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

Improving Your Dry Fly Vision

It always amazes me how many people can’t see their fly.” Craig Matthews, veteran fly fisher in West Yellowstone, Montana, made this observation a few years ago when asked about common mistakes fly fishers make. “I’m really surprised at how few people can see their fly or see rising fish,” he said.

dry fly vision

So what can you to do improve your dry fly fishing vision? Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1. Concentrate

Yeah, yeah, this seems too obvious to mention for improving your dry fly vision. But it’s critical. And easily overlooked.

Without a laser-like focus on your dry fly, you simply won’t see it. You’ll be surprised how concentration will improve your dry fly vision. So develop a habit of zeroing in on your dry fly.

2. Wear polaroid sunglasses

Polaroid sunglasses reduce glare on the surface of the river or stream. I wear them even on cloudy days and in the low light towards the end of the day. Even a cheap pair works fine.

3. Use flies with white in them

This may be the most helpful tip I can offer to improve your dry fly vision.

The white post on a size #20 Parachute Adams makes this fly easier to see (at least for me) than a bushy size #14 Humpy. For an attractor pattern, I like a Royal Wulff or an H & L Variant because the wing material is white tufts of calf hair or synthetic material. Even with big hopper patterns, I prefer those with a white parachute. For flies that lack white on top, go light. An Elk Hair Caddis with lighter hair on top is easier to see than one with darker hair.

4. Make shorter casts

This is, perhaps, another no brainer. Yet it really helps. It’s easier to spot a dry fly fifteen feet away than thirty feet away from you. So if you’re having trouble seeing your dry fly, move in closer to the run you’re fishing.

5. Use a strike indicator

For tiny, almost invisible dry flies, consider using a strike indicator. This may be a larger dry fly. Try a size #12 or #14 Parachute Adams as a lead fly, and then drop your size #20 Pale Morning Dun or Blue-Winged Olive imitation off of it. Keep your eye on the larger fly. When it dives into the water, set your hook! I have even used thin foam strike indicators—the kind with sticky backing. I simply roll a small piece around my leader, a few inches above my fly. Fluorescent yellow seems to be more visible to me than fluorescent orange.

Seeing is retrieving. If you can’t see your dry fly, you can’t see when to set the hook—that moment when a trout sips it or attacks it. So do whatever it takes to keep your eyes on the trout’s target.

Know Your Pattern: Woolly Bugger

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Woolly Buggers. They are America’s favorites. Well the latter is only popular among fly fishers. But it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Woolly Bugger may be the most popular, adaptable, effective fly pattern ever invented. It’s certainly the king of streamer patterns.

The Woolly Bugger is easy to tie, and it’s easy to fish. I’ve had great success with it in high mountain lakes, small Midwestern spring creeks, and large Western rivers.

Here is a profile of this super-effective pattern:

1. How it’s made

There are two main parts to this streamer.

First, the body of a Woolly Bugger consists of chenille wrapped around the shank of a 4X long streamer look (sizes #6 to #10 are the most popular) with hackle wound through it. Then, a marabou tail runs behind the body.

Both the hackle and the marabou make this streamer look active as it darts through the water.

The most popular colors for the Woolly Bugger are black, olive, and brown. I’ve even tied it using red chenille with black hackle and black marabou to catch the big trout in Hyalite Resorvoir in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana.

Normally, the Woolly Bugger is weighted with either a beadhead or wire (underneath the chenille).

2. Where it originated

It is unclear who gets the credit for the Woolly Bugger, but it’s definitely a modification of the Woolly Worm (a Woolly Bugger without the marabou tail).

3. Why it works

Conventional wisdom says the Woolly Bugger imitates leeches, but it likely also passes for crayfish, minnows, sculpins, and large aquatic nymphs such as hellgrammites, damsel flies, stone flies, and dragon flies.

Trout will chase it and go into attack mode because it’s a high-calorie meal. Compared to a tiny may fly, it’s like the difference between an eighteen ounce steak and a Chicken nugget.

4. How to fish it

The key is to retrieve it so that it darts through the water. You can dead drift it down a run, then swing it and retrieve it with deliberate strips. Or, you can simply cast it down river and strip it back against the current.

Depth is important.

Let it sink sufficiently in the lake or river you’re fishing. You may have to experiment to figure out the definition of “sufficient.”

Bud Lilly used to say that color seems to matter a lot with Woolly Buggers. If black is not working, try switching to olive or brown. Your best bet may be to get intel at your local fly shop.

After you’ve spent a fair share of time fishing with size #18 dry flies or nymphs, it’s refreshing to lob a streamer through the air, let it sink in the current, and then retrieve it vigorously. The attack will always take you by surprise, and then the fight is on!

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    H & L Variant

    The Royal Coachman

    San Juan Worm

    Parachute Adams

Little Fly Fishing Gadgets, Big Impact

Fly fishing gadgets are everywhere. There is no end to the number of little devices you can stuff into or clip onto your fly vest.

fly fishing gadgets

Beyond the obvious items like dry fly floatant and nippers, here are a few items which I always carry with me when I’m on the river.

Headlamp

This is a new one for me.

Last summer, I was trying to use my cell phone flashlight to tie on a size #18 Parachute Adams at dusk. It occurred to me that I either needed a third hand or a headlamp. Not surprisingly, the headlamp was a more feasible option. For less than $20, you can purchase a lightweight headlamp that lasts a long time and is hands free.

It works well when hiking into your fishing spot before dawn or walking out in the dark.

Drying powder

Is this truly a gadget? I’m not sure, but I’m calling it one.

Even though I use dry fly floatant, I still find drying powder to be the ticket for drying a dry fly after it’s been water-logged or slimed by a fish. For years I’ve used the Orvis Hy-Flote Shake-N-Float Renew. Or, if you want something with fewer syllables in the title, try Umpqua Bug Dust. Both brands use a combination of crystals and dust. You simply drop your fly in the bottle, close the lid, and shake it for a couple seconds.

It works like magic!

Magnetic net holder

Veterans know about this little gadget, but newbies may not: This item allows quick removal of my net, which hangs off of the back of my fly vest. The best part is re-attachment.

Since one of the magnets is clipped to the D-ring on the collar of my fly vest, I simply have reach behind my head with my net handle. The other magnet is attached to the end of my net handle, so that magnets quickly grab each other. There’s no yoga or gymnastics required to put the net back in place.

Believe it or not, there is a video with over 21,000 views. If you need to see how the gadget works, watch this clip. You can buy the Orvis magnetic net holder for $34 or the Scientific Angler one for $19.95.

Two-way radio

It’s nice to have a friend with two-way radios. That would be my podcast partner, Dave.

I often stuff one of his two-way radios in my vest when we’re fly fishing in more remote areas—like the back-country in Yellowstone National Park. We carry them for safety if we’re fishing different stretches of a river. We’ve also been known to use them to brag about the trout we just caught. You may be surprised at how many places you will have cell phone service. Yet it’s spotty at best in more remote areas, so we like the small two-way radios in case one of us needs help.

There are a million two-way radio brands, ranging from $25 to $300 or more. We like the Motorola brand, but frankly, almost every brand will do the trick.

GPS Tacker

For those of you doing more serious backpacking or fishing, you’ll want a GPS tracker. The major brand in GPS tracking is SPOT GEN3. You’ll want this device when you travel outside the bounds of cell service. With the simple push of a button, should the worst happen, you can alert emergency responders your GPS location. It’s small, pocket-sized, and can fit in your fly vest.

Of course, you can’t stuff everything into your fly vest, satchel, or front pack. Leave the fidget spinner at home. But there are some little items which really help with fly fishing and safety.

What’s in your fly vest?

5 “More” Fly Fishing Myths

There’s a four-letter word fly fishers should avoid. It’s not what you yell when you snag your fly on the bottom for the umpteenth time or when your back cast lands in a pine branch. Rather, it’s a word that can mislead you and set you up for disappointment. The four-letter word is “more.”

fly fishing myths

Here are five “more” fly fishing myths that you will do well not to believe. Each myth has the ring of truth. But at the end of the day, each one will mislead you or leave you dissatisfied:

1. The more I fly fish, the better I will become.

The problem is that practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. It reinforces. If you’re intentionally working to improve, then you’ll improve. Otherwise, your bad habits will become more ingrained.

This is the reason why I watch casting videos, read helpful articles, and fish at least once a season with a guide. These habits help me unlearn some bad habits—like being lazy about keeping my fly line through my finger of my right hand at all times during my retrieve. When I fail to do this, I end up setting the hook on a strike with my left hand. That is much slower.

The truth is, the more you work at the craft of fly fishing, the better you will become. The fly fishing myth that more time on the water will lead to better skills is just that – a myth.

2. The more flies I have in my fly box, the better my odds at catching more fish.

There is some truth to this.

If you’re fishing when Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) start coming off the water, and all you have are darker flies like a Parachute Adams, then you won’t have success.

However, some of the most skilled fly fishers I know say that using fewer patterns has helped them catch more fish. If you have a few dry fly patterns (Parachute Adams, Pale Morning Dun, Elk Hair Caddis), a few nymphs (Beadhead Prince, Copper John, Zebra Midge), and a couple streamers (perhaps a black Woolley Bugger and an olive one), you’ll be fine. This assumes that you have them in a few different sizes.

Of course, I have a lot more patterns than this in my fly box. I like trying new patterns. Yet I find myself returning to the same basic patterns over and over again. The reason is that they work.

The truth is, the more you can simplify your fly selection, the better your chances at catching fish.

3. I will fly fish more if I move to a prime fly-fishing area.

I could write a book on this one. I lived in Montana for two decades and loved it.

But I noticed how life got in the way of my fly fishing. They were high school sporting events to attend, evening board meetings, long hours at work, and all kinds of family responsibilities. I do not begrudge any of these. My point is simply that moving to a prime-fly fishing area sounds romantic. But life will crowd your calendar.

When I lived near Bozeman for fourteen years (and my parents lived on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley for several of those years), I was able to get away for a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there. Occasionally, I could slip away during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch or when the Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs) were coming off of the East Gallatin less than a mile from my house.

Now, I spend about a week a year fly flshing in Montana. I probably spend as many hours on the water, though, as when I lived there.

If you get a chance to move to Montana or Maine or Oregon, do it. But don’t forget that

The truth is, you will have opportunities and obstacles to fish the great trout waters whether you live twenty miles from them or a thousand miles away. Living near a blue ribbon trout river is a terrific blessing. But it’s not bliss.

4. I will fly fish more at the next stage of my life.

Good luck with that!

I thought it would be easier when my kids were out of diapers and in school. But football, volleyball, soccer, concert choir, band, church youth group, and an endless string of activities took a lot of time. Then, when they moved away from home, I thought I’d have even more time. But now that “extra time” is spent visiting with them.

Of course, I love visiting them! I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that the next stage of life will probably not give you as much time as you want.

I’m not at retirement age, or close to it. But I suspect that my retirement body will not handle quite as much hiking and wading as I do now.

The truth is, you have to be relentless to carve out time at any stage of life to fly fish. Don’t wait for life to slow down. Get out there now because tomorrow will have scheduling issues of its own.

5. The more fish I catch, the more satisfied I will be.

Believe me, I love catching a lot of fish. I’ll take a forty-fish day over a ten-fish day any day! I’ve had a few of these the last two years. But when I do, I find that I have trouble slowing down the moment and savoring the experience when I catch one after another. I find myself almost getting greedy. I hurry to get one trout off the line to hook another one.

Then, I find at the end of the day that I rarely remember one or two specific fish I caught.

Besides, my desire to catch more fish doesn’t diminish at some magic number. I quit at 30 or 40 (if I’m fortunate to have such a great day) because I’m too tired or it’s too late—not because I’m so satisfied that I can stop. Catching trout number 30 makes me want to catch trout number 31 which makes me want to catch trout number 32.

The truth is, I need to savor each fish I catch and to remember that one more fish will not necessarily make the day better. It’s hard to say that, but it’s true. More satisfaction is just another fly fishing myth.

So don’t buy into the fly fishing myths of “more.” Thinking realistically will help you get more enjoyment out of your time on the river.

Is the 5 Weight Fly Rod the Best All Around?

Kirk Deeter recently posed a question which took me by surprise. On a Trout Unlimited blog, he asked: “Will the 5-weight always rule trout fishing?”

5 Weight Fly Rod

My surprise came from my assumption that the most popular all-around fly rod for trout fishing was a nine-foot, 6-weight.

Whenever Trout Unlimited offered a nine-foot, 5-weight for anglers who purchased a lifetime membership, I figured it was because they got a great deal from Sage or Winston. Surely those companies saw that 6-weights were selling like crazy and that they had a large leftover inventory of 5-weights.

It turns out that I was wrong.

5 Weight Fly Rod of Choice

TU offers nine-foot, 5-weight rods because they are the rods of choice. Deeter wonders if 4-weights might take over if technology can make them “beefier” or if 6-weights might one day rule if it gets “lighter.” Then he says: “For now, I just don’t see the 5-weight ever being supplanted as the world’s No. 1 fly rod.”

All of this makes me wonder: is the best all-around fly rod for trout fishing a nine-foot, 5 weight? Or a nine-foot, 6-weight?

I really don’t feel like arguing about this until I’m blue or red in the face. It reminds me a bit of those arguments over whether a .270 or a 30.06 is the best caliber for a deer rifle. One is more flat-shooting, the other packs more wallop. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is a hunter’s ability to shoot steady and straight.

So whether a 5-weight or a 6-weight is the “best” all-around fly rod depends on you. Which one feels best and works best for you?

What Are You Slinging?

Jerry Siem, a rod designer for Sage, says that the choice is all about the size of flies you intend to fish. Kirk Deeter concludes: “Nothing really compares to the 5-weight when it comes to throwing either size 18 BWO dry flies or size 10 woolly buggers.”

However, after years of fly fishing big western rivers like the Yellowstone and the Missouri, I’m partial to a 6-weight. I suspect that’s why a lot of fly shops in the west suggest them to first-time buyers.

I follow the reasoning of the late Tom Morgan, the owner of the Winston Rod Company from 1973 to 1991. He preferred the 6-weight for handling wind (plenty of that in the west) and for making longer casts. He liked the delicacy of the 5-weight, but felt it was too delicate to be the right choice for an all-around rod—especially on the big rivers in Montana.

Personally, if I want more delicate, I drop down to a 4-weight.

This introduces another consideration: If you use multiple rods, do you want to go with even sizes (4, 6, 8) or odd sizes (3, 5, 7)? I like to go on the heavier side. By the way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to own both a 5-weight and a 6-weight unless you have an abundance of disposable income or you are that good to appreciate the fine shade of difference.

How, then, should you determine what is the right size for your all-around, go-to fly rod?

Waters and Wind

First, consider what size of water you will be fishing and how much wind you will encounter. Trying to decide based on fly size is, in my opinion, a bit more difficult.

Second, get some help from the guides at a fly shop. You might want to talk to more than one guide to listen for recurring themes in their advice.

Third, and perhaps most important, try casting both a 5-weight and a 6-weight. Choose the one that feels best to you.

My brother, Dave, recently invested in a high-quality fly rod for his “go-to, all-around” rod. He asked me my recommendation. I strongly suggested he get a nine-foot, 6-weight. But instead of listening to his older (and wiser!) brother, he dissed my advice! He tried both a 5-weight and a 6-weight. The 5-weight felt better to him.

I am happy to report that my brother and I still speak to each other. Do we argue about whether a 5-weight or a 6-weight is best? No. We are too busy catching fish.

Unless you’re one of those people who has to be right about everything, get used to the idea that ideal rod-weight is in the eye of the beholder—or actually, in the feel of the fly-caster. Anglers — from novice state to expert stage — will continue to debate the merits of 5-weight versus a 6-weight.

The good news is that you won’t go wrong with either one.

When to Cast Your Fly Downstream

Casting downstream is not generally my first instinct. But when I do, I have a good reason for it. Yes, the default mode for fly fishing is to cast upstream. It provides greater control of the drift, and a lot of the action happens as your fly drifts right in front of you. It also keeps you behind the trout you’re trying to catch. This prevents them from seeing you and fleeing to safety.

cast your fly downstream

However, here are three times when it makes sense to cast your fly downstream:

1. You are fishing streamers in deep runs

Of course, you can cast a streamer upstream, let it drift down the current, and then strip it in back upstream once it swings across the current at the end of your drift.

But in deeper runs, I like to get above them and make my cast downstream.

I aim for the tail end of the pool or run and give my streamer time to sink. Then, I strip it back through the pool. This creates the effect of something swimming rather than drifting — and that is what you want with Woolly Buggers or Dalai Lamas or other streamers. I feel like I have better control that if I cast upstream, let my fly drift through the run, and then retrieve it. Often, the area above the run is too shallow to be fishable. So why bother?

I’ve fished a lot of runs from above in the fall on the Gallatin River near Bozeman, Montana. It’s been deadly on brown trout. Dave, my podcast partner, and I did this effectively too last fall on Willow Creek in Montana’s Gallatin Valley.

Even though when you cast your fly downstream, it puts you above the trout, they are less likely to see you when the run your fishing is deep. Of course, you can always find ways to stay hidden by crouching down or hiding behind some brush on the bank.

2. You are trying to cast a dry fly in a tight spot

Suppose you’re fishing upstream (with the current coming towards you), and you come to a run that is tight against the bank on which you are standing. You might be able to wade out into the stream or river to get a better angle. But on some streams or rivers, you cannot do this without spooking fish. It’s time to figure out how to cast your fly downstream.

I think of a run in the Yellowstone River that hugs a rock cliff for about two-hundred yards. This run is too deep to wade. It’s flows so tight against the bank (with little curve to the river) that it creates an awkward cast for a right-handed caster (which most of us are). The best solution is to fish it from above and cast your fly downstream.

Sometimes, the current can be a factor.

I think of particular runs where I could minimize drag (the current dragging my fly through the run) by standing above it (casting downstream) than by approaching it from below (casting upstream).

3. You are dealing with wind and shadows

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: it’s harder to cast with the wind in your face than with the wind at your back. If the wind is strong enough (and it has not convinced you to quit), cast your fly downstream just so you can get the wind at your back — particularly if you need distance on your cast.

Later or earlier in the day, the shadows are longer. So the sun can be an issue. If the sun is behind you casting long shadows when you’re trying to cast upstream, then go above the run and cast downstream so your shadow doesn’t spook the fish.

Sometimes, one cast is the best shot you have at catching a fish from a particular run. Treat the cast like a golfer treats a putt on the green. Analyze the situation and figure out your approach. In a few cases, it might make more sense to cast downstream.

For more information on how and when to cast your fly downstream, listen to our podcast on Casting Upstream or Downstream.

Double Up for Fly Fishing Success

Two is better than one when it comes to chocolate brownies, contact lenses, and trout flies. If you’re looking to increase your odds of catching trout, then double up. Use a lead fly and then a second fly, which trails behind it a foot or so.

fly fishing success

Here are some double-fly combinations that really work. They include wet-fly combos, dry-fly combos, and dry-wet-fly combos. You never know which fly the trout may prefer on a given day:

1. The Hopper + Terrestrial

This is great for late summer during hopper season. Start with a size 6-10 hopper pattern—or some kind of large attractor pattern (such as a Stimulator). Then, trail either an ant or beetle pattern behind it. This is basically a dry fly combo, although it’s fine if your dropper (the ant or beetle) floats below the surface in the film. Last week, I was fly fishing in Colorado and talked to a fly fisher who used this combo in a high mountain lake and caught fish after fish on size 14 beetle pattern.

2. The Elk Hair Caddis + Caddis Emerger

This is a dry-wet fly combination which works well in the late spring (when the Caddis start to appear) and then into the summer as the Caddis flies continue to emerge.

I like a size 14 or 16 Elk Hair Caddis as my dry fly. Then, I use some kind of an emerger pattern as the dropper. One of my favorite droppers is a size 14 Red Fox Squirrel Nymph. I’ve had great success with this combo on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. With this combo, your lead fly acts as a strike indicator. I’ve often tied some synthetic red or white fibers at the top of Elk Hair Caddis so I can distinguish it from all the other Caddis flies on the water.

3. Woolly Bugger + San Juan Worm

My podcast partner, Dave, put me onto this combo. It’s worked well for us in the Driftless region of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. This is a wet fly combo. Start with a smaller-sized Woolly Bugger (8-10) and then use a San Juan Worm (tied on a size 8-12 scud hook) as dropper. I use a strike indicator and drift it like a nymphing rig. Then, at the end of the drift, I will swing it and strip it back to me.

On the swing and strip, it’s the Woolly Bugger that is effective.

4. Egg Pattern + Copper John

When I’m fly fishing during the rainbow spawning season in the spring, I’ll often turn to this wet-fly combination. I’ll begin with a standard-size egg pattern (12-14) and then use a size 18 Copper John as my dropper. I like a Red Copper John. Or, I’ll use a Dave’s Emerger. This fly was developed by Dave Corcoran, then the owner of The River’s Edge Fly Shop in Bozeman, Montana.

Regardless of which dropper I use, this combo has been lethal during the rainbow run on Montana’s Madison River. It can work, too, during the fall when the browns are running. But continue reading for another dynamite wet-fly combo.

5. Stone Fly + Egg Pattern

Dave and I used this last fall in the Gardner River in the north reaches of Yellowstone National Park. We had outstanding results. Start with a Stone Fly nymph pattern (size 8-10). The options are legion.

A Golden Stone Fly or a Rubberlegs Stone Fly (with a brown or tan body) works quite well. Then, use a standard-size egg pattern (12-14) as the dropper. Last fall, I had a 30-fish morning on the Gardner using this combination. The browns were all between 15 and 20 inches. I estimate that I caught half on the Stone Fly and half on the egg pattern.

6. Beadhead Prince + Pheasant Tail

This wet-fly combo, or some variation of it, may be the standard go to pattern when there is no obvious hatch.

Use a Beadhead Prince Nymph in a size 12-14 as your lead fly. Or go with another standard nymph such as a Hare’s Ear. Then, use a size 18 Pheasant Tail as your dropper. Again, your dropper could be any number of nymphs—such as a Copper John or Zebra Midge.

Remember, two are usually better than one. Try one of these combinations or experiment with some of your own. You’ll likely double your chances of catching the trout which are monitoring the food line you’re fishing.

Know Your Pattern: H and L Variant

H and L Variant is a new fly. At least to me. I picked up the fly several weeks ago at a fly shop near Winter Park, Colorado. Frankly, I had not even heard of the H and L Variant until a friend put me on to it. Shows what I know.

H and L Variant

The H and L Variant is no new fly, of course. Here is a snapshot of this oldie but goodie:

1. How it originated

R.C. Coffman (a western Colorado fly fisher) ostensibly tied the first H and L Variant. He apparently sold so many of the fly in the mid-to-late 1950s to President Eisenhower that he (Coffman) said he was able to buy a “house and a lot” (thus the “H” and “L”) on the Fryingpan River in Colorado.

Sounds apocryphal to me.

Using today’s math and valuations, Coffman would have likely had to sell $250,000 worth of $2 flies to buy even a small piece of real estate along the Fryingpan River.

I bet that Coffman was a really good story-teller. He certainly created a fly for the ages.

2. How is it designed?

I am certainly no fly-tying expert but when I saw the H and L Variant for the first time, it reminded me of the Royal Coachman chassis. Like the Royal Coachman dry fly, the H and L Variant has calf-tail wings and a body of peacock herl. According to Skip Morris, the H and L Variant body is created by partially stripping a peacock quill and wrapping it so “the bare quill forms the rear half of the body and the fiber-covered quill the front half.”

The other distinguishing feature is its calf-tail-hair tail, which along with its calf-tail-hair wings, gives it its buoyancy.

3. Why it works

The H and L Variant is what is known as a “rough water” fly.

That is, as one writer put it, “this fly floats like a cork.” It sits nice and high in swift-moving current and stays dry. I also love the fly’s visibility in low light. One writer called its calf-hair wings and tail “white beacons.” They are. And my middle-aged eyes appreciate it!

I should state the obvious: the H and L Variant is an attractor pattern, generally, though I did see at least one fly fisher mention that he uses the fly as a Green Drake imitation on western rivers, such as the Roaring Fork and Colorado.

4. When to use it

I’ve made the H and L Variant one of my go-to attractor patterns when I want to surface evening risers. I did that recently on the Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had caught several brook trout on Caddis emergers but not on a dry fly Caddis or a Purple Haze pattern, two of my favorites. Stumped, I tied on the H and L Variant, and within ten minutes I had my first brookie on a dry fly.

The H and L Variant is more visible (at least it is to me) than any other attractor pattern. So, if you are fishing small, swift-moving streams or rough water, this is the fly.

The H and L Variant Name

I do not mean any disrespect to Mr. Coffman, but name H and L Variant is just about the most clunky name for a fly that I can imagine. But I tip my hat to him for creating a dry fly classic with a rich legacy and a bright future.

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    The Royal Coachman

    The San Juan Worm

    The Parachute Adams