7 Steps to Successful Fly Fishing Your First Time Out
by: Craig Fellin
During the summer of 1974, I fished a small stream in Montana almost every day, honing my skills of fly fishing without the luxury of an instructor, and becoming deeply attached to a sport that has held my imagination ever since. After wading up sparkling currents and dark deep pools all day, and casting flies that I tied myself crude as they were, I'd walk back to my truck in the dark wondering how I ever made it this far upstream. My flies were so poorly tied that I truly had to become a good caster if I were to have a chance at all of catching a trout. The Royal Wulff patterns that I tied back then had wings large enough for a size #8 hook except they were tied on a #14, but my presentation was excellent and this made up for any shortcomings in fly design. This severe limitation only lasted for a few months, but during that period I learned many secrets of how to catch trout simply by watching and fishing with as much grace as I could muster.
Let's assume that you've had some casting lessons, learned a few knots and have the right equipment to get you started. If you haven't done this, I'd strongly recommend setting up a casting lesson with your local fly shop. They are the experts and they'll save you hours of frustration on the stream. A good fly shop is invaluable in helping you along the path to becoming a proficient fly fisher, answering the many questions you'll have about this wonderful sport and suggesting the right equipment that is appropriate for your needs. In the following steps, I'll try to guide you up the stream as you confront the more obvious problems you'll encounter as a novice fly fisher.
Step 1. Reading the Water
It would seem obvious that before you make your first cast, you should have a general idea about where the trout are living or “holding” as we say. After guiding for three decades now, I can say without hesitation that most novices and many experienced anglers don't have a good feel for where the trout are holding when they approach a stream or river. Watch a proficient guide or angler approach what he/she thinks is a promising stretch of water and the first thing they'll do is stop and watch. Nothing should be assumed at this point and yet everything you've learned as to where trout hold and why should be considered. Since experience is something you are trying to gain, this is not a factor. What you should do and it is so critical to your imminent success is to simply kneel or sit on a nice flat rock and observe what is going on before your eyes. Do you see fish rising? This is the easiest way to determine where trout are holding if you can see them feeding on the surface of the water. Sometimes the rises are easy to spot, as is the case with emerging caddisflies when trout explode on the surface. Other times, especially when trout are sipping spent mayflies or “spinners” as they are called, the rises are almost imperceptible.
If nothing is “working” on top of the water, then your attention should turn to what might be going on below the surface. Do you see insects on the water or flying around that might indicate that a hatch is about to start? If so, perhaps the trout are feeding on emergers just underneath the surface. Look for flashes and movement, which also might indicate trout are feeding on nymphs and emergers that are only minutes away from hatching, in which case you might tie an emerger or a dry fly on, or both.
Statistically, trout feed near the bottom of the river or stream 80% of their daily life. After at least five minutes of observation, with nothing moving near the surface of the water, you might deduct that the trout are feeding on nymphs in deeper riffles, runs, and pools. This is generally the situation you'll confront when you approach a good looking stretch of water, but you've taken the time to make the appropriate observations before you decide to make your first cast. How to determine where the trout are holding when they aren't showing themselves comes through experience and could be the subject of an entirely separate article, which we won't explore for now.
Step 2. Fly Selection
After testing your patience with some simple observations, now you are ready for your first cast, or are you? You haven't chosen a fly yet, or if you have, you might reconsider your options based on what you've seen or not seen so far. Many great anglers prefer to fly fish for trout strictly with a dry fly. Why you may ask, would anyone with so much experience decide to fish dry flies exclusively when it has been proven that trout feed near the bottom of the stream or river 80% of their daily life? These dry fly purists claim that it's simply more fun to fish this way, openly foregoing many opportunities to catch more trout they would have certainly caught by fishing with a nymph when the situation dictated doing so. Their argument is well taken, and I think it is more fun to fish this way, for the fly cast is such an elegant movement when the rod is in the hands of an experienced caster. When fishing with weighted nymphs, which imitate the life cycle of insects living near the bottom of the river or stream, the cast is not nearly as graceful. It's more of an athletic move that gets the job done and places the fly in the water in the fewest number of false casts as possible to keep it wet and get the fly to the bottom. A good nymph fisher will catch more trout on a given day than an equally good fly fisher on almost any river or stream.
I would strongly suggest that you learn both methods and decide for yourself, but until you get to that point, try to match the feeding patterns of the trout you are observing, be it with a dry fly or a nymph. There are three or four dry flies that will fool trout on most western rivers most of the time, and they are the Parachute Adams, Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis and a good grasshopper imitation when the trout are looking for hoppers later in the season. The same can be said of nymphs by carrying a good supply of weighted Pheasant Tails, Hare's Ear Flashbacks, Beadhead Soft-hackles, and Wooly Buggers. Size is extremely important though, once you've determined what fly will imitate the trout are feeding on and in what stage of the insect's life, be it the nymph, emerger or dry fly. Trout seem to be very selective on size more than color, and that is one reason why the Parachute Adams in the correct size will succeed in matching so many different mayfly hatches. I strongly recommend that you learn how to tie your flies which is a whole other facet of the sport of fly fishing, but a very rewarding one, especially when you land your first trout on a fly that you tied yourself.
Step 3. Approach
The most important step of this whole process, and one that is the most neglected not only by novices but also experienced anglers, is the approach. With a certain amount of luck and coincidence, you could still catch a trout once in a while with the wrong fly pattern and neglecting any patient observation, but you'll never be successful by approaching trout in the wrong way. Sometimes I'll ask my beginning fly fishing clients to think like they are stalking a deer. The fact that novices don't see the trout gives them a false sense of being undetected but in fact, trout can almost see 360 degrees in all directions and they have an extremely acute sense of hearing through vibrations received along their sides. I've witnessed expert anglers barge into a pool and commence to spook every trout within casting range. They'll spend up to an hour making flawless casts to spots devoid of trout simply because they didn't take the time to approach their quarry with a reasonable amount of caution. It's such an important aspect of fly fishing and it's so simple to do, in fact, the easiest aspect of all, but it's one that receives the least amount of focus and attention. If you are a golfer, you know that setting up to the ball is of paramount importance to the success of your shot and without a good setup, your shot is doomed to disaster. This is also the easiest part of the golf game but one that is probably the most neglected. So you see, what you do before you even make your first cast is not only important but also crucial to your success in catching trout and the easiest part of the process.
Before you even step into the water, look for trout on the near bank in shallow water. We will assume that there isn't a hatch coming off and there is no rising fish. This is an area that invariably holds some of the largest trout in the stream or river. There are reasons why these trophy trout hold there, but many times even guides and experienced anglers scratch their head in amazement when they see a 3-4 lb. brown trout basking in six inches of water no more than a foot off the bank.
Approach not only involves sight but also the ability to wade quietly. If you splash water while wading and make a lot of noise, the trout will spook and swim for cover, especially wild trout which are what we have in all of our streams in Montana. Try to keep your feet below the surface of the water when you wade and almost shuffle your feet on the bottom, being careful not to dislodge rocks and insects as you move which will disrupt the ecology of the stream. I'd recommend not moving more than 6' at a time when you change positions, setting up for another round of casting at each interval. By wading cautiously in this manner, you'll be less apt to spook trout and you'll cover water much more efficiently as you work your way up the trout stream. Take time to look around as you wade also, observing what's on the water if anything (hatching insects), observing any rising trout, or just to simply observe where you are and all its splendor.
Step 4. First Cast
Finally, you are ready to make a cast. Do you feel a little intimidated after all this? Well, you shouldn't, because now it's just you, the fish and the stream or river, with no scorecards or social expectations. What you accomplish to this point will determine what you'll get out of the sport. If you desire to catch as many trout as possible in a day, you've done a lot to make this possible. If you are only interested in catching a large trophy trout, you've also done your homework and laid the foundation to make this possible. Lastly, if your desire is simply to enjoy your day on the trout stream with all its beauty, you've certainly accomplished that in many ways.
Armed with the fundamentals of casting you learned from a guide, spouse, friend or your local fly shop, you are now ready to cast your fly on the water. Before entering the water and after having observed the water next to the bank, make a few casts directly upstream or downstream in this area, especially if there are broken water and you can't see below the surface. Always take a good look behind you when making a cast from the bank since your backcast can invariably end up in a bush or tree limb. Once you are satisfied that there aren't trout there (or they aren't interested in what you are presenting), proceed to cast a short line of about 15-20' preferably upstream in a semi-circle covering water every two feet as you extend your radius to midstream. What I mean by this is try to cast your fly to an exact spot each time, and then the next cast should be another two feet beyond that point, with each successive cast extending out towards the middle of the river or stream. Even though you may have trouble placing your fly every two feet, it's important to at least try to do this and I'll explain why in a moment.
After approximately 6-12 casts depending on the water, wade out about 6' if possible and repeat the process over again, preferably starting upstream to a specific target of water and working your way every two feet until you reach midstream with your casts. As a beginner and for obvious reasons, I wouldn't wade out much farther than 10' from shore. You can catch a lot of trout between where you started casting to the near bank and where you can eventually reach with a 20' cast standing 10' from the bank. A common mistake I see with anglers is their assumption that the farther out they wade, the more fish they'll get into and yet the opposite is true most of the time. Where they are standing or close to it is where the fish were holding.
Presentation, meaning how your fly lands on the water and presented to the fish, is probably more important than what fly you have on the end of your line and how well your cast looks in the air. If you put yourself in the trout's perspective below the surface and imagine watching an artificial fly landing on the water, if it crashes into the surface film and makes a big splash, this doesn't look natural. In fact, wild trout will stop feeding when they see this and might even take cover under a rock or submerged tree. Present your fly softly on the water in a natural manner so that it acts as if it was there all the time and the trout simply looks up and notices it in its window of visibility. If you can't do this as a matter of routine, practice your presentation at home in the yard or a nearby park or pond. By approaching the water in this manner, slowly and methodically, you'll improve your chances of catching trout dramatically. One thing to remember about all this, in fly fishing there is a certain amount of luck even with beginners, but when you spook your quarry by wading noisily or a sloppy presentation, you take luck completely out of the equation.
Step 5. When to Stop Casting and Reconsider
I have a brother who I grew up fishing with. Ever since I can remember, he would get into a good looking pool or run and if he was confident that there were fish in there, you couldn't budge him with six well-trained draft horses. He still makes me crazy doing this, but I've resigned myself to the fact that this is what he likes to do, whether he's catching fish or not. I like to move through a pool or run, fishing as well and methodically as I can, and then giving it up for other anglers or back to the fish gods. There comes a point when you'll have to make that decision, either fish like my brother, or move on. If you're catching fish and the fish are still feeding, why move? But if both of these factors aren't present, move on to new water. There may not be any fish in this stretch, someone may have recently fished this water, or you may have spooked them to the point of no return and they won't be back for the rest of the morning, afternoon or evening. You can waste a lot of valuable fishing time by staying in the same spot too long when you could be in another stretch fishing to trout that haven't seen a fly all day yet. Your odds are better casting to “fresh” fish. In a good stretch of water that I know holds trout and a few large ones, I'll fish for at least an hour. I'll take my time, observing and patiently covering the water and changing flies until either I start catching fish or submit to defeat which is something you'll have to get used to in fly fishing.
As I move on and assuming I don't see rising fish, I'll “fish the water” meaning I read the water and try to figure out where the trout are holding and then cast to these spots. This is called “prospecting”, a term I picked up years ago fishing in New Zealand with Simon Dickie who is part owner of Poronui Ranch on the North Island. Prospecting is fishing exactly the way it sounds, finding likely spots and moving through the water picking up a fish here and there. When I fish this way, unless I see a fish or a rise or know one is there from experience, I'll never cast in the same spot more than once. This is important, and the reason I “prospect” this way is because again, you can waste a lot of time casting to places where there may not be any fish. If you don't see any action, keep your fly moving to different spots on the water until you find something. Always cover the water in two-foot increments though, as we discussed before and try to be patient. This is not a sport that rewards speed or being in a hurry. I always pick an exact spot where I want the fly to land, and by doing this, you'll become a better and more accurate caster after each day on the trout stream.
Step 6. The Moment of Truth
For whatever reason, either due to your newly acquired skills, a fish feeding frenzy, blind luck or a combination of all these, you finally have a fish on the end of your line for the first time in your fly fishing career. If you are with a friend, spouse or guide, they might ask themselves who caught who in all your joy and excitement as you quietly say a quick prayer that this fish won't get away. The most common mistake beginners make when they hook a trout large enough to pull back and break off is by not giving them line. A trout will expend most of his raw power and strength in the first five seconds after he's been hooked. By not giving him line and “locking up on him”, he'll either throw the hook or break the leader and swim away like it never happened. In my fly fishing instruction, I give to novices before they leave my lodge at Big Hole River Outfitters on their first day, I run through some drills and one of them is how to play a fish. I act the part of the fish and let them “hook” me, and then I'll make my run. Almost every novice will hold the line and try not to let me run. This is where most of the fish are lost out on the stream and here is where you must instantly allow the fly line to slip through your fingers and let the trout make his run. I always say the “fun is in the water” and this is one aspect of the sport that is different than spin fishing. After the initial hook up, fly fishers allow the fish to take line and tire themselves out, and this is fun to be a part of, if not exhilarating. Once the fish stops though, don't let him rest, in fact quickly reel in the line, knowing full well that the fish will soon catch his breath and make another run. This is the second most common instance when a beginner loses his fish, by continuing to reel the supposedly played out fish when in fact the fish has recovered and is making another run. Most fish of this size and age class that can pull the fly line out of your reel and make these exciting runs will tire out after the second or third run. Then it's just a matter of reeling him up and gently putting him in the net. I never use barbed hooks and you shouldn't either since they injure trout and make it difficult to release them. Assuming you are fishing barbless hooks, gently turn the trout upside down so that he calms down, and then back the hook out of his mouth. Revive the trout by gently holding him facing upstream in a slow current until he has the strength to swim away of his own will. A rule of thumb is to revive a trout as long as you played him. Most will swim away before that, but especially if it's a hot day and the water is warm, it may take longer. They are our friends and beautiful creatures at that so take care of them and make sure they are ready to be released before you walk away.
Step 7. What is a Successful Day on the Trout Stream
Now that you have tasted the wine, and know in your heart that fly fishing is something that you'd like to pursue with a passion, you have to ask yourself, what is a successful day for me on the stream? For many, it's numbers of fish and that's understandable or large fish, which is equally understandable. But there is so much more to this sport than either of these worthy goals. In the sport of fly fishing, there is more to fishing than catching a lot of fish or even a few big fish. Fly fishing is feeling the cast, the weightlessness of the fly, the rhythm of casting as the fly extends effortlessly through the air to a spot you just know must hold a trout. You feel the rod bend and release, giving and taking, in harmony with your own body and spirit, flowing like the very same river pushing against your legs. Sometimes your artificial fly pattern looks so much like the natural floating down the current that it's impossible to tell the difference. Maybe you learned how to tie this pattern, which makes things even better. The day is pure, not a cloud in sight, and an eagle soars above in the thermals that have collected in the heat of the day. You hear the rush of sparkling water and feel the wind in your face, notice the colors of the blue sky, crystal clear water, green trees overhanging the bank and the brown mountainsides that all mute into one vast color and sound. Now that you understand why you are on the stream, and you are a fly fisher your first day out, be sure to give as much back or more to your sport as you take from it and respect the river and the rights of landowners along the stream or river.