More simple, basic fly fishing principles that can make you a better angler.
[by Steve Culton]
I THINK RAY BERGMAN GOOFED. In his classic, Trout, he wrote, “It is the insignificant things that really mark the dividing line between success and failure.” But there’s a word missing, isn’t there? Seemingly. Place it in front of insignificant, and the sentence takes on a whole new meaning.
It’s my firm belief that those seemingly insignificant things are responsible for the fabled 10 percent of the anglers who catch 90 percent of the fish. My original piece, “The Little Things” (July/August 2015), was inspired by a new presentation I created for fly fishing clubs. Since then, “The Little Things” has become one of my most popular programs. It’s easy to understand why—we’re all looking for an edge when it comes to catching more fish. I couldn’t fit all the material in the original article, so here are a few more tips to make your time on the water more productive.
Knots Are Not Worthy of Your Trust
It’s happened to all of us. A big fish annihilates your fly and begins ripping line off the reel. Suddenly, the line goes limp. After a torrent of expletives, you reel in, wondering what went wrong. Then you see it: the telltale pigtail. That horrific curlicue that’s slowly burning a hole through the center of your heart. Yup. You tied a lousy knot. Resolve that your substandard knot-tying days end. Now. Seat your knots deliberately and firmly, making sure you properly form the twists. Eyeball your work. Does it look like it could star in a knot-tying tutorial? Good. Now test it. Tug on the fly or the leader sections, adjusting for material strength. (I’ll pull a lot harder on a striper leader than I will on 7X.) Do this with every knot in the system, from leader to tippet to fly, and you’ll curse a lot less.
Find Your Drag’s Wheelhouse
I caught my first striper on the fly with a borrowed rod and reel. The fish was a 12-pound bass—keeper size, but nothing near cow territory—that took me so far into the backing, I thought I might get spooled. What a rookie mistake! I simply had no idea how tight the drag should be. I’ve since learned to find the equilibrium on every reel I own: loose enough not to pop the tippet, tight enough to make the fish earn every foot of line it takes. Many years after that inaugural striper, I landed a 35-pounder, in current. With a properly set drag, the backing stayed on the reel for the entire fight.
Don’t Let the Fish Breathe
Now that your drag is properly set, whip those big fish fast. You can put far more pressure on a fish than you think, especially with a good hook set and a reliable leader (two more little things you’ve already considered). Steelhead are notorious for their outof-control-when-hooked histrionics. For years, I bought into the hype that only the steelhead could dictate terms. One day mid-battle, Jim Kirtland, my Salmon River (NY) guide, uttered four magic words that changed my life: “Don’t let ’em breathe!” His logic was unimpeachable. A steelhead stops its blistering run because it’s exhausted. That’s the time to point the cork of your rod handle upstream, crank your reel, and get medieval on that fish. When it wants to run again, let it. When it stops, same tactic: Don’t let the fish replenish its precious supply of oxygen. The longer you play a fish, the more things can happen—and most of them are bad. Or as legendary tarpon angler Stu Apte quipped, “To play him long is to play him wrong.”
There’s No Such Thing as a Short Strike
You’re stripping your streamer, feel the tug, and then the fish is gone. Blame it on the infamous “short strike.” Or not. What’s far more likely is described by A. H. E. Wood in the classic Greased Line Fishing for Salmon: “What really happens is that the line is under tension—you are pulling it away—and you have not given the fish a chance of taking it as he would like to. . . Suppose you are putting a fork full of food into your mouth and someone unexpectedly pulls your fork away just as you are going to shut your mouth? This is exactly the same.” Adopt the mind-set that the transgression is yours alone, and your catch rate will soar. If you’re fishing for big brown trout, be aware that they will often attempt to stun their prey before delivering the kill shot. Wait to feel the weight of the fish before you set the hook.
Use 180-Degree Thinking
Remember the Seinfeld episode where George realized he always made the wrong decision? Going forward, he simply did the opposite. That’s the idea behind 180-degree thinking. I used it when I was having trouble hooking stripers. I was getting sharp little tugs, but couldn’t set the hook. Striper savant Ken Abrames suggested that I manage my drift with my eyes closed, and try not to hook the fish. Needless to say, I was dubious. But Ken was right: It is insanely difficult to try not to hook a striper. What this Zen exercise does is teach you the feel and the mechanics of meeting the bass halfway. The fish does the rest. Here’s another example of 180-degree-angling thinking: The fish are on something tiny, and you can’t buy a strike. Try feeding them something large.