Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Tale of Two Streams

After a recent weekend in which I had the rare opportunity to fly fish for trout on two consecutive days, I was left with two vastly different experiences and plenty to think about: the type of trout I caught, the challenges (or lack thereof) they presented, and the rewards (or lack thereof) of netting them. Yes, I’m talking about wild trout, native trout, and stocked trout, but not in a way that’s judgmental of anglers who target any of the three types; my goal is simply to relate the experience, sort through my thoughts, and better understand my own motivations as an angler. Feel free to come along for the ride. 

Brookie Heaven
On the first day, my wife and I took a long drive north to explore a favorite little-known trail through the woods where she enjoys photographing the flora and fauna and I enjoy fishing the beautiful small stream with a thriving native brook trout population that runs right along said trail. Equipped with my 1-weight Sage Dart and a dry-dropper rig, I was ready to begin a few hours of slow, stealthy, deliberate movement with delicate, precise casting and presentation to target finicky natives feeding in gin-clear spring-fed water where there are no second chances. 

Within five minutes I landed a small brookie that smashed my dry. Having quickly shaken off the skunk, I took a few moments to appreciate the idyllic beauty of my surroundings and the quiet of nature. In truth, I had gotten too excited after the first fish and snagged my rig in an overhanging branch on a water-loaded backhand cast; I should have bow-and-arrowed that one. Live and learn, forget, live and learn again, repeat, I guess.

Once I got back to business I worked a stretch of water that should have produced at least some action but didn’t. There were simultaneous hatches of black caddis, blue-winged olives, and little black stoneflies and I was using a caddis dry with a soft hackle pheasant tail dropper, effectively covering the caddis hatch and somewhat effectively imitating the stonefly nymphs that were crawling out of the water to emerge on the rocks along the bank. Attempting to crack the code, I switched out the caddis for a small olive parachute Adams with the dropper to see if the brookies were zeroed in on the olive hatch. Nothing. I then switched to my trusty big olive x-caddis, still with the dropper. Nothing. Given my past success with this tandem, I decided to stick with it and just work every bit of water to try and produce something. After carefully approaching a particularly promising plunge pool, I felt a slight bit of resistance on my backcast and pulled in the rig quickly to find I had broken off my dropper at the knot connecting the tippet to the hook bend of my dry fly. 

I always like to cover multiple columns of water with my drifts and rarely fish with only a dry, but I was feeling lazy so I casted the lone dry towards the middle of the pool to drift through the tail before moving up to the head. Within two seconds of a slow drift, the largest and most colorful native brookie I’d seen in that stream crushed the caddis and took off into the head of the pool, putting my 1-weight at full bend following the hookset. After netting and releasing that beautiful gem of a trout, I was elated not only at having caught such a specimen but also at having cracked the code: they were seeing my dropper tag and turning away. 

The Caddis Assassin
For the final hour on the water, my x-caddis was getting destroyed by brookie after brookie. Given the haphazard manner with which brookies strike dries, my insistence on using barbless hooks, and their talent for shaking off said hooks, I didn’t land many. However, not only was I overjoyed by the ones I had netted but I also felt completely recharged and uplifted by the whole experience. Whether I land four fish or forty, I always treasure my days on small mountain streams.

The next day, I changed up the scenery and style of fly fishing by Euro nymphing a larger (well, larger than what I fished the day before) rural freestone creek targeting wild brown trout in the 12-24” range. Even though the surroundings aren’t pristine and soothing, the stream itself is beautiful and the big wild browns it holds are worth the trade-off. In the past, this particular section has yielded some of my favorite browns and it’s always appealed to me because of its distance from stocking points and low pressure from anglers. Every so often the odd holdover rainbow will make the mile-plus trip downstream from the nearest stocking area, but it’s rare and they’re always caught in the upper portion of the three-quarter mile stretch I fish.

An old favorite wild brown
from this stream.
Prior entomological knowledge of this freestone gave me a fairly good idea of what to expect for mid-Spring nymph activity, which is traditionally heavy on baetis, stoneflies, and sulphurs. I always prefer fishing a big, heavy stone as my point fly so I went with a girdle bug/olive thread frenchie tandem to cover two of the three common nymphs. With no luck in the first two runs, I started to question my choice of point fly. I’ve had trouble with girdle bugs there in low, clear flows and though the water was up, it was as clear as I’d ever seen it. I decided if I fished the next spot (a pool of moderate depth with a riffle at the head) without any luck, then I’d switch. 

The slow water of the pool didn’t produce anything but I found what I was looking for in the riffle, or at least I thought I did. Seconds after hooking into a fish on my 10-foot, 2-weight ESN, what I hoped was a nice wild brown torpedoed out of the water to reveal itself as a fat, colorless stocked rainbow about a half-mile downstream from the lowest point I had ever caught one. After netting the stockie I was happy to end the skunk and learn that the trout took the dropper. I then switched to a heavier olive thread Frenchie as my point fly with a perdigon dropper just for fun. 

Olive Thread Frenchie
From that point on the action was consistent, but there was an alarming trend: within two hours of landing the first rainbow I netted eight more cookie-cutter, fat, hueless stocked fish all in the 14-inch range with the only variety being that a few of them were riddled with disgusting lesions, confirming my growing fear that the state had decided to extend their stocking boundary and choke out this wild trout oasis. A few moments after releasing rainbow number nine and moving to a run in which I’ve caught some of my favorite fish, I finally saw a gold flash after my hookset instead of silver. The brown I netted was beautifully colored, albeit somewhat diminutive, and reflected the rewards I knew the stream could yield. Hopeful for the final quarter-mile of water and what it might bring, I continued on, hitting a bit of a lull and of course catching the occasional stockie. 

When I turned around I decided to fish my way back to my vehicle by Euro nymphing a micro streamer to see if I could trigger that predatory response from some of the wild fish I knew were there. Nope. It just made the rainbows more aggressive. In one pool I took ten consecutive drifts through the same section and had six rainbows to net, two lost, and two missed hooksets from what were surely rainbows. Wild fish wouldn’t still be actively feeding after so much chaos. In the last hour I was just horsing in stockers half-hoping to lose them in the process, which I sometimes did.

One of too many...
By the end of a six-hour outing I had caught twenty stocked rainbows and one wild brown in what had always been a challenging stream. Some of my most memorable days consisted of landing fewer than five fish, but the quality of the trout were what made my day. While I enjoy and appreciate just being out on the water whether I catch or not, I relish the challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes with wild and native trout. They’re smarter, stronger, more colorful, more discerning, more easily spooked, tougher to fight (and land), and are overall genetically superior to their inbred, pellet-fed contemporaries. When I left that stream I felt like I accomplished nothing and, despite having fun, it was all empty calories.   

There was a time when I was satisfied with catching stockies all day, but I moved past it. As an individual in fly fishing I decided I wanted to grow as an angler and there’s a wall one inevitably hits with stocked trout; I hit it about four years ago and since then the pursuit of wild and native trout has led me all over North America on an incredible journey that I wouldn’t change for anything. I’ll honestly take those 6-inch small stream native brookies over a 20-inch stocker any day, but that’s just me.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Promise of Adventure

 If you’ve read the title that means you’re already familiar with my favorite word in the English language: ADVENTURE. Yes, it’s a word that’s often overused and seen by many as a cliché, but for me it’ll always have an underlying electricity to it; I’m drawn to it; it pops out at me whenever I see it. Many of my favorite stories in film and literature involve characters shaking off the banality of life and embracing adventure, whether it be Indiana Jones hopping on a Pan Am flight for Nepal to begin his search for the Lost Ark, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson speeding through the streets of London towards a crime scene in a single horse brougham carriage, or Dumas’s musketeers galloping on horseback all over France to save the kingdom. The anticipation of adventure, of unknown and potentially limitless possibilities is something that has never failed to excite me in narrative, but there was a time when I doubted that I would ever actually experience it in my life.  Then came my thirties.

"It's not the years...It's the mileage."
I often joke (actually, half-joke) that I basically modeled my adult life after Indiana Jones. Indy and I are a lot alike—except for the PhD—and the whole archeology thing—and the womanizing—and I haven’t killed a Nazi—yet. But other than that, we’re fairly similar; we’re both educators and we both lead double lives split between the formally dressed, professional facade and the never ending desire to break away from it and seek out adventure. He explores ancient ruins with a whip and a revolver, I explore streams with a fly rod and net. Same thing, sort of.

Though I’m not getting into a brougham or a biplane, I still experience that palpable excitement of the “and off we go'' stage every time I shift my vehicle into gear at 3:15am to head out into nature and explore a wild trout stream. The long drive in the dark on nearly empty highways only serves to build on the sense of an unknown outcome, which is at the heart of every adventure. There’s no way to know for sure what’s waiting out there on the water and while the worst part of the day may be losing a decent fish or not netting anything at all, it could also be a wildlife encounter or other mishap that I won’t walk away from; on the other hand the best part of the day could be landing a handful or solid trout or it could be fighting and landing the one I’ll vividly remember forever. The absence of guarantees in fly fishing might be off-putting for some, but it’s inextricable from the basic idea of an adventure; surety of success would destroy the experience.

"That belongs in a (stream)!"
While some may view it as childish, I love to keep my favorite adventure stories in mind when I’m fly fishing. It helps maintain the wonder and excitement of the moment to think that I’m not just watching or reading about other people’s tales of exploration, discovery, and danger, but that I’m out there experiencing my own. Fly fishing may not be about unearthing priceless artifacts, solving mysteries, or saving a kingdom, but when I manage to bring a beautiful gem of a wild trout out of the depths of a stream after cracking the code of what it was feeding on and then safely release it for future generations to enjoy, it feels pretty damn close.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Remembering Where You Started

This past November I accepted an invite from an Instagram friend to visit a well known and thriving wild trout fishery in Western Maryland. However, the night before I was to make the trip the friend was forced to cancel due to a pressing obligation. Despite the last minute curveball, the hotel was already booked and paid for two nights so I was going anyway. The next morning I packed up and drove Southwest, uneventfully fishing a few Southern Pennsylvania streams along the way and extending the six-hour drive to arrive at the hotel in the evening. Before going to sleep I studied the detailed essay my friend had written for me in his stead containing tips on access points and fly selection, forming a loose plan of attack.

A half-hour before first light the following morning I pulled up to one of the recommended access points. While I prefer fishing early to prevent being handicapped by other anglers spooking out runs, it’s a tactic that can be challenging on a new stream on account of the limited visibility making reading water and gauging depth difficult. However, I still managed to hook a few fish in deep water on bigger stonefly imitations before getting in my vehicle and moving on to nymph a nearby stretch of pocket water.

Entering the water again shortly after sunrise, I worked my way upstream through what I would later learn was a notoriously difficult section to wade, information for which my shins and ankles would have been thankful. With the sun up, the stonefly was no longer getting it done so I switched to an olive thread Frenchie and had consistent action fishing thoroughly from pocket to pocket. This particular river is known more for numbers than size so I was happy netting beautiful wild browns in the 6-12” range all morning. Around noon I reached the end of the section and walked back along a nearby road to save time and spare my shins further agony. While walking I reflected on the morning, on the beauty of the river and the fall foliage, on the colors and overall health of the brown trout I had caught, and on my general gratitude at being where I was and doing what I was doing on that particular day.

A beautiful, robust Maryland wild brown trout.
When I reached my vehicle I spotted an angler, a man in his mid-to-late-twenties, indicator nymphing a nearby plunge pool while a woman who I assumed was his girlfriend was walking along the bank taking in the scenery. I had planned to revisit the section I’d fished at first light in hopes of getting a better look at it so I proceeded to load my rod into the rod vault and stow my pack, during which I noticed the angler exiting the river and coming towards me. We greeted one another and he asked how I had fared so far. After briefly telling him about my morning I asked the same and he confessed, “To be honest, I’m fairly new to fly fishing and I normally fish streamers, so this is my first day nymphing and I’m having a hard time. Do you have any advice?”
As both an angler and an educator, I was impressed and refreshed by his humility and willingness to ask for help. Even though I’m introverted by nature, I lit up at the opportunity to help this guy get into fish any way that I could, so I eagerly took a look at his setup: a standard 9-foot/5-weight rod, a 9-foot/5x leader, a single nymph rig, and an indicator sitting about three-feet above the fly. I suggested that he move the indicator up the leader a few more feet, change out the point fly, add a dropper, and add weight. I helped him choose patterns from his box and gave him some split shot while showing where to add it to his tippet. I then pulled my Euro rod from the rod vault and showed him my tandem rig and Euro leader, explained the similarities and differences between the two styles, and stressed the importance of adjusting his indicator based on varying depths while keeping it in the same seam in which the fly is drifting to prevent drag. He was very grateful for the help and as I got into my vehicle I wished him luck, sincerely hoping my advice would pay off for him but not at all expecting to learn whether or not it would.

Western Maryland in the fall.
Upon returning to the previous section I took a few moments after parking to warm up, drink some water, and have a snack. Even though warmth, water, and food are the three most essential needs for maintaining one’s existence, I almost always neglect them in my pursuit of trout. Feeling rejuvenated after the break, I entered the somewhat familiar water with a plan to cherry-pick the stretch so I would have time to visit a nearby brookie stream my friend had also recommended. At the first run I bypassed the slow water of a large tail section and began fishing the riffles near the head. A few drifts in I saw my new-to-nymphing comrade approach from the road and as he drew nearer he said, “Hey, man, I’ve fished this section a few times and never had any luck, so is it alright if I watch how you fish it with a nymphing rig? I also kinda want to see someone pull a fish out of here.”
I tend to perform at my worst with an audience, but I wanted to help so I replied, “Sure thing. Watch what I’m doing for as long as you want, but this is a big run so feel free to drift that indicator rig through the tailout, especially through that slower, deeper stuff by the opposite bank.”
He settled in and watched me for about five drifts, saw me miss a fish, and then dropped back to the tail while asking where he should place his cast. I directed him and he hit the mark on his second attempt. Just as his rig settled into the drift I saw movement in my sighter, set the hook, and was on with a 10-inch brown. While I was stripping in the fish and telling him that his wish was granted, we both saw his indicator disappear; when he set, his rod was significantly bent. Knowing that he was into a decent fish, I quickly netted and released my brown and made myself ready to assist if needed.
What struck me immediately and still brings me genuine joy today was the overwhelming elation and panic this angler was simultaneously experiencing upon hooking this particular brown trout. While I’m no expert, for years I’ve been at a point where muscle memory, adrenaline, and experience all kick in after the hookset and tend to block out everything else. Unless the fish absolutely smashes a dry up top or something bizarre happens during the fight, I usually don’t retain much memory of the experience and I consciously fight every urge to get excited until the fish is in the net; granted, once it’s secured I’ll grin and shake like a lunatic, but rarely before. Therefore, while watching him raise his rod hand to the sky while backing up in an attempt to maintain pressure (instead of simply stripping in line), then reach behind to prematurely grab his net, and then clumsily attempt to strip in line while holding the net, the whole time fruitlessly shouting, “Babe! Hey, babe!” for his girlfriend who was exploring out of earshot, I was acutely reminded of what it was like to be in his shoes. Well, aside from the part about repeatedly shouting, “Hey, babe!”
Since it wasn’t my fish I was able to consciously calculate a number of things in a matter of seconds and quickly decided I was only going to intervene if I truly felt he was going to lose the fish. I had helped him up to the point of hooking it and I wanted the rest of the moment to be entirely his. I also figured that if he brought the brown to the net, he wouldn’t even remember the mistakes he had made and all that would matter was that he had landed it; he could correct those flaws over time through experience and landing this trout would provide significant motivation to continue on his fly fishing journey. I also didn’t want to be a backseat driver barking orders and sullying the memory, so the only time I said anything outside of cheering him on was when I saw him struggling to strip in line while holding his net. I simply unhooked my net and told him, “Just throw your net to the bank behind you and I’ll net it if you need me to.”
After he ditched the net he had a much easier time bringing in the fish and even maintained enough control to grab the net again and scoop up what was a healthy, beautifully colored 16-inch Western Maryland wild brown trout. Thankfully he was adept at proper handling, so I didn’t have to say a word as he kept the fish underwater in the net and quickly popped the fly out with two fingers. Just as he held the trout up for me to snap a few quick photos, his girlfriend returned and was able to share in his success, watching with us as the brown swam off following a perfect release.
Soon after releasing that trout we parted ways. I wished him luck going forward and he thanked me again for my advice and assistance. When I got back to the hotel that night I thought about what had happened and was overjoyed at being able to play a part in that angler’s special moment, but I had mixed feelings as far as it related to my own journey. While watching him fight that fish, I felt a little like the calloused Macbeth upon hearing shrieking in the distance and remembering the feeling of fear after having not experienced it for so many years; I wondered if I had lost that excitement or if it was still there but just more reserved because of experience and the nature of my character. After much reflection, I concluded that in life there are so many things that can’t be recaptured just as they were before and while nostalgia frequently tempts us to undertake the impossible, it just isn’t going to happen. Watching the scene play out with that brown allowed me in a sense to glimpse my own past, helping me realize that just because I no longer lose my mind when I hook into a nice trout doesn’t mean my love for fly fishing has diminished, but perhaps the way I process and express that love has simply changed. Though my experiences on the water may never be the same as they were in the early days, they’re no less poignant or meaningful and the excitement I felt watching a complete stranger land a trout on that beautiful Maryland stream is a strong testament to that, one for which I’m very thankful.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Plan Doesn’t Always Come Together and That’s Okay

 In a world dominated by social media, more often people present the glossy and idealized version of their lives over the imperfect, gritty reality despite it being proven to be extremely unhealthy for all involved. This is no different in the fly fishing community on social media where the image of the 20-inch brown will always be presented to the world over the streamer snagged on a tree root after a failed bank cast. While failures on the water in all of their forms can be frustrating (hell, sometimes even maddening), they’re an important part of the learning process and given the impossibility of perfection, they’re here to stay. No matter how much an angler refines their skills, mistakes and miscalculations will always be made and it’s part of what makes life interesting. 

Inspired by United Women on the Fly’s Mishap Monday initiative, I wanted to showcase some of the mistakes we all make on the water (though sometimes won’t admit), share some personal examples, and try to find the silver lining in all of it.


Gone too soon...
It hurts and it’s embarrassing but everybody takes a spill every now and then on the water. The dents and scar tissue in my shins are a testament to that. Whether it’s due to studs slipping on smooth rock, not having studs, not planting feet firmly in fast water, or a million other possible catastrophes, falls happen and there’s no shame in owning them, learning from them, and (if you’re like me) replacing nets because you fell on them and shattered them. And yes, I said “nets” because it’s happened more than once. 

I was once opposed to studs in my boots, thinking the grinding of metal on gravel would spook fish. I changed my tune, though, a few years ago on a below-freezing day when the lack of traction in a particularly fast current caused me to twist my ankle and fall in up to my neck. While hanging my waders upside-down from a tree to drain them, I made my decision to embrace studs. Since then I’ve been experimenting with different stud, spike, and aluminum bar combinations; I’ve found the Orvis PosiGrip studs to be my favorite, but really any small stud that doesn’t make me feel like I’m wearing platform shoes is a solid choice. However, even with the best studs, falls are still inevitable. After suffering a concussion ten years ago I have random moments when I lose my equilibrium and have to pause to get my bearings again, otherwise I’m going down. 

Being mindful of surroundings while being patient and deliberate with each step is always a good approach, but I find that making sure to always wade against the current and have one’s stationary foot firmly planted when taking a step with the other will greatly reduce those tumbles into the stream. 

Spooking Fish

There have been plenty of times when I’ve either seen feeding trout or come up to a particularly fishy section of water only to just completely spook anything that may have been there. Just last week I was stealthily creeping up to a favorite section of water while crouched and moving ever so slowly along a steep, rocky bank. Well, just as I planted my foot to make my first cast, I dislodged a rather large stone that slid down the bank and splashed violently into the water. A loud expletive later and I was moving on to the next spot.

Fishing small mountain streams for wild trout has taught me a lot about how not to spook fish, but it still happens. I’ve come across trout facing the opposite direction fifty-feet away only to spook them just by looking at them. However, fishing upstream, wearing drab clothing, approaching slowly and quietly (sometimes on hands and knees), only getting as close as is absolutely necessary, being mindful of water clarity and sunlight, and casting flies softly and accurately will help to reduce scaring off wary trout.

A final tip I’ll throw out in this area is to be subtle when removing flies from the water at the end of a drift. Many anglers just rip their flies out of the water and cast them back upstream, but if one waits until the end of the drift to slowly drag their rig over to the bank and then re-cast, they’ll spook fewer fish in the back end of a run.

Casting Into Trees

Almost as embarrassing as falling and just as inevitable is getting a fly stuck on a tree branch. Most often I find it happens when I’m over-excited about fishing a section and get sloppy, ultimately failing to notice the single branch hanging down over the run. There are plenty of other ways it happens, though, such as when trying to make a tight cast to the opposite bank and going just a few inches too far or hooking a branch on a back cast. However they occur, I’ve noticed they occur more in the colder months when there are no leaves on the trees and the individual branches are harder to see.

I’ve found that the best ways to reduce the frequency of sylvan snags is just to take a quick 360-degrees glance every time I set up in a new spot to be aware of your surroundings and then adjust my casting style accordingly, utilizing roll casts, bow-and-arrow casts, and water-loading as needed based on my surroundings.


Snagging bottom is an inseparable part of nymphing and, to a slightly lesser extent, streamer fishing. Many times freeing a snag is just a matter of walking upstream a few steps and changing the angle of the rod, shifting the pressure and freeing the fly from whatever it’s stuck against, but sometimes it just has to be accepted that the fly (or flies) is gone. Every time I break off I find myself calculating not the cost of the fly, but the time it will take me to sit at the vise and re-tie it, which is a cost of its own kind. The only time I begrudgingly accept the idea of losing more than a few flies is when I nymph new water because I simply have no clue what’s down in those deeper pools unless I’m fishing it with someone else who possesses that knowledge.

There are occasions when I know the fly is hung up in less than two-feet of water and I’ll go get it. In these situations I keep moderate pressure applied with the rod tip and reel in as I step forward. Sometimes the snag will free itself before I’m even close enough to spook the fish and most times it will pop loose as the rod tip is directly over or just past the snag. Again, sometimes it’s just a matter of changing the angle of pressure. However, there are those rare times when just as my hand touches the water the fly comes free and the pressure from the rod tip slingshots it into an overhanging tree. The plethora of emotions the mind is capable of processing in a matter of seconds is astounding: first annoyance then elation, sheer horror, resignation, and finally defeat all in the blink of an eye.

If snagging feels like an all-too-ordinary aspect of one’s fly fishing experience, it may be time to think about the weight of the flies and shot being used. When nymphing, the goal is to achieve a natural drift with the point fly moving in the current just off the bottom while ticking bottom occasionally. If a nymph is dragging and dredging the stream bed completely, adjust the weight accordingly based on depth and current. Sometimes it may be necessary to alter a nymphing rig with each new section of water, but the results will usually be worth the effort.

No matter what, flies will be lost and one thing I’ve been working on is tying different knots to prevent breaking off entire rigs when one fly is snagged. On my Euro rig I use improved clinch knots on both ends of the tippet that goes from the sighter to my tippet ring. Then, when tying the point fly tippet and tag tippet to the ring I use triple Davy knots. Finally, when tying the tippet to the fly I use a double Davy knot. This combination has greatly helped to focus the breaking point on just the fly.

Fish Not Taking Flies

Even after avoiding all of the aforementioned calamities, sometimes fish just won’t take a fly for a number of reasons. 

While fishing dries and nymphs, drag on the fly’s drift is a common cause for fish turning away. Not only can there be numerous rates of flow between banks, but the rate of flow also varies from the bottom to the surface.  When dry fly fishing or indicator nymphing with line on the water, frequent mending is a necessity so the line on the water doesn’t get too far ahead of or behind the fly and causing it to drag unnaturally through the drift. When indicator nymphing, also try to keep both the flies and the indicator in the same current so the indicator doesn’t create drag. For this and many other reasons, I prefer Euro nymphing whenever possible, but even then it’s important to have the rod tip positioned so that the leader is as vertical as possible while maintaining a very slight amount of slack.

While I feel the previously mentioned elements of presentation are the most important factors, many times sunlight and water clarity play a significant part in a fish’s decision to pass up a fly. With the exception of specific hatches, my rule of thumb is typically this: the brighter the sun and the clearer the water, the smaller and more natural I’ll be leaning in my fly selection. The same goes for tippet. However, there is a belief in fly fishing that the fish has the final say and sometimes no matter how much work goes into presentation and fly selection, it’s just not going to happen and that’s okay.  

Missing Hooksets

I’ll admit I have a complex about setting on dry fly takes. Euro nymphing has made my reflexes too quick and I often set too fast on dries and ruin opportunities for myself by yanking the fly out of the side of the trout’s mouth before the fish has had a chance to go under with it. Also, Euro nymphing involves no mending whatsoever and sometimes that slips my mind on the rare occasions when I find myself dry fishing on bigger water (usually when I’m out West). 

One observation I had while both wading and drifting last summer in Wyoming and Idaho was that it’s much easier to set on a dry fly take from a drift boat than while wading. My position over the river rather than in it made mending easier and also made for a swifter upward motion of the rod tip leading the line to lift more smoothly from the water regardless of distance. 

While nymphing, whether it be with a sighter or an indicator, the general rule is to set on everything. Trout sets are light and it’s often possible to continue the drift after setting on a rock and freeing the fly. I’ve missed plenty of hooksets while pondering whether the sudden pause in my sighter was a rock or a fish because nymph takes can be so subtle. That subtlety is especially prevalent on the swing, which is why I always set at the absolute end of my drift, especially when using a stonefly, micro-streamer, or leech as my point fly.

Fishing streamers is a relatively new area for me, but I’ve found that most of my missed hooksets are due to territorial fish nipping at the tail of the streamer rather than aggressively attacking it. I’m still working out ways to prevent this (other than the obvious option of using articulated streamers) but on days when this has been a frequent occurrence I’ve found success by either going a size or two smaller with my streamer or by slowing down my presentation altogether. Again, I’m still working that out. 

Losing Fish

With a successful hookset there are no guarantees to landing a fish. So many things can go wrong and the longer the fight goes, the more opportunities a fish has to free itself from a fly. 

There’s a fine line betweening selecting gear appropriate for the flies being casted and for the fish being caught, and one should consider both in their rod selection. Battling a fish is exciting but having at least some control over it and minimizing the time spent fighting it will increase the chances of landing the fish as well as its likelihood of survival after release. That’s not to say that a trout should be yanked out of the water after it’s hooked, though. 

There are factors to consider such as current, tippet size, rod tip flexibility, and even hook strength when bringing fish in and any one of those can lead to a slack line and accompanying heartbreak. Also consider that with every application of pressure on the fish, the puncture wound in which the fly is buried becomes wider and wider. Most of my memorable defeats have come after fighting big trout in fast water only to work them into the slow stuff along the bank where the fly finally pops out as I’m preparing to net the fish. I’ve found that using side pressure whenever possible is one way to bring the fish in faster by keeping it near the bottom where it wants to be while still gaining line and bringing it closer in proximity.

When it comes to breaking fish off entirely, tip flexibility, tippet size, and knot strength are all crucial factors. There are times when a wise old trout will purposely swim into an undercut to saw tippet against a rock but most break-offs occur because of a rod tip being too stiff for the tippet size, the tippet being worn, or a knot failing because it either wasn’t tied right or just wasn’t the right knot. Taking a little extra time when setting up a rig will make a huge difference, as will checking it frequently. A few months ago I failed to notice a nick in my Euro leader and while fighting a brown trout, it broke in my fingers. By the time I realized what happened, I was watching the sighter fly through the eyelets and take off freely upstream as the trout swam away trailing 15-feet of leader. In a last gasp to not lose the fish, I ran to grab the leader but it went slack as the barbless hook fell out from the lack of pressure. 

Finally, when everything falls into place and all that’s left is to scoop the fish into the net, there’s the bad net job. Most anglers have had friends come up short, leading to that day-making or even personal-best fish swimming away uncaught. In those moments it’s mostly just a matter of remembering the old “forgiveness is divine” adage. But when an angler is responsible for their own bad net job, it’s a time for self-reflection and learning. For instance, years ago I got over-excited while fighting a big cutthroat in Alberta and rejected my friend’s offer to net it. Not only did I underestimate how feisty those cutties could be, but I also rushed the net job, swiped at the fish before it was ready, and watched helplessly as it dodged the net and swam between my legs, breaking me off. Since then I’ve learned patience and always try to remember the two most important rules of netting fish: wait until it’s on the surface and net it head-first.

Final Thoughts

While it is possible to reduce the likelihood of all of the catastrophes highlighted in this piece, it’s not possible to eliminate them entirely. Therefore, welcome them as opportunities to learn, laugh at oneself, and become better as an angler. Even if I could eliminate the mistakes I wouldn’t; well, maybe I would eliminate some specific ones that linger to this day, but that’s it because the risk, uncertainty, and unpredictable nature of fly fishing are a large part of what makes it fun and exciting. The more prevalent the possibility of failure, the more rewarding and euphoric the success.    

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

My Winter Fly Tying Essentials Guide

Winter evenings are perfect for spending time at the vise learning new patterns and stocking up on old favorites. With these bitter cold nights fast approaching (or already here in some parts of the world) I thought I’d discuss some of my favorite tools and supplies, practical discoveries, and my most often used materials to hopefully clarify and simplify some aspects of tying that can be intimidating for beginning tyers.

While I’m no expert and I tend to enjoy catching fish on flies I tied more than I enjoy the actual art of fly tying, I have been doing it for a while and have picked up a few things in the past 20+ years. Before I begin, let me preface this by stating that fly tying (just like fly fishing) is a unique experience for each individual and there are so many aspects that determine how one approaches it. Therefore, everything I’m going to discuss is specific to my experience, but may or may not be applicable to others.

Getting Started

As has been echoed by experienced tyers everywhere, a newcomer to fly tying should resist the urge to buy a kit, which often includes a vise that can barely hold a hook, poor quality tools, and low-grade scraps of materials that they will either deplete quickly or never use. Instead they should begin by first acquiring a decent rotary vise, bobbin, and a good pair of sharp, small scissors then branch out as needed based on the patterns they want/need to learn.

Rite Bobbin

Ceramic bobbins are cheap and often included in fly tying kits, so most tyers including myself begin with them. They certainly do the job, but the drawback is the fixed amount of tension they provide, unless the arms are manually bent to either increase or reduce tension, which will eventually lead to a broken bobbin. Also, with a standard bobbin the risk of breaking thread is much higher and more often than not it will break at the most crucial point of tying. The Rite Bobbin, however, is constructed like a fly reel with an adjustable drag knob on the side. Every time I switch threads, all I need to do is adjust the knob and pull the thread until I achieve the mild to medium tension I’m looking for. I honestly haven’t snapped a thread since I bought my first Rite Bobbin four years ago.

Rotary Whip Finish

While a whip finish can be done by hand, a rotary tool will do the job much quicker and easier after watching a 30 second YouTube video on how to use it. To this day I still don’t know how to use a standard whip finish tool and up until about five years ago when I took the time to learn the ways of the rotary tool, I was whip finishing every fly by hand. Never again, though; rotary whip finish all the way.

Small Hackle Pliers

As someone who doesn’t tie or fish dries often, I rarely use hackle pliers for their intended purpose, but they do come in handy in other ways. Aside from wrapping beaded pheasant tail nymphs with Hungarian Partridge (my soft hackle of choice), I mostly use my small narrow hackle pliers to hold materials in place and out of the way while I tie in or wrap other materials and I almost exclusively use my plastic hackle pliers to hold hooks for snagging beads.

Lead-free Wire
Though I use both brass and tungsten beads for various patterns and situations, I absolutely will not use nymphs with tungsten beads on small mountain streams. Too often my fly will snag or drag on the bottom within seconds of hitting the water. Because of its density, tungsten dives down in a way that I don’t need or want on those tiny creeks. I find that nymphs with brass beads and a few wraps (5-7) of lead-free wire around the hook shank help me achieve the exact weight I’m looking for to fish bigger nymphs with a natural drift in depths between 6-inches and 3-feet without dragging bottom or snagging every other drift. For nymphs I typically use .015” and for streamers I use .025” to .030” to add extra weight to tungsten cones and barbell eyes.

Old Scissors

Worn finish, dull,
broken at the point,
but perfect for the job.
When cutting wire, whether it be thin wire to create segmentation in a nymph or thicker lead-free wire to wrap around the bare hook shank to add weight to a nymph or streamer, it’s best not to use good scissors. When cutting wire off of the spool or when finishing a lead-free wire wrap on the shank, some anglers use a small wire cutter tool, but I like something that creates a more precise cut. A few years ago while transferring supplies between rooms I dropped one of my nicer but slightly worn pairs of fly tying scissors point-down on my tile kitchen floor and completely mangled them. From that moment on they became my wire scissors and have been perfect for the job. Therefore, dedicating an older pair of scissors or just marking a pair only for use with wire will help with precise cuts and save nicer pairs from premature wear.

In some instances scissors aren’t necessary at all. When finishing a wire wrap on a fly it’s always best to do a few wraps of thread on either side of the wire to secure it, then helicopter the tag until it breaks on its own at the tension point to prevent having an exposed tag on the fly. Check out Tim Flagler’s YouTube videos (tightlinevideo) for info on this technique.

UV Light and Resin

A perdigon tied on a jig hook has been my go-to, slump-busting, Euro nymphing dropper in 2021 and a UV light/resin pairing is essential to tying that pattern. With the perdigon, the tungsten slotted bead helps get it down quickly, but the smooth, streamlined resin body is what cuts right through fast water, making it an invaluable fly for nymphing riffles.

UV resin also comes in handy for purposes such as creating a solid wing casing on a hare’s ear nymph or the hard back of a scud or caddis larva. It can be used in a number of applications for streamers as well. When I first started tying, especially when tying saltwater flies, five-minute epoxy was the best way to get that hard, clear coating on a fly, but the process was time-consuming and the epoxy would turn yellow from use far too quickly; UV resin solves both of those problems. As for what type of resin to use, for nymphs I like Loon Thin resin and for every other freshwater application I use Solarez Thin-Hard, which I find to be slightly thicker than the Loon Thin.

Aside from tying flies, I use the UV light and resin for other fly fishing purposes. The light comes in handy to cure UV Aquaseal when patching my waders. However, be careful not to hit the Aquaseal with too strong a UV beam because I’ve found that it will heat up and smoke, so apply the beam softly and slowly. I also apply a thin coat of resin when I repair nicks in my fly line. First, I use Zap-A-Gap to glue and seal the nick and then I coat it lightly with resin to finish it off.

Dubbing Wax

Dubbing comes in an infinite variety of blends and is used on many nymph, dry, and streamer patterns. When applying it to thread in a nice tapered noodle, the application of the varying blends can range in difficulty from mild to impossible without the aid of dubbing wax, the great leveller. For instance, UV ice dub alone is nearly impossible to spin, but with wax it’s a breeze and almost as easy as hare’s ear dubbing, which spins smoothly without any assistance.

When I first starting tying, the only wax I had was a rock-hard chunk that came in a fly tying kit. When I rubbed it onto the thread, none was left behind to help me create a dubbing noodle. Strangely, the thought of heating it never entered my mind and for a while I gave up and applied my dubbing without any wax. Years later I picked up Wapsi dubbing wax (pictured to the right) and the ease of using the softer wax made me realize what I had been missing in the way of time saved and in the improved quality of my flies.

The technique I prefer for application is to rub wax on the thread a few times along the space where I want to create the noodle, then rub my fingers on the thread to coat them. I’ve found that coating my fingers is more important than coating the thread, but just sticking a thumb in the wax can get messy.


Every responsible angler carries a pair of forceps and though trout are hooked corner jaw the vast majority of times, it’s always good to have them just in case they’re needed. However, the most useful application for forceps: CRIMPING BARBS. I challenge everyone reading this to go barbless.

I’ve been fishing barbless for trout for over four years and I’ll never go back. It's forced me to be a better angler in that the majority of fish I’ve lost have been because of a mistake made by me. Fewer mistakes means fewer lost fish; it’s just simple math. The real reason to fish barbless, though, is the ease of hook removal and the reduction of scarring (or worse) for the fish. Most of the time my fly falls out while the trout is swimming in the net and when it doesn’t come out on its own, all it takes is a little push on the bead or the hook eye with my index finger. Seriously, go barbless.

My Essential Fly Tying Materials

Below is a list of my most frequently used materials with a brief explanation of the use for each, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the total list of supplies I use and the multitude of patterns for which the listed materials come in handy; this is simply to help beginning tyers get started. Also, If you've read my post on confidence flies, I’m fairly certain that every material needed for those patterns is included.

As always, feel free to reach out with any questions about this post or any other.

Feathers & Herl

-Pheasant Tail (natural, olive, yellow) for tailing and body of numerous nymph patterns

-Hungarian Partridge (natural) for soft hackle nymphs

-Coq De Leon (barred speckled) for perdigon tailing fibers and various other jig nymphs

-Peacock Herl (green, blue, orange) for nymph collars


-Elk Hair (bleached) for the wing of olive x-caddis and elk hair caddis

-Rabbit Strips (dark olive, black, olive, brown, natural) for larger slump-busters and other rabbit hair streamers

-Pine Squirrel Strips (dark olive, black, olive, brown, natural) for small slump-busters and leeches

-Bucktail (white, olive) for Clousers used for striped bass


-Spectrablend Nymph Dubbing (every color) for collar and body for a number of nymphs, body of olive x-caddis 

-UV Ice Dub (mostly caddis green, gray, black, but also others) for flashier collar and body of nymphs (ice dub caddis larva is a favorite)

-SLF Squirrel Dubbing (rusty brown, dark olive) for nymph thoraxes

-Sow Scud Dubbing (light olive, orange, gray) for scud body and legs

-Dry Fly Dubbing (gray, light olive) for RS2 body, WD-40 thorax


-Chenille (fine-med. size in plain or variegated ginger, black, olive, brown) for girdle bugs

-Grizzly Barred Rubber Legs (med. in natural, tan, olive, white) for girdle bugs

-Stonefly Chenille (black/beige, black/ginger, black/coffee) for smaller girdle bugs in 12-14

-MFC Barred Sexi-Floss (yellow small) for smaller girdle bugs in 12-14

-Thin Skin (clear/black specks) for scud backs

-Antron Yarn (brown, olive, white) mostly for nymph bodies and x-caddis tail

-Sparkle Braid (peacock, olive, copper, pearl) for a flashy streamer underbody

-Uni-Mylar Double-Sided Tinsel (12-16, peacock) for perdigon body

-Ultra Wire (size sm-brassie, silver, gold, copper, chartreuse, green, mustard) for ribbing and segmentation of numerous nymph patterns

-Veevus Holographic Tinsel (size sm-med., chartreuse, red, purple, green, black, silver) for leach underbody and experimenting with Perdigons and other jig nymph patterns

Beads & Cones

-Brass Beads (2.0-2.8mm in gold, black nickel, black, silver) for numerous nymph patterns

-Tungsten Slotted Beads (2.8mm-3.8mm in gold, black nickel, silver, copper) for numerous jig nymph patterns

-Tungsten Slotted Beads (3.2mm-4mm in gold, black nickel) for jig streamers

-Tungsten Cone Heads (sm-l in black nickel, black, gold) for numerous streamer and micro streamer patterns

-Barbell Eyes (l-xl in chrome, yellow, chartreuse, red) for Clouser minnows used in saltwater for striped bass


-Danville’s Flymaster 6/0 (olive, black, Adam’s gray, brown, fl. fire orange) for nymphs, dries, streamers

-Danville’s Flymaster 3/0 (black, olive) for streamers

-Danville Fine Monofilament Thread- for saltwater flies

-UTC 70D (black, olive, red, yellow, chartreuse, rusty brown) for nymphs and dries

-Uni-Thread 8/0 (olive dun) for nymphs and dries, a favorite for my olive thread Frenchies

-Veevus- 12/0 (black, olive, brown, fl green) for jig nymphs and small dries

-Veevus- 14/0 (orange, red) for collars and hot spots


-4X Streamer Hook- Mustad or Daiichi (8-14) for girdle bugs

-3X Streamer hook- Mustad (12) for micro strreamers

-Bead Head Nymph Hook- Orvis (12) for small stream soft hackle pheasant tails

-Curved Straight-Eye Long Shank Nymph Hooks- Orvis or Dai-Riki (12-18) for numerous nymphs

-Emerger Hooks- Dai-Riki or Orvis (14-22) for caddis larva and midges

-Jig Nymph Hooks- Hanak or Orvis (12-20) for numerous jig nymphs

-Standard Dry Fly Hooks- Dai-Riki (12-22) for numerous dries

-Ahrex Trout Predator Light Streamer or Gamakatsu Stinger (1/0-4) for numerous streamers