The days are long now, and often warm. Runoff wanes. Water levels drop and water temperatures climb into the optimal range. Everything is green. Streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds all explode with life. Wild rose blooms on the banks and cottonwood fluff is in the air. Everywhere you look there are colorful songbirds, herons, sandhill cranes, and osprey. Gophers scatter in the fields as you bounce down the gravel road to your favorite stream. The deer are finding places to give birth to the next generation, or fattening up in the alfalfa fields. It’s quite a contrast to the short, chilly days of winter.
The biggest difference (to the flyrodder, at least) is the bugs. In winter, a calm day might produce a smattering if tiny midges and kindle the hope of finding a couple fish rising in the slowest currents. Now, on a calm afternoon or evening the space above the water is filled with a veritable smorgasbord. Mayflies. Stoneflies. Caddis. I’m talking about the drakes, PMDs, giant salmonflies, golden stones, smaller yellow and bright green “sallies”, Rhyacophila, Hydropsyche, and the list goes on.
The angler isn’t the only creature that takes notice of the bugs. The birds and garter snakes are snapping up the clumsy fliers and those that linger too long in the grass and willows. And the fish are “looking up” in expectation that their next meal has a high likelihood of coming off the surface.
It’s a dry fly paradise.
I hope that you spent some time this winter dialing in your fly boxes, because this is hatch matching season. Even if you don’t see fish actively rising, this is the time of year where searching the seams and riffles with your favorite dry fly can really produce. The fish have the feed bags on, and the surface takes are often startling in their aggression. On top of that, the fish seem to be in peak physical condition. With the exception of the cutthroats up in the highest country, the spawn is well behind them and the trout have had all spring to regain their fitness snacking below the surface. The water is cool, and well oxygenated. At this time of year, when your fly disappears in a swirl and you come tight, don’t be surprised if the fish goes airborne instantly. And if your barbless hook comes free on that leap, or during the following run, take solace in knowing that you at least got a good look at your prize, and that the next drift of the fly might raise another trout, even fatter and more lovely than the last.
It’s Autumn here in the Rockies, and that means there is a war going on between Summer, and Winter weather. This war happens every year. We all know that Winter wins this war every year, eventually, but we never quite know how each battle will play out. Weather can change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute. This year has been particularly polarized as we’ve bounced back and forth between full on multi-day winter storms with big snows (September 29th and October 9th) and glorious Indian summer sunshine! The complex interplay among high and low pressure systems, cold and warm fronts, bright blue and gray overcast skies, and larger precipitation systems makes picking clothes feel complicated, and making fishing plans feel nearly impossible at times.
Ask any experienced angler about the effects of weather, wind, and changing barometric pressure/water temperature on fish and fishing, and you will surely get an answer. You might get 10 different answers even! You may hear that a falling barometer is a disaster for angling, or that wind can ruin everything. You may also hear that an incoming storm front can trigger a feeding binge of epic proportions. Others paint a more nuanced picture, citing rates of change in barometric pressure, the effect of sunlight on creatures that lack dilating pupils and eyelids, and maybe even throwing in something about solunar tables for good measure.
I have my own theories about weather and how it effects fishing, and sometimes I feel like I am able to effectively apply my opinions to a situation, resulting in great fishing. But I’ve seen a sure thing turn into a bust plenty of times too. I’m pretty confident that extreme weather and pressure changes can put the bite off on a lake, but I also feel like it effects river fish less. But subtle changes are still a mystery to me, perhaps because other factors end up coming into play in a way that makes patterning more challenging. One thing I do know is that if I have the chance to get out fishing, I never cancel the chance because I think a weather pattern will put the bite off. I might switch plans to fish one water to another because I think that I might have an insight as to which will fish better (or which might be less miserable given extreme wind or weather), but I still would rather be outdoors getting skunked than home wondering what might have been.
I will leave you with a final observation that may or may not be relevant to angling. I have three pet goldfish in a tank in my home. I’ve had them for many years, and have spent a lot of time watching them, because I find it both interesting and relaxing. During the summer, my goldfish are active nearly all of the time, swimming around in what I assume to be a happy state. When you walk into the room, they will often crowd into a corner and “freak out”, which I have come to translate as them “begging for food”. During the summer around here, high pressure systems and stable weather patterns are the norm, and my goldfish rarely change in their behavioral patterns. But in the spring and autumn, when we have more tumultuous weather patterns with often rapid changes in pressure, outdoor temperature, and cloud cover, there are times when my goldfish just aren’t their normal happy selves. Some days I catch them sulking, lying motionless with their bellies on the stones. Approaching the tank might make them wiggle a bit, but they don’t bother “begging for food”. I know they are healthy and that there has been no appreciable change in water chemistry/quality in their tank. I can only assume that, at those moments, the weather is having some sort of effect on their mood, as the sulking events typically coincide with the onset of significant weather changes. Sometimes they sulk for half a day. Sometimes it only seems like they sulk for an hour or so. Whenever I see them doing it, though, I wonder if the fish at the lake or down at the river are in a similar foul mood.
I have wanted to fish New Zealand for a long time. It was one of those places on my list, if you know what I mean. I have heard stories about the beautiful brown and rainbow trout, the crystal clear rivers, big mountains, and friendly people. This last week on the South Island exceeded all of my expectations.
South Island New Zealand was the first stop in an incredible adventure that my good friend Dan Vogel and I are still in the middle of. We arrived via air to Queenstown, and took the bus up to Cromwell where we met up with our guide, Ronan Creane of Ronan’s Fishing Missions, for a week long road trip. Ronan grew up in Ireland fishing for sea trout, Atlantic salmon, and trout in rivers and lakes. In 2002 he started exploring New Zealand trout rivers and today he is a full time fishing guide on the South Island. I have always felt that the guide makes the difference between a good and a great trip and Ronan was phenomenal, getting us on the fish, arranging a number of critical local details, and also making us feel right at home. He certainly made the trip very special for Dan and me.
In a week of fishing, we only scratched the surface of fishing in New Zealand, but we did get to sample a wide variety of waters. We fished lakes, backwaters, spring creeks, and rivers. We did a lot of sight fishing, which NZ is known for, but did some blind casting too. We took fish on dries, nymphs, and streamers. All of these techniques proved to work in certain situations.
I have always loved walking and looking for targets (fish) and NZ offers a ton of this type of water. We fished both backcountry waters and more road accessible places as well. It turns out that not every fishery is a 10 mile hike, and Ronan shared with us a few “secrets” that were hidden in plain sight, allowing us to spend a lot of time fishing on days where walking into spots wasn’t the order of business. We also were treated to a couple of helicopter rides deep into the wilderness, which was a new experience for Dan and I.
Something that really stood out was that big fish were willing to hold in very visible places, completely exposed. Matt, who fished NZ a few years ago, had “warned” me of this, but it still came as a bit of a surprise. The first time I saw a 5-pound brown trout sitting in a foot of crystal clear water over sand, on a sunny day, swinging gently to pick off drifting nymphs, I had to readjust my entire way of thinking about trout. The lack of predators in New Zealand means very large trout will be very comfortable holding out in the open. This is important for anglers to know because it helps you understand where to look as you scan the water for a target. In Montana and Argentina birds of prey like osprey, king fishers, eagles make large fish take much different lies.
The fish, brown and rainbow trout, were gorgeous and very well conditioned – spectacular, really. I was very impressed by the average size. Trout from 3-6 pounds and 20-24 inches are what we saw during our trip. There are certainly larger (and smaller) fish about, as well. I will definitely visit New Zealand again as it is a beautifully unique place to fish for trout.
For those interested in doing a road trip that takes you to mountain rivers and lakes with a very fishy competent guide I highly recommend you contact Ronan, or give us a shoult and we’d be happy to get you in touch with him and help you sort out the details of a trip to the South Island!
PS – It turns out that fly fishing is indeed a small world. Over a decade ago I met some guys named Paul Arden, founder of Sexyloops.com, and Stu Tripney, of Stu’s flies. They were in West Yellowstone hanging out and fishing and they were the ones that first told me stories about New Zealand and its fish, and planted the seed in my brain to go there one day. Finding myself all these years later hanging out with Ronan, who it turns out is a close friend of theirs, was a real surprise, and goes to show you that some trips are just meant to be. As we talked, it became more and more clear that there was a great community connection that centered around Sexyloops.com that was bringing together some incredibly fishy and wonderful people. BSA’s own Matt Klara has been a contributor on Sexyloops over the last 12 years, alongside, you guessed it, Ronan.
My mates Justin and Matt at Big Sky Anglers have asked me to write an article on how important are good fly casting skills. And it’s certainly an interesting question. Maybe the best way to answer it is to first tell you my story.
I started fly fishing at the age of 10 with a fibreglass rod. Before this point I had fished a spinning rod, drowning maggots and worms, and prior to this I first started fishing with a small net catching (and releasing!) minnows and sticklebacks. I’ve always had a fascination for fish, and trying to catch them is really what my life is all about.
When I took up fly fishing, like most people, I did so without lessons and just generally thrashed the water in a frenzy. My beginnings, like many others from the UK, were on Trout Stillwaters. My local fishery was a “put and take” 110 acre lake called Ardleigh Reservoir. Here, as a boy, I would spend my school holidays, weekends and even some school time when I should have been studying something else!
At the age of 15, I got a job in the fishing lodge as the fishery bailiff, selling permits, flies and giving advice. I was completely obsessed, twice dropping out of University so that I wouldn’t miss any of the trout season. At the age of 21 I started spending half my year backpacking and fly fishing in New Zealand and the other half working on the reservoir back in England. I remember one day when I was about 18, fishing with an angler who I had great respect for, who had invited me to fish Rutland Water (another large English reservoir) – he introduced me to his local Grafham team members as being a “shit hot” fly fisherman. Now I mention this, because when you hear an angler saying that they “can’t cast but can catch fish” or someone telling you that “fly casting skills are unimportant” it can be true – for I had never had a lesson and while I could cast a line a respectable fishing distance, I was certainly not an accomplished fly caster by any means.
When I was 24, with no real qualifications and no interest at all in doing anything that wasn’t fly fishing, I decided that what I would like to do is to teach fly fishing – and being able to teach fly casting was no doubt an important part of this – and so I made some inquiries and took my first instructors’ exam (the Salmon and Trout Association National Instructors Certificate, or STANIC). I saw something while attending that exam, through a window, that I had never seen before; one examiner teaching a cast to another examiner – it was the Snake Roll. This cast had only just appeared in the UK – my now good friend, Simon Gawesworth, had invented it. When I saw this cast, I realized that I had to join this particular group of instructors too, because there was a whole different world waiting for me. 18 months later I passed the entrance exam to the Association of Professional Game Angling Instructors.
A few years after this, in 1998, when the Internet was still very new, and long before people started holding fish at arm’s length to make them look bigger, I started a website called Sexyloops. My life at this point was fly fishing in New Zealand for six months of the year and either the UK or Australia for the other six months, living outdoors, sleeping in the back of the truck, or camping on the riverbank. The combination of being first through the door with a website that had lots of fly casting content, along with a life of travelling, expanded my world into pretty much a who’s who of fly fishing and fly casting.
I joined every instructors association going and got heavily involved with what is now the IFF, examining for them and preparing numerous instructors (well not numerous, more like 200!). I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in life, to have gone from Stillwater Trout beginnings, to 18 summers (3000 fishing days) fly fishing in New Zealand, to spending three summers on the shores of Hebgen Lake – where I met both Justin and Matt, three summers in Canada, to where I am now, which is five out of the last seven years living on a 14’ boat in the Tropical Malaysian Rainforest. Hardly a day goes past when I’m not actively fishing somewhere. I do lumps of 3-4000 days and then move on to a different type of fly fishing – I fish other stuff in-between as well; Russia, a hell of lot of time in Australia and have fly fished across most of Europe and so on, but it’s the 3000 day blocks where I put most of my energy.
In 2004 I got involved in competition fly casting; I had been giving a lesson to a competition caster and I got intrigued. I wasn’t really that interested in competing but I wanted to see how far I could learn to throw the 5WT. The “Best of the West” competition inspired me and quite a few others at that time. Indeed this is why we now have a World Championships with one of the disciplines being who can throw the 5WT Mastery Expert Distance fly line the furthest. My best result so far in this competition has been a bronze medal but I really want that gold! Many of my best friends compete in these games. Some are rod designers, there are many fishing guides and a hardcore of very serious angling ability.
In my life nowadays I’m both a rod designer and a fly fishing guide and instructor. I manufacture fly rods under the Sexyloops brand and teach people how to cast for, and catch, Giant Snakehead and Giant Gourami in the wild.
For fifteen years fly casting clinics and lessons were my main income, but the job I have now is a much better fit for jungle life (and it pays better too!). So let’s get back to the original question, how important are good casting skills?
Well it is certainly possible to be a seriously good angler with mediocre casting skills. It’s also quite possible to be an excellent caster with poor fishing skills – sitting casting instructor exams will tune up your flycasting and many have done so exactly for this reason, consequently there are examples of excellent casters who have almost zero fly fishing experience! However being able to cast to a higher level of skill is never going to place you at a disadvantage. Recently I read an article interviewing guides asking them, “what was the one thing that they wish their clients could do better?” That one thing that they all wished for, was that their clients could cast better.
Now it would be interesting to know if the one thing that their clients wished for, was that their guides could teach them better fly casting skills! When I read something like that, I think to myself, “Hey, I think you are trying to tell yourself something!”
Let me tell you, if you are a fly fishing guide, then learning basic fly casting instructor skills is an immense boost to your guiding ones. Your clients catch fish, they learn fly fishing, they have a great experience and they also improve their fly casting! Phew – what a day! And it doesn’t take very long for a fly fishing guide to learn basic fly casting instructor skills and tune up his or her cast so that it looks professional. One month, two months, no more.
I’m fully aware that these associations are all a bit stuffy; I’ve quit three of them and was thrown out of a fourth! I don’t expect you to stay and start wearing tweed underwear, but the point is, in taking these exams you will get the skills and confidence to teach fly casting to your clients. I don’t even know why fly casting instructors do it if they don’t guide! For me it’s always been about teaching fly fishing – and so guiding and fly casting instruction have always gone hand in hand.
And what about you guys and girls out there who fish for the fun of it, and would like less tangles, more ease and a range of highly fishable casts? You too could go down the instructors’ route but what’s the point? Instead, I’m going to show you something that I’ve recently put together, which is a fly casting skills certification. It’s something we have on Sexyloops. You don’t actually have to become certified; the reason it’s there is simply to set you some achievable goals. I’m sure that Justin can test you, if that’s what you decide you want to do. What I do recommend however, for everyone, is that you use this “exam” as a syllabus of your own, so that by practising each cast, you will train yourself to become a better flycaster.
This is the Sexyloops fly casting challenge. There is currently one level, there are more coming. All of these casts can be learned through watching the flycasting video manual section on Sexyloops. And if you have any inquiries or questions you can email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org I’m not sure why you fish, I’m not even sure why I fish, but if having fun is an important part of fly fishing for you, then learning to cast better will surely make your fly fishing more fun – that I guarantee. There is no feeling quite like fly casting; shaping a loop of line to deliver our artificial fly to the fish. It’s an incredible thing that we do; it’s a sport, it’s a pastime, it’s a crazy life like no other. Being able to “throw” really elevates your game to a whole new level.
And if the mainstream stuff gets a bit boring, you can always try this:
And before you ask, no it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. If bat fishing ever ties off however then come to me for a lesson!