Fly Casting Against the Wind

A friend recently went through his late grandfather’s personal papers and stumbled upon the notes to a speech. My friend laughed when he saw a particular note his grandfather had written at the top of a page. The note read: “Weak argument, yell louder.”

fly casting against the wind

Unfortunately, I’m tempted to adopt a similar approach when I’m fly casting against the wind. My inclination is to cast harder. But casting harder against the wind resembles yelling louder when the argument you’re trying to make is weak. It is highly ineffective.

Here are seven tips when fly casting against the wind. Some are obvious, some not so much. All of them can make a big difference.

1. Use 6-weight line

The current favorite for an all-around fly rod is a 9 foot, 5-weight.

But after years of fishing in the wind on Montana’s Madison and Yellowstone Rivers, I’m sold on a 6-weight rod for windy conditions. The added power of a 6-weight does help you cut through the wind. If you can’t afford another fly rod, at least get another spool with 6-weight line. It will work fine with your 9 foot, 5-weight rod.

By the way, you might want to shorten your leaders from 9 feet to 7.5 feet. A shorter leader is easier to control in windy conditions.

2. Cast between gusts of wind

Alright, this is one of those rather obvious tips. But it works when fly casting against the wind.

One of the windiest days I ever fly fished was during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana. I had to stop for a while and close my eyes to keep them from filling with dust. But I discovered that if I waited, I would get 5 or 10 second windows to cast. I had to be quick, but the window was sufficient to get my fly on the water.

I caught a lot of trout that day.

3. Use your wrist, not your whole body

Again, the temptation is to work harder when you cast in windy conditions—to put your whole body into it. If swinging your arms and swaying your entire body is your approach, stop it. The wrist flick is where the power is. That’s what makes your rod work for you. If you try to get your entire body into the cast, you actually diminish the performance of your fly rod.

The wrist flick — back and forward — makes the rod do what it is designed to do.

4. Learn the double haul

One of the best ways to cut through the wind is to use the “double haul.” This technique increases line speed by delivering velocity to your fly line. Joan Wulff says: “The rod is loaded more deeply, and that transfers to greater energy in your line.”

Basically, you use your “line hand” (your left hand if you’re casting with your right hand) to haul or pull back the line on both your forward and backward stroke. It’s much easier to see than to describe.

So here is a helpful video by Orvis: The Double Haul

Joan Wulff teaches the double haul here: Joan on the Double Haul

5. Lower your cast

The idea is to keep your line low — perhaps under the wind. There are two ways you can do this.

First, use a sidearm cast. You can still double haul while casting sidearm. A second way to lower your cast is to crouch or kneel. I can’t remember how many times I crouched while standing knee deep in Montana’s Madison River on windy days in March and April.

6. Shorten your casts

This may seem obvious, but you may need to remind yourself to keep your casts shorter. The less line you have in the air, the less problem you’ll have with the wind. You can live with a shorter cast if you can extend your drift as much as possible. So keep feeding line until your fly drifts through the feeding zone.

7. Don’t cast against the wind

That’s right. If at all possible, figure out how to get the wind at your side or, preferably, at your back. This might mean fishing the opposite bank or casting downstream instead of upstream.

If you practice these techniques when fly casting against the wind, the day won’t make you quite so angry. You may not even mutter or yell inappropriate words. Instead, you’ll happily hum Bob Seger’s old tune, “Against the Wind” as you make one effective cast after another.

A Primer on Mending for New Fly Fishers

Now mend your line.” Those words from Bob Granger, one of my fly fishing mentors, still ring in my ears. I needed all the help I could get on mending for new fly fishers.

Curtis, another fly fishing guide, recently said: “Better menders catch more fish than better casters.” I am convinced he is right. So here is a quick primer on mending for new fly fishers.

What is mending?

Once your fly line is floating down the river or stream, mending is simply flipping the mid-section of the line upstream of your fly line.

So if the current is flowing from right to left, flip the mid-section of the line to the right. The end result is that your fly line should resemble the letter “C” as it floats down the river — with the back of the “C” on the upstream side of the current.

Why is mending for new fly fishers important?

Mending is critical because it eliminates drag.

If the mid-section of your line gets ahead of your fly, it will drag it through the current. Your dry fly will resemble a water-skier, leaving a wake that will send trout scattering for cover. Your wet fly will zoom through the current more quickly than any nymph normally drifts through it.

The point, then, is to get a natural drift. Your fly should look like a normal morsel floating freely on top or underneath the surface.

When is mending important?

The answer is, almost every cast. Every cast needs to be mended at some point.

It’s possible to put a mend in the line during your cast. On your forward cast, simply draw the letter “C”—normally if the current is going from left to right or backwards if the current is moving from right to left. Otherwise, you will almost always need to mend your line once it lands on the water.

How can I avoid disturbing fish while mending?

First, do your mending well before the fly enters the hot zone. If you are casting a dry fly to rising fish, cast well above this spot. If you are nymph fishing or even dry fly fishing when nothing is rising, then cast well above the zone where you figure the fish will feeding.

Second, practice mending so you don’t disturb your dry fly or your strike indicator. The first few times you try to mend your line, you’ll probably jerk your fly or strike indicator a couple inches.

Of course, that’s not the end of the world if you’re mending well before your fly reaches the hot zone. But it’s best to eliminate this. You’ll get a feel for it with more practice, but the key is to lift up as much fly line as you can from the water before you make your mend.

How can I mend longer casts?

The more line you have on the water, the more difficult it is to mend it effectively with a single mend. Longer casts require multiple mends, depending on the current. By multiple, I mean two or three — not seven or eight! Instead of trying to mend the entire line in one flip, concentrate on moving the section closest to you. Then move the rest of it in another mend or two.

What is stack mending?

You can also use the technique of multiple mending to create “stack mends.” Stack mending refers to the creation of successive loops of line on the water. This allows for a much longer drift before your fly ever begins to drag. You might be surprised at how many trout you’ll catch towards the end of a long drift. Stack mending makes longer drifts possible.

So don’t just stand there after you make a cast. Do something. Mend that line.

The fish will not thank you, because you’ll fool them more often. But you will be a more satisfied fly fisher.

Witty Outdoor Sayings: “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday”

You should have been here yesterday – I can’t think of a more annoying comment. I’ve had some great days on the river. But I’ve also had a lot more days on the river when I was reminded later by some jerk I had never met before that the previous day had been a lot better.

The phrase “You should have been here yesterday” is not really all that witty. It’s pretty much a thoughtless taunt. At least it feels like a taunt. Maybe it’s simply small talk. It’s unnecessary chitchat, for sure. It’s a saying that complete strangers at a fly shop or at the coffee shop will offer up with no warning.

It’s mindless. And flippant.

Shame on My Friends

Worse, it’s a saying that even friends and family have the audacity to blurt out, with little to no provocation.

For a generation each fall, I have hunted upland game and waterfowl with my father and his cronies. For decades, I carved out a week of my life and traveled back to North Dakota. My sons and brother and I bounced around the prairie with my father’s generation, who regaled us with Ole and Lena jokes, some of which raised the eyebrows of my young sons, who giggled at the occasional potty language and body parts.

Invariable, no matter how good a week of hunting, one of my father’s friends would pipe up, just as sure as the sun rose that morning, “It’s too bad you weren’t here last week. We shot so many geese.”

This is another perverse form of saying, “You should have been here yesterday.”

Last week. Yesterday. The other day. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Maybe I’m just being too sensitive. But when an inconsiderate slob, even a family friend, makes the brainless observation that I should have been fishing here yesterday, he or she puts me in a mood.

I wasn’t here yesterday. I am here today. And the fishing stinks.

I will say, though, that the wisecrack rarely comes up on a guided float trip down the Yellowstone River.

Before we put in, the guide may say, “Man, it was really good yesterday. The browns were slamming hoppers.” However, as the day goes by, especially on the slower trips, the conversation rarely drifts to yesterday. That’s good. Because I’m still thinking about his earlier comment how good the fishing was yesterday while feeling grumpy about the action today.

Guides are pretty savvy. They know their tip comes at the end of the day. So, it’s never strategic to offer up the saying to an exasperated client at 4:30 PM.

My Bigger Struggle with “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday”

A couple years ago, Steve, my podcast partner, and I fished a stretch of Montana’s 16 Mile Creek. By sheer luck (Steve’s connections and a rare opening on private waters), we spent six hours reeling in trout after trout until we cried “Uncle.” At about 4 PM, Steve said, “I am wrecked.” I was too.

Exhausted, we wrapped up the late afternoon and early evening with 4,000 calories each at the area’s best steak house.

The next morning, we were back at the fly shop, still feeling sluggish from the carnage at the steak house, and I began to make small talk with one of the shop monkeys. I mentioned that we had fished 16 Mile, and he said that had fished a stretch of the river not long ago.

I couldn’t help myself.

“You should have been at 16 Mile yesterday.”

Fly Fishing and Thanksgiving

I have much for which to be thankful as Thanksgiving Day nears. My list begins with the love of God, the love of family, good health, good friends, and a job which I love. Yet fly fishing is high on my list of reasons to give thanks. This week, fly fishing and Thanksgiving have given me pause for some reflection.

fly fishing and Thanksgiving

Here are seven of the fly-fishing-related gifts for which I am thankful.

1. I am thankful for the years I lived within an hour of famous trout waters.

I lived in Montana for over two decades.

One year, I lived in Paradise Valley — just two hundred yards from the Yellowstone River. Then, I moved to Helena where I could drive to some terrific spots on the Missouri River in less than an hour. Five years later, I moved to the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman. The house we built was less than a mile from the East Gallatin River and less than an hour away from the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. It’s been twelve years since I moved from Montana to the north suburbs of Chicago. But once or twice a year I return to fish those amazing rivers.

I know where to go and how to fish them because I had the privilege of living in fly fishing heaven for so long.

2. I am thankful for the relative affordability of fly fishing.

My favorite outdoor sports are elk hunting, deer hunting, and fly fishing for trout. But I rarely hunt these days because of the cost. Now that I am a nonresident, an annual fishing license in Montana costs me $86. By comparison, the cost of a nonresident Elk Combination license (which includes fishing and upland birds) costs $868. A nonresident Deer Combination license is $602. You will find significant differences between the costs of guide services (if you use them) for fly fishing and big game hunting.

You might be surprised, too, when you compare the costs of fly fishing to other outdoor sports like downhill skiing or golf.

Thankfully, fly fishing is fairly affordable — even if you splurge for a Winston Rod or a pair of Simms waders.

3. I am thankful I can fly fish year round.

When I lived in Montana, the window for big game hunting was roughly Labor Day to Thanksgiving Day weekend. Once you filled your tags, you were done. However, you can fish every month of the year in Montana if you like. I have caught fish in Montana every month of the year. Three of the four seasons—spring, summer, and fall—offer fantastic opportunities.

That is nine months of prime fly fishing!

4. I am thankful for the friendships which have formed around fly fishing.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have other interests besides fly fishing. But our love of casting a fly on trout streams and rivers has given us a context for our life-long friendship to flourish. I’ve developed several other friendships solely because of fly fishing.

There’s something about it which creates and deepens relational bonds like few other activities do.

5. I am thankful for the way fly fishing has strengthened family ties.

Fly fishing provided a means of communicating and relating with my sons even during the most difficult seasons of their youth (middle-school years). We’ve had some tremendous memories catching cutthroat trout on hoppers in the Yellowstone and big rainbows on nymphs on the Madison.

The memories we share while fly fishing have drawn us closer to each other.

6. I am thankful for the mentors who have taught me to fly fish.

I have written about this elsewhere, but I am profoundly grateful for the guys who helped me learn to cast, to mend my line, and to tie flies. I am also thankful for mentors who shared their favorite spots with me as well as their wisdom. I am thankful for the patience of all those who got hooked by my backcasts or who had to help me untangle my two-fly combination after an unnecessary false cast.

7. I am thankful for the conservation efforts which make good fly fishing possible.

I am grateful for the foresight of anglers like Bud Lilly and the ongoing efforts of folks like Craig Matthews to protect fish and fisheries. I am thankful for the Skinner brothers—ranchers near Belgrade, Montana who were ahead of their time in implementing practices to protect and even restore sections of the East Gallatin River.

I am appreciative of Trout Unlimited, a conservation organization to which I belong, for all of its initiatives and projects which protect wild trout.

As Thanksgiving Day nears, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on all the reasons you have to be thankful for fly fishing. It is an amazing pursuit!

Fly Fishing’s Most Important Letter in the Alphabet

The most important letter in the alphabet for fly fishers is the letter “C.” If you can draw the letter “C” with the tip of your fly rod, you can manipulate your line in some important ways.

C is for Mending

Once you have cast your fly upon the water, you’ll want to mend it to get the middle part of your line upstream—behind your fly. If the middle section of line is in the lead, it can drag your fly through the current. No trout with any sense will give your fly another look.

Mending essentially puts your line in the shape of a “C.” Picture your fly at the top tip of the letter and the point where your fly line first touches the water at the bottom tip of the letter. If the current is moving from left to right, you will want to create a normal “C” shape. If the current is moving from right to left, you will want to create a backwards “C” shape.

The way to perform the mend is to draw the letter “C” with your rod tip shortly after your line lands on the river or stream. Draw this letter quickly. You’ll figure out with some practice how to do this without disturbing the fly on the surface.

C is for Looping

Another option is to create a “C” loop which your fly line is still in the air. At the end of your forward cast, quickly write the letter “C.” This will put a loop in your line so it falls in the surface in a “C” shape, requiring little or no mend.

Remember to use a backwards “C” if the current is moving from right to left.

C is for Feeding Line

Once your line is floating downstream, you want to get the longest drift possible. This is true whether you are nymphing or dry fly fishing. You will need to feed more line. The best way to do this is to keep writing the letter “C” to feed the extra line you have available. You could actually close the loop and make the letter “O.”

Again, you can learn to do this motion in a way that does not disrupt the line that is already on the surface.

C is for Line Pickup

Finally, you can pick up your line by writing the letter “C” with your rod tip. Gary Borger has perfected this technique. He says it needs to be a quick flip of the rod tip. According to Borger, “The curl introduced by the ‘C’ movement will flow down the line and snap it up off the water.” But it doesn’t stop there. Immediately after writing the “C,” continue right into your backcast.

Borger says not to hesitate between the two movements.

Who knew that learning to write the letter “C” in your first grade classroom could make you a better fly fisher!

The Generous Fly Fisher I Aspire to Be

I aspire to be a better fly fisher. But it’s not what you might think. Sure, I want to improve my casting so I can consistently drop my fly an inch from the opposite bank. Someday, I hope to put the whip finish on my flies with the speed of a calf roper tying a half-hitch.

generous fly fisher

I’d also like to think like a fish—as Paul Maclean aspired to do. But I have higher aspirations. I want to be a more generous fly fisher:

What Generosity Looks Like on the River

Instead of hoarding information about my favorite spots, I’d like to be more willing to share helpful intel with others I meet on the river.

Instead of hogging a good run, I’d like to share it more readily with others. If someone watches me catch a trout in a particular run, I’d like to be generous enough to invite them to take a few casts.

Instead of feeling smug when I see a newbie fly fisher cast like I did when I first got started, I’d like to be jump at the chance to offer some pointers and some words of encouragement.

A Fine Role Model

If I have a role model for the generous fly fisher I want to be, it is Craig Matthews. He is the founder and former owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana. When you talk to him, his responses are enthusiastic, not arrogant.

Ask him a question, and his answer is gracious, not condescending.

What impresses me most about Matthews is a comment he made in an interview recorded in Chester Allen’s book, Yellowstone Runners. When asked what kind of water he likes to fish late in the season when the “runners” are heading up the Madison River, Matthews talked first about the type of runs he likes. But then he made this comment: “I stay away from ‘behind the Barns’ [the well-known runs just inside the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park] and other popular places since I live here, and I can fish anytime and leave the popular spots to elderly angers and visiting anglers.”

That, my friends, is generosity. And that’s the kind of fly fisher I aspire to be.

I recently ran into Matthews in West Yellowstone and he regaled the fly shop with stories of big browns and streamers the size of 56 Buicks. Even in his storytelling, he was warm and giving back to others, making us feel part of his story and the larger narrative of fly fishing.

The Old Man I Don’t Want to Be

Unfortunately, there are always a few fly fishers who think they are “it.” As my podcast partner Dave says about them, “Always confident, sometimes right.” You’d think these folks invented the sport of fly fishing.

A guide in Blue Ribbon flies recently told us about an encounter he had with an older fly fisher at the Barns Pools. There are some terrific people who frequent the Barns Pools every fall. But this guy seemed to have an ego the size of a jumbo jet.

A young teen was fishing with a hopper pattern. Nearby, his grandmother sat watching him.

Meanwhile, the older fly fisher began to mock the young teen, grousing about him using a hopper pattern. That’s not how you fish the Barns Pools. After a couple minutes of this, the guide piped up and told the older guy to shut up. After briefly strutting like a peacock, the older guy came to his senses, shut his mouth, and sulked and muttered as he walked away.

The grandmother on the bank spoke up for the first time and thanked the guide. She said, “This has been my grandson’s dream. All he wanted to do was to fly fish in Yellowstone National Park. Thanks for sticking up for him.”

Age has a way of magnifying our character traits. Our hard edges become sharper, and our soft edges become even more polished. If you practice generosity now, chances are it will become an even more pronounced trait that will not fail you even when your eyes and legs do. That’s the older fly fisher I want to be.

Setting the Hook for Nymph Fishing

What is the best way to set the hook when fly fishing nymphs? I have been an advocate of the “side pull” approach. A Montana fly fishing guide first suggested it to me. He pointed out that lifting my fly rod — pulling it straight up — could yank the nymph out of the trout’s mouth. Better to do a “side pull” in the direction of the current.

Since trout are facing the current, pulling the rod to the side in a downstream direction take the nymph into the trout’s mouth. He was right. Some of the time.

Surface Tension

The “side pull” approach makes perfect sense. But it has one big problem: surface tension.

Suppose you get a nice long drift so that your strike indicator bobs when it is twenty feet downstream. Try yanking your rod to the downstream side. Since your fly line will be floating on the surface, pulling it to the side requires it to fight through surface tension. If you’ve ever tried running through three feet of water, you can appreciate what your fly line faces as it skims through the surface or even the film.

There is too much resistance for a quick, effective hook set.

The Quick Lift

The solution is to go with “the quick lift.” Simply lift your rod tip. That is, go with your instincts and pull up on your rod.

When you do this, it’s remarkable how quickly the rod will lift your line off of the surface of the water. Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish trying to ingest your nymph, and you will be amazed at what you see. As soon as your fly line lifts off of the water and the surface tension is gone, your strike indicator will lurch towards you. That gives you an indication what happens when a trout has taken your fly.

You will get a solid hook-set.

I suppose you still might run the risk of pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth. But the “side pull” method is so slow that your hook set will probably be useless. If the trout has hooked itself, you’re fine. But if not, it can spit out the fly before the gets pulled into the side of the trout’s mouth. Even then, the hook set will lack in force because of the resistance you’re facing from the surface tension. Alright, enough with the physics lesson.

I think you get the idea.

Madison River Monsters

My pod-cast partner, Dave, and I used the “quick lift” technique effectively on a day we recently spent on the Madison River right outside Yellowstone National Park. We were fishing for the big “runners” which come out of Hebgen Lake for fall spawning. Without exception, every trout we hooked was 15-25 feet below us. Rather than fighting the surface tension with a “side pull,” we used a quick lift. I do not have lightning-quick reflexes at age 55, but most strikes resulted in hooking fish.

The Exception for Setting the Hook

There is a situation when I still use the “side pull” approach when fly fishing nymphs. It works under two conditions:

First, the strike has to take place above me (upstream) or right in front of me.

Second, the run I’m fishing has to be less than twelve feet in front of me. This enables me to keep little or no line on the surface as long as I keep my rod tip high. Without any resistance, a pull to the side in a downstream direction works quite well.

Once your indicator gets past you, though, forget the sideways pull when you get a strike. It’s too awkward, and there will be too much drag. Instead, go for the quick lift.

You’ll be pleased with the results.

How to Read Your Strike Indicator

Most fly fishers use a strike indicator when fishing with nymphs. When the little plastic bubble or tuft of synthetic yarn bobs or twitches, it’s time to set the hook. A trout is taking your fly. (Or perhaps you’ve hit bottom!) It’s all about how to read your strike indicator. But your strike indicator does double duty: It indicates something else that will make or break your success on the river. It tells you whether you are deep enough.

Conventional Wisdom on How to Read Your Strike Indicator

To succeed when fishing nymphs, the trick is to get the artificial flies down to the right depth. They need to be in the trout’s window.

Conventional wisdom says that you’re not fishing deep enough if you’re not getting snagged occasionally on the river-bottom. So, when the strike indicator disappears and you’ve snagged a rock rather than hooked a fish, that signals you are at the right depth. Your nymph or nymphs are deep enough to entice the trout.

We’ve advocated for this signal in previous articles:

    Nymph Fishing’s 7 Nagging Questions

    Our Top Nymph and Wet Fly Patterns

    The Basics of Nymph Fishing

Nymphing Re-imagined

However, there is a problem with conventional wisdom. Unless you’re fishing scud patterns, you may not need to get your nymphs to bounce along the bottom.

Yes, the fish are at the bottom of the river or stream. But they are looking up unless they are nosing around in the mud or rocks for scuds. Your nymph needs only to be deep enough to be in the river’s lower zone where the trout are feeding. But you don’t need, necessarily, to bounce your nymph off of the bottom.

A More Excellent Way to Read Your Strike Indicator

So how do you know that you’re fishing deep enough if you don’t see your strike indicator disappear occasionally because you’ve snagged the bottom?

There is another signal.

Your eyes still need to be on the strike indicator. But if the indicator is moving more slowly than is the surface current, then your nymph or nymphs are deep enough. The fact is, the current at the bottom of a river or stream moves more slowly than the current on the surface. When your nymph(s) and weight float in this slower current, they will slow down the speed of your strike indicator on the surface.

Recently, I was fishing for “runners” on the Madison River just outside West Yellowstone, Montana. On a particular run, my two-nymph combination never once caught on the bottom. Yet I knew I was deep enough because my strike indicator was moving along more slowly than the surface current. After a few casts, my indicator disappeared, and I had the joy of fighting and landing a heavy brown trout.

Watch the Bubbles to Read Your Strike Indicator

This raises another question, though.

How in the world can you tell if your strike indicator is moving more slowly than the surface current?

Watch the bubbles on the surface of the water. That’s right. The bubbles tell the tale. It’s like watching a NASCAR race and seeing cars getting passed or lapped. If the bubbles on the river’s surface start passing your indicator, then you have reached the right depth. If the bubbles never pass your strike indicator, then you need to add more weight. Your nymph has not reached the slower current in the bottom zone.

Watching for the bubbles to start passing your strike indicator will also reveal how long it takes for your nymphs to reach the proper depth in the particular run you are fishing. It may take two feet or fifteen feet depending on the speed of the current and the depth of the run. This is important because it might reveal that your nymphs are getting deep enough after they drift through the spot where you suspect the fish are feeding. Armed with this insight, you can cast farther upstream so that your offering reaches its depth right before it enters the hot zone.

As always, keep your eye on the strike indicator. It gives the signal when you have a strike. But it will also tell you if you’re going to have a chance at a strike because your nymph rig has reached its proper depth.

The Legacy of My Fly Fishing Mentors

It takes a village to raise a fly fisher. In my case, it was a village of fourteen fly fishing mentors who showed up in my life over the years and helped me learn the craft of fly fishing.

fly fishing mentors

I’d love to pay tribute to them by naming them. But I’m not going to do so for two reasons: First, the list would resemble the credits at the end of a movie. Nobody cares about them except the producer and those involved in the production.

Second, I am still a mediocre fly fisher on my best days. So I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by citing them as one of my fly fishing mentors.

Perhaps I can pay tribute by listing a few characteristics that they all had in common. These characteristics can help you identify a mentor if you are new to the sport. Or, they can help you be more effective when you get the opportunity to mentor a younger fly fisher.

1. Patience

This is the number one characteristic by far.

My mentors did not sigh or curse (at least not audibly) when I slapped my line against the water, when I was slow to set the hook on a strike, or when my backcast hooked a branch. I may have even hooked one or two of my mentors. They simply went over their instructions again and again.

Bob never raised his voice when he kept telling me to mend my line, and Kevin didn’t roll his eyes when I tried to threat my tippet through my fly rod guides when we were getting ready to fish the Gallatin River.

2. The ability to simplify

Fly fishing is a complex sport. It can bewilder beginners. But good mentors break down complex concepts into simple explanations. One mentor encouraged me to stick with a few simple patterns while I learned to fly fish—the Woolly Bugger, Prince Nymph, Parachute Adams, and Elk Hair Caddis. Another boiled down my first lesson in casting to: (1) flick your wrist when you cast and (2) keep your eyes on the target. Still another taught me that the foam line in the current is the feed line. The simple explanations formed a knowledge base on which I’ve been building for more than three decades.

3. Creativity

Good mentors are also creative.

None of my mentors had me cast to the rhythm of a metronome like Norman Maclean’s father did in A River Runs Through It. But Gary Borger taught me to tie a couple important knots by using a small piece of rope rather than a tiny 6x tippet. He also taught me to pick up my line off of the surface by drawing the letter “C” with my rod tip.

Good mentors traffic in word pictures and analogies. They find vivid ways to show and tell.

4. Unselfishness

I’ve had some faux-mentors who simply left me on my own while they raced ahead to their favorite spots.

Real mentors, however, sacrifice the time they could be fishing and share the prime spots they could be fishing. They act more like guides whose mission it is to set up their clients for success.

I remember my mentor and friend, Bob, taking me to fish for fall browns on the Madison in Yellowstone National Park. He brought his rod along, but he didn’t make one cast that day. He simply devoted his time to helping me read water, cast, and (of course) mend my line. It’s rewarding to teach others to fly fish. But you have to be prepared to give up some rod time and even some of the hot spots you love to fish.

5. Humility

These mentors are some of the best fly fishers on the planet. But none of them felt the need to inform me about this. I had to coax out of them the stories about their fly fishing heroics The best mentors do not have egos the size of a jumbo jet. They do not need to tell you how great they are.

I’m convinced that humility is what enables patience and unselfishness.

Okay, maybe I will let the credits roll. I owe my fly fishing skills to the mentoring of Gerald, Duane, Doug, Kevin, Jerry, John, Murray, Bob, Toby, Harry, Dave, Gary, Leon, and Ben.

Thanks, fellas.

I’m fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park this week, and I’m a better fly fisher for all the ways you invested in my development. I wish you were all here. I still need all the help I can get.

How New Fly Fishers Can Improve Their Odds of Success

This summer, I drove my youngest son to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I dropped him off at a camp and then headed home. I decided to stop at a small creek in Wisconsin for a day of fly fishing. I was alone. It was hot. Muggy. And the bugs swirled around my head like the dusts of dirt around Pig-Pen, the character in the comic strip “Peanuts.”

I fished for about 30 minutes. And then quit. I had had enough. The stream in mid summer was weedy, with only small channels in the middle that were fishable. If I had been a new fly fisher, I would have been pretty discouraged. Maybe I would have thought, “This is too hard. I’m never fly fishing again.”

When you’re just started out, it’s important to find early success, and here are three ways to make that happen:

1. Learn to fish nymphs and streamers … immediately.

The learning arc for most new fly fishers is to learn to dry fly fish first. They take a fly casting class. They feel the surge of emotion of early casting success. But then struggle to catch fish during their first few outings. Perhaps there’s no obvious hatch, and they default to fishing a dry-fly attractor pattern like Parachute Adams or Elk Hair Caddis every time they go out.

You’ll catch more fish early on if you learn how to nymph and fish streamers while you’re also struggling to learn to fish dry flies. I might add that learning to sling a streamer may be the easiest first thing to do. It will force you to take a good look at your tackle, which needs to change if you’re fishing streamers.

I remember well my struggle learn to fish streamers. For starters, I was trying to hurl a size #6 Woolly Bugger with a 6x leader. I didn’t know any better. No one told me that I needed 2x or 3x tippet. I had learned to dry fly fish first, so it didn’t dawn on my that I needed different tackle.

My suggestion: if you’re struggling to catch fish and you only dry fly fish, add streamers to the mix. Yes, it’s one more thing to learn, but especially in the fall, you will find much more success.

2. Know and Avoid the Dead Zones.

Steve and I published an entire episode on fly fishing dead zones, those times of the day and seasons of the year when very likely you’ll not catch fish.

New fly fishers don’t have this knowledge. If they did, most likely they’d catch more fish and be able to fan the tiny flame of passion for the sport.

Dead zones to avoid are winter (of course), early morning and late evening in the spring, and midday during the heat of the summer.

In the spring, especially late April and early May, I like the 10 AM to 2 PM window during the day for fishing dry flies. In mid to late summer, when the water is low and the temps are hot with lots of sun on the river, the best opportunities are fishing dries during the evening until dark. And in the fall, I primarily nymph fish and streamer fish. Most often, the streamer bite is on in the mornings in late September and October.

Of course, veterans can catch fish during any time, and there is much more nuance to dead zones and hatches than I can write about in this short space. The point is that new fly fishers would do well to know when not to fish.

3. Rethink Float Trips.

My brother, who is a competent fly fisher, often takes his oldest son (who is now 13) to Oregon for a couple days on the McKenzie River. They float for a couple days and catch a zillion rainbows – about 8 to 12 inches. It’s a lot of fun for Matt’s son.

This year, Matt came back and said, “I’m really tired of these kinds of trips.”

One reason is that on most float trips, the guide hands you a fly rod, instructs you on where to cast, and, voila! you catch fish. The big problem with float trips is that you don’t learn a lick. Steve and I are big proponents of hiring guides, but we do so only once or twice a year. Our primary goal is to gain intel when fishing a new area. (I do find that I learn quite a bit on guided wade-fishing days.)

We all have “friends” who go on big trips out West, take gorgeous pictures of huge trout, and think that they are fly fishers. They are not. Very little is learned on a guided float trip.

New fly fishers need take the harder path of the learning curve. It’s tempting to sate your desire to catch fish with float trips. The best move is simply more reps on river – making mistakes, finding success, and doing it all over again and again.

Other podcasts and articles on this topic

    Fishing the Dead Zones

    11 Reasons You’re Not Catching Trout