Simplicity and Fishing

by | Dec 13, 2023 | 18 comments

I think we’d all like to keep things simple on the water. Eliminate the entanglements that result from layers of complexity, and sail through the day by keeping things easy.

Simplicity is a smart strategy that produces success on the water — until it doesn’t. Because a simple approach must also match the fishing situation. Otherwise, we’re stuck without answers, and we may not have the necessary tools and tactics far too often.

All anglers wish for an easy situation once in a while. Sure, we love being meticulous about the intricate dead drifts necessary to fool wild brown trout in tough environments. But that process becomes tedious too. And while we might not want things as easy as fishing with worms and bobbers in a pond brimming with bluegill, something in the middle is a welcome change.

Troutbitten is sometimes criticized for being overly technical. I’ve received comments from readers and listeners who chuckle at our use of words like presentations, tactics and refinement. “It’s just fishing,” they might say. “Throw a Wooly Bugger in the water, and see what happens. Trout will eat it.”

Again, I confess, I do wish for fishing that was that easy sometimes. But most often, we pursue the wild brown trout of this region, and they’re truly some of the toughest trout to fool, anywhere. There are untold reasons for these trout being so picky, but that’s a story for another time.

The fact is, keeping it simple only works when trout agree to your narrow terms.

Let’s think more about this . . .

Photo by Bill Dell


Keeping your tackle choice simple by carrying only dry flies, or by limiting yourself to nymphs-only can be a lot of fun.

But I enjoy meeting trout with dries, streamers, wets and nymphs. Surely I could narrow this down to one or two, but there’s something lost in a day of making the same cast over and over.

So, how about keeping just the dry fly game simple? You could certainly carry a small box of dries, one spool of tippet, and a common leader.

I do that when I fish the backcountry for wild brook trout. Maybe it’s my history. Or maybe those environments make a full vest stocked with a dozen leader options and two-hundred flies seem silly. Maybe too, the trout just aren’t that picky. On the mountain streams, simplicity works, and I cast a single dry fly ninety percent of the time, with a leader that rarely sees major adjustments.

But let’s consider a spring-fed wild trout river in May, and assume trout are responding best to a dead drift. The keep-it-simple disciple might argue that a hand-tied Harvey leader is too much work.

“Why build all those sections into one leader? Why tie so many knots? The nine foot 5X extruded, tapered leader from the fly shop does just as well.”

But it doesn’t. And it’s not even close. The slack leader design may not be simple, but it outperforms standard leader builds by a wide margin. And I don’t know any dedicated dry fly angler who would disagree with this.

READ: Troutbitten | The George Harvey Leader Design

Let’s walk through the complexity for a moment, because there’s more to it than the knots bonding the sections of the base leader build. Here’s an example of when simple doesn’t win . . .

Truth is, you could tie on a slack leader (like the Harvey) and fish it with a 5X terminal tippet all day, as you change flies from #12 to #18, all ranging in design from the wind-cutting, downwing of an X-Caddis, to an air-resistant, over-hackled parachute. That same 5X tippet section of two feet can get the job done all day. But even moderate attention to detail in the drift reveals an unmistakable truth — most of the drifts are poor.

A #16 Parachute is perfect for the standard terminal tippet, and the whole leader lands in gorgeous s-curves.

But the #12 Caddis turns over too easily. The leader lays out flat, so drag happens almost immediately. Instead of forcing things to be simple here, just change the two feet of 5X to three feet of 4X, and you’ll be back into the s-curves.

By contrast, a #18 Parachute requires the opposite adjustment to the standard Harvey build — it needs a lighter, longer tippet of 6X added to the five.

Sounds complicated, right? What happened to simple? Well, it didn’t work so well. And it might actually be simpler (or at least more efficient) to make a few leader adjustments than to fight with dragging dry flies and short drifts all afternoon.

Again, you can fish every one of those flies without adapting the leader or the tippet section. You’ll pick up the occasional, forgiving fish. But in this case, surrendering to simplicity hampers success. That’s often the truth on a trout river. Because trout fishing, especially on wild waters, is not a simple game. That’s what we love so much about these places.

SHOP | Troutbitten | Harvey Dry Fly Leader

Details Produce Results

There’s a reason why I had the river to myself yesterday and the day before that. In five days on the water, I’ve seen two anglers. Sure, these were the coldest days of the year. They were also weekdays, and I like choosing water where others might not visit. But in large part, anglers aren’t fishing much, because simple doesn’t win right now.

In some ways, winter fishing (I guess we’re almost there) is easier. Trout are more predictable in what they will eat, where they will eat and how they will eat it.

But in other ways, winter fishing is harder. Trout are less forgiving, because they won’t often move as far for a nymph. Dry fly opportunities are rare, and the bugs they do eat are tiny. So again, trout won’t move as much, and presentations must be on point. That takes the aforementioned adjustments in the leader build along with a thought-out casting approach — it’s not so simple.

Even dialing in a streamer bite in the winter can be more challenging. Trout might want it more deliberately in just one way. And we enjoy finding their preference with experimentation. We think a lot more about the streamer head position, about the water column, about lane discipline and time near structure. When a trout does hit, we catalog that response and compare it with the others. Over a decent bite, you might have enough data points to tune in a presentation in twenty minutes or so. Then it’s game-on until the bite ends. (Hopefully it lasts all day long.)

That’s a lot more work but also more fun than the chuck-it-and-chance-it approach to the long flies. Cycling through streamer presentations works. But is it simple? No, not really.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Streamer Fishing

Simply Simple

Keeping it simple is a great approach for beginners. Pick one thing, learn to do it well, and then move on — learn the next thing. That’s how you build a diverse set of skills.

Keeping things simple is a great way to relax too. And cycling through presentations and leader types probably doesn’t fit most people’s idea of relaxing.

But for many of us, moving through tactics and picking though the daily puzzle is what helps us truly escape from everything else. It puts us into a flow state, until we’re . . . simply . . . fishing.

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. This dilemma really resonates to me as an experienced long distance backpacker getting into fly fishing. If something is your main hobby to the extent it becomes an outdoor sport or even further a job your version of “simple” is going to look differently. As you described so well you can only take gear so far before you’re making compromises especially in all 4 seasons and in a very technical sport. When you have a system and utilize a lot of different equipment for a variety of techniques, it’s much different then if you just walked into a fly shop in west Yellowstone and got on the river with $$$ equipment your first day of fishing.

    • This reminds me… What happened with your bead on a hook experiment?

      • Still fishing! Still catching trout with almost the same frequency when the bead-on-a-hook fly is compared to an actual only bead on a hook, as shown in that article. Have you fished it yet? Kind of a fin experiment.

        • No, but I love a simple walts worm which isn’t far off.

  2. Love this one Dom. For me, simplicity has changed drastically over the past few months. I had an epiphany that the only thing simple about my fly fishing is that I AM going to the river to fish regardless of the conditions (barring a tropical storm).

    That being the case, simplicity is bringing the most versatile tool for the type of fly fishing I love (trout) and that means a 10’ 4wt Orvis Recon (current weapon of choice) with a Standard Mono Rig attached to a nice weight forward fly line. I will have several spare leaders to include multiple Harvey ones.

    I used to be into bringing a bunch of rod (my Tenkara phase) to the river and then picking what I would use then. This led to a bunch of anxiety. However, I noticed, the days I had decided I was going to go with the 4wt and mono rig I was more relaxed.

    Simple for me is that I am going to fish and that I am going to bring the most versatile tool I can along and then adjust to whatever is on the water that day/hour/minute.

    Thank you to you and the TB team for all the information and fun that this Troutbitten life brings.

    • You nailed it for me Mike…nicely done!

      • Things generally only tend to get complicated AFTER that last tippet ring…am I right?!?

    • Words like presentation, tactics, refinement, and a few others I could think of are not new words that Troutbitten came up with and started using. Those words are fly fishing terms that have been used for many years to define the art and facets of fly fishing and catching. You should let your readers know that your articles and podcasts are designed to help anglers catch more fish and not go outside to enjoy the outdoor world we live in. Anyone can do that without an article to read but not everyone can go catch fish on a fly rod. Your articles are centered around catching fish and they should be. They are not too technical for those anglers who want to improve or learn new skills. Keep up the good work. Give Becky a big hug.

      • Thanks, Danny. Agreed. And I feel like I do communicate that across the Troutbitten channels often enough. But there will always be anglers who don’t enjoy going off the deep end with technical fishing. That’s great too.

        Enjoy the day.

  3. Thank you for your advice about not pulling on the tag end when attaching a fly. In over fifty years of fishing I never knew that! I haven’t had a fly come undone since. I am primarily a dry fly guy. I tie one leader during the year for dries for cutting through the wind. Otherwise, I haven’t used knotted leaders since the early ‘80’s. I have learned so much since following your blog and I haven’t seen a need to disagree with your thoughts until now. I am familiar with the Harvey leaders but have never used one. I have fished dries on many demanding rivers and streams over the years. Yes, I have experienced problems with drifts but have overcome the problems with leader adjustments, mainly by changing tippet diameters and lengths. I’m not recommending that everyone should avoid your suggestions, just wanted to let you know there is an alternative.

    • Hi Mark.

      Thank you. Tying up and fishing a Harvey will probably give you a great perspective on the design. You might even find a new favorite leader. But perhaps not. Because you have so much history with your other leaders, you know your tool and how to use it. Then again, if you make similar adjustments to the Harvey tippet sections while fishing, you’ll probably experience even better/longer drag free drifts with less mending necessary. It will take a little getting used to though.

      I know there are always great alternatives to everything. That’s what we enjoy so much about — there’s always something new to try.


  4. I really appreciate all the technical info on troutbitten. It is hard to find good technical information amongst all the general fly fishing articles out there. In relation to keeping it simple I sometimes relate that to being lazy in my case. After two or three days hard fishing I might just throw on a dry dropper and fish through a section without making adjustments or changes. I will still catch some fish and it is easier but I know I am leaving fish behind. I am also probably leaving the best fish behind by not adjusting tippet length or going back to a nymph rig and making sure I get down in all the prime lies etc.

  5. I always try and keep things simple. Your article is spot on. However, I find that I catch more fish with nymphs and streamers. In the waters that I fish, surface activity is almost nill. So, dry fly fishing is a rare activity for me.


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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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