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.
Changing flies can help. You will hardly find me arguing against making changes to catch fish. I have switched flies and seen more fish on the end of my line as a result, numerous times. But changing flies is typically part of a larger problem that I am solving now. Rarely is it the one and only answer.
Many anglers get trapped into thinking that finding the right fly will mean catching more fish.
I was trapped into this thinking for two reasons.
First, with so many different flies in the fly shop, certainly the odds of picking the correct one were small. Especially with my limited experience. If only I might pick the correct flies, my problems would be solved. An overall ignorance of entomology and over complication of the flies available, had me convinced the right fly was out there if I just looked harder or switched faster.
The second reason stemmed from days of getting skunked or catching only a few fish and then talking to others that did have success.
“What fly were you using?” Was my typical inquiry.
The answer always seemed to come with a smile or a grin, and polite but brief response. “Size ten, twelve Rubber Legs. Coffee.” “Purple Haze was killing it.” “Had real good luck with streamers today.”
Damn! I would think to myself. I wasn’t fishing any of those flies. I must work on my fly selection. I must change flies more and find the sweet spot. Never considering all the other parts of the equation. Happy to oversimplify it.
The problem with my thinking is the reason they all smiled. If I was having that kind of conversation with an angler, they most likely knew that the fly is often less important than the other problems that accumulate while solving the complex task of catching fish on a trout stream.
What are some those things you can do to help catch fish before you change your fly? These days, when I am wrestling with a slow day of fishing, I always try to remember these other five things before changing flies. Presentation, depth, approach, water, and the fish themselves.
Probably more than anything I have learned since beginning fly fishing, the thing that has helped me catch more fish than anything else is a relentless approach to fly presentation. In particular a natural drift.
The right fly presented poorly will have a hard time catching fish. While the wrong fly presented flawlessly will almost always stand a chance. I didn’t say it first, but I’m a big believer.
Things like persistent mending, keeping line off the water, fishing one seam at a time, and adjusting the angles that you cast to fish are some techniques that you can use to help with your fly presentation. How many times have we cast to the same seam twice and only after showing the fish a solidly presented fly do we hook up? Presentation is key.
Fish often sit and feed along the bottom of the water column. When we target these fish with nymphs it does us very little good to fish flies that are not conveniently located in the places where the trout are eating. Part of the presentation of the fly is getting it down to where the fish are eating. Using weighted flies, a healthy relationship with split shot, and fishing fearless of snagging the bottom have helped me focus on fishing my flies at the correct depth while nymphing.
Conversely, fishing emergers is another important part of the water column that is often forgotten. Critically thinking about the depth of my emerger fished as a dropper has also helped me have more success.
Trout have great vision, and they often will see you before you see them. Sometimes we notice a flash or a dark bolt across the water as we spook them. How many fish do we spook that we never see? Perhaps a reason for not catching fish is that we are fishing to the correct water but have already moved the fish out of the spots they are feeding.
The perfect fly, with a beautifully constructed cast, mend, and drift to nothing but rocks along the bottom of the river has very little chance of catching trout.
This one took me longer to realize because I lacked home waters to repetitively fish and identify patterns. Through conversation and careful examination on some persistent fishing trips I began to notice that certain spots hold fish on some days but not others.
Like searching for the right fly, we can be lured into believing there is the right water. We always catch fish behind boulders in pocket water, or under cutbanks, or in riffles, so we pay less attention to the other parts of the river. Telling ourselves, I don’t typically do well there, so I won’t spend much time fishing there today.
It is not enough to change sections of the river. We need to deliberately try a different water type. Systematically and deliberately moving from type of water to type of water has helped me catch fish on very slow days.
Not all trout are feeding the same amount at the same times of the day. If you have had the benefit of doing much sight fishing this can become apparent quickly. You may have the right fly and the fish you are targeting may simply not eat. If you are sight fishing, try finding trout that are actively feeding before giving up on the fly you are showing them. Not sight fishing? Presentation, depth, approach, and water all may have something to do with why the fish aren’t biting.
Could you be fishing the wrong fly? Sure. It happens all the time. But before we are too quick to change out the right fly fished the wrong way, it is important to consider some of the other things we can change. After all, if we oversimplify fly fishing to finding the right fly, we never account for the other problems, and we make it awfully hard to progress as an angler.