Learn how to read the water… A basic understanding of how fish utilise river’s ability to channel food will allow you to know WHERE a fish is likely to be found. In general, the biggest or most aggressive fish are positioned first in the feeding slots;
- Immediately below where two seams of water join is a prime spot
- Either side of the fastest water uses less energy but allows a fish to see any beetles floating through the fast water
- Or deep on the bottom, tucked behind a big stone and out of the fastest current, picking off drifting aquatic nymphs
- Under the foam lines, which is where most terrestrial insects are concentrated as they drift downstream
The best anglers (the 10% who catch 90% of the fish) are also the best prepared, mentally and physically. They cast well… e.g. are fast, accurate and efficient, and have learned a broad range of casting techniques to cope with river-side demands.
The best anglers have studied – they know what to expect, and what to do…
Treat each fish you spot as an individual problem to be solved
We have fewer fish per mile of water. E.g. some of our top “big fish” waters may have only 40 fish per mile. You will not spot them all, and for those that you do see first, you really need to give your very best efforts. Here are some examples;
On a freestone river, if you spot a trout is in 2-4 feet of water, chances are good that it will express interest in a big dry fly. Use a 9ft 2X or 3X leader, plus 4-6 ft of 3x tippet connected to a big dry fly (#10/12 red Humpy, Royal Wulff, orange Stimulator) with a nymph (#14/16 Hare & Copper bead-head, or Pheasant Tail) on a 2-3 ft dropper tied off the hook-bend of the dry… This doubles your chances, because if he moves for the dry but rejects it, he will likely take the nymph!
Same river, 6-8 ft down on the bottom. Use a 9ft 2X or 3X leader, plus 4-6 ft of 3x tippet connected to a big nymph e.g. #12 Hare’s Ear bead-head, with a Coloburiscus or Stonefly nymph on a 1ft 6in dropper tied off the hook-bend of the upper nymph… Place a strike indicator, buoyant enough to support both nymphs, about 3ft from the top of the leader. Again, this doubles your chances…
On every fish, consider the depth he is feeding at, and how best to get the fly into the “feeding zone.” Do not hesitate to chop off the rig you’ve got set up, and rebuild it to suit the circumstances. Tippet material is cheap!!! We don’t usually need to use fluorocarbon unless you are on a spring creek in midsummer – lengthening the leader is a better option, as what disturbs the fish is the noise of the line landing on the water, not the thickness of the tippet.
Be Flexible – and prepared to change tactics completely
All fish are not created equal. Too many anglers learn to do things one way only e.g. they only fish a dry fly on streams, or only fish streamers on lakes. The successful angler masters a range of techniques and is quick to reconfigure tackle and methods when the favoured tactics don’t work.
Dry fly and a nymph on a dropper is the tool of choice for most of the summer – using 2 flies doubles your chances!
Early in the season, fish tend to be deeper, feeding on nymphs – give them a choice, because you might not know what’s happening today on the river bottom. Is it a caddis day, or a mayfly day? Put a dollar each way with two different nymphs.
Streamers represent a big piece of protein, and when fish will take nothing else, or are feeding selectively, a big juicy streamer fly (olive Woolly Bugger, Madonna, Butt Monkey, Rattlesnake etc) may well gain their attention when all else fails. I often fish a cone-head Woolly Bugger through the bigger pools on the way back downstream to the truck. The old-fashioned “down and across” method usually gets me another fish or three…
When the “usual” method is not delivering results, experiment with different techniques. Buy a sinking line and swing a streamer fly through the bottom of the pools at mid-day in mid-summer. You might be surprised…
Managing Big Fish
Fish of 5lbs or more are powerful adversaries, especially in big fast mountain water. A lot of effort, time and expense goes into placing yourself in a position to hook up to one of those beauties, so it makes no sense at all to handicap yourself by using wimpy terminal tackle….
Large arbour reels make good sense! If you don’t own one, you really do need one. Line comes off faster than on a small arbour reel, and this is important during that first blistering run away from you. Line goes back on quicker, this is important when it runs back at you! There is a significant reduction in “memory” coils on the fly line. Get one with sealed drag, so that it continues to work well after a dunking!
Check your drag is not too tight – to get it “just right,” try holding the fly line firmly between your lips close the reel, and adjusting the drag up until you can only just pull line off.
When hooked up to a big fish, keep the rod tip high to reduce the amount of line in the water. With excess line in the water, a rapidly accelerating big fish can sometimes generate enough tension against the line to break the tippet, regardless of drag setting.
Don’t adjust the drag tighter when playing a fish – instead, tip your rod back further and “show him the butt” to increase the pressure. If he runs hard, you can allow the rod tip to pull forward, thus quickly decreasing the pressure.
Use heavier leader and tippet in “big fish” water. Some folks might disagree with this statement, but in my experience those big fish are unlikely to be scared off by 3x or 4x tippet attached to a big old cicada. I’d only use 5x when the eye of the hook is too small to pass 4x through it….
Don’t spend too much time in one place
Or too much time on one fish… It’s certainly worth spending a few minutes running a couple of fly changes through the “feeding zone” for a visible fish, especially if its obviously feeding. However, the law of diminishing return kicks in after 15 minutes… Displaying the entire contents of your fly boxes is counter-productive! Accept that some fish will just not be caught. Get over it, move on! Keep moving, looking for the fish that are actively feeding, because those will always be the easiest to catch.
Check out channels out of the main stream on bigger rivers – they will often hold most of the fish, usually in knee-deep water. On a braided river, channels often represent a stable section which has had water flow for 2-3 years, ensuring a good concentration of food.
Fish the edges…. big brown trout LIKE shallow edge water. The edge of light and dark, the edge of deep and shallow, the edge of fast and slow.
Look for and concentrate on sections of the river or stream which offer the basic requirements of food and shelter – on many of our streams, no pool means no fish!!!
Don’t Ignore Equipment Faults
If there is a knot in the leader, tippet or dropper… change it immediately! The “fish of the day” will bust you off easily enough, without knowingly operating on a handicap! That could only be described as stupidity…
Oil your reel…. that way, the line might peel off fast enough for the tippet not to break!
Clean your line… that way, the 80ft casts will be much easier to make.
Chopping and changing rigs regularly through the day is a great way to ensure wind knots etc don’t lurk unnoticed…
Carry Replacement Kit
Leaders… on rivers where big fish are likely, I use 9ft 2X leaders, and carry several spares, plus 3X and 4X in case we end up on a spring creek or stillwater etc casting midges! 🙂 You can make knotted leaders, and they are certainly going to work out cheaper. However, if its windy, or your casting is sloppy, knotted leaders do cause more tangles!
Tippet… always carry 3X and 4X. Soft line is better than hard. I use Umpqua. Avoid anything lighter if possible. Our fish will bust you off from time to time even on heavy tippet, and light lines mean you cannot hurry the fish to the net – important if you want them to survive the “catch & release” procedure.
Reels & Spools… bad stuff happens! Try getting spooled and busted off by a monster brownie, and then have your day really ruined by not having a spare fly line… A spare spool or reel is not heavy….. and for the same reason, it makes sense to have spare rod in the car.
Do’s and Don’ts of Fly Fishing
Don’t false cast over a sighted fish, as you risk it seeing the line or leader, or alerting it by showering its position with water droplets (a dead giveaway on a fine day!)
Do false cast off to the side- at least 10 ft away – this is also the best way to get the correct casting distance sorted out.