I read online one very seasoned angler’s advice: it’s less about the fly, and it’s more about where and when you fish.
I have spent many unproductive hours on many rivers. I’d have to agree with him. I’d only add that how is important, too. I still spend way too much time on fly selection, but I think I’m getting better at focusing on strategy instead.
So, here are my two cents:
I think there are some dimensions to this. If you target freestone rivers, subject to the vagaries of temperature and water levels, your strategy has to be very flexible. Water temp. is super critical.
For example, if fishing a freestone in the summer, head up-mountain where the waters are cooler. If you’re fishing in the winter, trout will be more active mid-day, when the water heats up a tick or two.
Another variable to “where” is the level of water flows. When water is high, trout will be hugging the banks. If water is low, you will have to use a long leader. For example, “French-style” Euro-nymphing was designed to catch spooky trout in low water; in that technique, leaders can be up to 20 ft. long!
It’s all about in-the-water biomass, IMO. If there are many bugs in the water, the trout are actively feeding. If bugs aren’t emerging and/or hatching, trout will be opportunistic but not looking for food. They’ll conserve their energy.
I think a rule of thumb for me is that if I feel comfortable, then the bugs will, too. So, in the summer, dawn and dusk will normally be the best times to fish. The bugs need to fly around and not have their wings dry out in the noon-time heat of an August sun.
Similarly, in the winter, midges can hatch when the sun is high, so I will fish around mid-day. I fish a lot in the winter. It’s surprisingly bearable most days when the sun is high. I think bugs feel the same way.
I remember fishing the Farmington on a cold day in March. Snow was on the ground. Suddenly, around noon, black stoneflies started to appear. I caught a 19″ brown on an otherwise slow day. Then, the bite shut off an hour later.
IMO, this is often overlooked. I have learned the hard way that the key to catching trout, for me, has been this: presenting flies in the way that the trout want to see them, not how I want to fish them.
To me, the key thing is to target the right level in the water column. I enjoy seeing a trout take a dry fly, but if they’re not “looking up,” I’m pursuing a low-probability strategy.
The key is to experiment and see what’s happening. A well-presented fly, at the right level in the water, should elicit a strike if trout are feeding or curious about your fly.
Sometimes, the trout are keyed on the water’s surface as a hatch or spinner fall has begun. Sometimes, they’re feeding a few inches down, on emergers. Sometimes, they’re focused on the bottom, as nymphs are just beginning their journey to the surface for a hatch.
Bugs do what bugs do. Trout then react. Then, anglers need to react to the trout.
Even minor adjustments can make a big deal. I remember fishing the Swift in April. The flows were pretty high. No action. Nothing was hatching. Then, I added more weight and proceeded to land a pile of fish. A little weight went a long way.
So, in summary, I think fly selection is important but is over-rated in most situations.
I think strategy trumps all.