Fly Fishing – What Works?

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

There are countless books published on fly fishing that cover every aspect of the sport. Many writers have produced books of instruction to show us how to cast, the knots to use, the flies that might work best, numerous books on how to tie flies, and how to play the fish once it is hooked. Every one of those books can contribute to your knowledge and make you a better fishermen or fly tier. Once you have read a couple dozen of those books and put into practice what you’ve learned for several years on your favorite trout waters or fly tying bench, you will be a better fly fisherman and, or fly tier.

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Some approach fly fishing like a scientist. They take pleasure in studying the various types of terrestrial and aquatic insects, their different stages of development, the time of the year and conditions for hatching, and the specific habitat and behavior of the particular species of interest. All those details are complex requiring tenacious study and field work, and this type of fly fisherman usually enjoys more than average success in catching fish. One simple example of this type of fisherman’s knowledge is they know that stonefly nymphs cannot swim. Stonefly nymphs spend most of their time on rocky bottoms where they use their claws to attach themselves to rocks and other debris to prevent being washed away by the water current. This knowledge means you have a choice. You could use a heavily weighted example of a stonefly and fish it on the bottom, or use an unweighted, or very lightly weighted stonefly nymph that represents a stonefly nymph that has been ejected by the stream/or river current. That option also means less chance your fly will snag up on the bottom somewhere.

Others might not be interested in devoting that much time and effort to catch a few trout. They will select a fly, or series of flies, from their fly box that looks good to them or somewhat resembles the insects they see on the water they are fishing at the moment. They too, will likely have some success in catching fish.

Whether you take the scientific approach or the “Gee, this looks like it will work” method of fly fishing there are two skills that will make either one of those anglers more successful than all the other fly fishermen who have not perfected the following skills and techniques.

Well, what works best? The fisherman reaping the most rewards from either type of fly fishing technique will be one who can read the water. By that, I mean the one fisherman who knows from experience where fish are likely to be hiding or feeding in a stream or river. That is one of the most effective skills you should strive to master. Everyone knows there are likely to be fish in the deeper holes of the water, but some bragging fish you will talk about for years also lurk behind and in front of obstacles in the water. Fish rest in undercut banks or under piles of brush or fallen trees in the stream.  Most folks will not attempt a cast to get under a stream borne brush pile…that is, unless they are a knowledgeable fly fishermen who are also fly tiers and who don’t mind losing a fly once in a while. Fish also hang out in or below shallow riffles in water that most folks would think there is not enough water for them. Or, sometimes within raging rapids as they expend a lot of tail waiving energy in wait to pick off numerous aquatic nymphs dislodged from the stream bed.

It helps to know the type of aquatic insects you expect to find in a rocky stream with lots of small pebbles interspersed with larger rocks or a stream where the bottom is mostly sand or silt and decaying foliage. For example, stonefly nymphs survive best in rapid moving, oxygenated water within rocky bottom streams, caddis and mayfly nymphs may be more prevalent in less rocky habitats, but they can be found in both silt and rocky stream bottoms.

The next most important point that gives you an advantage over other fly fishermen is that you are able to place your fly, whether it is a nymph, wet fly or dry fly, in the zone that is the position and depth of where you suspect there are fish. That requires fly line and leader management to have your nymph or wet fly pass through that zone at the right depth. If it is a dry fly, you must master the ability to mend the line so the fly passes over the area suspected of holding fish with no drag, or as little drag on the line that you can control. Little flying insects don’t leave a big wake on the water when they float by. The exception here is the grasshopper or fluttering caddis flies. Minimize the drag wake, but twitch both of those flies to arouse the predatory instinct of trout.

If you are fishing with an exact imitation of the nymphs under the water or dry fly hatching in front of you, you will still hook trout regardless of your ability to place your cast well, or whether or not your fly passes through the proper zone of holding fish, and even if your line is dragging heavily. Learn the habitats that support stoneflies, caddis and mayflies. Master the ability to read the water and to present your fly at the correct depth, or with no drag if using a dry fly, and you will hook more fish than someone who has not paid attention to those considerations and fly fishing skills.

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