The Most Important Fly Fishing Article
You’ll Ever Read

Learning to Master Any River

While we all fly fish for a lot of reasons, we all share one primary goal; to catch more fish.  Wherever you are in your fly fishing career, you can always improve and learn more.  I’m going to share with you today something I wish I had known back when I first started fly fishing over 15 years ago.  I’m going to teach you a simple strategy that you can keep in your mind while on the river that will help you figure out how to catch fish anytime, anywhere.  The framework I’ll teach you will also help you find where you are strong and where you are weak in your fly fishing skills so you can improve them and become a well balanced angler.  Let’s discuss the strategy for fly fishing that will always yield success

The Fly Fishing Equation

Location + Fly Selection + Presentation = Catch Fish

There you have it.  That’s the three ingredients you need to catch fish.  It’s actually very straightforward and simple on the surface, but the learnings and improvements come when you dive in deeper.  I’m shocked at how many people fail to correctly execute this on the river and I think it’s because people aren’t always thinking about these variables while on the river.  Often, you’ll have people polarized on one side or the other about these variables stating you only need really good presentation to catch fish or if you don’t have the absolute perfect fly, you’ll never catch that trout.  Balance is an important and repeating trend in fly fishing and is the key to this strategy.

You can’t have the right fly and a great cast, but fishing in water that doesn’t hold fish.  You can’t be in trout infested waters during a caddis hatch throwing a size #2 flying ant in chartreuse and expect to catch any fish, even with a drag free drift.  You can’t be in the middle of a midge hatch with rising trout all around and be skating your midge due to unintentional drag on your fly line.  All of the above scenarios will yield you very few to no trout.  However, if you’re in the right spot, during a caddis hatch and able to throw a semi-decent elk hair caddis out with a fairly drag-free drift, you’re much more likely to have a good numbers day.  A balance of all three are needed.  In addition, there are times where location is more important than fly selection or presentation, and conversely, the same is true for fly selection and presentation.  Tailwaters that get pressured often are a great example of a good location (meaning full of trout) but it often requires excellent presentation and fly selection for success. 

I could give dozens of more examples but I think you get the point.  The goal of any day should be finding the right balance of these three variables in order to catch the most fish.  Before we talk you through some more examples to help show how this works on the water, I want to dive into each of these variables a little closer and peel back the onion.  You’ll see that though there are just three variables to successful fly fishing, there are dozens of ingredients that make up those variables and within those variables is the secret sauce to success.

Follow These Steps

Follow through these steps with me and then we’ll give some examples at the end to connect it together well. We’re about to open pandoras box of fly fishing and it’s remarkable how complicated it actually is. With that said, we’ve broken it down into these steps. I believe you should take these steps in the order the are presented below. Plan ahead considering all of these variables, but make decisions in the order they are presented below.

Fly Fishing Location

The Steps & Variables to Finding a Good Fly Fishing Location

Step 1 – Finding the Right Location from Map to Cast

When we talk about fly fishing locations, we’re first and foremost discussing places where the fish you’re targeting are plentiful. However, there are dozens upon dozens of variables that make up what makes a good location for catching fish. For purposes of this article we’re going to focus on trout in rivers. While these examples and areas will make the most sense for trout rivers, they can be adjusted for any fish and body of water you fish. Here are the main areas that should be considered when finding a good location:

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors cover two areas. First, it covers habitat for the targeted species, in this case, trout. You need the right water temperatures, streamflows, insect life, stream structure and a host of other options that make good trout water. We will discuss these in further detail in later posts, but pick 4 or 5 areas you fish often and look at them on a map and look at pictures you’ve taken of the landscape. There are many factors going on there and finding those in other rivers in your area are often what will find you new and productive trout waters.

Streamflows and Their Importance

I want to take a moment here and touch on the subject of streamflows. This can be incredibly important. The USGS and local state departments for wildlife and resource management all track major rivers at several points along their journey to help aid in water management and other reasons. For us as anglers, we can make use of this data as well and track where stream flows are at. While the numbers and the story they tell is different for every river, it’s important to look for three things when researching stream flows.

First, what are the flows at in comparison to historical highs and lows? Knowing if flows are high or low for a time of year or any given day helps you see if you should expect anything different from previous years. This data can be found on their sites if you do a historical search.

The second is whether the flow is going up or coming down. It has to be coming up or going down at anytime, but how much it has gone up or come down can make a difference in what you fish and when you fish. An example would be when flows have been stable in mid spring and they jump up due to rain or snowmelt in a matter of days. This can trigger annelid, cranefly and other insects to be more plentiful in the flows as they commonly get dislodged as the the force of the water increases with streamflow bumps. Things like this can make huge differences on your success for the day. Check if flows are going up and down and learn what that means for the rivers you fish and you’ll be better off in preparing for your day.

Lastly, is the fishable flows range. This of course varies per river, but all rivers have an optimal flow. Set the ranges for your river by looking at historical highs and lows for the last few years against the data you have on how it fished at those times. Typically you can do this based off runoff as well. Looking at a river that commonly sits between 200 – 400 cfs but hits 1600 cfs in run off and has flows later in the year (November or so) of only 100 cfs tells me that you can likely fish the river well between 150 cfs and 800 cfs. You can split runoff in half and add 50% to the bottom flow to get a fishable range, then in the middle of that range (325 cfs) is your optimal flow and anything up or down from there 100-200cfs is probably good flows. It’s a little arbitrary but after fishing the river a few times at different flows and looking at the stream structure you’ll have a good idea of when things should fish well and when they wouldn’t. I could, and likely will, write a more complete article on understanding streamflows for fly fishing in more detail, but for now understand they are very important to the environmental location factors of making your best fly fishing day.

The second environmental factor is weather. Day temps, night temps, daily avg temps, wind, cloud cover, rain, snow, barometric pressure, moon phases, and more all attribute to the weather. It is also broken down seasonally. A winter snow storm, for example with temps in the high 30’s can produce excellent fishing right in the thick of the storm due to low pressure, relatively warm temps (for winter) and the fact that midges hatch in anything it seems and make for good trout food. However, if you get a snow storm in summer when it’s supposed to be 80’s and it’s 30’s that almost certainly will shut the fishing down until things stabilize. So it’s not completely straightforward, but when you break it down per season, there are trends to look for and consider and with careful observation and note taking you can find the right weather trends for each season that are optimal in your area.

Environmental factors are very important to fly fishing success, but are something that as anglers, we have the least amount of control. It’s important to know as much as you can so you can plan for success. I’ve had days where weather has completely ruined and made the days, regardless of fly selection and presentation. Take your time to learn, track and measure these factors and you can find some excellent places to fish and learn the right times to fish them making your days exponentially more successful.

River Factors

In addition to the environment, where to fish on the river is very important as well. In our efforts in building the River Explorer, we built an acronym to help us understand how rivers are broken down. BRSB is the acronym and it stands for Basin, River, Section, Beat. A basin is the a single and complete drainage from one major river system to another. In Colorado, the South Platte River Basin is comprised primarily of the South Platte River as the primary drainage, but has dozens of other rivers (bear creek, boulder creek, clear creek, etc) that all drain into the south platte creating the basin.

The river of course is how most of us talk about where we fished. That is simply the name of the river. Moving on.

The section is where it gets tricky as we try to communicate together as anglers. Some of the more famous rivers have sections that are well understood, while others such as cross creek only really have an upper, middle and lower section. Sections are defined as noticeably different fishing or environmental changes that happen in a river. A river may start out small in the upper section containing small pocket water, but picks up bigger streamflows and widens into a medium size river and more traditional runs, riffles and holes. A reservoir may dam up the river creating a tailwater and thus, a new section. Or it could even be things like what we see on the Bighorn river in MT, where A-3 section is the first section standing for Afterbay boat ramp to 3-mile boat ramp where anglers commonly float a “section” of river. This changes based on the state, size of water and environment.

The beat is just another breakdown within a section of river as some sections are rather large. A beat refers to a minimum a single series of a run, riffle and hole. This is the minimum, but the range can expand as necessary for the river size and way the sections are defined. For example, here in Colorado we have the South Platte River Basin -> South Platte River -> Dream Stream (Charlie Meyers SWA) Section -> Upper, Middle and Lower Beats that are defined by the parking lots. Many beats are developed in this fashion.

With all that said and defined, it is important to have a way to track and segment rivers because they will fish differently on any given day. Some areas have strong hatches during certain seasons while others seem to produce best in early or late seasons. The best way to discover this is by experience and talking with others about their experience. Once you have some knowledge or experience on certain sections at certain times of years, you can use that in conjuction with weather data and have a pretty good idea what section and even beat you should fish for your upcoming trip. I can’t emphasize this research enough, it really helps your fishing chances when you can find a spot that has produced well in the past during certain conditions vs a random spot that you pick for whatever reason.

Water Factors

Ok if you’ve followed the steps so far, the key now is to know where to fish on the beat. You’ve chosen a river and section that should fish well given the weather and streamflow conditions and now you are ready to throw in a line. This is equivalent to the old golf saying, you drive for show and putt for dough. The ability to read water and make a cast to a fish is paramount to success. You can be in the right area with the right weather, but if you can’t find the fish from there, you’re going to miss out. While we won’t get into the hows and whats of reading water in this post, we simply are going to state it’s importance. Spend time learning where fish hold and why they hold there and in combination with the above location factors, you can be relatively certain that you are now throwing a fly near a fish. This is good and all you need now is the right fly and presentation which we’ll cover next.

Mastering Fly Selection

The Steps it Takes to Match The Insects to Your Flies Everytime

Fly selection, in it’s simplest definition is the ability to choose the right fly on any given occasion.  How do you do that?  Well, the best approach we’ve had is covered in our fly selection mastery series here, but we’ll break it down a bit for you here and you can read that (it’s free) to get in-depth detail.

Know Your Bugs

The first step is to know your bugs.  If you don’t know the 13 major categories of insects that trout eat off the top of your head, you will struggle at some point to choose the right fly.  Midges, Mayflies, Caddis, Stoneflies, Scuds, Sowbugs, Hoppers, Ants, Beetles, Annelids, Damselflies, Dragonflies and Water Boatman.  Memorize those including their common sizes and colors if you can.  This will help immensely when you’re on the water and after tying on your last 5 confidence flies, you still aren’t getting them to eat even though you can see them right there in front of you.  They are eating something but you aren’t able to figure it out.  If you know your bugs, you can systematically go through them and find what works.  The better you get at knowing your bugs and learning the other skills we teach in our fly fishing entomology course, the faster you’ll be at choosing the right fly.  Most people can get there in a day, but someone who knows their bugs will figure it out faster and have more time to catch more fish.

 

In addition to knowing the bugs, sizes and colors also know their stages and when they hatch per season.  For example, during winter there is no need for hoppers, beetles or ants cause they are all terrestrials and are hibernating/dead until next summer when it warms up.  Fairly obvious one of course, but can you answer what the primary months and hatches are for spring mayflies?  That may be more difficult if you don’t know your bugs and their seasonality.  You can often pick 3-5 insects/stages combos for any given season and fish those exclusively and get away with it.  Knowing the seasonality really helps you narrow down the list.  Fly selection, after all is really just a skill in learning how to choose the right fly the fastest through process of elimination.

 

If you have a good handle on your bugs, then you can take the next step.

Plan your fly boxes

All the bug knowledge in the world won’t help if you forget the right bugs once you get on the water.  Use the bug knowledge to plan out your fly boxes by season or by river or by section or however it makes sense to do so.  Check out our free guide on composing your fly box here and you’ll get a good handle on the many ways you can organize your box.  Find what is right for where and how you fish and stock up your box accordingly.

Knowing your bugs puts the right patterns in the right boxes and sets you up for success on the river which is the last and final step in fly selection.

 

Matching the Dinner Plate

Trout are almost always willing to eat.  Sometimes they are opportunistic, other times selective to certain foods. It’s your job once on the river to observe the environment, what’s hatching or active under the water and tie that in with how and where trout are feeding in the water to make the best guess on what they are eating.  Usually with the right bug knowledge, and proper flies chosen for your box, it only takes 1-5 tries to get the right fly that they are eating.  Without the previous knowledge, it can be 10-15 or more and that can take an extra 1-3 hours to figure out cutting in deep to your fishing time.  When I say match the dinner plate, I mean match what trout are eating, not just what’s flying around.  People see a caddis and immediately throw one on despite the fact trout are sipping some kind of emerger in slow tailout pools (sounding a lot like a mayfly hatch to me).  So don’t just tie on what you see, try to figure out what the trout are eating based on their behavior and what we know about insect behavior.

To summarize, if you know your bugs, plan your boxes well and can use that knowledge to figure out what fish are eating, then you should be well on your way to choosing the right fly.  At this point in the strategic steps, you’ve found active trout and have the right fly figured out, now it’s time to bring it home.

Presentation

Where All Your Planning Comes Together

This is where it all comes together.  I believe this is also why so many “presentation-junkies” think this is all that matters.  I think a lot of times, we can go with people to a place that holds trout and fish flies that others do and then with good presentation get there with more fish.  With all the information readily available these days on the internet to anglers, nearly all of it is around location and fly selection.  Sure there are presentation tips on casting and double hauls and aerial mends which all help a lot, but the only way to get better with presentation is practice.  The knowledge needs application and the amount of time needed to become excellent at presenting flies is longer than it takes to find good locations or the right flies.  With all that said, it’s an important factor regardless of your opinions or pre-dispositions.  Let’s break down the steps to a successful presentation in the steps you should think about.

The Right Set-Up | Rigging Right

If you don’t have enough weight, or aren’t deep enough, or have too heavy of tippet on or a host of other set up related issues, you’re going to struggle to get the right presentation.  You can’t ice skate with out skates and the same is true for fly fishing, but the ice skates are the right rigging configuration for dry fly, streamer or nymph fishing.  This changes for every day, location and setting, so you have to learn a lot of different set ups and their pros and cons in order to catch more fish more often.  Take the time to learn different ways to rig up different presentations and keep them in your arsenal to be used at the right times with the right flies.

The Cast | Getting There

The fish are rising in the back right pocket of that pool with multiple currents in between you and the fish.  How do you get a good drift there? Well you can either cross the river or you can make a cast with appropriate slack to get the drift long enough to induce a strike.  There are many times where the right casts will make the difference in the fish eating the fly or not.  Focus on getting a good cast, that is accurate and sets you up for a good drift.  Casting takes practice and changes based on whether your nymphing, using a dry dropper, straight dry fly fishing or streamer fishing as well as your surroundings.  Highly dynamic, but with practice (which is fun!) you’ll get better and better knowing when to make the right casts in the right spots. 

The Drift | Don’t Screw This Up

You can make a bad cast and even have a semi-accurate fly pattern and yet a good drift will land you more fish.  It’s the moment of truth and matters the most.  What makes a good drift?  Well the short-sighted answer is a fly presented most naturally, but the truth is actually much more complicated and makes my point on why this is the most important fly fishing article you’ll ever read.  What makes a good drift is being in the right river on the right day with the right weather with the right streamflows with the right preparation and observation to choose the right fly from your well planned fly box with the right fly set up on your correctly chosen rod and line for the area with the most naturally presented fly possible over the trout.   Read that twice if you need to (Forgive me grammar nerds I’m sure it’s not a great sentence, but I’m here to teach not worry over grammar.)  All of your hard work, planning, observation, practice and patience come together on the drift.  If you screwed up too many of the variables and pieces of the puzzle before, the drift won’t work.  Then you’ll be that guy who has been casting to the same spot for the last hour, hoping the trout will change his mind and eat your fly instead.  This is a key point in the understanding of the strategy behind an angler who consistently catches more fish vs anglers who get lucky on occasion with good fishing days but often struggles more than not.   The more you get right on all the previous steps, the easier and more successful your drift will be. 

If you’ve done a good enough job (which changes every time you’re on the water) on the previous steps, then you just need a natural drift which often means a drag-free drift where the fly moves naturally with the pace of the river flow.  A good mend and proper line management sets up a nice drift and prepares you for the all important hookset and landing where fish are put to your net and you can claim success on a long journey of decisions and variables that you successfully navigated to fool a trout, which by the way has a pea-sized brain.  I laugh a bit as I write this because for all of us as anglers, this probably gets you all excited to get out and fish, but you read this to someone who doesn’t fly fish and all they see is a ton of money, work and effort to catch a dumb little trout.  It’s remarkable how many things have to come together for a successful catch of a trout.  Helps us remember how fortunate we are to catch them in the first place and how the journey is perpetually rewarding.

So in summary on the presentation side, it takes the right set up, the right cast and the right drift to put a fish to net.  It’s simple if you state it that way, but the last 3500 words discuss here really help break down the details of how to systematically take a strategic approach that works in catching fish.  Now it’s time to bring it all together and help you understand with some examples.

Bringing it All Together with Some Examples

Here are some stories of how this Framework Helped Me

Using this framework will help you immensely on the river because when things don’t go right, you won’t just keep trying harder, but instead, take a step back and ask yourself which variables you are missing.  This makes a huge difference in your fly fishing success.  Sometimes it’s as simple as putting on another split shot, other times, you may realize you need to move up river or try a new river all together.  The point is that when you struggle on the river, it’s often for a reason, and to start catching more, you need to adapt and switch it up.  If you can be adjusting and honing in the strategy for the day, you’ll catch more fish.  Let’s go over a couple examples that will help bring it together.

Example 1 – Waiting on the Weather

I was fishing the Crystal River up in the Roaring fork valley in 2017 in early spring.  I was out doing research for my membership, the river explorer and was in the upper section of the crystal river working my way downstream.  I knew the crystal held fish and the season was right for the water to be productive for fishing.  The flows were in great shape and I had a series of stoneflies, baetis and midges that should be active in the river.  In short, I had everything well planned out considering streamflows, section of river to fish, likely holding water, fly selection and a good nymphing rig set up that seems to always work well for freestones.  The weather reports had a chance of snow and rain, but it was spotty at best and for early spring in the Rockies, every day has a chance of…well everything.  So with best laid plans I came down from the pass near Marble and made my way to the river.  It was sunny and gorgeous and I had spotted some BWO on the water and fish were rising.  Just like I planned I was ready to tie on some dries and get to fishing.  However, by the time I got rigged up and cracked open a beer, the wind started gusting at 30mph, snow came pouring in over the mountains and I was in the middle of a spring blizzard.  Within 5 minutes, the BWO’s were gone and so were the rising fish.  Instead of waiting it out, I switched up to a nymph rig and began working the water where I noticed fish were rising.  30 minutes of fishing and not a single hook up.  The weather had shut things down.  So with that, I decided to hop back in the car and move downstream a little as the storm was isolated.  15 minutes later and ¼ mile downstream, the sun came back out and began to melt what had just came down.  The wind slowed and the warm sun started to heat the water.  I decided to stick to my nymph rig (baetis nymphs and SJW combo) and was able to catch half a dozen fish in about 15 minutes. 

Making a few adjustments in this story not only kept me warmer, but put me on more fish.  Let’s discuss those changes in more detail now.  Firstly, I adjusted to the weather and the change in fish activity by switching to a nymph.  While this wasn’t enough at the first spot which clearly held fish but not ones that wanted to eat anymore, the next spot proved nymphing to be the most productive option.  If I had just stuck it out in that one hole, even when the sun came back out, it wouldn’t be likely that fish would start rising again. It’s possible, but they weren’t eating my nymphs and waiting around would have just left me in the storm, but I was able to change location and find sunny, more productive water.  When in doubt keep moving, it really pays off.  The second change was switching to a nymph set up.  While the fish did come back up to dries 4 hours later even further downstream (of which I fished and caught a couple)  to wait those 4 hours hoping for a hatch to come off would have been a poor way to maximize my day. Instead I was able to wait for the hatch while nymphing and catch 15 more fish before they started rising again. Even then I’ll bet I could have kept catching them on nymphs, but dries were more fun since I had already had success on the nymphs.  As I hope this story illustrates, it doesn’t take a lot of major changes, but instead a few minor ones as you adjust to the environment and the feedback you get from the fish.  Paying attention like this, applying the knowledge you have, and always focusing on maximizing your opportunities will put more fish to net day in and day out.

Example 2 – High Water Annelids

One day fishing last year up in South Park on the south platte river, I was struggling to put fish to net.  The weather was good, it was late spring right before run off and they had just recently had some good rains.  I came prepared with several mayfly nymph patterns such as a Frenchie and mercury baetis, and a few stonefly nymphs as well that I knew worked well up there as I fish up here often.  My experience and knowledge helped me pick a good set of flies to start nymphing with and I started working the runs and holes knowing this time of year these would be the best sections of water to fish.  An hour went by with very little luck.  I had caught about 2 or 3, but because I knew the area, I knew there are enough fish in here to be catching 9 or 10 by this point.  I knew I was missing something.  I sat down and took a minute to think and all of a sudden it dawned on me as I looked at the banks.  The water was a little off color and the water was substantially higher than normal.  I had forgotten to check the flows or even pay attention when I was on the river, but after some mediocre success I was determined to dial it in.  Higher flows from rain in spring time can often mean cranefly and annelid (worm) being a major food source in the water.  Sure enough, I stuck my bug seine down in the water and pulled up several red and pink/flesh colored annelids.  Well, it took no more than 3 casts after switching to a double squirmy worm rig to catch a fish.  It was lights out the rest of the day.  Sure the fish were eating other bugs, but they were on the annelids hard.  With over 40 fish to the net by days end, it was one of the more memorable days I’ve had up there.

So this one is pretty obvious what I did wrong.  Poor planning and not checking flows or past weather patterns before would have put me on the “worm hatch” much sooner or at least kept the idea in my head to try.  The right thing I did here was to step back and consider if I could be doing better than just a couple fish per hour and see if there was something I could improve.  Sure enough, the increased streamflows led me down a path that the bug seine from the entomology course helped solidify and the rest is history.  One of my best fishing days of the year last year and all thanks to keeping the right framework in place and strategy while on the river.  Another quick note that helped me even more was adjusting my nymphing set up.  While a strike indicator was working, I was able to catch even more by ditching the indicator and thus reducing the drag of the increased flows getting my flies down deeper, faster and longer in the strike zone.  A change in presentation once you have location and fly selection figured out can make it seem like you’re almost cheating….almost.

Commit to Becoming a Better Angler

I don’t want to understate the many additional reasons we fly fish.  From the nourishment it provides our souls in rest, views and solitude, to the friendships that develop through countless fish stories and memories, and to the satisfaction it yields when you outsmart the fish with your well-presented and strategically thought out fly selection, cast and hook set.  All of these reasons are incredibly important and add to the awesomeness that is experienced on the river.  With that said, we all know we want to catch more fish more often and by keeping a strategic mindset, using the location + fly selection + presentation framework and continually making adjustments until we get the desired result, we can really maximize the enjoyment we get from fly fishing.  Challenge yourself and commit to becoming a better angler and use the tips found here to really maximize the success.  We hope you enjoyed this very detailed article and hope it sets you on a course to become a better angler. Join our Facebook group here for more conversations and strategies.  Let us know how you liked this article on your first post to the group.