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Fly Fishing 201: Next-Level Tips to Become a Better Angler

12 lessons that will help you elevate your fly-fishing game.

Fly Fishing 201: Next-Level Tips to Become a Better Angler

Successful fly-anglers take time to read new water and identify what items trout are feeding on before ever making a cast. (Shutterstock image)

If you've been fly-fishing for a couple of years, you've probably learned a few tricks along the way. But what if a little tweak, a tiny adjustment, a simple change could put one more trout in the net? I learned these lessons the hard way, over many years of trial and error, so you don't have to.

1. Made in the Shade

Sure, we can hide behind a bush or tree, stealthily snaking a cast to a wary rainbow until the trout moves. But instead of forcing yourself to cast around something, break up your profile by hanging in the shade or kneeling in front of a tree, boulder or shrub.

2. What About Eddy?

We all know river trout face upstream, into the current. But what about when "upstream" and "current" diverge, say, in a back eddy? Take a moment when you see an eddy and remember that fish are sucking up hapless insects riding the swirling current, even when it's counter to the stream’s downstream course. Cast. Mend. Strike.

3. Get Closer

How do you know if that guy downstream is a successful angler? If the knees of his waders are threadbare, he's getting closer to trout and ensuring a better drift when he casts. Long casts equal inaccuracy and are a breeding ground for drag. If the first 20 feet of your line show more wear than the next 20, you're probably catching more fish than anglers who take too much pride in their ability to lay out a lot of line.

4. Roll with the Wind

A breeze is both a nemesis and a friend. If you're limited to a roll cast due to obstructions behind you, having the wind at your back could help. Pay out a lot of slack line, then, when you "roll," end your cast higher so the breeze catches more line and your fly. Help it along with a punch mend, lifting more line off the water. For shorter casts, simply lift your line off the water and let it fly like a flag. Gently drop it where fish are hiding; no backcast required.

5. Find Staging Areas

Trout are like most elected officials, doing as little work as possible in pursuit of reward (in this case, a meal). Food usually floats to trout on the current. Being smarter than most politicians, trout hang in adjacent, slower flow rather than "jogging in place" directly downstream of the goodies. Current seams and drop-offs are popular staging areas. Other, more subtle versions include submerged rocks and logs where fish can rest in the slack water behind them, looking up or sideways for food. The upstream side of rocks and logs also have a small but significant padding of soft water. Friction slows water along stream banks, so make a few casts there, too.

6. Take a Moment

When fishing new water, instead of blithely strolling from truck to bank to riffle and settling waist-deep in a fishy-looking pool, pause to assess the surroundings. Take a moment to look at the available cover. Look for rises. Pick up a couple of rocks and look for nymphs. Plan your approach for maximum stealth. Then go fishing.

Fly Fishing Flies
If you think you've chosen the right pattern but aren't getting strikes, switch to a smaller version of the same fly. (Photo by Scott Linden)

7. Removing the Skunk

Not catching fish? Consider this flow chart: smaller-lighter-longer-deeper. If you believe in your chosen fly and aren't catching fish, use a smaller size and/or opt for a lighter tippet. Still skunked? Extend the length of your tippet—it'll be less "draggy." When all else fails on top, tie on a subsurface fly. Add tippet or weight and start bouncing the bottom. If none of those work, it's probably happy hour somewhere.

8. Puddle the Leader

It may seem counterintuitive, but slack line is often the ticket to hooking finicky trout since it minimizes drag and gives you more of a dead drift. One way to get a nice, neat puddle of leader is to simply move so you're more directly downstream of the trout. Casting from that position, the current will help push the fly into the leader, creating more slack instead of taking it out.




9. Learn to Pivot

What to do when the bank is covered with fly-grabbing obstructions and rising trout are too far for a roll cast? Turn so you can make your false cast parallel to the stream bank, then pivot to the fish as you launch your money cast.

10. Achieve Balance

Many beginners compensate for a wimpy backcast by punching their forward cast like it was their little brother's arm. That can lead to a "crack" and lost fly behind, or a bull-in-a-china-shop splash of fly line on the water in front. Instead, work on equal energy applied to both the backcast and forward cast for a nice, straight line that floats gracefully to the water.

11. Zero in on Risers

To catch a rising river trout, you have to mark it first, but that can be harder than it sounds. We fixate on the rise ring, which is drifting downstream. As a bird hunter, I've learned to use fixed landmarks to retrieve the few birds I actually hit. It works on the stream, too. See the rise, then look to the bank for a recognizable feature. Make your next cast based on a known location, not a wild guess. Keep in mind that many rises come at the end of a long, backward drift by the trout, so cast a few feet upstream of your landmark.

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12. Avoid Distraction

In skiing and mountain biking, you look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid crashing into. In fly angling, focus on where you want your fly to go. Don't let streamside distractions take your mind off your mission. You know where your cast should go. Make it so.

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