Want to be a Better Fly Fisher? Try Stepping Out of Your Bubble

Living on the Idaho-Wyoming border puts me in the center of trout country. It offers a world of variety. Within a couple hours’ drive I have my choice of no fewer than five different trout species. Water is diverse as well. Within that same two hour drive I can fish anything from high gradient freestone streams to big tailwaters to blue ribbon lakes and reservoirs. All of it is different and it must be fished different to have success.

Those of us living and fishing in this region are damn lucky to have it. We get a chance to try new things because of the sheer diversity. Yet fly fishing is almost instinctually tribal. I know many who will only fish dry flies. Some are dyed-in-wool streamer junkies. Others have so much success on nymph rigs that they turn to it every time, even when the surface is popping with rising trout. Often they fish with those who hold the same sentiments towards certain tactics or strategies. This is their tribe. And their tribe is their bubble.

Tribes and bubbles make you damn good at fishing one or two ways in a sport that has hundreds of ways. In essence, it makes you average. Each year I watch those one or two guests I am guiding fish a high gradient stream using tailwater techniques and become frustrated with their lack of hook ups. Those who almost always use indicators tend to lack the skills at squeezing a streamer of surface pattern inches from the bank. Conversely, those who cast surface patterns exclusively lack the ability to detect those deep water lies where nymphs tend to hammer trout on tailwaters. Their bubble is comfortable. They lean on those couple of tactics they know best, even when they can’t be replicated with the same success on other waters.

The best fly fishers I know seek out difficult situations, new settings, and different ways to fish. They try to master the difficult, new, and different. With this mastery comes confidence in their abilities. You can see it when they fish for everything from steelhead to roosterfish. Here are some of the things I have learned from fishing with a few of the best in the biz. These suggestions have made me a better angler for sure. They will probably work for just about anyone who is willing to step out of their bubble.

Master Different Tactics and Techniques

Legendary Catch host Carter Andrews is one of the most recognized anglers in the country. I first heard of him in the early1990s when he was gaining a reputation for his fishing prowess in my hometown of Jackson, Wyoming. Since then we have fished and competed against one another numerous times. One thing that always struck me about Andrews was his willingness to stick it out with one set up for an entire day, or sometimes and entire week, on a particular body of water. He did not do this to see if it worked. He did it to make it work. This commitment, he said, was done specifically to gain confidence in techniques that, at the time, he was less familiar with. Today, Carter is a master of everything.

This commitment goes beyond just fishing a streamer, nymph rig, or dry fly for a solid season. Tackle and technique matters as well. I grew up fishing streamers on floating lines. I am better at streamer fishing now because I use a full sinking line or deep sinking tips just as much. The same can be said for nymphing. Suspension devices are the go-to choice for nymph rigs in the western U.S. Going without an indicator at times can help you become not just better at nymphing. It will help you become a better overall fly fisher.

Fish Different Water

All of us should have home waters that we fish and care about the most. But knowing one means you only know one. The tactics used on that stream may not work on most. “All rivers are different,” two-time U.S. Fly Fishing champion George Daniel has said, “and I don’t fish one river the same as another.”

I only met renowned steelhead angler Bill McMillian once. It was at a speaking engagement in Seattle a decade ago. At that event, he suggested that fishing different steelhead streams makes you better at understanding your own water and the sport of steeleheading in general. This is highly important. Fishing different waters allows anglers to try techniques that are tried and true for that stream but may also work on the ones you regularly visit. At the same time, you may discover new tactics that can be modified and take to other waters you fish. Idaho guide Dean Burton gives credit for his success to this approach. Each season, he guides on no fewer than five different streams. He has altered nymphing and streamer techniques developed on Wyoming’s upper Green River and taken them to the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho where they have been just as successful. Had the Green not been part of his repertoire, he may not have discovered the effectiveness of those same tactics on the South Fork.

Home waters should hold a high value for all fly fishers. Just don’t let them limit your personal development.

Target Different Species

Trout dominate fly fishing. I recall statistics from several years ago stating a little over 80% anglers in the U.S. fish mostly or exclusively for trout (strange, considering most Americans live several hours from trout water). As big as trout fishing is, however, it is miniscule when we consider that just about every fish on the planet is being caught on a fly rod. If we only fish for trout, we are missing out on most of what the sport has to offer.

Where Carter Andrews credits technique mastery for part of his success, Jeff Currier, the first American ever to medal in the World Fly Fishing Championships, suggests his experience with a multitude of species has made him better at the sport. Today, Currier has caught over 400 species on a fly rod and is recognized as one of the best all-around anglers in the country. “The time I spent fishing for warm water and saltwater fish complements my trout fishing,” he states.

How does targeting carp, smallmouth, or permit make you a better fly fisher? One reason is that they are legitimate species to go after. None of them are easy to get to eat, let along hook. Another reason is that these fish are more available to anglers than trout. If you live in Omaha, Nebraska, or Los Angeles, California, you are hell and gone from trout, but bass and carp might be just a few miles away. You can be casting to them every day, honing your skills for other fish you might be dreaming of. A friend of mine knows a Florida fly fisher who has never fished the state’s saltwater flats because all he associates the sport with is trout. The tight, precise casts required for mangrove-hugging snook comes in handy when fishing large stonefly imitations inches from an undercut bank on a trout stream.

Seek Out Difficult Conditions

We all want warm sunshine, no wind, clear water, and perfect water temperatures when we fish. When these factors align, it’s generally a productive day. But it’s also easy. Perhaps too easy. “Fish are always eating,” U.S. Fly Fishing Team member Dan Oas once said, “so it really doesn’t matter what the conditions are. When conditions suck, you just got to fish harder.”

I am pretty convinced that fish are always eating. Some days the water temps might be so cold that fish won’t move more than a few inches. You have to get your offering right in their face. Other days there might be limited visibility and you must thoroughly cover the water you are fishing with several casts. It’s tough and you can’t count on a lot of hook ups. Each fish you do hook, however, is more satisfying than a half dozen caught in pristine conditions. Just as important - you learn what it takes to have success when things are less than ideal. You gain more confidence in your abilities to produce regardless of the weather or the water. And this, in turn, can give you more days on the water. You are less likely to be scared off by conditions.

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