I asked this question of a fly group I’m in, “As fly fishermen of all levels and skill, what would you list as the two biggest problems, hurdles, obstacles or whatever that you had to overcome as a newcomer starting out?” A lot of good information came from this question but through it all, a theme rose up that developed into the 11 things that all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout.
The goal here is to not only help new fly fishermen to be successful in fly fishing but also give some of us “old-timers” a chance to take a fresh look to see what we may need for improvement. Everyone can use “11 things that all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout” whether new to fly fishing or to be a better fly fisherman.
Fly fishing is a sport that, no matter how much you know, you never seem to know enough and I firmly believe you’ll never know it all. It’s the beauty of the sport, in that, it never gets old and the challenge to catch trout is a constant. But that said, each improvement we make increases the odds of rewarding ourselves with either catching more trout or consistently catching trout.
Follow along as we look at the 11 things all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout as recommended by the fly fishermen of all skill levels and experience.
Casting is where it all begins. “How to cast a fly rod” gets talked about more than anything else in the fly world. It is true that in order to fly fish you need to learn to cast but at the same time, your life doesn’t depend on it. I know lots of “bad casters” catching trout, and I for one started out among those at one time.
Casting involves 5 basic principles and over time as you better yourself in these areas, casting will become simpler and easier. (Casting – Learn More) Learning and using proper casting techniques from the beginning will eliminate bad habits that are usually formed in the beginning. The more you fish, (which becomes fly casting practice), the more it improves your casting.
It seems especially true in dry fly fishing that accuracy is the main concern regarding casting. Seeing a trout on the rise and then delicately placing your fly to float into that trout’s path is a skillful art. But, I could argue that casting a streamer or a nymph into an exact spot is equally crucial. Over time and with practice it is possible to achieve all of this.
What I learned from my question on casting was the following advice. Focus on throwing the line and not the fly. It’s easier to see the line and direct it. The leader will do its job and turnover the fly to settle just right as long as the cast is performed relatively well and the leader is properly constructed. (Click – about leader)
Keep casts short, especially in tight places. This goes for nymph fishing as well, maybe even more so. A short deliberate cast is all you need for a good and accurate cast.
“What flies do I need?” The simple answer is the “right one”, but, you can fly fish your whole life and still leave the stream some days scratching your head from trying to find it. I’ve had many a day where I see trout taking something and I can tell you as of right now, I still don’t know what it was. But this is more of an exception than the rule. Trout feed on a variety of foods and chances are you’ll find something a trout wants.
Understanding the fly groupings will take you a long way into having what you need and when you need it. The simple classifications of dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, streamers, and terrestrials are a good place to start. Don’t get confused by all the patterns available because you only need a few. What I mean is, you don’t need every fly in existence to be successful. Keep it simple and learn more about when to fish these certain groups.
In each group, there are a handful of traditional flies that are proven to catch fish. Learn what they are and create a fly box that contains these flies. From there you can extend your repertoire as you become more familiar with flies in general and more importantly, how to fish them.
“Keep it simple” is still the best advice coming from everyone. Have a few well-known flies for each category. For example, a Hare’s Ear, Pheasant tail, Prince nymph are great flies for nymphing, as is an Adams, Griffith’s gnat, Elk haired Caddis for dry fly fishing. No box should be without a Wooly bugger when streamers are called for.
I remember when I was a kid fishing spinning gear with a 6lb test line and big old night crawler globed up on a hook. Of course not knowing any better I would tie my hooks on with knots I learned from tying my shoes. Both seemed pretty ineffective as shoes came undone and many a fish was lost. But eventually along came a clinch knot and before I knew it I was using an improved clinch knot and the rest is history, as they say.
Knots are easily taken for granted but are one of the single most important items for a fly fisherman to know. Many a fish story ends with “the knot gave or failed and that’s why I lost him”. Most of the time we are only concerned with the knots to either connect our tippet or connect our fly. We become most familiar with these knots because of their constant use. But, rarely do we think about the knots we use for our entire rig.
Just for the fun of it, An Arbor knot connects backing to the reel. An Albright knot connects together the backing and the fly line. The Nail knot is often used to connect the fly line to the leader, while a Surgeon’s knot might be used to connect the tippet to the leader. Finally, an improved clinch knot connects the fly to the tippet.
Advice from the crowd: Learn to tie a good Surgeons’ knot or a Blood (Barrel) knot for connecting leaders and tippets. A clinch or improved clinch knot for tying on flies. The strongest knot is the knot that is tied right and doesn’t come loose.
Learn to Read the Water
This piece of advice could be one of the hardest of all the 11 things fly fishermen must learn because it has a lot of parts to it. Knowing what is a trout stream rather than “where do they put the trout?” makes a huge difference in your approach to a stream. Knowing what a Freestone stream is and its characteristics versus knowing a Limestone stream’s characteristics requires a different approaches. (Click to Learn More)
“Structure” is a key element in all fishing and trout need structure as well. But trout also need well-oxygenated water moving at the right velocity to survive. Knowing where trout are in a stream goes far beyond fishing the bridges. It’s understanding what a trout needs to survive from a habitat perspective. Cover, food sources, current and their relationship to each other are three of the biggest “must-know” components to reading the water. Most are able to recognize trout cover, but assessing the current in such a way as to figure out the “edges” or “feeding lanes” is another.
Finding trout water, beyond the stocked streams, means studying a few maps. “Blue lining” has become a popular term regarding wild trout fishing and refers to map reading to locate a possible trout stream. Once on the water, lots and lots of water watching instead of fishing can pay big dividends.
Learning to read the water means knowing where to fish and where not to fish. Learning to read the water will take you away from the mainstream creeks and away from the “stocked holes” where finding good accessible spots to fish without having guys standing right next to you is like having your own creek.
Keep It Simple
This is one of those easier said than done statements because we love to complicate things as humans. If you think about it, the manufacturers are constantly hammering us with ads and the YouTube crowd telling us how to rig for this and rig for that, making it all too easy to get caught up in the “hype”, the marketing and what all the “cool dudes” tell us about how we should be fly fishing.
There is a “multitude” of equipment choice you could make, techniques to learn, fly lines to choose from and I could go on. But, there were the days of cane poles, string and a hook that caught lots of fish as well and it doesn’t get any simpler than that.
“Simple” for me means, find a comfortable rod rigged with a good suitable line and tapered leader. Use a small assortment of proven flies and concentrate on developing drag-free drifts. Once you have the basics down then you’ll have a better understanding of when and what to upgrade to.
Lesson from the group: Keep a basic awareness that skills are developed over time. As simple as fly fishing is, it is also complex, meaning, you’re not “suppose” to be good at something right out of the shoot. Stay basic and simple, and as you gain experience, confidence, and awareness you will naturally get better. And, dare I say, you’ll make things more complicated anyway. LOL!
We are halfway through our 11 things that all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout and this is a good place to talk about this next item, patience. Patience is one of those strange words to me. It could mean to “wait” or “take your time” or “keep your cool” and “don’t get frustrated”. When it comes to fly fishing, patience is an ability to wait something out, endure something tedious and take your time by not rushing, and do all of this without frustration or getting all flustered.
- I have, on many an occasion, had a rising trout “sniff” my fly only to pass it up, fly after fly after fly. I would fish for that one trout for hours digging through my box trying to find what it was he might take. It takes patience to win this battle and there are no guarantees that you will.
- I have also sat on a log observing the stream, watching the surface for rising bugs, a telltale sign of a trout’s “ring” on the water. I have stared into the water straining my eyes looking for something to move slightly or catch my eye as a color or shape that wasn’t a rock or stick.
- Waiting in the truck or under a tarp for the rain to stop and the creek to slowly recede to fishable levels. I was just being patient.
- I have learned not to rush the stroke of the backcast into the forward cast before the rod has finished loading. It’s called timing and requires patience.
Patience is something that can be applied to so many aspects of fly fishing that I could make this list a long one. But it’s not the length of the list that matters, it’s understanding that fly fishing takes patience. Patience is self-control and discipline, yet, it has to be fun or it becomes work. Work has no place in fly fishing as far as I am concerned.
Little side note:
I took notice that this word, “patience” came from the more “experienced” members of the crowd. Interesting! Patience is not a youthful endeavor it seems, but a practice of our elders.
It was said, “you can’t catch all of the fish on one cast”. Funny as that may sound, during a hatch when many trout are rising and the water seems to boil, it becomes easy to start casting to every rising ring that you see. It may help your casting but it won’t catch trout. This is when you relax and focus on one fish at a time. Pattern the rise and timing of the rise, then make your cast.
Nymph fish too requires focus. I like to use a strike indicator when I nymph fish and when the indicator is bobbing its way along on the surface, focusing on its movement is key. Any variance in its behavior could be a trout who has just picked up your nymph and you have a split second to set the hook before he spits it out.
The last piece of advice given was, focus on what you are doing. Focus helps eliminate those clumsy mistakes we all make. From tying knots to picking flies to careful casting, it all takes focus.
One of the offshoots of fly fishing is a “peace of mind”. It comes from the fact that you are focusing your mind on one specific thing for an extended period of time. You’re not thinking of work or school or the bills and anything else but fishing. Your mind is focused on the moment and the task at hand. It’s a healthy thing to be doing and refreshes the soul.
Setting the Hook.
This was one I have to admit came as a surprise to me. I didn’t think it would make the list of 11 things that all fly fishermen must learn. Yet, a large number of the group mentioned it. The prevailing comment was “knowing when your fly is being taken”.
It made me think because nymph fishing is about “feel”, especially if you nymph without an indicator. Sensing a strike or take is an art form, taking countless hours of fishing to develop the sense. Strike indicators help tremendously because they take the “feel” to “observation”. Watching an indicator helps detect strikes
Dry fly fishing has a different set of circumstances in that you see the fish take your fly. Or did he? Often you see a big slash right where your fly is, set the hook and nothing. Did he miss it or change his mind at the last minute? That’s one we may never know. But, setting the hook when dry fly fishing also has a timing element to it. Set the hook too soon and you pull the fly right out of the trout’s mouth. Set it too late and the trout has already spit the fly.
Some guys say you should count a second before setting the hook, like “one thousand one”. I’d be lying to you to say I do that. The excitement of the take overrules any consciences thought for me at that moment and is replaced with muscle memory. Sure, I have my share of failed hook sets. But have developed a slight delay between seeing the take and the actual setting of the hook. It came at a high cost though, I missed a lot of trout in the early days.
Barbless hooks are more popular than ever since the releasing of trout has grown among anglers. Often I hear about lost trout being blamed on barbless hooks. It happens, but I think more so because the angler doesn’t keep a tight enough line on the fish during the struggle. But, if you lose the trout, take comfort in the thought that if he was on, you fooled him. You were going to release him anyway and fooling him into taking is what its all about, so you won.
Adapt to Change
I had a guy say to me “the revelation I had while nymph fishing was, fishing a nymph on a 5x tippet and being totally ignored. I decided to change to a 7x using the same nymph and then hammering fish. One of the biggest learning’s I had in the past few years”.
It is true that willingness to change up will improve your overall fishing. But the difficulty is, the willingness to change up. Every situation on the creek is different. Each hole, riffle, rock, or seam has a need for adjustment. Weight may be one of the most overlooked aspects of nymph fishing because adding or removing weight can make a big difference in your hookups.
My fishing buddy (The “Professor”) and I coined the phrase, “work the variables”. Tippet, weight, indicator, and fly being the elements we change most often. These elements are the variables to fly fishing. (Click to Learn about “Variables”)
Stay Out of the Trees
Way too often we are so focused on the water that we fail to notice what is around us. Typically, we move down through the creek a few steps at a time. As we do, everything around us is changing. Bushes come closer, tree limbs above seem to reach out in an effort to “grab” our leader. Pine trees are almost inescapable once your fly lands in one. There is always that tiny little twigs that suddenly appeared, as we watch our tippet wrap around it.
Staying out of the trees is a matter of paying attention when getting ready to cast. Look behind you, overhead and measure distances in your mind. You will save countless numbers of flies if you simply look around before you cast.
This may be one of the most profound tips to come out of the group. It could be the most important of the 11 things that all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout. One member said “When I first started nymph fishing, I hit a wall. I couldn’t dial it in. I hired a guide and after a day of guided fishing, I got over the hurdle. When you hit a wall, save time and ask for help”.
My grandfather use to tell me, “just when you think your good at something, you discover somebody better”. This is actually a benefit when trying to learn or improve. Seriously, the greatest athletes in the world from Messi and Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, to Serena Williams to Tom Brady have coaches to help them improve. Now I’m not suggesting you hire a coach. But when you’re struggling with an aspect of fly fishing there are ways to seek help. Your local fly shop is always there to help you. They aren’t just there to sell you something. Those guys fish and their knowledge is there for the asking. If you succeed because of something they suggested or showed you, you’ll come back. Their business is reliant upon building relationships with people like you.
Read and Watch
And of course, like you’re doing here, read the blogs and watch the YouTube videos. They are all helpful avenues for gaining a better understanding of the fly fishing world.
When we are young, listening to our elders was not very high on the list. For some reason, it seems to be the same when inexperience meets experience. We do things way wrong before we do them right. Often we could have saved the headaches if we were just willing to listen to some experienced advice. I saved this piece of advice until last. It is experience talking. As an old guy myself, I found what this gentleman said to be as simple and straight forward as it gets.
“I’ve been at this for 50 years. I think I can give guidance with ample experience. First, any fly reel will work, period. Next, a 5 weight rod will catch any fish on the planet. Third, weight forward cheap line is fine, just clean it and dress it once in a while. Hip boots will keep you out of deep water where trout live. keep your casts short and cover every inch of water, trout can and do feed everywhere. Lastly, slow your casting down. When you think it’s slow enough, slow down some more. And stick to just a few basic flies”
There is no question in my mind that these 11 things all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout will definitely improve anyone’s fly fishing. You could argue that if you stay at it long enough you will automatically develop all of these items as part of your normal fishing habits. Maybe, maybe not, but if you learn them now, you’ll save a lot of time and frustration by having these as a guide.
The Last Word
An onion represents the fly fishing world in that it has a series of layers that are revealed in due time as one pursues the sport. Each layer exposes a new path to follow and explore and seems to be a never-ending journey that teaches us more about life than just catching trout.
As we travel along we are introduced to a wonderful cast of characters, as our fly fishing story unfolds. Each new year’s season reduces us to children filled with excitement as we look forward to being on the water. Like Christmas or a birthday, each cast can produce a present greater than any before whether it be the largest or the prettiest trout we have ever caught.
We learn to be humble as well. When seeing a friend’s face light up with the joy of a catch and staying out of his limelight of the moment. It’s a sport where being out fished by your kid is winning the game and sitting by the fire years late finding yourself smiling at the thought. In addition to the 11 things that all fly fishermen must learn to catch trout, I’d like to add a twelfth. Keep it fun. More learning is accomplished when you are having fun than any other form of learning. Fly fishing should always be fun.