There’s No Right Answer

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

I have some bad news for you. You’re not doing it right.

I was reading an article on fishing streamers and the author was pressing the importance of neutral buoyancy. The idea being that the fly neither sinks, nor floats. His assertion being that, when fished with a drift and twitch presentation, these flies more accurately imitate an injured baitfish. I have a good friend who is a master of this technique and, after watching him coax some very big fish out of cut banks, I started using it a fair bit myself, but here’s the thing. It’s not the right way to do it.

I was out on the river one day tuning up my spey cast in preparation for a steelhead trip. When I was done, and headed back to the truck, a woman who had been watching me asked,

“Are you some kind of expert?”

“Ma’am, this is fly fishing,” I replied, “we’re all experts.”

Each of us, regardless of our level of expertise, is largely a self-styled angler. We learn by trial and error which techniques will catch us a fish and when. Generally, in our own minds, we know the right way to do it. Or do we? I know this is kind of an esoteric fishing tip, but my point is this.

There are no right or wrong answers.

Dead drifting streamers is a great technique. So is jerk stripping heavy patterns, and fishing floating flies on a sinking line. All of those techniques, and many more, produce fish at the right time. They are all equally right and equally wrong. The question is not, “What’s the right way to fish the fly?” The questions is, “What’s the right time to fish in that way?”

I have a good friend who has been learning to fly fish the last couple of years and this is something he has really struggled with. He will ask me for advice on fishing in a given situation, and when he gets it, he’ll frequently point out that it contradicts something I told him before.

“Yep,” I’ll tell him, “but that was then, this is now.”

Most of us, especially when we are learning, want the “right answer” that’s going to work all of the time. The truth is, it just doesn’t exist. Conditions change constantly as does the mood of the fish. It’s our ability to adapt to that change which makes us effective anglers. I think Davy Wotton summed it up best in what is quite possibly my favorite fly fishing quote of all time.

“Fish are stupid animals and they do stupid things. That’s what makes them so hard to catch.”

There is no right presentation except the one that the fish eats. Sure, there are some very good guidelines. Dry flies are almost always best fished with a dead drift…until they aren’t. Until a fish crushes one dashing across the surface, or hanging in the current while you take a leak. I have a friend, a very good angler, who will frequently pinch split shot above a dry fly and catch a tough fish. It’s wrong but it works.

Take everything you read or hear, even this, with an grain of salt. Some technique you read about may crush fish on the author’s river and not on yours. Maybe it works on Monday but not on Tuesday. Keep an open mind and experiment when you are on the water and remember what the conditions are when you find something that works. Eventually your gut will tell you what will work and more importantly, when.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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11 thoughts on “There’s No Right Answer

  1. Perfect. Appreciate the article.

    I avoided fly fishing for years because the few I encountered doing it were rather assertive in their advice; there was a right way to approach fly fishing and a LOT of wrong.

    My local fly shop owner changed all that with his “no rules” advice on fly fishing and fly tying. Learn good techniques but try everything, with, as you suggest, some tried and true guidelines.

    It’s pretty amazing that some of my large surface bass flies work really well in the winter for trout. It’s “wrong” of course! But that’s fishing.

  2. Along the same line, never tell a fish where he is supposed to be, what mood he is in, or what (or how) he should be eating. If you do, the Fish Gods will teach you a quick lesson on the foolishness of making assumptions and/or predictions. Great article, thanks.

  3. What I got out of reading Ray Bergman’s book, TROUT, 482 pages, written in 1938, was that our job as fishermen was to discover, on any given day, what the trout wanted and how they wanted it presented. After that, success!

  4. Dang Louis… one of my favorites.

    What’s great is that the inner current of this post will work across many, many things. Just because something worked once doesn’t guarantee future success. We must keep exploring , evolving , and learning form our experiences on the water. nothing comes easy twice…..

    • A fly fisherman never steps into the same pool twice, for it’s never the same pool and he’s never the same fly fisherman.

      And that is the beauty of the sport. Endless variables, endless challenges, endless rewards.

  5. True enough…

    …I can think of times when something wasn’t working…and three hours later, you couldn’t keep the fish off the fly…

    and 20 minutes after that…crickets…

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