Five rules to catch trout on a fly

Craig likes to keep it simple.

Over four decades of flyfishing, I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some outstanding anglers, both recreationally and at competition level. I’ve noticed that in many respects, all bring a similar approach to the sport. Of course, like any pursuit, flyfishing has its self-proclaimed experts, who are more than prepared to tell you how difficult it is and how good they are. Just ask them!

This can at times make the sport seem too daunting for beginners. How often have I heard, ‘I couldn’t flyfish; it would be too hard.” Fortunately, the reality is quite different. All you need to do is five quite simple things, and you’ll catch plenty of trout on fly. The best anglers all do this: they simplify the sport rather than making it more difficult than it needs to be. Before I start, I must warn you that these five points are not mysterious pearls of advice which you would never figure out on your own. Instead, they are logical, commonsense rules. Even so, I regularly see anglers not following them.

The capture of this Bullen Merri rainbow can be traced back to doing five simple things correctly.

1. Match location choice with conditions and time of day.

I told you these rules were obvious! Yet how often I see anglers fishing a water at the wrong time, or in the wrong weather conditions.

David Scholes’ book, ‘Fly-fisher in Tasmania’, was published in 1961, the year I was born. Yet Scholes’ observations are just as relevant today as they were back then. On page one of the second chapter, he writes, “No other factor influences fishing in Tasmania more than the weather, and if an angler can successfully foretell its likelihood before he sets out, indeed actually choose his place of fishing according to his forecast, he is a clever fellow and will have far more consistent and exciting sport than average anglers, amongst whom it is quite common to hear plans being made for an outing to a certain water sometimes even as far ahead as a week or more”.

Scholes’ advice could just as easily apply to most trout fishing destinations anywhere. As a flyfishing guide in both Tasmania and Victoria, I can attest that the most agonising decision we make each day, is where to fish given the forecast weather conditions – and we have excellent forecasting compared to what was available to Scholes in 1961. There are even decisions to be made about where to be at a given time on a given day. Combined, these plans can have a huge impact on the day’s success.

The right conditions for polaroiding in the Western Lakes – but not for a Penstock dun hatch.

To give just a few examples, polaroiding in Tasmania’s Western Lakes requires clear water, and most importantly, bright sun and a sky with little or no reflected cloud. Some wind helps to create ‘windows in the waves’, and time of day is relevant too: the sun needs to be high in the sky, so early and late in the day are out. Conversely, anglers looking for tailers in the shallow margins certainly don’t want bright sun or wind, and are definitely going to do best at dawn or dusk, before the sun is even on the water. Right through south-eastern Australia, warm, dry windy conditions are going to be suitable for hopper feeders on streams from January to March, whereas humid and overcast days will favour spinner feeders, plus ant and termite falls… especially later in the day.

For my local water, Lake Wendouree, the spring hatch of mayfly duns usually commences in mid-October and continue through to late December, with a less reliable encore in mid-autumn. Cloudy weather is better than bright. Early in October, the hatch often begins around 11am, then gets progressively later as the season unfolds. Successful anglers time their visits accordingly.

Even within a water, spots to focus on need to conform to the ‘match location to conditions’ rule. On a typical summer or autumn day, stream fishers know that on freestone streams, riffles and runs are often more productive and easier places to catch fish than broad, still pools. Trout in these streams tend to be drift feeders, relying on medium-paced current to deliver food.

Reward for fishing the ‘good’ water on a stream.

I suppose the main point is, don’t plan your day by saying, “We’re going polaroiding in the Western Lakes Tuesday week.” Instead, wait until the night before, or even the morning of the day in question, before settling on your location. Leave your plans flexible enough that, if it turns out to be cloudy, you can head to a lake like Penstock or Little Pine, where cloudy conditions actually favour the fishing… and the likelihood of a dun hatch! If need be, even change locations midway through the day to match an unexpected change in conditions. I would rather sacrifice an hour of travel time to a new water, than persist with my now hopeless polaroiding plans because the sky has clouded over.

Of course, there are always going to be exceptions: dun hatches in bright sun or tailers at midday. But good anglers play the odds and make location decisions based on what’s likely to happen, not a once-a-year outlier.

And yes, I understand that inexperienced anglers are still developing their knowledge of what water is the best match for X conditions… and even Y time of day. However, for many waters, there are good references like the guidebooks of Philip Weigall, John Kent, or Greg French – not to mention regular articles on FlyStream.

The key point is, don’t ‘lock in’ on a plan for a certain type of fishing too far ahead of time. Instead, have the flexibility to change your plans as the conditions dictate.

2. Put your fly in the strike zone.

The most frustrating thing for me as a flyfishing guide, is seeing good fish-catching opportunities missed because of poor casting. I vividly remember taking a client to a little-known lake in the Tasmanian highlands. It was a rare calm day, and millions of spinners were over the water and the fish went nuts. I have never seen such a rise. Unfortunately, my client was unable to present the fly quickly and accurately enough to convert the many chances to trout in the net.

A fast, accurate cast was required to hook this spinner feeder at Tasmania’s Little Lake.

At the pub later that evening, I overheard him tell someone the fishing wasn’t particularly good. The reality was the fishing was excellent. Yet he simply couldn’t take advantage of it because he couldn’t cast quickly or accurately enough to put the fly in the zone when it needed to be there. Such casting, particularly the speed thing, is an absolute must for many lake fishing situations, when you’re usually presenting to a moving target.

On a stream, it may be the ability to cast in a confined space, or to present a fly into a tight spot, which makes the difference.

It is through good casting that we can consistently present our flies in the strike zone. Or, to put it another way, being a good caster may not on its own make you a great angler, however you will never be a great angler if you are not a good caster. Golfers regularly have lessons, yet very few flyfishers invest any time in improving their casting. There’s no doubt that time spent practicing and improving one’s casting, will improve the catch rate.

Beyond casting, river and lake craft helps the angler identify where the ‘strike zone’ is. Fish the areas most likely to hold feeding fish, taking into consideration the topography and weather conditions.

On lakes, wind-lanes and foam lines are just a couple of the likely places to find concentrations of food – and in turn, feeding and catchable trout.

As touched on above, on stillwaters, predicting where a fish is going to be and presenting your fly there, is vitally important to success. The only place I can guarantee a trout isn’t, is where it has just been! Yet I regularly observe anglers on stillwaters casting to where a trout has risen. Effectively, they are casting to where the fish has been, not where it is going.

Similarly, on flowing waters, depending on the speed of the current and depth, nymph or dry, presentations need to be made sufficiently upstream to allow for the fish to notice and respond to the fly.

Even without a visible trout to cast to, bubble-lines on rivers, and foam lines and wind-lanes on lakes, can all be used to help the angler put their fly in the strike zone.

3. Make sure the fly catches the fish’s attention.

Sometimes, simply putting the fly in front of a trout doesn’t guarantee it will eat. Perfect presentation is what we should all strive for, however in heavy hatches or if our presentation is not perfect, or the trout makes a late and unanticipated change in direction, the angler may require additional help making the fish notice the fly. Similarly, the trout may be swimming high in the water with a very narrow window of vision. This is where colour, flash and movement can be important in catching the fish’s attention.

Sometimes, adding colour or ‘bling’ to flies can help them stand out from the crowd of naturals.

As an example, the simple Carrot Fly and variations like The Midas work so well because their colour stands out, and they are dry flies which can be moved without sinking – so the trout notice them. The hot spots and coloured beads commonly used in river nymphs do the same. Similarly, the addition of flash to a fly can help it stand out.

Movement is another way of attracting the fish’s attention. Twitching a dry fly in a large dun hatch, or jigging the fly whilst euro nymphing, are excellent techniques.

4. Your fly is behaving as the fish expect it to behave.

While it sometimes appears otherwise, trout are not smart. However, they can have a strongly-developed sense of what looks right and what looks wrong. The best anglers know the way a fly sits or ‘behaves’ in or on the water, is often more important than the choice of fly itself.

Many of the best fly patterns are like an impressionist painting. That is, they are suggestive of a food item rather than striving for precise imitation. Most anglers, when asking a successful angler how they caught their fish, start with, “What fly did you catch them on?” Yet asking how the angler was fishing the fly would be an equally useful question.

Yes, understanding what the trout are feeding on can be important. If the fish are focussed on mayfly duns, they are less likely to take a Woolly Bugger. Similarly, a Shaving Brush dry is not the right choice for early season smelters. But fishing the right fly correctly, is also crucial. As simple examples, a trout is unlikely to take your lovely galaxiid imitation if it’s lying motionless on the weedy lake-bed; or of course a Shaving Brush fished the same way!

This fly is only an impressionistic suggestion of the galaxias the trout were feeding on: to work, it had to behave in a way the fish found realistic – and appealing.

Obviously, there are many different ways of making a fly behave correctly, from ensuring a dry fly dead-drifts in the current as if it weren’t attached to a line (often easier said than done), to splatting a grasshopper pattern down, to ‘dibbling’ a Claret Dabbler, or getting your river nymphs right to the bottom (part of the secret of successful Euro nymphing). The possibilities are endless, but before you give up on your fly, be honest: have you put it where the fish can find it, and made it behave as life-like (or death-like!) as possible?

5. Keep your flies in the water.

I thought long and hard about including this rule, as there are a number of occasions (especially when sight-fishing) when it can – even should – be broken. But broadly speaking, this rule makes sense: you certainly can’t catch a trout with your flies out of the water! When captaining Australian flyfishing teams, I’ve often encouraged team members to keep their nymphs in the water; even as they move from one spot on the river to the next. Regularly, trout have taken the fly as it drags around.

Then there are those days when the fish aren’t really on the job, and perseverance and patience – and keeping flies in the water – is required.

So next time you’re going fishing, please keep these five simple rules in mind. I have no doubt that each of them will help you catch more fish; combined, they can transform any day on the water into the best it can be.