It’s not likely any of us will escape our fly fishing journey without arriving at the river having forgotten something. It’s more likely that, if you are reading this, you already know the pain. If not, remember there are those who have and those who will. Sometimes it's no big deal. Forgot our water bottle? Fish thirsty. A box of dry flies? Fish nymphs. Raincoat? Fish wet. But some items cannot be fished through. Some things are deal breakers. I’ll admit it’s been more than once I have reached a trout stream without a critical piece of gear. It was after one of these exceptionally deflating days that I finally decided enough was enough. I committed to solving the problem in the only way I knew how. Applying mental checklists in the way I did during my time flying fighters for the Air Force.
How much time on the water are we wasting being snagged? It may happen less frequently as our casting, accuracy, and most importantly, our situational awareness improves, but if we are fishing fearlessly to the parts of the river that trout love to inhabit, we are bound to encounter sticks, rocks, grasses and branches. The answer is not to fish more cautiously. We need to cast to the tight spots and ensure our nymphs are getting deep enough if we want our flies to have a chance of catching fish. Improving our casting accuracy and building awareness on the river can help limit how often we get snagged, but it cannot eliminate it. Learning how to unsnag our flies as efficiently as possible is required if we are to continue to progress as fly fishers.
The cutbank of a river is a storied location in the realm of fly fishing. Flies are broken off on gnarled root balls, thick grasses, and precarious branches. Anglers are often left stumbling, slipping, and snagged. The evidence of their efforts can be seen in the tangled tippet and lost flies that look back at those of us who imagine brute-like brown trout lurking in the tight close seams below a hard to reach cutbank. Particularly difficult to reach cutbanks may seem like more trouble than they are worth but armed with some tactics for penetrating these tight spots, cutbanks can bring many a memorable trout to the net. Here are three I use when the opportunity presents itself.
We oversimplify the pursuit of trout when we think changing flies will result in more fish caught. Surely fly fishing can be a simple endeavor if we let it be. Carry a fly rod and some flies to the river. Wade through its currents and cast flies to where the trout swim below. Wade and cast. Wade and cast. If the fish do not reward you, the overutilized solution is often to change flies and continue on.
I knew I would catch a fish there when I saw the hole appear around the bend of tall grass. It was only a question of how many or how big. It was early morning. I had caught a few smaller fish and had decided it was turning into a good day’s fishing. One of the trout I had caught had run under the cutbank and wrapped around some roots. And I had already achieved a not too uncommon wind knot in my tippet. I told myself I could fish this frayed and knotted tippet a bit longer. Had I known, I might have replaced my worn tippet. But of course, I should have known.
In my youth I fished a trout stream with reckless abandon. Wading fluidly with balance and precision. Leaping from boulder to boulder with confidence. Wading out, deep and often. When I spied a nice piece of water across the river, I went there, fished it, and moved on without thought to the why of it. Fishy water on the other side? Cross back, of course. Passing on a potential hook up for mere convenience seemed a waste. In my eyes, every spot, regardless of which side of the river it lay, held not only the possibility, but the probability that I might hook into a monster trout. I could persistently zig zag trout waters like this with a carefree foot and a smile on my face on every outing.
When picky trout make extended drifts a requirement for hooking up, I look for every advantage I can to give the fish a good, long look at my fly. Almost more than anything else I have found that if I can present the fly in a natural way, my odds of hooking up increase. Working for longer drifts means lengthening that natural presentation as well. The basic pattern of presentation is familiar. Cast. Mend as required. Maybe feed some line at the end of the drift. All require skill gained through experience and possibly instruction. But there is another rudimentary tactic that can give us a little extra if we need it. A simple method that any fly fisher, regardless of skill level or experience, can use to extend their drift. Move.
Working with the wind is an attitude as much as a technique. For years, a windy day frustrated me, and that frustration carried over into the rest of my fishing and made for worse drifts, mends, and hook sets. In short, a windy day on the river tended to slowly burn my patience fuse and put me in a bad mood. Now I try to look at the wind for what it is – another problem to solve. And I work with the wind to keep me tied to the river and my environment.