Being Better

Peter offers an overview of the important facets of flyfishing.

I often joke with fishing and casting friends that over the years, I’ve taught them everything they know about flyfishing… But in fact, I haven’t taught them everything I know. So here come my best efforts to remedy that.

Simply put, the idea of this column was always meant to be that I, as a supposed expert at flyfishing and casting, had an opportunity to do my best to impart some of my knowledge to other anglers out there, such that they would be in a better position to be able to catch more fish.

Learning to ‘catch more fish’ sounds simple, and if it was as simple as reading about it and then implementing the new knowledge, then there wouldn’t be a fish left on the planet! Of course, there is very much more involved in learning how to catch more fish.

Being better at something like flyfishing requires work on the many different layers or facets of the sport. Just off the top of my head, the subjects might include:


This is about being able to technically make the cast at the time required and with sufficient accuracy that the fly is noticed by the fish – but without the fish knowing you put the fly there. Sounds simple. However, what if there is a strong headwind, or wind onto your casting shoulder, or the fish is under a low-hanging branch, or there’s a tree behind you, or the fish is a very long way away, or the fish is moving fast away from you, or coming toward you quickly, or the fly is very dense and wind resistant, or the fly is very heavy, or the leader needs to be very long, or the current is strong and wanting to drag the fly unnaturally. And don’t splash down the landing whatever you do! Etc, etc.

Understand the fish

You need to understand your quarry; everything about it. Where does it live? What and how can it see? What can it hear? Is it a loner or a schooling fish? Does it prefer sun or shade? Deep water or shallow? Rocky bottom or weedy bottom? How does it respond to different water temperatures? Does it prefer fast or slow water? What does it eat and how does it eat? How does it take your fly?

Understand fish food

To be a regularly successful angler, you really need a thorough understanding of your target fish’s diet.

Penstock dun, early February. (P.Weigall pic)

With trout, this includes the bugs that live underwater (aquatic) and the bugs that live above the water (terrestrial). I guide on lakes in the highlands of Tasmania, as well as on the lowland rivers. In both places, we fish for brown trout. However, at almost any time of the year, the diet of the highland fish is often completely different to that of the lowland fish. For example, as I’m writing this at the start of March, the 3lb browns we caught earlier today at Penstock Lagoon were full of snails. But the day before on the lowland rivers, every one of 24 fish we caught was feeding on grasshoppers. I’d almost bet that if we had used hopper patterns today on Penstock, we would not have raised a single fish.

How does a beginner work this sort of stuff out? It has taken me 29 guiding years in the highlands to suspect that in late February, when the water finally cools, the fish will move away from eating stick caddis and mayfly, and switch to snails and scud.

For what it’s worth, if you think the water you are fishing can spare a fish for the table every so often during different times of the season, then I think you should check its stomach contents. Save the bugs in alcohol and label the tube with a date and place.

All that aside, there are lots of time when you just have to use your eyes and a little intuition to work out where the trout food is. My advice is to go looking for the trout food first. If you find the trout food, then I’m sure the fish will have already beaten you there and that is what will be in their stomachs.

Find the concentrated foam of a Great Lake windlane, and you’ll often find food – and fish! (P.Weigall pic)

Understand where to fish

This is of course closely linked to understanding the fish and understanding their food. For example, on a highland lake in summer, the time of year, present (and recent) wind strength and direction, combined with what food is available, may help your understanding of where to fish.

Good polarised glasses, combined with decent observation and hearing skills, are also gold. And local knowledge of the water is very important if you can get it. Once you work out where it’s best to focus your efforts, then if you are fishing on a lake, a boat is a great asset. Use it to quickly move from weed bed to weed bed, reef to reef, shallow bay to shallow bay etc. Sometimes hot bite periods don’t last long, so don’t dally about. When you work it out get on with it. And remember, knowing where fish are not, is almost as important as knowing where fish are.

Putting the fly close to a grassy bank is a smart tactic during hopper season. (P. Weigall pic)

Understand how to fish

There are literally dozens of different ways to flyfish for trout. In the dry fly world, there is static dry fly or moved dry fly. Single or multiple dry flies. Wade polaroiding. Loch style. Then there is a wet fly or nymph dropper under a dry fly, and dare I add ‘Plonking’! Streamer fishing, sinking leaders, fluorocarbon or co polymer leaders, different sink rate lines, different sink rate flies… Static nymphing or euro nymphing, and I could go on. This is sort of like knowing the tools in your toolbox. The more you are across all these different techniques, the better positioned you are to catch more fish.

Learn from the experts

Hanging out with accomplished flyfishers is perhaps the best way for you to find out what you don’t know that you don’t know. Personally, I have learnt much more and been able to fast-track my knowledge and skill set by spending time with these people. My strong advice is that you should seek out good anglers and casters, and spend as much time with them as you can.

The Zen of flyfishing

I’m originally an engineer, so this is a bit weird for me. Having said that, I believe this facet, or level, makes the difference between the better-than-average angler, and the truly great anglers I know. It means being able to be completely in the moment, completely in tune with what you are doing right at a particular moment, while being able to focus on so many different aspects so completely, without actually trying to. This must come naturally and effortlessly.

Great musicians do this. They can be fully in the moment, completely connected, without any thought to the technical aspects of what they are doing. The moment the technical thought takes over, is the moment they lose the plot.

I’m told motorcycle racers also have the need to be in this fully connected space. Overthink the situation and you may never get to ride again!

Fishing can be exactly like this too. Be aware of this facet if you want to be good at it. Some people have it, and some do not. Some people never will. A rose gardener might have this attribute in spades, like the great World Flyfishing Champion Pascal Cognard. But an anal engineer like me may try too hard to ever reach the level required. I guess I’m at least aware of it, and that is a start!

Fight the fish without fighting the fish. (S. Dunn pic)

Allowing the fish to come to you without you pursuing them. Catch them without trying to catch them. Once they are hooked, fight the fish without fighting the fish. Gently persuade them to come to the net instead. Have great respect and reverence for the quarry. It is a living being. Truly believe in, and practice, catch and release when you can. It is good for your soul.


Some of the above facets can be learnt relatively quickly and easily. Take casting as an example. I truly believe that if you want to dedicate just a year of your life to becoming a great fly caster, then you will become one. Good instructors will work with you regularly and design lesson plans and practice drills to facilitate your learning.

Other facets, like understanding the particular species of fish you are targeting, will possibly involve a lifetime of study and practical field observation. One thing is clear to me on this aspect of our sport – the more you know, the more you will understand that you actually don’t know very much.

In future columns, I’ll endeavour to unpack some of the above points in further detail.