Follow the rules?

Kiel considers some flyfishing rules worth following – and notes some that are best ignored.

While it may ruffle some feathers to say so, I don’t believe flyfishing is a sport. With its constant variables, some reliance on luck, and no sure way of catching, a sports scoreboard doesn’t really apply. There are no uniforms, and not too many tidy rules either.

Okay, there are some ‘rules’ in place. Size limits, bag limits, closed seasons, closed waters, the gear you’re allowed to use. Even how many flies you can fish at once.

But when it comes to actually catching a fish, be careful about which rules you follow, and how rigidly you follow them. For example, in the early days, I was taught that mayfly won’t hatch in full sun – not enough to matter anyway. I’ve since experienced dozens if not hundreds of sunny day mayfly hatches, and the fishing was great. Would I prefer a cloudy dun day if I had a choice? Yes… but I don’t have a choice, and if I stayed home according to the full sun ‘rule’, I would have missed out on some fantastic dun fishing.

Sunny day dun feeder.

Or how about, “A missed or pricked trout won’t eat on the next cast?” I’ve seen them eat often enough to at least try putting the fly there again.

I could debate, argue, yell and scream about this topic for weeks, but instead I’ve decided to write down some key points on keeping flyfishing simple. Forget about tidy rules, try to go with the flow. Fish the conditions you’ve been dealt. These are not rules, but more guidelines to consider.

Dirty water

Flyfishing for trout in dirty water can seem daunting or even pointless. When we first lay eyes on a river or lake the same colour as our morning coffee, it’s easy to lose confidence. How will the trout see my fly? How do I find the trout in the first place?

Please keep in mind that fish still have to eat, no matter the water colour. High, dirty water often means food such as beetles and worms being flushed out or washed in. The trout will cruise the shallow lake edges, or sit right in close to the stream banks, trusting they won’t be seen by predators.

These trout will drop their guard, allowing you to get close and fish heavier tippets without spooking them.

Dirty water can fish very well.

The thought process for fly selection does matter here. Most likely, I wouldn’t be tying on a size 22 midge pattern and pumping a 60ft cast into the middle. Instead, I’d opt for a fly the trout would ‘feel’ and see – perhaps a black unweighted Woolly Bugger, fished along the edges, not way out. Long, slow draws keeping the fly off the shallow bottom, away from snags and weed. But again, remember, no hard rules. If the long, slow draw doesn’t work, change up. Or change fly. Perhaps a bright-beaded nymph under an indicator; something that stands out with a UV shine. Even a Squirmy Worm, matching those that have washed in.

Walk the edges, concentrating on the shallows, waiting for a fish to give itself away with a fin tip or subtle swirl. Take your time, walk slowly. The trout are there, and they will eat.

Foam home?

‘Foam is home’: a rule and motto I would consider to be mostly accurate. Mostly… When wading up a small stream, assuming regular water levels, your best bet is often to place your fly or flies in the deeper runs or chutes where the bubbles and foam concentrate. This bubble-line, as it is also called, is where a lot of food and insects coming downstream concentrate, which is why the fish are there.

The bubble-line is good, but…

Yet I see way too many anglers make the mistake of fishing too quickly through this likeliest water. Walking and wading as they cast.

But what if there was a storm last night, causing a flush of water, which rose the river level before it dropped back again by morning? Sometimes, it turns out that a fish in last night’s river rise, went seeking an easier feed behind the three rocks left of the main run – and it’s still there. What if a territorial brown has pushed two rainbows out of the main chute into a smaller anabranch? What if someone fished that section two hours before you arrived?

Make sure to fish all the water, not only the foam. The ‘also’ water also holds trout. And don’t be lazy. Change your nymph weight and dropper length to suit the lies you’re fishing.

A key tip. Fish the spots you think no one else has, like the difficult-to-access areas under branches, or right in amongst them. Or those spots which look too insignificant to hold a good trout. In heavily-fished water, this can be exactly where the good trout are. Untroubled by anglers – until you came along.

Setting the hook  

Setting the hook when a trout takes is an art itself. The sloppy rule book says, strike upwards on a trout like a recast. But I’m here to reassure you (or not) that striking rules can be rubbery. All sorts of circumstances can affect the timing and direction of your strike. There’s one rule I can offer though: you need to do something. Wondering if a fish ate your fly without responding, will surely end in disappointment. Flies hardly ever set themselves.

To keep things simple, if you think a fish ate your fly, strike. If you’ve lost sight of your dry fly, but see a rise 10 feet behind the end of your floating fly-line, strike. If your indicator is drifting left to right in the wind but slowly moves back left, strike. If you’re fishing a dry dropper on a small stream and your dry dips near the log you thought you’d snag up on, please strike. The worst case in each situation is a recast. Fly out of the water for a few seconds. What have you got to lose? Strike!

A couple of tips here that aren’t so simple. Or common mistakes I see (or make myself)! The ‘right’ strike will be affected by the size of your fly, and/ or how buoyant it is. Is it moving? Is the fish moving? Facing towards you? Are your swinging wets, or upstream nymphing?

There are a lot of variables which will determine the best strike for a given situation. There certainly isn’t a single tidy rule. 

When pulling wets/ streamer-style flies for lake trout, don’t strike to the sky as hard as you can. Due to you retrieving the fly and therefore placing constant tension on your tippet, a hard and fast strike will often break you off. Instead, load the rod to 12 o’clock – while also letting line run as the fish realises it’s got a hook in its mouth and is taking off in the opposite direction.

When swinging wets or nymphs in a stream, a sideways strike (somewhat of a 45 degree strike) will aid you hooking more fish. The trout will usually eat facing towards you, so a 12 o’clock hard and fast strike will most likely pull the fly out of its mouth.

Fishing larger floating dries like cicadas or Stimulators, should see you offer a decent pause before striking. No hard rule here, and also circumstance-dependent, but you’ll have to wait for the trout to tip its head back underwater to get the right hook set. Due to flies like deer hair cicadas being so buoyant, it’s very easy to strike too early, ripping the fly away from the fish. Be confident… but not too quick.

When slowly retrieving flies, such as figure-eighting nymphs, or sometimes when loch-style lake fishing, don’t rely on a tug or ‘feeling’ the bite. Watch the ‘bridge’ in your fly-line between rod tip and the water. If it twitches or lifts, that’s a trout eating your fly.

(For more information on dry fly striking, read Nick Taransky’s latest article.)


Flyfishing in the rain can be tough. It is certainly hard on angler comfort, with wet glasses, the cold, shaking hands… However, as the saying goes, the fish can’t get any wetter. It can also be a great time to fish dry flies. A common (and mistaken) rule in flyfishing, is trout won’t rise in the rain.

Don’t let the rain put you off!

During spring and autumn, my local lakes get mayfly hatches, which we all wait eagerly for. Some of the best weather to fish for these mayfly-feeding trout is drizzle, or even rainy weather. Notwithstanding the ‘sunny days’ exceptions I mentioned earlier, mayfly prefer cloudy days to hatch, plus rain keeps the duns from drying out quickly and flying away safely. Imagine any emerging mayfly struggling to dry its wings as it drifts across the surface, fumbling and flapping. The trout take advantage of this and mop them up. As a bonus, the trout feel safer in the dull light and broken water.

Regularly drying your fly out with a cloth and applying floatant will help keep your fly on top.

During the warmer months, we often see rainy, windy days knocking various beetles out of the trees. Some of the best dry fly fishing I’ve ever had, has been on the wettest and windiest of days. Not only beetles falling, but bark and twigs being ripped from trees. Once again, the trout still have to eat, so don’t wait for the perfect day.

Beetles on the water on a windy, stormy day.

Leaders and tippet

The various types of leaders and tippets can be confusing for even the most seasoned flyfishers.

Keeping it simple. A tapered leader is preferred when trout fishing. Connect the leader to your fly-line, then tippet to your leader, then fly to the tippet.

A tapered leader aids with rolling the fly over, and it won’t hinge during the cast as it would if you fished 4X line straight through. Common tapered trout leaders, in lengths of 9ft or 12ft, start at around 20lb, tapering down in diameter to 8lb or 6lb; which is around 3X or 4X. From there, you add the desired length and weight of tippet. For example, I most commonly uses a 9ft 3X leader, to which I add about 3-4ft of 4X, connected with any proven knot or tippet ring. (I won’t get into knots; we’ll be here for days!) And true, you don’t need to buy tapered leaders – you can choose to construct them yourself by tying from thicker to thinner diameters. But I’ve got a life to live….

A good rule is, we want to fish as heavily as we can, so we don’t break off. However, some conditions won’t allow you to. If tiny flies are required (and sometimes they are – even for big trout) they’ll look wrong and behave badly on tippet that’s too thick/ heavy.

Attaching some 4X fluorocarbon to a 3X mono leader works well enough on a typical mountain stream.

Spooky trout in crystal-clear water will sometimes need lighter tippet (although maybe less often than we think).

In fly-function terms, thinner diameter tippet will cut the water column quicker when nymphing.

Another partial rule is, I’d like my leaders to float, but tippets to sink. For this reason, when trout fishing, I use monofilament leaders but fluorocarbon tippets. Monofilament is neutrally buoyant, cheaper, and knots easier than fluoro. Fluorocarbon sinks, aiding nymphing or fishing streamers, but not enough to drag a dry under if the leader is mono. It’s also a little more abrasion resistant than mono, which helps when fishing structure, or when your fly ends up in the mouth of a toothy fish.

Rules or not?

Rules can be useful with all sorts of pursuits, and they can often make things seem simpler. Just follow the rules, and everything will work out.

However, with flyfishing, rules can be a mixed blessing. As we’ve seen, some hold up well, but other rules are an attempt to simplify things that… well, aren’t that simple. And if a rule has too many exceptions, it’s not really a rule at all.