Fifty Fly Fishing Tips
From fish more to fish harder. Here’s the full list of the Troutbitten Fifty Tips series.
Here we are, at the end of fifty tips. Just two weeks shy of a year ago today, I started this series with a plan. Determined to publish every Sunday, I wrote these tips to be a little different, trying for something unique, and with a new take on some stuff many of us may not have considered for a while.
. . . What brings us back is the trout. Fishing without catching only goes so far. It only lasts so long. We dream not just of the woods and the water, but the trout too. And catching those fish brings in another art, another appreciation for the challenge and a new way to be creative. It also fulfills our human need to learn something. And without a trout on the end of your line once in a while, you’re just hiking through the water with a ten-foot stick . . .
Ever feel like your dominant hand has all the fun? It holds an ice cream cone, throws a football and sets the hook on your biggest trout. Your off hand is so neglected that at times you might forget what it’s used for. Fishing with a spinning rod keeps your other hand busy — constantly doing the reel work. But we aren’t reeling in line much while fly fishing, right? And at the close distances we often fish for trout, it’s easy to forget to keep the line hand involved.
So this is another one of those “Duh” tips. It’s the kind of thing that seems obvious. And yet, by considering all of the tasks for the line hand, we become better anglers. It’s always the little things that make a difference in life. It’s the basics, refined to perfection (or something close to it) that make us better — that bring more fish to hand.
There’s a canyon stretch on my home stream with a gated, gravel access road used by dog walkers, runners, hikers, bird watchers and crazed fishermen. It’s a wonderful three-mile walk up into the canyon or down from the other side. In some sections the path bumps up against the towering limestone walls, and you can feel crisp cool air pushing aside the heavy heated blanket of summer.
There are huge chunks of those same rocks that have broken off through time. They remind you how many centuries this place was here before you were, and how long it will remain after we’ve all turned to dust. The eternal boulders were separated from the crest of the cliff through the earthly power of spreading hemlock roots that infiltrated every available crack, until eventually an enormous boulder fell to the forest floor and rolled into the river, providing a landmark and a constant reminder of how small your space in time really is.
So it’s a good walk up in there. And lots of anglers make the trek. But here’s the funny thing: people stop and fish the same places, day after day, year after year. All of us do it.
The dead drift. That’s what it’s all about, right? It’s the baseline for a decent presentation and the starting point for real success in fly fishing. Oh sure, we strip streamers. We swing wet flies. And on occasion we may dance an Elk Hair Caddis on its hackle across the river. But by and large, the dead drift is our objective when fishing for trout — especially wild ones . . .
Midday. High sun and an overpowering heat. I stalked the banks of a large Montana river with my Border Collie at my side. I mirrored his shepard’s crouch: low, with my head forward, almost crawling through the dry sage brush.
We paused strategically under the thick Douglas Firs, not only for a break from the unrelenting sun, but for a real chance at deception. The large wild trout, it seemed, were at the moment, predictable — laying close to the banks (sometimes within inches), and waiting for the next overhead meal from a hapless hopper or any other random terrestrial occurrence. The evergreen limbs provided the shade for true cover — our only opportunity for real stealth.
The fly is an explorer tied to the end of a string. It bounds along with the current, making discoveries and telegraphing its collected information back through a line. Whether nymph, streamer, wet or dry, our fly is an investigator sent forward to probe the water and search for trout — and to collect more information than our eyes can see.
Standing riverside, pinching the hook of a caddis dry fly between forefinger and thumb, with slack line and a rod poised to send our fly on a mission, we scan the water for signs. We look for rising trout and likely holding lies. And we look for much more than is easily visible. The currents of a rocky, rolling river are a converging and confusing mix. And what we may decipher through polarized lenses is a mere scratch of the surface. So we send a pioneer.
The change was instant and lasting. His casting motion suddenly shortened into what it had to be (under all those branches and obstacles) — a tight, compact and powerful stroke that pushed the line and trailing fly in narrow loops, precisely at the target.
Much of what we learn about fly fishing comes from instinct. Fishing, after all, is not that complicated. It does not take a special set of talents or years of study to figure most of this out for yourself. It just takes a tuned in, heads up approach out there on the water, and a good bit of want-to.
There are two ways to recover slack after the cast: stripping in line or lifting/moving the rod tip. Use both at the right times . . .
The trout were on. They started with nymphs, but as soon as the emerging tan caddis popped to the surface, a green summer morning turned into something special.
Steve was the first to switch to dry flies. Around 9:30 a.m. I leapfrogged his position again and stopped to visit for a moment. Steve spoke as I approached.
“Man, these are the days you dream about,” he said while casting.
Standing in the creek, not far off the bank, he glanced over his left shoulder in my direction, judging the length of his fly line against the back casting space I’d left him. And I continued wading closer to my friend in the ankle-deep water.
“You switched to dries?” I used the statement as a question . . .
I’m not sure why, but it seems to be part of an angler’s DNA to face the stream sideways. Some guy with a rod walks up to the creek, faces the opposite bank and watches the water flow from left to right. He casts up and across and drifts the fly / bait / lure until it’s down and across from his position. Everyone does it. Repeat ad infinitum and catch a fish once in a while. To catch more trout, face upstream.
Most of this applies to dead drifting things to a fish, which if you’re fishing for trout, is arguably the most effective and consistent way to put fish in the bag. Dries and nymphs (and often wet flies and streamers) are most useful when delivered upstream and allowed to drift along with the current, without much influence from the line and leader that carries it. The dead drift is the first and most basic lesson of Fly Fishing 101.
And the easiest way to get that dead drift happening is to face upstream . . .
Anglers love to talk about trout rise forms. There’s the subtle sip and the tail tip, the splashy swirl and the sideways swipe. Surely, all the various ways trout rise to the surface indicates something about what they’re actually feeding on. But regardless of the rise form, one primary rule (usually) applies: The trout is holding upstream of where you saw it rise.
Let’s imagine a trout holding in two feet of water with a medium current — a speed that matches a comfortable and casual walking pace. The trout lies on the bottom, with its nose in the flow, watching for available food drifting downstream toward it. Perhaps the trout is keying on Sulfur mayfly duns, and it’s rising confidently to most of the half-inch, yellowish insects that drift into view of its seam.
Here comes the next dun . . .
The river is in motion. It carves a path that erodes its rocky bottom and gnaws at its bordering banks. It cuts lanes and moves channels, constantly shaping the valley into something new. And within the river’s path is structure — all the things that give a river character: logs, tree parts, rocks, boulders, gravel bars and rootsy banks. That structure forms seams where trout live. (Find the seams and you’ll find fish.) And the best way to see them . . . is to look way upstream.
The structure in your favorite large river or small brookie stream creates seams extending well beyond what is obvious. The two distinct lanes running along each side of a midstream boulder create a third zone, a stall, right in the middle. It’s easy to see those three water features up close to the rock, but the further downstream the water travels, the more those features fade and blend into each other. And such is the beauty of a trout stream.