A Guide's Top 5 Tips to Becoming a Better Fly-Fisher
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
I have the good fortune to guide more than 100 clients each season. Almost all of them are a pleasure to have in the boat or on the bank. And let’s face it, many of these folks are a lot more accomplished than I’ll ever be. But even the best anglers usually have a flaw or two. Guide enough clients - expert, novice and everything in between - and you start to notice patterns. I’m convinced that 90 per cent of fly-fishers’ mistakes fall into one of the following five categories: Be honest, find the ones that apply to you, and become a better angler.
1. Casting too much line
You’d be amazed how close - how really, really close - you can get to a feeding trout if you set your mind to it. Take your time. Look things over before you crash into the water. Be stealthy. Pretend that you’re back in the old neighborhood playing hide and seek, except that this time you’re sneaking up on a nice rainbow instead of the freckled kid hovering over home base. And unless you’re auditioning for the Orvis catalogue, save the 70-foot casts for the lodge and Scotch-induced one-upmanship. Rarely, if ever, will you need to cast more than 30 feet on a trout stream.
I often good-naturedly challenge clients on this one, asking them to humor me while we wade or row into the optimal casting position. “We’re getting too close,” is the usual reply. “We’re going to spook them!” But we don’t, as a rule, which wouldn’t be good for business or for proving the point.
Rising trout, like hungry teenagers, are very focused on the task at hand. And I mean literally focused: By eyeballing the insects bearing down on them, trout holding near the surface lose the ability to focus farther out, especially on the periphery. Assuming the fish are facing upstream in the traditional manner, you can approach them quite closely if you move slowly, avoid shuffling your boots, and wear drab clothing. As was the case in hide and seek, try to keep an object between you and your quarry: bank-side shrubs, mid-stream boulders - anything to mask your outline. Keep false casting to a minimum and only strip the line you’ll need from the reel. And remember to factor in leader length: If the fish is rising 30 feet away and you have a 10-foot leader, 25 feet of line will get the job done. Casting less line also is easier in the wind and reduces fly drag, which leads to…
2. Mending troubles
“What do you mean, mending?” Ah, if I only had a dollar for each time an angler asks that question. Usually it’s after he or she has coaxed up a few cutthroats despite the dragging imitation; then, upon closer inspection, realized that the hatching naturals aren’t skimming across the water like miniature Jet-skis. “Why is my fly pulling like that?” they ask, and so begins the daily dissertation…
When you think about it, mending is one of fly-fishing’s heftier concepts. Just when a novice figures out that faster water between the bank and the boat requires an upstream mend of the fly line, the next inside gravel riffle calls for a downstream mend. Of course, it’s all a matter of compensating for the differing current speed between you and your fly, but try explaining that to an overwhelmed beginner swearing at the nail knot for constantly hanging up on the tip-top.
In fairness, a lot of experienced anglers struggle with mending and proper line control as well. The most common problem is what I call “whimping out” - when the fly-rodder soft-touches the mend and doesn’t get the required slack right down to the fly to eliminate drag. Make the mend matter. Hold the rod tip high and flip the entire line and leader off the water, either left or right. I instruct clients that I’d rather see them over-mend and pop the fly into the air occasionally; at least that way they’re giving it an honest go and not, to crib a golf expression, “leaving the putt short of the hole.” Aggressive and mindful mending requires constant diligence and practice, but it will make you a more effective fly-fisher.
3. Seeing the fly (Or not)
To see or not to see, that is the question. As Baby Boomers age - and I proudly include myself in that demographic - eyesight falters. You younger fly-rodders can gloat now, but inevitably you’ll have the same trouble threading a 6X tippet through a size 22 midge. To make matters worse, some clients outright fib when I ask them if they can see their fly on the water, as if to acknowledge the difficulty is a free pass to the lawn bowling club.
Think of it this way - if you can’t see the dry fly, chances are pretty slim that you’re going to see the fish try to eat it. Thankfully, relief is in…er, sight. A lot of modern fly designers must be aging as well, because a fly’s visibility now ranks right up there with floatability and durability on the worthiness scale. High-riding hair patterns such as PMXs and Stimulators become even more visible with the addition of Hi-vis posts or florescent yarn over-wings. I have no affiliation to Montana Fly Company, but their Widow’s Web yarn is the most visible and buoyant synthetic on the market. I routinely tie a piece of Widow’s Web atop almost every dry fly pattern nowadays - from #18 Blue-winged Olives to size 8 Chernobyls. The choice of color depends on a host of variables such as current speed, time of day, and whether it’s overcast or not, but white, black, orange and yellow should cover the bases. It’s also important to remember that the trout you’re casting to won’t see the same bright blob that you do - the bottom of the fly is still colored to imitate the naturals.
A few simple techniques also can help your fly-spotting skills. Where it’s legal, tie a second, larger dry fly as an “indicator” above the smaller dry fly you intend to fish with. Watch the larger fly and strike at anything that swirls in the vicinity. Sometimes the fish eats the larger fly, which is when you turn to your buddy and casually say, “I knew it would be one or the other.” In single-fly only waters, a piece of bright yarn affixed to the tippet a foot or so from the dry fly serves the same purpose.
4. Two hands are better than one
I see this all the time. Other guides see this all the time. It afflicts good casters and not-so-good casters - rank beginners and people who should know better. I’ll use the example of a right-handed caster: Never, at any time during the casting stroke, should you let go of the line with your left hand. The right hand holds the cork grip; the left hand is used to haul on the line to generate line speed and help load the rod.
Most clients have no trouble to that point. Where people tend to get into trouble is during the final delivery, when instead of merely letting the running line slip between their left thumb and forefinger, they let go of the line entirely. This does several things, none of them good. First, the person needs to “go fishing” in the air for the dangling line; otherwise there’s no way to tuck the line under the right forefinger, manage the fly on the water and properly set the hook. Second, “going fishing” invariably means taking their eyes off the fly to grab the loose line, and it’s often in the initial few seconds of a drift that a fish strikes.
5. Frequent fly-ing
Most of the time, in most situations (and I’m going to be accused of fly-fishing heresy here), the fly you have on the end of your leader has little to do with the fact that you’re not catching fish. Of course, I’m assuming that you’re at least trying to imitate what’s: 1) hatching; 2) supposed to be hatching but isn‘t at the moment; 3) known to inhabit the river or lake you’re flogging away on, at least some of the time. Let’s examine these three principles in more detail, and hopefully I’ll convince you not to drive guides nuts and demand a fly change every time you go 10 minutes without a strike. Then again, some guides play the same game, and change clients’ flies every 10 minutes during a slow outing to at least make it look like they’re earning their keep. Delusion can cut both ways.
1) There are times when the best imitation in the world, either on top of the water or subsurface, just isn’t going to cut it - blanket emergence or not. Usually it’s because the angler (and I’ve been there, believe me), isn’t up to the task. If, say, you can’t turn over the required 15-foot leader with a 6X tippet during a micro-midge hatch, that world-famous tailwater is likely going to kick your butt regardless of what you tie on. Another example is when there are 15,000 naturals on the water between you and your fly: Changing from a Swisher’s Dancing Caddis to a Kingrey’s Better Foam Caddis won’t alter the fact that a trout still has 14,999 other options, each of which looks and tastes better than yours.
2) It’s pretty good practice to toss a hopper pattern along a grassy, wind-swept bank on the Bow River below Calgary in mid-August. Odds are that at least a few resident browns and rainbows have been chomping on hoppers under the same circumstances. Yet despite the odds, if you fly-fish long enough and often enough, you’re going to discover that some days are just…well, fickle. Trout don’t always do what the articles and experts say they should do. That’s why we love them. Isn’t it?
3) I overheard this once in a Montana saloon: A fellow at the bar was complaining about being skunked that evening, staring into his untouched whiskey. “I never get skunked,” he exclaimed to all within earshot. “Even when there’s nothing happening, I always catch something.” There was a considered pause, then a slurred voice from beneath a straw cowboy hat. “Fella, if they ain’t eatin’…they ain’t eatin. Same as you milkin’ that drink a’ yours.”
The cowboy poet was right, of course. About the drink, and about the skunking. Sometimes they just ain’t eatin.’ The water’s too cold…the water’s too warm…the water’s rising or dropping and the fishing’s off. You might have to start earlier in the day, finish later, or hit the saloon - just don’t go looking for sympathy or easy explanations.
As always, book with Orvis-endorsed Dave Brown Outfitters for the best that Western Canadian fly-fishing has to offer.