10 Ways to Cope with the Fly Fishing Off Season

I am three weeks removed from my last fly fishing trip. Winter looms. I may not pick up my fly rod again until spring. Now the coping begins. It wasn’t always this way.

When I lived in Montana, I fished into November. Then, I ventured out at least once a month in December, January, and February. This satisfied my fly fishing urge until a new season began in March.

But how do you cope if you live in the city or the suburbs? How do you manage if you live far away from prime trout fisheries? I’ve figured out a few coping strategies since I moved a decade ago to the north suburbs of Chicago.

1. Go through the photos of your last trip.

Thumb through the photos on your cell phone. This brings back good memories and helps you re-live the best moments. Warning: Your photos might result in you laughing out loud or shouting “Yes!”

2. Make a list of the year’s best memories.

After you’ve thumbed through your photos, write down your favorite memories from the last year of fly fishing. For me, the list from last year includes:

  • Catching browns at dusk in Rocky Mountain National Park;
  • Hauling in fish after fish on streamers in Willow Creek (near Three Forks, Montana);
  • Landing a big rainbow on the Missouri River (near Helena, Montana); and
  • Catching a ridiculous number of browns in October on the Gardner River (in Yellowstone National Park).

Making a list will preserve your memories and maybe even remind you of a detail you had forgotten.

3. Take inventory of your gear.

This is an act of hope. It’s a reminder that you will fly fish again. Besides, it really does prepare you for your next trip.

4. Shop for something new.

This is the benefit—or liability—of the previous strategy. When you take inventory of your gear, you may discover your need for a new reel, new gloves, a new fly box, or a new net. This sends you on a mission to research options and prices. It keeps your mind off the reality that you are not able to fish.

5. Visit the trout at your local Bass Pro Shop.

A couple times during the winter, I visit our local Bass Pro Shop (nine miles from my house) and stand on a little bridge and look wistfully at the twenty-inch rainbows that swim in the little creek on the edge of the aisle with coffee mugs and pocket knives. Seriously!

Now I’m trying to muster the courage to ask the store manager if I can fly fish the stream since I’m a catch-and-release fly fisher. Seeing me catch these rainbows might get more people interested in fly fishing, and then they would spend more money at Bass Pro.

It’s a win-win, right?

6. Watch fly fishing videos.

The internet is loaded with videos of fly fishers catching trout. Start with websites like Orvis or Winston. Then, go to YouTube and search for about any river or species of trout which piques your interest.

7. Tie a few flies.

This only works if you are a fly tyer. If you’re not, the off-season is a good time to take your first class.

8. Read a good fly fishing book.

Read about the areas you want to fly fish. For example, if you’re headed to Montana or Wyoming, get a copy of Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the West. It’s an entertaining read with humor and history woven into it.

Read for skill-development. Gary Borger’s “Fly Fishing” series is ideal for this. His fourth book in the series, The Angler as Predator, helped me a lot.

You might even educate yourself on the flies you’re trying to imitate with a book like Pocketguide to Western Hatches by Dave Hughes or Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout by Henry Ramsay.

Don’t forget to read through the lists you compiled from previous years (see #2 above).

9. Plan your next trip.

There’s nothing like planning your next trip to get the juices flowing! The off-season is a great time to do some research on new places or to plan for a visit to some good old places.

10. Watch “A River Runs Through It.”

You owe it to yourself to watch this at least once a year. The cinematography alone makes it worthwhile. The story is gripping, too. Real men might even shed a tear or two at the last scene.

Alright, something in the above list is guaranteed to help you cope with the fly fishing off-season. If not, watch college football and college basketball. Go hunting. Remodel your kitchen.

Oh yes, you might even consider a few hours on the water in the dead of winter if you’re within a day’s drive of a river or stream. Whatever you do to pass the time, winter will lift and the rivers will come to life in the spring.

Let a new season begin!

S2:E22 One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 1)

fly fishing guides

The Gardner River near the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park is a gorgeous fishery – with the added bonus of deer, bison, elk, and grizzly bears. In this episode, the first of a two-part series, we describe in detail one of the best days we’ve had fly fishing. We caught lots of fish (browns, mostly), got freaked out by a grizzly track along the trail, and was reminded of several key nymph fishing tactics. Click now to listen to this episode.

Listen to our episode “One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Part I)”

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.

We’d love to hear your stories of a fine day this past year on the river. Please post your stories below.

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

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

Rate the 2 Guys Podcast

We’d love for you to rate our podcast on iTunes.

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

5 Reasons You Need a Fly Fishing Wading Staff

A year ago, I bought a wading staff for use on the big rivers of the American West — particularly the Yellowstone and the Missouri. I had visions of strapping it to my side only for use in thigh-deep or even waist-deep water. But last week, I discovered that it’s worth wearing on small streams when I’m only wading ankle-deep water.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I were getting ready to fish Willow Creek south of Three Forks, Montana, with a good friend. I was mildly surprised to see our friend strap on his collapsible wading staff. But when he explained to me why he always wears it, I decided to take mine out of my duffel bag and give it a try.

Now I’m a believer. Here are the reasons why it makes sense to use a wading staff even when you’re on a small stream in shallow water.

1. Traction

This is one of the two reasons my friend cited. Even with state-of-the-art wading boots (we both wore Patagonia Foot Tractor boots that day), moss-covered rocks can be slick. I was pleased how my wading staff helped me stay upright when one of my boots slipped.

2. Stability

I’m in reasonably good shape at 54. But my legs are not as strong as they were at 44 or at 34. I found that a “third leg” gave me more stability when I walked on the rock banks as well as the boulders in shallow water.

3. Stamina

I was also surprised how my “third leg” took pressure off of my two legs. We fished three miles up Willow Creek in a canyon which lacked any trails or gentle banks. Then we walked three miles down in and along the creek. My legs were not nearly as tired as I expected after the six-mile trek.

4. Snakes

This is the second reason my friend always carries his wading staff. We were in rattlesnake country, and even though it was mid-October, some fishing buddies of his encountered a rattler a few days before on the stretch of creek we were fishing. I’m no advocate of killing snakes. But I like the idea of packing something that can ward off a rattler when a surprise encounter happens.

5. Climbing

Again, I’m writing as a 54-year old. I found that my wading staff made it easier to scramble up steep banks and rocky inclines. Now I understand why another friend of mine raved about the walking staff he carried in the Swiss Alps a few months ago.

If you’re in the market for a wading staff, check out the ones made by Simms and Orvis. I tried them both, and I give the nod to the Orvis model because it snaps into place almost instantly. Both of these staffs are collapsible, although I kept mine assembled most of the day. It didn’t get in my way when I let it drag behind me (the staff was connected to its sheath via a retractor).

There are more affordable alternatives, too. I know fly fishers who use an old ski pole or even a mountaineer’s staff.

When King David composed the twenty-third psalm, he was not referring to a fly rod nor a wading staff when he wrote, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” But still, I find comfort in taking both a rod and staff with me – even when I walk through quiet waters.

S2:E14 Lessons from the Yellowstone River Closure

fly fishing guides

The Yellowstone River closure late last month confirmed once again how fragile our rivers are. In one week, about 4,000 fish (mostly whitefish) died due to a parasite. Some sections that were closed have been reopened, but jury is still out on the source of the parasite. In this episode, we tell our stories of the rivers we love and how the Yellowstone River closure makes us appreciate each moment on the river.

Listen to our episode “Lessons from the Yellowstone River Closure” 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.

What rivers hold a special place for you? How do the lessons the Yellowstone River closure apply to the rivers you fish?

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

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

Rate the 2 Guys Podcast

We’d love for you to rate our podcast on iTunes.

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

Links Related to This Week’s Episode

    More Sections of the Yellowstone Reopened

    Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Press Release

S2:E12 The Promise of Fall Fly Fishing

fly fishing guides

Fall fly fishing – is there a better time of year to fish? The crowds are thinner. Many summer fly fishers replace their fly rods with bows, shotguns, and rifles. They become hunters. Yea! Fall fly fishing promises warm days and cool nights. Listen to Fall Fly Fishing now and expect great things this fall!

Listen to our episode “Fall Fly Fishing” 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.

Where are you planning to go for fall fly fishing? What do you love most about fly fishing in the fall?

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

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

Rate the 2 Guys Podcast

We’d love for you to rate our podcast on iTunes.

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

7 Spots to Cast Your Dry Fly

You’re standing at the river’s edge. The guys or gals at the fly shop have said that the dry fly fishing has been fabulous. So you’ve tied on the size #14 elk hair caddis they recommended. But where should you cast your fly?

If you are new to fly fishing, here are the best spots to cast your dry fly:

Where the trout are rising

This tip is not meant to insult your intelligence.

Rather, it reflects how easy it is to miss rising fish. Sure, the ones that jump halfway out of the water are obvious. But the largest trout often make the smallest ripple. Their snouts barely break the surface.

Spend a minute or two scanning the surface for the subtle rises that are easy to miss.

Where you are about to wade

Fly fishing legend Gary Borger says, “Fish it before you wade it.”

This is good advice. The trout are not always where you think they should be. The best spot might be the water through which you need to wade to get to the next best spot.

Where the drift boats fish

Fly fishers in drift boats do not cast to the middle of the river.

They typically cast to the banks — right where you are standing. If you’re fishing a large river, think of the first eight to ten feet from the bank as a small stream. You probably don’t need to make a twenty-yard cast. You’ve hit the jackpot if you see deeper water along the bank. This is where trout find shelter from predators and easy access to food.

The head of a pool or run

This is where fast moving water (a riffle) rushes into a slower, deeper section of current.

Sometimes, the riffle empties into a pool. I remember an afternoon on the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana where I fished nothing but a riffle. That’s where the rainbows were feeding on blue-winged olives.

In the foam line of a run

Sometimes, the trout are below the riffle in the current itself. These runs can be short or long. Watch for a moving foam and bubbles. This is the food line! I especially rely on the foam line when fishing in slower moving rivers like the East Gallatin in Montana or the Owyhee in eastern Oregon.

The shallow water at the side or the tail end of run

You won’t always find trout in these places, because they offer minimal protection from predators.

But these are great feeding spots for trout when the insect hatches are in full force. Often, the more gentle side of a “seam” (the imaginary dividing line between fast moving current and slow water) is a great place to cast a dry fly. Trout will sip flies there, knowing they can quickly retreat to a riffle if they see the shadow of a bird swooping down on them.

Near a rock

Some rivers – or stretches of rivers — do not have pronounced runs.

Rather, they have a steady flow and depth from one bank to another. If this is the case, look for big rocks. I’ve caught trout in front of, behind, and beside big rocks. Some of these rocks stick above the surface, others do not. One of my favorite stretches on the Gallatin River south of Big Sky, Montana, works like this.

When I find a decent-sized rock, I know I’ll find trout.

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.

Your Next Pair of Fly Fishing Waders

Are you as confused as I am? In this post, I provide four questions to help you sort through the brand confusion when purchasing your next pair of waders.

I recently Googled the word “waders.” Sponsored ads from Cabela’s appeared at the top of the page with Hodgman waders for $14.99.

Seriously. Waders for $14.99.

I should have Googled “fly fishing waders.”

So I did.

More Cabela’s waders and a few others. The lowest price in this next set of ads was $59.99 (another pair from Cabela’s) and the most expensive was a pair from Orvis ($169).

I refreshed my browser and another pair from Orvis for $398 appeared.

Fly Fishing Waders Galore

A few days later I was trolling for gear and hit upon the Simms web site. I clicked on the “waders” link, and this is what I pulled up:

    G3 Guide – WQM Limited Edition: $549.95
    G4Z Stockingfoot: $549.95
    G4Pro Stockingfoot: $699.95
    G3 Guide Bootfoot Waders – Lug: $699.95
    G3 Guide Bootfoot Waders – Felt: $699.95
    G3 Guide Stockingfoot: $499.95
    G3 Guide Pant: $499.95
    Headwaters Convertible Stockingfoot: $399.95
    Headwaters Stockingfoot: $349.95
    Womens G3 Guide Stockingfoot: $499.95
    Freestone Z Wader: $399.95
    Freestone Wader: $249.95
    Freestone Pant: $229.95
    Womens Freestone Wader: $249.95
    Kids Gore-Tex Stockingfoot: $199.95

I scratched my head. Other than price, the waders all merged together into an expensive blur.

And that’s only the Simms line of waders!

I then visited the Patagonia site. And then looked at the Redington brands, the Orvis brands, and then Dan Bailey brands.

My head was spinning. And that’s not even the entire list of brands. (I apologize for all those I missed.)

How does an average fly fisher make a rational decision about which pair of waders to purchase?

My (Former) Approach to Decision-Making

Here’s how I purchased my current pair of waders.

I was on a fly fishing trip to Montana with Steve, my podcast partner.

It was springtime. And my aging waders sprung a leak. I got cold while standing in the Madison River, with snow and gusts of 20 mph wind.

We decided to fish the Yellowstone the next day.

On the way over to Paradise Valley, we stopped in Livingston, Montana, and I walked into the Dan Bailey fly shop on the main drag through town.

I said to the sales person, “I need a pair of waders.”

“Here’s a pair of Dan Bailey waders on sale.”

“Are they good waders?”

“Yes they are.”

“Okay, I’ll take them.”

I paid about $250 or so, plus or minus. And walked out with new waders.

(Note: I had these waders for almost ten years. I recently purchased a pair of Ultralight waders from Orvis for around $298.)

My Randomness Is Not a Strategy

Am I a shill for Dan Bailey or Orvis waders? Absolutely not.

Is Dan Bailey or Orvis sponsoring our podcast or blog? No. (This is a question that you should ask of every writer who mentions a brand in a post.)

My point has three parts:

1. I made a random, arbitrary decision with the durability of my Dan Bailey waders.

2. I probably got lucky.

3. The unending options of fly fishing waders confuses me about which to purchase next.

Am I saying you should be as random as I was?

Of course not.

4 Questions to Select the Right Waders

So here are four questions that I think you should consider:

1. How many days a year do I fly fish?

Steve and I calculated that we fish between 10 and 20 days a year. That’s not as many as we would like. But we live with 10 million of our closest friends in the Chicago area. We both lived in the West before moving to Chicago, but now it takes a bit more thought and effort to get out on the rivers.

If you are a newbie fly fisher and plan to fish only once or twice while on a summer vacation, you do not need waders, unless you are fishing in an area with lots of ticks. I rarely wear waders in the summertime, except if I’m in rattlesnake country. I wear my wading boots and wading socks, or a pair of wading sandals, and dri-fit shorts or pants.

If you fly fish fewer days a year than Steve and I do, then I would recommend a middle-of-the-road, workhorse brand of waders.

If you fly fish 40 or more days a year or are a professional guide – by all means – purchase the “best,” however you define the word. My guess is you own multiple pairs of fly fishing waders.

2. Will this be my only pair of waders?

I generally keep only one pair of waders in play. I keep it simple. I don’t use wading pants, though I do own a pair of waist waders. I often will use them in winter when I know I won’t be wading with the exception of crossing small spring creeks here and there.

Obviously, I’m not a fly fishing professional. Nor do I fly fish 40 days a year or more.

If you fly fish quite a few days in late fall, winter, and early spring, you may want to purchase a pair of insulated waders. However, I fish maybe two or three days a year in freezing temps, and if I wear layers under my breathable waders, I am fine (though you need to remember I grew up in North Dakota, so cold is my friend!)

Another consideration is the depth and speed of the river. If you are fly fishing shallow creeks in the summer, you definitely don’t need waders.

3. How brand conscious am I?

I am tend to be brand agnostic. At least when it comes to fly fishing waders.

With fly rods and wading boots – I am more persnickety. A fly rod affects how I cast. And wading boots could save my life.

But waders?

Some of you may need to look good on the water. You need to wear the most expensive brand because of how doing so makes you feel about yourself.

Bully for you. Buy. And be blessed. A $700 pair of waders may make perfect sense in your mind, even if you fly fish only once every couple years.

4. What is my budget?

With waders, I tend to be budget conscious, and, as I mentioned, brand agnostic.

I’d rather save a couple hundred bucks and add that to one more fly fishing trip this calendar year. I don’t have unlimited money for fly fishing. I also hunt upland game and waterfowl in North Dakota every fall with my extended family, so fly fishing doesn’t get all my resources for the outdoors.

I paid $298 for my recent pair of Orvis Ultralight waders. I made a conscious decision not to purchase a discount brand. I’ve been down that road, and the saying that you pay for cheap three times is pretty much gospel.

Instead, I try to see value – a durable pair of waders at a reasonable price.

I don’t need my waders to have the latest technology or include wi-fi or sing “You are so beautiful” to me. And since no fly fishing catalog will likely be asking me to model outdoor clothing anytime soon, I simply need the waders to be up for the kind of rugged fishing I do. Yes, the fly zipper would be nice, but I couldn’t justify the extra $200 or so for the convenience.

Waders should last me five to seven years, given how hard I use them and my number of days on the water.

One last comment: I definitely recommend purchasing stockingfoot waders (not waders with boots). That means you’ll need to purchase wading boots, a topic for another time.

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!

The Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

The fly fishing community is a rather diverse group. Some fly fishers are plumbers, others are professors. Some are Supreme Court Justices (think Sandra Day O’Connor), others are leftover hippies. Some are college basketball coaches, others are musicians.

What you get from such a varied group of fly fishing enthusiasts is a lot of great stories.

Thankfully, a few fly fishers have written them down for the rest of us to enjoy.

Shortly after I moved to Helena, Montana in 1987, I was browsing in a bookstore in Last Chance Gulch (downtown Helena), and I purchased a little book written by a retired English professor at the University of Chicago. He had reached his seventies before his two children finally convinced him to write down some of the stories he had told them when they were young. The opening paragraph of his little book captivated me, and the story he told touched me deeply. The book begins:

    In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout waters in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

By now you probably recognize the book and its author: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

The Angler’s Soul

In this book, fly fishing is simply a window into life. Two themes stand out to me:

The first comes from the final sentence of the book: “I am haunted by waters.”

These words emerge from a deep place in an angler’s soul while fly fishing a river in the cool of the day at twilight. It’s what the Oxford scholar, C. S. Lewis, calls “the inconsolable longing.” In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he talks about how certain experiences provide the “scent of a flower I have not found, the echo of a tune I have not heard, the news from a country I have never yet visited.”

I remember a poignant moment like that one April evening on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I was fly fishing alone, fighting 16-inch rainbows in the setting sun. As I looked at the red
glow on the snow-covered Absaroka-Beartooths to the east, I thought of bow-hunting elk with my dad in those mountains before cancer took his life. I thought of my grandparents who were buried in a little settlers cemetery on a ridge beneath those peaks.

The rhythm of standing in the river at twilight with fly rod in hand stirred up in me that inconsolable longing. For a few moments, I, too, was haunted by waters.

Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

A second theme is the book’s big idea, which surfaces a few times right near the end of the story.

After Norman finds out about the death of his brother, Paul, he drives to his parents’ home to tell them the tragic news. Norman says about his mother: “She was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least. Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him.”

Later, his father wants to know if Norman has told him everything about Paul’s death. Norman says, “Everything.” His father replies, “It’s not much, is it?”

To which Norman replies, “No, but you can love completely without complete understanding.”

His father says, “That I have known and preached.”

I think about that conversation when I reflect on the life of a buddy in Helena, Montana, with whom I often fly fished. He was one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met. Or so I thought.

A couple years ago, his wife notified me that my friend had taken his life. It turns out that he battled depression for years. I was his pastor and his friend, yet I did not realize the emotional anguish that cut deeply into his soul.

I thought I understood him, but I didn’t. As the elder Maclean said, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

News of a Distant Country

Fly fishing has a unique way of forcing me to think deeply about life. I fly fish for joy of catching trout. But some evenings on the river stir something deep within me. I think about those whom I love yet fail to understand. And the poignant ache, or inconsolable longing, gives me the news of a country I have never visited.

In those moments I, too, am haunted by waters.

(photo credit: Jim Keena, Bozeman, Montana)