Adhering to these simple, basic fly-fishing principles can produce big dividends on the water.
[by Steve Culton]
THEY SAY THAT TEN PERCENT OF THE ANGLERS catch ninety percent of the fish. If that’s true, it’s not because those ten percent are supernatural angling demigods. It’s not because they went down to the crossroads and sold their souls. It’s not because they are insanely lucky. It’s because they do a lot of little things that most other anglers do not.
Even the phrase, the little things, seems so banal. But I see it play out time and time again. As a teaching guide, many clients come to me with the request, “I want to learn (insert fishing method here) so I can catch more fish.” Often what they need isn’t a new method, but rather a honing of their basic skill set. Take many seemingly insignificant mistakes, correct them, and it’s like compounding interest. It all adds up. Then one day, you’re rich.
Certainly there’s far more pleasure to be derived from fishing than just catching. But let’s be honest. Who doesn’t love the sight of a bent rod, the sound of a screaming reel, or the thrumming energy of a cantankerous fish? Here are a few little things you can do to help experience all those things more often.
① A Sharp Hook
I know what you’re thinking: “Well, duh!” But do you consistently check your hook points? A sharp hook is the single most important thing in fishing. The number of striper anglers fishing with dull hooks routinely puzzles me. Stripers, of all fish, with their tough, rubbery mouths, are tough to pierce with anything less than a sharp hook. And I think the most critical moment of nymphing occurs at the hook set. Hook sets are virtually impossible with dull hooks, and any hook that is bouncing along the bottom of a river is going to dull quickly. Whether size 24 or 5/0, hooks should be sticky sharp—that is, the point should stick to your fingernail like Scotch tape when you drag it across the nail’s surface. I use a mill file, available in any hardware store for a few bucks, to sharpen my saltwater hooks.
② You Gotta Set the Hook
“The big ones always get off” was the lament of an angler I met one night on Block Island. It was a burden I knew all too well. Striper grandmaster Ken Abrames helped me figure it out. “You gotta set the hook,” Ken taught me, as his father had taught him. Assuming a sharp hook and a stout leader (I never go below 20-pound test monofilament), the secret is holding the line tight against the rod, pointing the rod at the fish, and thrusting backward toward your gut. “If you hit him three times, sometimes you still lose him,” Ken told me. “If you hit him four times, sometimes you lose him. If you hit him five times, you won’t lose him.” I started following Ken’s advice years ago. Since then, I have not lost a single striper over 28-inches long.
③ Mend Like You Mean It
“Fly fishing is all about line control,” my friend Grady Allen once told me. A floating line gives you the most control as it allows you to mend. Mending gives you tremendous power, because you’re using the current to work for you, rather than against you. Unfortunately, too many anglers throw weak mends that do little to help their presentation, whether it’s dead drifting a dry fly or greased line swinging a streamer. Though I recognize different current speed between the angler and the fly sometimes calls for mending only a portion of the line, overall, half a mend is not a mend. Mend from the rod tip to the line-leader junction. If you must, physically pick the line up off the water with your rod tip and place it where you want it. If you’re fishing subsurface, don’t worry if your mend moves your fly. You can get away with a lot more underwater movement than you can when fishing dry flies.
④ Move It
You’ve found the perfect run. But there’s no hatch activity and no signs of feeding fish. By all means, systematically cover the water. Just keep in mind Einstein’s purported definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If you’re not catching, move. I see too many anglers repeatedly flogging the same fruitless water, wistfully wondering why they blanked. Go find the fish, especially if you’re swinging wets or streamers. Factors like shifting tides and the migratory habits of species like steelhead are compelling reasons for sticking it out in a spot, but even those situations have limits. You can’t catch what isn’t there—or doesn’t want to eat.
⑤ Check Your Leader
The first thing I do after I hook a steelhead is I check the hook point. Then I check the leader. I start with the finger test and run the length of the leader between my thumb and forefinger. If I feel a rough patch, I know the leader is weaker, and I replace it. If it passes the finger test, I give it a visual. Are there any cloudy or suspicious-looking areas? If so, it gets replaced. Regardless of target species or method, be ruthless about the integrity of your leaders. A heated battle with your best fish of the year is a bad time to discover an abrasion or a wind knot.
⑥ Flies In The Water Catch More Fish
I do a lot of striper fishing at night. Sometimes I can’t see other anglers around me. But I can hear the repetitive “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” of their false casting. They don’t hear it from me. A roll cast to get the line out, a water haul, one back cast, and then bombs away. Over the course of an hour, my fly is going to be in the water—you know, the place where the fish live—more than theirs. Excessive false casting does nothing but waste energy. To that effect, when you’re wading to a new position on a river, keep your flies in the water. On one outing last May, my only trout came as I was crossing the river, my team of wet flies dangling in the current 20 feet below me.