The Yakima River Canyon was on fire. We had fished above with success, but the second day the wind left us drifting more than fishing. As the day went on the wind became stronger, the casts got worse, and the drifts without fishing grew longer. But I guess that is the way it goes with fly fishing trips. Mother nature, like trout, has a vote. And I was with my brother and father. That much was always good. And we caught some fish. That is the way it goes.
Windy forecasts for the third day showed no signs of letting up and I was forced into discovery and experimentation. We would skip our standard Rendezvous river, drive around the canyon, and fish the Naches. A trout stream I had never fished, but my brother was a believer, and after that day, so am I.
I knew we were in for different fishing and probably smaller fish. After the first few hours, not catching a six to ten inch rainbow with every cast was becoming harder than catching them. My mind began to muscle my soul, and I was ready for something new.
I stowed my nymphs and dries, pulled out my box of streamers, and made a pledge to fish the rest of the day with what I had in that box. Some caught fish, others none, but as I moved and swung and dead drifted every streamer I had through every water I could find, I captured something that could not be landed in the net. Knowledge, experience, and joy.
I enjoyed that afternoon more that I predicted and for reasons I had not imagined. I loved watching a rainbow chase my jerked retrieval. And the take was exciting and challenging to set on. Sometimes I would hook up. Others, not. But every time I was learning and pushing myself to try something I had never really given the time to fully practice.
I was experimenting. Slowly. Maybe very slowly. I was adding one more afternoon to the journey of becoming a better fly fisher.
When you do not make it to the river as often as you like, growth can become an afterthought. It is easy for our focus to land on catching fish in the ways we know how. Get to the river. Tie on the flies that have been working. Fish the sections that have been producing. Put some fish in the net.
And there is nothing wrong with wanting to catch fish. The excitement of hitting the river promotes that excitement. The problem becomes when and how to put that mindset aside and experiment on the river to help facilitate growth.
We make our trip, and it seems that not catching fish and the dreaded “skunk” creeps into our psyche. How then are we to try new things? How are we to grow? To experiment? To embrace change?
Part of the problem may be not understanding the benefits of growth that comes with trying new things on the river, but equally important is finding the time to do it when our time is already limited.
We often fail to try new things because they are uncomfortable. Why would we if we know what works for us? But only by embracing challenges, making mistakes, and going a few rounds with failure do we truly grow in fly fishing. In the very beginning, this could be the simple act of fishing dry flies.
I have found that there are two times when experimenting on the river is easiest for me.
When You Are Catching Fish.
When the trout gods are smiling on you, all is right with the world. Whether it be skill or luck or more likely some combination of the two, every cast lands softly and every hookset is solid. You don’t get knots. You don’t lose flies. You are catching trout and it is righteous. But slowly, very slowly, if you pay attention, you may start searching for something more than catching trout.
These are excellent days to try something new on the river. You have already caught fish so spending some time on a tactic or technique that might not catch fish does not seem as big of a loss. Once you have scratched the itch and got your hands a little fishy, why not try something new?
When You Are Not Catching Fish.
Then there are the days when nothing seems to be coming together. We fight through. Give our best effort. Switch flies. Switch water. Change our depth. When we have exhausted our “bag of tricks” is an excellent time to experiment and find a new technique or tactic to add to our bag.
The obvious reason here is that if you are not catching fish, what do you have to lose? Why not take some time to experiment when things slow down. It is an opportunity to expand your tactics and attack the river in a completely new way. After all, when fishing slows down, the issue is rarely the fish.
What Should We Experiment With?
The short answer is whatever you are not good at. The things we have read about or heard about. The challenging things. The techniques and tactics you avoid because you know you might catch less fish while learning. Don’t fish droppers? Start. Want to try a new knot? Tie it up. Don’t have luck high sticking? Force yourself to practice. Streamers? Tie some on. Casting. Wading. Fly selection. Mending. Whatever it is that you know would make you a better fly fisher, give it a go.
A Third Option.
The third option takes guts and commitment, because you make the decision before you even leave the house.
“Tomorrow, I am going to fish streamers. Only streamers.” Sealing the deal with, “I will not even bring my other fly boxes.”
This can be difficult, but also liberating because it helps manage expectations. If you commit to the learning, you have no other option. Catching fish becomes secondary and suddenly trying new things seems easier.
Of course there is room for compromise with this technique. You might experiment with this method throughout the course of a day or trip. The intent is commitment.
Make Experimentation the Plan
With a great couple of days fishing the Yakima and the Naches behind me, and a new appreciation for experimentation on the river, I went into fishing the fourth day with a different mindset. Experimentation was now the plan. I worked on fishing droppers deep and went to water I knew I would catch less fish but might produce a larger trout. I got outside of my comfort zone and focused as much on learning as I did on catching. I learned, and that was enough.
The next time you have a banner day, make it even better. When things slow down, turn it into a win. In fly fishing you are either catching fish, or not. Both are good times to learn, which means, it is always a good time to learn. Wadeoutthere and try something new. It may be hard, but it will make you better.