If you want to catch more trout when fly fishing you should know these very important guide tips. Fly fishing guides do this a certain way because it works. I will discuss the most effective methods for fly fishing.
I have guided around 3000 anglers over the last 20 years so I understand that fly fishing takes time and patience but these 11 tips will greatly increase the amount of fish you will catch. If you do some of these poorly or not at all your chances of catching trout will be much lower.
I also included 3 new bonus tips including one tip that has enabled me to 10X the amount of trout and steelhead I put in the net for me and my clients when fly fishing.
Catch More When Fly Fishing
I get emails from guys telling me they struggle to catch trout or steelhead all the time and before I even see them fish, most of the time I already have a pretty good idea of what it is they are doing wrong. This is because most guys have the same issues that prevent them from catching fish when fly fishing.
Because 90 percent of fly fishing anglers do the same things wrong, or poorly, they can often be fixed with these tips.
The good thing is that they are not hard tips to learn or implement each and every time you go fly fishing.
Tip 11 – Use The Right Gear
If you want to be more successful when fly fishing on the river it’s a good idea to know what the right gear is and to use it.
Having good fly rods and reels, good waders and a place to put all your gear in an organized way like in a vest or a pack will allow you to focus on catching fish and will improve your fly fishing.
There is a post that I recently did on all The Best River Gear which you can find on my other website that you should check out to see what I use and what I recommend to my clients and friends.
Tip 10 – It’s All The Little Things That Matter
When anglers ask me what is the biggest thing I do when fly fishing that makes me such a good angler, I tell them it’s not one thing that I do, it’s a lot of little things combined that adds up to more fish for me on the river.
Think about it this way, what’s the point of being a great caster if you present your fly to the fish poorly?
Or, you have the best fly on but you have a tippet on that’s so thick that the trout see it which means you won’t catch much fish.
Or, maybe you are great at presenting your fly and you even have the best fly on your line, but you don’t know how to read the water so you fish all the wrong spots all day and don’t catch much fish.
Fly Fishing is knowing what all these little things are, and then combining them and doing them all well to greatly improve your success. The following tips are some of those little fly fishing things that will make a BIG difference.
Tip 9 – Be An On-Going Student
If you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you know if you need to know it?
Yep, that is a bit of a riddle but what it means is that if you don’t know what to do, or what not to do, or what to use, or what to try, you may be missing out on opportunities.
So keep learning and improving and you will evolve into a fly fishing angler that catches a lot of fish.
I thought I was really good when I started guiding 20 years ago, but now, 20 years later, I realize how little I actually knew back then, and how much more there was for me to still learn.
Guiding over 220 days a year and studying all there is to know about fly fishing in rivers has really helped me learn things I didn’t know back then and I’m a far better angler now. There was so much back then that I didn’t even realize that I needed to know.
So ask yourself, how much do you really know now, or should I say how much don’t you know?
The more you know, the more fish you will catch and the easier fly fishing will get, it’s as simple as that!
Tip 8 – Think Outside The Box
Fly fishing anglers tend to do the same thing over and over again but expect better results each time.
Don’t wait too long to get out of your rut and try new things, new methods, new spots, and new rivers so you can start catching more fish.
If you keep fishing your fly under a big orange indicator because that’s what the book said, or that’s what some guy showed you, try high stick nymphing or try Euro nymphing and you might be surprised and start catching 10 times as many fish.
If your way of fly fishing doesn’t seem to be producing as many fish as you think it should, maybe it’s you and your current skills, and not the fish after all, so start looking at other ways to catch fish.
I was teaching a new fly fishing guide that started working for me and when we were ready to start fly fishing I told him we were going to have a friendly competition. I told him to try his best to out-fish me.
This was on a small river of about 15 feet wide with fairly small pools and skittish trout so I told him we would fish separate spots and work around each other.
After an hour I asked him how many fish he had caught. He responded with 3 trout landed and 4 or 5 lost. He seemed happy about that until I said that was pretty bad and that I had landed 13 and hooked about 20.
His instant reaction was to ask “What fly are you using”. Unfortunately, that’s often the wrong question because in this case it wasn’t my fly that was the difference, it was how I was using the fly that was important.
He always used an indicator when fly fishing because that is how he was taught to do it, but on a river as small as this with gin clear water that was a big mistake that prevented him from catching much fish. If he only knew other ways, the ways I was fly fishing, he may have caught a lot more fish.
Tip 7 – Fish Alone For More Trout
Some anglers like to go fly fishing with buddies, or girlfriends, and I get that, but is it a good thing?
The problem with more than one angler is that too many anglers fly fishing on some rivers can easily spook the fish and limit your success.
In this picture, the angler at the top of the pool has likely already spooked the fish below her.
If you don’t care about catching a lot of fish on smaller clear rivers with wild nervous fish then go fly fishing with your buddies and have a blast.
But, if you want to catch the most amount of fish possible it may be better to be fly fishing alone or learn how to fish the leapfrog style.
The way leapfrog works is that I will fish a spot by myself and my buddy will quietly sneak past me and go fish the next spot up the river. When I am done in my spot I will sneak past my buddy without spooking his fish and will hit the next spot upriver of him.
This way I am still spending the day out with a buddy but we aren’t spooking each others fish and we both catch way more fish this way.
Tip 6 – Rotate Your Flies
Sometimes trout want flies that are an exact match of what is hatching at that time. But, when fly fishing that is not always the case.
In fact, even during a hatch, I will sometimes use attractor flies or something different than what is actually hatching at the time and I will still catch a lot of trout.
I will often try to match the natural bugs as much as possible and then I will start rotating through my box trying various sizes, shapes, and colors.
Sometimes an attractor pattern like a Royal Coachman Dry fly or a Rainbow Warrior nymph will catch way more fish despite not looking like the natural bugs on the water.
Many anglers change their flies too often or not enough.
I will fish a small section of the spot and change my flies once or twice before I move to new water. I will use an opposite fly and size.
This means if I start with a size 16 brown nymph, the nest fly might be green caddis, or a size 12 stonefly, or change to a rainbow warrior. I tend to change to something very different and will do this two or 3 times trying to figure out what the trout or steelhead want.
Give it a try and don’t get stuck being one-sided with the same fly all the time and you may just be surprised.
Tip 5 – Use The Right Tippet
Trout are not smart, but they are cautious. I have seen trout turn their nose to a dry fly and not touch a fly below the surface because they see the tippet or because the tippet is too stiff or too thick to allow the fly to have a natural action.
When fly fishing, you want to use the lightest tippet that you can, but, you also want a tippet so light that the fish won’t see it but still strong enough that they won’t be breaking you off constantly.
When trout fishing in small to medium-sized rivers I will use 5x with clients and when i fish for fish I often use 6X.
Tip 4 – Stay Off The Bottom When Nymphing
I just heard a study that said trout pick up and eat off the bottom less than 13% of the time.
This confirms what I have been saying for years to all my fly fishing clients and that is “If you drag your flies across the bottom you will catch fewer fish!”
The simple truth is that trout prefer to feed in the current above and beside them, and they don’t look down often so your flies don’t get seen if they are dragging along the bottom.
I often tell a story about guiding one of my clients and after 4 hours of training him how to Euro nymph I told him that the next pool is the “test” pool.
It’s where we get to see if all his fly fishing training has paid off or not. I said to him “I want you to count how many times you hit the bottom with your nymph and count how many trout you land, now go fish”.
In 15 minutes he hooked the bottom 34 times and he only landed 1 trout.
When he was done I said, “sit on the bank here and have your lunch and watch how I do it“. I grabbed his rod with the exact same fly on and I went to work fishing the same pool he just fished.
When I was done I had landed 13 trout and I only hooked the bottom once.
Then I said, “You see the difference? The difference between you and I was that I was always 12 to 16 inches off the bottom where the trout feed, and you were mostly dragging the bottom with your fly which is where they don’t see the fly very well”. The result was catching bottom too much and not hooking many trout. Lesson learned!
The truth of the matter is that most anglers fish much too deep and that limits their success, yes, get your fly down, but keep it just off the bottom and you will catch more fish.
Tip 3 – It’s Not Always About The Fly.
There is a saying, “A Bad Fly Fished Good, Is Better Than A Good Fly Fished Bad” and I believe that saying is 100% accurate.
It is extremely important to make sure you fish your fly properly because even if you have the best fly in the world on the end of your line, if you fish it poorly it won’t work very well, especially for bigger smarter trout.
That means, don’t bounce it all around when you mend your line, don’t drag it upriver, or down the river, or drag it sideways when it should be drifting naturally down the river with the current.
Fish your fly the way it’s meant to be fished and it will catch more fish.
That means, fish a streamer by stripping in the line, fish and nymph deep enough and with no drag, and fish your dry flies without slapping them on the water and dragging them across the surface.
Tip 2 – Speed Control – Drag Sucks
I just read a quote from a top competition angler and it was simple and so true “fish your flies at feeding speed”.
I will explain this in a bit but it’s the most critically important thing you can do when fly fishing if you want to catch more fish.
I don’t know how many times I have guided 2 anglers and watched 1 guy catch 10 trout or steelhead and the other guy catch only 1 or 2, or even none.
It happens all the time even though they are both using the same flies, the same tippet, and the same method. Is the one guy just lucky? Nope!
After careful observation, I finally realized that it often came down drag, or some might call it micro drag.
What many anglers do not realize is that the surface current that we see is often faster than the bottom current that we can’t see.
It’s in this slower bottom current where many fish will feed.
If our indicators or our fly line which is on the surface is moving at 5 miles per hour and we are matching the speed of the bubbles which are also moving at 5 miles per hour, our nymph flies near the bottom are then being dragged along through that lower current which might only be moving at 1 to 2 miles per hour.
Feeding speed is 1 to 2 mph, not 5 mph.
This means all those fish that are seeing particles and food all moving at 1 to 2 miles per hour will ignore our flies that are moving unnaturally fast because it doesn’t look right to them if your fly is moving twice as fast as everything else.
This is why one angler is catching all the fish and the other angler struggles and it’s why I say the most important thing a good subsurface fly angler can do is learn to slow the fly down and match the bottom speed better.
Dry fly anglers will tell you the same thing. If you drag a fly over a big trout head you can shut that fish down and spook it. Simple dragging your fly 1 mph faster than the current is all it takes.
Tip 1 – Stealth Trumps All
I tell my fly fishing clients that I can put on the best fly in the world for them, I can make sure their tippet size is perfect, and I can teach them how to present their fly like a pro, but if they spook a big wild trout, none of that even matters because the will stop feeding. It’s that simple!
If you want to start catching big trout more consistently you need to learn how to approach every spot from the right angle and learn to be quiet so you won’t be seen or heard.
That means you also need to wear clothes that will help you blend into the background, and never ever let them hear you coming, which means moving very slowly and keeping a low profile.
I tell guys it’s better to take 5 minutes to tiptoe your way 10 feet into the water to position yourself in the right spot and catch that big trout in the first few casts, then it is to rush into the spot, spook all the fish, have them go lock-jaw and then have to wait 30 minutes to an hour for them to settle down and start eating again.
This is one of the biggest reasons many anglers rarely catch big fish.
Guide Tip – Approach From Down River
Since we are on the topic of stealth, my guide tip is to always approach a spot from downriver. Trout almost always face upriver and they don’t have necks so they can’t look backward, so if you approach them from behind they are less likely to see you.
If you can do it, work your way upriver instead of downriver.
However, if working up the river is not an option and you need to walk downriver, make sure that when you approach a spot from upriver, try to go as low as you can and as wide around the spot, and as quiet as you can to get below the spot and to stay behind the fish, and then work your way up the pool staying behind the trout as you go.
Bonus Tip # 12
I have put 10 times more fish in the net for me and my clients by using a fly fishing boat to get to untouched water that other anglers can’t get to.
This untouched water often has more fish and they aren’t line shy or as cautious as trout in areas that get fished a lot.
It’s actually much easier to do than you would think and I offer tips and advice on how to do it on my page Fly Fishing Boats: Catch More Fish With A Boat.
Advanced Nymphing – Tip #13
Every year I offer my popular and always sold-out Advanced Nymphing classes and anglers that attend these classes often tell me that they see immediate results with much more fish when they are fly fishing with nymphs after learning my fly fishing with nymphs tips and tricks.
I often provide so much information that they forget half of it so I added a private page to my guide website which is a summary of all the stuff that I teach.
This is great information that helps you greatly improve their fly fishing skills, both nymphing and with other fly fishing methods since I include trophy trout tactics.
I have recently decided to share that private page on this website so be sure to check out my page Fly Fishing Nymphs.
Bonus Tip # 14 – Find A Good Mentor Or A Good Guide
You can learn more in one day with a great fly fishing guide or great angler than you might learn in 2 years.
The problem with anglers learning fly fishing on their own is that they sometimes end up practicing the wrong stuff for years without even realizing what they are doing is wrong or is less effective.
I just had this conversation with a client who was 74 and he has been fly fishing for over 50 years. He lost a big brown trout and then a few small ones because of a simple bad habit that he learned long ago.
To him what he was doing but to me, it was easy to see that this little mistake was causing him to lose fish.
The biggest problem was that he had been doing it this way for so long that it was hard for him to change. Had he learned not to do these little mistakes when he started fishing I bet he would have caught ten times the fish over a lifetime.
I have guided anglers that have told me they have been fly fishing for longer than me( that’s 36 years now), and when I get out with them on the water they are worse than some of my new fly fishing clients that have only been fly fishing and training with me for less than a year.
In fact, I have seen some of my fly fishing clients progress so fast in just one day or two days that I’ll tell them I know guys that have fly fished for 20 years that aren’t as good as they are.
The simple truth is that most anglers are self-taught and they learn to do some things wrong and then they practice those wrong things for a long time because they don’t know it’s wrong, or that there is a better way.
A good guide will point out those mistakes and show you how to improve on them.
I know some guys can’t afford a guide and that’s OK, but if you can find a skilled angler as a mentor you can learn a lot from them too. But remember, just because a guy says he has been fly fishing for 20 years doesn’t mean he is actually good. Look for skill, not length of time on the water.
If there are fly fishing clubs near you they can be a great place to meet guys that can help you improve and they are also great for local information and spots to fly fish.
Facebook fly fishing groups or other talk boards can be another good place to meet guys that might be able to help you out but be careful of what advice you get there because there is a lot of guys that think they know how to fly fish but they don’t and they give out bad or misleading advice.
Got A Question About Fly Fishing
Got a question about fly fishing for trout steelhead or salmon on rivers that I haven’t answered yet. Or maybe a tip or comment. If so let me know and I will get you an answer. Leave your questions and comments in the comments box below.