In the news logo


Sometimes the FAOL staff has something to share with our readers that doesn't quite fit in a normal category. These items can be found here.



Neil M. Travis - August 29, 2011

Perhaps it's old age but with the passage of time I find myself becoming more cynical. Since I have spent better than half a lifetime chasing fish, especially trout, with a long rod and a hook covered with fur and feathers I am inclined towards casting a jaundiced eye at much of what passes for sound advice when it comes to catching fish on a fly.

Back in the 60's when JC and I were teaching fly casting and fly tying classes across the State of Michigan we were associated with Scientific Anglers™ when they were located in Midland, Michigan. [This was before they were sold to 3M™] At that time SA was selling rods and reels in addition to fly lines. The rods and reels were not being manufactured by SA, but they were manufactured for them and they were quality products. This was the beginning of the Renaissance of fly fishing and SA was attempting to demystify fly fishing. Fly fishing was perceived by the general public as being hard to learn and expensive to practice, and SA set out to dispel this myth. Obviously it was a marketing ploy to sell more fly lines, but it was an admirable philosophy. The rods and reels were high quality and moderately priced, and SA employed several field representatives whose job it was to put these rods and reels in the hands of new fly fishers. They held free fly fishing clinics, provided equipment for the instructors, and generally did whatever was necessary to demonstrate that fly fishing is both fun and not really all that difficult. It was a great program and it introduced fly fishing to lots of people. I know several people that started fly fishing as a result of those programs that are still fly fishing today.

During those years I began to realize that, while fly fishing does require more skill than merely putting a worm on a hook and tossing it into the water, fly fishing is really not all that difficult. Over the intervening years that has become more and more evident.

Nearly 40 years ago I was acquainted with an older gentleman that had been fly fishing for more years than I was old at that time. By almost any standard he was not a very accomplished fly fisher. Perhaps when he was younger he exhibited a bit more form and coordination, but by this time in life his casting and coordination were best described as abysmal. However, one day he hooked and landed a rainbow trout that was larger than any stream bred trout that I had ever caught before or since. I wasn't present when he accomplished the feat but the witnesses said that he was tangled up in his fly line when the fish hit, he nearly fell in the stream trying to get the fish under control, and he basically horsed the fish up on the beach. The fish weighed in excess of 12 pounds! I'm certain that many of us can relate similar stories, even if the resulting catch wasn't as large.

One particular example of how simple fly fishing can be is contained in a personal fishing story from a few years back. My nephew and I were fishing on Montana's Big Horn River on a beautiful spring day. We had been picking up fish on nymphs but we were looking for surface feeding fish. It was getting late in the afternoon when we pulled in along the bank to take a break and eat a snack. As we sat there eating and talking I began to notice an occasional rise upstream from where our drift boat was anchored. Although the rises were sporadic and I wasn't certain exactly what they were taking I decided to get out and check them out.

After a careful approach along the bank I slipped into the water below the spot where I had seen the last fish rise. Just upstream, lined up along the bank in about 2 feet of water were several respectable brown trout holding just under the surface. As I watched occasionally one of the trout would tip up slightly and take something just under the surface. The resulting take looked like a surface rise but it was obvious that the fish never broke the surface film. I couldn't see anything in the water and my aquarium net held in the current failed to produce anything. Without any firm evidence as to what the fish were eating I thought I would see if they would take a red midge worm.

Now my favorite red midge worm is a complicated fly to tie. It consists of a hook, red fly tying tread, and occasionally I rib the fly with fine copper wire. It takes less than a minute to turn out one of these masterpieces.

I added a new length of 5x tippet to my leader, tied on a red midge worm, greased the leader so that all the leader was floating except for the last 10 inches and dropped the fly a couple feet above the last trout in the lineup. I watched the fish and suddenly it moved to the side and took something. Raising the rod tip I was fast to a very unhappy Big Horn brown trout. After a very spirited tussle I slipped the net under a fat 20 inch brown. In the course of the next hour or so I hooked and released several more fish that were nearly an exact copy of this first fish.

Now here's the set up. My longest cast was less than 25 feet, and the fly was the simplest thing that you could use. From the comments that I overheard from the other anglers that floated by me during that period I'm certain that they thought I was some kind of a master angler, but in reality anyone that could make a basic forward cast could have hooked those fish. Perhaps there was a bit of skill involved in landing them but once they were hooked I basically let them fight against the drag of the reel until they were tired out.

I was out on a local spring creek just a few days ago during my favorite time of day to fish during the summer months – the magic hours between sunset and dark. While the sun was still just above the horizon I poked around a long, deep flat where I knew some good fish hang out. The emergent weed growth limited my choice of flies to either a dry or something barely damp. There were a few random caddis flies zipping around and an occasional PMD spinner. The paucity of available food was only producing a few random rises that could have been to one of the occasional spinners or some small tidbit just below or right in the surface film. I worked through several pattern changes from a small emergent caddis pattern to an emerging midge pattern without any success. I walked downstream along a small island looking for risers and I choose a PMD spinner pattern that had been produced fish on previous evenings. I found a trout that was rising occasionally so I slipped into the water slightly downstream and off to one side of the rising fish. I waited and watched him rise a few more times and then I measured out my cast and dropped the fly just above the place where he had been rising. The fly barely settled on the water and the fish tipped up and engulfed it. The fight was of short duration as what obviously was a much better fish than I had realized took a quick subterranean tour of several adjacent weed beds and broke me off before I had any chance to get him under control. I believe he had performed this trick before.

Did either of these two foregoing scenarios take a great deal of skill or extra ordinary intelligence? The short answer is an emphatic NO. A bit of observation, the application of some basic common sense, and the ability to make a 20 foot cast. Rocket science – not hardly.

Perhaps it makes us feel good to make fly fishing seem to be more difficult than it really is. I suppose that it massages the ego a bit more if we make fooling a creature with a brain the size of a small pea a major accomplishment demanding skill and great reasoning power. If your greatest accomplishment in life is that trophy brown trout that you caught you really need to get out more.

Comment on this article

Archive of Staff Editorials

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice