How often have you pulled into a popular fishing spot and seen people rigging up in the parking lot? We are not talking about pulling on your waders or lacing up your boots, we are talking about choosing what to fish and getting set up before you have ever looked at the water. This is a huge error that is common among anglers, often setting you up for failure before you even hit the water. Anglers simply choose from their favorite flies and put on whatever seems best for the day or whichever fly tickles their fancy in the moment without ever making any observations.
Observation is the difference between an angler that is consistently able to adapt and catch fish and someone that chooses flies at random and can’t replicate successful days on the water. The key is to understand what is happening in the water that day. Take time at the start of your day and periodically throughout to pay attention to what the bugs are doing and if the fish are responding. A good place to start is picking up a few rocks and looking at the bugs in them. Watch the drift and see if there are insects floating near the bottom, mid-column or on the surface.
For example during the spring and early summer stoneflies start to crawl toward the bank, hatching on the shoreline. Fish might go from eating smaller bugs to focusing on the stoneflies that have begun moving along the bottom, some becoming dislodged on their way. Taking notice might be the difference between a few fish and one of the best days you have ever had.
On a recent winter guide trip, I had my client fishing deep, slow pools near the bottom with a sow bug. We had hooked into a fish here and there but it wasn’t as productive as usual. As I scanned the water, I saw a few midges coming off in a back eddy (pictured above) and watched as several fish moved into the area and set up in the middle of the water column and began feeding. We made the switch to a tight line nymph rig with 2 different midge patterns fished roughly 3 feet above the bottom, first cast, fish on! Second cast, fish on! And so went the rest of our day, we were able to consistently hook into a fish every 5 minutes or so.
Be observant on the water, it will allow you to make the necessary changes to find the fish. Some days will be more difficult to figure out than others but chances are that the fish are feeding on something! Not being observant will rob you of the opportunity to grow as an angler, plus figuring things out is a large part of what makes fly fishing so much fun.