If you are just getting started then check out the trout fly fishing basics here. This guide comes from an interview with a professional fly fisherman. We investigate how to fly fish for trout from the mind of a pro!
When you get to the river, stop and take stock of things. Make some observations and make a plan of how to fly fish for trout in the water you’re in for the day.
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What Do Professional Fly Fishermen Do?
One of the things that’s unique about competitive fly fishing is that when we get to a river, we only have somewhere between 80 and couple hundred yards of river to fish for three hours. Most people, when they see that or hear about that, they think that’s crazy.
Because most people that I know, either they do one of these things:
- They go and they fish the same hole all day long, and they never move;
- or, they queue up so much water that it’s just basically hitting all the cherry picking spots, the honey holes and things like that. They skip all the in-between water.
But as a competitive angler, we don’t have that luxury. We’re relegated to a certain piece of water, so we have to look at that. Then in half an hour, we get our rig rods and decide what’s our plan of attack for the three-hour session if we want to maximize our catch. So I think the same approach can help just everyday anglers a lot to be more successful when they hit the river.
What Most Fly Fishermen Do Wrong
A lot of anglers get to a river and they pretty much go where they went last time, or wherever they had success last time. They fish the same water and the use the same flies because that’s what worked last time, right?
So we get into that rut of doing the same thing over and over. I know before I was a competitor, there was a piece of the local tailwater that I fished an inordinate amount of time on that short stretch of water where I was missing out on really the joy of finding all the water that surrounded it.
Not just the main obvious pools and runs, but all the in-between water as well. So yeah, when I get to a river, I take stock of a few things. I look at things like what’s the water clarity? Based on that, if it’s clear, I have a whole suite of approaches to try and keep myself from spooking fish. If it’s turbid or muddy, then I’m going to have a totally different approach with different flies and methods.
How To Fly Fish for Trout in a New River
Water temperature is probably one of the biggest ones that is overlooked by most anglers. A lot of anglers will look at water temperature and just think well, okay, if it’s summer, I want to make sure that I’m not fly fishing when it’s a stressful time for trout.
So if it’s nearing the 70-degree range (21 degrees Celcius) and above, then I’m going to give them a break. That’s the only reason they take a thermometer, but a thermometer can inform a heck of a lot more than just when it’s time to stop fly fishing for you.
The thermometer is the best indicator of how a river will fish and of where do the fish are going to sit throughout the day.
Fish Feeding Temperatures
I did my research back in graduate school on Arctic Char, and as part of that research, I did some bio-energetic modelling where I essentially estimated their consumptive demand or their metabolic rate throughout the year based on the temperature that they were living in, and then also the growth rates we were observing.
Arctic Char Feeding Temperatures
Arctic Char have this left skewed bell curve that is really low on the metabolic rate between freezing and for a Char, it’s about 48 degrees where it really starts to pick up. Then it peaks in this big bell curve shape between about 53 and 58 degrees for them and then takes a sharp drop off.
Salmon Feeding Temperatures
The same thing happens for all salmon we might be running into the river. They still have that same shape of when they have their highest metabolic rates, but it just shifts a little bit to the right.
Trout Feeding Temperatures
Most trout are going to have higher metabolic rates between 52 and 65 degrees. Then on either end, their metabolic rate will drop off.
Where to Fly Fish for Trout
Based on that temperature then and how much food that fish needs to take in, I’m going to decide where I’m going to fish for the day. If it’s really cold like it is right now on my local river, then I’m going to spend most of my time in the deep pools and runs and in slack water where the fish don’t have to work very hard to stay there.
Let’s say, I get to the river and it starts at 40 degrees in the morning, but by midday, it’s 45, 46, 47 somewhere in there, you’ve got a nice sunny day, then all of a sudden, I might focus some more on the riffles or the heads of pools, or even the pocket water between.
Really, by the time the thermometer reaches somewhere in the 52 to 55-degree range, I’m going to expect fish to be just about everywhere, and start hitting everything and not just those honey holes that we all like to camp in.
How to Fly Fish for Trout in a River
First I’m going to look at whatever water is right in front of me, or what I plan to fish for the next several hundred yards that are within my view point. Based on the water temperature, I’m going to try and determine whether there’s anything right there that looks fishy to me.
Let’s go back to that bell curve shape for just a second. Let’s say you’re there and it’s February like it is right now. You get there, and hopefully, the river is liquid. Having ice floes happens in a lot of places this time of year, but you’ve got a temperature that’s maybe 36 to 40 degrees.
For somewhere in there, I wouldn’t expect the trout to be real active at that time. I’m going to think they’re in energy conservation mode instead of an energy accrual mode unless you’ve got a real heavy midge hatch or something, which happened the last day I was out a few days ago.
I’m going to look for those fish to be in the deepest flow, the deadest water that I can find. That means if I hop to the river there and all I have is a big riffle in front of me for 100 yards, either way, I’m probably going to take a little walk first. That’s my first clue.
However, let’s say if I’m at the same spot and it’s July or August, and I get there in the morning and the water is 58 degrees, I’m going to put on the brakes. I’m going to look at the water in front of me and start looking for any holding water that I can find.
So in that temperature, it can literally be just about anywhere as long as there’s some sort of slack that a fish can get its head behind. That could be just simply a little depression or a shelf that a fish can fit below and have that water shoot over the top, but be right in that little vertical eddy that’s down on the bottom. Then just sit down there and rest and wait for food to come over the top, or it could be pockets with big rocks. Anything like that.
In those warmer temps, I’m going to look for trout just about everywhere. Even in places where there might be standing lays, it could look like a rapid, but there very well can be fish down on near the substrate in that type of water because the current is so much slower down there than it is on the top of the river where it’s ripping over their heads.
Based on temperature, that’s where I would look first.
How To Set Up Your Fly Rod in A New Area
The variables that I look at first are:
- Can you see fish rising?
- Do you see much hatch activity?
For instance, that last day that I was out, I was out fly fishing with my friend and teammate Lance Eagan. We got to the river a little bit late in the day, and from the get-go, there were heads up everywhere. They were all eating a midge hatch, taking pupae out of the film, and then later, they were eating adults as well.
So for that day, I saw rising heads. I didn’t put on nymph for the first four and a half hours. All we did was just fish dry fly, but really what the key is there, I’m not going to relegate myself to one or the other unless there’s a cue that tells me to.
So reasons I would fish dry fly for sure, if you have rising fish, that’s the most obvious one. If I have rising fish, then I take stock of those fish and come up with a plan, because if you have a rising fish, that is a fish that is feeding, and you better target it.
Whereas there can be fish sitting in the bottom that just might be in a sulky mood and really not want to eat anything, but if you have one that’s rising, then that’s a catchable fish basically.
I’m going to look at the fish’s rise form and try and determine is it coming up for an actual adult that’s sitting on top? Is it eating something in the film and doing a little head dorsal tail rise? Is it something that will slip in right below the surface? Then if you can find some adults to match around, then that’s a situation where I would match the hatch and try and catch those fish with dry flies.
If I’ve got really clear water, I might also blind fish through some shallower water with dry flies first too before I go out into some heavier water with either nymphs or dry drop, because I have a lot of confidence in some fish coming up through clear water for dry flies.
Obviously, if it’s muddy, I’m probably going to be out in that. But other than that, yes, most of the time, unless I have a reason to believe otherwise, I’m going to go nymph first because that’s the way that most of the fish that I target anyway get caught.
What To Use When Trout Fishing?
What cues do you use as to what type of pattern you’re going to put on?
You can always pick up some rocks and see if there’s anything nymphs there or stand in the river or something, and from that, at least find some dominant insects that might be in the drift that you could imitate. But most of the time, we’re working with impressionistic or attractor type patterns like you’re talking about. Really, it just becomes a rapid-fire trial and error most of the places that I go.
There are certain patterns that I have gained a lot of confidence in over the years, that in certain types of conditions that’s always like oh, I should probably go to that first type of fly.
To see our recommendations on the best flies for trout click here.
So I’ll go through that shortlist and normally, I can find a fly pretty quickly within that shortlist that works. Especially if I’m fly fishing two fly or egg, I’m going to leave that fly on and then I’m going to start to dry and dial in the other fly if I can find a fly on that position on the leader that also works, but really, it’s just a guess and check.
At the beginning of the day, I might focus on water types that I really think fish are going to be in so that I’m very confident that I am actually showing my fly to fish and not just fly fishing empty water because that gets in your head.
If you’re sorting through patterns, and you’re not getting anything, but you also don’t know if there’s fish there, it’s going to be hard to know whether you’ve given each fly due diligence or not.
How Long Should You Stay in One Spot
How long do you stay in one spot, or how many casts do you make? Well, that’s another ‘it depends’ type moment, right? If I don’t know anything about the river like you’re saying, I’m going to give that pattern probably 15 minutes at the most through really good water.
I will check everything else first. I want to make sure that drifts are as they should be, that it’s the correct amount of weight for where I’m at, that I have the right amount of tippet so that I’m in the zone, near the bottom but not bouncing it.
As long as I have that variable covered so that I feel like it’s mostly down to fly choice at that point, then I’ll start sorting through those flies. If I don’t catch a fish within 10 to 15 minutes, that fly’s gone and another one is on.
Because, a lot of times, I find that as long as the conditions are decent, I’m going to get a response most of the time within 5 to 10 casts in most good spots from any given fly pattern if they’re going to eat that on the day. I’m not going to spend a half an hour casting a fly and then be like oh whoa, I guess I should probably change now.
There are certain types of rivers that if it’s a tailwater, I might be more inclined towards smaller flies, less flashy, maybe some naturals and/or small, dark mayfly type of stuff or a caddis if it’s a tailwater.
If it’s a free stone river, then maybe I’m going to gravitate more towards stonefly patterns, tag nymphs that are really flashy, attractive patterns and larger patterns to begin with. Then from there, you just start. You go, then you try, and hopefully, you land on something that’s a winner.
Should You Fish Upstream or Downstream?
I work upstream 90% of the time unless I specifically have a glide or a flap that I want to swing some wets through, or fly fishing streamers through. It’s an upstream approach for me.
For our full streamer fishing tips see our post here.
Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t do some downstream drifts to water I may have already come through with upstream drifts if it’s water that I feel like fish aren’t spooking as I wade by. But I’m not working in a downstream fashion from the top to the bottom simply because certainly at least where I live in Utah, we don’t have large rivers other than the Green.
We don’t have large floatable rivers even if you drift pouring all day long. So if you go from upstream to downstream in most of the water, you’re spooking your fish before you’re going to fly fish to them.
Unless I’m swinging wets or doing some dry fly downstream work, if I have risers and a fly, I might actually work from up to down just for a fly first presentation instead of tippet and line first. But if I’m nymphing or fly fishing dry drop or doing more typical just cover water approaches, then I’m going from downstream to upstream.
If you can answer those questions and work on improving how you assess the water you can learn how to fly fish for trout like a professional. Most of the time we end up spending too much time on things that don’t matter.
Remember to check the temperature, move slowly and set your fly rod up to match the conditions. You can take time to choose the right fly, but don’t stick with it if you know the fish aren’t taking that fly.
If you haven’t already, check out our best fly fishing waders as these will help you stay in the water longer and improve your strike rate. We also have articles and plenty of fly fishing lessons here.
Excerpts from this interview were taken from the Orvis Fly Fishing podcast. We highly recommend you check it out!<