Learn To Observe & Master the Art of Fly Selection
If you learn all the insects, what fly patterns imitate which insects, come prepared to the river, but don’t spend any time figuring out what is happening on any given day in the water, it’s all for not. Even an angler like myself who has spent years of effort to master fly selection, I’m still learning tons and this is the hardest part of fly selection.
It’s like spending years studying to pass the bar and become a lawyer. You’ve worked hard, studied, practiced, but all that matters now is how you perform on the test. Likewise, all the knowledge was meant to prepare you, but once you’re on the river, it’s time to put everything into practice and see if you can actually use it to help you catch more fish. Some days it will seem like magic as you figure it out, other times, you’re missing something and you know it but will struggle to complete the puzzle. This is the challenge that keeps us coming back as anglers, so be challenged and motivated (never defeated) as you work to figure out what the fish are eating. You’ll learn a ton from success and mistakes, the important part is to keep trying and enjoying your time on the water as you work to outsmart a fish with the brain smaller than your pinky finger.
We’re going over the steps we do every time we are on the water to maximize our fly selection success. If you follow these steps every time you get on the water, you’ll find your fly selection will improve and you will begin to catch more fish.
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Do Nothing for 5 Minutes
It May Be the Most Productive Part of Your Day
Most anglers are just too excited to fish that they barrel out of the car, either grab their pre-rigged rod, or rig up at the car with some ideas about what they should fish only to miss the boat completely.
The best tip older, well-experienced anglers gave me time and time again when I asked them about this subject is to just take 5 minutes, sit down, take a deep breath and just take everything in. This is not only relaxing, but helps you become more aware of your surroundings for the rest of the day.
As you sit there for 5 minutes, you will become aware of several of the key factors you’ll use to select the right fly. The cool breeze on your face, the sun going behind the clouds, the rising trout at the end of a run you are sitting near, the 3 inch salmonfly hitting you in the face providing only the bravest, a breakfast snack. Some of these experiences will be subtle but as you relax and take your time, will become apparent and carry with you the rest of the day. Others, like the salmonfly on a collision course, will literally hit you in the face an a clear clue of what could be happening on the river.
No two days and even no two hours are the same on a river, and learning to be aware of your surroundings in the following areas will help you master your observation skills throughout the day to maximize your success at fly selection and ultimately catching fish.
Areas and Events You Should Observe in These 5 Minutes
- The River – The speed of the water, the clarity, the temprature, the depths, the structure and any location where fish are seen feeding or are visible
- The Banks – Walk around for a minute to check on some branches, some twigs, trees, grass etc. Any kind of structure on the stream side will often produce insects or evidence of some life that you can use in helping you make a decision on your flies for the day.
- The Weather – Check the skies, the temps, any wind or cloud cover. The kinds of clouds and what they maybe telling you about the rest of the day and what to expect. Things of this nature will help you predict what bugs may do in the coming hours and what they have done in the previous hours as well as trout behavior.
That may seem like a lot to take in, but with a calming five minutes, you’ll be impressed how much you take in. You’ll be even more impressed how much further aware you are of these elements throughout the day. Take a couple breaks throughout the day and if you find yourself becoming in a hurry or impatient, remind yourself of this, “You only need one cast to catch a fish” Meaning there is no rush when it comes to fishing. It’s quality over quantity.
Take some extra time when you first get to the river next outing and you’ll be on your way to mastering observation and fly selection so you can catch more fish.
Find the Active Insects
Get Out Your Bug Seines or Other Bug Catching Devices
This is a very important part to the observation game. Using the bug seine we provide as part of our online entomology course, or something of your own making, get in the river and collect some insects both above and under the water when possible.
In our course we talk about the dinner plate and menu methods of collecting insects. It pretty much means first find out what’s on the menu by doing whatever you can to find insects. This means kicking around some rocks or disturbing the streambed enough to get some insects dislodged and into your seine. This tells you what the fish could be eating based on the quantities you find and what you find i.e a menu of what trout could eat for the day. The menu method just sets the seine in the water and waits for insects to float in. Just cause you find a stonefly nymph under a rock doesn’t mean fish are keyed in on it for the day, you have to see what’s in the water floating down and pair that with seasonal and behavioral knowledge of insects to make the most of your observations.
Applying the menu and dinner plate methods will help you find bugs in the water, after that, you can look to the trees and streamside structure to find adult insects hiding among the forage. Insects often like cool, moist areas in the foliage which means shade or any place with dew in the mornings. With a little effort you’ll find adult insects from spring to fall without much issue.
Once you have found bugs using your seine or turning over rocks and found bugs in the trees or forage around the river, you can begin to make some assumptions and begin to form an educated guess on what the trout should be eating. Now you are ready to filter this knowledge against what you are observing on the water for the day and what you know about the seasonal and behavior of the insects you found.
Review Your Bug Behaviors
Apply Your Seasonal & Behavioral Knowledge
At this point, you have a good idea of the current weather, flows and environment as well as a decent guess at the rest of the day through weather reports and cloud formations. You also have found several bugs in the river both floating through and from digging them up with a seine or similar tool as well as found some insects on the bank if there are any (assuming spring to fall here). Now it’s time to apply your seasonal knowledge and bug behavior to make a guess that is educated and intentional.
The best way to explain this is by using an example. Let me set the stage with some things I found on a recent trip to a local river:
I got to the river on a warm early July afternoon. I was already rigged from a previous river so I just walked down to the river set my rod on the stream bank and began my 5-minute relax-observation time. The river was loud which brought my attention to the amount of water, steep gradient of stream and ample pocket water I would be targeting with little open space from the foliage to cast more than 15 ft successfully. The river appeared to be up as I could see foliage that was green and new but buried under a few inches of water near the bank. The water clarity was tea colored, perfect for trout habitat and for giving me confidence of what was to come. The clouds were partly cloudy with little to no wind and it was hot, likely low 80’s which is a statement at 9500 ft in elevation.
I heard plenty of insects buzzing about and the consistent tone of hoppers and cicadas in the trees and foliage around me. The river simply sounded alive and given it was early July, just after run off had subsided, this came as no surprise, but simply a re-assurance to the stable weather I had been experiencing all week.
Five minutes went quickly as my alarm went off and I got my net and bug seine and found a semi shallow section of the 20 ft wide river and kicked around some rocks. I picked up several large golden stoneflies, a handful of midges and small baetis mayfly nymphs and tons of free form caddis, I mean tons of caddis. As I sat and waited for bugs to float into my seine, I noticed caddis coming off the water on the banks in the soft water with great consistency and above the water, there were golden helicopter insects flying around looking for somewhere to land. These were golden stones and the caddis adults had already been spotted.
Now that my seining was done, I had found a ton of caddis and seen a ton of caddis as well as a golden stone or two fluttering around. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect for the day.
The last step was to check it against the seasonal and insect behavior and see if things made sense. It was early July, a fine time in Colorado for golden stones to still be hatching and anytime in the summer is good for a caddis hatch. The water was certainly good for dry flies given the water color and pocket water and my overall inclination to not throw a nymph for the day led me to a decision to throw dries. Seeing the active behavior of these insects was strong evidence that they would be successful if presented well and the weather, being stable, gave good reason to believe this would continue.
I ended with a decision to fish a two dry fly set up with a yellow stimulator size 12 as the first fly and trail a CDC elk hair caddis as the point fly. This would allow me to easily see the flies with the larger fly and get a good presentation and cover two insects that appeared to be good choices on the river based on what I had observed. 2 hours, and 40 fish later, I was pleased with my decision and success. Rainbows, browns and brook trout ranging 8 – 16 inches were landed and two of the larger brook trout were kept for dinner, so I could do my part to help the rainbows and browns thrive and keep the balance alive.
Bringing it Together
We can go over my decisions and thought process in a minute, but the important thing here is to see that I applied the seasonal and behavior knowledge of insects last, like a filter to make sure things made sense. The weather and insects you can not control, only observe. The seasonal and insect behavior can’t be controlled either, but you can use this as a filter against what you see to narrow down the results.
I’m sure nymphs would have worked that day too, but I’m fairly certain that mayfly and midge nymphs would not have been as successful. Remember, to master fly selection, you have to find the fly that works best for the day to the best of your ability. It isn’t about catching one fish with a fly, it’s about finding that consistent pattern and maximizing your success.
In this scenario it was easy to rule out scuds, sowbugs, most terrestrials (though they were an option if I was wrong the first go around), midges and mayflies, leaving me with just caddis and stoneflies. I was then able to recognize emerging and adult insects in these categories, and chose dry flies out of personal preference though I would have switched to nymphs if dries didn’t produce and would have stuck to caddis and stonefly nymphs. Because I know caddis and stones were hatching this time of year and the weather was cooperating, I could make this guess with greater confidence. Finding the nymphs in the stream in such numbers helped solidify my answer as well.
Do you see how all of these come together to give you the best guesses possible and narrow down your results to the smallest few flies to find the right patterns the quickest? That is the whole purpose of fly selection. It took me about 8 minutes to form this guess with about 3-4 more patterns I knew I was going to try next if the first ones didn’t work. I got lucky and guessed right on the first go, making my day ultra successful. With practice observing, learning your insects, and using seasonal filters to solidify your answers, you can master fly selection and catch more fish.
There are no two scenarios that are the same on the river, so do yourself a favor and learn how to master fly selection so you can figure out the river every time you fish.
Conclusion – You Finished!
Congratulations, this is the last part of our official 5-part fly selection mastery series. You’ve learned why fly selection is important, the skills needed to master fly selection, learned the insects you need to know on the river and how to observe and make the best guess on the river. This is how the experts choose their flies on any river. You can do it too and with a solid foundation in fly fishing entomology, you can master this area of the sport and put more fish to net each time you’re on the water.
We hope you enjoyed this free series. If you’re ready to invest in your learning, be sure to check out our online entomology course (below) and take the time to master your bugs.
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