“I’d say just time on the water. You have to put in the time, if you want to get better.”
“I think it was when I started spending a lot more time on the water that I really began to improve.”
“Time on the water is the most important thing. You have to put in the time”
Time on the water. We’ve all heard it at this point. So many anglers attribute this single factor as the most important step towards improvement on their fly fishing journey.
I’m torn on this advice. On one hand it is wonderfully simple and irrefutably accurate. Get out and go fishing. The more you go, the better you will become. On the other hand, where does that leave those of us who cannot make it to the river as often as we’d like? For some passionate anglers whose goals are more than catching the biggest or the most fish, spending the required time on the water can be easier said than done. Sometimes no matter how much you love fly fishing, commitments and responsibilities prevent you from going as often as you would like. Are these fly fishers left with no better option than to wait for a season of their lives when they will be able to fish more?
I’ve come to believe that making significant strides in our fly fishing abilities is not that far out of reach if we do what we can to make the most of our time on the water.
Mindset and Efficiency on the Water
The thing is, progressing at fly fishing is more than about just time on the water. I believe there are two things that move the needle.
The first is mindset. Having a mindset centered around learning is what helps us take the lessons learned from our time on the water and apply them to our future fly fishing adventures. This can happen by accident, or with the right mindset, it can happen with intention. If you are dedicated to immersing your experience in discovery and improvement, the learning curve is greater.
The second is efficiency. How you spend your time before, during and after a trip to the river can go a long way towards squeezing everything you can from the time you have. When we can’t get out fishing as often as we’d like, the little things make a difference.
Let’s define fishing as the time spent with your flies in the water. From false casting to driving, there are dozens of things we do while fishing that do not fit that strict definition. Things that, if we were more efficient anglers, would result in more actual time on the water. What are some of these things? I’ll cover the big ones I’ve noticed throughout the years.
Know Where You’re Going
The first step towards leveraging your time on the water is to not waste time figuring out where you are going the day of. Doing some research the night before to check on flows and weather can ensure you are not wasting time driving.
I’ve made this mistake more times than I’d like to admit. I remember driving to a trout stream that I hadn’t fished in a while, without checking ahead. It was a little further than I typically go, but I was excited to fish a river I normally don’t get out to. When I arrived the water was high. I fished it a bit, but eventually drove to another section that I thought would have better flows. I arrived to find folks already fishing most of the spots I wanted to work, so I moved again. I ended up having a good day fishing, but with half my time on the road.
Windy in the canyon? Skip it and head straight to the upper section that typically gets less wind. (should have listened to my brother on that one…)
They’re letting water out of the dam and flows are way up? Visit a small mountain freestone for the day.
I also try to avoid fishing multiple rivers in a single day. Even on fly fishing trips I tend to stick to the same water with the limited days available. Again, the biggest reason is time. I’d rather spend my time fishing than traveling. Here’s an article with more of the whys and hows behind fishing one river:
Have Your Gear Ready
Having everything ready to go the night before is also a big step in maximizing your time on the water. This can be as simple as gathering all your gear in a pile and packing your lunches and water ahead of time.
Other things I would include here are putting gas in the truck, grabbing a fishing license, and picking up any required tippet, leaders, and flies. Anything that can be done ahead of time can help you get the most from your day of fishing.
I’ve wasted a couple trips to the river because I forgot something important like a pack or rod at home. The last time this happened I was so frustrated I decided I’d fix the problem permanently. In the Air Force we used mental checklists all the time for important tasks in the jet. Why not create one to remember my fly fishing gear? I haven’t forgotten anything since. Here’s what I came up with:
Practice Off the Water
There are certain skill sets that can be practiced without going fishing that will save you time on the water.
Casting in the yard at home helps you become a more accurate caster and more confident with the drifts you’re getting. You’ll probably end up in the trees less too, which is a real time killer.
It’s also important to avoid spending too much time tying knots. Being timely with your knots means not having to slow down when you have trout swimming in front of you. My favorite time to practice knots is while brewing beer. Close second is smoking BBQ.
Fish Closer to Home
I understand that sometimes long drives are required to reach trout water. It’s not fun, and it makes for a long day. Driving three hours one way is not optimum to leveraging time on the water. If that’s your situation, I feel for you. I’ve been there.
But even when I was making the long drives for fly fishing, I discovered small ways to save time. Have you asked these questions?
Is there a river that’s closer? If there is closer water, but it’s not your favorite stream, consider fishing there more to make the most of your time. You never know, the closer water may grow on you. This happened for me when I was making the drive to Utah from Las Vegas years ago.
Is there a section of the river that is closer? Sometimes we fish a section because we are more familiar with it or perceive the fishing to be better. Try getting outside your comfort zone and fishing new water if it means more time with your flies fishing.
Do I know exactly where I’m going? It’s not just about minimizing the drive to and from the river, it’s also about how much you’re driving after arrival. Fish sections that you can wade a long day or won’t need to drive at all. Maybe you typically hike into small streams. Choose the shorter trails.
Skip the Guide Shop
Okay, so maybe this one comes with a big “it depends” caveat, but sometimes the guide shop is an unnecessary stop. Whether or not you take the time to hit the fly shop can depend on the fly shop’s proximity to the river, when they open, the time you have available to fish, and your familiarity with the river. If you fished the river the day before and had great luck, do you need to stop in for advice? Do you need to visit the shop every day of your fishing trip?
I’ve come to enjoy fishing a stream a bit on my own before I visit a fly shop. I like having some perspective when I’m talking with the folks at the shop and I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure it out on my own.
I can swing by at the end of the day and tell them how it was and pick up some more flies, or in my case leaders. (I’m a leader killer) If you have a good idea about where and how to fish, you might save precious time on the water by going straight there.
On the flip side, if you only have one or two days to fish new water, a trip to the guide shop can definitely be an investment in getting the most of your time on the water. They’ll know where the fish have been eating, how the flows are affecting things, and what to expect for bugs throughout the day.
In exchange for some flies and a few indicators, you may receive some good knowledge… but then again, you may not. I’ve had great days fishing flies and water that looked nothing like what I was told I could expect from the fly shop. Not to say they weren’t knowledgable or trying to be helpful. They were. But the river can surprise us all.
Minimize False Casting
I false cast to get more line out. If I am being efficient, I’m not false casting much. Typically, I don’t fish water that requires me to cast very far so there is not much false casting required. I also tend to catch most fish closer in with less line to manage and more natural drifts.
The point is you don’t need to false cast as much as you may think. In the beginning I remember false casting was a sort of practice stroke for me. Even now, I see it when I take folks that are new to fly fishing.
Don’t worry about an imperfect cast. It’s really not required. Fish that subpar drift and try for something better on the next one. You may have less well placed casts but you’ll be fishing those flies more. The casting will come with practice.
Cut Off Tangles
If your time on the water is limited, consider dealing with knots and tangles less by simply cutting them off and re-rigging what’s required. Sure, you have to learn to deal with tangles sometime. I’m not saying I didn’t struggle through some epic rat’s nests early on. I probably still do. But I know I am certainly quicker to assess when it’s not worth my time and just cut it off. If you’re busy untangling knots and snags, you’re not really fishing are you?
It is tempting to fish the same water longer than needed. What is “needed”? It depends, and there’s no way to know for sure. One more cast to a riffle might be the one a monster brown trout decides to eat. When it comes to maximizing your time though, I think it’s better to see more water if the goal is learning.
There is something to be learned from sight casting to the same fish and switching flies, but at what cost. I like to keep moving when I have a shorter day on the water so I’ll be forced into new problems to solve and new tools to solve them with.
Go Early. Stay Late.
If you only have the morning to fish, getting on the water first thing is one way to ensure you get the most out of that opportunity. The same is true in the evening. Fish the time you have and don’t waste it with the snooze button.
Go With a Guide
A guide is an obvious but sometimes overlooked resource for leveraging time on the water. Whether you hire a guide for a day towards the beginning of a trip, or just spend a half day on your local waters, a guide can give you tools and techniques to take with you moving forward.
You save time on the water if you’re not starting from zero on how to fish certain sections or times of the year. If nothing else, a day with a guide is a good starting point, and a tremendous opportunity to learn.
You can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishing. It’s a pretty simple concept but in the end it still comes down to time on the water.
So put the time in when you can. Don’t be afraid to go and not catch fish. Don’t wait for good conditions. Don’t think there’s a better time or a better day. The fact is any time on the water is better than none. There is no substitute. No guide, no video, no book, that replaces time on the water.
And it all adds up. Over the course of ten years, the little things we do to get the most of our time on the water make a difference. Most of us understand how valuable time on the water is, but that doesn’t mean we cannot become a better fly fisher than we were the day before if we spend that time efficiently and strive for learning.
Thanks for letting me be a small part of how you make the most of your time on the water. Wadeoutthere.
What am I forgetting? Scroll down and leave a comment with how you get the most of your time on the water.