My path into fishing was fortuitous. In so many ways, how I grew up fishing, and the waters where I pursued trout, shaped my tactics and formed my approach on the river. I’m thankful that I fished gear as a kid, because it has allowed me to understand fly rod tactics more completely. I fished bait, so I can tell you first hand that minnows and worms do not outperform a good nymphing game. The stocked streams I grew up with were thought to be fished out by mid May, and it took an adventurous angler to prove otherwise. So I learned to cover water, to make the most of the good stuff and be ready for the few chances that would come my way. I have memories — burned in and vivid — of being sixteen with a driver’s license, exploring later into the year and fishing further away from home than ever before.
What I learned in those young years set the table for everything that would follow. And looking back, I’ve come to believe in one tenet as the most important — the most consequential to success. I fish close.
Much of our trout fishing in Pennsylvania happens in what can fairly be called smaller waters. These are streams and creeks more than they are rivers. When I first returned from Montana after a two-week trip with Dad in my early twenties, I was stunned by the intimacy of my home streams. The valleys are narrow. The waters are lined with trees and brush. It’s tight quarters here. Yes, I fish a handful of big waters too, but many of our open valleys struggle with water temperatures, and the trout are rarely as plentiful or as wild in the big rivers. (But, there are places . . . )
My obsession in the beginning was the pursuit of small stream trout, in the kind of waters that required a good hike to get there. With a Border Collie named Dylan at my side, it was nothing to cover a mile of water in a full day. These small streams forced a tight casting stroke and an intimate approach, with the casting as close as possible — always.
The next class of streams were forty to fifty feet wide, at best. And when I turned my attention toward these creeks, my close quarters approach held — because it was my learned habit.
Ingrained within my system, in the way that I intuitively see a river now, is a natural limit on range. It ends around thirty feet. This rule holds for all fly types: nymphs, dries, steamers and wets. I rarely throw further than thirty. And when I do, I know it. Because it’s unusual. It’s uncomfortable. Not because I can’t cast that far, but because what I can see far away is limited, and because my ability to manage a drift is handicapped at greater distances.
But, But, But . . .
Something inside the fly angler yearns for the long cast, for big, bold motions with loops of fly line shooting through the air. These are followed, of course, by long, endless drifts.
But that’s not fishing. It’s casting. And there’s no doubt that better success comes with a precise, targeted approach.
I often stay in the ear of my guided guests, encouraging them to find a rhythm with one distance, then move their feet instead of lengthening the cast. And when they do this, they catch more trout.
However when I have two guests at once, I can spend much of the day trying to rein both of them in. The waters I guide are full of tantalizing, grass-is-greener kind of water that pulls anglers ahead. The natural tendency is to strip line off the reel to reach what’s next. But when longer casts happen, fewer fish is the result.
The obvious counterpoint here is a legitimate concern for spooking trout. And for sure, stealth and caution trump everything else out there. Scare a fish, and you won’t catch it. That’s a certainty.
So it pays to learn how to approach a trout, to be within that thirty foot range and much closer — yes, even in clear-water conditions.
Don’t spend your whole life wondering how close you can get to a fish. Learn it. Don’t assume. Test it, and let the trout teach you.
When the sun is up and the angles are just right for seeing into the water, notice when fish spook as you wade toward them. Learn the ways trout hold near structure, then use that structure as a barrier between you and the fish. Understand the trout’s blind spot, and see how you can approach from downstream and behind the fish, often within a rod’s length, even in clear conditions. Know that speed scares trout more than proximity. And if you move like a heron out there, the advantage shifts to your side. Understand that broken water provides both food and protection for a fish, as it shields your presence in the river.
I’m not alone in my mark of thirty feet. When I watch my Troutbitten friends fishing, I notice the same thing. We cast and drift within range, at distances we can manage, most often between fifteen and thirty feet.
Joe Humphreys mentions the thirty-foot distance in his book, Trout Tactics.
Landon Mayer marks the distance at thirty feet as well, in his video, Mastering the Short Game.
And Kelly Galloup caught my attention in a recently filmed Trout Unlimited presentation, when he insisted that he doesn’t fish streamers further out than thirty feet.
Good Things Happen Up Close
We see the water better when we’re closer.
You can’t read water past thirty feet — because you just can’t see it. The intricate features of surface currents are lost. Bottom structure and color changes disappear. The further away you are, the less detail you have about the water you’re fishing.
Everyone wants to watch a football game on the big screen. Why? Because you can see more features of the contest with a bigger, closer picture. It’s the same thing while reading a river. The necessary details begin to fade around twenty feet. That’s when two distinctly different current lines start to seem like just one.
Accuracy declines at greater distances. And wind is a bigger factor. Even if you can read the intricacies of the currents over thirty feet, and if you’re still deadly accurate with the cast, strike detection is reduced with every extra inch of line hanging from the guides. Control is lost too. Drag happens with more line out, and if that line must touch the water, mending becomes more challenging.
So find water you can fish close up, and work on deadly accurate casting. You’ll find that, when fishing shorter, you can fish harder. Instead of hoping a trout eats or wishing for a strike, the kind of precision possible at short range lets you make something happen with intention.
Some anglers cast further so they can drift longer.
But exactly how long is that drift?
Wow, that’s far.
Okay, so how much of that drift is any good?
Dry fly fishing is the perfect visual example of this. Once the fly hits the water, if it drifts twenty feet through a true dead drift, then pat yourself on the back a few times, because you’ve done something special. Yes, we can extend the drifts of every type of fly, but more trout are caught by using only the most productive part of the drift. Once that’s over, pick up the fly and cast again. This is one of the advantages of fly fishing.
At short distances, we’re set up for short and effective presentations.
Can’t Get Close?
What if you’re in a piece of water that simply doesn’t permit a cast under thirty feet? What if you can’t wade into position? What if the water is too low or glassy?
That’s right. Go find water that you can fish close. There’s no rulebook insisting that you must fish every piece of water out there.
I mean it. Move.
For the first five years of focusing on tight line tactics with the Mono Rig, I fished only the riffles and runs. I picked the pockets and left the flats, glides and pools behind. All day long, I fished the moving water. So I never, and I mean never, cast beyond twenty-five feet. Instead, my working range was fifteen to twenty feet. In truth, I caught more trout than I do now. Because these days, I enjoy the challenge of pushing the limits, up to thirty feet, and sometimes beyond. Sometimes, I like covering tough water, over intolerant and wary trout that are just looking for a reason to dash for cover.
But when the fishing is slow, or when I fall into bad habits, I go back home, back to the broken water, where I can easily approach a trout from downstream and almost touch him with my rod tip without being seen. Then I punch a few casts up into the current, delivering my fly precisely to the target while managing the line and tippet with authority. And when the trout takes, there’s a good chance I’ll see it, feel it and hook it at close range.
Fish hard, friends.
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