The following refers to fairly experienced anglers with a decent amount of knowledge and time spent fly fishing, but what I have seen is that many people plateau. Are you an average to above average angler who typically hits a river and catches a few fish? While everyone gets the skunk sometimes, and everyone has great days sometimes there are things you can do to become more consistent. Would you like to be the guy who catches 2 fish when others get skunked, or 10 fish when others catch 5 or even 40 fish when others catch 10? The truth is that its possible.
I thought about this writing this recently on the way home from Northern NH. I had made two short trips in the past week and had caught a lot of fish, around 40 one evening, 20 the next morning and 45 the next time on a full day trip. Clearly there are a ton of trout in the rivers I was fishing, but not everyone was catching as many or even any.
I have a deep passion for the outdoors, fly fishing and hunting in particular. I also have a competitive side that is sometimes hard to harness. Whether I blurt it out or not, I want to catch more fish than you. I have seen my catch rates increase over the years dramatically from being happy to not get skunked to catching 2 or 3 fish and maybe having a good day with 10 fish, to catching 20, 40 or 50 fish on a good day of fishing. I do still get skunked every once in a while though!
Most people are on the plateau I described of usually not getting skunked, catching 3 or 4 fish and being happy with 10. Its really a good place to be, and I was there for a while and pretty damned happy about it!
So what makes to difference? I will outline what I feel are the major reasons below.
1. Confidence- I cannot stress this enough. If you don't think a fish is going to eat your fly every second its in the water then you will be missing a ton of fish. If you are not confident then you are not going to be presenting the fly as effective as you should. If you don't believe that a fish is going to eat the fly at every second, then that bump or rise or hesitation of your indicator is a missed opportunity. People convince themselves all the time that what they felt is a rock and don't even set the hook, or they are not focused when the fish finally eats your dry fly.
2. Adaptability- Your go to method of fishing is going to catch you the most fish because your are more confident and proficient, but what if its not working, or worse, only catching a fish or two? I say worse because if you catch one or two fish you are probably going to stick with it, when another method could be more productive. Let the fish and insects tell you what to do.
3. Nymph, and try ditching your indicator- Tight line nymphing is incredibly effective in the right water conditions. If you are fishing fast riffles, broken water, pocket water, where you can get close to the fish, then it is hands down more effective than indicator fishing. With an indicator, you have lots of slack. Many fish eat your fly and you don't have a clue. It is also difficult to get your fly a natural drift in many situations or get it deep enough to get in front of fish. Read George Daniels book Dynamic Nymphing. Don't get stuck on nymphs however.Refer to point number 2. If fish have stopped eating your nymphs and are seeing rises, swing your nymphs, and if that does not work switch to dries and emergers.
4. Fish all of the water- Fish fast shallow riffles, small pockets, banks, and heavy pocket water. Fish hold in fast riffles in surprisingly skinny water. Most people walk right by. They also hold in small pockets, along the banks, and heavy pocket water. Most people don't fish these areas and opt for the nice pool or run. The reason is they are hard to fish, especially if you are fishing with an indicator. Again ditch the indicator and fish these areas. By keeping a tight line and controlling depth you can get your fly in front of fish and feel the take whether fast water, or a small pocket in a heavy current.
5. Fish all conditions- This means getting up before the sun, fishing high water, low water, after other anglers, under the bright sun, heavy rain, whatever. Just fish. I have taken a lot of pleasure recently in two things, catching fish in dirty water, and fishing behind someone. I love to hook fish in challenging conditions. I also love to catch fish that another angler had just fished to and not caught. This does not mean that you should disregard stream etiquette however.
6. Set, fight and net efficiently- Set the hook on everything. Don't think about whether it was a rock or not. Fight the fish with a low rod angle and apply side pressure, and get it to the net quickly.
7. Use the right equipment for the job- If you are tight line nymphing, use a rod designed for it. My landing rate nearly doubled recently when I got one. I wish I had it during nationals this year! Bring a second rod with you to fish streamers if you like to throw big flies, or a dry fly rod rigged up. You will spend more time fishing and less time re rigging, while having the proper set up for each method. The same goes for fly lines, leaders, tippet etc.
There are certainly other factors that come into play here but these are the big ones in my mind. Please let me know if you think I left anything out.