The 'first five' garnered enough interest and feedback that I've decided to expand the concept: here goes ... Besides, 'Top 10' has a Letterman feel to it. Please feel free to weigh in and disagree - debate is what makes the fly-fishing world go round.
1. Not stepping on fish
Okay, maybe that’s a bit overstated. It’s more like not stepping where the fish was a moment ago, before it bolted across the river and alerted every other trout in the run to impending danger. Time after time, clients hop out of the boat and immediately slosh into the middle of the river. Then they turn around and ask, “Where should I start casting?” I ask them to come back to the boat so we can huddle. “Where you should have started casting,” I direct, pointing to a spot about 15 feet from the boat, “is right there, where the water’s muddy from your boot prints.”
Trout are like burglars and Wall Street financiers - they like banks. They much prefer banks to the middle of the river, where the aquatic diet isn’t as rich and existence becomes an aerobic exercise. Banks are the piscine equivalent of a safety deposit box, offering up all sorts of goodies like partly submerged logs, current deflections, ledges and edges. In other words, seams and margins dividing faster currents from slower ones. Next time you approach a trout stream, take a good, studied look at the water along the bank before you go thrashing into a run or a pool.
You’ll be amazed how often you spot a big trout shallow-water nymphing or sipping dry flies in 12 inches of water. I guide on the Columbia River south of Castlegar, B.C., where high flows top 100,000 feet per second - on par with the Niagara River. Yet many of the trophy rainbows that clients catch - and by trophy I mean 20- to 24 inches - are hooked in riffles less than a foot deep, the trout’s tails and dorsals breaking the surface as they eat PMDs or caddis.
2. Don't overplay fish
This one’s pretty straightforward: A big trout is generally good for one strong, sustained run after being hooked; a really big trout may make two. If the fish on the end of your line makes any more runs than that, you’re doing something wrong. Either you’re not exerting enough pressure on the fish, or you’re not moving the boat or walking along the bank adequately to play the trout from the proper angle.
There are several ways to exert pressure on a fish, some close at hand and a few farther out. The same tactics apply whether you’re fishing a 4-weight rod or a 6-weight - a 3X tippet or a 6X. First, keep the rod tip up, which lets the full length and resistance of the flexed rod work against the fish. Second, set the drag (or palm the reel) firmly enough to slow the fish down. Third, tilt the raised rod in the direction opposite to where the fish wants to go.
Playing any good-sized trout properly almost always means moving with it: try to get downstream or at least perpendicular to the trout to move it out of faster water and into the slack water along the shore. I call this 'playing the angles.' It’s a lot easier - and quicker - to pull a trout into the shallows if leverage is in your favor. Trying to wrench a big fish upstream in a strong current is like trying to play hockey with one hand on the stick - why go there? Keep moving, get that fish in, and get it back into the water as soon as possible.
3. Avoid ham-handed hooksets
Once, twice…sometimes 10 times a day, a client will miss a hookset, turn around, and ask, “Was I too fast or too slow?” The answers are as varied as the people in the boat, but generally I’ve observed that fly fishers set the hook too slowly while nymphing and too quickly when fishing dry flies. A cursory look at the physics involved helps explain why.
Consider the typical nymph rig. By the time you see the indicator move - whether it’s a foot from the fly or eight feet from the fly - the fish has eaten the nymph. You might have the fastest reflexes in the world but they still need to be faster than the split second it takes the trout to figure out the fly is a fake and spit it out. Trout in heavily fished waters, such as the Bow or Bighorn rivers, can spit a nymph out before you know it’s been taken, indicator or not. At times like that it’s almost impossible to set the hook too quickly. But a word of caution here: quickly isn’t the same as forcefully - you’re not impaling tarpon, so make the hookset swift but smooth to avoid tearing the fly out of the fish’s jaw.
Okay, now consider the dry fly. It’s floating along the surface. You see it. The fish sees it. There is more anticipation than a junior high dance. The fish turns, rises… Then, at the moment of truth, you yank the fly out of its mouth. It’s the opposite of nymphing - too fast. That’s not always the case, but it’s the case often enough that anglers should consciously hesitate before raising the rod tip to set the hook on a rising trout.
This is where I need to come clean in the self-diagnosis department: I’m a notorious ham-handed hook-setter. It’s always on dry flies, and it’s always in situations when I can see the trout move towards the imitation. Anticipation gets the better of me, and I yank. A fishing buddy once called me a Premature Yanker. There’s probably a Freudian fly-fishing explanation there somewhere, but it’s beyond my grasp, so I’ll let it go.
No, I’m not trying to sell you real estate. I am trying to sell you on the idea that where you position yourself in a trout stream (or on a lake, for that matter) is as important as whether the vacant townhouse you’re eyeing is near a bus stop or within walking distance of the neighborhood school.
Locating prime trout-holding water is half of the “pre-cast” equation - the other half is figuring out the best spot from which to launch your offensive. Again, take a look around and weigh the options: can I approach the pool from the bank or will I need to enter the water? Would the other side of the river give me a better casting angle? How am I going to avoid that overhanging branch? If I walk out on that boulder will the fish see me? Just as in a real estate transaction, you want to take stock of all the variables before making your first pitch. And that first pitch - or cast - had better be a good one, because it can make the difference between sealing the deal or outright rejection. I’m a firm believer that your chances of hooking a fish decline with each subsequent cast, so make the first cast count, not the tenth.
It’s also important to move if nothing’s happening. In the West, we’re blessed with plenty of rivers and lakes where crowds are the exception and not the norm. Take advantage of all that open space. If you take 10 casts over a pool without moving a fish, move on. Even if that blizzard hatch you’ve been waiting for suddenly turns on, the fish you’ve been casting to will still be spooked to some extent and overly wary; you’ll increase your odds by picking up and following the hatch to another pool or run.
5. Ditch the funk
Pete Cardinal, one of the most respected guides on Montana’s Missouri River, has a ball cap with the words No Whiners printed across the back. Granted, it’s not the most subtle approach, but the point is this: fly-fishing can be tough; you’re going to have slow days; you’re going to have days when you’re cold and somber and the shuttle service has dropped your vehicle at the wrong take-out; but how you deal with those days - with those dog days of fly-fishing - says more about your character than the days when you catch 50 fish and win the side bets.
Strive to be positive on the water. Avoid the funk and your fishing partners will thank you for it - maybe not right away but probably back at the motel or bar when even the slowest day takes on the patina of experience and quality time astream.