How New Fly Fishers Can Improve Their Odds of Success

This summer, I drove my youngest son to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I dropped him off at a camp and then headed home. I decided to stop at a small creek in Wisconsin for a day of fly fishing. I was alone. It was hot. Muggy. And the bugs swirled around my head like the dusts of dirt around Pig-Pen, the character in the comic strip “Peanuts.”

I fished for about 30 minutes. And then quit. I had had enough. The stream in mid summer was weedy, with only small channels in the middle that were fishable. If I had been a new fly fisher, I would have been pretty discouraged. Maybe I would have thought, “This is too hard. I’m never fly fishing again.”

When you’re just started out, it’s important to find early success, and here are three ways to make that happen:

1. Learn to fish nymphs and streamers … immediately.

The learning arc for most new fly fishers is to learn to dry fly fish first. They take a fly casting class. They feel the surge of emotion of early casting success. But then struggle to catch fish during their first few outings. Perhaps there’s no obvious hatch, and they default to fishing a dry-fly attractor pattern like Parachute Adams or Elk Hair Caddis every time they go out.

You’ll catch more fish early on if you learn how to nymph and fish streamers while you’re also struggling to learn to fish dry flies. I might add that learning to sling a streamer may be the easiest first thing to do. It will force you to take a good look at your tackle, which needs to change if you’re fishing streamers.

I remember well my struggle learn to fish streamers. For starters, I was trying to hurl a size #6 Woolly Bugger with a 6x leader. I didn’t know any better. No one told me that I needed 2x or 3x tippet. I had learned to dry fly fish first, so it didn’t dawn on my that I needed different tackle.

My suggestion: if you’re struggling to catch fish and you only dry fly fish, add streamers to the mix. Yes, it’s one more thing to learn, but especially in the fall, you will find much more success.

2. Know and Avoid the Dead Zones.

Steve and I published an entire episode on fly fishing dead zones, those times of the day and seasons of the year when very likely you’ll not catch fish.

New fly fishers don’t have this knowledge. If they did, most likely they’d catch more fish and be able to fan the tiny flame of passion for the sport.

Dead zones to avoid are winter (of course), early morning and late evening in the spring, and midday during the heat of the summer.

In the spring, especially late April and early May, I like the 10 AM to 2 PM window during the day for fishing dry flies. In mid to late summer, when the water is low and the temps are hot with lots of sun on the river, the best opportunities are fishing dries during the evening until dark. And in the fall, I primarily nymph fish and streamer fish. Most often, the streamer bite is on in the mornings in late September and October.

Of course, veterans can catch fish during any time, and there is much more nuance to dead zones and hatches than I can write about in this short space. The point is that new fly fishers would do well to know when not to fish.

3. Rethink Float Trips.

My brother, who is a competent fly fisher, often takes his oldest son (who is now 13) to Oregon for a couple days on the McKenzie River. They float for a couple days and catch a zillion rainbows – about 8 to 12 inches. It’s a lot of fun for Matt’s son.

This year, Matt came back and said, “I’m really tired of these kinds of trips.”

One reason is that on most float trips, the guide hands you a fly rod, instructs you on where to cast, and, voila! you catch fish. The big problem with float trips is that you don’t learn a lick. Steve and I are big proponents of hiring guides, but we do so only once or twice a year. Our primary goal is to gain intel when fishing a new area. (I do find that I learn quite a bit on guided wade-fishing days.)

We all have “friends” who go on big trips out West, take gorgeous pictures of huge trout, and think that they are fly fishers. They are not. Very little is learned on a guided float trip.

New fly fishers need take the harder path of the learning curve. It’s tempting to sate your desire to catch fish with float trips. The best move is simply more reps on river – making mistakes, finding success, and doing it all over again and again.

Other podcasts and articles on this topic

    Fishing the Dead Zones

    11 Reasons You’re Not Catching Trout

5 Tactics for Deep Trout

deep trout

Every stream or river has its bottomless pit. Or so it seems. After fishing in a foot or two of water, you suddenly come to a hole that looks to be six feet in depth. Maybe you can’t even see the bottom. Maybe the hole is actually a long run.

These deep holes or runs used to frustrate me as much as they tantalized me. I knew large trout lurked in the depths. But I had a hard time catching them.

Lately, I’ve been more successful whenever I encounter a deep stretch of river or stream. I still get skunked occasionally, but I practice some tactics that increase my chances to catch deep trout.

Here are five tactics, one of which or a combination of a couple, may work for you:

1. Start your drift sooner.

If you’re fishing nymphs or even streamers, casting your fly an extra five or ten yards upstream may make all the difference. That will give your fly some extra time to sink to the depth of the trout you’re trying to catch.

I had success with this tactic last fall on a deep run in the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. I was catching fall browns at the tail end of a deep pool. But the ones in the prime lie in the middle of the run ignored my stone fly.

At the suggestion of a friend, I lengthened my cast. Suddenly, the fish in the middle of the run started hitting my fly because the longer drift gave it more time to sink to their level.

2. Add more weight.

This is obvious, of course, but needs to said.

I’ve sometimes been too stubborn or lazy to find the packet of split shot in my fly vest and add another one to my leader. But if the run is deep enough, it is imperative to add more weight. Starting your drift sooner is still a good idea, but it may not be enough.

If you are fishing a large river, you might even consider switching to a spool with sink-tip line when you come to a run that is considerably deeper than the ones you’ve been fly fishing. Yes, it takes time to make the switch. But it might make a difference.

3. Switch to a streamer.

I learned this tactic on Montana’s Gallatin River. It was early in the fall, and the water levels were low.

My friend Jerry insisted that we go from big hole to big hole with a streamer. We had a great afternoon landing one trout after another. These holes or short runs did not provide the opportunity to get a long drift with a nymph. All we could do was cast a weighted streamer into the center of the pool, let it sink, and then retrieve it.

This can work with nymphs provided you have enough weight. Let them sink to the bottom, and then retrieve them to imitate an emerger.

4. Dangle instead of cast.

There is a time to retrieve your bait-fishing skills, assuming you grew up dunking worms to catch panfish or even trout.

Some deep holes are in tight places.

I remember one in a log jam on a superb little creek last spring in southeast Minnesota. Casting was going to be impossible. So I snuck up on the hole, dangled my Woolly Bugger over it like a bait fisherman, and then dropped in the bugger. On my second strip, a large trout attacked my fly. I ended up losing the fish, but not before I enjoyed the thrill of the battle.

5. Go with a big attractor.

This is a bit counter-intuitive.

I’ve suggested going deep where the big fish lurk. But at certain times of the year, you might be able to coax a big trout from its lair. I’m thinking of a hatch or a sunny August day when hoppers are hopping along the shore.

A couple weeks ago, I fished nymphs in a small spring creek when I saw a large trout dart out of the deep to grab a mayfly struggling on the surface. It reminded me of my success in deep pools with a Spruce Moth, a Red Humpy, or an Elk Hair Caddis pattern. It doesn’t work in every deep run. But it works in some of them.

So don’t let the deep runs or holes intimidate you. Vary your approach and try a different tactic.