Test Without Bias

by | Jan 20, 2021 | 19 comments

Of all the reasons why I fly fish for trout, two captivating things keep me coming back: refining a system, and breaking it all apart.

I’ve yet to find another interest where the best way to do any one thing is so variable, where success in a seemingly scientific pursuit comes down so often to art and style. Fly fishing encourages the experimentalist, the researcher, the tinkerer. And it requires persistence, fortitude and gumption to get anywhere.

I love building the technical pieces and finding methods for catching river trout. I spent much of my twenties trying to tune a system for casting dry flies with a Harvey slack leader on small streams. I once fished a full ten months with nothing but large streamers, no matter the conditions. And by now I’ve spent decades refining the presentation of nymphs and long flies on a tight line.

Like many others who have enough time on the water for such exploration, I’ve been happy to learn what won’t catch trout in those times when I am catching trout — I have no reservation for changing something, just to see if I stop catching fish.

The goals of the frequent angler may not be so obvious to the weekender. Our objective is not always to catch the most or the biggest trout, but to experiment, to learn what catches fish and what doesn’t catch them. Following that, even more importantly, we want to know why.

So we test. We’re methodical. We throw away what fails and keep what succeeds. We gather data, not just from a few days, but from seasons of experience and from conversations of shared data with other trusted and fishy friends.

Then, after so much proofing and analysis, we gradually build a system that works for us — a way to fish that suits our rivers and our trout, that matches our preferences and our goals.

READ: Troutbitten | Find Your System

And what then? What is left when only the minutia remains unrefined? Sometimes, we scrap it all and start on a new branch — a novel design with more questions to be asked than answers known.

Photo by Austin Dando

No Bias

For anglers who have time and a desire to test, for those who put aside the search for numbers and instead pursue a purer understanding of methods and tactics, I offer this:

Approach everything without bias.

This simple advice is obvious enough. And across the educational landscape, it is common council. Go into any new exploration with a clear head and without expectations. Remove your prejudices and forget your preferences. Achieve this, and you may well be surprised by what you find with a fly rod in your hand. Ignore this, or fail in the attempt, and you’ll likely learn nothing. Worse yet, you may learn the wrong thing.

It’s natural to make assumptions and guesses about leader design, about fly styles, tactical approaches and trout preferences. But if you delve into this role of mad scientist on the water, then a clear head without bias is the only way to travel on this winding path.

Let the river teach. Let time be the gauge. Let the fish have their say. Forgo conclusions and look instead for certainty in trends. Test honestly and without bias — always.

Lastly, have fun with the process of such an approach. This is fishing, after all.

Fish hard, friends.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. A lesson for life too…but that makes sense since “Fishing is Life”! Great advice – “Worse yet, you may learn the wrong thing”. Love it!

  2. Great point, Dom. Could you give a few examples of changes you’ve made to the way you fish, especially with nymphs, based on “listening to the river?”

    • Hi Alex,

      Sure thing. Really, I feel like about half of thes Troutbitten articles could serve as those examples. 🙂 But here are the first three that I thought of, as you said, focused on nymphing:

      1. When fluorocarbon first became popular, I resisted. But fair testing between the two showed me pretty quickly that fluoro was better for underwater presentations than nylon.

      2. Tuck cast. The more I fish subsurface, the more I realize how important the tuck cast is for my own style. I’ve been testing thinner butt sections a lot for the last few years, and I’ve given them some attention for decades. But the lack of a true tuck cast is what leaves me feeling powerless to put the nymphs exactly where and how I want them – especially at the head of a pocket or break.

      3. While night fishing, I’ve had to learn countless hard lessons from the river. And when I tried taking my standard nymphing approach into the dark, I eventually realized that it rarely worked. Instead, what worked better was drop shotting at night, with two larger nymphs / small streamers, and attempting to keep those flies ABOVE the position of the trout.

      How about you, Alex? What have you learned from the river lately?


  3. For us Weekenders, of which I am now relegated to that group, time is precious. I just don’t have the time on the water to experiment in great detail without the monkey on my shoulder constantly reminding me that I only have X minutes left on the water, I’ve spent too much time goofing about and that I still have a 3-hour ride home.

    So my day always starts with what worked best last weekend and then I go from there. I’ll fish a good run and if success eluded me then I will walk back down and re-fish the run using a different tactic. If no luck still, then off to the next fishy spot with yet another variation to my tactics until I find the golden ticket.

    Does that count as experimentation?

    • Hi Beau, Hope you don’t take offense to my term, weekender. I only mean that at the rate of one day a week, most anglers are not willing to change the goal from catch fish to experiment. I know I wasn’t, during those times in my life where river time has been limited. So, it doesn’t matter if I think you are testing or not. You know I respect the way you fish, and I enjoy our time in the water. But my answer to your question is this: the kind of testing I guess I’m taking about is where you will change from that golden ticket you’re looking for, once you find it. Will you change from that tactic to see what else might work or will not work? That’s what I like best. Cheers.

      • Dom, no offense taken – ever. I don’t know if that monkey on my shoulder will let me stop catching to try catching another way. Marge is calling…

    • I’m in the same situation. Going fishing once a week is as much opportunity as I get, and it’s usually less than that. And similar 2 – 2 1/2 hr drives each way. And guilt for being away from home. I’d fish every day if I could. Experimentation manifests in observing the effects of the changes that I do make. Making mindful adjustments and noting their effects is a pleasure. I feel I’m using my time better, and embracing that approach helps stem that nasty clock-ticking pressure, which I know very well. But it also leads to more fish!

      Last week I had some great fish, continually on a dropper. I changed the point fly to something similar, and everything came to a stand-still. Then I went back to the first point fly, and boom, they started taking the dropper again. Go figure. It gave me something to think about. I don’t have the luxury of deliberately sabotaging my fishing, but to me any act of adjustment is the beginning of experimentation.

      I’m really glad you brought up the access question. It’s very true that there’s a difference between having constant access to good rivers, and having little access. In my opinion, this difference tends to skew fly fishing conversations, as does the difference between the rivers that individuals fish. It leads to apparent differences in opinion where people are actually talking apples and oranges.

      Dom, I disagree with your point about weekenders chasing the most and the biggest trout, or for that matter frequent anglers pursuing the more “educational” approach. There are a lot of frequent “yahoo” type anglers, and a lot of studious weekenders. The difference resides in the approaches themselves. Naturally, a studious fisher will make more progress with a daily seminar than with a weekly lesson, and in the end will have more observations.

      • Hi Dom – just want to say your reply to Beau came in while I was writing mine. Still, I disagree! 😉

        • Hi JP.

          Thanks for the comments.

          I didn’t write what the goals of the weekender are. Respectfully, you just read it that way, which I can understand.

          I wrote that, for the frequent and experimental angler, our objective is not always to catch the most or the biggest trout, but to experiment, to learn what catches fish and what doesn’t catch them.

          But focusing on how often each of us gets a chance to fish isn’t really the point of the article, for me. I only brought it up, in context, because if someone is on the water infrequently enough that it always feels like the clock is ticking, then it will be hard to approach anything without bias. Again, I’ve been through that myself. And there will be almost no time to sabotage your own success, as you said. (I like that.)


  4. Those are great lessons, Dom. Thank you. As for me, I learn (and unlearn) something practically every time I fish. One lesson that has stuck is the usefulness of tungsten putty in making minute weight adjustments. Another is using a small indicator fished almost directly upstream.

  5. Wow! I could not agree more! Great article!

  6. Good stuff as always, Dom. How difficult it is to arrive at a river with no expectations! Generally, those expectations are not met or at least are challenged. No doubt, if you can remove those expectations and let the fish tell you what needs to happen, you’ll walk away having learned something.

    Also, did a double take at the musky rod up to. Haha!

    • Right on. Yeah, I fished musky with my buddy, Pat a couple weekends ago. And I went into it with no bias. Seriously. Didn’t catch anything either. Ha.


  7. Interesting article. The idea of changing from a successful tactic to an unknown seems to fly in the face of the old adage, ‘you shouldn’t leave fish to go find fish’. But as you say it depends on what your goal is.

    Question for you: when you’re experimenting, are you fishing rivers you are intimately familiar with, or do you experiment on new bodies of water too?

    The reason I ask is that I recently moved to Florida. I’m not able to get out trout fishing but I have a small pond within walking distance of my house with a lot of bass in it. I can fish it daily if I like. I know the fish are there so if I’m not catching them, I try different and new techniques. This has increased my success rate exponentially.

    The approach has been much more systematic than I ever have done on a trout stream. I think that’s the case, because I’m 100% certain the fish are in the pond, while in a river I often think if I’m not catching fish, it may be because they are somewhere else in the river system. So rather than trying a different technique, I tend to continue searching.

    I’m curious if you experiment primarily on streams you’re so familiar with that you have a high degree of confidence in where the fish will be. Or, if not, what triggers you to change to a new technique?

    • Hi George,

      I think that’s a great point! And it goes along with what JP said in his comment about different waters. You are right, I test tactics a lot more in waters that I am certain hold trout. I also test more once I know where they are feeding in the river.

      As with everything in fishing, in all depends.

      I’ve written a lot of articles about what to test and how. I’ve written also about finding feeding trout, and determining what level and/or water type they seem to prefer for the day or moment. So I always encourage everyone to read these Troutbitten articles with all the other content here in mind. These articles are not meant to stand alone, very often. And as an author, I long ago stopped trying to cover every condition. That’s why I love publishing here — because I can easily link to many of the supporting articles and concepts with a single click.

      The message here is that if we choose to test, no matter what or how, we should approach that testing without bias. Otherwise, we have too much influence over the results.


      • Hey Dom, I’m lucky to have a good trout stream in my front yard and fish almost daily sometimes twice a day. Although I must admit I don’t experiment that much ,I leave that up to you and I can’t tell u how much I appreciate it.Weekly I look for ward to your articles with the excitement of Ralphie listening to little Orphan Annie.Thank youDom for more time fishing!


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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