unmatch the Hatch

Header Photo courtesy Ryan Kelly, @GreenRiverFlyFisher on Instagram

We’ve all been in the situation before. The one where fish are rising all around you – as if they’re mocking you – to a bug you can’t quite identify. Whatever the fish are eating, though, is obviously tasty enough to lure even the lunker trout from the depths.

But after 15 minutes of tying on new flies – and tippet – you realize that you either don’t have the right fly or something’s wrong with your presentation. Presentation issues can usually be fixed with lighter tippet, lighter casts, or a better position in the river. If that’s still not doing the trick, it’s time to ignore what’s hatching and go rogue.

Unmatch the hatch.

In my experience, this technique is only useful when you’ve tried every available fly and still haven’t hooked a trout. For example, this past Sunday I was in Wyoming, fishing a small stream noted for its picky rainbow trout. When I showed up the trout were just starting to feed on some spent mayflies, tiny and gray. They weren’t quite tricos, but too small to be a drake, and too dark to be a pale morning dun.

So I tied on a rusty spinner.

Then a Griffith’s gnat.

Then a size 26 parachute midge.

And after 20 minutes, the fish were still rising and I hadn’t even had one bump my flies.

So I decided to unmatch the hatch.

I tied on a size 16 gray elk hair caddis, made sure my tippet was ready to land a big fish, and tossed a cast right off the bank of moss where I’d seen a big fish rising steadily for the past ten minutes.

The first pass didn’t yield a rise. Neither did the second.

The third? The fish lazily rolled on the fly, the kind of prolonged rise where you have to count one one thousand, two one thousand and watch the fish’s head sink below the surface before setting the hook.

Normally I screw those hook sets up. Years of fishing for small trout in Rocky Mountain spring creeks have taught me a rise should be immediately followed with a hook set, but that’s not the case with big trout from tailwaters.

Anyways, to make a long story short, this is the fish I pulled in after it ran to backing (shout out to the random guy from Montana who lent me his net because I forgot mine, and for taking this photo).


I missed a few other bites and spooked two more trout with bad casts before a wicked lightning storm forced me to confront common sense and quit waving a graphite stick in the air while standing in a river. However, the theory of unmatching the hatch held out for the 40-odd minutes I spent fishing after catching the first fish.

So how do you know when to unmatch the hatch? Well, like I said before, I usually use it as a last-resort technique. But sometimes you’ll just have a gut feeling that one fly is going to work better than another. Follow that, because more often than not those gut feelings lead to good things.

You’ll also want to unmatch the hatch when you’re in a blanket hatch. Early spring produces these at times, when the river is carpeted in blue-winged olives. At that point, a trout won’t distinguish your fly from thousands of others on the water.

The blank BWO hatch occurs on Utah’s Green River every year, and every year I fish it with either a caddis or a much larger BWO than what’s on the water. That’s another aspect of unmatching the hatch folks overlook at times. You don’t have to use a completely different bug than what’s on the water; sometimes, a larger version works just as well as something new.

So, the next time you’re fishing and can’t seem to lure the trout to the top with your bugs, try unmatching the hatch. You’ll be surprised at what happens.

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Spencer is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. His debut novel, Learning to Fly, is available for sale via Amazon. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor. 

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