Be A Better Angler

PaulB Mon, 11/21/2016 - 09:55

Becoming a better angler

This post is written at a level that could benefit both beginners and more experienced `improvers’ with hopefully the odd nugget for the experienced anglers in the WLAA. However, I would welcome input from our more experienced anglers who can add their own experiences to expand on what is covered here.

You’ll often hear anglers say “every day is a school day” and that you learn something new every time you go out fishing. While I totally agree with that, and the fact you never stop learning on fishing trips, this also means that you are accepting that you learn stuff by accident! It also means you have no control over the speed of that learning curve so improving your catches is never going to happen very quickly.

If however, you can be brutally honest with yourself, you can identify loads of areas where you could be much better at fly fishing – and any improvement(s) made will only make you enjoy your fishing so much more. At the end of each season, I look at my whole year in great detail and jot down notes about the times I had really good catches (so I can remember what I did right/flies used etc.) and the times I scared a fish with a bad cast or just the times I never cracked the code and went home empty handed. I think about the items of tackle that might have made a difference and the methods I should have fished but didn’t. As soon as I have that list, I act upon it. My prep for March 15th 2017 started the day after the 2016 season finished.

If you want to catch more fish in 2017 than you did in 2016, then hopefully some of what follows will help you achieve that.

As a coach, here are some of the more common issues I come across and some advice I can offer to address them:

I can never get near a rising fish – they always seem to stop rising before I can get a fly over them.
Do you have one of the new Hardy hats? Or even the 200 dollar Simms wading jacket in Fluo red? If so, bin it and buy a camo one!! Same goes for your t shirt or bag or whatever. If the fish can see you, the game is over.

Is your fly line fluorescent chartreuse or orange? If so, you will struggle to stay out of sight of your target. All my river lines are dull grey or olive or straw. There is an argument that fish don’t see a bright line lying on a mirrored surface under a bright sky – not wanting to get into that argument, they can definitely see a bright line flashing backwards and forwards under a shaded tree canopy – I’ve seen an angler clear a pool in 5 seconds doing just that.

Can you straighten the leader well so that the fly is as far away as it can be from your fly line? If not, get some coaching or a demo and buy a knotless tapered leader to use. Fulling Mill World class leaders are about as good as it gets.

Are you fishing from a downstream position? If there is a rough current (opaque like your bathroom window) between you and the fish it keep you out of sight, as do bushes and rocks. Keep low wherever possible (use kneepads over your waders) and you don’t have to wade right in if you don’t have to.

One very important point is that there may be lots of fish in the pool and the uppermost one is rising. If you cast directly to the rising one, it puts fly line over the others that were lying there unseen. They then bolt off, scaring the one you were after. I usually have a few test casts behind a riser to check for others and then work my way up to it.

I get lots of takes but can’t convert to fish in the net!

Wet fly – if you cast wet flies across a stream and let them drift and swing across the current, you will get lots of plucks and takes that just don’t stick. Don’t beat yourself up about it as this is to be expected with this method, especially when the fish wise up in late Spring. You can maximise your catches though by not having any slack fly line between the fly and the rod tip, i.e. don’t hold the rod high and have a big line sag. Also, don’t use light, stretchy nylon – use something stiff like Orvis Super Strong (6lbs).

Nymph – the more delicate your rig, the earlier/ easier you will spot takes – at which point you strike to set the hook. By always paying very close attention and fishing with bright indicator nylon, you will learn to strike at anything that doesn’t appear normal.

Dry fly – the `strike’ in dry fly fishing needs to be adjusted to suit the type of fly used and the type of rise made by the fish – usually linked. Shuttlecock type flies that are fished in slow/flat water are leisurely sipped in by the fish and the strike is incredibly slow. Anything too fast just whips it out of their mouth before they have had time to close it. Parachute flies fished in medium to fast water are usually taken in a porpoising motion – the classic `head and tail’ rise. This is a medium paced take that needs to be left until the fish has completed the move before the strike is made. A fast splashy rise to any fly cannot be struck quickly enough.

General – sometimes you have to adjust fly/hook size to get any action and sometimes when fishing smaller hooks, it is more difficult to convert takes to fish in the net. You just have to deal with that I’m afraid – some action is better than none!
Sometimes my casting is good, at other times it kind of falls apart.

This is quite common and usually stems from casting timing changing as you become more tired or in many cases quicker because you have become really excited by a monster trout. I would suggest that you always look behind you to see that you are leaving enough time for your back-cast to fully straighten behind you, before flicking forward again. Also, make sure you don’t drop the rod too low on the back-cast; keep it high in the near vertical position and stop sharply while the back-cast is unfurling. You will always be the best fly fishing coach you can have, as long as you look at what you are doing, you’ll spot any issues quite easily. I do it all the time on the river, looking behind me as much as in front of me.

My presentation is poor!
Flies need to behave like the real thing. That means they need to land lightly and on their own, i.e. not in a heap among a big pile of tangled cast nylon. Practice straightening your leader – use a knotless tapered leader and a sharp `stop’ on the forward cast. Also, when casting, don’t aim at the water surface – aim a foot higher. This means that everything will straighten and if you have misjudged it a little, it will still straighten before it lands on the surface. What line size are you using? Many people I coach have 7 wt lines and can’t work out why they can’t land a Sz 18 fly like a feather!! I use a 2wt for really delicate stuff and a 4wt for most other dry fly fishing.

I can’t cast very far!
This is a common worry but on a river the size of the River Almond, you should never need to cast far, ever!! If you put a long line out over a river, it scares plenty of fish that will transmit fear right up to where your flies landed!! On the off-chance you cast to the horizon and got away with it, the fact your line crosses many different currents will mean your flies will get dragged out of position much easier and you cannot dry a fly quickly/easily with a long line – it is impossible. Just don’t do it.

My catches are pretty low/I don’t get a lot of action!
Are you fishing in the right places? Watercraft is a massive part of river fly fishing and you can waste a lot of time messing about in areas that are too bright, too shallow, too fast, too busy, not enough food or shelter. Fish at different times of year and in different conditions lean towards a particular water type – get success there and you can concentrate on that same type of water all day. A good example is in low water, bright conditions in the summer – the bulk of the fish can be found in the fastest/white water, and the rest in the shady deeps.

Different types of water demand different methods too.

Fast/white water – generally fished with the deep nymph or the more specialist `double nymph’ technique

Smooth, glassy glides – dry fly or very light nymphs suspended under a dry

Are you fishing with the right fly at the right time?
In springtime, dry fly only works well when a rise is on, usually just after lunch for an hour (or two if you are very lucky). The rest of the time, the fish are lying deeper where a nymph is all that will tempt them. The evenings can be great when the weather warms up a bit but are frustratingly devoid of action until then. On many rivers, it is the appearance of the Medium Olive hatches that signal the start of the evening rise – when the medium olive spinner returns to the water to lay.

Are you confident that your technique is up to scratch?
You might be getting takes but don’t notice them. You might be fishing the dry fly or nymph totally wrongly but don’t know it. Check out YouTube for loads of clips of people fishing fly in a myriad of ways – you will learn so much. Go fishing with other anglers and ask them for advice – tell them that you won’t get over-sensitive if they point out areas where you are going wrong – grow a pair and encourage that sort of feedback - it will serve you well.

I only catch small ones!
Small fish are more easily fooled. If you are only catching smaller ones, best look at why the bigger ones are avoiding you!

How thick is your nylon? Decent fish have seen it all before. Good presentation on believable nylon is a must to outwit a trout that lives in a busy river in Central Scotland!

How big are your hooks? Most of the insects a trout eats are quite small and in general, most anglers fish flies that are too large. If your flies are a realistic size, you will fool decent-sized fish.

How bright is your gear? I see it all the time – anglers with Fluo. Orange fly lines wondering why the decent fish just never seem to be there for them. The fact they are wearing an orange cap and a white T-shirt doesn’t set off alarm bells either! Basically, dress like you are a deer hunter – trout are that attentive.

How stealthy is your approach? This is a subject I know a lot about. I’m only 5’5” so I never scare fish from being too tall. I also wear knee pads and fish from a very low position a lot. I also bring a 40 Kg Black, excitable flat-coated retriever with me on most of my leisure trips and I see the difference between my catches when he is on the lead and not. Fish do not hear you shouting across the river to other anglers but they pick up every vibration from a heavy footfall, a metallic wading staff hitting rocks and splashing or moving fast through a pool. Stay low and quiet, move slowly, dress in camo and have more fun.

I get snapped a lot!
Tackle balance is super important on a river. To catch the most and biggest fish you can, you need to fish light gear but you can’t fish light nylon on a rod that is really heavy. A 2wt rod will land you big fish on 2lbs nylon but try fishing 3lbs nylon on a rod that takes a 7wt and it will not be soft enough to cushion the take of a large trout – usually ends up snapping the nylon. Always think about the softness of the rod compared to the nylon you are using. Never fish light nylon when you don’t have to, i.e. coloured water or big nymphs demand heavy nylon. I hardly ever get snapped but I pay a lot of attention to how the drag on my fly reel is set – it can easily give line when needed to protect light cast nylon. Also, if a rod is held high when a fish is fighting, it is fighting against a large spring – point the rod at the fish and there is no spring.

I can only catch fish on wet fly.
Most fly anglers start on wet fly and do reasonably well, especially before the fish wise up in late spring. The good thing about wet fly is that it is best at the rougher water near a pool neck and you are out of sight of fish when a rough surface is in between you and the fish – not so much on the flat glides or pool tails. Also, when fishing wet fly in these faster water channels, the fish have to make up their minds quickly and usually they take the wet fly without hesitation. In the slower water pool tails, they get much more time to inspect the wet fly and cast nylon.

If you are trying dry fly and not catching, the chances are you have a lot to learn about delicate presentation, avoiding drag, effective striking and dry fly types.
If you are trying nymph fishing and not catching, the chances are you have a lot to learn about nymph rig building, watercraft, nymph types and bite detection.
My advice would be to wait until you feel your wet fly catches have flattened off then get advice on how to catch fish on dry fly and nymph from a coach or another club member.

Good subjects to get a bit of river specific coaching for

This could be covered as full on, 1-2-1 coaching with an instructor (focussed on you, more intensive, high chance of success, more expensive) or await a demo from a club member (uncertain/erratic availability, quality level could be low-ish, free of charge). Each option has its advantages.

Dry fly fishing coaching will focus on – dry fly tackle and rigs, dry fly types, presentation/straightening a leader, how to fan cast over the water, effective striking.

Deep nymph fishing coaching will focus on – building nymph rigs, nymph types, watercraft, nymph style casting/flicking, bite detection

Good practice

Major improvements in your catches (and enjoyment) can be made without extensive learning and practicing and without the need to buy expensive tackle. By taking heed of the following, you could put more fish in the net:

Take a major interest in the weather forecast – I’m a major follower of weather and the Favourites/Bookmarks on my PC, tablet and mobile all have both weather sites and weather radar sites saved for quick access. Well ahead of any trip, I know what the forecast is (in some detail). As a fly fisherman, you’ll quickly notice that trout activity (or lack of it) is totally governed by insect activity (or lack of it)! If you have no idea of the weather, then you have no idea of what’s going to happen therefore no idea what approach to take on your session. It also helps you plan clothing, sunglasses or normal specs, where you are going to fish (e.g. woody/shaded areas as there will be bright sunshine) and how you may fish (deep as the surface is being chilled by a North wind).

Take a major interest in the water conditions – We are now blessed with the SEPA water level data site and there can be no excuse for getting to the water with only Sz 18 dry flies and the river is 6ft high!!! The URL for every river (home page) is and the River Almond is If a river is rising, you’ll have your work cut out as fish are usually more concerned with finding a high water lie. The river colour will also be getting more challenging so you’ll need bright tags on your flies.

Time wasters
Take notice of what wastes the most of your actual fishing time? Does any item of tackle catch and need unstuck; do you struggle to find the same item of tackle in your vest or tackle box; is your net easy to attach or get off? Finding simple solutions to the most common annoyances can really help you to spend more time fishing/catching:

Tangles – if you have the right nylon, a balanced rod/line combo, a tapered interface, and are not casting too quickly, then you will minimise this. Go heavier if you are struggling and avoid big heavy beads. Put a lighter bead on the tail to help straighten the leader. Don’t false cast a nymph rig, lob it.

Wading staff – gets you across the river quicker and maybe gets you to places you wouldn’t normally manage. Always have a rubber foot on it to keep it quiet on the rocks.

Keep a fishing log – Why? So that when you go out on the river, you have a decent starting shout and don’t waste your whole day chopping and changing to find successful tactics. At this time last year you may have caught well using a dry pale watery (Sz 16) and couldn’t catch on the nymph to save your life. By reading last year’s log before you left, it would have given you a good chance of repeating success - and quickly too. The memory plays loads of tricks on you and I’ve seen me on the river early season and struggling. When I get home I look at a log from a similar time last year and it says stuff like “You started two months too early!!”, “Buy a balaclava”, “This bit is empty!!”, etc.

Tackling up and changing tactics – tackle up two rods so that you can just unclip and clip as needed.

Fishing water only once – if you continually drift over the same channel or part of a channel, then you will take ages to fish a stretch effectively. Pay attention to exactly where your fly landed and where it started fishing – not always the same thing with nymphs or dries, and where you lifted it out to recast. Really pay attention to the bits where your fly line has been as these should not be covered again with flies. Rule of thumb – cast flies into untouched water – next cast, put the fly line where the flies were and the flies will be in new untouched water.

Finding fish – attempting to find fish can take all day and then still not happen. However, with really good watercraft, a hat with a wide brim and dark underside, good polarised specs, you’ll find them much better. Also, if you fish the glides and catch nothing, then fish the faster runs and start to catch fish, there’s a good chance that most of the fish are in the runs, so just fish that one type of water all day.

Water column – you can fish different methods over the same area if you do it in the right order and you are stealthy enough. On a typical pool with a fast and rough pool neck, medium pace middle and a flatter tail, you can lightly fish dries from the tail up to the neck at the top, then fish wet flies back down (with maybe a small nymph on the point), then fish all the way back up to the neck with deep nymph. That way you are fishing the surface first, then the middle then the deeps – any other way round and you’ll scare fish and not catch them all. Stand up and splash at any point and you’ll blow it too – stay low and keep back from the target area.

Learn to tie your own flies – in most cases, the micro-adjustments you make when fishing make all the difference. On a trip on the last day of the season with David Meek I could not interest any of the risers until I went down a fly size and then was kept busy for the foreseeable. Having a fly in your box that the fish want is one thing, but having enough of them in a range of sizes is another! When tying a pattern, I generally tie it in a few sizes and make a few of each. Buying that range from a shop could be expensive – assuming they had what you wanted. Attend a WLAA fly tying evening!

Good reading material

I used to advocate a whole range of books, and although what I learned in them was great, it is all a bit dated now. Much better to have a range of really good blogs that you can follow – easily done by clicking on them and clicking `follow’ – you’ll then get a text or see them on Twitter. The ones I follow are:

Well I hope there are one or two points in this blog that will help you decide on the areas you need to improve and then list them for practice whenever possible. There is still a fair bit of time before the trout season starts and you can practice quite a few things on a river with a grayling ticket. You can also practice casting on a nearby field or local fishery.

If you want to add your own experiences/comments about this blog for the benefit of our members/readers, please comment on the blog link post on the WLAA Facebook page. Similarly, please ask questions there and I'm sure there will be many prepared to answer your query.

The next blog will discuss tackle – all in time for you to add anything necessary to your Christmas List!