It is hard to mess up a day of fly fishing on the Bighole River in Montana, but in the middle of a PMD hatch and rising trout all around me, I was trying my hardest.
It was the third day of our four-day long Shemchuk Rendezvous Summer 2019. The Bighole River in late June was uncrowded of humans and full of trout. My father had rowed us to a rocky shore along an island where fast water shot around a bend in the river and left a long stretch of slower, choppy riffles. We had drifted downstream quickly, so there was another 2-3 hours of good fishing before we had to finish the last half mile of our float, take the boat out, and pull it back to our cabin.
My brother walked upstream and disappeared behind the trees. My father fished the faster water from where the boat lay anchored. I waded downstream from him 40 yards and got to work trying to hook up. I was set up for nymphing, so I started my drifts and soon I had a nice rainbow on the line.
Suddenly, something wonderful, and something terrible happened. Wonderful because catching trout on dry flies is amazing. Terrible because I was about to repeat a past mistake and miss out on roughly an hour of some of the best dry fly fishing I have ever experienced.
As fish began to rise out in front of me, my first thought was that they were outliers. I told myself they were probably some “onesie, twosie” small trout rising, but the real fishing was still underneath. It did not take long to prove I was incorrect. The hatch was on. The bugs were out. The trout were feasting. I realized I had to change to dries.
I began to feel I was missing out on the chance to catch the fish rising around me. Solution? I’ll just go faster… Next began a series of blunders that could have been avoided if I had only slowed down and taken my time.
First, I reeled my line in too fast and got tangled in some grass. After I unraveled my rats nest, I struggled to tie on my 4X tippet. Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) had been bringing up fish earlier, so I decided to tie on a PMD dry fly. I wasn’t sure if they were hitting the dry or the emerger, so I tied on a PMD Emerger dropper to be safe. I messed up my dropper knot twice. The process of switching from nymphing to dries took an embarrassing amount of time. But things were about to get much worse.
I realized I had found the correct fly. I was “fish on” after my third cast. It was the Emerger. Then the Emerger again. At first it was smaller fish closer in, but then I cast out to the faster water at a rising fish and had a nice rainbow in the net. It was just enough good fishing to make my next gaffs even worse. On my fourth hook set the tippet broke and I lost my fly. While rushing to tie on another fly, I dropped it in the water. I searched, but it was gone. On the verge of defeat, I tied on my last PMD Emerger.
I caught a fish, but my knot failed again. My last PMD Emerger was gone.
I tried a grey caddis. No luck. A yellow caddis. Nothing. A Caddis Emerger, then a Yellow Sally. It was no use. Each time I tied on a new dropper I was so excited I rushed and ended up taking more time with my knots than required.
Finally, I slowly reeled in, got control of my line, and took a breath. My father had left the boat and had walked down to
I opened a dry fly box that I had not been using and found a CDC Emerger. It looked almost nothing like my lost fly. But it was small. It was yellow. And it was an emerger. I patiently tied it on.
Turns out these trout weren’t picky. They would eat anything — so long as it was a size 16, PMD Emerger pattern.
Losing a fish is never fun. Losing one because mistakes made while rushing, is downright disgusting. When the fish are biting and you need to change your set up to dry flies, try these three steps to help keep things under control:
First, slow things down. Take a deep breath. Remember the fish will still be there.
Second, asses your gear, and adjust your tactics wisely if required. Smoothly reel in your line and examine your set up. Leader good? Tippet good? Fly good?
Finally — focus. Perform one one task at a time and avoid distractions and multi-tasking.
Fishing was outstanding once I slowed things down. Who knows what fish I missed out on in that debacle, but I definitely lost time fishing by trying to speed. The next time the trout are going crazy on the surface and you need to adjust to dry fly fishing, don’t make the same mistake I did. Take a breath and remember: SLOW IS SMOOTH. SMOOTH IS FAST. Wadeoutthere.
SteveJuly 2, 2019 at 2:30 am
Thanks for the article Shem. Can definitely relate to the difficulty of tying a dry while the hatch is on and the surface is boiling as well as the utter despair when you’re down to the last one.
Jason ShemchukJuly 2, 2019 at 5:47 am
You know it. The faster I go, the longer it takes… “Despair” . True. True.
Bob WehrweinAugust 10, 2019 at 11:52 pm
“Slow Is Smooth. Smooth Is Fast.” Sounds like a lesson I learned in the cockpit – many applications in life, eh…..kids, wives, diagnosing why the hot water heater noworkee, etc. Engaging article Jason. >Wolf
Jason ShemchukAugust 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm
Yes! I did learn that in the cockpit…And you bet it works in life and fly fishing. I am glad you enjoyed the article. Cheers mate.
Bob BowmanApril 6, 2020 at 6:54 pm
Second or third time just this week your article related to my “life”. Changing flies, building shelves, and facilitating (or at least attempting to set up ) a Zoom meeting. Thanks!!
Jason ShemchukApril 6, 2020 at 8:18 pm
No problem Bob. Glad that the blog is resonating with you. Agreed. “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” Is helpful in many of life’s ventures. Thanks for reading and a great comment.
SteveApril 12, 2020 at 12:59 pm
Been there, done that… One instance that still haunts me this day was rushing to throw a dry fly on and in my haste I ignored the “wind knot” that had been pulled taut 5 inches up on the tippet. 5 casts later hooked into a nice take and broke off on the first run. I’ve used the phrase “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” is definitely one of my most overused “Dad” phrases. Thanks for the article and have a Happy Easter!
Jason ShemchukApril 12, 2020 at 1:04 pm
There’s those who have, and those who will my friend! My pleasure. Thanks for reading and commenting. Happy Easter.