On the Fly: 10 Steps to Catching a Trout

Fly fishing is a hobby surrounded by lore. Maybe it’s because neither of the sport’s key objectives, the fish and the bugs, are blatantly visible to the untrained eye. Or maybe it’s because generations of novice fishermen have spent countless hours chasing an understanding of the process without proper direction, returning home time and time again with nothing more than stories of defeat; how they couldn’t crack the code. Either way, to be successful fly fishing, you’ll need to ignore the lore and start from scratch.

1.) Know What You’re Doing

The first step to catching a trout on a fly is to understand what you’re doing. The goal of fly fishing is simple: you’re presenting a lure — in this case, one made of feathers, wire, fibers, and a hook – to a fish, and trying to trick him into eating it. It’s as simple as that; think of it as anything more and you’re over complicating it.

2.) Know Where They Are

The next step is finding a place to fish for trout. Luckily, you’re coming to Bozeman and/or Big Sky, and all of our nearby rivers. The Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson and Yellowstone all have trout in them. Once you’ve gotten yourself to whichever river you’ve chosen, it’s time to find the fish. Much like humans, a trout’s main goal is to eat as much as it can while exuding as little energy as possible. Being the case, you’re likely to find trout in slow-to-moderately paced stretches of the river, and the more features (large boulders, sharp bends, depth changes, etc.) that particular stretch has in it, the better. Stretches of river like these are ideal because such obstructions break the current, creating “soft” pockets of water that lie adjacent to moving current. Fish basically just hang out in these calm spaces and wait for the current to bring food to them.

3.) Know What’s on the Menu

Experienced fly fishermen have the ability to show up to a river and figure out what kind of bugs the fish are eating at any point of any day. But when you’re just starting out, the best way to get “in the know” is to walk into a local fly shop, admit to whomever is working that you don’t know what you’re doing and ask them which flies are working best on the stretch you intend to fish. Be humble, because even though these people are there to help you, their BS detectors are finely tuned. Trying to sound in-the-know by telling them “what my buddy said” isn’t going to impress them. However, asking questions and taking their advice by buying what they tell you to will further encourage them to help you.

4.) Stop Casting

Before you come to Montana, watch A River Runs Through It. Watch it because it’s a great movie, but whatever you do, don’t try to learn a single thing about casting from it. Casting is the most talked about, least important part of fly fishing. As a beginner, your goal is to get your flies to land in the water about 15-20 feet in front of you, rather than in that tree 50 feet behind you. Remember, fish live in the river, not in the air, and not in the trees. If you’re casting, you aren’t catching. The list of clever phrases that illustrate this point is endless, for a reason.

5.) Get a Good Drift

Once you’ve dialed in your simple, effective cast, the next part of the process you need to consider is what your fly looks like on the water, or as fly fishermen call it, “the drift.” Getting a good drift is one of, if not the most important, parts of fly fishing. Whether you’re fishing a dry fly (one that floats on top of the water) or a nymph (one that sinks), you need to make sure that they are traveling at the exact same speed as the current. Since there aren’t any bugs flying through the water at 100mph, fish aren’t likely to key in on a fly doing such, nor are they likely to recognize it as a potential food source. A good drift is achieved by “mending” your line, which means keeping it upstream from your flies. If your line is traveling downstream in front of your fly, it’ll pull it along at an unnatural, accelerated rate. If it’s floating upstream of your fly with a little bit of slack in it, your fly will bob down the river at a natural rate, just like the real bugs the fish rely on as their sole food source.

6.) Set the Hook

Setting the hook regularly and effectively is another ultra-important part of fly fishing. As soon as a fish eats your fly, dry or wet, the next thing you need to do is lift your rod tip straight up, as if you were getting ready to cast your line out. Dry fly takes are much more obvious than wet fly takes, but the same principle applies to both styles: When in doubt, set the hook. There is no penalty for setting the hook too often, but there certainly is for not setting often enough.The reason for this is that fish eat gobs of real bugs, so the second they realize they’ve eaten something that isn’t really food (your fly), they spit it out. If you watch a fish eat your fly and then wait for something else to happen, nothing will. If you watch a fish eat your fly and you set your hook, you’ll be able to move onto the next step, which is landing the fish.

7.) Keep your Tip Up

Keeping your rod tip up while you’re fighting a fish does two things. First of all, it helps keep the line tight between you and the fish, which keeps your hook lodged into the fish’s mouth. Secondly, by creating a sharp angle between the tip of your rod and your line allows your rod to act as a shock absorber, which drastically helps thwart the fish’s attempts at spitting your fly.

8.) Quit Horsin’ ’em!

The best way to lose that fish you just hooked is to rush the landing process. If you’ve accomplished a solid hook set, there’s no rush from here on out. Reeling line in too fast on a “hot” fish can put too much tension on the fine tippet and result in a snapped line, lost fly and lost fish.

9.) Keep ’em Wet

Once you’ve landed the trout, it’s understandable that you’d like to take a photo of, or with, it. There’s one right way and many wrong ways to take photos of live fish. The wrong ways include, but are not limited to: Leaving it out of the water for too long, laying it in the grass next to your rod, holding the fish by the mouth or gills, squeezing it too hard and carelessly chucking it back into the water when you are done. The right way to take a photo with a fish is to keep the fish in the water as long as possible, wet your hands before you touch it and keep the fish out of water for no more than five seconds while the photo is taken. When it’s time to release the fish, hold it facing upstream in slow to medium current until it swims out of your hands on its own.

10.) Tell the Story

Now that you’ve caught your first trout in Montana, it’s time to go to the bar and tell a story about it. To be a good fish story teller, you must learn to embellish some or all of the actual events that tookplace. This cannot be taught, but comes with experience.

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