For many first-time anglers, the journey begins in a drift boat, on a big western stream. Captivated by their experience, I’m often asked what one can do to learn more about fly fishing. My short answer is, “Get out of the drift boat!”

A typical day for beginners in a drift boat consists mostly of dropping a nymph from an indicator. Rather than learning to cast, the rig is usually flipped forward and drifted back. I’m not disparaging guides for directing clients to do this, as guides are faced with a daunting task. Beginners come with little or no fly-fishing skills, yet due to the dollars spent for the day, they have high expectations. That is, they want to catch fish, and nymphing is the most reliable method to put some fish into the net.

For most beginning anglers, guides still remain one of the best, if not the best, source of learning. But rather than spending the day in a drift boat, clients should request that they spend considerable time out of the boat, wading. Another option is to hire a guide for a walk & wade day of fishing. Either of these options offers the opportunity to learn so much more than fishing from a drift boat.

Walk the Bank

Once out of the boat, everything slows down. The angler has time to observe and study the stream. I suggest to begin by walking the bank of a stream. The added height makes it easier to study a stream and offers a different perspective. How far? If possible, a quarter-mile or more. Look for the currents, and note how they carve undercut -banks, create islands and back-channels. Trout love the current-breaks these provide.

Currents creating islands and undercuts

Observe rapids, riffles and the soft or quiet spots they create, another favored hangout of trout.

Lochsa River, Idaho, with riffles, rocks and soft spots

Look for foam lines, which reveal where surface food, i.e. hatched bugs, float. Toss some leaves onto the water, and watch how they flow, and where they slow down or stop. Feeding trout typically come to where food collects, in the soft spots, and along seams and foam lines.

get out of the drift boat

Foam line along an undercut bank

Approach the Stream

The next step is to head for the water. As a stream is approached, first look for bugs in the streamside bushes. Give them a shake and see what’s on the trout’s menu.

get out of the drift boat

Caddis, disturbed from their streamside brush

Look for evidence of recently emerged aquatic insects. Exoskeletons, like the ones below, reveal the presence of stoneflies, indicators of a healthy stream.

fly fishing central Idaho

Stonefly exoskeletons on a streamside rock

Stoneflies live as nymphs for 2-3 years. Therefore, streams healthy enough to have them, always have nymphs present. Due to their multi-year lifespan, they are of various sizes. So if nymphing is in the offing, it’s hard to beat a stonefly nymph in such streams.

Next, turn over some rocks in the shallows. This is another good way to note the health of a stream. If overturned rocks reveal few or no nymphs, it is evidence that there isn’t much food to support a robust trout population. In contrast, a rock covered with nymphs, like the one with cased caddis below, reveals a huge biomass capable of supporting a good trout population.

cased caddis flies attached to a rock

Cased caddis on a streambed rock

One doesn’t need to be an entomologist to assess the size and color of any nymphs found. Seeing the invertebrate life of a stream helps determine which artificial flies, wet or dry, to tie onto the end of our leaders.

Fish a Run

Now it’s time to wade into the water. Feeling the fatiguing pressure of a current makes it quite obvious why fish prefer the slow or softer spots. Appreciating this helps reinforce the helpfulness of studying the water and locating the spots where fish hang out.

Once a promising piece of water is found, take a few moments to watch it. If the planets have aligned properly, fish will be seen feeding on the surface. Study where the bugs appear on the water surface. Some emerge in the current below riffles, while others appear only in slow, quiet water.

Different species of insects emerge differently.  Some bugs, mayflies, float awhile before taking flight, while others, caddis, blast out of the water into the air. Many emerging bugs get stuck in the film while trying to split their shuck and take to the air. Such characteristics lead to different feeding behaviors on the part of the trout. Successful anglers learn to select and present their flies to best imitate the hatched or crippled bugs that the trout are feeding upon.

Next, make a plan. Select a position for the all-important first cast, usually at or near the downstream end of a run. Envision a progression of positions moving upstream to cover the water or rising fish. Good positioning makes it possible to fish a run with short casts, which will be more accurate. The odds of hooking and landing a fish decrease as the length of a cast increases. As the saying goes, “never make a long cast instead of wading”.

Learn to Cast

Once out of the boat, one is forced to learn how to cast. Fortunately, most of us find learning to cast both interesting and pleasurable. After learning the basics of the casting motion (Fly Casting Basics), streams become the perfect classrooms. Whether it be wind, overhanging trees, stream structure or currents, fishing a stream forces one to learn how to cast and manage the line (Extending the Drift for Better Presentation).

I recall a blustery winter day years ago on Armstrong’s spring creek in Paradise Valley, Montana. I had paid my rod fee, and therefore had a choice- learn to double haul and cast into the wind, or call it quits. My personality doesn’t allow the latter, so I learned to double haul. On those rare fishless days, there is solace in perfecting our casts, and tucking our fly into a challenging spot.

So get out of the drift boat, and really learn how to fly fish. It’s a wonderful sport, with many rewards that can be pursued for a lifetime!

fly fishing central Idaho

a nice rainbow in the net of a wading fly fisher

written by Al Simpson, April, 2020.