Fly fishing is a continuous game of reflection and learning. Like many anglers, we have our core group of rivers that we primarily fish and have come to know very well. By fishing the same rivers year after year, you come to understand what trout feed on and where they hold depending on the season and/or flow. At a certain point it becomes second nature and you know what to expect before you even get to the river. This level of knowledge and confidence is comforting but it also limits your growth and exploration. To avoid that, we do our best to explore new rivers as much as possible within Colorado and plan at least one out-of-state trip per year. These out-of-state trips not only expose us to new parts of the country but also reveal how different rivers are from one another.
Outside of the stereotypical black coffee, beef jerky and whisky diets, these trips all have one thing in common, a humbling learning experience. Each trip follows a similar emotional roller coaster starting with pure excitement and optimism, which is often followed by confusion and reflection. After we address our confusion and reflect on what did and didn’t go well, we are able to make adjustments and finally experience excitement and a sense of accomplishment. No two rivers fish the same and learning a new river can be a challenge but if you consider some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years and apply them to your next fishing adventure, you’ll be sure to improve your odds of success.
- Research ahead of time – We may seem biased on this one but we find great value in reports as they give us a general sense of how the river is fishing and what bugs are active. If reports show that flows are low and the water is warm or, conversely, that the river is blown out, you will likely want to find a different river. If it’s fishing well and conditions are stable, take note of the recommended patterns or current hatches to visualize your tactics and setups. Doing additional research on the background of the river is also beneficial. Understanding what type of river it is (freestone, tailwater, spring creek, etc.), the prime seasons, productive fishing methods (dry flies, nymphs, streamers) and the bug and trout life present will help you prepare and adapt.
- Visit the local fly shop – If you found a robust and updated report on the river, the information you receive at the local fly shop may be redundant but odds are, you’ll get more detailed intel by talking to someone in person. Ask questions about where trout are holding during certain times of the day, what type of setup (nymph, dry fly, streamer etc.) is working best, recommended flies and what section to fish. It’s important to note that not all fly shops will share this level of knowledge with you but if you make a point to buy tackle or gear, your odds are better. Asking for advice and not making a purchase isn’t well received, so don’t be that guy and be sure to support local businesses when you can.
- Start with your confidence patterns (or searcher patterns) – If you’re not able to research the river or gain intel from a fly shop, fishing with searcher or confidence patterns is a great place to start. Classic searcher patterns include the Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, Hare’s Ear and Copper John and they’re considered “searcher” patterns because they effectively imitate multiple bug species and life cycles. Once you start catching fish on a certain pattern, you can narrow down the type of bugs/patterns trout are feeding on and switch to more imitative patterns. That said, if the searcher fly of choice is on fire, let it ride!
- Cover a lot of water – Rivers differ in many ways but the most obvious discrepancy is size. Depending on where you live, you typically become familiar with a certain size of river. For us in Colorado, we find ourselves primarily fishing small creeks, smaller tailwaters and small-medium sized freestones that primarily contain pocket water, so when we make the switch to a large, featureless freestone or tailwater in Montana or Wyoming, it can be a bit overwhelming. Our recommendation is to identify parts of the river that feel familiar and start there. If you have success, great. If not, start covering a lot of water and experiment with depth. As long as the water is deep enough to hold fish, test it out. You’ll start to piece it together pretty quickly after you spend a couple hours to a day of experimenting.
- Observe other anglers and mirror them – This tip is very much a Plan B in case the other tips don’t work. If you can’t figure out where in the water to fish or the right setup or flies to use, observe other anglers. If you see an angler catching fish, there’s a good chance he/she’s doing something right and it’s worth taking note of what they are doing and where in the water they are fishing. To take it a step further, don’t be afraid to walk up and tell them that you’ve never fished this river and ask if they have advice. More often than not, you’ll receive a helpful response and if you don’t, move on and don’t take it personally. Even if their help was minimal, you’re likely to glean some amount of insight from the exchange. Even the response, “small midges”, is at least somewhat helpful.
- Be patient and take notes – Our biggest piece of advice is to be patient and take mental or physical notes of what did and didn’t work. If you’re on a multi-day trip, you have time to reflect and make adjustments the following day. When we fish a new river, every night is spent recapping the day, talking about what surprisingly did or didn’t work and what we should do differently tomorrow. Rinse and repeat this process and eventually, it will all come together.
- Hire a guide: It is never a bad idea to hire a guide, especially if you are fishing new water and can afford to fork over a few shekels in exchange for invaluable information. While we’re generally too stingy and/or stubborn to go this route, we’ve met a number of anglers who have opted to hire a guide on the first day of their trip and ride solo for the remainder. Not only does this dramatically decrease the learning curve, you’re also supporting local guides and fly shops in the process and you’ll be sure to bring some good juju to the water in the following days.