Haunted by Rivers: The Making of a Fly Fishing Angler

Fly Fishing Philosophy – Why We Fly Fish

A lot of people fish for a lot of reasons. All of us fish because we enjoy the sport and being outdoors. Fly Anglers share a different bond with fish than most anglers. We are not better…we are just different. What makes us different is our level of passion and focus in areas most anglers overlook. I grew up on the coast of North Carolina and salt water fished my entire life. I never even knew Fly Fishing was a thing people did outside of the movies until I moved to Montana in 2012. Now, Fly fishing is all I do. If you are considering Fly Fishing then I want you be your guide on the stream of information you need to fish in order to land the fish of your dreams. Fly Fishing can seem overwhelming at first so right at the start we need to establish why you want to start this in the first place. We need to get your mind right. So I am going to go over the benefits of fly fishing, it gets your outdoors and into the wild, it gets you closer to your target species than you ever thought possible, and its just flat out good for you.

Fly Fishing puts you in the wild. Where you belong

Being in the wild is a benefit of fishing in general. Now the wild may be a park or on the beach on some crowded beach, but with trout fishing on the fly…trout do no live in ugly places. You will find yourself standing in awe of some of the most splendid natural wonders of your life. I have been fishing and in the zone so focused only to have my zen like focus destroyed by minks swimming next to me and splashing me. I have seen ducks swimming full speed jet past me inches away and fly away covering me in a shower of cold river water.

You will create these memories within yourself that you will cherish forever. It is not just the fish you chase when you are a fly angler. You chase beauty. Being out in the wild makes you more aware of your surroundings and makes you appreciate them more. It also makes you fight to protect them and drives you to be a better steward of the wild. More time spent in the wild means less time spent plugged in, and that is a good thing. We as humans, even adults, need to go outside and play. Go get some sunshine and enjoy the wonderful and beautiful splendor that is nature.

Fly fishing bonds you with your Target Species

Part of that beauty is the fish themselves. For me its trout, trout are my target species and in order to be a good fly angler you need to be able to know everything you can about your target. So gone are the days of just throwing a bobber out or a jig and hoping for the best, you are a fly angler now. You know where the fish are based on the time of day, the time of year, and the way the water looks in front of you. You know what they eating on because you have studied entomology (bugs) and you have taken stock of what you see around you. You see stone-flies are still in a larva stage and that BWOs are hatching at twilight making the fish surface like mad. So you know where and what to cast based on knowing what the fish are doing. You know that in fall the browns are in spawn so smaller creeks will be stacked with huge record fish. You also know the only way to hook into one is to aggravate them into a bite!

When you fish you fish IN the water where the fish are as a fly angler. This makes you more aware of their habitat than most people hiking around for the day. You become more of a conservationist and care more about the fish. When at times you are forced to catch-and-release you will find it harder to keep fish. The bond you form with the fish becomes a game of “I want to out smart an animal that has a brain the size of my pinkie nail” and more times than not you lose, and this challenges you to learn more and to do better and gets you back in the water.

Fly Fishing Helps heal the mind body and soul

Since you are in the water that means you are working muscles in your body you never have before just by simply keeping your balance. Fly fishing works your body in ways conventional fishing simply does not, beyond just standing in the water. Walking and wading for an hour is equal to two-three hours working out on a treadmill. Not only are you working your lower body and midsection keeping balance you are working your arms and shoulders casting. Casting requires the movement and manipulation of fine motor skills as well as gross motor skills. You are working a lot more out than you think beyond your body as well. The mental health benefits of Fly Fishing are worth noting. Being in the wild already helps the heart and soul out but couple that with the repetitive motion that fly fishing is and the concentration on the water as well as your surroundings hunting for fish. This requires so much focus and attention that anglers like myself often times have to set alarms as reminders to stop to eat and drink.

This has a profound effect on people who suffer from mental disorders or other issues. Me personally I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was severely overweight. Since I have started fly fishing on the regular I have lost over 100 pounds of fat and mentally I feel better than I have in my entire life. Fly Fishing saves lives. It saved mine so who knows what it can do for you.

So you want to fly fish but just haven’t decided to pull the trigger and make it happen yet. Hopefully now you see the benefits of fly fishing and will join me on this adventure as we transition you to a fly angler. In no time you will be there sharing a head-space with Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through it” Shadow casting for rainbows on the Blackfoot River in Montana. You will soon find out that the task at hand is easier and more attainable than you thought. When I started I never thought I would be where I am today and it was easier than I thought. Just takes time and commitment. The benefits of fly fishing is that it puts you in the wild, it gets you closer to the fish you chase, and its great for the mind/body/soul. You ready to see what is up around the next bend in the river?

Basics – Head in the game, lets head to the Fly Shop

There is a lot to understand and to consider when you start fly fishing. In fact it will appear down right intimidating to the beginner. My friend, trust me it is not all that complicated. To truly start to grasp this hobby you need to start simple and slowly. So here are some steps that will get you fishing and developing your techniques. First, you need to find yourself a local fly shop around you, you need to get some basic equipment, and you need to learn where to go.

That all seems simple enough right? Well fly fishing is a bit more complicated than all that we are just going to tackle this with baby steps. You aren’t going to go out there on your first day and slay fish but I promise you that if you follow these steps, you will at least see fish surface and get some action. Prepare to feel outsmarted by an animal that lives in two second increments.

Fly Shops

I cannot stress enough the importance of someone starting out in the addiction of Fly Fishing, than finding a good dealer to supply your fix. You need to find a Fly Shop and you need to find the one that is right for you. Generally speaking in an area with a good selection of fly shops there will be some that cater to different clients but for the most part they won’t be much different. Try to find one that uses local guides and sources for flies not only to help the community but also because there is no better source. Make friends with the people in the shop, spark up conversations and ask questions. Most employees at fly shops are guides, aspiring guides, or at least love fly fishing as well. In this hobby you will learn that people generally will share information. They may never give you all the information but they will share some. We like to see people be successful, at least I do, and nothing makes me happier than knowing I helped someone fulfill a dream.

Fly shops are your social network for fly fishing. You will know what the fish are taking on the fly, you will know where to go (not specifically but generally and sometimes if you make the right friends they will show you) and they can help answer questions. So ask questions. You never know it all and with fly fishing you can never learn it all so ASK QUESTIONS! Someone will always know more than you and may be nice enough to share something with you that you did not know. I was having trouble with my knots and I was losing flies as well as fish. I asked a fellow at the fly shop and he stopped what he was doing, pulled out some line, and gave me a quick lesson on knot tying. I now teach this knot to everyone else and I have been fishing for years. So always ask!

Basic Equipment Needs

Now you need to get your mitts on some basic equipment. People will tell you that you HAVE TO GET THIS BRAND IF YOU WANT TO BE GOOD, and they are filthy liars. The truth of the matter is, don’t spend a lot of money at the start. What if you don’t like it? What if you don’t have the time? What if anything? You don’t know so don’t invest a ton of money in something you know nothing about just because some dude on the internet said it was the “best”. Reddington and NuCast both make affordable combos that come with carrying cases, rod , reel, fly line and backing already attached. I started off with a Reddington Crosswater combo and have since moved to a NuCast, however I still fish with that Crosswater. It is a good rod and reel combo with a good warranty, so I highly recommend getting one to start out.

Once you have that rod and reel, you are going to need a few other odds and ends to make fishing a bit more enjoyable for you. When you fly fish you want to spend the most amount of time casting so you are presenting a fly to the fish. You don’t want to spend it running around hunting for tools and flies, so you need a way to have these items on you. When I started I just used shirts with pocked and cargo shorts with pockets as well, in fact I still do sometimes. Here are some MUST have items that I highly recommend you use:

  • Leader
  • Tippet
  • Pliers
  • Flies
  • Net

Leader

The leader is what you will be tying to your fly line and attaching your fly to on the other end. You can make your own but for starting out just get some of the factory made tapered leaders. You want the end of your leader where you tie your fly to be very thin so the fish does not notice the line, because they will avoid your fly. Knowing what kind to use will depend on where you are fishing, so this will be a question for the fly shop. Generally speaking for trout, 3X 9ft Tapered leader is the way to go, I use it for creeks and rivers for both big and small fish. If you are going for something different, ask around. The leader also will tell you on the package what its weight limit to help you make a more informed decision.

Tippet

Tippet will be used to attach a dropper to a dry fly or to make a rig for nymph fishing. All Tippet is, is thin fishing line designed for flies. Like leaders it will depend on what you are going for and the conditions of the water. Depending on the clarity you may want to go with a different kind of tippet that is better suited for how clear or murky the water is. The idea is, you do not want the fish to see the line, so if its really clear you need a really clear line.

Pliers

Getting a pair of good pliers is essential and honestly do yourself a favor and get a pair with built in scissors. You are going to spend a lot of time removing flies from yourself, from fish, and you are going to spend a lot of time tying on knew flies. So having scissors built in really makes it easier on you and it saves you from needing a pair of nippers or clippers for line. Eventually it will be a good idea to get a good pair of clippers, but for now pliers with scissors will work well.

Flies

Of course you need the right flies, and going back to what I have said before you need to ask questions. The people at the fly shop are not going to lie to you, because the want you to come back. So ask them what is hatching and what they are biting on. This is information you are eventually going to need to learn on your own, but the best way yo start and to learn the flies is by asking people in the fly shop.

Net

The right net is extremely important. Most fly fishing is catch and release and you need to take care of the fish and ensure it has a safe release. A net made of rubber is without a doubt a must have. Do not do what I did and cut corners and buy a cheap net with a fabric or nylon net it will not only hurt the fish it will get snagged on your hooks and it makes releasing a whole ordeal. Rubber nets are NOT expensive.

Where to go?

Now that you have your rod, reel, and other possibles needed for a day fishing, you need to know where to go. Can you guess where I am going to tell you the best place to find out to go? If you guessed the local fly shop, then you would be correct. However, let me give you some other advice because you may find yourself not in a position to be near a fly shop, or they are closed, and you need answers. Most fly shops have fishing reports posted online including where to go, what they are biting on, and the conditions of the water so you know what to expect. There are also websites with general information posted about areas posted by places like Orvis. They give a good general idea of what is going on and what is best based on the times of year and reports of other anglers. However the best information is from a primary source, at your local fly shop. We will cover how to read water once you are where you need to be at another time but you may be able to figure it out on your own through trial and error.

Knowing how to fish is not nearly as important as knowing where to fish. You can have all skills and technique in the world, you could be an expert on entomology and know every facet of every hatch. You could have the best casting in the world, and none of that would matter in the slightest if you are fishing where there are no fish. So ask people. They will not hold your hand and walk you to the water but they will tell you where to start. I will take care of the rest. There is plenty of information online that will give you maps, directions, and guides on where to go. Even most states post a fish trip planner to help out anglers.

Now you are at the water, geared up, you have the information and you are ready to roll. So next time we are going to talk about what you need to do so start catching and landing fish. I hope you are ready to get some great pictures of you finning and grinning over some great catches! See ya on the river!

Essentials 1 – Tis the Season for Hungry Trout

Our head and our hearts are not right. We also have the right equipment and we know where to go. We load up the truck with water and food for the day and hit the ole dusty trail. You arrive at the river, find a spot to part and you walk to the banks. “Okay now what?” You need to know where the fish are in order to catch them. You need to know how to read water.

Reading water is easy, and takes just a little practice and some basic understanding of how water works. I am going to go over some of the basics on how to read water and what you need look for to find those fish. Trout generally follow very specific patterns based on what their food source is, what the season is, and generally speaking, how lazy they are. So you just need to know what is going on in order to increase your chances of hooking into a gorgeous trout.

What and how are they feeding?

Knowing what the fish are eating serves more than just knowing what kind of fly to use, it also determines how you fish. If you are in an area with very deep water and fish are refusing to surface no matter what you are throwing, and despite seeing thousands of actual bugs on the surface then you need to change what you are doing. If fish are not coming up, present tempting treats for them below the surface. However water how your line acts in the water below the surface. Trout like to feed in areas where the water is moving slower, everyone likes an easy meal.

When flows are lower and faster, you will need to look for areas where the water is slower and more pooled up. This will allow you to cast dry flies near the fish in an area where they will more likely come up and take a strike at them, so knowing their feeding habits is well beyond just knowing what they are eating, but why they are eating what they are and how they are. When they are deeper and slower the game changes and really the only way to learn is by seeing and doing.

Seasonal Effect on your Target Specices

The fish change with the seasons and much like the weather can be somewhat predictable. That is to say we have an idea, but ultimately the trout are going to do whatever the hell they want and will make us feel foolish in the process. Water temperature is key. Trout like cold water and become more active and aggressive when the water is cooler. They feed more actively as well in cooler water. So spotting those deep holes and areas that hold a lot more and colder water is essential on spotting those fish. Finding a nice deep hole with cold water from a creek rushing into it, is sure to house some large trout waiting on the bottom for something to entice them to surface. I have fished the same hole for hours, trying various flies and techniques and had no luck, only to throw something random and have it come up and slam it like it was no ones business.

Not only does the season effect the temperature it also effects the mating seasons of the fish. During the spring some trout are in spawn and prior to going into spawn mode will become extremely aggressive and territorial. They will attack streamers with great vengeance and furious anger out of no other reason than ‘I hate you get away from me’. During the fall however, browns are in spawn and cutthroat trout may be feeding in ripples right where they are spawning so throwing egg patterns out might catch both aggressive browns and feeding cutties. When fish spawn they congregate in large groups in areas and they come from deep water to more shallow water to spawn. This opens a lot of opportunity to catch fish that otherwise would be hiding and of course all the action brings out non-spawning fish to get some free caviar. So knowing the seasons, when the spawns are, and where to cast now has you quite the edge. People wait their entire lives to fish 1 week during a salmonoid run, and there is a reason for that.

Trout are LAZY!

For an animal that spends most of its day swimming in cold water and eating nothing but protein, trout sure are lazy fish. Trout like to exert the least amount of energy possible when feeding. They are like a teenager after school that wants a snack but literally cannot be asked to do a single thing in order to eat that will cause any level of inconvenience. Trout want whatever they eat to be easy, however you are fly fishing now, so easy for them does not mean easy for you. Trout, believe it or not, have tiny brains but are really smart when it comes to knowing what bug is real and what one is fake. So you need to cast your fly and present it in such a way to the fish that it easily can see it, can tell that its what it wants to eat, and can easily nab it…and you need to accomplish all of that in the space of a few seconds. If they look up and see something they know is not right, they will come up and refuse to take it, and it sometimes feel like it is intentional. It feels like they are coming up just to say, no this is not right, try it again stupid, and eventually you get it right or go home skunked.

Because they are lazy you need to look for where the water is slow. Dead things flow fast on fast water, so dead bugs are hard to see and hard to go after on really fast water. Not only that but the fish have to hold in place in order to wait in ambush to feed. They don’t want old dead bugs, they want fresh live and tasty bugs that are easy picking stranded in the water. So when you present your fly look for large rocks underwater. Or Fallen logs, or any sort of structure below the surface. This will slow the water flow where the fish are hanging out, so when food is presented to them they only have to exert a minimum amount of force in order to feed. Of course the larger the meal the more force the fish exert, but more times than not a trout will opt for whatever is easier.

Trout may be lazy but they appear very hard at making you feel stupid. Try not to be discouraged, sometimes it just does not work out. You may think you have it all figured out and you may have think you have all the right flies and are casting perfectly, if the trout does not feel like eating it wont. So don’t take it personally. Sooner or later you are going to hit the right combination and that fish is going to wind up in your net and memory bank. Fly Fishing is a building experience and you will never become a master. It is ever changing and evolving so you as a angler need to be able to do the same. However before you start trying to master zen and the art of fly angling, you need to learn the basics.

The best way to get started once you have the basic information and tools is reading the water. You need to learn to walk before you can run and following these simple steps will help save you some head ache. You need to learn where and how the fish are feeding, you need to know the seasonal effects on your target fish and you need to know the temperament of the fish you are chasing. I cannot really teach you to cast but I can teach you how to get on fish. Next time I will take a more in depth look at matching the hatch and reading water. See you on the river!

Essentials 2 – Match the Hatch to make the Catch

As you have seen so far that fly fishing is very involved and has a lot of moving parts to contend with. It is not just a simple act of going out and throwing bait in the water in the hopes of landing a big fish. So now we are going to cover a little bit more in depth some of the finer points of fly fishing. This will help mold you and evolve you as an angler. You see when you are fly fishing you start off clunky and doing everything in a very basic and almost conventional manner. Over time you start to develop your own rhythm and everything you do changes. You start off hardly being able to cast properly to shooting line almost across the stream you are fishing. You go from constantly being snagged and tangled up to spending more time on the water and less time cussing and cutting line.


As your casting and line control becomes more second nature and you start to really grow with confidence, the fishing becomes easier. However landing those larger and more elusive fish will always present you with a unique set of hurdles to overcome. You have the information, you have the tools, you have a general idea of the water, so now you need to polish and fine tune those skills in order to catch trophy fish. You need to start the process of learning entomology, you need to learn the art of presenting the fly to your targeted species, and you need to learn to control your line. All of these skills are skills that you will never stop learning and you will constantly see grow and evolve with you. For now you just need to know where to start.

Bugs, Bugs, Bugs!

Entomology is the study of insects, bugs. A river is a complex ecosystem with a lot of different creatures making up its very unique circle of life. A lot of the insects found in the water will at some point in their life cycle will be labeled as a tasty treat for a hungry trout. Some of the flies that you will see flying around during a hatch has already lived half of its life despite just learning to fly. Stone Flies start off as eggs that hatch into larvae that live in the water during its nymph stage. Trout feed on those nymphs as well as the fly themselves after the metamorphosis stage, so knowing when to throw out the right stage is important.

Trout feed about 80% below the surface. That means they are feeding on larvae and nymphs below the surface so getting them to feed and take on the surface means you are only fishing for 20% of the fish. So even during a massive mayfly hatch where dozens of fish are stacked on the surface feeding, there will be scores more below the surface going after the easier meals. So if you are having a day where nothing large is coming up on the surface, don’t be afraid to throw on a dropper or fish some nymphs for a while. Don’t let people talk you out of the idea that nymph fishing is somehow below a standard, who cares as long as its fly fishing!

Presentation of the Fly

Presentation of your fly is essential. I cannot stress enough how smart trout are despite not having much of a brain. These fish know the difference between flies and will make you stand there with your mouth open in bewilderment trying to figure out what in the hell is going on. I have thrown a BWO fly in the same hole for an hour and had no action, I tied on a nearly identical BWO fly with a slightly different body, and the first cast I land a gorgeous Rainbow. The difference was about 1/16th of an inch of gray, and what was enough. These fish will look at your fly and tell if its a meal for them or not and will let it float right on past if they have any question about it in their little minds. However even knowing exactly what they are eating won’t mean a damn thing If you present the fly poorly. I have seen them eating exactly what I was throwing and only coming up to slap mine with their tail. They know and will let you know they know.

Getting the fly to land properly is really what this all about. So take the time and concentrate on your casting so that the presentation is perfect. I know that is it is very hard to do, especially because trout fishing on the fly is very visual. Often times you can see exactly where the fish is and you can even seen them coming up to eat bugs on the surface. You know how big it is, and you know how bad you want to catch it so its easy to get to head of yourself. When you do that you wind up in trouble, you start to screw up your casting and the next thing you know you are tangled up and untying knots while the fish of a lifetime is surfacing feet in front of you. It is so important to keep your head on straight and make sure you slow down and pay attention. I have been standing in a river and had so many fish surfacing I could walk across their heads and never touch water, it took everything I had in me to take a breath, calm down and cast properly. It was only when I did that did I find myself able to land fish in that melee.

Mend that line!

Part of that presentation of the fly is controlling that line. You need to pay attention to what your line is doing because whatever the line is doing, transfers to the fly. So anything that makes that fly appear to be even slightly unnatural will result in a fish letting it pass by. You may have a perfect cast and the fly is initially presented in a flawless manner, but without mending your line it will be for nothing. What I mean by mending you line is, you do not want your line going faster or slower than the fly. Keeping in mind your fly line is a good 8-9 feet behind your fly. In some cases you will cast and where the fly lands the water is moving at a faster speed than where the line finds itself. When this happens you need to adjust the line, or the fish will know its a ruse.

If you cast out into slower moving water and you are standing in faster water sometimes it is just as simple as lifting the rod in order to keep the line out of the fast water. Sometimes you need to do a slight roll of the write to make the line loop over to the left or to the right helping either speed up or slow down the flow of the fly down the water to make it appear more natural. Having a line in fast water acting like an anchor and dragging down your fly will let the fish know they are being fished and it will result in no takes on that fly. People say that casting is the easy part of fly fishing, mending the line is where the real work is involved. You need to constantly keep positive control over your line, stripping in when needed, letting out when needed, and of course mending the line to keep the current speed. The mending of line is something that comes with time and practice it is one of those skills that is developed through seeing and doing. I just want you to be aware of how important it is and to start learning sooner rather than later.

I know I have said fly fishing is not as complex as it seems, and I know these past few articles have done well to show, that it is actually quite involved, but I still remain it is not complex. Anyone who wants to learn and has the passion can learn to fly fish. I promise you with a half hour casting lesson in the parking lot at the local fly shop, coupled with your new information and you will be well on your way. It takes decades to even come close to mastering any of these skills, and like anything else the more you put into it the more you will get in return. You will not master this overnight, but you might just wind up catching fish here and there…and that will boost that confidence.

Fly fishing can save the world, and I really mean that. You wanted to learn to fly fish and share the head space with other anglers that share the same love and admiration over a fish and the bugs it eats. We fly anglers are a strange breed, but we are welcoming and helpful. So do head out on the river soon, start studying those bugs, start learning how to present that fly perfectly, and above all CONTROL THAT LINE! Keep at it, keep casting, and I will see you on the river!

4 thoughts on “Haunted by Rivers: The Making of a Fly Fishing Angler

  1. would like to know what size trout and types you are catching in your area I live in Arkansas we catch on two rivers here mostly they are the white and little red both are world class we catch or at least I do fly fishing around 10 to 50 in one day depending on how I am fishing and the season and other factors but as for sizse they range from 1/2 lb to 8-10 lbs on a good day though I rarely catch the 8-10 lbs ones I do catch quite a number of ones during the year in the 2-4 lb range. Ark is known for the largest trout ever caught till recently and they say there are world record trout here still. I don’t now about catching a 50lber but would like to get one over 10 I have been fortunate to catch one 8lb er during my times fishing around 20 -2-4 lbers any way would like to know your experience in your area thanks

    • Arkansas huh? You guys have some MONSTER brown trout out there. If I lived out there I would go out at night with mouse patterns and throw them up close to the bank. Strip like crazy so it mimics a mouse swimming frantically away in confusion…and browns 24 inch+ will take them viciously. Be sure however that you check the tail on the mouse and that it is not more than an inch or inch and a half long. Otherwise setting the hook will be a problem if they go after the tail, which they do. Honestly out here in Montana the way we measure trout is by inches, not by weight. I have no clue how much the fish I am catching weighs. Most of the fish in the “Big” range are fish in the 19-22inch range. The difference between a 22 inch fish and a 24 inch fish is significant. The Difference between a 24-26 inch fish is astounding and the difference of a 26-30+ range is one for the record books. They can get that big out here in some hard to find and reach places. So we get big fish out here for sure, the browns out your way however, are worth traveling to see.

      • I usually toss what we call a woolly bugger when fly fishing but best of the Best are not mice or frogs but a black slug that we find under rocks along the banks of the white river they are called sculpin they do very well as do crawfish and for non live a rapala 6 brook trout if I am in high water using a boat and race it back to the boat. Anyway if you get down to ark we have two rivers every one should drop a line in the white an the little red also the north fork is nice.if you come get a guide or just call me and I’ll place you on a few spots I cannot guarentee any world records but if it’s a normal day you can expect 30-50 and on some days if all you want to do is real in trout till you can’t anymore something like 200 in 2 hrs is not out of the question the will be typically caught by those that showed up after a stocking. Typically I stop around 20 if I am fly fishing if I am using a lure and trying to get someone a day they can talk about for a while I have a spot I can often get 100 plus but I do catch an release All trout and demand so of anyone I go with. You may take pics of any brown you catch over 5 lbs if you manage one over 30 I would suggest you keep it if you want till you get it recorded. There are some up in he 40-50lb range but as of yet the world record brown was held in Ark for a 40.4 bad boy in 1992 on the little red it has been broken But will be again as I here from a few the have seen a couple that may hi the 50 mark. Anyway if feel like taking a chance at getting One holler maybe we can trade some war stories I hope I get a chance to fish your area soon.
        God bless an happy fishing
        Mike

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