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Why Fly Fishing Smarter is Sometimes Harder

Recently I fished a new river. It was a wide waterway with miles set apart for catch and release. I knew that it was filled with trout, and that it had been fishing well the week prior to my trip. So even though finding a spot and locating fish was a little daunting, I had faith that I could get into something soon enough.

Once  I was in the water, I was excited to see that there were prime riffles, runs, and pools as far as the eye could see in both directions. It really appeared to be an embarrassment of fishy riches.   A strong, fast rainbow on my second cast all but confirmed to me that it was going to be a good day.

Then things slowed down.

I nymphed every good lie. Hard. Constantly adjusting my weight and the position of my strike indicator, I probed some of the most beautiful and fishy looking water I’d seen in some time. All morning and into the afternoon it was the same thing: hours of nothing, nothing, nothing, FISH! …another hour of nothing, nothing, nothing, FISH! ANOTHER FISH!

Sitting on a rock, I tried to decipher the pattern. It felt like I was fishing with great focus and determination. But the results were a hair below intermittent. I could keep playing nymph roulette, hoping that I stumbled inexplicably upon more trout. Or, I could make much more out of an infrequent all-day trip to a river hours away from home.

Rehashing all of the fish I’d hooked throughout the day I realized that they’d all been deep. Not just on the bottom, but in the deepest holes in the immediate vicinity. The temperature had dropped, and  water hadn’t been released for a few days. The fish weren’t as spread out as they apparently had been even a few days ago. There was little value in me nymphing every pretty run, even if I was doing it well. Plus, time was of the essence.

I headed up the bank to the ridge overlooking the river, and began to make my way back to the car. As I began to walk, I noticed how the river looked entirely different from my vantage point. The height certainly helped, but being perpendicular to the flow made all of the difference.

All morning I had been working my way upstream. From that angle, everything looked good. With the water coming towards me, I was unable to discern anything but the most obvious seams. Using a tightline rig, I’d run my nymph through every pocket that looked worth a few casts. So between my realization of the fish locations and my newfound appreciation of the river contours, it was clear that I had “wasted” a lot of time.

I hopped in my car and drove the road which paralleled the river. I would pull off and walk the bank looking for a spot that would afford me two or three lies that should contain trout given the conditions. After a few quick stops, I came upon a stretch with some big boulders flanked by swift runs. I didn’t see fish, but I saw spots that had the high probability of containing fish. Furthermore, by pacing the bank I could approach and fish each lie as efficiently as possible. No goofing around with “maybes,” no spending valuable daylight “giving this spot a shot.”

It worked. Lots of fat, feisty rainbows came to hand. Might I have missed out on more if instead I probed every crevice and fished each seam? Sure. But it was a time vs. probability equation that I think I solved decently enough.

In conclusion:

  • Take good mental notes on everything about where you’re catching fish: not just depth,  but  depth relative to the surrounding water.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with the water, your best perspective is from the bank. It is tempting to just move upstream, but take the time to get out and get reoriented.
  • Fish smarter, not harder. Especially if big days like this are few and far between.

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