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FLY FISHING: New to Fly Fishing? Here's why you're not catching many fish...

Fly Fishing can be seen as a whimsical and artisan sport to a lot of 'normal' fishermen. We have all seen the anglers on the riverside, decked out in their vests, waders and fancy rod, flicking the line back and forth in the air as if they are trying to catch a flying fish (quite ironic I know).

The era of pretentiousness and exclusivity that plagued fly fishing for many years (especially overseas) is beginning to fade and we are now seeing a surge of passionate and hardened anglers joining the sport as much for the challenge as the experience. 

The only problem is, Fly Fishing is probably the least efficient way to catch a fish, particularly if you're after a feed. This results in many new anglers giving up before they really get started as the lack of success in actually catching fish boils over to frustration and broken rods!

But the reality is, Fly Fishing is a remarkably simple pursuit. It is the anglers themselves that make it seem more complicated than it needs to be. With the myriad of gear and techniques, it's no surprise that it often overwhelms the novice who just wants to learn the basics. 

This piece delves into a few of the foundations and fallacies of fly fishing so you can better understand what really matters. It will hopefully give you more confidence to just get out there and increase your odds of success along the way. 

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Observation is one of the most important parts of getting better. Watch, think and watch some more

CASTING - It's not all it's cracked up to be 

The biggest fallacy in fly fishing is that the casting is the be-all and end-all of the sport.

As a fly fishing guide for over 6 years in the south island, I can confidently say that it is important if you want the best results, but everyone starts somewhere and you don't need to be a master-caster to find success. 

Yes, you need to learn to cast, but where, when and how you cast should be more of a concern. The biggest problem I see most often with anglers and their casting is not their skill level, but where they choose to stand.

If you struggle to throw a long, accurate cast, why are you standing 30m away from your target? If you're struggling to get a good drift in a piece of water, why are you standing where the line has to cross several currents?

When guiding, I would make the client get as close to the fish as possible, many times only several meters away. Too often do anglers turn the odds against themsleves from the outset by choosing to stand in the wrong place, usually for the ease of casting or the fear of spooking a fish. 

The reality is, you should get as close as you possibly can to your target to improve your accuracy and reduce drag of your line on the water. If that initially results in spooking more fish, well, now you know how to do it better next time!

Spey casting

Just because it looks good, it doesn't mean it's will catch a fish...

LOCATIONS & CONDITIONS - Making the most of a bad situation

Now there is much to be said about fair-weather-fisherman. Some love them, some hate them, but the fact is life is much easier when the conditions are in your favour. 

As your starting out, you should be doing everything you can in your power to make things manageable for your skill level. This may include the type of water you're choose to fish, the weather you go out in and the type of fish you are after. 

There are few things that drive fly fishing frustration quite like wind. In the south island we have more of it than you can care to imagine. It was one of my biggest challenge as a guide as most clients had never even attempted to cast in it. 

Even if the weather is not the best on your chosen day to fish, there are still many things you can do to turn things in your favour. Such as on windy days, choose to fish a river that is tree lined or has high/gorgey banks. Trees will block the wind in patches allowing a simple cast and gorges will cause the wind to come in gusts and lulls, usually providing windows to make a simpler cast. 

Another key point to consider when you're just getting started is head somewhere where the fish are going to be more conducive to eating your fly, even if your cast isn't up to scratch. Heading straight into the backcountry to catch trophy trout may be the dream, but just like anything, success is earned and doing your time and starting in easier fisheries will go a long way to ensuring future success. 

I like to rank fish on a scale of their willingness to eat. At the top of that scale you have your small rainbows (or cutthroat in the US) and at the bottom is a wily old brown that has lived in the same pool most it's life. There can obviously be exceptions to this rule on any given day but when you're setting out for the day, first think what you really want to achieve. Do you want to catch lots of fish to practice your striking/playing. Do you want to target finicky fish to work on your accuracy? Or is it just about getting out there to be on the water and take it as it comes?.

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If only you could see wind, because this was one tough day with no trees...

THE GEAR - What you do and don't need

This is always a very personal and controversial topic. What is too much and what is too little?

In my case, I fished with the same fast-action 6wt rod for basically the first 10 years of my fishing career after getting it as a present when I was 12. It was great at some things but as a young teen fishing tiny Waikato streams it was probably the worst thing possible to improve my skills. 

Fly Fishing New Zealand

Me as a young guy catching small rainbow with 'that' rod

The rod you start with can play a big part in your development as an angler so its important to consider the type of water you will be fishing most (unless you intend to own multiple rods). Start at the cheaper end, master you're strokes and then upgrade at the same time as your confidence level. 

It used to be that you need to spend copious amounts of money to get into fly fishing, but with entry level brands these days such as Airflo and FlyLab, there is no need to go big or go home. I used the cheaper rods for all my guiding as they are usually more manageable for most clients to learn casting and it's not a worry if they break. Jumping straight into a fast-action rod, as stiff as a broomstick, will only make learning more difficult. 

Lastly is all about the nick-naks, widgets and accessories that come into fly fishing, some of which are useful and some just a waste of time. There are a few key things that I believe are a must have for any angler, new or old, that will make you experience on the water much more seamless. 

  1. The NZ-Indicator Tool: This little gadget is probably the best piece of kit I have ever owned. Indicators are key to your success as a beginner angler and being able to easily fix and adjust them is the key, this is the one tool I will never go without. 
  2. Good Glasses: Usually the last resort for most fisherman as we prefer to pickup the $20 pair from the gas station, but getting a good pair can be game changing. They not only allow you to see fish better, but they take the strain off your eyes as you stare at the water all day long, allowing you to read the water more effectively and make better decisions. My go to pay are any Smith-Chromapop lens, usually in a brown/bronze colour.
  3. Good Boots: Now this is one I wish I had figured out many years earlier. I spent the first decade fishing in cheap hiking/wading boots that fell apart as fast as you could get them out of the box. To be a good angler you need to put the miles in and having a pair that keep you stable on the riverbed is important to ensuring you get the best cast and don't risk breaking your ankle. My personal choice is the Simms G4 boots, but I find most that are made specifically for fishing/hunting do a pretty good job.

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Without good glasses, this fish was impossible to spot

CONCLUSION - Where to from here?

So to wrap it up, it's important to remember that as a beginner there are certain things that will go a long way into making things easier and relaying the inevitable frustration. 

I see Fly Fishing as a life pursuit rather than a part-time hobby. Like most things, those that put in the effort to be conscious about how they approach it are the ones that become the most successful. 

So next time you're out on the water and you feel that urge to give up creeping in, just think to yourself, what is it that is actually not working? and, what is it I can do right now to make it easier?. 

Stick with it, learn and be curious. In no time you will be catching the fish of your dreams!