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Mad For Minkies

by Steven Neely

NOW IS THE TIME FOR PATTERNS THAT APPEAL TO THE TROUT’S AGGRESSIVE FEEDING HABITS.

When summer has gone and we start seeing more wind and rain, usually at the start of October, it’s then that the trout become more active. They are more aggressive, aware of the colder months ahead and the need to build up fat reserves.

Low overnight temperatures and the occasional frost will see big fish gorge on the abundance of small fish found in and around the dying weedbeds, boat docks, dam walls, and any other structure providing cover and relative safety for these fragile little shoal fish. A couple of small buzzers here and there will do little to help with the trout’s energy reserves through the long winter –  a protein-rich diet is what’s required now. So forget your subtle nymphing or even dry flies. We need patterns that pack a punch, big flies that move water, possess bulk and appeal to the trout’s aggressive feeding habits.

Although most waters will have fry feeding in some form or another most of my focus has been on the larger Midlands reservoirs. However, the flies and techniques highlighted here can be put to good use on most venues that have a good head of trout.

The Minky

Fry feeding is fry feeding, no matter where it takes place. The basics remain the same. As with most fly fishing styles the order of the day is to Match the Hatch. It just so happens that the food we’re trying to match is far bigger than the usual fair. When focusing our attention on fry patterns we move away from feathers and place more emphasis on fur. For bulk, movement and a lifelike appearance when retrieved through the water, mink fur takes some beating.

Most experienced anglers would not go on the water throughout the colder winter months without an assortment of Minkies in their fly box.

Although the original fly was a simple affair, a pattern created by Dave Barker and used to great effect on both Grafham and Rutland Water, it was no more than a basic chenille body with a mink wing tied in over the back. It proved to be totally devastating to the resident fish population.

The fly was kept secret amongst a close circle of friends and rightly so, it was just too good to share. But it didn’t take long for the news to filter through. Soon enough, with magazine articles and the legendary Bob Church singing the fly’s praises, the angling public was soon on the case. So much so that charity shops the length and breadth of the country were seeing their stock of high-end fur coats taking a battering and from a surprising customer – hairy-arsed middle-aged men!

(I have a patch which I still hold dear, it’s particular beauty with a hue I’ve yet to see replicated from our innovative fly tying industry.)

More on the flies later, but first let’s get to grips with the techniques which will allow us to capitalise on this back end feeding frenzy.

Signs Of Activity

Fry Bashing (an affectionate angling term) gets into full swing when the more resident, usually bigger, trout start herding fry shoals and drive them towards the surface or hard against structure. You’ll know it when you see it, scattering fry as they jump clear of the water, thrashing trout hitting them hard, and huge boils as those trout barrel into the shoals, stunning the small fish with their bodies and tails. It’s carnage! The trout, normally a solitary creature, certainly wild brown trout which are territorial, will be prepared to work together at fry time as a hunting pack in a similar way to saltwater predators. They will herd the shoals of small fish into a ball to be more easily attacked. Gulls too will be present, more so over open water as the trout push the fry up to the surface. It’s totally awesome, like a scene from an Attenborough documentary – nature at its finest!

Fish Location

Although fry feeding can take place all over a lake I don’t like to leave things to chance, preferring instead to focus on key areas. For me, it’s weedbeds at this time of year. These weedy areas are dying back, but there’s still enough there to provide enough cover for juvenile fish. If there’s access to deep water nearby, even better, as the trout have an abundance of food and the cover of deep water. Not only does this offer safety from avian predators but by cruising at depth the trout will clearly see any small fish which stray from the weedbeds, silhouetted against the sky. This is ideal for an ambush predator like the trout.

Drop offs of any kind, on any water, are superb hunting grounds for trout, but stick a weedbed nearby and it’s a number one fish-holding hotspot. Other areas to look for are around any kind of structure and favourites for me are dam walls, boat moorings, harbours, sunken islands and of course buoys.

On The Top

There are a number of ways you can work the surface of the water when fishing flies like Minkies. Unlike other lures, they are often fished with a more sedate retrieve. It’s because of this that Minkies lend themselves to a floating line approach.

The trout tend to be cruising near the surface of the water and an unweighted or lightly weighted fly presented on a floating line and retrieved with a slow figure-of-eight retrieve takes some beating. It’s very rare for me when fishing in this manner to use a ‘pulling’ style of retrieve.

Something that tends to be overlooked in fly fishing but is often seen in other angling styles is presenting your offering ‘on the drop’. This method works extremely well in clear water where you can actually see the fish present. I’ve used it to great effect from some of the natural banks at Grafham Water and also the harbour areas of both Grafham and Rutland. One of the best venues for this style has been Farmoor,. Trout, big ones, are often seen cruising at 4 to 6ft deep. These pressured fish are suckers for a free-falling Minky!

It never ceases to amaze me just how effective a free-falling fly can be on trout that see a lot of angling pressure. It’s something different from the norm and can often work where other methods have failed.

Of course the addition of a foam post completely transforms this fly and how it fishes. Despite the Popper Minkie being an old pattern it’s taken until recently for it to be properly adopted by the reservoir fishing fraternity. As it’s fished in the surface there is an extremely visual element to this technique so it’s a really exciting way to target large reservoir trout.

When using this style of fly be sure to rip the line back with two long pulls as soon as your fly hits the water before employing a continuous smooth retrieve, either a figure-of-eight or slow roly-poly. The initial noise created by the fly ripping through the water’s surface often brings the trout in to investigate.

There are two types of takes. A sideways one, and this is ideal. The trout come over it from the side, and are pretty much guaranteed to stick. The other, the exciting one, will see the water bulge behind the fly as the trout locks on. DO NOT speed up or slow down, keep going. Changing anything once they’ve locked on often means rejection. So just keep doing what you’re doing until the line tightens up, then strip strike. I tend to look away and just keep going until the line goes solid; it’s a tough ask but it works.

Sub Surface

When going for the sinking line approach I rarely go too deep. As mentioned, the fish tend to be looking up so why go below them? I would go as deep as a medium sinking line. As a caveat I would have one or even two Minky Boobies on my leader.

My usual approach is to fish this style of fly with a line featuring a sinking tip, or an intermediate, slow or fast depending on how windy it is. The stronger the wind the deeper I’ll go. All of these lines offer me something that a floater can’t, they let me bed the flies in, anchoring them so I can fish under the surface.

Again, I’m not in hurry to retrieve these flies. I prefer instead to keep things slow and steady. This can be long slow draws, figure-of-eight or indeed on the drop. These types of fly lines lend themselves to a level plane retrieve, in other words they allow the flies to be worked at a consistent depth.

Quite often when fishing in this way there will be small plucks at the fly. These must be ignored and the retrieve continued without pause or indeed speeding up. As with the Popper Minky approach, any change in the retrieve will see the fish abandon the attack.

When fishing with a sinking line I prefer to use two flies and normally in contrasting colours, black or brown on the dropper with a white or silver Minky, 10 feet away on the point. It’s rare for me to fish two flies when after big fish however at this time of year it’s highly unlikely a suicidal stocky will grab a trailing fly. Just be sure to beef up your leader, 12lb minimum and tippet thickness won’t put these fish off.

Tackle Talk

There’s no point mucking about with light lines and soft rods. You’re casting big flies, targeting big trout and will no doubt have wind to contend with as well so make sure your tackle is up to the job. You need something with backbone so look to use a 10ft, 7-wt, fast actioned rod.

I much prefer a cassette reel as this allows me to change lines at the drop of a hat and I’d also suggest one that has a good drag system. Big fish have plenty of power and a reel with a good drag system can pay dividends.

Line choice is simple. A floating line down to a medium sinker is all you’ll ever need for this style of fishing.

When I’m on the surface I like to use a tapered leader in conjunction with a short length of tippet as this allows better turnover of large flies. It’s also a massive help on windier days, again offering that energy transfer allowing me to put the flies exactly where I want them.

With the sinking lines, I’ll use a single length of tippet and, as mentioned previously, don’t skimp on tippet diameter. I’d recommend a minimum of 12lb breaking strain tippet. It’s always fluorocarbon for me, it’s strong, sinks and near enough invisible under water due it’s refractive index. I mostly fish two flies and keep them well away from each other, 10 to 12ft between dropper and point fly. I’ll also keep the top dropper away from the fly line, 10ft is the norm, but if it’s really windy then shorten it until the turnover is decent.

The Patterns

Create fry patterns that are as close to the real thing in terms of profile and colour. Fly fishers really like to over egg the pudding but when it comes to Minkies less is usually more. All we’re looking for is the correct silhouette and profile. The mink itself adds a very attractive, enticing movement to these flies.

There’s not much that beats a bog-standard Minky, nothing more than a hook which is big enough to cope, a pearl or silver body, the thin mink strip tied in over the back, Matuka-style, and you’re done. I’d be tying these with mink strips of various colours. These are the ones that have been most successful for me, in order…

  • Brown
  • White
  • Silver
  • Olive

Other colours do work of course, for some reason rainbows especially are a big fan of coral and brown trout, amazingly after some pressure, shocking pink!

The inclusion of jungle cock cheeks can often make a dramatic impact. Be sure to tie some with and some without. Another inclusion, especially for the floating line approach, is to use lead wraps under the body. The plop of a weighted Minky can bring trout in from a distance. The weight also allows it to fish in that up and down jerky motion, giving it more life and animation.

To create bulk, it’s often an idea to use a grizzle hackle and the barring sets the fly off nicely, especially when the trout are on small perch.

Don’t use too long a mink strip or it will wrap round the hook and won’t swim properly. You’ll also get tail nips, so try and avoid it, and tie your Minkies with longer shanked hooks. Remember, good flies are rarely technical or complicated in their construction.

So Minkies, get on them, they won’t disappoint . . . They are an easy tie and they can offer rich rewards at this time of the year!

Steve Cullen Fly Fishing

Steve Cullen YouTube Channel

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