What makes one angler consistently more successful than another? Why does that one buddy always seem to catch the most at the end of a day of fishing? Maybe he is good at telling fish tales but probably his technique, knowledge, approach, or decision making on the water are superior. More easily believed, why do the same people finish at the top in competitive fly fishing? I've asked myself and other fishermen much better than me the same questions. I can tell you one thing unequivocally, it’s not luck. I’ve put together 10 tips for upping your trout game. I could write entire articles on each one, and you’ll probably see some of those down the road.
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 always catches at least 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 15?
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 anglers are on the plateau I described. Its really a good place to be, consistently rewarded with beautiful trout, and being in tune with yourself and nature, but who would not like to catch more?
So what makes to difference? I will outline what I feel are the major reasons below. These are in no particular order because what one person struggles with another may not.
1. Confidence- I cannot stress this enough. If you don't think a fish is going to eat your fly every second its in or on 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. How many times have you looked away from your dry fly just before a fish eats it? You I just guided a local this spring that had fished every day in May and not caught a fish. He told me he had no confidence in VT, but when he went to Montana every year he caught fish. As I watched him fish I realized that he was talking himself out of setting the hook. He was so sure that a fish biting his nymph was a rock he would kind of slowly lift his rod to see if he was stuck on bottom and never set the hook. When I explained the need for confidence and began telling him when to set he ended up catching around 12 fishpond he even sent a note the next week saying he landed around 15 on his own. As a guide that’s the feed back I like to hear. In his case confidence was 3/4 of the reason he became successful.
2. Laser Focus- Are you thinking about where the fish are and what they are doing, where and what your fly is doing, or how you are going to present the fly, or are you casting out and wondering what kind of bird is sitting in the tree down river? Put all of your focus into your fishing, while remaining observant to fish rising, or bugs hatching. One of the reasons I love fly fishing is that I can lock in my brain to one thing only, the rest of the BS I may be dealing with is gone. It’s a great feeling being able to switch off the world on focus on only fishing. Put your phone or vibrate or airplane mode and just fish.
3. 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. The same goes for location. Don’t pound the same few holes every time you fish, fish a new stretch, type of water, or river based on river conditions such as flow, clarity, or temperature.
4. Nymph, and try ditching your indicator- Lets face it, in many if not most situations fish are not feeding on the surface. 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 and Devin Olsens Tactical Fly Fishing. 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.
5. 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 including white 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. On a recent trip to a heavily pressured tail water, all of the big fish came from pockets in white water and the heavier the water the more fish I found. Fewer people were willing to fish in difficult to wade water.
6. 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 three things, catching fish in dirty water, fishing behind someone, and fishing low clear water under bright sun. You’ll become a more rounded angler. 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.
7. Set downstream, fight and net efficiently- When nymphing set the hook, until you learn what the bottom feels like in your particular piece of water, obviously if you keep bumping bottom in the same place work your flies over the obstacle and keep fishing, or lighten up your weight. You can also do a quick short set and if nothing is home keep drifting the flies. Until you learn the bottom, don’t think about whether it was a rock or not, just set. Always set down stream, you will hook many more fish. If the fly is down stream of you set low and across the stream bringing the hook into the corner of the mouth. This goes for dry fly fishing as well. Fight the fish with a low rod angle and apply side pressure, Keep the fish next to or above you. Move downstream with the fish. If it gets below you move it to slack water and either keep your rod high or put your rod tip into the water until you can get it up stream of you. When a fish is down stream using a low or horizontal rod angle with the butt if the rod perpendicular to the river and pulling straight up the stream will often not hold. Get the fish to the net quickly, the longer its on the line the more time there is for something to go wrong and the fish to come off. Do not hook the fish and then spend 30 seconds reeling in slack in order to get tight to the reel play the fish by hand unless you are already tight the reel or it pulls all of the slack out.
8. 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 one during my first national championship. I lost a ton of fish! 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.
9. Enjoy rigging and tying knots. Change fly pattern, size and weights based on the specific water you are fishing and as you move adapt. Be dynamic. You can’t run the same flies, tippet length, or weight all day and maximize your catch rate in all pieces of water.
10. Learn as much as possible about trout and their behaviors, as well as the aquatic insects they eat. Knowing what might be on the menu will help in fly selection both in terms of pattern, color, size and presentation.
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.