You may have heard that fly fishing is a sport that can engender a lifetime of learning. It is somewhat cliché, but most cliches are that way for a reason: they are based in the truth.
Bringing a learning mindset when it comes fly fishing can be the key to continuing your learning process through all the stages of flyfishing from beginner to the pinnacle of the sport. The best anglers I know have an ability to learn something new each time they are on the water. On many days, the catching can take a backseat to learning.
For me, the best part of continuously learning while on the water is that it can result in breakthroughs. The breakthroughs can be related to angles of approach, flies, trout behavior, or any other facet of fly fishing right down to tying knots. Sometimes, a breakthrough on a task we routinely do can end up saving a lot of time that then result greater efficiency on the water. Other breakthroughs have an outsized impact on how many fish you catch or how successful you are in certain situations. Still others affect our overall approach to fly fishing and change how our personal approach evolves over time. What I find fun is that you never know when these breakthroughs will occur.
I thought it would be fun to share a few of my own personal fly fishing breakthroughs that might be relevant to others.
Modify that fly. Many of my advances are born of necessity. I was visiting Yellowstone National Park with my wife, on a mostly “non-fishing” vacation (I hadn’t even purchased a fishing license in advance). While the visiting Buffalo Ford area on the Yellowstone River I spotted a big cutthroat trout rising steadily only 15 feet from the bank. I bought a license while we were picking up sandwiches, and we agreed I could fish for a half hour on our way out. The problem was, there were so many bugs on the water, and there were at least four simultaneous hatches.
I switched out several flies and the fish continued to happily slurp down bugs without looking at anything I was casting. I finally saw him eat a small caddisfly, and got him to glance at the closest dry fly pattern I had with me. I looked at my fly and figured it needed to be smaller and a bit narrower to match the natural. I used my hemostats to lop off some elk hair and the fly looked ugly to me; it was not something a fly shop would sell. The fish disagreed, as the first time I put it over him he ate it. Since then I have not been afraid to cut materials off of a fly on the river to try to improve it. I have even cut the wings off of dry flies to serve as a nymph if that’s the best you can offer. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Move your feet. One tip that came out of teaching my son to cast was my suggestion to him that “the cast starts with your feet.” He can cast farther than I can, but his youth and energy often would turn that into a liability. After you learn to read water and figure out where and how you want to present your fly, it is important to take a moment to re-position your feet to put yourself in the best location to minimize the length of your cast and maximize the quality of your drift. Sometimes, moving a step to one side or the other so that our fly line matches up with the trout’s feeding lane can make all the difference. Maybe you can make a specialized cast that presents the fly naturally to the fish, but changing your angle by a step or two may result in a much better chance at a hookup when the fish eats.
Take it on the road. When I fish water that it new to me, my first goal is to try to identify what habitat is holding fish that I can catch. The best technique I have to do this is to look for fish. If that is not an option or does not pan out, I pick the best little piece of water I can find and focus exclusively on that. The ideal here is to find fish, systematically present them with flies, and let them tell you what they will and will not eat. This may not even involve catching fish, but by watching how the fish react (or do not react) to certain flies and presentations you can rule out approaches. This avoids wasting time covering a larger area fishing something none of the fish have interest in that day.
Earlier this year I was fishing a large river. I found a small shallow side channel that I had walked right past the night before. I noticed a fish moving back and forth feeding subsurface. As I continued watching, I noticed another fish rise. This small run was holding big fish! The sun was at my back, so I had a great view of the feeding behavior. I cycled through a few dry flies until I found one they reacted well to and caught a fish. Then I continued changing flies until I had one that they would look at (if not necessarily eat) nearly every time. I was then able to take that approach on the road when I moved upstream, and pulled out lots of fish that I couldn’t see but would rise from their lie and eat my dry with confidence.
Marky Mark. Maybe it speaks to my lack of angling skill but you might recognize by now how helpful it is to wring as much information as possible out of not catching a fish! Making a habit of that will help you flip the script. One approach to this is to cover a fishy section of water with a big streamer or a big dry fly (depending on the circumstances), something really flashy or buggy that you can see well and normally gets fishes’ attention and makes them move. You may not catch much, but if you concentrate you are likely to start “marking” lies where you catch a glimpse of movement. Once you have found a few fish this way, switch techniques and try running a nymph through those lies to feed them something smaller that they have to move less for. This approach can help you dial things in on what would have been a slow day otherwise.
The clincher. This is probably the most mundane breakthrough, but maybe the most impactful. I learned to tie a clinch knot when I was young by twisting the line between my fingers to create the wraps. The first time I hired a guide I noticed he was pinching the line and using both hands to create the wraps for the knot. Once I adapted to that technique I got better, stronger clinch knots. The new knots did not kink or curl fine tippet. Also, the loop that the tag end gets passed through increased in size from a needle eye to a nice big opening, which made tying my knots so much faster and easier. It’s helpful to be open to learning new ways of tying knots that reduce waste with shorter tags, save time, or hold better.
Once you start adding breakthroughs in your approach it’s like the multiply on each other, helping us to tackle tricky scenarios and improving our confidence. What are your breakthroughs?