I’m lucky enough to have started fly fishing when I was barely six years old. My dad grew up fly fishing, and up until a few years ago, was on the water as much as possible. That meant we often made stops by the river on our way to or from the grocery store. Sometimes, we skipped the store entirely.
I didn’t really fly fish with gusto, though, until high school. Not long after getting my driver’s license, my buddies and I started routinely skipping class to go fishing. I guess the penchant to ditch responsibility and fish runs in the family.
While I probably knew more about fly fishing when I started out than most folks – solely by virtue of my upbringing, not by any effort on my own part – there’s still plenty I wish I’d known. The learning curve in fly fishing is steep, and there’s no real way to cheat it. You can, however, make it more successful.
That’s the goal of this piece – to share a bit of what I’ve learned over the years I’ve spent both fishing and guiding.
1. You won’t ever know everything
A misconception about fishing in general is that a set amount of knowledge exists; once you learn it all, you’ll be an expert angler. That’s just not true, whether we’re talking conventional or fly fishing.
As a young angler, though, I was certain I just needed to read a few more of my dad’s fly fishing books, and spend more time on the water, and I’d know all I needed. While I suppose that may be true from a technical standpoint, there’s so much about fishing that’s hard to teach – let alone write. It’s impossible to learn everything about fishing.
As you start your own fly fishing journey, don’t get discouraged if you feel like there’s still so much more you have to learn. Even as a guide, I often run into situations where I learn something new. That’s part of the sport, and part of the appeal, I think, that fly fishing holds for all of us.
2. Casting is about you, not the rod
I was lucky to borrow my dad’s fly rods when I started fly fishing in earnest. He had a nice collection of really solid sticks, but in my ignorance, I blamed my lack of casting prowess on the rods instead of my own skills.
Fly casting is as much an art as it is a science. Those who do it well make it look easy. For the rest of us, we’re stuck trying our hardest to imitate what we see and hope for the best. While I don’t profess to be some champion caster, these days I’m usually able to put flies where I want them. To me, that’s the definition of being a competent caster.
I didn’t gain those skills overnight, however. Cut yourself some slack, have fun, and practice casting as often as you can.
3. It’s not the fly, it’s you
I often fall victim to this problem, even though I know better. It’s easy to assume that, when fish aren’t eating your flies, the flies are to blame.
Most often, though, it’s how you’re presenting those flies. Before you switch flies, first focus on getting the most perfect presentation you can. Attain a drag-free drift, get the flies in the strike zone, and repeat that. If you see fish actually refuse your fly, then it’s time to change. Otherwise, assume there’s still something you can do to improve your presentation.
4. Drag matters
Whether you’re fishing dries or nymphs, your flies can’t have any drag. Drag doesn’t look natural, and few – if any – fish will eat a fly that doesn’t look normal. I think that, more than anything else, spending your time learning how to reduce drag and improve a fly’s drift will help you catch fish. You can afford to be less accurate with your cast if your drifts are drag-free.
5. Don’t worry about the gear
As a self-proclaimed gear junkie and current gear reviewer, I’ve had my hands on more fly fishing gear than I can recall. From high-end rods to new lines, packs, and waders, I’m lucky enough to get to see most of fly fishing’s latest and greatest gear.
While that gear is amazing, little of it is necessary for new anglers to learn the sport. A great rod makes fly fishing simpler, or easier, in some respects. Most new anglers, however, don’t know enough to understand just what a high-end rod does better than the budget-friendly ones.
And honestly, I still fish with rods I bought years ago when I was just starting out in fly fishing. I still hand $150 rods to clients to use for the day, for both veterans and newcomers alike. It’s not that the gear doesn’t matter, because it does. Rather, it’s that gear is secondary to the task of catching fish. If you’re always worried that your rod isn’t right, or the reel is too heavy, or your waders are too shiny and are thus scaring the fish – stop. Don’t worry about your gear. Just fish it, and fish it well.
6. Eat one bite at a time
The old saying, about the best way to eat an elephant being one bite at a time, is especially true for fly fishing. I grew up in a family that only fished dry flies. I’m not sure I even knew what a nymph was until my early teens. If it wasn’t caught on dries, it wasn’t a real fish, according to my grandpa.
So, when I started fly fishing in earnest and heard about streamers, nymphs, wet flies, and those odd emergers, I wasn’t sure where to start. I tried to learn it all at once, which is like eating an elephant in one bite.
I’d suggest picking one or two skills to hone, and working on those until you’re confident. Many of the same lessons you learn in perfecting a dry fly drift, for example, carry over to nymphing. Some of the same ways you move streamers through the water column can be deadly if you apply those techniques to nymphs. Each niche of fly fishing directly influences another, and you’ll discover the subtle connections as you perfect each one.
7. Hero shots don’t matter as much as the fish
For a while, it felt like the most important thing in fly fishing – for me, at least – was a picture of me holding a fish. If I didn’t have pictures, how could I prove that I’d gone? Or that I was successful?
I know I inadvertently killed dozens of trout while trying to pose with them for pictures. I’m not proud of that fact, and that’s not borne from some sort of holier-than-thou catch-and-release mentality. The reality is that our fisheries largely can’t handle improper catch-and-release. Mortality rates skyrocket, fish populations plummet, and the quality of the fishery decreases with every handful of anglers who kill their own handful of trout on any given weekend.
Great fish pictures are fantastic. The best ones feature the fish prominently, and the angler very little. Keep the fish wet, let them go as soon as possible, and don’t try to take a picture of everything that comes to the net.
8. Use a net
Speaking of – make sure you use a net as much as possible. It’s easy to just assume you’ll be able to horse a fish in whenever you need, but that’s rarely the case. Using a net to land fish decreases stress on the fish, ensuring higher fish survival after release. Whether you’re fishing for carp or trout, you need a net.
9. Learn how to play fish
For some reason, I have a handful of videos of myself fly fishing early on. While just about everything in the videos makes me cringe, what really gets me is how terrible I am at playing fish. While fly fishing is often seen as this delicate sport, modern fly rods are exceptionally powerful, yet they’re protective of the light lines us fly anglers use. That means you can put more pressure on a fish than you think when trying to land them.
Playing fish on a fly rod is something you’ll only get better at with time, but learning to do it the right way certainly helps. Learn to leverage rod angles, current, and the fish itself to your advantage, so you can quickly get fish in the net.
10. Have fun
Finally, don’t worry about whether your cast is picture-perfect, or if the angler downstream from you thinks you’re doing it wrong. Fly fishing is, at its core, tons of fun. Don’t forget that.
Hopefully something on this list helps you enjoy the beginning stages of fly fishing a bit more. I often wish I could go back to being that wide-eyed kid who looked at every fish with amazement, because it’s truly a special time.
Great list, especially #2. As a self-taught fly fisherman myself, approaching 30 years of experience, I probably can’t teach “proper” casting technique, but I can land a fly on-a-dime, drag-free, on a western river, or on a tight brushy bookie stream in PA. And I still use my entry-level, Orvis or St. Croix rods. Although, I did need to upgrade quality for my Alaska rainbow hunts!
Well written article. Total agree.
Sound advice; makes me reflect on my own experiences, deficiencies, and growth through the sport.
Its an amazing sport isn’t it! Thanks for the sharing Mark!
Love this list , especially number 10 we have the ability to take something we really enjoy and let it stress us out. Be passionate about getting better at whatever it is you do in fishing but enjoy the journey there as well.
Having just spent my first day in the river with a total catch of 2 trees and a bush I appreciate your thoughts. Bright side is I only have one way to go on this learning curve – I hope! Thanks!!