The Legacy of My Fly Fishing Mentors

fly fishing mentors

It takes a village to raise a fly fisher. In my case, it was a village of fourteen fly fishing mentors who showed up in my life over the years and helped me learn the craft of fly fishing.

I’d love to pay tribute to them by naming them. But I’m not going to do so for two reasons: First, the list would resemble the credits at the end of a movie. Nobody cares about them except the producer and those involved in the production.

Second, I am still a mediocre fly fisher on my best days. So I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by citing them as one of my fly fishing mentors.

Perhaps I can pay tribute by listing a few characteristics that they all had in common. These characteristics can help you identify a mentor if you are new to the sport. Or, they can help you be more effective when you get the opportunity to mentor a younger fly fisher.

1. Patience

This is the number one characteristic by far.

My mentors did not sigh or curse (at least not audibly) when I slapped my line against the water, when I was slow to set the hook on a strike, or when my backcast hooked a branch. I may have even hooked one or two of my mentors. They simply went over their instructions again and again.

Bob never raised his voice when he kept telling me to mend my line, and Kevin didn’t roll his eyes when I tried to threat my tippet through my fly rod guides when we were getting ready to fish the Gallatin River.

2. The ability to simplify

Fly fishing is a complex sport. It can bewilder beginners. But good mentors break down complex concepts into simple explanations. One mentor encouraged me to stick with a few simple patterns while I learned to fly fish—the Woolly Bugger, Prince Nymph, Parachute Adams, and Elk Hair Caddis. Another boiled down my first lesson in casting to: (1) flick your wrist when you cast and (2) keep your eyes on the target. Still another taught me that the foam line in the current is the feed line. The simple explanations formed a knowledge base on which I’ve been building for more than three decades.

3. Creativity

Good mentors are also creative.

None of my mentors had me cast to the rhythm of a metronome like Norman Maclean’s father did in A River Runs Through It. But Gary Borger taught me to tie a couple important knots by using a small piece of rope rather than a tiny 6x tippet. He also taught me to pick up my line off of the surface by drawing the letter “C” with my rod tip.

Good mentors traffic in word pictures and analogies. They find vivid ways to show and tell.

4. Unselfishness

I’ve had some faux-mentors who simply left me on my own while they raced ahead to their favorite spots.

Real mentors, however, sacrifice the time they could be fishing and share the prime spots they could be fishing. They act more like guides whose mission it is to set up their clients for success.

I remember my mentor and friend, Bob, taking me to fish for fall browns on the Madison in Yellowstone National Park. He brought his rod along, but he didn’t make one cast that day. He simply devoted his time to helping me read water, cast, and (of course) mend my line. It’s rewarding to teach others to fly fish. But you have to be prepared to give up some rod time and even some of the hot spots you love to fish.

5. Humility

These mentors are some of the best fly fishers on the planet. But none of them felt the need to inform me about this. I had to coax out of them the stories about their fly fishing heroics The best mentors do not have egos the size of a jumbo jet. They do not need to tell you how great they are.

I’m convinced that humility is what enables patience and unselfishness.

Okay, maybe I will let the credits roll. I owe my fly fishing skills to the mentoring of Gerald, Duane, Doug, Kevin, Jerry, John, Murray, Bob, Toby, Harry, Dave, Gary, Leon, and Ben.

Thanks, fellas.

I’m fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park this week, and I’m a better fly fisher for all the ways you invested in my development. I wish you were all here. I still need all the help I can get.

Trout Flies and Color

Whenever I fish Montana’s Madison River in the spring, I use a tiny red nymph as a dropper. It may be a Copper John or a Dave’s Emerger (a pattern developed by Montana fly fisher Dave McKee). But the body always has red wire. I insist on it because I have had great success with tiny red nymphs. But does color really matter?

Does red work any better than black or copper? Or is it simply, uh, a pigment of my imagination?

The truth is, the color may attract me — the fly fisher — more than it does the trout. Here are a few insights about color:

1. Trout see colors, yet water changes their perception.

Gary Borger observes that “water absorbs and scatters light.” In fresh water, red is absorbed completely by six feet down. Trout see it as a shade of gray. Perhaps the red wire on my nymphs makes a subtle difference since I’m typically fishing it one to two feet below the surface on my favorite runs in the Madison.

According to Borger, orange, yellow, and green get to ten feet before turning to gray. Blue only makes it to four feet.

2. Fluorescent materials retain their colors as long as there is light.

Borger makes this point and adds that “black is always black, and flash is always flash.” Surprisingly, black may be the most “visible” color due to its contrast. Perhaps that explains why a black Copper John or a Zebra Midge can work so well.

3. Trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Kirk Deeter made this point in a recent issue of TROUT magazine. Now I know why I’m seeing a rise (no pun intended) in purple Beadhead Prince Nymphs and in the Purple Haze patterns (essentially a Parachute Adams with a purple body) in the bins in fly shops.

4. Use something bright or translucent in your attractor patterns on the surface.

It’s always good to match the hatch. As Kirk Deeter says, go “as natural as possible.” But when you are using an attractor pattern on the river’s surface, red or orange will appear bright. It’s why I like a Red Humpy or the trusted Royal Wulff (with its band of red).

5. The amount of variables determining the way trout see color can make a fly fisher crazy.

The way trout see color depends on several variables – the clarity of the water, the light conditions (cloudy vs. sunny, evening light vs. mid-day light), and the depth of the fly.

So, the best advice may be to keep it simple: The size of your fly and the pattern may matter more than color.

Fun Facts about the Movie “A River Runs Through It”

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It premiered on October 9, 1992 – more than 25 years ago. Based on the novella by Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It” launched the career of Brad Pitt and boosted interest in fly fishing. Even as it celebrates its 25-year anniversary, the movie continues to captivate viewers who resonate with its story of tragedy, family, the American West, and fishing.

The movie is set in Missoula, Montana, though most fans know that it was filmed 200-plus miles east of Missoula in Livingston, Montana. Livingston served as Missoula, and the Gallatin River served as the Big Blackfoot River.

But there are some fun facts about its filming which you won’t find in most reviews or articles. This information comes from two primary sources. First, I lived in the very area where the filming took place. I could take you to the exact spots on the Gallatin and Boulder Rivers (and Mill Creek in Paradise Valley) where the scenes were shot.

Second, my podcast partner, Dave, and I had an extensive conversation with Gary Borger about his role as a consultant. Even Gary’s son Jason was part of the movie.

So if you’re curious about some of the details, keep reading.

The House

The “Maclean house” is across the road from the Springhill Presbyterian church, fourteen miles north of downtown Bozeman, Montana. The porch was built specifically for the scene where the Maclean brothers climb out of their bedroom window.

Then, when they drive away in the dark with their cronies, the church is visible, and it looks as much like a schoolhouse as it does a church.

Fly “Pole”

In the scene where the father teaches his young sons the art of fly casting, Tom Skerritt (the actor who played the role of Rev. Maclean) originally said: “Go get the fly poles.”

This happened to be Gary Borger’s first day on the set, and he told the line producer that a fly fisher never would have referred to a fly rod as a “fly pole.” So the line producer got producer Robert Redford’s attention.

“Go get the book,” Redford said.

He found the passage that says that “it is always supposed to be called a rod” — not a pole. And rod it was.

Fly Casting

Most of the fly fishing scenes were filmed on the Gallatin River in the Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman.

In these scenes, Gary Borger’s son, Jason, did almost all the fly casting for the actors in the movie. This includes the memorable “shadow-casting” that Paul Maclean performed while standing on a big rock in the middle of the river. When Jason did that particular cast, an elderly, long-time friend of the Maclean brothers was on the set. After the scene was filmed, he approached Jason and said, “You are Paul.” The friend was stunned that Jason had captured the essence of Paul’s artistry with a fly rod.

While Jason did most of the fly casting in the movie, the actors picked it up rather quickly. Tom Skerritt (the elder Maclean) had done some fly fishing previously. Both Craig Sheffer (Norman) and Brad Pitt (Paul) were quite athletic. Jason made sure that Skerritt and Sheffer used the traditional forearm style, while Pitt used the more open freearm style that Paul Maclean would have used.

Fighting Trout

The “trout” the Maclean brothers hooked into and fought were mostly non-fish.

In several scenes, the fish on the end of their line was actually a half gallon milk jug with rocks in it. In the scene where Paul fights a fish hidden from view behind a large boulder, the fish is actually John Bailey of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston, Montana. John was behind the rock, pulling on the line!

In the final scene of “A River Runs Through It,” when Paul is fighting a monster trout, the producers filmed the water flying off of his fly reel in a city park rather than in the river. The city park was Lindley Park in Livingston, Montana, and the producers created this effect by dipping the fly reel in a bucket of water. Then, after an actor lifted it out of the bucket, someone on the end of the line immediately started pulling it to get the spool spinning and flinging off beads of water.

Riding the Rails

The scene where Norman’s girlfriend, Jesse, pulls her car onto the railroad tracks and drives through a tunnel was filmed on the CA Ranch forty miles or so north of Bozeman. The exact location is the Eagle’s Nest tunnel on an old railroad grade that the Ringling brothers used to haul their circus equipment to Ringling, Montana, for off-season storage. The railroad trestle leading into the tunnel towers over Sixteen Mile Creek. There is a brief view of the creek in the movie.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have both caught trout underneath that trestle (pictured above – Dave, in fact, took the picture). In the movie, Jesse and Norman actually enter and exit the same end of the tunnel. Today, there are no railroad tracks; it’s a one-lane gravel-and-dirt road.

A Final Thought

Sometimes, knowing insider information on how a movie was filmed can spoil it. But both the cinematography and the story itself prevent his from happening. If you’ve never watched the move “A River Runs Through It,” you simply must. Even if you watched it years ago, it’s worth revisiting. I’m convinced that after watching it, you, too, will be haunted by waters. And haunted by one of the underlying themes: sometimes it’s the ones you love most that are hardest to understand.

If you want to listen to our podcast episode with Gary Borger on the movie, visit Gary Borger on the Making of “A River Runs Through It”

Working on Your Fly Fishing Swing

If you want to get more hits, you need to work on your swing. This truism is just as true in fly fishing as it is in baseball. It is particularly critical for fishing streamers, although it can also work for nymphs.

The “swing” is that moment when the current begins to drag (swing) your fly back across the stream so that it suspends in the current directly downstream from you. At this point, you will begin to strip in your streamer (or pick up your nymph).

I have had a lot of trout hit my streamer or nymph as it swings across the current, so it pays to perfect the art of your swing. What initiates the swing is drag. Ordinarily, drag is the kiss of death. This is always true for dry fly fishing, and it’s true for nymph fishing – until you reach the end of the run.

Here are couple different approaches.

The Drift and Swing

Four years ago, I landed ten rainbows and a Dolly Varden — all fifteen to twenty inches—in Clear Creek, upstream a hundred yards or so from where it empties into Alaska’s Talkeetna River. I caught all but one on the swing.

My approach was to drift my streamer, a Dalai Lama pattern, down the run like a nymph. Then, when it reached the area where I knew the trout were waiting, I let the line go taut. This tightening of the line resulted in the current dragging the fly so it swung downriver from me. I quickly realized I needed to be ready for a strike as soon as the fly started to swing.

After I caught several trout, I decided to tie on a big attractor dry fly pattern. I had no action on the first two casts. But on the third, my fly got water-logged and disappeared beneath the surface. When the fly reached the end of the drift, I prepared to haul it in to dry it. But as soon as the submerged fly started to swing, an eighteen-inch rainbow attacked it.

I used this same technique whenever I fished nymphs in Montana’s Gallatin River south of Four Corners. I found a couple long runs, and invariably, I caught the most trout when my nymph reached the end of my drift and started to swing across the current. That’s not the norm for nymph fishing. But in certain situations, it works.

So be ready when your nymph reaches the end of the drift.

The Cast and Swing

The most common technique is to bypass the drift and simply cast downstream at a forty-five degree (or so) angle. Veteran angler Gary Borger likes this tactic in smaller streams where he can cast his fly as tight as possible to the other bank. It might take a strip or two to pull it into the current. But be ready when the swing begins! Trout on the opposite bank will chase it to keep it from escaping. If it makes it across the current and into the slower water along your bank, be ready for trout to dart out and grab it — even before you begin stripping it.

In a larger river, like the Missouri, I will even cast streamers straight ahead or slightly upriver. As soon as the fly hits the water, I will wait a couple seconds to allow it to sink. Then, I start stripping it. This results in a long, sustained swing.

Gary Borger also reminds fly fishers to give their streamers plenty of time to swing across the current. He even suggests letting the fly hang in the current for a few seconds before beginning the strip or picking it up to cast again.

Work on perfecting your swing so you can get more hits. Yes, it’s just as true in fly fishing as it is in baseball.

S2:E34 Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing spring creeks is a snap for those of you who cut your fly fishing teeth on the gorgeous eastern or midwestern creeks of the United States. We didn’t. We learned to fly fish on the freestone rivers in the West. You can imagine the shock to our system when we started fly fishing spring creeks. In this episode, we offer four hard-earned lessons from our learning curve to catch trout in spring creeks.

Listen to our episode “Fly Fishing Spring Creeks”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoying hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What kinds of rivers do you fish most often? Did you learn to fly fish on spring creeks? What did we miss in this episode? We’d love to hear from you.

Here are some related podcasts and articles that we’ve published on fishing the wild places:

    Fly Fishing Streamers on Smaller Creeks

    Fly Fishing the Wisconsin Driftless

    Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

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Trouble with the Cast

If Hollywood made a fly fishing movie about you, what title would they choose?

Since A River Runs Through It has already been taken, I’d adapt the title of a recent Clint Eastwood film. At least I’d do this if I was honest. The movie is Trouble with the Curve. It’s the story of a baseball scout with the Atlanta Braves (played by Clint Eastwood) who tells the front office not to draft a particular prospect. The kid looks like a future star, but he has trouble hitting a curve ball.

If Hollywood made a fly fishing movie about me, a fitting title would be Trouble with the Cast. At least, that would fit the early decade of my fly fishing career. But with the help of my fly fishing friends, I’ve been able to overcome some of the struggles that are common to novice fly fishers.

Are you a candidate for a lead role in Trouble with the Cast?

Here are five common struggles and a couple solutions for each one:

1. Your casts lack distance.

There are two quick fixes if your casts come up short of your target.

First, flick your wrist. Practice this before you pick up your fly rod. Make a handgun out of your casting hand (index finger extended, thumb up, bottom three fingers pointing back at you). Now snap forward, then back, then forward, then back. That’s the action you want when casting your rod.

Too many fly fishers try to be graceful and end up waving their arms forward and backward. But a graceful cast is the product of snapping the wrists (like a baseball pitcher throwing that curve which troubles hitters).

The second quick fix is to make sure that your rod is parallel with the ground on your final forward cast.

I’ve watched a lot of fly fishers keep their rods pointing up at a 45-degree angle as their line shoots towards its target. But as legendary fly fisher Gary Borger observes, this creates “all sorts of shoot-shortening friction.” He even suggests lifting the rod butt as a way of keeping your rod parallel to the surface of the ground (or water).

2. Your casts lack accuracy.

Here are two solutions to inaccurate casting. They seem too simple to be true.

First, keep your eyes on the target. Yes, some folks have better hand-eye coordination than others. But it is remarkable how this simple tip enhances accuracy.

Second, point your tip at the target. It seems silly to make such an obvious point. But I’m often surprised how my casts go astray when I get lazy about this. As soon as I make a conscious effort to point the eye of my rod tip towards the spot where I want my fly to land (even as my rod is parallel to the ground as discussed in #1 above), my accuracy improves.

3. Your casts result in tangled line.

Once again, here are two adjustments you can make. First, stop false casting so much. The more you false cast, the more opportunity you give your line to tangle.

Second, make sure you allow your backcast to unfurl. A lot of tangles happen because fly fishers hurry from backcast to forward cast. This is a recipe for either snapping off the fly (the bullwhip effect) or for tangling line that has not had time to unfurl.

4. Your casts spook the fish.

One problem is that the shadow of your fly line spooks the fish. This is an easy fix. Stop false casting so much! That’s all.

If the problem is that you’re slapping the line on the water, then there is a simple trick to help your line land softly.

The trick is to pull your rod tip up at the last moment. Ideally, your rod tip is pointed at your target (#2) and that your rod is parallel to the ground (#3). At the last moment, make a slight upward pull on your rod. I like to think of it as a gentle hiccup. What this does is to stop the forward momentum of the line. It goes limp and falls gently to the surface of the water. This takes some practice, but it really does work.

5. Your casts get wrecked by the wind.

I have a sure-fire solution for this problem. Quit. Yes, just quit. Call it a day. Head for the truck and drive to your favorite restaurant. I’ve had some days on Montana’s Lower Madison where this has been the best option.

But there are some other alternatives to quitting for the day:

First, stop false casting. Yes, that’s a solution to a lot of problems, including wind.

Second, move in closer and shorten up your casts. If the wind is howling enough to make casting difficult, it’s also creating ripples on the surface which will keep trout from seeing your movements.

Third, a guide once told me to make a strong backcast and a softer forward cast. That’s the opposite of my instincts, so it takes some practice. But it really does work.

Now, when Hollywood shows up to make a fly fishing movie about you, your prowess at casting might lead them to title it Star Casts: The Force Awakens. At least you’ll put yourself in a better position to catch more fish.

S2:E26 The Markers of Fly Fishing Satisfaction

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing satisfaction is situational. And personal. Folks fly fish for many reasons. There’s no single marker of fly fishing satisfaction, with the exception of “catching lots of and big trout.” Click now to listen to “The Markers of Fly Fishing Satisfaction.”

Listen to our episode “The Markers Fly Fishing Satisfaction”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What are the markers of true fly fishing satisfaction? Please post your ideas below!

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3 Disciplines to Master the Spring Creeks of the Driftless

Recently a friend who lives in the American West said he had heard of the great fly fishing in the Driftless (southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa).

He wondered if he should put together a trip.

I paused.

He lives within an hour of the Madison, the Yellowstone, and the Gallatin, the big freestone rivers. He fishes three or four times a month. He has hit the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Yellowstone, he has hooked into the big spring rainbows on the Missouri, he has caught the running fall browns on the Madison, and he has had those late summer days when almost every other cast with a hopper pattern surfaces a gorgeous cutthroat.

Why should someone who lives near such waters fly fish the Driftless? In short, it will put every facet of his fly fishing game to the test.

Here are just three disciplines that forced me to up my game and begin to master the spring creeks of the Driftless:

Casting in and around Trees

It’s one thing to cast with a modicum of precision and distance when your backcast has no competition. You load your rod and let ‘er rip.

It’s quite another to drop a size-18 nymph with a one-foot dropper at the top of a run in a nine-foot wide stream with branches draped over you. When I started fly fishing the Driftless after twenty years of fishing in the West, I was shocked at how poorly I cast. No doubt, I wasn’t great in the West either, but in the Driftless, I was a genuine hack.

The Driftless forced me to learn how to cast with greater precision. There is still not much art or science to my casts, but at least I am more aware of my shortcomings. Fishing the Driftless forced me to pay attention to my cast and focus on placement in the run. I’ve learned the art of casting sideways in the presence of brush and low-hanging trees.

Crawling Up to a Run

Frankly, I had read Gary Borger’s book years ago, but the whole “stalking trout” concept was lost on me. It wasn’t until I started fishing the Driftless that I realized that much of my fishless afternoons and evenings was due in part to how I approached the runs.

Just recently, I watched a fly fisher trudge upright like a drunk Sasquatch into a beautiful Driftless run and begin to cast. He stood in the middle and toward the back of the run and cast upstream, in full view of the run, the sun casting his huge shadow across over the run. He cast for what seemed like 20 minutes, and then moved on. With his giant profile, my guess is that the trout spooked ten yards before he stepped into the water. I never saw a fish rise to anything he cast.

In the spring creeks of the Driftless, you cannot ape the Brad Pitt character in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” You just can’t. Fish are wary. The streams seem to be heavily fished. And to catch them requires stealth and strategy.

If you’re catching trout in a spring creek, most likely your knees (and maybe even your elbows) are muddy. You simple cannot stumble mindlessly from run to run.

Rather, you size up the run, see the next run above or below the one you are fishing, and figure out how to maintain a low profile throughout your casts. And as you move stealthily to the next bend in the stream.

Eliminating False Casts

I like to false cast, to be perfectly honest. It’s a third-rate fly-fisher’s go-to move to gain distance and accuracy. I’m no athletic god, and my fly fishing skills are simply one more confirmation of that patently obvious truth.

With false casting, the problem is, of course, that what may work (or at least have fewer consequences) in the West (when you’re standing in the Madison River and casting 40 to 50 feet) is a sure fire means in smaller spring creeks to chase away fish. They react to the movement, dart back under the rocks, and refuse to take anything you drift by them.

The trick is to fight the urge to revert to false casting when you need it most. To cast with a minimum of false casts requires endless amounts of practice before you can shoot the line out accurately (or lob it out awkwardly) while hunched over the edge of stream on your knees.

In the end, I recommended the Driftless to the person asking about it. But he may not be as great as he thinks he is. After a few days in the Driftless, though, he’ll be a better fly fisher than he is today.

Episode 30: Gary Borger on How Fly Fishing Strengthens Families

A River Runs Through It

Fly fishing strengthens families. But does it really? Do families that fly fish together stay together? The outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular seem to give parents and their children a chance to communicate about something other than homework, screen, time, and household chores. Whether camping or hunting or fly fishing, the outdoors help families connect around a common interest. In Episode 30, we interview fly fishing legend Gary Borger, who consulted on the movie “A River Runs Through It,” on how fly fishing strengthens families.

Fly Fishing Strengthens Families

Be sure to post your stories on how the outdoors has strengthened your family. We’d love to read your insights on what has worked for you.

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Episode 24: The Art of Stalking Trout

A River Runs Through It

Stalking trout is not on the mind of the beginner fly fisher. It’s hard enough to sling the fly. But there are two sure-fire ways not to catch trout: Creating a drift with a wake that would make a water skier proud and fishing a run with spooked trout. Too often fly fishers ruin their chances by wading too far into the river or failing to sneak up on the fish. In The Art of Stalking Trout we discuss how to catch more trout by paying attention to how you approach the stream.

Listen to The Art of Stalking Trout now

At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

How do you apply Borger’s idea of stalking trout to the rivers where you fish? Is it necessary?

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

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That helps fellow fly fishers decide whether the podcast is a good fit for them.

Link Related to This Week’s Episode

    The Angler as Predator