How I became a proficient fly fisherman

3 steps to learn how to fly fish in less than 2000 words.

When it comes to trout, I can hold my own with a fly rod. On any Western river or stream I can almost always entice a trout to my fly, especially in the case of dries. I wouldn’t say I’m a total pro or maybe not even guide status, but I will say I have had some real success. However, it hasn’t always been that way.

I thought I would walk you through how I became a proficient fly fisherman. Maybe this article can help shorten the learning curve for a beginner. For others, it will be pure entertainment. I know I’m not the only one who went through the frustrations I did.

I held a fly rod for the first time in the fall of 2003. I had just got out of the Marines and a buddy had an extra rod and took me up the mountain. I got soaked from a slip in the river and didn’t catch a thing. Unlike the fish I was after, I was hooked.

For roughly four years I fed my fly fishing addiction with almost no success. I worked for an old friend in Spokane and he bought me a pair of $40 waders from Costco. We would fish hard. Snagging every branch, trying flies we couldn’t pronounce, getting skunked at every turn we made. Time went by and my confidence was shattered, not my determination.

I came to the conclusion that I was the worst fly fisherman that ever insulted a river simply by showing up. It’s as if the river would wince in shame when I stepped into it.

At about the four year mark, I took a job with a company in Utah. The office happened to be minutes from the Lower Provo River which is a formidable trout fishery.

I caught my first legitimate trout on a #18 blue winged olive. It was my first fly fishing catch in which the fish was actually bigger than my pinky. A fish I could be proud of.

It was pure luck. I know this because I have no idea as to why I suddenly caught this fish. After releasing him I could not replicate it. Luck.

About that time, the company I worked for sent me on a guided fly fishing trip in Island Park, Idaho. By circumstance, I was assigned perhaps the most prolifically successful fishing guide I have ever met. I don’t know much about him other than his name is Rod. He was a retired paramedic and spent his summers guiding fisherman. He completely changed my fly fishing career.

Rod was an interesting character. He was not super friendly and at times I felt like I was back at boot camp getting yelled at for not tying my boots fast enough. We floated the river in his Hyde drift boat, something new to me. I really liked him. He was animated because he knew I genuinely wanted to learn how to be an expert fisherman. He gave me a hard time for my $69 rod/reel combo I bought from Sportsman’s Warehouse yet insisted that I use it.

The river we fished had cell service and his phone rang constantly from other guides asking him what to use and how to help their clients catch fish. In the first two hours of fishing with him, I caught eight times more fish than I had in the previous four years on my own. He was an epic fisherman, and an effective teacher.

I had never fished with a guide before this. I have not hired a guide since for either fishing or hunting. It’s not my thing. But I’m thankful for the two days I spent with Rod. I went back to the Provo River and landed trout multiple times a week. My former boss even busted me fly fishing during working hours because I took the very visible, company marked truck and he happened to be driving up the canyon that day. I got a talking to.

Make fun of my ugly hat in 3. 2. 1….

I’m going to share with you a few tips from Rod and the over ten years of successful fishing I’ve had since. Let me start with this one; don’t fall for all the hype of inflated technical know-how that saturates the fly-fishing world. Fly fishing is the easiest and most proficient way to catch trout in a river. There is a learning curve, but with some effort you will master the basics of casting, fly rod set-up, and fly selection.

Rod and I discussed the marketing around fly fishing and how it affects new fisherman/women. He talked about how beginners can easily be overwhelmed with the vast amounts of gear must-haves, complicated fly patterns, expensive fly-rods and reels, and strategy articles that rival Civil War battle plans. If you’re just starting out in fly fishing, push all of that aside for a minute.

Allow me to drop this proverbial truth bomb on you straight from Rod’s mouth:

“Allow a reasonable representation of a food source, naturally drift past where you know fish are at” – A guy named Rod

If you have one take away from this article, it’s the above quote. Memorize it.

There are key words to this phrase. First, a “reasonable representation” is important to understand. You generally need to know what bugs are hatching at the time of year you’re fishing. Don’t throw a hopper in March, for example. There are plenty of resources and guides that break down hatch charts for Western rivers. You do not need to be an expert. In fact, I only actually know a handful of actual fly names and which bug they represent.

Here’s another handy tip; have a bug net on you. Stick it in the river long enough to catch whatever is floating by. This applies both to dries and subsurface insects. Take the insects and compare them to your available flies. Match it as close as you can and tie it on. Importantly, don’t overcomplicate it by considering which shade of green the hackle needs to be. Fish are not as intuitive as they are often portrayed. Much of it is marketing, ignore it.

The next phrase is “naturally drift.” A natural drift is when the fly is completely unobstructed in its drift from your line. There are two things you need to achieve this; the first is controlling and mending your fly line and leader so that it is not pulling your fly downriver, or dragging your fly upriver. Drag will look unnatural to a trout and they won’t bite. It takes practice and you can find easy to follow videos on YouTube.

Secondly, building a tapered leader with tippet line. This is crucial and will be the most technical thing in this article. You can buy pre-made tapered leaders and I recommend that, but you really should know how to build a tapered leader on the river.

Here’s why; your chosen fly, or reasonable representation of a food source, must align with the size of your tippet. This is how a natural drift is made on the water. What I do, and there are many opinions and variations so take it with a grain of salt, is I divide the size of my fly by 3 and that tells me what my tippet needs to be.

For example; if I am using a size 18 BWO, 18/3=6. You didn’t know I was a math genius, did you? I use a 6X tippet for a size 18 fly. This isn’t always as exact with other fly sizes. Don’t overcomplicate it. If I have a size 14 fly, that comes out to about 4.6 so either a 4X or 5X will be fine. If you use a 3X tippet with a size 16 fly, you will have severe drag and fish will notice.

You need several roll sizes, I run 3X to 7X. You should not connect a 6X tippet to a 3X so you need to taper it. Start with 3X for example, then 4X, then 5X, and tip it with 6X. This will strengthen your leader and help with accurate casting. Simple!

Click here to see a video on how to build a tapered leader.

Fish on! No fly line visible because my tapered leader is over 9′. Also, who needs waders in July?

Back to the life altering quote and the last key phrase, “You know where fish are at.” On the surface, this may seem super obvious. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched fly fisherman blindly cast on a river.

Fish can be anywhere on a river. That does not mean they are everywhere. They move. Conditions push them around. They go where there is shade and food in the summer months. They seek warmth in the spring and fall. Understand basic fish behavior and rivers.

A river has three flow characteristics (except during a spring run-off). Each one is a different habitat and you can find fish in all three; pool, riffle, run.

Understand river habitat for trout.Photo credit; Conservation Council.

A pool is typically deep and great for trout that are resting or seeking cooler temperatures. Big trout specifically like the pools. Runs can either come out of a pool or lead into a pool. This is my favorite habitat to fish in the sequence. Riffles can be good as well and you can get away with things like drag. Read the river to know what you are fishing.

Knowing where trout are at is key. You can locate them by watching the surface water or looking through the water to find them. This would be a good time to recommend polarized sunglasses. Watch for silver flashes beneath the surface. Sometimes, they are easy to see. Other times, not so much. Simply put, don’t fish a spot that you cannot confirm trout are in.

Can you get lucky? Yes. One of the biggest cutthroat trout I have ever landed happened by complete accident. I was demonstrating to my daughter how to present a fly on the surface without drag in 8″ of water and a 24″ cutthroat came out of nowhere and smashed my fly.

This is not typical. I never blindly cast if I don’t know fish are there. Twenty yards on the river can make a huge difference, walk the bank and confirm trout locations. This is where you fish.

Obviously, the topic of locating trout is very different in a drift boat or floating the river. Fish the whole thing as you move, in this case.

How about it? This crash course in fly fishing basics hopefully opens the doors to success for you! Use a reasonable representation of a food source, drift your fly without drag, and fish where the fish are at.

Yes, you do need to practice casting and get decent gear. However, you don’t need a $5,000 budget. I catch countless fish every year on a $250 rod. It feels right for me and we can talk about gear in a future article. For now, focus on learning these basics and move up from there.

My brother Tim on the left and myself. Our parents
are real creative. Jim and Tim.

Lastly, a few words about fly fishing and the adventure it provides. Fly fishing will connect you to the outdoors in a whole other way than other outdoor activities. There is real mystique when standing waist deep in a crystal clear Western river.

I have fished Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Washington and all of them offer unique fishing opportunities. But the methods of fishing these rivers is constant, so are the rewards. You leave a river with appreciation and lifelong memories. I’ve only fished a couple of times with my brother from the above picture, but they stand out to me more than my solo fishing excursions. I connect with my daughters, we even practice casting on the lawn together at home. Fly fishing is adventure. Experience it.

Jim Huntsman

5 thoughts on “How I became a proficient fly fisherman

  1. Good article man! Ready for the summer to get out there and learn how to fly fish!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Norma Helbling April 1, 2019 — 4:13 am

    Great article, I recently moved to Idaho and one of my goals/dreams is to learn how to fly fish. I feel like it is possible after reading this article. I am sure it’s gonna be a work in progress but I am so excited to try it!

    Like

    1. Absolutely you can do it! I’m in North Idaho. The best way to learn is to get on the river and start doing it. Would love to see you out there!

      Like

  3. Wait, I dont get it. Please help me understand. Washington man myself, love our wild west country.

    Like

    1. Me too Mark! No better place! What don’t you understand?

      Like

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