10 Things to Know Before Your First Season of Flyfishing

10 Things to Know Before Your First Season of Flyfishing

You’ve seen them standing in the river, casting to and fro, and wondered what the fuss is about. You’ve seen your friends’ obsession. You’ve reckoned that a decent trout would put up an exciting fight on that light tackle. So here you are, at the dawn of your first season of flyfishing.

As you’ll soon see, there’s a fair amount going on. Much about flyfishing will be unlike the fishing you’ve done before, and it can be a little bewildering at first. But it’s also a hoot, and chances are you will enjoy it enough to come back for more. Here are a few things you’ll experience in that first season.

1. Less Force Equals a Longer Cast

You spot a rising trout at the outside edge of your casting range. You apply more force to reach it, but the line plops down in a bunch of S-curves well short of the target. The fish is still rising, so you try again, with the same result. Your excitement now mixes with frustration and your muscles are tense. You’re in a cycle that ends with an un-caught trout calmly digesting its snack.

It’s natural to think that casting longer requires you to cast harder, but it’s wrong. If you try to muscle a fly line, it usually ends up collapsing. Experts say using too much force is the number-one casting flaw, and believe me, it’s not limited to first-year fly fishers. Do this: Stop casting for a few minutes. Breathe and let the tension ebb. When you resume, make it your top priority to have a light touch—crisp, but light. You’ll be surprised at how much your casting improves.

2. What the Water Temperature, Speed, and Depth Mean for Flyfishing

If you visit your charming local brook after a night of thunderstorms, you will see how quickly weather can affect trout habitat. Generally speaking, flyfishing for trout is much more enjoyable and effective when the stream is in "normal" condition—that is, not "blown out" by heavy rain, warm and shallow from summer heat, or frigid from winter cold.

You can save yourself some disappointment and gas money by seeing what shape the water is in before you go. Find a local fly shop and see if they post reports on stream conditions, or check the U.S. Geological Survey’s Current Water Data for the Nation page, which lists real-time flows and, for some streams, water temperature. If your trout stream is too warm to fish, go fish for bass, preferably smallmouth. You may find you prefer bass to trout, even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself.

3. Why You Have to Stand in the Water

Getting in the water will get you closer to fish and keep your line out of the trees.
. Field & Stream

There are many situations where spinning-rod anglers pull on waders and walk into the water, but they don’t always need to. They can cast far enough to reach the spots likely to hold fish, and they don’t require room for a back cast. But the new fly fisher will quickly realize why he or she needs to be standing out in the stream: It’s often necessary to get physically closer to places in the stream where fish live, and you usually have to throw the line behind you before you can throw it in front of you.

The need to wade is actually one of the nice things about flyfishing. Joining the trout in their environment is both challenging and fun. Taking even a few steps into the stream opens up lots of room for your back cast, and getting closer to the fish is a strategic advantage, because the less line lying on the water between angler and fly, the better. By the way, don’t immediately wade in up to your rib cage so you can reach deeper water. You might be surprised how many trout hang close to the shore. Fish the near water first, then wade deeper.

4. Smaller Flies are Often Better at Catching Fish

The chalkboard at the fly shop said size 14 flies were hatching, so you tied on a size 14 fly, but the trout ignored it. They took natural flies all around it, maybe even right next to it, but your size 14 didn’t fool them. A size 16 might have. It’s not that the fly shop was wrong; gauging fly size by hook dimensions is a fairly imprecise way estimate. Sometimes, for reasons only the fish understand, a fly that’s a couple millimeters too big is unacceptable. Down-size a bit and your luck may well improve.

One rule of thumb says size, shape, and color, in that order, are the key characteristics of flies, so if the right pattern isn’t working, going smaller should be your first adjustment. And don’t think trout won’t see a smaller fly. Many are caught every season on nymphs the size of sesame seeds.

5. Your Fly Needs to Float Naturally

Getting a good drift can be surprisingly tricky. You know the basic strategy: Drop the fly upstream of where the fish is feeding and let it drift downstream to the trout, just like the naturals are doing. The naturals, of course, aren’t tied to a 9-foot leader and however many feet of PVC fly line. That leader and, especially, that line often cause the fly to get yanked off course, because they’re lying on water that’s not flowing at the same rate as the water where your fly is floating. The drag can be so subtle that you can’t even see it, but still bad enough that your fly moves unnaturally and the fish isn’t fooled.

There are lots of ways to deal with drag. You can find a casting angle where the intervening current doesn’t pull the line so much. You can make casts, like the reach cast, that have some built-in slack. The simplest thing to do is get closer to the fish, so there’s less line on the water. Stay downstream of the trout so you won’t be seen.

6. What Time You Go Fishing Is Everything

Fly fishing for trout is usually best at dawn and dusk.
. Field & Stream

You may find yourself on a well-known stream in mid-afternoon on a sunny day and wonder what all the fuss is about. There are no mayflies or caddisflies on the water or in the air, no splashing from surface-feeding trout, no evidence whatsoever that the water holds fish. Come back that same evening and you’ll think you’re in a different place, with insects everywhere and fish rising like crazy.

Broad-daylight fishing is by no means a waste of time, and depending on the location, the season and the insect activity, can be very productive indeed. But as a rule, you’ll have better action at dawn and dusk. Not only will you have more fish and insect activity, but you’ll also avoid conflicts with daytime river users like tubers and canoeists. In the summer, the water is coolest at dawn, which usually makes for livelier fish.

7. Fly Casting Is … Different

If you’re like me, your first attempts at fly casting didn’t go smoothly. My backcasts smacked the water, my forward casts landed like spaghetti, and sometimes I ended up with line wrapped around myself. I never snapped a rod over my knee in frustration, but I wanted to a few times.

Casting a fly line is fundamentally different than casting with a spinning or bait-casting rod. Unlike those, a fly rod is designed to throw the line, not the lure or bait. Reading up and watching videos will help, but the best way to shorten your learning curve is to be taught by a good caster and teacher. Local chapters of Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers regularly offer classes for modest fees. Fly shops often hold classes and clinics, too. It’s worth taking the trouble.

8. Good Fly Rods Are More Fun

Most of us start out with relatively inexpensive gear, for the same reason a guitar student won’t show up for his or her first lesson with a $6,000 Les Paul. Happily, today’s lower- and mid-priced fly rods and reels are darned good, and besides, it’s how you use the rod that counts.

Still, if you get a chance to make a few casts with a high-end Sage, Orvis, or Winston, you’ll notice a difference. They’re lighter, they’re easier to control for accurate casting, and they effortlessly lay out nice long casts. Not everyone can plunk down $1,500 for a rod, reel, and line, but if it feels like flyfishing is something you will do a lot of in the years to come, do get the best gear you can afford.

9. You Really Do Need Waders

Sure, standing bare-legged in a cool stream on a hot summer day sounds nice. It even makes sense on tiny, high-elevation brook trout streams. But in most places, most of the time, you need to be wearing waders. Reason One: trout live in cold water. There’s only so much time one can comfortably spend “wet wading” in a 58-degree stream. (Feel free to disregard if your first season of flyfishing takes place on a bonefish flat in the tropics.) Reason Two: Waders have soles designed for underwater use, made of either felt or “sticky” rubber like Vibram. Walking in regular sneakers on slippery underwater rocks is flat-out dangerous.

Chest waders also serve as another thermal layer when fishing in cold weather. Hip waders are cheaper, cooler, and less bulky in transit, but I guarantee you’ll get your crotch wet somehow, no matter how careful you are. Waist-high wading pants are a nice compromise. Stocking-foot waders have booties and are used with separate wading boots; they offer great support. Boot-foot waders have rubber boots built in; they’re warmer and easier to put on and take off.

10. Surface vs. Subsurface Fishing

Often, bigger trout are found feeding on the bottom.
. Field & Stream

The fact trout they eat floating flies is one of the reasons they’re so much fun to fish for, but they don’t do it all the time. They feed at the surface when flies are hatching, but the rest of the time they feed below, usually close to the bottom. No rises doesn’t mean no fish—it just means you need to use a different tactic.

Exploring the stream-bed landscape with a nymph or a streamer is a great way to catch trout, and it sure beats starting at a blank pool, waiting for a rise. It often yields bigger fish—the old guys that are too lazy to dash around at the surface. Nymphing requires concentration, watching, and feeling for a clue that an unseen fish has taken your fly (a strike indicator can be a big help.) Just like with a dry fly on the surface, your goal is a natural drift, at the appropriate depth.

Of course there’s more. Flies, knots, trout behavior, bug biology, rules, and regulations—like any interesting hobby, flyfishing comes with plenty to learn. But that’s part of the fun. Your first season will teach you many lessons, and so will the ones to come.

Written by Morgan Lyle for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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Customize Your Shotgun’s Fit for Mere Pennies

Customize Your Shotgun’s Fit for Mere Pennies

How plastic shims can fine-tune your gun—and make you a better shot

The 98 cents’ worth of plastic shims that came with your new $1,800 semiauto might be the most important part of the whole shotgun. Stock shims let you fine-tune cast and drop to get a perfect fit—and make your new gun almost a part of you. This is a big deal. Before shims, altering a wood stock involved a gunsmith and real money, and changing the dimensions on synthetic stocks was pretty much impossible.

Now, many shotguns come with shims, including such affordable standards as the SuperNova pump and the Mossberg 930. No longer is the off-the-rack shotgun a one-size-fits-all proposition. That little bag of plastic shims can make you a much better shot, if you know how to use what’s inside.

Mount Up

The first thing to do with your shim kit is…nothing. Put it someplace where you will not lose it, and start with an honest appraisal of your gun mount. If you practice it on a regular basis and are already dialed in, you can skip this step. Otherwise—and here I am talking to the vast majority of you—listen up.

Your head is the rear sight of the shotgun, but think of it as a scope for a moment: There’s no point in sighting in a gun if the mounts and rings are loose and the scope wiggles. Likewise, if your head doesn’t meet the stock consistently, your point of impact will wander and gun fit becomes a moving target. You need to crank down the screws. With a real scope, you use a Torx wrench. With a shotgun, you practice your gun mount until the “sight” (your head) comes to the same place on the stock every time.

I’ve written ad nauseam about how to mount a shotgun correctly, but it really matters, so let’s review: Practice at home by first checking and then double-checking that your gun is unloaded. Pick a spot on an opposite wall, fix your eyes on it, and bring the gun up so that the muzzle points to the spot without your looking at the bead. Do this by pushing the muzzle toward the target while raising the stock smoothly to your face first, not your shoulder. Don’t crush your head into the stock, because you won’t do that in the field. If you practice this drill with a Mini Maglite AA in the muzzle, the beam will tell you if the gun is pointing where it’s supposed to. You can also check your work in a mirror. When you mount the gun on your reflection, you should see your eye centered over the rib. Do that for 10 to 15 minutes a night for a couple of weeks.

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Drop shim shotgun illustration Robert L. Prince
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Cast shim shotgun illustration Robert L. Prince

Dial In

Once you are mounting your gun consistently, take it to the range and shoot “groups” with a tight choke while standing 16 yards from the target. Use paper, a steel pattern plate (no steel ammo with steel plates, though) if you have access to one, or a hanging bedsheet with a mark painted on it. Mount the gun, neither rushing nor aiming, and shoot at the mark. Don’t correct if you’re off target. You’re trying to shoot a good group, not hit the bull’s-eye.

If you hit the same place every time, you’re ready to consider shims. (If you don’t, keep on practicing your gun mount.) Look at the center of your group. If it’s on or less than 2 inches off the mark, you’re probably good (depending on where you want your point of aim to be; see below). Otherwise, for every 2 inches off, you need a 1⁄8-inch adjustment to the stock in the appropriate direction.

The shims go where the buttstock meets the receiver, so you’ll need a Phillips screwdriver to remove the pad, and a long flat-head screwdriver or extended socket wrench to take off the stock. (Some kits also include a plate that goes over the stock bolt after you put the stock back on.)

If you want the gun to shoot higher, use a shim that gives you less drop; in the case of Italian shims, it’s a lower number of millimeters. With U.S. shims, it’s usually something like +1/8. (Check the manual.) To lower your point of impact, which is the most common adjustment, use one with a greater number of millimeters or –1/8. Move the pattern right with cast off, left with cast on. Italian shims are marked D for destra (“right” for cast off) and S for sinistra (“left” for cast on, or “evil,” which is completely unfair to us left-handers). Repeat the pattern process and change out shims as necessary until you’re satisfied. When that’s done, I like to go to station 7 on the skeet field and shoot low-house outgoers with a low-gun start to be sure the gun hits where I’m looking.

Where you set your point of impact is up to you. Most hunters and many sporting-clays shooters prefer a gun that centers the pattern on the point of aim, giving a 50/50 pattern that prints half above and half below the aiming mark, and a sight picture that’s flat along the rib. Some upland hunters and target shooters prefer to “float” the bird over the barrel, and therefore like a gun that shoots a little high—about 55/45—and lets them see a little bit of rib. Trapshooters like guns that shoot 60/40 or even higher. However you prefer to shim your stock, you’ll have made it a perfect fit for you, and that’s time and 98 cents very well spent.

GEAR TIP: Beware the Floating Gun Case

Floating gun cases have become standard equipment among waterfowlers and many other hunters. They’re convenient and offer peace of mind should the boat swamp. But they have one huge drawback: They don’t breathe. If you put a damp waterfowl gun in a floating case after your hunt, it might be orange with rust by the time you get home a couple of hours later. It has happened to me. Take the time to wipe your gun down with an oiled cloth before you put it back in the case. By the way, the best method for drying the inside of a floating case is to stick it on a boot dryer.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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