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Several years ago I had subscriptions to roughly half a dozen fly fishing magazines. At the time, I was beginning to become more involved in the fly fishing “industry” as a guide, writer, and custom tier, and I considered these magazines to be trade journals. I also really enjoyed reading them. Today, I have subscriptions to only two fly fishing periodicals. I still read the others, but obtain them by purchasing each new installment at local fly shops, an act that gets me out of the house and into these businesses to chat with the owners, staff, guides, and other consumers. Quality online journals now make up part of my reading repertoire in a given month. The diversity in fly fishing literature continues to grow, something that I consider to be good for the sport as long as the literature itself remains good.
When I was heavy with subscriptions all that many years ago, one of my favorite magazines wasFly Rod and Reel. Like seemingly all the magazines at that time and today,FR&Rhad a fly tying column, dabbled in covering hatches and all kinds of trout foods, notified readers of “hot” rivers for the upcoming season, let anglers know how to fix their back cast, and informed the fly fishing world of the latest in gear and equipment. ButFR&Rset itself apart from others with a rather controversial conservation column by Ted Williams and an annual special announcing the winner of its “Guide of the Year” and “Angler of the Year” awards, the latter of which could piss off some readers as much as anything penned by Williams.
The Angler of the Year could be just about anybody: one year it was John Gierach, another it was Ted Turner. More recently Yvon Chouinard, a man I greatly respect, was the honoree.
One particular year Tom Brokaw, the Emmy winning NBC Nightly News anchor, was declaredFly Rod and ReelsAngler of the Year. The first page of the story had the following highlighted quote: “If fishing is religion, than fly fishing is high church.”
The reason this issue ofFR&Ris so firmly etched in my memory is because of how one of my long-time clients responded to reading that quote while we drove to the Green River in Wyoming for a day of fishing. The individual is one of the most accomplished fly fishers I know. Back then he fished close to 100 days a year for everything from Atlantic salmon in Russia to tigerfish in southern Africa. He looked at the front page quote and, in his richly aristocratic South Carolinian drawl, said, “I would trust that if Mr. Brokaw regards fly fishing as high church, than he would certainly agree that trout fishing is like the holy sacrament itself.”
I was surprised to hear my well-traveled friend make such as statement. Did this mean that he would take trout over the other great game fish he has chased? Would he take them over steelhead or sea-run browns or tarpon or permit?
“Not necessarily,” he responded when I asked him these questions, “but I was raised fishing for trout and I seem to always come back to trout streams no matter where I have been. Hell, I bought a house right here in Wyoming so that I could be closer to trout streams. When I am too old to make those long damn flights to the Seychelles or Brazil, I am still gonna have trout.”
One of the great aspects of fly fishing is that it is incredibly diverse. I began fly fishing at a very young age, concentrating on that which was accessible to me – the trout of the Great Yellowstone Area. As I grew older, went to college, traveled, and eventually went on to complete my doctoral research, I became enamored with other fish I have been able to go after. There have been taimen, lenok, and pike in Central Asia and Russia, redfish on the Texas coast, steelhead in British Columbia, sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego, and snook, roosterfish, and trevally in Central America. There is still a world of fish out there that I have not tapped into and that I can’t wait to chase.
But those words of my now departed client and friend have stayed with me for almost a decade. No matter where I go and what I fish for, in the end I still return to trout and the magical waters they inhabit.
As diverse as fly fishing is today, it is still deeply and intimately tied to trout. So much so that even amongst those who don’t fly fish, trout is often the first thing they think of. I once met a young South Florida couple at an Atlanta airport bar during a long weather-related flight delay. I asked them if they did much fly fishing in their home state. They looked at me rather puzzled, stating, “There’s no fly fishing in Florida. We don’t have any trout.”
Even amongst these folks, living smack dab in the middle of possibly the greatest bastion of saltwater angling on the face of the earth, trout is what came to mind first when they thought of fly fishing.
So what is it about fly fishing for trout? With all the other types of fly fishing available to us today, why do trout remain so popular? Why is it that trout is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of fly fishing?
There are several reasons, of course, not least of which is the fact that trout are relatively easy to access. Sure, private water issues abound, but not near like there is for Atlantic salmon in Europe or sea-run browns in Argentina. And you don’t need a 20 ft. center consul power skiff like you do for so many saltwater species. For the most part, all you need is your rod and tackle and transport to a local river or lake to be fishing for trout.
We gravitate to trout also because they seem to exist everywhere. The United State and Canada have literally hundreds of trout fisheries, some of which are healthier now than they were a century ago. In fact, some of the most famous of trout streams in the U.S. did not have trout in them prior to World War II. Europe is home to some important and growing native populations of trout in Spain, the United Kingdom, Austria, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. We also find strong populations in Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Indian Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and the higher elevations of Costa Rica and Panama. Streams and lakes in these countries were stocked using transplants from the U.S. and Britain over the past century or, in some cases, even longer. Despite being non-native, these trout populations have become an important part of the local ecosystems where they now thrive.
Trout appeal to many of us because of their sheer diversity. Catching a brown trout on Montana’s Madison River is not the same as catching one on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River, particularly because the brown trout on these waters descend from different subspecies –levenensis(originating in Scotland) for the South Fork of the Snake andfario(originating in Germany) for the Madison. The difference can be found in slightly different body markings and coloration. Some longtime fly fishers on the two rivers also claim that there are differences in the feeding and holding behavior of the two sub-species. These differences exist despite the fact that these two streams are within a three hour drive from each other.
Rainbow trout on North America’s Pacific Coast gives an even more dramatic example of this. Native rainbow trout here exist as at least eight separate sub-species. Within these sub-species are stream specific stocks and strains. Each has their own physical and behavioral traits. Some of these strains may grow larger than other strains. Some stocks may react to being hooked by a fly in a unique manner. Some may have subtle differences in body markings. To an inquisitive angler, this variety may be a driving force in their fly fishing – they could literally spend a significant amount of time over their life of fishing trying to catch various sub-species, strains, and stocks of rainbow. And they can have a lot of fun doing it. Fly fishers can do this with just about every species of trout out there.
But more than anything else, we are attracted to trout because, for the most part, they exist in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Jack Dennis once said, “What makes trout fishing so special is where it takes place. It’s the rivers, and the mountains, and the landscapes. I mean, you just don’t have trout fishing in the middle of New York City.”
It’s hard to argue with that comment. There is nothing quite like hooking into a Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat with the Grand Tetons towering in the background. Casting a line into Utah’s Green River wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t have the gin-clear water and the canyon walls just below Flaming Gorge. And catching big brown trout on Chile’s Futalafu is such a splendid experience precisely because you are doing it on one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.
Literature has been a constant companion of fly fishing for trout, and this literature has focused to varying degrees on productive manners of catching fish. Early writers – Dame Juliana Berners (15th century), Izaak Walton (1653), and Colonel Robert Venables (1662) – were amongst the first to publish accounts of fly fishing methods and tactics. This trend continued over the next several centuries with works by the likes of George Cole Bainbridge (1816) and William Blackers (1842).
In the 1900s, a flood of new writers took fly fishing literature to a new level. They came on the scene armed with advancements in gear and tackle, improving infrastructure (offering easier and faster travel), an easier exchange of information, and, perhaps most important of all, access to more water. They wrote passionately about new trout water and types of fish, but also about their tactics and strategies. G.E.M Skues’The Way of a Trout with a Fly(1921) provided valuable advice on nymph fishing during an emergence and how to properly time the hook set. Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout(1976) by Charlie Brooks focused in detail on special techniques and gear for targeting trophy fish. The details he gives regarding how to successfully nymph fish for large trout formed a template for many of those writing on the subject today. Swisher and Richard’sSelective Trout(1971) remains one of the most influential books on trout and tactics for catching them. In particular, the author’s describe effective methods for maintaining drag free drifts. It has set the standard for the past several decades. Just as influential is Dave Whitlock’sGuide to Aquatic Trout Foods(1982). Dealing primarily with what the title suggests, it also describes effective methods for fishing imitations and simple tricks for fooling weary trout, such as rubbing a recently-tied-on fly with nearby natural grasses to mask the scent of the angler’s hand.
This trend continues with more recent and more tightly focused works that are as influential as their predecessors. Fly Fishing Stillwaters for Trophy Trout(by Denny Rickards, 1998) remains one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Landon Mayer’sHow to Catch the Biggest Trout of Your Life(2007) focused on just that – finding, targeting, catching, and landing trophy trout. And we see this in other forms of media as well, such as Kelly Galloup’s streamer tying and fishing DVDs and the numerous online fishing journals whose articles give advice on strategies, tactics, gear, and fly patterns.
What I present here is just another step in this progression. You may see something in one of these chapters that looks completely new and say to yourself, “I’ve never seen or even heard of anything like that before. That’s an entirely new way of fishing.” Let me state emphatically that nothing here is truly new. Methods, tactics or whatever you want to call them, are always evolving. Everything here builds upon what came before.
I begin this book by investigating the ocular, aural, and smell characteristics of trout. There is ever increasing research on these aspects of fish, and anglers are turning more and more to these studies to gain greater insight into trout behavior. My examination looks at this research, comparing and contrasting different findings and providing context with my own observations and the observations of other experienced fly fishers.
After examining these factors, I then turn to what is perhaps the most important issue for the fly fisher – holding water. In my experience, the ability to read water and water types correctly, identify key locations for holding and feeding, and determine the best way to fishing those locations, is significantly more important than your fly selection or, in many cases, having the perfect cast. In this chapter, I also taking into consideration the behavioral characteristics of different trout species as it applies to holding water and the different types of trout food found under various conditions in different types of water and stream or lake environments.
Following my examination of holding water, I investigate the methods that many good anglers and guides use when fly fishing for trout. I explore dry fly, nymphing, and streamer tactics in separate chapters. Fly presentation, essential leader riggings, and important tackle considerations are included in these parts of the book. As with the chapter on holding water, I discuss important behavioral characteristics of trout and aspects of important trout foods as they pertain to dry fly, nymphing, and streamers fishing.
In the two closing chapters, I look at the latest and most effective patterns in the contemporary world of trout fishing and my suggestions regarding what the dedicated fly fisher can do to help protect the variety of trout water we enjoy today.
My own observations over 30 years of fly fishing forms the bulk of the information in this book. I am not talking strictly about my freshwater experiences with trout. What I have witnessed with saltwater, warm water, and anadromous fly fishing has contributed greatly to how I fish for trout today. My trout fishing has also benefited from the privilege of working and fishing alongside some of the best guides and anglers in the world. I note their contributions throughout this book. My observations of, and experiences with, these individuals also make up a large portion of this book. In many ways, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today as an angler if I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing many of these individuals and learning from them.
Before closing this introduction and moving on, I should point out that what I pass on in this book is what works for me and many of those with whom I fish. But it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. For all of those days that my arsenal of methods produces fantastic trout fishing experiences, there are days when I have few answers and I am left scratching my head. I take comfort in blaming this on the nature of trout fishing, where the only thing consistent is inconsistency. Nonetheless, the tactics and methods I present here works for me and my fishing friends most of the time. I think they will work for you, too.