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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Fly Fishing

I reckoned A River Runs Through It to be hyperbolic when I first saw it, yet I was still entranced by the atmosphere depicted by Robert Redford.

Like many, fly fishing enchanted me from afar, yet, knowing my clumsy self, I figured I wasn’t fit for such a delicate, wizardly practice. 

To some extent, I was right to be suspicious. If you're just getting into fly fishing, like I was and am, and imagine yourself slinging dry flies on the shallow fords of some roaring river, forgo that image…immediately. 

Your journey to catching fish will be idle and frustrating. Mostly tying and untangling knots, only slaying rainbow trout in your shower thoughts.

That said, you will get there! I did, and here are five things I wish I knew upon embarking on this lovely, yet painful journey. 

Avoid Big Casts: 

Casting proves the most challenging aspect of fly fishing. At the start, your casts will resemble wild and untamed things (mine still sometimes do). The hand positioning feels awkward. You’ll make no distance.

The fly will constantly be tangled in foliage. 

The longer your casts, the more things can get out of hand. For me, I started out making great, 25-foot casts only to lose flies and tangle leaders, time and time again.

Start small, under 15-feet if possible. Slowly you’ll develop the muscle memory needed to swing tight loops through the air consistently. 

In the early stage of learning how to sling flies, your focus should solely be on casting form, and maximizing your turnover rate.

Then, you can slowly start to add more length, a couple feet every so often.

Fish Small Streams and Creeks: 

Small streams and creeks remain heavily overlooked by most fishermen. Naturally, people enjoy chasing the big fish (don’t we all?), leaving little woodland tributaries mostly untouched. These creeks go hand in hand with the last tip. You’ll have no use for lofty casts in such tight conditions. 

In much of the United States, these creeks habituate all sorts of trout, from cutthroat to the occasional rainbow. Fish in these streams ravage for any nutrients, making them easy to catch with an assortment of standard flies. Small, meager fish, but angling nonetheless. 

I stumbled upon my first catch fishing a tributary of a river here in Oregon. The process is quite simple.

Find a windy river, fish the deep water pooled in the bends, and continue walking upstream, fishing pool after pool.

Target fallen trees, overhanging banks, and any other spot that may offer refuge for hungry trout. Be weary of making your presence known; these trout are easily spooked! 

Occasionally, I’ll utilize a roll cast to get my fly into further pockets, but generally I’m dropping my fly up current, keeping slack off the water and jigging as it floats along.

Most standard flies will do the job, but I recommend sticking to wooly buggers and changing sizes accordingly (these small trout love bigger sized flies, from #10-14).

You can even try the Hopper Dropper technique, where you fish a nymph dangling from a streamer. 

Don’t Fret About Fly Choice: 

Fly choice shouldn’t devour your brain space. When you're starting out, there’s no point in worrying about matching a hatch or purchasing an arsenal of different flies. In the beginning, getting a fly in the proximity of a fish proves challenging enough.

That said, you should invest in a dozen or so streamers and nymphs, trying out different variations of both techniques. For streamers, an assembly of wooly buggers will do. For nymphs, San Juan worm, pheasant tail, and gold ribbed hare’s ear proves superb. 

With these flies, you can practice jig setups, strike indicators, and other standard variations of fly fishing. Fish will bite your flies, so long as you're not dragging them through the water like a chum bucket. Watch a few Youtube videos, muster some patience, and you’ll catch a trout in due time. 

Stick to the Basics: 

Top of the line equipment bears no place in your concerns as an apprentice fisherman. Your grandpa's begrimed fly pole will do. Dust it off, throw in some fresh floating line, a tippet leader, and you’re set to catch fish. 

Your preoccupations ought to lie with the basic principles of slinging flies –– mastering casting and jigging, finding fish and learning their behavior. High-grade equipment proves rudimentary compared to these fundamental axioms. 

Hell, Google a Tenkara rod! Just dancing a fly in the whereabouts of carnivorous fish will do the trick. Focus on learning how to make your fly look as natural, therefore as scrumptious as possible. 

Enjoy the Process: 

Behind my incessant creek fishing expeditions is a desperate attempt to ease the path to becoming a true fisherman.

Too often, standing on the same public dock casting buggers alongside wads of Power Bait –– crackheads bickering about how to tie a clinch knot –– would the lack of biting fish devolve into aggravation. 

I’d constructed too many expectations, manifested that juicy, rainbow trout to snatch my nymph, justifying my time investment for the rest of eternity –– yet such a fish never came.

What I failed to understand is that fly fishing remains a sport of delicate mastery. An education, across decades, on mimicking the natural feeding mechanisms of wild fish. 

By walking creeks and streams, this process became savorable. I relished the successes I was allotted –– catching little cutthroat trout, glimpses of bigger fish chasing my fly, things of that nature.

Step by step, I felt as though fly fishing was becoming less foreign.

For those just starting, try to enjoy the process. Focus on the small things, and understand the little achievements for what they are. 

Final Thoughts: 

While this advice certainly isn’t as technical as some may desire, these are things I wish I knew upon starting out fly fishing, the painful weeks before I caught my first cutthroat trout. 

That said, as an acolyte of the craft, I’m constantly researching technical ways to perfect my shoddy technique, and you should too!

But, if there’s a central idiom of all this, it's to take it slow.

Enjoy the ride.

Progressively develop your fly game, one clinch knot at a time.


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