“Cold Hard Truths” is a series by former Trouts Fly Fishing Guide, Reid Baker. In this series, Reid breaks down some commonly held misconceptions, myths and habits of anglers that some guides may not feel inclined to always point out to their guests. Reid is going to deliver the message in hopes that some honest insight can improve everyone’s results on the water. - Editor, Will Rice
I used to joke with clients that my high school dating career set me up well for my fly-fishing problem solving. I had to push through initial rejections or lack of results, and rethink strategies to avoid showing up to the dance empty armed. Though I’m sure most readers out there had better success dating than I did at 15, I am confident we’ve all been shut down by a fish or two through our days on the water. Whether a rising fish simply would not select your fly, or you were puzzled why a day was going so slow, many angler’s first inclination to negative results is usually, “It must be my fly.”
The cold hard truth of the matter is, while fly selection is obviously one key element, it is not the most important when compared to other key variables- namely water selection, angler positioning, and terminal tackle, which all culminate into the most important piece: presentation. So before rapid firing through your fly box or asking guides to change your fly, it is best to eliminate as many of these other key variables before moving on from what could be a completely workable pattern. Depending on our techniques of dries, nymphs or streamers here are some key elements your guide wishes to point out.
Given most anglers spend a significant amount of time fishing subsurface, water selection and depth are the two biggest variables more critical than fly selection.
If we are not sight fishing and able to necessarily see fish in a run, we need to identify the most likely water that they are holding in. Holding position within a river can be driven by a variety of factors ranging from food source density to water temperature. Even light levels and how secure the fish feels from overhead and underwater threats can dictate if trout seek out deeper safe water or shallow riffles that may be more food rich. All of these variables change throughout a day, and then they change throughout the season.
For that reason, be systematic about picking apart runs, riffles, or pockets if you find yourself searching for fish holding locations. When in doubt, start at walking pace current and break the run into a grid, starting in close and working your way out. Focus along seams or behind structures such as shelves or rock clusters that do not stall your drift. If these more likely locations do not yield results, move to a different end of the pace spectrum and adjust- faster riffles if you suspect fish are more active, or deeper or slower if you think the fish are seeking security or cover to maintain energy. The latter is usually the case when temperatures or light are significantly fluctuating or extreme.
There is an old trout guide saying that “the difference between a good nympher and a great nympher can be a single split shot”. Truer words cannot be spoken when fishing subsurface. I’ve said it before in other technique pieces, but depth is absolutely crucial and if you’re not ticking the bottom from time to time, consider adding additional weight, lengthening the leader or adjusting your indicator.
But guides want you to know: none of the above matters if you don’t achieve a dead drift, so before changing anything in water selection, depth, or fly pattern, be sure that you’ve achieved clean presentations in a given location when nymphing.
When fish are rising, or we are fishing attractor dries searching for willing risers, angler positioning and leader length and diameter are the key variables to consider before we alternate fly selection. Particularly if we see fish feeding on the surface, we have eliminated the water selection variable and hopefully even identify the natural food sources the fish are feeding on: i.e. caddis. But few sights are more maddening to an angler than watching a dry fly refusal. Multiple refusals can make you want to throw your rod into the nearby willows.
Before clipping off and throwing in the towel on a perfectly workable fly, exhaust every possible variation in positioning in order to ensure the cleanest drifts have been achieved. Especially in more technical rivers, microcurrents, or small variations in the surface layer of the water, can twist or manipulate your fly unnaturally as a fish rises up, blowing your cover.
Repositioning our stance relative to the rising fish can help. Moving slightly upstream, vs directly perpendicular to our target, and utilizing either a reach cast or well positioned mend, can usually help overcome drag through micro or macro currents.
Additionally, anglers tend to mis-judge drift distance needed in their presentation, typically erring on the side of too great a distance. A fish rising to a trico spinner, for example, is narrowly focused on an area the size of a teacup saucer as their feeding window. Leading that fish by 10-12’ drift only increases the likelihood of inducing drag or even missing the 4” radius when you truly needed it perfectly clean.
Tippet and leader length can also help. When in more technical settings, or after seeing several gut-wrenching refusals, a longer or more supple leader can help alleviate the impact of micro currents and present the fly stealthier. When fishing dries, many guides prefer monofilament vs fluorocarbon because it is less stiff and can help maintain a clean drift longer by wavering with the current rather than resisting.
Your guide wants me to re-iterate: the above is completely about how we ensure we have the perfect dead drift presentation but has nothing to do with the fly pattern. We hope you’re starting to catch on to the overarching theme here.
Unlike dries and nymphs, streamers are simulating swimming prey vs drifting food. For this reason, rather than focusing on a dead drift, we need to entice a predatory reflex by passing the fly close, but perhaps not too close, to our quarry.
This is achieved through ensuring we reach the fish in their location, and that we are retrieving the fly in variable paces, until we get positive feedback—whether strike or hookup. Too often, guides see their anglers retrieving at the same pace or retrieval length. This is limiting our presentation to elicit that attack. Some days fish like it presented slower, with long gliding pulls. Sometimes its short, quick bursts that almost jig the fly. Variety is key.
Additionally, ensuring that your rod tip stays low to the water and there are minimal curves, bows and slack in your line when starting your retrieve will ensure that you can feel connected with a fish right as they strike. Whether you can see the fish or not, if there is not a direct ability to strip set, they have a better chance to spit the hook. If too much slack is in the presentation, anglers might not even feel the take.
Ultimately, this all distills down to how we are presenting the fly to the fish.
Like a dweeby 15-year-old kid first thinking maybe it’s the clothes or hair holding him back, it’s easy to get sucked into tunnel vision on the most forward-facing variables as to why we are not successful. As anglers, the most forward-facing factor for us will always be the fly itself. But the cold hard truth of the matter is that how we are approaching likely water and presenting our flies to fish has far more value. At any given moment, there are likely a number of specific patterns that will work, even if they are simulating the same type of food source, which also is not usually exclusive even with picky trout. Ultimately, I encourage anglers to focus on how you are presenting vs. only what you are presenting.
Stay tuned for future installments of the “Cold Hard Truths” series from Reid Baker. Editor, Will Rice