Strategies for Fly Fishing New Water

Every stretch of river I’ve ever fly fished has something in common. There was always a first-time. Fly fishing new water has been productive for me over the years. But it takes a bit of intentionality — at least to make the practice effective.

So here are five strategies I’ve found helpful.

1. Commit to it

I prefer to fly fish familiar waters.

I like places that are productive and predictable. But the only way to find these places is to commit to trying new water. As silly as it sounds, I’ve had to force myself to leave the old familiar places for a day to try something new.

So the first strategy has to do with a mindset. It’s making a commitment to spend every third or fourth day you fly fish on new water. You can only break this commitment if you’re in the thick of a caddis hatch or hopper season. Then you have an excuse to remain in those familiar waters as long as you’re catching fish.

2. Gather intel

There is no excuse for ignoring this strategy with all the accessible information.

Check online fly fishing reports. Listen to the gossip at fly shops. Pick the brains of fly fishing friends. Buy books about fly fishing certain areas. I have books on fly fishing particular regions, rivers, and even the national parks.

3. Just fly fish it

All the intel in the world won’t help you if you don’t use it. So get out there and give it a try. Force yourself to follow through on your commitment. Take the intel to new water and give it a try.

4. Fly fish it again

After you’ve fly fished a stretch of water for the first time, go back and try it again.

If it fished well, I don’t need to convince you to try it again. But if it wasn’t productive, give it another shot. Maybe the fish weren’t feeding that day. Maybe you didn’t walk far enough. It was on my fifth or sixth trip to Montana’s Madison River as it emerges from the Bear Trap Canyon that I finally stumbled onto an amazing run that has produced some large rainbows over the years.

5. Keep a journal

Buy a moleskin journal or create a file on your laptop to record your experiences.
Describe what patterns you used, what the weather was like, the water conditions, and how much success you had. I’ve been surprised over the years how I’ve used this information the second or third time when fly fishing new waters.

Keeping Track of Your Fly Fishing Adventures

Once in a while, my podcast partner, Dave, says something profound. A few years ago, he made this observation over lunch: “You cannot fully experience a present moment; but when you think back on it you experience the moment in full.”

That’s as true about your fly fishing adventures as it is about any other life experience. I spend a lot of time on the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in my mind, experiencing some tremendous fly fishing days to the full.

The problem is, the details of past experiences fade with time. They also blur together in your mind.

    Was that day when the snow turned into rain and the rainbows went into a feeding frenzy in April or September?

    Did I catch them on a size #18 parachute Adams, or did I have to use a size #20?

    Did it happen on the East Gallatin River or on the main Gallatin?

    How many rainbows did I land that afternoon?

One solution is to keep track of your fly fishing adventures. Here are a three simple ideas that may help you do this. I list them from less ambitious to more ambitious.

1. Take plenty of photos

This is the easiest way to keep a record, and thanks to smart phones, you can now take photos or videos and post them to Instagram or YouTube. It’s also the most vivid record you can keep. The cliche is true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Make sure to carry a Ziploc plastic bag to keep your cell phone dry. Make sure, too, that you take pictures of more than the fish you catch. Take photos of the landscape, the best runs you fish, and the grace (or clumsiness) of the casts that your fly fishing partner makes.

2. Keep a fly fishing journal

Sometimes, though, a word is worth a thousand pictures. So consider a fly fishing journal. Buy a cheap notebook or a moleskin notebook that you can throw into your fly fishing bag. Or, simply devote a Microsoft Word file (or Evernote or OneNote or …) to your fly fishing adventures. You can be as literary or as clinical as you want to be. Fly fishers may simply want to record the basics:

    How many fish I caught,

    What patterns and their sizes I used, and

    What the weather was like.

Or, you may want to write a more elaborate, literary account of your trip. That’s especially true if you are a writer. I don’t mean a published author. I mean a writer. There is a big difference. A writer-friend of mine in northwest Montana recently tweeted: “You write because there’s fire in your bones. You’ve got to do this whether anybody ever reads it or not.”

If you feel the urge, write about your fly fishing adventures. It’s a great way to re-live them.

3. Create a blog or a Facebook page

This is not for everybody. But a blog or a Facebook page devoted to your fly fishing adventures will allow you to organize your data — photos and writing — and even to share it with others.

Several of our “2 Guys” listeners and readers have shared their webs sites with us, and we have both enjoyed perusing their photos and the articles. Dave and I keep talking about how much we learn from the guides at the fly shops we visit. But we’re also learning a lot from the blogs that some of you maintain. If you’re doing this, keep up the good work. If you’re interested in trying this, go for it. If it’s not for you, you’ll know soon enough.

Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Instagram are free, of course, and many hosted blogs like Word Press are also free.

I’m glad I kept a journal.

Now I can go back and get enough details to jog my memory and spend some time in my mind on the East Gallatin River on that September day when I caught a half dozen 16-inch rainbows out of one run. The rainbows went into a feeding frenzy on blue winged olives, and I caught them on a size #18 parachute Adams.

I’m also glad I remembered Dave’s observation about what it means to live in the moment. I found it in my journal as I was looking for the journal entry about that day on the East Gallatin when the snow turned into rain.