when it isn't working
How To Fly Fish

When it Isn’t Working

We’ve done our research, come to the stream, looked about, maybe looked at some streambed stones, tied on our fly(s), and waded in. But after 20-30 minutes, it’s clear that our first choice isn’t working. It happens to us all the time, and we begin making adjustments. I think the first decision or adjustment is the most important one we make, and that it divides anglers into one of two groups.

The Fly Changers

I think of the first group as the “Fly Changers”. They are convinced that if the right fly is offered, the trout will respond. Consequently, their tendency is to remain in the run they selected, and continue with their first strategy, whether wet or dry. They try fly after fly after fly. Each change of flies takes time, and consumes a great portion of their day. More importantly, it reduces the amount of time a fly is on or in the water, i.e., the time actually spent fishing. Their focus on fly selection is so complete, that other possible changes rarely seem to enter their minds.

It’s Not Just the Fly

I don’t have a good name for the second group of anglers, but perhaps the old phrase “contemplative” describes them. This is the group in which I reside. Rather than simply changing my fly, I contemplate all the other variables involved. I first focus on my presentation of the fly. This begins with where I am positioned in the stream. Does my position facilitate casting to a rising fish or selected lie? Can I wade closer or get a better angle? Is my body or rod casting shadows over the water surface?

Next I make certain that my cast is placing the fly EXACTLY where I want it. When fishing a dry fly, I study the drift; is it truly drag-free and drifting just like the naturals? If not, I change my position and/or use a slack line cast to eliminate the drag. Or perhaps a longer tippet is needed to make my approach more stealthy. When fishing subsurface, is my fly staying in the seam, and drifting naturally? If not, I change my position to gain the necessary rod/line control to lead my fly along the seam, keeping it in the target zone.

Now It’s the Fly(s)

I’ve run through my first checklist and made some adjustments, but nothing is yet happening. Now it’s time to consider my choice of flies. But I don’t simply consider the size and color of my fly. Rather, I contemplate a change of strategy. I restudy the water, and look for clues of what bug-stage the trout might be feeding on. If I can’t appreciate a hatch, but trout are rising at least sporadically, perhaps it is cripples or left-over spinners bringing them to the surface. Or have I misread the riseforms (no snouts or bubbles visible), and they are actually caused by  trout feeding just below the surface on emergers. If no fish are rising or bulging, then perhaps I should be fishing the subsurface, with nymphs, soft hackles or streamers.

when it isn't working
flies for different strategies: L>R, nymph, soft hacker, emerger, dun, spinner. streamer below.

Based on my observations, I change my fly(s) in order to change my strategy. If this adjustment does not begin to put fish into my net, then it is time to leave my first choice of water, even if it is a prime spot. Perhaps an unobserved angler preceded me today, or the fish were pounded yesterday. In either event, they have either left this section  of water, are not in a feeding mood, or I have spooked them. Working a piece of water efficiently, I rarely spend more than twenty to thirty minutes fishing unproductive water, even if it looks really “fishy”.

Where Are They?

Instead of further flailing with changes of flies, I move either up or down a stream, and contemplate where the fish might be. If not in a prime lie, are they hiding under the bank or in log-jams? Perhaps in riffles or deep pockets?

As I move elsewhere in the stream, I study the water conditions, and try to determine  where the fish may have gone and why. If the water temperature is in the upper 60’s, they likely moved into deep, cooler pools. Or perhaps into riffles, where the oxygen level is higher. In contrast, if the water temperature is low, in the 30’s or 40’s,  they likely moved to water warmed by springs or sun. If the water is crystal clear,  and the sun is overhead, they most likely moved to more protective, shaded lies .

when it isn't working
promising water on a sunny day

In contrast, silty or colored water pushes them to the clearer margins of the stream. Perhaps they moved to holding lies to avoid predators like me. Each of these conditions is fished with a different strategy, and responding to the present conditions is often the key to finding willing fish.

Putting it Together

So when it isn’t working, don’t just change flies. Make some educated decisions, change strategies and types of flies; cover different sections of the stream. And of course, bring your “A-game”. Wild trout behavior is wired for survival, and understanding their behavior under the conditions present at the moment is usually the key to putting some fish into the net!

when it isn't working
a fish in the net- from Frank Sawyer’s “Keeper of the Stream”

other helpful blogs-

written by Al Simpson, April, 2022.


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