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There is No Substitute for Getting Out There

Want to become a better angler? There really is no substitute for doing it and learning from your successes and probably more importantly, your failures. Yes, nobody wants to hear that, I get it. But there is no magic fly. There are no magic streams. Like anything in life, you get better at something the more you do it. There really is no substitute for getting out there and going fishing. You can read all the books you want. Purchase and follow all the magazines you want. Talk to all the guides and experienced anglers you can. Watch all the videos you want. They all help but there is really no substitute for time on the water and making sense of what you are experiencing. There really are no short cuts.

Maybe just as importantly, there is no stream or fly that is going to magically make you a better angler. Sure, there are certainly things you can do like fishing flies more in-tune with where you are fishing and fishing places at the right time. Of course, much of learning that simply comes from experience. I mostly fish the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and pretty much all the streams have plenty of fish. My not such great days of catching are very rarely because there were not enough fish seeing my fly. There are days where fish are tight-lipped and generally uninterested in pretty much any offering. Those days happen and are an important part of learning. If you can figure out how to scratch out a few fish during the really slow times, it goes a long ways to becoming a better and more consistent angler. Or maybe better yet, you can figure out how to avoid the times that fishes are likely to be "off the feed".

What made me think of creating this post? Listening to a podcast by Blue Line Co. (linked's a bit PG-13) is what got me thinking.

Here is where I will get real curmudgeonly, I suppose, but I tire of some of the stuff I see online. I say this as a person never much known for his patience but we have lost our collective patience. Our willingness to try and fail - but learn from it - is mostly gone. We want success and we want it NOW! Success without the effort of earning it. Instant gratification - tell me where to fish and how to fish so I can post a bunch of photos on social media showing everyone what a great fisherman I am. OK, maybe that is a bit of a caricature of the issue but there are some truths in my rant. But what many don't understand is that me telling you where to fish is NOT going to help you catch fish. Seriously, fish the Driftless - there are a TON of trout - THOUSANDS per mile on many streams. If you are fishing a rather decently known trout stream and not catching fish, it is NOT that there are not fish there.

Me telling you what fly to tie on most likely to help you all that much either. For the Drifless, I will give you my deadly 13 flies and tell you that in January through March, my one fly is the Milwaukee leech. In April through June, I am fishing a CDC and Elk or a hippie stomper and a small dropper most of the time. And later in the season, it is terrestrial time and the hopper, cricket, and beetles (or hippie stompers) are my fly choices. Fly choice should not why you are not catching fish either.

Like with anything, there is a learning curve. For fly fishing, the curve is pretty steep and there are a lot of moving parts. Hell, I have been fly fishing pretty seriously for about 30 years and I would be the first to tell you I still often struggle with line management and get a few tippet and leader messes where it is simply easier to cut bait and put on a new tippet or a whole new leader. Anyone that tells you they don't make a mess of it once in a while is almost certainly full of shit. It happens to us all but it happens less with time and experience.

Me in urgent care...ugh
It took me 30 years but I finally earned myself a trip to urgent care to remove a fly. (Smash those barbs...)

While being snarky is rather fun, I would rather be constructive so here is my hopefully non-feeble attempt at that. What can you do to shorten that learning curve?

  1. Understand that there are no quick ways to get better. There are no magic flies or magic streams that when you enter them, the fish magically end up on the end of your line. Nobody - no matter what they say - was born a great fly angler. If you want to get better, you need to work at it the same as anything else. Like so many things in life - sports, music, education - any skill worth learning is going to require effort and experience.

  2. Be observant and learn from your mistakes. We learn more from our mistakes - or at least we should. If you are unwilling to make mistakes, you probably will not learn much. Figure out why they are not hitting your dry fly when there are rising fish all around you. Are the fish really hitting surface flies or are they eating insects just below the surface? is your fly drifting without drag? Are they eating insects that are moving? If so, how can you get your fly to do something similar to what they are eating? Trial and error can get you there.

  3. Take one challenge at a time. When I started to fly fish, I mostly indicator nymph fished and slowly I got pretty good at it. I figured out how to read the stream and the indicator's movements. I got to where I was pretty confident that I could catch fish on a nymph just about anywhere.

  4. Stop casting and watch. Be observant and think about what you are seeing. Where are the trout holding? Can you see them feeding on nymphs on the bottom or are they tight-lipped? How are the fish rising? This can be a clue what they are feeding on.

  5. Fish broken water. Fish are easier to approach and more likely to be feeding in heavier currents and broken (riffle and runs) water. It is basically the whole idea behind "Euro nymphing". Fish in faster water have less time to decide and react to food moving past them thus they are generally easier to catch. Sure it is hard to walk past all those trout in the slow water but until you build some skills, they are going to cause you a lot of frustration.

  6. Be open to new ideas and learn from others. Talk to others, fish with others, and be open to what they say. Fishing spots are overrated in my opinion. Fishing with others and observing what they do is underrated. Watch and ask questions. I am still learning a lot from fishing with others.

  7. Pick the right times to fish. There is an old axiom in trout fishing, fish when it is most comfortable for the fish. This means in the winter, the sweet spot is when the day warms up but before the snow melt starts affecting the stream. By the end of May or early June, it often means fishing early or late and skipping the mid-day. For terrestrials, a little wind is helpful. Bright, sunny days can be really tough and overcast days often allow you to approach the fish more closely. These are all things you learn from observing.

  8. Hire a good guide. Yeah, this is a piece of advice that I generally do not love because not everyone can afford it, but done correctly, little else can help you learn as quickly. Look for a guide with some experience and one that is going to be honest with you. And you need to be honest with them. Good guides will ask about your experience and what you are hoping to get out of the day. Be honest with them and they will help you with skills you would like to improve.

  9. Ask good questions. To your guide, your friends, and online - ask good questions that are likely to teach you something meaningful. Don't ask where to fish but HOW to fish. That will teach you one hell of a lot more and make you more successful over time. You can only go back to the well so many times. Most certainly do not expect anyone to give up off the beaten path fishing spots online.

  10. Use the resources available to you. Yes, there are no magic streams but there is no question that "dumb" fish help the learning process. I remember when I was learning there were a lot more dumb (aka hatchery) fish. Back then, the Blue River was stocked pretty heavily and I learned to catch fish in the Blue before I was competent in catching fish on the unstocked or at least less stocking dependent streams to the west. Today, it is harder to find stocked fish - other than "wild stocked" Brook Trout - but there are certainly some streams that are less fished than others. Find streams with good Brook Trout numbers - they will help your confidence.

Nothing is going to make you a better angler other than getting out and doing it and learning what what you do right and what you do wrong. As a beginning fly angler, you really need ways to gain some confidence and experience.


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C’mon Jason. You write like a scientist, and stream trout fly fishing is poetry and it is magic.

Of course there are magic flies. My magic brook trout fly for certain streams on the North Shore took only four years to develop, fishing ~80 days each season, changing each material and each color one at time, testing the flies on the wild trout, keeping the best changes and discarding the others, until I had a fly that worked all season long on my brook trout streams. I moved, and the magic was broken in the Driftless, but after some years I came up with the Red Horse Fly, another magic fly, a wingless wet with a body of mane hair…

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