The Generous Fly Fisher I Aspire to Be

generous fly fisher

I aspire to be a better fly fisher. But it’s not what you might think. Sure, I want to improve my casting so I can consistently drop my fly an inch from the opposite bank. Someday, I hope to put the whip finish on my flies with the speed of a calf roper tying a half-hitch.

I’d also like to think like a fish—as Paul Maclean aspired to do. But I have higher aspirations. I want to be a more generous fly fisher:

What Generosity Looks Like on the River

Instead of hoarding information about my favorite spots, I’d like to be more willing to share helpful intel with others I meet on the river.

Instead of hogging a good run, I’d like to share it more readily with others. If someone watches me catch a trout in a particular run, I’d like to be generous enough to invite them to take a few casts.

Instead of feeling smug when I see a newbie fly fisher cast like I did when I first got started, I’d like to be jump at the chance to offer some pointers and some words of encouragement.

A Fine Role Model

If I have a role model for the generous fly fisher I want to be, it is Craig Matthews. He is the founder and former owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana. When you talk to him, his responses are enthusiastic, not arrogant.

Ask him a question, and his answer is gracious, not condescending.

What impresses me most about Matthews is a comment he made in an interview recorded in Chester Allen’s book, Yellowstone Runners. When asked what kind of water he likes to fish late in the season when the “runners” are heading up the Madison River, Matthews talked first about the type of runs he likes. But then he made this comment: “I stay away from ‘behind the Barns’ [the well-known runs just inside the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park] and other popular places since I live here, and I can fish anytime and leave the popular spots to elderly angers and visiting anglers.”

That, my friends, is generosity. And that’s the kind of fly fisher I aspire to be.

I recently ran into Matthews in West Yellowstone and he regaled the fly shop with stories of big browns and streamers the size of 56 Buicks. Even in his storytelling, he was warm and giving back to others, making us feel part of his story and the larger narrative of fly fishing.

The Old Man I Don’t Want to Be

Unfortunately, there are always a few fly fishers who think they are “it.” As my podcast partner Dave says about them, “Always confident, sometimes right.” You’d think these folks invented the sport of fly fishing.

A guide in Blue Ribbon flies recently told us about an encounter he had with an older fly fisher at the Barns Pools. There are some terrific people who frequent the Barns Pools every fall. But this guy seemed to have an ego the size of a jumbo jet.

A young teen was fishing with a hopper pattern. Nearby, his grandmother sat watching him.

Meanwhile, the older fly fisher began to mock the young teen, grousing about him using a hopper pattern. That’s not how you fish the Barns Pools. After a couple minutes of this, the guide piped up and told the older guy to shut up. After briefly strutting like a peacock, the older guy came to his senses, shut his mouth, and sulked and muttered as he walked away.

The grandmother on the bank spoke up for the first time and thanked the guide. She said, “This has been my grandson’s dream. All he wanted to do was to fly fish in Yellowstone National Park. Thanks for sticking up for him.”

Age has a way of magnifying our character traits. Our hard edges become sharper, and our soft edges become even more polished. If you practice generosity now, chances are it will become an even more pronounced trait that will not fail you even when your eyes and legs do. That’s the older fly fisher I want to be.

Make Your Dry Fly Irresistible

dry fly irresistible

It happened again last week. I felt that familiar rush of adrenalin. The mild shock happened again and again as trout after trout attacked the Parachute Adams I drifted down a little stream. I had made my dry fly irresistible.

Dry fly fishing can be unpredictable. When it’s hot, it’s not. When it’s not, well, it’s not. But there are some tactics you can use to make your dry fly irresistible to the trout lurking beneath it:

Dry it

Dry flies, uh, get wet.

Even the heartiest among them (think: Elk Hair Caddis) can get water-logged. Never mind that I always put some kind of fly dressing on my dry flies before I cast them into the current.

Sure, I’ve had trout strike my submerged fly. But dry flies perform best when riding the surface.

A few false casts will help dry out your dry fly. Yet it’s not enough.

Over the years, I’ve grown fond of water-removing powder or crystals. I always keep a small bottle in my fly vest. I like both Orvis Hy-Flote (Shake-N-Flote Renew) or Umpqua Bug Dust. Simply open the bottle lid, put your soggy fly inside (still attached to your leader), and shake the bottle a couple of times.

Presto! Your fly is dry.

The white powder makes it look like a ghost. But a couple of false casts will remove the dust. There are some liquid products available too. These are quite effective, but I generally find them messy and sticky. So go with the powder!

Twitch it

Another effective tactic is to give your dry fly a twitch. This works especially well with Caddis.

I talked to a guide in a fly shop last week who was having luck in the evenings when he skated his Caddis fly across the surface. I used this technique many times when float-tubing Hyalite Reservoir in the mountains south of Bozeman, Montana. I skated a Madam X pattern on the lake’s surface and got a positive response from several large cutthroat trout.

Of course, twitching or skating a hopper pattern is always a good bet.

The art of twitching or skating is rather simple. For a twitch, pretend the fly rod in your hand is a hammer and that you’re tapping in a small nail into soft wood. For the skating effect, I simply strip line like I would with a streamer—only more gently.

Don’t overdo your twitch or skate. If the current is fairly fast, don’t bother. But if it’s slow, a little twitch or skating motion might make your fly irresistible.

Re-size it

My brother, Dave, was fly fishing a stream in the high country of Colorado last week. He tried the standard patterns and even an emerger or two. The fishing was slow until he tied on a large stimulator. I’m pretty sure that it was the larger size rather than the color (orange) that mattered.

As Bob Granger, one of my fly fishing mentors often said, “When the trout aren’t rising for your fly, try a different size before you try a different pattern.”

In general, if I’m fishing a Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatch and not having success, I’ll go smaller. I can’t remember how many times the switch from a size #18 to a size #20 Parachute Adams made all the difference. If I’m struggling to get strikes with attractor patterns when there is no hatch, I’ll typically go larger.

I’ll switch from a size #18 to a size #14. Often it works.

Reverse it

Another tactic is to reverse the direction of your cast.

Obviously, you can’t reverse the direction of your fly. It’s never going to float upstream—always downstream! Typically, fly fishers work their way upstream. This keeps us behind the trout. The idea is that we will be less visible to the trout when we cast. However, there are times when it’s advisable to approach the trout from upstream. This might be due to the current or to an overhanging branch.

More stealth is required when we are in front of the trout and casting downstream. But if that gets a better drift, or if it’s the only possible way to drift a fly through a promising run, then do it.

Crowd it

There’s a good reason not to crowd your fly against an undercut bank. You’re likely to snag it on the brush on the side of the bank. It’s safer to aim for a foot or two short of the bank. It’s also less effective.

If you want to catch trout, however, you have to get close to an undercut bank. That’s where the trout hide. So take the risk.

Last weekend, I fished a run and drifted my fly about eight inches from an undercut bank. It was a decent cast. But nothing happened. On the next cast, I crowded the bank. You guessed it, my cast was about six inches too long, and it ended up in the grass on the bank. I gently tugged at it, and my fly landed in the current, about one inch from the bank.

A few seconds later, a plump brown trout darted out from under the bank and attacked my fly.

To make your dry fly irresistible, cast it as tight

Free it

Finally, keep your dry fly free of drag.

Drag happens when the center of your fly line moves through the current more quickly than your fly does. This results in your fly line pulling or dragging your fly through the current. As a result, your fly will resemble a water skier. It will leave a cool-looking wake.

But is not cool if you’re trying to catch trout!

The trick is to create a bend in your line do that the center of the line on the water is upstream from your fly. In other words, you want the fly to lead the rest of the line. You can do this either by mending your line (flipping the center section upstream after it lands) or by quickly “writing” the letter “C” with your rod tip shortly before your fly lands on the surface.

If the current is moving from right to left, you’ll “write” a backwards “C.” If it’s moving from left, you’ll write a normal “C.” This gets the center of the line upstream from your fly.

Drag will not make your dry fly irresistible!

Dry Fly Irresistible

I came across a beautiful undercut bank and made a perfect cast. My dry fly was riding high a couple inches from the bank, and there was no drag. It was the perfect presentation, and then … nothing happened.

The lesson is that you can do everything perfectly and still fail to get a trout to rise. There are no guarantees when it comes to dry fly fishing. But using one or more of these tactics just might make your dry fly irresistible to that big rainbow around the next bend.

S2:E10 Colorado Fly Fishing High

fly fishing guides

Colorado fly fishing is legendary. It takes a little more effort to get away from the crowds in Colorado than, say, Montana, but Colorado fly fishing is amazing. We took separate trips to Colorado this summer, and in this episode we tell stories of catching cutthroat trout at 12,000 feet, and brookies and browns in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Listen to our episode “Colorado Fly Fishing High” now

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Post a story from your most recent fly fishing trip. Where did you go? What was your best memory? What did you learn?

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A Beginner’s Guide to Fishing Hoppers

Here is a riddle: what is big, ugly, and sends trout into attack mode? Hint: it’s not your wading boots.

Answer: it’s a grasshopper.

Trout love to eat hoppers and will go into a feeding frenzy when hoppers are readily available. That’s usually mid-July to mid-August, depending on where you’re fly fishing.

Attack Worthy

If you are new to fly fishing, you’ll find that a hopper pattern is your best friend during the dog days of summer. You’ll learn to love hoppers because the trout attack them. I remember fly fishing the Yellowstone River a few years ago with my two sons on a hot afternoon in late July. It was a clear, sunny day—usually not the best conditions for fly fishing. Yet, all three of us had strikes on almost every cast.

Our hopper patterns were irresistible to the Yellowstone Cutthroats.

High Visibility

Something else which newbies and veterans appreciate about fishing hoppers is their visibility.

A size #6 Dave’s Hopper is much easier to see floating down the river than a size #18 parachute Adams. It’s like the difference between watching a strawberry and a single Cheerio floating in the current.

Fly fishers also love hoppers because they seem to float forever without getting waterlogged—especially the hopper patterns ties with foam.

Yes, hoppers are generally “easy-schmeasy” to fish. But here a few tips that will help you if you are a beginner.

1. Be ready!

You’ll often get a hit as soon as the hopper hits the water.

The first time it happens, you may be left with your mouth gaping, wondering why you didn’t set the hook! So expect a strike as soon as your hopper hits the water. Even if it floats for a few seconds before a trout attacks it, the strike will come unexpectedly and demand a quick set (that is, a firm, slight lift of your rod tip).

2. Size and color matters.

It generally doesn’t matter how your hopper imitations are made.

As noted above, foam patterns tend to float longer than those tied with hair. Otherwise, a certain style of legs or the shape of the body matters little. I’ve even caught plenty of trout on large caddis flies and spruce moths during hopper season.

What does matter is size and color.

Now most trout aren’t going to snub a size #8 and only take a size #10 or vice versa. But at the beginning of a season, trout might pass up a size #6 and only take a size #12 because the hoppers they are seeing are smaller. Likewise, if most of the hoppers are green, fish might not key in as well on yellow.

I realize that trout process color differently than humans do. But there are times when color seems to matter.

So, do your homework. Get on the website of a fly shop near the river you plan to fish. Better yet, pick up your phone and call one of their guides.

3. Use a smaller fly as a dropper.

I rarely fish a hopper by itself.

I’ll typically tie on a foot-long piece of tippet material to the bend of the hook of my hopper. Then, I’ll tie on another terrestrial, such as an ant or beetle pattern, to the end of the tippet. This additional fly is called the “dropper” or “trailing fly.” Sometimes, I’ll use an attractor pattern like a Red Humpy or a Royal Wulff as my dropper. Interestingly, there are days when two out of every three trout hit the dropper, not the hopper.

Other days it’s the opposite.

4. Slap ‘em and twitch ‘em.

You don’t need delicate casts with hoppers. You can let the terrestrial hit the water a bit harder than usual. You’re trying to imitate a hopper falling into the river, not a hopper making a smooth, stealth landing.

So don’t worry if your fly makes a small splash. Obviously, I’m not saying slap your line on the water. Slap the hopper on the water.

If your hopper is floating down a riffle or a fairly swift stretch of current, let it float. But if you are in a slower, smoother section, twitch or “skate” your hopper a bit. This imitates a hopper that has fallen into the river and is trying to escape. Caution: when you do this, be ready for a violent strike!

5. Aim for the prime time of day.

Prime time is usually mid or late morning to early afternoon. It takes the warmth of the sun to get hoppers hopping — and a little wind will blow them into the river. If you’re fishing early morning (especially) or late afternoon, you may need to try another kind of fly.

Last summer, I fished a creek in Montana that had a reputation as hopper heaven. I got on the water about 9:30 a.m. and immediately started using hopper patterns.

Forty-five minutes later, I felt a bit discouraged and considered tying on something else. Then I had a vicious strike. Then another, and another. The trout devoured hoppers the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Then, about four o’clock, it was as if every trout had received the memo that it was time to stop feeding on hoppers. The action simply shut down.

So join the fun. Whatever else you do this summer, schedule a day or two on a river where hoppers live along the bank. Hopper fishing is downright addicting!