Fish on! I did not want to hear that shout one more time.
At the moment, I just wanted to grab my fly rod between both hands and crack it over my knee. I couldn’t buy or bribe a fish. My day was all about tangles and wind knots.
As a beginning fly fisher, I remember being totally exhilarated and frustrated with the experience. Today, I still feel the same Zen magic when standing in a stream with the water rushing past my legs.
When first learning to fly fish, that magic was intermittent and fleeting, easily interrupted when my fly was wildly flung in a tree branch, on a fence, wrapped around the only twig or rock visible in the river, intertwined in the reeds on the bank, wound tightly around my leg and solidly lodged in my boot lace; wrapped around my shoulders and hooked deeply in the net hanging on the back of my vest, making it impossible to see or reach; buried in my hair, ear, neck, finger, etc., etc., etc.
Honestly, the fly spent less time in the water than it did dangling from whatever. When it did land in the water, I might see it perched on the top of my strike indicator, bobbing gaily in the current as though waving and bellowing, “Bon voyage! See ya downstream!”
To the onlooker, it must have been hilarious. To me, the novice, it was mortifying.
My husband, Pat, was great to help when he was in earshot, but I wanted to try to be self-sufficient and independent on the water. And true to the norm for spouses, it was not always in our best interest for him to be my instructor. It never occurred to me to find an instructor, and certainly back when, there were none in the area.
Had it not been for my love of the outdoors and wanting to spend time with my husband, an avid angler and persistent teacher, I might have given up. We persevered and grew together in our angling experiences and misadventures, but sometimes the waters were rough.
If I were to offer advice, the obvious first tip would be to get instruction, either one-on-one or sign up for a class. Your local fly shop and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are great resources to find instruction in the area where you live. A beginning class is great because of the camaraderie. People will ask questions you never thought about, and you will be on your way with a network of other fly fishers.
Classes are offered in just casting instruction or in a workshop setting where a half or whole day of fishing may be included. The workshop setting is ideal because the agenda most likely will include knot tying, equipment and clothing, bug/fly identification, a smattering of etiquette and safety, as well as casting.
If you are unable to attend a class, there are other resources such as books, videos, libraries, the Internet and people you know.
The goal for a beginner is to be independent on the water. I believe that includes only three basics:
1. The proper gear for the conditions — summer or winter; size; or type of water.
Trying to learn in the winter may be more of a challenge if you live in snow and ice country. The proper clothing for winter wading is crucial and includes dressing in layers for warmth.
Fishing will be limited to excursions to rivers and tailwaters below dams where the water does not freeze over. In summer the choices are endless with small streams, rivers and myriad lakes. Fishing techniques will vary with the different bodies of water, so keep that in mind when you sign up for a class, so you can ask questions related to the area and type of water you will be fishing.
2. Casting basics — critical for a successful outing.
Learn the basics, keep it simple, and stick to it. Practice, practice, practice, on grass or a pond until you are comfortable handling the fly line and retrieving the fly from bushes, weeds, etc. Don’t practice on pavement where you’ll beat up the fly line.
3. Knots — learn the basic fishing knots so that you can tie on a fly, add tippet and attach the leader to the fly line.
I recommend three knots for beginners: the clinch knot to tie on a fly; the double surgeon knot to add tippet and to extend the leader; and the perfection loop to tie on a new leader to the fly line, which requires a loop-to-loop section between the fly line and the leader. Your local fly shop can set your fly line up with the loop system that you can easily maintain.
The three basics might sound simplistic, but your first outings should be easy-going. Of course, you’ll need a few flies, and you already know entomology is a huge, requiring additional study of insect identification and fly selection.
Again, keep it simple. Even today I feel I can’t go wrong with a box of attractor patterns (the flies that don’t imitate any certain insect, but offer a sort of smorgasbord to the fish). Those flies include, but are not limited to (for dries) the Adams, the humpy, the royal coachman, the trude, and royal Wulff, (for nymphs), the copper John, hares ear, prince nymph, and pheasant tail.
Ask your local fly shop for patterns and size suggestions. You eventually will have a list of go-to flies you always have in your box and that work for you. Ask some people what their top five go-to flies are. You’ll hear some similarities and a few differing opinions.
What about all of the controversy and conflicting opinions you hear? You will have to take it with a grain of salt and come to your own conclusions based on your experiences.
For example, some people say the clinch knot is the best, and others will say that the improved clinch is the best. Other people will say it doesn’t matter; the key is to leave a tad of the tag exposed. You fish, and you decide; it’s certain you will never stop learning when it comes to fly fishing.
Beginners, do not go alone on your first excursions. Be practical and safe. Practice safe wading techniques, and if you feel unsteady in the water, use a wading staff. Know the fishing regulations for the area you are fishing.
Even if you practice catch-and-release, some waters may require barbless hooks, or they may require all fish be released. Sometimes areas are closed to protect certain spawning species.
Observe good fishing etiquette. Do not encroach on the water someone else is fishing, and keep a safe and adequate distance between the water you’re fishing and the water occupied by other anglers.
One of the best ways to learn is to hire a guide. Ask around and do some research to find the right guide. When the day begins, tell your guide you are a beginner and you want to learn as much as possible during the day. Make catching a fish a bonus. You’ll use the guide’s lessons for the rest of your fishing days.
When you get frustrated, take a deep breath and go back to the basics.
I remember when my husband helped me learn to dry-fly fish, he took me to the middle of a brushy stream and showed me the roll cast. I spent all day walking up the stream making short roll casts, and I caught (and missed) a lot of fish all day long. Sure, I got hung up in the trees, but the stream was easy to wade, and I could manage the tangles and was even able to experiment with feeding and mending line.
I still love to fish that stream, and I’ll always remember it as a positive experience.
Above all else, make fishing an experience you enjoy. Carry water and snacks. It is important to stay hydrated and have energy for the day. If you get tired, rest. Slow down and breathe.
If the fish aren’t biting, study the entomology. Take time to lift up rocks to see what bugs are in the water. Study the stream or lake, and imagine where the fish live and dine. Be quiet and observe what’s happening around you; it’s amazing what you will see and learn, and you’ll be a better angler for it.
Take photographs, study plants and animals, take a hike, and just enjoy the fresh air and the sounds of nature. Fishing is about more than catching fish.