Where to Find a Fly Fishing Mentor

fly fishing mentor

There is a magical season in every fly fisher’s journey. It is a season where everything seems to come together, and the fly fisher makes a leap in his or her proficiency. Confidence replaces frustration. Casts shoot to their destination and land softly rather than slapping the water. Fly selection become a science rather than a mystery. I’ve watched a lot of fly fishers make this leap, and they all have something in common: a fly fishing mentor.

Sure, there are a few naturals who watch a handful of YouTube videos or read a book on fly fishing and arrive at the river’s edge with the Midas touch. But most fly fishers who make significant progress in their ability to catch fish do so because they have spent time with a mentor.

If you’re a new fly fisher, or an old one who is still struggling, a mentor will make all the difference. But where can you find one?

Fly Shop Owner

This might seem obvious, but a fly shop owner can be a great mentor—especially if you’re a faithful customer. Buying the right fly rod may well involve some practice casting. Every time you stop by to buy a handful of flies or a new leader, you’ll learn what patterns to use and when to use them. You will learn where and when to fish. Fly shop owners and their associates can be a tremendous source of learning.

Fly Fishing Guide

Sometimes you have to buy a mentor. Hiring a guide for a day can lead to remarkable progress in your fly fishing skills. The $500 or so you split with a buddy (we recommend sharing a guide!) will give you a lot of one-on-one instruction. Using the same guide once or twice a year can accelerate your progress.

Fly Tying Instructor

I’ve talked about this before, but when I took a fly-tying class at Montana Troutfitter’s in Bozeman in 1996, my fly fishing skills spiked. Yes, I learned to tie Elk Hair Caddis patterns and Beadhead Prince Nymphs. But I also learned when and how to fish them. I started to think like a trout!

Fly Fishing Buddy

Now we move into the “less expensive” category of mentors! Not everyone has fly fishing buddies who are proficient enough to be guides. But if you do, set aside your pride and mimic them, pick their brains, and accept their criticism. I’ve benefited from the expertise of Bob, Kevin, Chaz, Doug, Mark, and several others with whom I’ve had the opportunity to fly fish.

Fly Fishing Mentor at a TU Chapter

A few months ago, Dave, my podcast partner, and I spoke at a local Trout Unlimited chapter. I was impressed with how helpful the veterans were to a couple of younger, inexperienced fly fishers. There’s nothing better than a community of mentors!

Fly Fishing Parent or Child

Don’t overlook family members. If you have a parent or a child who is a proficient fly fisher, don’t be too proud to let them pass on their expertise to you. This goes both ways. I taught my two sons to fly fish, and now I gain new information and learn techniques from them.

Fly Fishing Spouse

The risk, I suppose, of learning fly fishing from your spouse is more marital conflict! But I’ve been impressed as I’ve watched my sons teach their wives how to fly fish. I’m amazed with their patience and encouragement, and their wives are smart women who catch on quickly. Obviously, it can work the other way around, too. Some wives have become proficient fly fishers and can be the best mentors their husbands could ever find.

Here is a final thought: develop a community of mentors. When I think of my mentors, my mind goes to more than one. They have been friends, relatives, guides, fly shop owners, and instructors. So don’t obsess over finding the perfect mentor. Build some relationships, and you’ll benefit from multiple sources of input. Along the way, you may just find that your fly fishing soars to a new level.

4 Fly Rod Hacks for Beginners

fly rod hacks

The graphite fly rod you hold in your hand is an amazing instrument. It is designed to shoot line, maneuver line, fight fish, and lift line off the water. If you’re planning a trip to the river, the following four fly rod hacks might be useful. Even if you’re a veteran fly fisher, it never hurts to review the basics.

So here we go:

Write the Letter “C”

Fly fishers learn early on to cast and then mend their line.

Mending is flipping the middle of the line upstream so that it doesn’t get ahead of the fly and drag it through the current. But it’s possible to put a mend in the line during your cast. Actually, this is something you do right at the end of your forward cast. As soon as you complete your forward cast, and the is shooting out to the target, draw a small “c” with your rod tip. A regular “c” puts a mend to the left. That is, you will create a “c”-shape bend in your line as it drops to the water.

A backwards “c” puts a mend to the right. Remember that you want your mend to go upstream.

You will want to try this a few times. But you’ll be surprised how quickly you can pick it up. Think small “c” rather than a capital “C.” In other words, this is a quick, small maneuver. Of course, if you want a larger loop, then, make your “c” larger. However, it’s easier to go smaller at first.

Lift before your back cast

If you get a nice long drift but no strike, you’ll want to try another cast. But rather than trying to pick up your line and make a back cast all in one motion, lift your rod tip to a 45 degree angle. This lifts your line off the surface.

Then make your back cast. Breaking this into two steps — lift then back cast – is especially important if you have a lot of line on the water.

The lift will break the surface tension. Then the back cast will go a lot easier.

Use a back cast when your forward cast needs to go to the right

Here’s the situation. The river bank along which you’re standing is lined with trees. You simply cannot make a back cast without hooking a branch or a bush. To make matters more complicated, the river is flowing from right to left. To cast upstream, you need to cast right.

Fortunately, the solution is easy.

Face downstream (assuming you’re right-handed), and make a forward cast parallel to the bank on which you are standing. Then, looking back, angle your back cast to the head of the run you want to fish. Let the rod do the work. Then, mend your line, and get ready for a strike!

Change the Rod Angle

Who doesn’t love the image of a fly fisher fighting a trout with rod tip pointed to the sky?! The photo looks even more impressive when fly fishers hold the reel above their heads. It’s a Norman Rockwell print waiting to happen.

But there are times to lower that rod tip. As you lower it, the flex point moves from the tip to the mid-section. This means that lowering the rod from a 90 degree angle (rod tip pointed up to the sky) to a 45-degree angle will force a trout to fight against a stiffer part of the rod. It’s helpful to know this after you’ve tired out a fish and you’re ready to bring it to your net.

Your rod is designed to do more than you think. So remember these fly rod hacks, and you’ll have a better experience — better casts, better mends, and better fights with those trout you hook.

Landing Larger Trout

landing larger trout

My friends and family members are making me envious. Yesterday, my friend, Greg, showed me photos of a couple steelhead he caught in Wisconsin on streamers. Both were about 20 inches. Last week, on the same day I enjoyed catching an 11-inch brown on a size 20 dry fly in the Wisconsin Driftless, my son, Luke, sent me a photo of a 22-inch rainbow he caught on a tiny Zebra Midge.

Gazing (with envy) at those photos reminded me how challenging it is to land large trout. I’ve landed my share of trout over 20 inches. But I’ve lost a lot of them too. Here are some practices I’ve learned for landing larger trout. If I had used all of them sooner, who knows how many more big fish I would have caught!

Use a stronger tippet

I’ve landed 20-inch rainbows in Montana’s Madison River on 5x tippet. But a 5x tippet is only 4.75 pound test. Going to a size 4x increases that to 6 pound test, and a 3x tippet increases is to 8.5 pound test.

Using a stronger tippet with streamers is a no-brainer. Admittedly, it’s a bit more challenging with tiny dry flies or nymphs.

When I’m fishing with nymphs, I will typically use a 3x tippet on my lead fly if it’s large – like a size 8 or 10 stonefly. Then, I’ll use the 4x on the smaller dropper—such as a size 18 Copper John. In most cases, the increase in size doesn’t spook the fish. It’s helpful, though, if there’s a bit of color to the water.

Pull the fish from side to side

Gary Borger taught me several years ago that pulling a fish from side to side tires it out more quickly than simply pulling it in straight. Pulling it from side to side works the fish’s muscles. So point your fly rod to the side when you’re trying to land a large trout.

If you’re using a stronger tippet, then you can be a bit more aggressive and land the fish quicker. That’s a win-win situation. The trout will be less stressed than if you prolong the fight. You’ll also have less opportunities for a trout to run on you and snap the line on a rock or submerged branch. I’ve had both happen.

Use a long-handled net

The net I carry when I have a chance to hook into large trout has an 8.5-inch handle. The extra length extends my reach. That can make all the difference when trying to land a monster. I’ve had the frustration of getting a large trout almost within reach but needing an extra 2 or 3 inches.

A long-handled net cuts down on that frustration.

I don’t always catch large trout. But when I do, I have a much better chance of landing them when I’m practicing these three tips.

3 Fly Casting Mistakes that Beginners Make

fly casting mistakes

I helped a fly fishing beginner with his casting this week. He is athletic and definitely the “outdoorsy” type. But he made some fly casting mistakes that beginners tend to make. When I pointed them out, my friend quickly fixed these mistakes — although it took a bit of practice.

Here are 3 fly casting mistakes beginners make and how to fix them.

1. Exerting too much effort

My friend used his whole body to make his cast. His arm swiveled on his shoulder as he waved his rod back and forth in long arcs. Watching him made me tired.

The solution?

I worked him on casting by simply flicking his wrist. He was surprised how far the line shot forward with minimal effort. I pointed out that wrist-flicking causes the rod to do the work of loading and then shooting the line. Later I let him move his arm a bit in his casting motion. But I insisted on crisp, definitive wrist-flicks. I said, “Do that, and the rod will do the rest.”

2. Rushing the forward cast

I also heard the “snap of the whip” on a couple of my friend’s forward casts. I knew immediately that the line on the back cast did not have time to unfurl. I confirmed this by watching him. He allowed the line on his forward cast to unfurl, but after each back cast, he began his forward cast too quickly.

The solution?

First, I stood beside him and called out: “Snap, wait, snap, wait, snap, wait (etc.).” I told him to snap his wrist forward, wait on my command, snap his wrist backward, wait on my command, then snap his wrist forward. He discovered that as soon as he snapped his backcast (on my “snap”), he snapped his forward cast on my command to “wait.” It took a few tries, but he finally got into the right rhythm.

I even told him the story about Norman Maclean’s father teaching his sons to cast with a metronome.

Second, I told him to turn his body and watch his back cast unfurl before making a forward cast. He had no trouble on the timing of his back cast because he could easily see his forward cast unfurl. Turning to watch the back cast seems obvious, but it does not occur to a lot of new beginning fly casters.

Of course, I warned him not to make too many false casts when fly fishing. I told him that our practice sessions intended to give him a feel for casting. But false casting (and lots of it) in one’s back yard or city park is the only way to get comfortable with it.

3. Bringing the rod back too far on a back cast

I noticed another problem.

My friend’s back casts were landing on the surface—grass, in this case. As I watched him cast, I instantly solved the problem. He brought his rod back almost parallel to the ground. If you prefer to visualize the hands of a clock, his back cast brought his rod back to 3 o’clock.

The solution?

I told him to use his wrist-snaps so that his front cast stopped between 10:00 and 11:00 and his back cast stopped between 1:00 and 2:00. The combination of the wrist-snap and visualizing a clock face seemed to help. Before long, the line on both his back casts and forward casts were unfurling without dropping to the ground.

Sure, there is more to learn when it comes to casting. But these three problems need fixing first. Once a beginner overcomes them, he or she will be well on the way to effective fly casting — and catching fish!

Fly Fishing’s Unbidden Grace

Tower Fall in Yellowstone Park is one of my happy places. It’s a beautiful waterfall of Tower Creek that cascades into the Yellowstone River. Upstream from the confluence is a stretch of the Yellowstone River where Steve and I have caught so many cutthroat trout that we’ve dubbed it “Hopper Run.” During the peak of the terrestrial (grasshoppers, for example) season in August, we’ve had a handful of days through the years where for a few hours the frenzy of catching and releasing fish causes time to stand still.

Several years ago, though later in the season, we made our way upriver towards Hopper Run, alternating the best runs. It was about noon early fall, not long before the Park closed for the season. This year, we fished on a slightly overcast but warm September day, perhaps in the sixties. Days later, the landscape of Tower Fall would be dusted in snow.

Steve was thigh-deep in the river, dropping a fly around a boulder, and I was eating lunch, watching him cast. I saw movement across the river and said, “Hey Steve, look at that coyote over there.” The animal was making its way down from the higher elevation to the bank of the river, almost directly across from us.

“That’s no coyote,” Steve said. “It’s a wolf.”

Sure enough. It was almost twice the size of a coyote, lanky, and unafraid. Only forty yards wide, the river was impossible to cross, but the wolf’s curiosity was unnerving. It lay near the bank for about 20 minutes, ostensibly watching us, and then got up and ambled back to the ridge. No anxiety. No hurry.

Most likely, this wolf was a descendant of one of the Lamar Valley packs, introduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995, amid a cacophony of controversy. The Lamar Valley was the next drainage system directly to the east of us.

Harbinger of Grace
In the West, the wolf is either hated or worshiped.

Many western ranchers rue the day the wolves were introduced back into Yellowstone and elsewhere in Montana. Wiped out as fast as the bison in the nineteenth century, wolves often prey on exposed livestock. There is also likely an inverse correlation between the number of wolves and the number of deer and elk in an ecosystem. Other than environmentalists, few celebrated the return of the wolf to its native habitat. And in movies and literature, the wolf is often a symbol of evil, a harbinger of darkness.

But on this day, the wolf was a symbol of grace, a pause in the way the world operates. In all my years of fishing in the West and hunting in the Dakotas, I’ve had less than a handful of moments like this, where the fear between what is wild and what is domestic dissipates. Fear is replaced with curiosity, if only for a few seconds. It’s a “wolf lies down with the lamb” moment, which anticipates the New Heaven and New Earth. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s a “New Earth moment,” where the curtain is pulled back and I see the mystery of something that is perfectly wild.

Rick Bass, one of my favorite authors of the wild places, writes, “How we fall into grace. You can’t work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you, unbidden.”

On this day, an unbidden grace lay across the Yellowstone.