Fly Fishing: The Importance of Having a Good Game Plan

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Take the time to create a trout fishing game plan. Photo Louis Cahill

It’s cool to shoot from the hip on the water.

What I mean by that, is fly fishing a new stretch of water and catching fish right out the gates. Sometimes you get lucky and hit the bullseye right off the bat, catching fish immediately after wetting your fly line. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen ever time you pull the trigger on the water, especially on water you’ve never laid your eyes on or haven’t fly fished in months. Veteran fly fisherman that have logged hundreds, if not thousands of hours on the water fly fishing, understand this fact, and that’s why most of them have develop a familiar fly fishing game plan that they use to help them locate and decipher the feeding pattern for the given day. They’ll run through a list of different fly patterns, rig or types of water, and eventually they’ll gain enough information through observation and feedback from their fishing, that they’ll be able to dial into the most effective way to stay into the fish. This strategy is very similar to how tournament bass fisherman pre-fish water to identify and develop a pattern on the lake before tournament time. When conditions change or specific tactics yield little success, having a “game plan” of what you’re going to do next is invaluable on the water when it comes to not only getting your skunk off, but also fully enjoying your time on the water. Below is an example of a “trout game plan” that I use when I’ve not been on the water for a while or when I’m visiting new water. It usually increases my success a great deal.

1. Gather intelligence about your fishing destination before you leave the house.

It may seem like a no brainer, but many of us don’t start gathering intelligence about the water we’ll be fly fishing until we’ve parked our vehicle and hit the water. With present day technology, it’s very easy for fly anglers to begin developing a fishing game plan well in advance of their fishing trip, by simply surfing the web for present fishing reports, water and weather conditions or taking the time to contact a couple local fishing buddies prior to the fishing departure date. Many trips have been saved by Louis and I just by getting on the phone or using the internet to gain knowledge of the fishing location. Google Earth is a great application on your computer or smartphone that you can use to scope out your target fishing area. It’s come in really handy for us finding boat ramps, and gauging whether or not certain floats or runs (driving a boat from point a to b) were going to feasible. It also can be helpful to quickly identify shallow or deep water areas when you’re fly fishing in saltwater or on large reservoirs. Remember, just about any intelligence you can gather, no matter how large or small, will almost always increase your odds for success when you reach the water you’ll be fly fishing.

2. Hit your local fly shop

If there happens to be a local fly shop within a short driving distance of your fishing destination, plan on making a pit-stop before you start your day of fishing. You’ll often be able to gather valuable information on the current fishing conditions, where the hot spots are and what fly patterns have been the most consistent during the past week. If you support your local fly shop and maintain a respectful and friendly persona, the fly shop staff will likely throw you a couple bones.

3. Spend some time Observing your water when you arrive before you begin your fly fishing.

The importance of taking the time to use all your senses to observe the conditions on the water before you wet a line, is openly preached by veterans and guides. When my guide schedule permits, I always try to spend a couple minutes observing the water before I meet my clients in the morning. In just five minutes, I’m usually able to gather water temperature readings, notice if there’s any trout rising on the surface and visually confirm water levels and clarity. That information alone, helps me decide which fly rods I’m going to use for the day, and what rig types and fly patterns I will set up in advance (which saves my clients time not having to wait on me rigging up in the morning and usually gets them into fish quicker). I should also note, that over the years, I’ve got in the practice of observing each spot for a minute or two prior to myself or my client fly fishing the spot. It’s surprising how many fish you can spot or how much you can learn about a specific section of water by simply taking the time to read the water for a couple minutes before making your initial presentations. One of the biggest mistakes novice trout fisherman make on the water (wading that is) is fishing too fast and basically blind fishing.

4. Determine where the best trout holding water is located in the spot you’re fly fishing.

Is there a nice bucket off the back of that shoal? Is there an undercut bank on the far side of that bend? Is there a visual foam line showing you where the most current and food is floating? These are just some of the questions a fly angler should be asking their self when they first lay eyes on a specific stretch of trout water. Catching trout can be directly dependent on where your fly lands, where it drifts and at what depth it’s presented to the trout. Trout don’t just randomly choose their holding positions in a stream or river. They search out the best water that will allow them the most food and safety. By taking the time to search out the prime lies of a spot you’re about to fly fish, you’ll usually be able to eliminate the spots where you shouldn’t waist your time and focus on fishing the spots that are the most productive.

5. Match your fly fishing rig correctly to the present water conditions.

All too often, I run into fly fisherman on my home waters that failed to catch fish because they weren’t using the correct rig for the current water conditions. It’s critical for fly anglers to think about rig type (single dry fly, dry/dropper, nymph rig, streamer) leader length, tippet size and fly size on the water. When fly anglers pay attention to the current water conditions and insect activity, it can make it much easier for them to dial into the fishing. For example, if the water is gin-clear and flat, and trout are sipping on tiny bugs, it’s usually not going to be a good idea use a 7 1/2′ 3x leader and a heavy tandem nymph rig. You’ll probably find it much more effective if you lengthen and downsize your leader, and fish a small dry fly with an emerger dropper off the back. Furthermore, instead of blind casting the rig in this situation, it would make more sense to get into position first, and make accurate and well timed casts to the riser that are visible to you. Pay attention to the water conditions and the visual clues that the fish will often signal to you throughout the day, and then adjust your rig accordingly to increase your odds at catching them. Lastly, remember that conditions can change from one hour to the next, or from one area to another. Matching your rig correctly to the water you’re fishing is very important. I’ve gone fish-less far too many times because I kept fishing a rig that started out hot in the morning and went cold a couple hours into the day. Don’t be afraid to change things up.

6. Present your artificial flies in different ways to determine what the trout like.

Trout don’t feed on the same type of food every day, nor do they do it in the same fashion. In order for a fly angler to consistently catch fish on a variety of water types, they must be willing to experiment with different presentation methods with their fly patterns. For example, quite often a dead-drifted fly will be prove to be the ticket to getting trout to eat regularly. However, some days, they may be keyed-in on eating emerging insects below the surface, and a fly gently swung on a tight-line against the current, that slowly rises at the end of the drift will generate far more strikes from trout than a dead drifted fly. Other times, you may find the trout so aggressive that stripping a woolly bugger or small streamer will work much better than fishing with dry flies or nymphs. If I’ve learned anything in the twenty something years I’ve trout fished, it’s that fly anglers shouldn’t stick with a fly pattern or type of presentation that’s not producing. The only way you figure out what the trout want is through experimentation.

7. Try adjusting your casting position if you’re not getting bites in prime water.

The more time you spend trout fishing, the better you get at being able to pick out the money trout water. What I mean by that is you usually will have a 75% or greater chance of certainty, that there’s fish holding in the water you’re fishing. When you find yourself in a situation where you’re fishing water that has fish, but you’re not getting bites, sometimes all you need to do is make a few steps upstream or across to get bites. Quite often, the only reason you’re not getting bites is because you’re not getting your fly close enough to the trout—it’s not entering the strike zone. By relocating a few feet it will help you get your presentations a few feet further upstream or across the stream, thereby allowing you to present your flies so they can drift through the strike zone. Take nymph fishing, for example, where it’s very important that you have your nymphs drifting in the correct water level. Often, the only reason you’re not getting bites is because you’re nymph isn’t getting down to the level of the fish. If you move a couple feet upstream, you’ll be able to land your nymphs further upstream of the fish, which will give them extra time to sink into the proper water column.

That’s a basic trout fishing game plan that I use every time I hit the water. Have I left out some tiny details here and there? Yes, but what I’ve tried to do is lay out a basic outline of what’s important and provide a foundation that fly anglers can use to further build and elaborate on in their own ways. Drop me a comment with some of your own tips if you’d like to add. I’d really appreciate you doing so. Gink & Gasoline is a friendly place for all of us to share helpful information.

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: The Importance of Having a Good Game Plan

  1. Dear Louis,

    I agree with everything you have written if you are fishing from a boat, but it is not the case for Western Michigan stream wading fishing. In Michigan, it is hard to find public access to rivers and streams, and when you do its for boating or floating. The Fly Fishing Industry here is steering fishers to the professional guides and boats. Fishing the Western US and possibly Central Pennslyvania streams is where you can hike to a river and fish within 30 minutes and have a great day at it. Did the folks in the “River Runs Though It” fish from boats?

    Tight Lines,

    Old John

  2. Pingback: Tippets: Planning Ahead, River Guide Willi Cannell, Catch More Trout | MidCurrent

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