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What the Pluck?

The tug is the drug is the motto of anglers addicted to swinging flies for migratory fish but spend some of your winter waist deep in nearly freezing Great Lakes tributaries and you will get plucked as much as you will get tugged. Plucks occur when a fish strikes the fly, but don’t get poked by the hook. A pluck feels as if the fish has grown hands and tried to pull feathers out of the back end of the fly.

Of course, unless you’ve got a fishing buddy standing on a bluff looking down at the run, what actually happens when you get plucked is a mystery. I’ve been plucked enough to have a few theories about what is happening and how to turn a pluck into a grab.

There is the sideswipe, when the fish strikes at the front half of the fly and never comes close to the hook. There is the stop and go, when the fish rises from the deep part of the pool, chases down the fly and for whatever reason stops mid-strike, bumps the fly and goes back down. There’s the back door bump, when the fish comes up behind the fly and merely nudges the back end of the fly and somehow avoids the fly.

Regardless of what is really going on, a pluck is nothing but disappointment for the angler. The brief adrenaline rush prompted by the signal sent up the line by the pluck quickly turns to disappointment. The disappointment is only exacerbated by a second or even third pluck. Multiple plucks may occur on the same swing or on sequential swings. When the water drops below 35 degrees, plucks become common as the cold-blooded fish become more sluggish.

While I’ve yet to find a guaranteed trick to turn a plucky fish into grabby fish, I’ve picked up a few tips from wiser anglers.

Go broad: What triggers a migratory trout to chase a swung fly is mostly a mystery, but if the fly isn’t visible it’s unlikely to be chased. And if all the fish sees is the back end of the fly, it’s more likely that they’ll be a bit less aggressive in the strike. In contrast, a fly swimming perpendicular to the current offers full broadside view to the fish facing upstream and is, in theory, more tempting. To swing the fly broadside, cast directly to the far bank (rather than the more traditional downstream angle) and point the rod downstream after the cast. This approach also allows the fly to sink deeper before reaching the strike zone. Adding one or more downstream mends can keep the fly swinging and keep it swimming perpendicular to the current. A slow, deep broadside swing can produce aggressive strikes even in water on the edge of freezing.

Go slow: If the pluck is caused by a fish that simply misses most of the fly, a slowed down swing may just what the lazy trout needs. Mends can slow the swing. Another technique is taking a small, slow step downstream mid-swing, which creates some slack that slows the speed of the swing just enough to, sometimes, entice a strike.

Go small: I generally fish tube flies that range from two to five inches in length. Big flies attract big fish is the general theory. While a big fly creates a bigger target, it also means the fish can hit the fly without being pierced by the hook. A plucker striking a thinner, one- or two-inch fly is more likely to find the hook, at least that’s the theory.

Change colors: I’m not smart enough to know how much color really matters to a trout, but I know I have a lot more confidence in some colors (winter favorite: black and purple) than others. More often than not, I don’t change flies much while swinging. But if I can’t turn a pluck into a grab with other techniques, I will break down and switch color schemes dark to lighter or vice versa. It doesn’t work that often, but it’s worth a try.

While a pluck is pure disappointment, at least it is a sign that fish are in the run and they are willing to move to a fly. Turning that sign into a tug, well that’s pure joy.

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