Being Better

Peter looks at fishing systems for wading up medium-sized streams, using hopper fishing as an example.

On warm sunny summer and early autumn days, many of my clients who are able to wade rocky-bottomed streams, prefer to fish these water over any other place. Especially in the grasshopper months! Even the lure of large lake trout can’t entice them away.

I can’t blame them. For what it’s worth, if I had just one day left to fish in this lifetime, I would choose to wet-wade up a small to medium-sized stream with a 3 weight cane rod, a longish leader and a dry fly.

Now, following on from my last column about the system for wade fishing the flats, there’s also a system I use for wade-fishing up rivers. Let’s take hopper time as an example, being late February, March and April, and allow me to explain it the way I see it.

Fishing up a medium-sized hopper stream in autumn, is about as good as it gets.


Regarding tackle, let’s start with the fly. I like to use a solid, robust and somewhat heavy hopper. It more readily gives an audible ‘plop’, which results in a concentric circle ripple. When I’m hopper fishing myself, I use one carved from a wooden chopstick or Huon Pine. While ‘it depends’, generally the last thing I want from my hopper pattern is a thistledown landing. The fly should also be robust so that many fish can be taken without having to do much fly maintenance; or heaven forbid, replace the fly!

As tippet, I want to use a minimum of 3X. 2X would be better. The point is that most of the fish will take instinctively upon seeing, or more often, hearing the fly land. They are not discerning as far as tippets go. I also want to be able to pull flies out of tea-tree and willows when my clients muck up. The leader should not be more than a rod length and a half, or it will be difficult to get a noisy ‘plop’ landing of the fly. A rod length leader is fine, but drag-free drifts won’t be as easy to get. Having said that, drag often isn’t critical in this type of fishing anyway.

Most any line and rod combination will do, but I personally like a double taper line and a softer action rod – a better roll-casting combination than faster rods and weight-forward lines.

It depends, but very often a shorter rod of say, 7’6” is more suitable than a 9’ or 9’6” job. If you have the space to swing the longer rods that’s fine – and they can be better for mending and enabling longer drifts. But as I said earlier, this is not so important when fishing like this. If you cast with the following system in mind, the trout will always take within a second or two of fly landing.

Before you start

ALWAYS, in any fishing situation, set up your rod with the fly hooked up the rod as far as you can reach. Start with a rod length of flyline out the rod tip. Pivot your rod back into the wind until the flyline is within reach of your line hand. Grab the line, not the leader (it’s too thin and hard to see and is often blowing around like mad) and make an ‘o’ by touching the tips of your thumb and index finger, the line being inside your ‘o’. Now make a half powered forward cast with the rod, and the leader will slip through your fingers until the fly comes to rest somewhere in the back of your hand or palm. Yes it will stick in lightly, but don’t be a wuss!

Set up so the flyline is out the rod tip before you start fishing.

If you’re right-handed, hold the cork in your right hand and with the fly in your left hand, reach up the rod as far as you can. Hook the fly into the runner as far up as you can easily reach (use the same runner every time you set up in the future). Now run your fingers down the leader and hook it around the base of your reel seat. Wind up any excess.

Never, ever, stick the fly in the fly keeper! If you do then I will guarantee that one day, you will break your rod tip when you are trying to pull the leader connection out to start fishing. Furthermore, it’s always a very slow process to start fishing to a sighted fish from this position. Especially when you’re excited.

By the way, always carry your rod backwards when walking around the paddocks or riverbanks. If you stumble, you won’t break it if it’s pointing backwards.

When you’re ready to fish, simply point the rod out over the water. Then pull a foot of line off the reel to release the tension from the loop of leader wrapped around the reel seat. Finally, pull the leader from around the reel seat and with just a little pressure, bend the tip back let go the leader (a sort of a bow & arrow cast).

Nine times out of 10, the fly will reverse in the rod ring and miraculously flick out and onto the water a rod length and a half away. If the fly happens to stick in the runner, then simply tap the shaft of your rod gently with your line hand and the fly will bounce out or jump onto the water. Now you can make your first cast.

I know firsthand from 26 years of guiding how important this setup/get-going-quickly system is. Over the years, thousands of perfect opportunities for catching easy trout have been missed because this basic system wasn’t in place.

The fishing – some generalisations first

Where to concentrate your casts

It depends, but generally I want to wade upstream when I fish on medium-sized rivers in the warmer months. We want to use the hopper to search the bubble-lines and drift down the soft edges of obvious current flows. Bubble-lines which are a slow walking place, immediately adjacent to faster currents, are prime. So too is water that is below high banks. In fact when you start fishing, try to cover nearly all of what you consider to be the better looking lies. In half an hour or so, you’ll understand where to concentrate your efforts and you won’t be wasting your time in the shallower, sunny, open water if the fish aren’t in there.

If you find some form of structure along an otherwise bare bank, for example overhanging bush, grass, or tree roots in the water with tangled sticks and other debris, then you may well find the largest fish in the pool.

Classic hopper water.

Overhanging vegetation providing cover and shade is always a prime lie, particularly if a bubble-line runs beside it. If fish living in these areas are not out feeding, then a thistledown landing and a long drag-free drift is often fruitless. Instead, be sure to have the hopper land with a very serious ‘plop’ for every metre you work up the line. You’ll need the noise to get the trout out for a look. Remember, no crashing line noise though, just the hopper creating concentric landing ripples every time.

The eye of the pool (the soft inside edge at the prime inflow) is mostly the spot where the biggest trout will hang out and feed. Be sure to be fishing well when you approach this zone and leave your fly in the built-up foam for longer than usual to give fish time to eat it. The big trout which dominate these spots know the food stays there and simply rotates around. There is no hurry for them to snatch it from the surface. I guess it’s like a Lazy Susan at a Chinese restaurant, rather than a sushi train in a Japanese restaurant (which is more like what happens to trout food in the faster runs).


It should go without saying that your movements should always be slow, steady and smooth. If you’re one of those people who crashes, bashes and splashes their way up a river when wade fishing, then you’ve simply spent too much time on city sidewalks.

If this is you, then you might consider investing in a quality wading staff and getting out to practice wading. Yes practice. Why not? Go for a walk up a river occasionally without taking your rod. Learn to feel your way over and around the rocks with your feet. If you put a tsunami up the tail of a pool in front of you, then it’s unlikely any of the smaller tail fish will eat your fly. I see it all the time. There are plenty of rising fish ahead of us, but as the waves go through, they simply stop rising. Most often, these smaller panicked fish will flee and alert every other trout in the pool to our presence.

Careful wading is needed to keep a trout-spooking bow-wave out of this pool.

Now that’s just the problem with the wave, never mind the additional problem of noise made banging rocks underwater. Did you know that sound travels four times faster underwater than in the air?

Length of casts

I’m anal about this and all my clients are sick of hearing, ‘Shorten up, shorten up.’

Again, it depends, but I generally start at the bottom of the pool casting a relatively long line up and across the current. Standing in the slower flow and casting toward the faster water. I want to use a length of line long enough that the fish in this shallower, smooth water cannot see me.

By the middle of the pool, I will have shortened my line by as much as half. By now, the water is often deeper and more turbulent, and the fish are less likely to see me. I also want to make accurate casts. Long back-casts are also problematic, and I don’t want to waste time pulling flies out of trees behind me.

Fish short, particularly in the more turbulemt water.

In the fast, turbulent inflowing run, I shorten up further again. I may have just the leader out and I will hold the rod tip very high so I can trot the fly down through the hard and complex currents in a drag-free manner. By fishing this way, I can keep most of the line off the water and negate drag. There is often no other way to fish this water successfully.

The same goes for any turbulent pocket water. Sage advice is to ‘never cast across a current you can wade across’. Wade in quietly and hang the fly off the rod tip. Another benefit is, strikes are rarely missed at this distance.

Casting systems

Make a cast to the length you want to fish. Now with your line hand, put the line as it exits the reel in between your index finger and long finger and take a full length strip backwards. Now clamp the line into your palm using your little finger and the next two. I call this a knuckle grip. NEVER release this point from your knuckles. NEVER. Well unless you hook a fish!

Start of knuckle grip.

Full length of strip before locking with three lower fingers.

Knuckle grip for final stop point plus a couple of coils in fingertips.

Do all your stripping in of the line as it is coming toward you with the flow using your thumb and index finger – which is usual.

Learn to hold one full-length strip, or coil, of line in your fingertips between casts. So, the casting system is:

  • Cast upstream and shoot the coil of line until the unrolling loop ‘kicks’ as it extends to your knuckle grip length.
  • Now move the line hand to the rod hand and place the line under your index finger and start the retrieve of the coil at the rate the line is coming toward you.
  • When you have this coil, then slowly lift the rod tip to maintain tension for a little more of the drift.

Now cast again using a quick and simple ‘pick up – lay down’ cast, aiming it a little left or right. Repeat the process. We are only trying to fish a drift of half a leader length. Don’t bother to leave the fly on the water for longer than this. Instead, use the time to put the hopper somewhere it hasn’t been yet. If it looks good water over the width of the pool, then I will stand in the one spot and make several fanned casts. Otherwise I take a single footstep upstream between casts.

The benefits

If I make a fixed-length delivery each cast, then I get very good accuracy. If I make a fixed length pick up into a back-cast, then the back-cast is consistently good. The casting arc remains the same all day. The timing of the cast remains the same all day. The power applications remain the same. The accuracy and placement of the fly becomes much more consistent. You almost don’t have to think about the casting stroke as it becomes so automatic and second-nature.

Autumn hopper country in north-east Tassie.

In fact, last year, one of my clients (when he caught 62 fish in one day) said, “Haysie, I feel like a bloody robot.” “That’s the idea,” was my reply.

The trout will nearly always take within a second of the fly landing when we are fishing upstream like this – because it only landed a foot further up than the previous cast! The fish will mostly hear the hopper land BEHIND them and instantly come back for it. This means the hook set is almost automatic and mostly in the corner of the trout’s mouth, because the fish immediately turn to head back upstream to their lie.

Measure it in

This is a technique I use to get super-accurate casts against banks, logs or vegetation on edges; when it is really important not to overcast the target and snag a fly in overhanging tea-tree, tree roots etc.

Let’s say there’s a terrific undercut bank with overhanging grasses and tea-tree. You have seen a fish belt a hopper and go back in under the bank. Pick your spot to cast from and don’t move your feet during the process. Say the bank looks to be 35 feet from you. Make your first cast three-quarters of the way, roughly 25 feet. There is no way you can snag the bank and stuff it up from here. How much short of the target do you think the fly landed? Maybe 10 feet? So take a further 5 feet of line and hold this point in a knuckle grip. Let the fly drift downstream as you study the drift.

Reward for a perfect-length cast.

Now take the fly out quietly and throw back to the target using the knuckle grip point to stop the unrolling loop. When the fly lands, be prepared: some very alert fish will easily swim 5 feet for a hopper. After the landing, judge the gap again and make an adjustment of the knuckle grip position. Maybe the fly landed 4 feet short and the fish didn’t come out. Give yourself another 3’6” this time and be confident that you won’t overcast and snag the bank. Be sure to put the fly down with a solid ‘plop’ which should pull the fish to the fly immediately.

Now the trout comes to the fly… but doesn’t eat it. Never give up the knuckle grip position once you have it right. While you give the fish some time to calm down and forget its nervous rejection, you can pull all the line in and change the fly, while knowing you still have the right length. Now cast back confidently, knowing the fly will land perfectly at exactly the same distance.

I catch so many fish using this concept and after a while, and many successes, it has become an innate fishing method for many of my clients.

The deadly hairpin

In all flyfishing situations, you need to be very aware of what I call the Deadly Hairpin. The deadly hairpin can occur when you cast into the wind on a lake. It happens all the time in loch-style dry fly fishing and it is especially bad in upstream river fishing.

The deadly hairpin will at best result in a very poor back-cast that’s so low, it hooks vegetation behind you. Worse still, because of the poorly-loaded back-cast, you will get a terrible forward cast from it. Worse again is the fact that, from a deadly hairpin position, you will miss many fish because as you strike, the trout feel the tension come onto the fly gently and slowly – giving them time to spit the hook out. If you do manage to hook a fish, the poor quality hookset will often result in the hook falling out during the fight.

The hairpin I’m talking about is formed by your flyline moving in under your rod tip AFTER the line has landed on the water.

The deadly hairpin – best avoided!

Let’s consider the upstream river situation here. As you cast upstream from your position, the moment the flyline lands on the water, it is drifting back toward you. Let us imagine that you stopped the rod just 6 inches from the water surface. If the current is coming back at you at, say, a foot per second, then 1 foot of line will have been dragged under your rod tip and toward your feet. It will look like a foot-long ᴝ or hairpin.

You need to remove this slack, so you have a healthy and successful strike if a fish takes your fly. If you think you need to remove a foot of slack line, and so in the next second you pull in a foot. But then you still won’t hook a fish on that cast: now you have 3 feet of slack in the deadly hairpin – even though you removed a foot.

Go and do the maths yourself, or better still go fishing and look at the issue firsthand. I see so many strikes on lakes and rivers stuffed up because of the deadly hairpin. Get better at removing the slack and maintaining the ability to make a good hard strike when it is required.

The secret to never having the deadly hairpin in the first place, is to learn how to make a tighter unrolling forward cast by stopping the rod tip up higher (just below the straight line path of the delivery stroke). Keep the rod tip at this height for the whole drift of the fly. The line /water joining point will be well forward of the rod tip. Remove the slack at the water flow speed, and don’t allow a hairpin to form in the first place. If it forms, then you need to be removing slack at twice the speed of the water flow – after all, a hairpin has two sides. (I know this is easier said than done and as soon as I ask clients to stop with a higher rod tip position, many start throwing tailing loops.)

Overall, put all the above systems in place and your stream fishing will benefit.

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