Teaching Your Kids to Fly Fish

So you want to teach your son or daughter to fly fish. How can you make that happen? The truth is, you can lead a child to water, but you can’t make them fly fish.

I have a few suggestions, though, to help along the way:

Get them on the river early and often

I still remember the first time my dad took me to the Kilchis River near Tillamook, Oregon. He was fishing for steelhead. I was four years old, mesmerized by the smell of the river — as well as by the smell of the fish. The experience was formative, creating in me a love for rivers.

Last summer, our family stayed in some cabins on Montana’s Boulder River. I watched my two sons-in-law fly fish while toting their little kids in backpacks. Now my sons-in-law were not wading, nor were they near deep water. So my 3-month old grandson and my one-year old granddaughter were safe! I was proud of the guys for getting their young children into the great outdoors at the river’s edge.

The time to introduce your kids (or grandkids) to the river is even before they are old enough to fish.

Get them hooked on brookies

When we lived in Helena, Montana, in the early 1990s, we occasionally made the 40-mile trip over MacDonald Pass and then up the Little Blackfoot River to a national forest campground. We fished the river—not much more than a little stream at that point—and caught quite a few brook trout.

My technique was to get a brookie on the line, hand them the rod, wait a couple seconds, and then say, “Hey, I think you’ve gone one!” Later, when they were old enough to go solo, I taught them to fish with a spinning rod and drown a worm. They eventually graduated to fly fishing.

Brook trout are a beginner’s best friend. They can be wily at times, but they are often forgiving of sloppy casts. If you do not live near a trout stream, even blue gills or sunfish will do. It’s important that your youngsters catch some fish.

Get them started on nymphing

Once your kids are ready to handle a fly rod, nymphing is a great way to get them started. Their casts do not have to be as precise as in dry fly fishing, and it’s easy to teach your kids to watch the strike indicator (I like the small plastic bubble) as it floats down a run.

About the only thing your kids need to learn is to mend their line. I’m surprised how early my boys caught on to this technique. Both of them caught some nice rainbows in the Madison River with nymphs. Later, when they became more proficient, they graduated to dry flies.

Make it fun, not too technical

Most six-year-olds are not going to respond well to a lecture on tippet size or your instructions for tying an improved clinch knot. Nor will they care much about the difference between a copper john and a prince nymph. Just let them fish.

This is also not the time to refine their casting. Be patient, and be prepared to take some deep breaths—and to spend time untangling lines and leaders.

Give them a break and let them explore

Don’t be upset if your child loses interest in a hurry and wants to explore. Encourage it. My youngest son, Luke, would often stop fishing after a few minutes—even if he was catching trout!—so that he could look for frogs and garter snakes. It’s all part of the outdoor experience. Your child’s love for fly fishing may develop later, after they first become enamored with all the cool things they find along the river’s edge.

There are no guarantees, but if you teach your kids to fly fish, they may continue it or even pick it up again later in life.

A funny thing happened last summer when we were camped out on the Boulder River. My sons-in-law taught my daughters how to fly fish. My daughters remembered the days we spent catching brookies on the Little Blackfoot about 25 years earlier and decided it was time to try fly fishing.

Meanwhile, my older son taught his wife to fly fish. Then, in the biggest surprise of all, my youngest son taught his mother (my wife). He was there when she caught her first trout on a fly rod. At first, he felt bad that he didn’t let me teach her how to fish. Both my wife and I reassured him that it was for the best. He was more patient with his mom than I would have been!

Later, as we watched the sun set from the porch of our cabin, we realized that we were seeing the results of a commitment to teach the kids to fly fish.

Give your kids a video game, and you’ll make them happy for a few hours. Teach them to fly fish, and you’ll make them happy for a lifetime.

The Gift Every Fly Fisher Needs

There is a gift every fly fisher needs in order to experience success.

I’m grateful for a couple of folks who have provided it for me over the years. One is a farmer near Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and I don’t even know his name. The other is a well-known media mogul and philanthropist — Ted Turner. Both have allowed me to fly fish on their property.

It’s not that I’m well connected with friends in high places. Both Turner and the unknown farmer offer this gift to all fly fishers. It’s the gift of public access.

Technically, public access is not a gift.

Some say it’s a right. I don’t know about that. No doubt I pay for public access through license fees. The landowner sometimes benefits too. But I’m grateful that the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) in Montana and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have provided a generous amount of access points for fly fishers on some fine rivers and streams.

One of my favorite stretches on Montana’s Gallatin River is Ted Turner’s property south of Bozeman. I understand that he is responsible for the ample parking area at Williams Bridge. It’s a gift to park there and then walk up or down the river to some fine runs.

Here are a few tips for protecting and making the most of the gift of public access.

1. Don’t trash these sites!

There should be no need to say this.

But there are always a handful of folks who are too lazy to pick up their trash—water bottles, beer cans, cookie containers, candy wrappers, leader packets, etc. We can help protect this gift if we make the effort to pick up after others. And pick up after ourselves, including used leaders and tippet.

2. Leave the gates as you found them

If you’ve been around farms or ranches, this is rather obvious. Shut the gates you open so you don’t let the cows out! Or, if a gate is open, it’s open for a reason. There’s no need to try to be polite and close it.

3. Give livestock a wide berth

Again, this is common sense.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I often fly fish in a spring creek where the Coon Valley farmer (mentioned above) runs some cattle. We have nothing to worry about, because there are no bulls in the herd. Still there’s no need to agitate the cattle by getting too close to them.

Our unknown friend would not appreciate it. Besides, we don’t want to push the herd through the stream before we fish it!

4. Know your legal rights and limits

The Montana FWP website says:

    Under the Montana Stream Access Law, the public may use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water mark. Although the law gives recreationists the right to use rivers and streams for water-related recreation, it does not allow them to enter posted lands bordering those streams or to cross private lands to gain access to streams.

I’ve rarely run into any problems, but I’ve had a couple occasions on the Boulder River in the mountains south of Big Timber, Montana, where landowners have tried (unsuccessfully) to get me to stop fishing the river as it ran through their property. On both occasions, I had entered the river at a legal access and stayed below the high-water mark.

Knowing the law kept the discussion civil and brief. I respected the landowners, and they ended up respecting my rights.

5. Know how to find access sites

Thankfully, this is not difficult. They are well-marked — at least in Montana and in Wisconsin — by highway and streamside signs. You can also purchase maps that show the location of these sites, but I’ve never needed to buy one.

6. Walk farther than anyone else

For Dave and me, this has become our mantra. If the run just around the bend from the access site looks terrific to you, then it looks terrific to every other fly fisher who spots it. So keep walking. Go an extra mile or two, if possible.

The farther you walk, the more you’ll enjoy less-fished water where the trout have not seen every kind of beadhead prince nymph known to fly fishers.

7. Don’t forget the water near the access point

No, I did not have a brain freeze after #6.

I’m talking here about access points on rivers which fly fishers commonly float. Most folks in a drift boat are getting ready to take out (when they are up river from the access point) or are still getting adjusted the first hundred yards or so into the float. My parents lived about a hundred yards from a fishing access site on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I used to cross their fence to the access and then walk up about a hundred yards and fish under a bridge along a pylon, and I caught a number trout there over the years.

So thanks, Ted. Thanks, Coon Valley farmer. Thanks, Wisconsin DNR. Thanks, Montana FWP. Thanks for the gift of access to the charming spring creeks and stunning rivers. And thanks to all of you who buy fishing licenses and use these access sites with respect.

The future of fly fishing depends on this gift.

Why We Love Fly Fishing Small Creeks

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have had some fantastic days on big rivers. One spring we both had 20-inch rainbows on at the same time in the Madison River.

We’ve both landed big browns in the Lower Madison, and we’ve had a blast catching cutthroats feasting on hoppers in the Yellowstone River.

But it is the small creeks that we find irresistible.

Even on our trips to Montana or Wyoming, we always devote at least one day to fly fishing a small creek. Here are five reasons why we find small creeks so charming—and why you may want to make them part of your fly fishing experience as well.

Small creeks get less pressure

I wonder how many times I have seen the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley look like rush hour in Chicagoland, with all the drift boats making their way down the river.

Yet the little creeks — such as Pine Creek, Mill Creek, and Big Creek — are abandoned.

Recently, Dave and I fished the Driftless in southeast Minnesota. We had plenty of company on the South Fork of the Root River, but we spend most of our time on a little creek that emptied into the river. Canfield Creek turned out to be a gem. We had it all to ourselves, and the browns were happy to rise to our elk hair caddis flies.

Small creeks bring out the hunter in us

Small creeks require us to go into stealth mode.

When I fish my favorite runs in the Yellowstone or Madison Rivers, I rarely need to sneak up to the bank on my hands and knees. But that’s what it takes to fly fish a small creek. The run you want to fish in a small creek is only a couple feet away from where you’re kneeling rather than a dozen feet away as is often the case in a bigger river.

These runs in small creek are typically more shallow than the ones in a river, so a fly fisher is simply more visible to the fish. Maybe all this sneaking through the brush reminds me of bow-hunting elk.

Whatever the case, operating in stealth mode is part of the fun.

Small creeks require more precision

To be honest, this is a reason to hate fly fishing small creeks as well as to love it.

It’s not that big rivers allow you to make sloppy casts. But they are more forgiving.

A river may give you a foot-wide window for placing your fly. But in a small creek, that window often closes to a couple of inches. Short, gentle, target-specific casts are the order of the day when fly fishing a small creek. The challenge is usually fun, although some days it will drive you crazy.

Small creeks are easier to wade

This is the middle-aged man in me speaking.

A day of wade-fishing the Yellowstone leaves me weary. It’s a combination of fighting the swift current while trying to keep from slipping as I step from one slick rock to another.

Recently when Dave and I fished a couple small creeks, the pedometer on his cell phone indicated that we walked about seven miles (full disclosure: some of those steps were to and from a great little café in Preston, Minnesota). I was surprised we had walked that far because my legs and feet were hardly tired at all. That’s the benefit of a day of ankle-deep and calf-deep wading.

Small creeks are home to some large trout

For the most part, the trout are smaller in small creeks, and neither Dave nor I mind a bit.

I get as much joy landing a ten-inch rainbow in a small creek as I do a twenty-inch rainbow in a large river.

Last week I caught an eleven-inch brown on a dry fly in a small creek, and it made my day. But occasionally, you’ll catch a monster in a small creek. Recently, I fly fished the Boulder River in Montana in a mountainous stretch where the “river” is really a small creek. For several years, I had caught mainly eight- to twelve-inch fish. But one afternoon, when it began to rain lightly and the trout went into a feeding frenzy, I caught a fifteen-inch rainbow and then a sixteen-inch rainbow on consecutive casts.

Then the rain stopped, and so did the fishing. This experience reminded me that bigger trout lurk in these small streams. They are harder to catch, but everyone once in a while you’ll hook into one of them.

Enjoy your next trip to a big river. But don’t overlook the smaller streams that flow into it. Your best day of the trip might be on a creek that everyone else has neglected.

Coping with the Better Fly Fisher

My younger brother Dave did not get the memo that I was supposed to be the better fly fisher.

I grew up thinking that one of the perks of being an older brother should be out-performing my younger brother, Dave, who is two years younger than I. He always out-performed me when it came to hunting and fishing (and baseball and basketball, too, but that’s another story).

If I caught one trout, Dave caught three. If I caught a twelve-inch trout, he caught a sixteen-inch trout. The first whitetail deer I ever shot was a doe. A day later, my brother shot his first deer. It was also a doe. But Dave’s doe had six-inch antlers. Yes, a hormone defect caused it to grow spikes. The next year, I shot a six-point buck (eastern count) on the first day of deer season. Not to be outdone, Dave shot a 10-point buck a day later.

I eventually got over my frustration. I had no choice. Even if I prepared better or read more or raced to the best spot before my brother, he caught larger trout and more of them. On a rare day, I might outdo him. But the roles would quickly reverse themselves the next day. So I learned to cope. Over time, some insights began to dawn on me.

First, I realized that fly fishing is not a competition.

There’s no award for catching the most fish when you’re floating the North Platte or wade-fishing the Gallatin. Now that comes as news to a lot of guys. We are born competitors. We have the biggest ‘this’ and the biggest ‘that.’ We’ve hiked further, caught more fish, experienced worse weather, fished with the best guides, and tied more incredible flies than anyone else with whom we happen to be talking. If you’re not convinced of that, tell a fly-fishing story and listen for that guy who has a bigger and better story.

Of course, competition can be a good thing under certain conditions. But it’s foolish if it robs you of the joy you get from landing six nice rainbows on a size-18 Pale Morning Dun. Why does it matter if someone catches ten and they each run an inch longer than the trout you landed?

Second, it’s okay that some fly fishers have a knack for catching more fish.

I was fishing the Boulder River in Montana last summer with my friend, Brand Robinson. We walked up the river together, fishing opposite banks. Every time I had a strike, I looked over at Brand to smile and communicate, “I got another strike; how about you?” The funny thing was that every time I looked over, he had a fish on the line. It occurred to me that I was missing about fifty per cent of the trout that rose to my parachute Adams.

But Brand didn’t miss one. I’m a couple years younger, and I fly fish more than Brand does. But like my brother, Dave, he is an exceptional athlete. His hand-eye coordination is impeccable. So on most days, he’s going to catch more fish. I’m at peace with that. Some fly fishers are simply more gifted than I am. That’s how life works, and it need not diminish my joy over a fine day on the river.

Third, it’s easy to fly fish with people who are better than you are if they are humble. Those are the fly fishers with whom I choose to spend the day– Dave, my brother; Dave, my podcast partner; and Brand, my friend. We may kid each other about who catches more. But all of us are secure enough that we don’t have to out-fish each the other to validate our worth as men or fly fishers. I don’t have any interest in fly fishing with guys who are good and want me to know it.

They bore me. I enjoy fishing with friends who are better than me but don’t feel a need to remind me of that hourly.

Fourth, fishing with better fly fishers makes me better. That’s the silver lining in the proverbial cloud. Now sometimes, the reason why other fly fishers are better is due to their unexplainable knack for having more success. But often, I learn something from their casting or the way they drift their fly or even from their choice of fly. Watching them succeed makes me better.

The crazy thing is that these insights have caused me to cheer for my friends and take pride in their success. Now and then, the competitive spirit rises in me, and I will sulk (at least inwardly) when someone bests me on the river.

But I’ve gotten a lot better at coping with others who out-fish me. I’m especially at peace with it when I’m writing about it. Now I just have to practice what I preach the next time my brother or my friends catch more trout than I do.

Episode 35: Breaking Out of a Fly Fishing Slump

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Have you ever been in a fly fishing slump? One of the signs is, well, the same old, same old. You fly fish with the same results: you keep losing the bigger fish that you hook, you struggle to set the hook on smaller fish, or you go for days without a good stretch, what Steve calls a “banner day.” In this podcast, we discuss a few signs that you may be in a fly fishing slump and offer some simple practices to break out of the status quo.

Trapped in Fly Fishing Slump?

We’d love to hear from you if you’ve ever been in a slump – and then broke out of it! Post your stories below. We want to read about what you learned.

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Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

A River Runs Through It

In this episode, we tease out five lessons from one of our great trips fishing the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Listen to Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip.

Listen to Episode 43: 5 Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

What lessons have you recently learned? Do you have any great stories to tell? We’d love to hear from you.

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View some of our most recent podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.