Almost all fly anglers, myself included, started off as beginners fly fishing for trout. Trout are by far, one of the most accessible species to fly fish for in the US and UK.
Trout fishing, even though it’s usually where beginners start, isn’t that easy. Trout are fussy, finicky fish and there is a lot to learn to be successful at trout fishing. Hence why we have put this article together for beginners, so they can learn everything they need to know about how to fly fish for trout.
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The first thing you need to learn about when fly fishing for trout is the fish itself. There are various trout types and the ones you have most likely heard of are cutthroat, brown, and rainbow trout.
They live in cold water lakes, rivers, and streams, and luckily, all the types behave relatively the same way, and the tactics needed for each of the types mentioned above don’t differ much.
What Do Trout Eat?
Trout have quite a varied diet that consists of insects, small fish, and even the occasional mouse. The first key to catching trout is working out that they are eating when you’re on the water and casting out a fly that matches it, known as matching the hatch in fly fishing.
What trout eat at any given time can be split into three large categories including hatched flies that are flying around on top of the water, unhatched flies that are beneath the surface, and small fish that are beneath the surface.
All of these categories correspond to fly types – dry flies for above the water, nymphs for below the water, and fly fishing streamers for when they are eating small fish. Within the fly types are hundreds, even thousands of different flies to choose from, so how do you match the hatch? It’s about knowing your seasons.
You can see our post here on what do trout eat for a more in-depth guide on trout food.
Matching The Hatch
Trout do 80-90% of their feeding underwater and therefore most of their diet consists of nymphs or small fish. The other 10-20% of their food comes from eating flies off the surface of the water which are dry flies.
Trout feed based on what is abundant at the time in the river, stream, or lake they live in. If there is a large dry fly hatch, they will take advantage of it and you’ll see them starting to rise on the surface.
They will also have a feeding frenzy when small fish have hatched and are swimming around everywhere, or when a lot of nymphs of the same type are starting to hatch.
To match the hatch, you should think about the time of year. If it’s early spring, not many flies will have hatched as it’s a little cold so the trout will be focussing on nymphs.
Around May, the mayflies hatch, and the trout go wild for them on the surface, in fall a lot of small fish will have hatched into the system, and fishing a streamer is a good idea to catch trout. Here are some of our suggestions for fall flies for trout.
Depending on the location of where you’re fly fishing, different hatches will happen at different times throughout the year. Your best bet is to get some local knowledge, look online, or some fly fishing books for beginners at what hatches when to make sure you have the right flies in your box before you go trout fishing.
Look For Signs On The Water
Another way to work out what the trout are eating and therefore which fly to use is by paying close attention to the water. If you see trout rising, then they are eating a dry fly and you should look on the surface of the water to see what type and match it as closely as possible with a fly from your box.
If there are no rises to be seen, then they are most likely eating nymphs and you should experiment with size and color. If you see trout making bow waves and moving quite fast, they might be chasing small fish and it’s worth casting out a streamer.
Here is a video on matching the hatch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSd1xoE5RgI
How To Fly Fish On Rivers & Streams
Now that you know how to work out what fly to use, let’s discuss fly fishing in rivers and streams, as it’s a bit different from fishing in lakes. The first step is knowing where the trout like to hang out.
How Do Trout Feed In Rivers & Streams
When trout are in a river or stream, they use the current as a kind of food conveyor belt. They will sit in their preferred spot, usually on the bottom, facing upstream keeping an eye out for any flies that are being washed down towards them in the current and will slowly pick them off as they come past.
This means that they don’t move around very much and will happily find a spot and stay in it all day feeding on what comes past. So what kind of spots do they like?
Finding Trout In Rivers And Streams
A trout will find a spot with enough current to feed them but not too much current that they are wasting energy fighting it all the time.
They tend to sit just outside the main current in pockets of slow water created by rocks, along the edges of banks, in deep slow-moving pools, and above or below rapids.
When looking for trout, you should always be walking or wading upstream so they don’t see you coming. As you walk, slowly scan the water looking for signs of them. If it’s crystal clear you will often see them under the water feeding and if they rise to eat a fly off the surface, they have given their spot away.
Casting & Presentation
When casting your fly to catch a trout, presentation is key to not spooking the fish and convincing it that your fly is a natural insect it wants to eat.
This means you must make sure the fish doesn’t see your fly line, hear your cast, and that the fly has a natural drift without any drag from the fly line.
The first thing you need to do is plan your cast from the right position based on a fish you can see or a spot you think a fish is holding in. Remember, the fish will be facing upstream so you will want to have the fly drifting downstream to meet it.
Get as close as you can to the fish or spot without disturbing it and think about your casting angle and whether to make a roll or overhead cast, and the distance of your cast.
You have 5 angle options when casting to a fish, either directly up the river or stream, up and across, across, down and across, or down, depending on where the fish is relative to you.
Make sure to cast far enough forward of the fish to ensure the fly has enough time to sink to the fish’s depth or float naturally, usually about 6 feet in front, but no so far forward that the fish sees your fly line.
You need to take a look at our post about fly lines for trout here.
Now that you have made the cast you need to ensure the fly has a dead drift to make it look like the insects in the water and this comes down to controlling your fly line.
Different parts of the water will flow at different rates which can create drag on your fly line and thus affect the movement of your fly.
To correct this, you must mend your line either up or downstream, depending on what’s happening on with your line and its drag on the surface.
If you are casting upstream, then you want your fly to be behind your fly line coming down, but not so fast that it’s dragging the fly along or so slow that the fly overtakes it.
If you are casting downstream, your fly needs to go down first with your fly line behind it, and you need to ensure the fly line isn’t slowing the fly down or overtaking it, as the trout will see it and spook.
To mend up, you’ll need to lift your line gently off the surface with your rod tip and move it up the current without moving the leader or tippet. To mend down, you do the same with your rod tip but in the opposite direction.
Hooking and Landing A Trout When Fly Fishing
Now you’re at the stage where you have spotted a trout, picked the right fly, made a good cast, controlled the presentation, and have finally convinced the fish to eat your fly, so how do you hook and land it? New fly anglers may get a bit excited at this moment, but try to stay calm.
Once you know a fish has eaten you fly it is very basic to hook it. All you need to do is lift your rod into the air quite quickly while holding your line so there is some tension to drive the hook into the mouth of the fish.
When you have hooked it, you’ll need to play the fish using the rod, reel, and line. Firstly, make sure the rod is always bent to keep tension on the fish. Then let line out and bring the line in depending on what the fish is doing.
If the fish runs towards you, pull or reel line in to keep the tension. If the fish runs away from you, let it run and take the line from your reel so it doesn’t break your leaders.
When fighting a big fish, a good tip is to get all your lines back on your reels so that it doesn’t get caught up around your feet. Reel it in as fast as you can and make sure to keep tension while doing so.
After a while, the fish will be tired and this is when you want to keep its head up using your rod, reel, and line, and slowly bring it into your fly fishing net.
How to catch trout on nymphs, streamers, and dry flies in a river or stream
As we already know from the section above, trout face upstream in a stream or river waiting for the current to bring them their food.
This means, no matter what type of fly you’re using, you need to place your flies into the current upstream of them and let your flies drift towards them so they look as natural as possible when the trout sees them.
The techniques for doing this differ depending on what type of fly you’re using, and here is how each of the techniques works. Catching a trout with
When fly fishing with a nymph, you are trying to replicate insects and food that have been dislodged from their homes on plants and rocks in the river or stream and are now flowing downstream in the current. This means your nymph needs to drift downstream along the bottom of the river into the path of a trout.
The first thing you need to do is work out what depth the fish is sitting at or the bottom depth and match your gear to it so the fish sees your fly.
This means having enough length of leader and tippet and enough weight to get the fly down to your desired depth. Your leader and tippet should always be at least 9 feet in total, and you shouldn’t have to adjust this often when nymphing as most fish will be sitting in 5 feet of water or less.
Something you will have to constantly adjust is the weight of your fly, adding more weight in deeper sections, and less in shallower sections. A fast-flowing section of water will require a heavier fly to get it to the bottom, and you will need to adjust for this too.
If you fly alone is not heavy enough, then add some split shot to the leader above the tippet to help it sink faster. If your gear is too heavy and snagging on the bottom, pick lighter fly fish nymphs.
You will also need to cast far enough in front of the trout to let the fly sink and reach the bottom before it reaches the trout.
Strike indicators are often used when fishing with a nymph and are very useful at telling you when to strike and hook a trout.
An indicator can come in many shapes and forms from floating putty and yarn to bobbers. You tie the indicator on your leader line in a way that allows you to adjust for the depth and when you cast your line into the water, it floats above your flies. When the indicator moves or gets pulled down, you know a fish has taken your fly and you can lift your fly rod to hook it.
You do not have to use an indicator when nymphing. Instead, you can keep tension on your line until you feel a pull or see the lines move and then lift your rod to hook the fish. But, an indicator does make it a lot easier.
Dry Fly Fishing
When dry fly fishing on a river, the basics of your presentation and cast should be the same as when using a nymph but instead of adding weight or using a weighted fly, you’re using a fly that floats on the surface.
Make sure you cast a long length in front of the fish, a distance of 5-6 ft is ideal, making sure it doesn’t see your line. Try to cast as accurately as possible so the fly floats past just a few inches away from the fish.
Anglers should use fly floatant such as Gink to keep the dry fly from getting wet and staying on top of the water. You can also add some floating to your leaders to stop them from sinking and pulling the fly down into the river.
You want to fish your fly on a dead drift to make it look as real as possible. This means you will probably have to mend your line to adjust for drag.
When a trout rises to see eat your dry, you’ll see it sip it off the top of the river. When this happens, you don’t want to lift your rod too early to strike and hook the fish, wait a few seconds until the fish is heading down, and then set the hook. This is one of the best tips for hooking up on dries and it helped me a lot when I learned it.
If you’re curious about trout fishing without fly rod, see our post here.
When fly fishing with a streamer, you can follow the basics laid out when it comes to finding trout and how to position yourself for your casts, but the technique is rather different.
Instead of imitating insects, you’re imitating small fish that swim in the river and don’t float down it. When fly fishing a streamer, it’s best to cast your line across the river, let it drift down to a 45-degree angle, and then strip it back across the river. This will make the streamer swim and provoke an attack from a lurking rainbow trout.
Anglers should focus on deep pools with a streamer and think about depth too. You can use a streamer with a weight at the head to get it deeper, add weight to the leader with a split shot, or use a sink tip with a loop-to-loop connection between your fly line and the leader. If you wet your streamer before casting this will help it sink too.
Catching brown and rainbow trout with a streamer is one of my favorites as the rainbow trout become super aggressive which makes it very exciting.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout On Still Waters
Fly fishing on still waters is quite different from fly fishing on a river and the main difference is the way brown and rainbow trout feed.
Instead of using the current to find food, the brown and rainbow trout are constantly patrolling the lake meaning you have to make your casts in a prospecting manner and cover a lot of water to find them.
Tips For Finding and Catching Trout On Lakes
One of the best tips for catching trout in lakes is that they can be anywhere from 1 ft in front of you to 60 ft out. You can’t tell, which is why your casts should start short and near to the bank and slowly grow in length to cover different areas.
If you make a 60ft cast when you first arrive, all the trout between you and where your nymph lands might see your lines and spook.
Anglers should also cast their rod and line at different angles starting along the one bank and making their way around to the other in a kind of fan shape. This is the best course of action in order to find patrolling trout.
Vary Your Retrieves
Anglers should vary their retrieves when fishing on a lake until they find what the rainbow trout are preferring. This means on each cast bring your lines in, in a different way, one with a slow retrieve, one with a medium, one fast, and even one with a mixture of all three.
Think About Depth
A lake is usually much deeper than a river and therefore trout can sit much deeper. You might have to lengthen your leaders to get down to them and catch them. You can also use other lines such as intermediate and sinking lines to help get your flies into the feeding zone.
Thanks a lot for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it. You should now have all the basic tips and tricks that will hopefully set a course for your trout fishing to become as successful as possible, on both rivers and lakes.
Fishing for trout isn’t that easy, but with enough time spent with your rods and reels on the water, all anglers will start to catch a few, and slowly learn more and more until they catch them all.. almost.