The Importance of Changing Flies on the Water

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The importance of changing flies on the water. Photo By: Louis Cahill

How long do you fish with flies without success before you decide to change them? 

I’ll usually fish for about thirty minutes with my first rig of the day, and if I’m not getting any hookups, I’ll begin regularly changing my flies out until I find a pattern that works. The willingness to change your flies on the water when your not getting bites, is often the key factor in determining whether you have a good or bad day of fishing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone walk up to me in the parking lot at the end of the day and complain about how the fish weren’t biting. While I, on the other hand, had caught and released dozens of fish in the same section of water. Most of the time that discouraged angler stuck with a few patterns during the day, and didn’t change flies enough times to find out what patterns were really working. How do I know this? I know this because I was that discouraged angler many times early on, in my career.

It can be very obvious to us that changing flies is the answer when we’re able to sight-fish and see fish rejecting our flies. But many times you’ll find yourself fishing in conditions where sight-fishing isn’t an option. A few examples is when your fishing fast moving choppy water, water with significant glare, and stained water conditions. None of these will provide anglers the opportunity to get visual feedback. In these conditions, anglers should change their flies when they’re not getting bites for extended periods of time. If you know your rig is set up correctly (correct tippet size, fly size, split-shot amount, or indicator placement) for the specific water your fishing, and your making good presentations, a light bulb should be going off in your head telling you to change fly patterns if your not getting bites.

Sometimes you’ll find a single pattern will work for you the entire day when there’s a hatch that fish are keying in on. However, when there’s not a hatch or specific bug that the fish are keying in on, you may find that one pattern will work in one hole and the next spot it won’t work at all. In this situation, you should be prepared to change flies from one hole to the next to consistently catch fish. The best advice I can give anglers is don’t be lazy and stick with fishing flies that aren’t producing. Furthermore, anglers should always be ready for the food menu to change throughout the day. Certain species of aquatic bugs and forage food are more active during different times of the day. That means some patterns will work great in the morning and may not work at all later in the day. This is a curve ball that many rookie fly anglers will swing and miss at. They’ll be thinking in their head, I caught a half dozen fish right off the bat with this pattern, so I’m going to continue to fish it. Making this mistake will cost you numbers and big fish everyday on the water.

Next time your on the water and your not getting bites, change your flies until you find a pattern that works. It often is the only reason your not catching fish. If that doesn’t work, continue covering water until you find fish. A good example of this is fishing for steelhead, where you’ll find 70% of the fish in 30% of the water.

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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22 thoughts on “The Importance of Changing Flies on the Water

  1. Gotta switch ’em up! It happens to us all though. We have one fly that’s worked so well everywhere on the river/stream that day that if you don’t pull fish out of a run, then you end up convincing yourself that there must not be any fish there and move on. What I’ve been doing recently is carrying two rods with me and not only switching up flies, but switching up tactics. On any given day I will carry my 10ft 3wt and use it for both nymphing and dry/dropping, and I will also carry my 6wt streamer rig. I’ll start out with the less intrusive dry/dropper, then nymph, and then chuck the meat and potatoes. It’s become common practice for me, and I’ve had good success doing this over the last year or so.

    • Excellent advice Louis and Justin. I was out fishing smallies in Ohio with friends, and I hooked up 4 or 5 times with a simple EP shad on an intermediate (my 3rd fly in an hour), while my two friends fishing weighted crayfish werent getting touched. neither switched to a suspending white fly even after I picked one of their pockets.

      Justin, I do the same, I either carry a 9 foot 5wt or a 6 foot 3wt and a 7’11” 8 wt, 9 ‘ 8 wt, or 7wt switch.

      I’m a bit opposite though. Unless I see the bugs being eaten, a very obvious hatch, or nymph feeding activity, the little rod stays in the on deck circle while I throw meat.

      Being willing to switch gears has been a great asset, and learning to do that (both with flies and rigs) was probably one of the most important things that took me from just casting, to catching, but took me years to figure out.

  2. The key is “If you know your rig is set up correctly (correct tippet size, fly size, split-shot amount, or indicator placement) for the specific water your fishing”

    I see far too many guys changing flies every five seconds because they are not deep enough, etc. Can’t catch fish with your line out of the water!

  3. This is so true. Great article. I have found myself on the water many times using a productive fly selection in the morning that completely stops working during mid morning or afternoon. This article is an important reminder to keep the flies fresh and rotate.


  4. I immediately thought of the article you guys wrote a while back about the paint strainer over the net emergency seine. Knowing what is in the water can help you make a more educated guess as to what the fish will eat, and being aware of some of these food sources behaviors can also help you pick your presentations as well! Seines are good things!

  5. Good article. My personal fishing improved exponentially when I learned this and began to use it. I try to make sure my clients understand that when I am changing flies there is a reason and not just a guess. When you guide the same waters often it is easy to get into a groove and know I can use rig XYZ and start getting clients on fish quickly, but when the conditions and/or hatch changes it is time to change as well.
    One of my young clients, 13 years old, this past weekend decided I was like the River Monsters guy because I told him to drift a seam and there should be a fish there. BAM! He was the only person who caught a brown the whole day!! Awesomesauce!!!!

  6. Kent:

    Jeff from Oregon here. It is all too easy to go back to a fishing spot and immediately tie on the streamer or fly that worked good last time. If no hookups happen we assume there are no fish. I make it a practice to fish a section of a river and if I’ve had no luck, go back to where I started and try a different streamer or several different streamers until I discover what works THAT day and time. It is critical to be flexible and willing to experiment.


  7. Great write up… I always encourage new anglers to learn how to tie good knots quickly. Tying knots quickly will turn rigging time into fishing time. A simple clinch knot can be tied in 3.2 seconds.


    • Cheech,

      Word and I would also add that anglers learn to tue knots efficiently when it comes to how much tippet it takes them to tue each knot. That saves time not having to add tippet to the leader or tandem rig.


  8. Good advice, as usual Kent.

    I like tandem rigs for finding out what is working and what is not.

    Also, it should come as no surprise that a bug that works in one place may not work in a different section of the river. Different bugs live and hatch in different conditions, so it stands to reason a fly that is a different size or a different pattern may work in one place but be ignored by fish in another. Changes in temperature may result in the same variance. Today on our home river the temp was 33 when I got up and will be in the 70’s this afternoon. We had a 20-30 degree temperature change just this morning. Again, it stands to reason the bug activity would change with such a temperature swing, and even a successful fly at 9 am may become ineffective or another fly may just be more effective at 11 am.

    One other point: a fly that is effective in fast currents may not be so effective in slow currents in the same river on the same day. I sometimes change flies when approaching a new spot even when the fly I have on has been effective thus far. I know from experience that something else works better in the water that is coming up.

  9. Sometimes when we are fishing for sea run Cutthroat in saltwater we will encounter a bunch of fish actively feeding at the surface. And when they are holding in a current and feeding like this, they can be difficult to catch. I have changed flies as often as every third or fourth cast in that situation, and it will usually work. Once one of them takes a fly, then most of them will. It pays to be aware of what they are feeding on. But sometimes we simply do not know for sure. If the fish are there, and you can see them feeding, you need to figure out what it is that they are taking.

  10. I’m definitely guilty of this. But there’s something that I’ve always wondered.
    “one pattern will work in one hole and the next spot it won’t work at all”
    On small to medium sized streams, how much time (in minutes, as well as casts) do you let pass at each hole with out a take before changing flys? At what point do you decide that it’s best to just move on instead of continuing to try new flys in that same hole? haha and finally, when you do move on, do you go back to that original set up that landed you fish two holes ago?

    • Evan,

      Great questions. I weigh the quality of presentations and drifts heavily when it comes to convincing me that I should stick with a pattern, change patterns or modify my rig. If your getting spot on casts and drifts and no bites, there’s either no fish, their spooked, you have the wrong type of pattern or you rig is setup incorrectly for the water you’re fishing. Lastly, if I can see fish and they aren’t spooked I often will fish in one spot longer and may change patterns more often.


  11. I think switching up is solid advice but can be destructive as well. Fishing a fly with confidence is what is most important. Spending to much time without a line in the water switching up rigs and flies constantly takes away from value able fishing time. Just some other food for thought. Thanks for the great articles!

    • Andy,

      I agree. Moderation is good with most things in life, including fly fishing. However, confidence alone will not always be enough to get the job done and usually its the willingness and courage to change thins up that turn the odds in the anglers favor. Thanks for the comment.


      • Kent and Andy,
        Andy’s point and your response illustrate an issue that I struggle with in teaching newbies: literal interpretation of fishing advice taken to the extreme can create problems. Few things in fly fishing are both universal and absolute. There are a lot of ways to attract a fish and conditions often dictate which range of approaches will work. The purpose is to find an approach and a fly that is working that day in that place. Some teach “to be successful, have a plan and stick to it with confidence.” There is something to be said for that. But others correctly say as Kent does in this blog, at some point be ready to adjust if your fly when it is not working. Fact is, adding a little weight to the fly or try a different drift or approach before changing flies. But clearly if you are being shut out after giving it a good go and trying some adjustments short of changing the fly, it makes little sense to keep the same fly on. My point is that good fishermen apply critical thinking to their approach. Don’t just say, “this isn’t working.” Ask yourself (or your buddy) “why is this not working?” and have a reason for the changes you make, whether it is a change of technique or a change of the fly or a change of the entire rig and plan.

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