More Winter Fly Fishing Hacks

more winter fly fishing hacks

Winter is a different animal when it comes to fly fishing. If you insist on heading to the river on a winter day in the United States north of Interstate 80, here are five more hacks to keep in mind. (I already offered seven in a previous article: Winter Fly Fishing without Losing It)

1. Don’t snap ice off your rod guides

It’s so tempting, but this can easily result in a broken guide. Simply dip your rod into the water. This will dissolve the ice because the cold water is still warmer than the air temperature.

If you’re into preventative measures, try coating your guides with lip balm. Some fly fishers like Carmex because it is not petroleum-based. The jury is out on whether lip balm with petroleum can damage your fly line. I suspect, though, that the risk is minimal. Another option is Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste which your local fly shop may carry.

2. Focus on deep pools as well as shallow water

Here I’m pushing back a bit on my earlier suggestion that you focus on shallow water rather than on deep pools. That was Bud Lilly’s suggestion. He observed that trout in shallow water will feed more aggressively than trout in deep pools. The reason is that the sun can trigger insect activity of even the metabolism of a sluggish trout in a shallow riffle. This is true.

However, the opposite can be true as well. It depends on the conditions and the particular river you are fishing. Tom Rosenbauer, another veteran fly fisher, notes that fish tend to “pod up” in deeper pools during the winter. So look for deeper, slower water if you’re not seeing or hooking trout in the shallows.

3. Get your nymphs deep

This is always good advice. However, it’s especially critical if you’re fishing a deeper pool in the winter. The fish may be deeper than usual. Besides, the current runs the slowest at the bottom of a river or stream. Slow is better on winter days when trout don’t move as quickly. So use more weight than normal.

How can you tell when your fly is deep and slow enough? Watch your strike indicator. You’ve hit the right depth and speed when it moves than the bubbles on the surface of the water.

4. Make a few more casts than usual

Trout do not feed as voraciously in the winter as in the other three season of the year. This means the feeding window for a particular trout is smaller than usual. So make more casts than normal to insure you’ve drifted your nymph through every possible window in a run.

5. Stock your fly box with Midge patterns

Mayfly hatches are almost non-existent in the winter. The same is true of terrestrials. So you want to take along plenty of midge patterns—both in nymphs (such as the Zebra Midge) and dry flies (a size 18 Parachute Adams works well for this).

Winter fly fishing doesn’t appeal to every angler. If it holds enough appeal to prompt you to venture out into the cold, stay safe and stay warm. Perhaps one of these hacks will make your day a good one to remember.

Making Your Fly Fishing Trip to the West Affordable

fly fishing trip to the west

Fly fishing the Madison or Yellowstone Rivers in Montana used to be no big deal.

I simply tossed my gear in the back of my Toyota pickup and drove for 45 minutes to one of the two rivers. If I only had a couple hours to fish, both the East Gallatin and the main Gallatin Rivers were 5 minutes from my house. The only cost for those trips was a gallon or two of gas.

Then I moved to the north suburbs of Chicago. This has made the trip to those rivers a lot more costly. Still, I have fished in Montana at least once a year since I moved to Illinois twelve years ago.

I have modest amount of discretionary income, so I’ve had to figure out ways to keep my trips to Montana affordable. Here are a few cost-cutting hacks which have worked for me. Some are big, some are little. Even the little ones help.

1. Go in the spring or fall

This is a great idea simply because spring and fall fishing in the Rocky Mountain west is fantastic. But it’s cheaper, too. No one is flocking to the beaches of Montana or Wyoming for spring break. Nor do families vacation in Yellowstone National Park in early October.

So hotels are cheaper (especially when you book them on Orbitz or Hotwire), rental cars are cheaper, and flights are cheaper (usually!). If you plan to book time on a spring creek for a day, rod fees are cheaper, too.

Summer is a great time to fly fish in the west. But it’s more crowded and more costly.

2. Go with a friend

Perhaps this is a no-brainer. But it’s cheaper when you can split the cost of a hotel room, rental car, and a guided trip. Yes, you need to invest in at least one guided trip if it’s the first time you’re headed west! Besides, going with a friend is safer and more fun.

3. Pack economically

Baggage fees for airline travel vary. But most airlines charge around $25 for each checked bag (one way) and then let you bring a carry-on for free. I have figured out how to get everything into a checked bag (an Eddie Bauer Drop-Bottom Rolling Duffel) and a carry-on suitcase.

Most of my fly gear goes into the duffel. It’s long enough for my 4-piece fly rod tubes and my net. If you insist on carrying your rod tube, it might pass as a personal item. Occasionally, if my duffel bag is pushing the airline weight limit (usually about 50 lbs.), I’ll put my wading boots in my carry-on.

Yes, my duffel bag cost me about $175. But eliminating the need to check 2 bags for a round trip saves me $50 a trip. My duffel bag has long since paid for itself. Of course, a cheaper large suitcase can work as long as your rod tube(s) fits into it—perhaps at an angle.

4. Eat strategically

Dave, my podcast partner, and I like to enjoy a good evening meal. It caps off our day of fly fishing and allows us to savor the experiences we had on the river even as we savor the food.

We don’t mind paying for an evening meal at a nice steakhouse because we cut corners the rest of the day. If we can handle the food at our hotel’s free continental breakfast, we eat it. If not, we find a reasonable café. Lunch is a cheap sandwich on the river or sometimes even protein bars.

5. Budget for the unexpected

Perhaps I should say budget for the “expected,” because you can always expect some unexpected expenses! We’ve had to replace damaged reels, leaky waders (which were beyond repair), and lost fly rods (don’t forget to check the roof of your vehicle before you leave the fishing access parking area!). We’ve even forgotten about national park entrance fees or the rising cost of a non-resident fishing license.

Trust me, you can count on losing, breaking, or forgetting something on your trip. So save a bit more than you think you will need.

6. Purchase fishing gear and flies strategically

There are no hard and fast rules here other than to shop with savvy. Do you need to replace your fly rod before your trip? That Orvis or Sage rod will typically be the same price at the fly shop in your town as it is in Bozeman, Montana. But there is no sales tax in Montana. Nor is there in Oregon. I typically need a new pair of wading boots every three years. Unless I find a great sale (and the boots that work best for me are never on sale!), I wait until I’m in Montana.

On the other hand, it may pay to stock up on flies before you arrive at your destination. If you tie, then that’s easy enough to do. If you don’t, then stock up on Parachute Adams, Prince Nymphs, and your other go-to flies from the cheapest place you can find. You always need a good supply of basic patterns.

Local fly shops definitely have the best intel for what to fish on the area rivers, and the hottest fly may be something you didn’t anticipate. Make sure you support the fly shops where you ask for advice.

Also, figure out where you are unwilling to cut corners. You get what you pay for. I’m willing to pay a bit more for the best quality wading boots and rods. But I’ll compensate by going for the mid-range waders, fly vests, and even reels. I’m fine with an off-brand fly fishing shirt. I think you get the idea.

It takes a bit of savvy, but you can make your next fly fishing trip to the western United States more affordable with a bit of thought and preparation. We will see in you Bozeman or Thermopolis or Estes Park!

Give Your Fly Rod a Lift

fly rod a lift

Some of the most effective fly fishing techniques are so obvious that we overlook them.

Maybe we practice them instinctively. Or maybe we don’t. But if we thought about them a bit more, perhaps we would practice them more strategically.

One such practice (and there’s no need for a drum roll because this may seem patently obvious) is giving your fly rod a lift. There’s no mystery here. Just lift up the tip of your fly rod. Yes, that’s it!

It can make a big difference. Here are four reasons to give your rod a lift:

1. To pick up slack line on a close, short drift

On smaller streams, I frequently fish runs that are only three or four feet in front of me as I stand on the bank. These runs are typically short, so it’s easy to let out too much line when I make my cast.

Since the fly reaches the “hot zone” almost instantly, I need to retrieve slack immediately. Otherwise, I can miss a strike (too much slack to remove before the actual hook set happens) or risk drag (too much line on the surface for a swift current to pull). In either instance, a simple rod lift solves the potential problem.

2. To pick up my line at the end of a long drift

At the end of a long drift, a fly fisher needs to do one of two things.

Ideally, you will need to set the hook on the trout that has taken your fly on the swing at the end of the drift. Or, you will need to pick up the line to make another cast. In either scenario, you will have to reduce the surface tension. Otherwise, your hook set will be too slow or you will make a scene on the surface of the river.

The simple solution in each case is a quick, deliberate rod lift. Then continue your hook set or your back cast.

If you’re not sure why this is effective, give it a try the next time you’re nymph fishing and using a strike indicator. Let your nymph drift forty or fifty feet downstream from where you are standing. Then, give your rod tip a deliberate (but not violent!) lift. Make sure the lift is straight up and not to the side. You’ll be surprised to see your strike indicator shoot towards you!

It’s when you pull your rod to the side that surface tension messes with your hoot set or back cast.

3. To give your fly some movement during the drift

My podcast partner, Dave, and I watched our friend, Dave Kumlien out-fish us last fall on a beautiful tailwater creek in Montana. Our friend caught two or three fish to every one we caught. We were all using the same streamers. But it dawned on us later that he was lifting and lowering his rod tip to give his streamer a twitch and to make it move up and down in the current — even as he retrieved it.

This technique works well with nymphs, too. Lift and lower your rod during the drift, and you may be surprised at how it entices a trout to strike.

4. To keep you line from breaking when fighting a fish

When you are fighting a fish, you rely on both your reel and your rod to absorb the force created by the fish’s sudden lunge or race for cover. Too much force results in a snapped line.

This is where the drag on your reel comes into play.

When set properly, it provides some resistance – but not so much that the force of a running fish exceeds the strength of your line (or the knot which ties your tippet to your line or your fly to your tippet). Your rod can play an important role too. The lower your rod tip is to the surface, the more the pressure point on your rod moves from tip to butt.

When I’m trying to move a big fish, I lower my rod to a 40 or 45 degree angle (in relationship to surface of the water) so that the pressure goes to the mid-section. I also pull the rod to the side. But if the fish suddenly darts, I lift my rod tip. This moves the pressure point closer to the rod tip where there is greater flex. This means less force on my line However, you need to do this with caution. Lifting your rod tip too high (at a 90 degree angle to the surface) too quickly can result in a broken rod tip!

There are so many little things to remember during the cast, drift, retrieval, repeat cast, and (hopefully) fight with a fish. I know, it can seem maddening. But do your best to think about your rod tip. You may get better results if you give it a lift.

5 Disciplines of Highly Satisfied Fly Fishers

satisfied fly fishers

Fly fishing brings me a lot of satisfaction. If it didn’t, I’d choose another pursuit.

Sure, there are moments of frustration. Certain days leave a bit to be desired. But all in all, I find fly fishing highly satisfying. This is significant, I think, because I’m an average fly fisher. Yes, even fly fishers with average skills can find great joy in the sport. So what makes for a highly satisfied fly fisher? There are five disciplines which come to mind.

1. Competence

Let’s face it. You need a modicum of skill. If you can’t cast, tie a couple basic knots, or “read” a river, you’re not going to have an enjoyable experience. But the good news is that you don’t have to become a pro in order to find fly fishing satisfying.

Tim Wu wrote a fantastic article for The New York Times titled “In Praise of Mediocrity.” He argues that we get too obsessed with our hobbies, striving for a level of excellence which creates anxiety rather than joy. I love his description of “the gentle pursuit of modest competence.”

It’s fun to get better. Read a fly fishing book or watch a series of fly casting videos. Learn the improved clinch knot (for tying flies to your tippet) and the infinity knot (for tying tippet to leader). Concentrate on improving your cast.

Just don’t overdo it.

2. Simplicity

This goes for everything from acquiring new gear to learning skills.

Fly fishing is a gadget-intensive hobby. In some respects, that is part of the fun. But an obsession with the latest pair of waders or the upgraded version of the fly rod you use can leave you frustrated. Greed never says, “Enough!” It always wants more.

The same is true of learning new skills. If you’re interested in Euro-nymphing or learning to tie flies, go for it! If you’re not, that’s fine, too. Focus on what interests you. If there are fifteen practices of highly successful fly fishers, you probably only need to master five of them. Don’t let fly fishing become too technical.

3. Friendship

I like solitude as much as the next lone fly fisher.

But I get so much satisfaction out of sharing experiences with my podcast partner (Dave), my brother (another Dave), and my sons (Ben, Luke), and other friends with whom I occasionally fly fish (Kevin, Bob, and yet an additional Dave). The laughter and comradery is priceless. I go home with a full heart every time I fly fish with one or more of these folks.

4. Adventure

I’m not talking about high-adrenaline experiences. Rather, I’m referring to trips or days on the water that require more than just a casual stroll to the river’s edge. It might be a six-hour float on a picturesque river. Or, perhaps it involves a strenuous hike into a remote stretch of river. It might even be fly fishing in grizzly bear country. All of these adventures will provide experiences or sights that you’ll savor for years to come.

5. Variety

Sameness is a leech which sucks the life out of you. Sure, it’s fun to go back to the same spot day after day—or week after week—if it’s productive. But variety really is the spice of the fly fishing life.

So vary the time of year you fish. Take a fall trip one year, and a spring trip the next. Try fishing nymphs or streamers as well as dry flies. Fish different kinds of water—from large freestone rivers to small spring creeks to high mountain lakes. If you mix it up a bit, you’ll have richer experiences.

Sure, catching fish is a big part of satisfaction. Yet each of these disciplines, in their own way, contributes to a full, rich experience on the river. They reflect what satisfied fly fishers do.

The Gift of Fly Fishing

gift of fly fishing

Christmas came early this year. Whether you’ve received fly-fishing-related gifts and stocking suffers (or not), you’ve been enjoying the real gift of fly fishing all year long. Or at least during the seasons of the year when you were able to fish.

The new reel or fly rod or gift certificate to your local fly shop is great. But the real gift is fly fishing itself. It’s an experience that gives you more than you might think. Sure, there’s the joy of hooking and catching a trout. But there’s more, and Charles Orvis recognized this in 1883 when he wrote:

More than half the intense enjoyment of fly fishing is derived from the beautiful surroundings, the satisfaction felt from being in the open air, the new lease of life thereby secured, and the many, many pleasant recollections of all one has seen, heard, and done.

Orvis identified at least three gifts in this statement. These gifts are still a huge part of fly fishing today.

1. Beautiful surroundings

It’s one thing to see a snow-covered mountain range from your car or from a scenic overlook along a highway. It’s an altogether different experience to see it when you’re standing in the current of a river. It’s the difference between being a spectator and a participant. It’s also the difference between a quick glance accompanied by a photo opportunity and the chance to linger in the moment for an hour or more.

Even when the scenery is not remarkable, the pasture-land or the trees along a river exude their own beauty. The water is stunning, too. Riffles, eddies, seams, and pocket water provide an endless source of fascination.

Weather adds a flourishing touch, sometimes transforming a tranquil scene into a wild or a haunting one.

Fly fishing bids its participants to slow down and soak in the magnificent grandeur or the gentle beauty in and around the river.

2. A new lease on life

A day on the river can also secure a new lease on life—or “of” life, as Orvis said. A few hours can bring clarity to a situation, insight into a challenge, or energy to face a problem.

Tension dissipates. Ideas emerge. Calm prevails. Dreams form. Desires awaken. Anger diminishes.

If you fly fish, you know this from experience. That’s why fly fishing can be some of the best medicine for a weary or uptight soul.

3. Pleasant memories

Fly fishing gives birth to so many good memories—or pleasant recollections, as Orvis called them. Such memories lead us into peaceful sleep at night. They warm our hearts. They connect us with places and people long, long ago. They nurture a desire for what lies ahead.

I recall a warm summer evening on a little creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The year was 1978. My younger brother and I took turns casting the cheap fly rod we shared. Every cast resulted in a 10- or 12-inch brookie, rising to our size 14 Royal Coachman. As the sun began to set, I remember running back to our campsite in the Custer National Forest to report to our father what we had accomplished.

One of most striking memories from this past year is landing a brown trout in the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park while a herd bull (elk) was bugling on a hillside about 200 yards above us. I’m sure I will remember this as vividly in 40 years (if I make it to 97!) as I do the memory in the Black Hills.

These are only three of fly fishing’s gifts. There are others. If you were able to enjoy fly fishing during the past year, then Christmas came early. It will next year, too, because fly fishing is a gift that keeps on giving.

The Fly Fishing Wisdom of Charles Orvis

fly fishing wisdom of Charles Orvis

Fly fishing changes. The sport is different in 2018 than it was 135 years ago in 1883.

However, some bits of fly fishing wisdom from 1883 still hold true today.

Recently, I’ve been reading The Orvis Story by Paul Schullery (2006, The Orvis Company). The beginning of each chapter includes a quote from Charles Orvis, the founder of what is now The Orvis Company. These quotes appeared in a book that Charles co-edited with A. Nelson Cheney in 1883, Fishing with the Fly: Sketches by Lovers of the Art. Incidentally, I ordered a re-print from Amazon for less than twenty bucks.

Here are some of bits of wisdom from Charles Orvis in 1883. They still make sense today.

The Last Hour Before Dark

    “Perhaps during the last hour before dark you may fill your basket, that has been nearly empty since noon. Don’t give up, as long as you can see—or even after—and you may when about to despair taking some fine large fish.”

Catch-and-release fishing was not yet in vogue when Orvis penned these words. But he’s right that the hour before dark—and even after—can be especially productive. It depends on the river, but I have some spots in Colorado and Wisconsin which I don’t bother fishing until dusk.

Wading with the Current

    “It is easier to wade with the current.”

If you’re not convinced of this, try wading against the current! Wherever you’re headed, be it the opposite bank or a better approach to a promising run, let the current work for you.

Fishing with an Expert

    “To one who has not acquired the art of fishing with a fly, let me suggest that a day or two with an expert will save much time and trouble. There are many little things that cannot well be described, and would take a long time to find out by experience, that can be learned very quickly when seen. It is not easy to tell one exactly how to fish with a fly.”

That quote is chock-full of wisdom!

Dave, my podcast partner, and I keep repeating this message. If you’re a new fly fisher, you need to fish with an expert. That may be a friend (free) or a guide (a bit more expensive!). But the dollars you spend on a guide for a day will be tremendous investment in your fly fishing future.

Enjoying Fly Fishing

    “Unless one can enjoy himself fishing with the fly, even when his efforts are unrewarded, he loves much real pleasure.”

My wife and I both go to the gym regularly.

Okay, she’s more consistent than I am. But she enjoys it; I find it boring. This is how folks approach fly fishing. Some enjoy it; others do not. You can only grow to love fly fishing if you find joy in the art itself–even if your fly casting does not look particularly artistic! There’s something about the rhythm of the cast and about a well-executed cast, whether the trout takes your offering or not.

Patience and Perseverance

    “In conclusion, be patient and persevering, move quietly, step lightly, keep as much out of sight of the fish as possible, and remember, trout are not feeding all the time.”

This is great advice. It’s as true in 2018 as it was in 1883. All the best to you, our listeners and readers, as you get ready for another great year of fly fishing!

Protecting the Future of Fly Fishing

future of fly fishing

Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, tells the poignant tale of a father and son traveling through the ravaged landscape of America. The novel does not fill in back story. Yet the gray snow and ever-present ash suggests the aftermath of nuclear war. The novel ends with these haunting words:

    Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. . . . On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

While this grim conclusion unsettles any reader, it particularly troubles fly fishers.

Imagine there are no longer brook trout in mountain streams!

These days, our greatest threat to trout and the waters they inhabit may not be nuclear war. Rather, it’s likely a hundred smaller threats belonging to categories like invasive species, disease, pesticides, predators, mishandling (by anglers), and development. As another year ends, we might ponder what we, as fly fishers, can do to protect the future of fly fishing.

Here are four small practices that can make a big difference:

1. Pack out trash

There’s simply no excuse for littering the banks of a river with beverage cans or candy wrappers. Yet I frequently find these items along the rivers or streams I fly fish. My sense is that most fly fishers are eco-friendly; yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. Blessed are those fly fishers who not only pack out their own trash but do the same with the garbage others leave behind.

2. Handle fish carefully

This amounts to a bunch of small but significant habits:

    Land fish as quickly as possible
    Use a net. If you want a photo
    Keep your hands wet
    Don’t squeeze the fish too hard
    Stop fishing if the water temperature exceeds 68 degrees (or even well before).

I keep a thermometer in my fly fishing vest for the last habit.

3. Don’t spread aquatic invasive species

No one does this intentionally. At least I hope not. But we can unwittingly spread invasive species if we fail to clean waders, boots, and drift boats after use. So get the mud off! Rinse your boots and waders. Let gear dry. Switch from felt soles to rubber soles with some kind of metal studs or traction bars. All of this is especially critical when you’re moving from one river to another.

4. Donate to conservation efforts

Your local Trout Unlimited (TU) chapter is a great place to start. I’m also partial to The Missing Salmon Project of The Atlantic Salmon Trust. You can also donate your time as well as your money. Your local TU chapter may sponsor some cleanup days on a local river or some kind of restoration project.

We need a few thousand fly fishers pursuing these small practices. Then, hopefully, we will never have to utter words like “once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.”

5 More Suggestions for Safe Wading

Of all the pieces we’ve published, by far the most popular (per our tracking data) is “The 10 Commandments of Wading.” Based on your feedback, and on further reflection and on additional experiences, here are five more suggestions for safe wading. They may not be on the level of “commandments,” but they at least deserve consideration.

1. Use a second wading belt

This may seem like overkill, but it’s a wise strategy if you insist on wading in deep water.

Typically, a wading belt will go around your mid-section. The place to add a second belt is around your chest—that is, near the top of your waders. It can keep the top part of your waders from filling up, especially if they do not have some kind of a drawstring or mechanism to seal them around your chest.

2. Use a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Alright, this one might really strike you as extreme. But I can see the value in it if you need to wade in deeper water.

I remember floating the Wyoming Bighorn a few years ago and stopping to wade a few stretches. I was surprised how much deeper I could wade because the current was not as swift as, say, Montana’s Yellowstone River. Also, the river bed consisted of gravel instead of greased cannon balls (what I suspect lies on the bottom of the Yellowstone). But whenever I waded into deeper water, I noticed how the current gently drifted me into deeper water. I struggled to get momentum to back out of it or to turn around and walk towards the bank.

A PFD would have provided a great safeguard. I’m not suggesting that fly fishers need to take one along in most conditions. But if you insist on wading into deep water, a PFD might keep you from getting in over your head.

3. Wear Patagonia Foot Tractors

Full disclosure: I am not secretly sponsored by Patagonia!

I only mention this particular brand and model because I haven’t found any other wading boots (aside from those with felt soles) which provide such good traction. The aluminum bars in zig-zag fashion on the soles of these boots really do the job. Felt soles seem to be on the way out. They are now illegal in Yellowstone National Park, and I expect other watersheds or even states to follow suit.

4. Beware of Mud

I’ve had a few situations over the years where my feet have sunk a ways into the mud—both in the west (Montana’s East Gallatin River) and the Midwest (Canfield Creek in the Minnesota Driftless).

This fall, I was wading the inlet of Quake Lake (not far from West Yellowstone, Montana) when my boots started sinking into a sandbar. I was standing in knee-deep water at the time. I moved too quickly, and actually fell down. It was a bit tricky to stand back up with both feet being stuck.

It reminded me to test any suspicious looking spots before stepping into them. It’s quite a fight against suction to pull out your boots when they get stuck in the mud. Add a couple feet of water into the mix, and the situation can become downright dangerous.

5. Slow down

Per my previous point, the worst thing you can do when wading (or trying to stand up after you’ve fallen!) is to panic and hurry. I tend to hurry this most when I’ve crossed a difficult stretch and I’m nearing the bank. It’s tempting to run those last few feet. But a couple times, I’ve hurried too quickly and have slipped into the water. I have to remind myself to slow down. Slower is safer in most cases. It preserves your balance and helps you keep your legs together so that you’re providing only one pressure point – not two — for the current.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a hassle to following some of these suggestions. But your life may depend on it. Whatever you can do to stay safe while you’re wading is more than worth the inconvenience.

What New Fly Fishers Need Most

New fly fishers have a long list of needs. They need to learn to tie knots. To improve their casting. Remember to mend their line. Figure out which fly to use. And to read water so they can cast their fly where the fish are feeding.

new fly fishers

But there is something more basic to success:

The Secret of a New Fly Fisher’s Success

What new fly fishers need most is intel. That’s right. They need intelligence about where to fish and what to use. I know, you can’t catch a trout if you can’t cast a fly. True. But I’ve watched brand new fly fishers catch fish because someone told them where to go and what pattern to use.

Poor casting in the right place at the right time always beats great casting in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Colorado Success Story

My belief that new fly fishers need intel more than anything else came from a text message I received this fall. My nephew, who lives in Colorado, had tried his hand at fly fishing a few times. But every time he returned home with zero success. Then, he asked a generous fly shop owner for an idea about where to fish. A day later, I received a text from my nephew describing a couple of big browns he caught. He had the photos to prove it. I realized that while he needs work on casting, mending, and streamside entomology, his greatest need is for intel. He needed to go where the fish were hanging out, and he needed to use the kind of patterns they were attacking.

Where to Get Intel

If you are a new fly fisher, where do you get good intel?

The key is to develop a relationship with a more experienced fly fisher. Often, the place to start is at a fly shop. The best time to ask where you might fish and what you might use is immediately after you have purchased half a dozen flies—or better yet, a new fly rod or waders.

Also, a good friend who is an experienced fly fisher is invaluable. Birds of a feather flock together. This means that if you’re interested enough in fly fishing, you’ll develop some friendships with others who like to fly fish. If these friends are better than you, don’t resent them. Take advantage of their expertise. Hopefully, your friendship adds value to their lives, too. If it does, they will be happy to share some intel which will put you into some good fishing.

Of course, you can always hire a guide. This is the ultimate way to get good intel because your guide will take you to a good stretch of water and then help you fish it effectively. Believe me, it’s worth the cost.

Intel as Preventative

Sometimes, intel works as a preventative measure.

Last fall, my podcast partner, Dave, and I planned to spend a couple of days on the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. We had visions of brown trout dancing in our heads as a result of the success we had the prior fall. When we stopped by Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana (yes, the river and the town are spelled differently due to a mistake) for some intel, Richard Parks told us that the fishing on the Gardner for fall runners was the worst it had been in 25 years!

That was not encouraging. But it forced us to come up with Plan B (the Yellowstone River), and we ended up doing quite well.

Sure, we would have figured out soon enough that the fishing on the Gardner was not great. Yet without the intel, we probably would have spent much more time trying to catch fish on a river that was not as full of fish as in prior years.

If you’re new to fly fishing, learn to cast, mend, read water, and identify the hatch. But there’s simply no substitute for good intel. Don’t leave home for the river without it.

Thanksgiving Day Double

It is Thanksgiving Day 2004. My son, Luke, and I rise before dawn to spend the morning hunting whitetail deer. Hunting deer or elk on Thanksgiving morning has been a family tradition as long as I can remember. Luke is eager to join me even though he is a year away from being old enough to buy a license and carry a rifle. My son, Ben, is in his senior year of high school and wants to sleep in a bit.

So Luke and I head for the Dry Creek area north of Belgrade, Montana. The Dry Creek Road transitions from pavement to gravel where the Gallatin Valley floor gives way to the foothills at the base of the Bridger Mountains.

We turn off onto a side gravel road and drive past a grain field which sits below the butte we want to hunt.  I park my truck at the side of the road, and we close the doors quietly. Six years ago, my dad and I just missed getting off a shot at a big buck on the hill on the opposite side of the little creek we will need to cross. I tell Luke this story before we get out of the truck, urging him to be as quiet as possible. We cross a barbed-wire fence and prepare to sneak through the tall grass towards a plank that bridges the little creek.  Six steps after we cross the fence, Luke whispers, “Dad, there’s a buck!” Sure enough, a 4×4 whitetail peers at us from across the creek, about ninety yards away.

We are five minutes into legal shooting light, so I aim, fire, and drop the buck in its tracks. This is the easiest deer hunt I have ever had! Luke helps me field dress the buck, and then we drag it to the truck, the length of a football field away. It is now 7:55 a.m. We arrive home fifteen minutes later and hang the buck in our garage. I prefer to let a deer hang for a day before skinning it.

By the time we finish this, it is only 8:30 a.m. An idea begins to take shape. It is a rather warm day. Already, the temperature has risen past forty degrees. We have four or five hours to kill before we gather with some friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

So, why not spend it fly fishing!

Nice Buck, Fat Rainbow

Ben is up by this time, and he joins Luke and me in search for our waders, fly fishing vests, and fly rods. By 9:30 a.m., we reach the Warm Springs parking area on the Madison River where it exits the Bear Trap Canyon. Predictably, no one is parked here today. We enjoy the warmth of the sun as we walk in the trail. There is a bit of wind, but the conditions are pleasant. So is the fishing.

It would be an exaggeration to say that we slaughtered the trout on this day, but in the next two hours at our favorite spot, affectionately known as “Rainbow Run,” we each land three trout. One of mine is a seventeen-inch rainbow, which I catch on a San Juan worm. This is the easiest fly in the world to tie.

You simply tie the middle of a piece of red chenille to the shank of the hook Then, you burn off each end with a lighter or a match to make the ends bead. It may be simple to tie, but it is effective.

The wind picks up about 11:30 a.m., so we begin the twenty minute hike to the parking lot, then make the forty minute drive home.  By 12:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving day, I have accomplished something I have never done before. I’ve taken a nice whitetail buck and caught a seventeen-inch rainbow with my fly rod on the same morning.

It’s a Thanksgiving Day double! I don’t recall the Pilgrims doing anything like this on the morning before they sat down with members of the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Plantation to eat the first Thanksgiving Day meal.

If you spend enough time fly fishing, you’ll have days that humble you and some that elate you. You’ll even have some that are crazy enough to provide a deep sense of satisfaction.