Fishing Guide

Fly Fishing Glossary

If you think a hatch is something chickens do, it’s time to bone up on your fly-fishing terminology. Here’s a glossary of the basics:

  • Barb: The raised piece of metal immediately behind the point of a hook.
  • Caddis flies: Mothlike aquatic insects that are prey for trout and bass.
  • Dapping: A way to fish for trout close to a bank. Instead of casting to the fish, you sneak up to the shoreline, extend the rod tip over the water, then drop the fly onto the surface slightly up-current so the fly drifts to the fish.
  • Dead drift: The pulling of a fly downstream by the current.
  • Dry fly: An artificial fly designed to float on the water’s surface.
  • False cast: Throwing a fly line backward and forward, keeping it aloft, to gain distance, dry a damp fly, or simply to practice.
  • Freestone stream: A body of water that flows over a gravel- or rock-covered bottom.
  • Match: A period of time when aquatic insects emerge from the water in great quantity. Also, the mass of insects as they emerge.
  • Jigging: A bouncing motion you impart to a weighted fly while it’s on the bottom of the stream.
  • Leader: The nearly invisible connection between the fly line and fly.
  • Mayflies: A large group of aquatic insects that are prey for a variety of freshwater fish.
  • Midge: Any of a group of minuscule aquatic insects that are prey to an assortment of freshwater fish.
  • Nymph: The stage of an aquatic insect’s life when it lives in an armored body; the time between hatching from the egg and shucking the armor as it emerges from the water to become an airborne adult.
  • Presentation: The final stage of a cast, when you place the fly on the water. Also, the way you maneuver the fly in the water.
  • Rise: The moment when a fish comes to the surface to take an insect. Also, the time of day when fish are feeding on the surface. For example, the evening rise.
  • Stone flies: Aquatic insects that live in well-oxygenated streams and lakes, often among stones; an important food source for fish.
  • Terrestrials: Insects such as ants, crickets, and beetles that live on land but often fall on the water, where they become fish food. Also, the generic term for artificial flies that simulate land insects.
  • Twitch: A bit of motion you impart to a fly by slightly tugging on the line.
  • Wet fly: An artificial lure designed to sink and simulate an aquatic insect.

Learning To Fly – Strategies and Tips

Stay low, sneak up to the water, and don’t step on the fish food

It takes more than proper gear and a good fish hole to guarantee success. You need to plot your strategy and out-think your quarry. Here’s some advice:

For streams and rivers: Fish will refuse the best-placed fly if they spot you or your shadow, so stay low and away from stream’s edge. When hiking from one good section to the next, stay at least 3 or 4 feet from the bank and step softly. When you find a good spot, sneak up to the stream, or better yet, hide behind trees and bushes. If cover is unavailable, stay low by shuffling on bended knees, or crawl to the edge.

The worst mistake you can make is to be in a hurry. Rush to the water’s edge and start wildly casting, and you’ll scare off all the trout. Instead, find a high spot overlooking the stream, sit down, then let nature tell you where the fish may be. When feeding, a trout may show the white of its mouth or appear as a flash of silver, so watch for both. And notice whether swallows or other birds are picking insects off the water.

Generally, fish early or late in the day, since that is when fish feed most actively. Don’t quit if the weather turns overcast, rainy, or cold–humidity and rain keep insects on the water. Showers also flush ants, beetles, and inchworms into the stream.

For high country lakes: Lakes have very clear water, so trout can see you coming. A flash of sunlight off the rod or the slap of the line on the water is all it takes to scare them off.

The fish cruise in more or less regular feeding lanes, sometimes making figure eights, sometimes circling the lake. Feeding lanes vary but almost always include water shallow enough for you to see the fish. Watch for a while, figure out how much time it takes a trout to make it back to where you first spotted it, then time your cast.

Most novices, as well as many experienced anglers, make the mistake of immediately wading into the shallows and casting into the middle of the lake. What you’re actually doing is walking through the feeding lanes and terrorizing trout in the shallows. Fish the shallows first, and maybe you won’t have to wade. If you do decide to wade, do so gently and slowly.

If wind makes the surface choppy or rain peppers the lake, the fishing may be good because trout aren’t as wary. They usually become more aggressive feeders, perhaps because they feel safer. Wind also blows insects across the lake. The frothy foam-lines capture bugs, too.

What To Do When A Fish Bulldogs You

A hooked fish will fight for its life–jumping, running, diving–and being an ethical angler, your job is to subdue and release it as soon as possible. Or kill it immediately if you’re going to eat it. (See Moveable Feast, September 1998, for tips on how to prepare the catch of the day.)

As soon as you hook a fish, keep the line tight. If there’s loose line on the water, crank it onto the reel. To bring the fish in, “pump” the rod by lifting, then lowering, the tip, reeling in the line each time you aim the rod at the fish. If the fish jumps, “bow” to it; quickly lean forward and stab the rod tip toward the fish and give it some slack as it jumps. If the fish “bulldogs” you, shaking its head and refusing to budge, lower the rod tip to the water’s surface and work it from side to side, reeling as you gain line.

You’ll Look Cool, Too

When you locate a fishy-looking spot, polarized sunglasses will help you see through the water’s glare to spot anything with gills just beneath the surface. Don’t look for the fish themselves, because they’re well camouflaged. Instead, watch the bottom and look for shadows. Remember to take your time, and before you start fishing, stay as still as a kingfisher while you watch the Water.

Sensory Fishing: It’s All In The Touch And The Nose

To enjoy fly-fishing completely, you need to use more than your sense of vision. To find bluefish or striped bass along a beach, for example, find a spot where the air smells like cucumbers. That’s how experienced surf fishers describe the scent of menhaden–the bait fish–when bluefish and bass are attacking them.

When you’re night fishing, listen for the popping sounds many fish make when feeding. Largemouth bass often splash when they attack prey. A school of small bait fish sounds like rain as the fish jump into the air to escape an underwater predator.

An acute sense of touch will help you detect a bite. You can enhance your sensitivity by having a friend tug on your line ever so gently while you keep your eyes closed.

How Do You Loud A Fish? Very Carefully

Once a trout is within reach, avoid the temptation to touch it, which removes some of its protective body slime and renders it vulnerable to disease. Don’t take it out of the water, either, since its internal organs don’t handle gravity well.

If the fish is small, grasp the barbless hook and twist it free. If the fly is deep in the fish’s mouth, you may need your pliers to retrieve it, but it’s probably better to snip the line near the fish’s mouth and let it swim free. The hook will probably rust away.

To release larger fish, use a net made of soft material that won’t hurt the fish, and keep the net in the water if you can. If you must handle a fish to release it, wet your hands first to reduce damage to its protective layer.

If you hook one of the gills, the fish will die. Ethically, you’re obliged to kill and eat it. If you’re fishing on waters posted only for catch-and-release, you’re faced with a dilemma: Allowing the fish to sink is a sinful waste, but the law requires that you release it while it’s still alive.

When you must kill a fish, do it quickly with a stone or with a club anglers call a priest. Sharply strike the top of its head, gut it immediately, and either eat it or store it on ice.

Trout: A Fish That tires Passions And Hates cities

You can have your bluefish and bonitos and snooks and little tunys. When it comes to fly-fishing, there’s nothing like trout. More than two dozen differenct kinds swim in American waters, and all of them strike artificial flies. But fly-fishers don’t love trout because of the fish’s willingness to gobble flies. No, indeed. Trout anglers love the places trout love: clear, cold waters far from crowds. With few exceptions, trout cannot, or will not, live in urban waters.

As your grow into fly-fishing, you’ll discover that more has been written about trout than any other game fish. If you’re an empiricist, you can devote a lifetime to studying trout biology and behavior. If you’re a romanticist, you’ll love the stories of spring creeks, mountain streams, and trout sipping flies from the surface. In either case, you’ll soon realize that the realm of the trout–the backwoods, that is–is just about the perfect place to be, even when the fish aren’t biting.

Mind Your Manners

Within the rod-and-reel, catch-‘em-and-gut-‘em crowd, manners are simple: Don’t spit in the boat and don’t hook your partner in the head. Fly-fishers, on the other hand, take backwoods etiquette to a new level.

* Some of us go fly-fishing simply to catch some solitude. When you greet another fly fisher on the water, it’s all right to ask, “How’s the fishing?” If the angler mumbles a response and looks away, respect that person’s need for privacy, and move along.

* Don’t whoop when you hook a fish. It’s boorish and stupid.

* When two fishers meet on a stream and one is casting up-current as the other casts down-current, the angler moving up-current has the right-of-way.

* When a fisher tells you about a secret fishing spot, never return alone without first asking his permission. And never show the spot to anyone else!

* Never transfer a fish from one pond to another. It’s rude to relocate a fish, plus you may be introducing a disruptive species or disease into a stable ecosystem.

How To Catch And Release A Bush

At some point you’ll surmise that the professionals who make their living tying and selling expensive flies spend their off-hours planting trees and shrubs around all the best fishing spots. Getting snagged is part of the sport, and it happens to everyone, not just beginners.

If you get snagged on a forward cast, don’t try to throw your fly line through the branches; it’ll make things worse. Instead, point your rod tip at the snagged fly and retrieve any excess fly line with your free hand. Pull until good and tight, then release the line so it springs hack toward the snag. You may have to repeat this a few times to get your fly free. If you’re stiff unsuccessful, you can always go back and visit your Outfitter. No doubt he’ll be happy to see you.

And You Thought Eagles Had Sharp Eyes!

Trout and most other fish have a wide field of vision stretching from the front to both sides of their bodies (about 97 degrees). The deeper a fish flies, the broader its cone of vision and the more it can see.

Trout have a blind spot directly behind them, but even if you managed to position yourself to the rear, the fish would probably sense your presence and bolt.

To cope with such a wide field of vision, you should cast from shore and stay low. If you must enter the water, wade slowly, one step at a time, until you reach your spot. Then relax so the fish will become accustomed to you.

If the trout behave warily and leave a pool, get out of the water and out of sight. Let the waters settle, or “rest”, and chances are the fish will return.

How To Fish Still Water

In lakes, fish don’t burn energy fighting a current and can afford the effort to cruise around in search of food. More often, however, they stay close to a dependable food source. A nearby place to hide is also important, in case large predators threaten.

  • Feeder streams: Also called inlets, these provide food, cool water, and fresh oxygen. Fish often congregate at a stream’s mouth to feed. During the summer, they stay at the mouth and sometimes swim into the stream to stay cool and breathe easily.
  • Drop-offs: Before and after a cold front moves in–when the barometric pressure and water temperatures change quickly–fish often hug steep drop-offs.
  • Rocks: Provide shelter for crayfish, minnows, and insects that game fish love to eat. In cold weather, exposed rocks soak up sunlight and warm the water around them, attracting fish.
  • Shelves: The shallow, narrow edges of deep alpine lakes produce insects in the oxygen-rich water where trout search for food.
  • Weed beds: Aquatic plants provide food, protection from predators, and shade.
  • Submerged structures: Underwater rock piles. trees, and brush attract bait fish and larger fish looking for food.
  • Shade: Trees offer shade where warm-water fish find food and protection from the summer sun. Trees and overhanging brush also spill insects into the water and attract trout.

Telltale Signs Of Trout

  • Bulges: When a trout feeds on insects just below the surface, the water bulges upward. Sometimes you may even see the fish’s back and its dorsal (top) fin.
  • Fish snouts: Occasionally, insects on the surface are so thick that trout poke their snouts into the air and tread water as the current washes the bugs into their mouths.
  • Rings: Trout and bass create rings when they take insects off the surface. When rings appear again and again, you’ve found feeding fish. Choose a fly that matches the kind of bug they are eating.
  • Splashes: If trout are splashing as they rise to the surface, they’re probably feeding on caddis flies. The insects pop from the water into the air so quickly that the fish have to launch into high speed to catch them.

Tackle For The Backcountry

Forget the bulky fishing vest and wicker creel. Light is best when it comes to backcountry fly-fishing. Here’s a general guide to what you’ll need.

  • Rod tube: Most aluminum tubes weigh more than your rod and reel combined, so opt for plastic. Cost is usually about $20. You can also use a section of PVC pipe from the hardware store.
  • Pack rod: Listed as a “travel rod” in catalogs, it comes in three, four, or five pieces. A 7-weight rod (usually 8 1/2 to 9 feet in length) is the all-purpose size for catching everything from trout to bonefish. A few models also work as spinning rods. Prices range from $160 to $700.
  • Fly reel: There are lots of lightweight aluminum models–one trout reel weighs as little as 2.7 ounces–priced from less than $100 to more than $400. A single-action model is all you need for the backcountry. Make sure it has good drag, which refers to the “braking” capabilities you’ll need when the fish tries to run with the line. A jerky drag may snap the leader.

  • Polarized sunglasses: The lenses reduce glare on the water so you can see beneath the surface. Plus they protect your eyes from hooks and ultraviolet (UV) rays.
  • Fly line: The fly line carries enough weight to cast the featherweight fly. You want to match the line weight to the rod. For example, use a 7-weight line on a 7-weight rod. A “weight-forward” line is the easiest to cast; look for “WF” on the box. An “intermediate” line is the most versatile because it sinks slowly for fishing beneath the surface.
  • Leader: The section at the end of the fly line that connects to the fly. “Compound” and “knotless” (good in weedy areas because there are no knots to get hung on the plant life) are the two most common.

Besides your box of flies, you may also need:

  • Waders: A pair of ultralight, stocking-foot, nylon waders will do, even in icy alpine lakes and streams (if your socks and underwear are insulated enough to keep you warm). For wading on slippery rocks, you can glue felt soles to a pair of high-top sneakers.
  • Hemostat or needle-nose pliers: They help you unhook the fish. Most multitools contain pliers.
  • Strike indicator: The “bobber” that signals when a fish has your fly.
  • Floatant: Grease that keeps dry flies floating.
  • Paper towel: The best way to keep a dry fly dry. Fold the towel, and squeeze the fly to remove water and fish slime.

Ten Classic Backcountry Fishing Holes

There are two problems with telling someone about a great fishing hole:

1) You’ll have to share what was once your secret, secluded spot;

2) your friend could go home empty-handed, then soil your reputation by telling everyone you steer people to fishless waters. We’re willing to take that chance, so here are some prime backcountry spots to fish, or simply to relax by and watch ‘em jump.

(Note: Some of these rivers are long, so when planning your trip, you can call ahead to the appropriate land management agency and ask about good camping and fishing spots. Or better yet, for the most up-to-date information, phone the nearest fly-fishing shop or outfitter. They’ll know what’s biting, what flies to use, and where you should hike in.)

  • Adirondack Park. New York: This park’s 6 million acres hold scores of streams and ponds that are accessible only by trail. Contact: The Adirondack Sport Shop, Wilmington, NY; (518) 946-2605;
  • Big Thompson River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: If you get tired of catching rainbows, brookies, and cutthroats, you can stop and watch the bountiful wildlife this area features. Contact: Front Range Anglers, Boulder, CO; (303) 494-1375.
  • Buffalo River, the Ozarks, Arkansas: Great for smallmouth bass. Contact: The Woodsman, Fort Smith, AR; (501) 452-3559.
  • Eagle and Forney Creeks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tennessee: There are about 700 miles of trout streams here, all far from the windshield tourists. Contact: Little River Outfitters, Townsend, TN; (423) 448-9459.
  • Kerman Lake, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, California: Easy hiking through the aspens on the way to catching brilliant and challenging cutthroats and brook trout. Contact: The Troutfitter, Mammoth Lakes, CA; (760) 924-3676.
  • Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, Idaho: Beautiful canyon, beautiful fish. Who could ask for more? Contact: Silver Creek Outfitters, Ketchum, ID; (208) 726-5282.
  • Rapid Creek, Black Hills, South Dakota: A blue-ribbon stream that’s home to brown trout and rainbows. Contact: Scheels All Sports, Rapid City, SD; (605) 342-9033;
  • Red River, New Mexico: The hiking is easy and the fishing is good year-round. Contact: Los Rios Anglers, Taos, NM; (505) 758-2798.
  • Slough Creek on the Upper Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: If the trout aren’t biting here, keep hiking because Yellowstone is filled with great backcountry water. Contact: Yellowstone Angler, Livingston, MT; (406) 222-7130.
  • White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire: Besides being a great hiking and backpacking destination, the Whites are home to plenty of mountain trout ponds that are usually stocked by helicopter. For a list of 53 ponds, contact: New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Concord, NH; (603) 271-3211.

For More Destinations: Falcon Publishing Co. (P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; 800-582-2665; produces a series of fishing destination guidebooks. Some of the featured locales include: Alaska, the Beartooth Range in Montana, Florida, Glacier National Park in Montana, Maine, Montana, Yellowstone National Park, and Wyoming. Prices vary but average about $15.

How To Fish Moving Water

Fish face upstream with their mouths in to the current so they catch bits of food–mostly insects and bait fish–caught in the flow. They like spots where the current isn’t too strong; otherwise, they burn too much energy trying to stay in place. Fish also need a hiding place nearby, in case they sense danger.

  • Pools: Deep, slow, and wide, pools generally hold fish in the middle, where a lot of food sweeps down on easy currents. Fish also stay on pool edges, where two currents meet. Such an edge is called a “seam” and looks like a line on the water; fish generally stay on the slower side of the seam. The “tail,” or lower end of a pool, is shallow; it’s here that you’ll find large fish behind rocks and at the point where the water abruptly changes from deep to shallow.
  • Bends: On deep, winding streams, fish usually stay on the slower inside of a bend so they don’t have to fight the current. On shallow streams, look on the outside of the turn where the current makes the water deeper and funnels food to fish waiting near the edge.
  • Brushy banks: When overgrown with grass or brush, they make great hiding places. In summer the vegetation drips with insects. Muddy banks that overhang a stream are especially good for trout.
  • Deadfalls: Fallen trees break the current and provide places to hide.
  • Pockets: Areas behind rocks, which break the current and sweep food to fish. To locate submerged rocks, watch for bulges in the stream surface and small patches that look slick against the rest of the current. In slow-flowing streams, fish may be in front of rocks, where the flow has created a depression on the bottom. In faster streams, clusters of rocks often form funnels that carry food to fish waiting downstream on the edges of the current.
  • Side channels: The current generally is slower than in the main stream and the food is abundant–good conditions for larger fish that cannot afford to waste energy.
  • Riffles: This shallow, choppy water generally downstream of deep, slow pools usually holds a few small fish. Look for patches of smooth water that indicate depressions deep enough to hold fish.
  • Eddies: The swirling water gathers food and attracts fish but makes it tricky or difficult to fish.
  • Weed beds: Up against the weeds there’s plenty of fish food and places to hide.

What’s That Smell? (Hint: It’s Not The Fish)

As far as a fish is concerned, humans–particularly males–have a stink that can seriously turn off a trout. This is why in British Columbia, some professional guides use lemon-scented dishwashing detergent to remove the human smell from flies and lures. In the United States, several companies make solutions that either eliminate or mask the human scent. Using one of the biodegradable solutions before you start fishing is probably a good idea.

If you want to go natural, rub mud from the stream bank on your hands before you start fishing. Rub some on the fly, too–just enough to cover your scent but not so much that it affects the action of the fly. Applying fish attractants or crushed bait to a fly, however, is generally regarded as unethical.

Fish to match my mountains

It’s always surprised me that more backpackers aren’t anglers. Look closely at the blue lines on those high-mountain topo maps and you’re likely to find plenty of trout habitat; get your face close to the water and you’ll see the insect life that captures a trout’s attention. You might consider knocking a few miles off your next walk to spend some time in the stream you were planning to hike along.

If your image of fishing is of mind-numbing hours sitting in a rowboat, you may be justifiably turned off. But fly-fishing is a skill that depends on thorough preparation, stealth, and keen observation. A fly-fisher must understand the complex workings of a stream, and has to know how to make bits of fur and thread mimic the actions and life stages of the insects that make up a trout’s meal. A good trout angler, particularly one who wades into a stream with fly-fishing gear, acts more like a graceful heron than a bored vacationer.

Some anglers carry a piece of equipment for every possible situation. But if you keep things simple, you’ll add no more than three pounds to your gear, spend about $200, and still have a solid chance of catching fish.

A basic outfit includes an inexpensive ($10) reel and an eight-foot-long graphite rod designed for a 4- or 5-weight line (strong enough to catch mountain trout, which weigh less than one pound). The rod should break down into four 24-inch sections that you can slip into a backpack. To connect the reel and the fish, you need backing (a line that fills up the reel and functions as a reserve); a double-taper fly line designed to match your rod; a few monofilament leaders; and a tippet, a very fine piece of line that you tie to the fly. Thousands of fly patterns are available, ranging in size from tiny, nearly invisible ones to feathered harpoons that look as if they’d frighten a walrus. Start off by buying about a dozen, of two basic types: dry flies, which float on the surface and imitate the most common stream and land insects; and nymphs, which imitate the insects’ larval forms.

You need only two of fly fishing’s innumerable gadgets to round out your gear: hemostats, for mashing down a hook’s barbs (enabling you to remove a hook from a trout’s mouth without injuring the fish); and nippers, for trimming knots. To negotiate slippery stream bottoms, glue felt soles to an old pair of sneakers. Wade in your quickest-drying nylon hiking pants or shorts, or invest in a pair of lightweight nylon hip waders.

Casting is an art best learned from another angler, but you can start by practicing short distances on dry land. Lay out 15 feet of line in front of you, then raise the rod sharply back to the one o’clock position, just over your shoulder. Wait while the fly line loops behind you. Just as it straightens out and flexes the rod, bring the rod forward to the ten o’clock position without snapping your wrist. If you haven’t lost momentum or let your elbow wander, the line will loop forward and lay out straight before you. A good cast is a slow, almost stately motion that places the fly gently on the water’s surface, allowing it to drift naturally downstream.

On the water, the game is simple–in theory, at least. You wade upstream so carefully that the trout don’t know you’re there. “Read” the stream for the sheltered spots where trout can eat without expending energy. Watch especially for feeding lanes, the tongues of current between fast and slow water that funnel floating insects to waitingfish. Look for circles on the surface created by rising trout, or white flashes as the fish dart after nymphs.

Use the flies that most resemble the real insects in or coming off of the river. Because trout watch up-current, cast your line above the spot where you see or hope to find fish, and contrive to let your fly drift downstream without dragging.

When you land a wild trout these days, your response should not be to flip it into a fry pan, but to return it carefully to the stream. While wild trout are wily and therefore a true challenge to catch, they’re also declining in numbers. Save your dreams of dinner for trips when you’re fishing a stream or lake stocked with hatchery-raised trout. It’s a challenge to learn fly-fishing, and it’s equally important to respect the game.

Why do we fish?

The answer lies waiting in cold, clear water.

Shadows lengthen. My long-submerged legs, clad only in shorts, have gone blue with cold. A warming campfire beckons.

But not just yet. A twilight caddis-fly hatch has erupted, and the local lunkers suddenly rise everywhere, some leaping high and smacking the water as loud as beaver tails. Others expose only their lips to daintily vacuum the tiny mothish morsels from the polished surface. Ripples spread concentrically outward, like well-lived lives.

It will soon be too dark to fish, so with a sense of urgency I bite off my nonproductive Parachute Adams and lash on a #16 elk hair caddis. Using a nearby rise-ring as a target, I lay one out and hit the bull’s eye.

All is quiet as tense moments pass, then, kersplash/The water explodes as the lure is hauled violently under. I instantly raise my rod and set the hook. The trout sounds and runs deep and long; the scream of my reel is music to my ears.

Moments before, I was languid and freezing, but now my heart is dancing, my pulse jackhammering in my ears, all discomfort forgotten. By God, we’re alive, this fish and me!

After 30 yards, the brute abruptly ends its run and lies there, sullen as a boat anchor. I allow my opponent to rest, then apply slow pressure, regaining a few feet of line. This sends the trout into another run, only slightly less impressive than the first. And so goes the happy battle, back and forth as we play an ancient game.

In good time the fish begins to acquiesce, allowing me to work it closer, until at last I get a good look in the gathering dusk. It’s a cuttbow, loveliest trout of them all, a rainbow/cutthroat hybrid streaked hot-pink from cheeks to tail. And as big as–well, we like to pretend that doesn’t matter.

Rushing to release it, I reach into the water and slide both hands beneath the docile creature. As one hand gently encircles the tail, the other moves forward to let slip the barbless hook. I support the fatigued fish upright in cupped hands, allowing it to rest and recover. Then, with a startling and powerful torque of tail, my trout flashes away, diving for the sheltering depths. Thank you, friend.

Three hours of fishing for just one fish. And worth every minute.