The Secrets to Successful Fly Fishing (and Tenkara) for the Beginner: Part 1

Please take the title of the post as intended – with some humor and with total humility. I’d like to share some ideas but don’t make any claims at being an expert. This post may be more for the beginner than for the experienced angler – but even experienced folks need some reminders from time to time. I say that not to point the finger outward to others but back at myself.

Magazines make money by selling advertising to gear manufacturers. Nothing wrong with that. Gear manufacturers make money by selling gear – nothing wrong with that either. Competition drives “innovation”. I use the term lightly. If you want to be featured in that “best new products” section of the magazine you need to make something new. There’s not usually a section for “really good stuff that isn’t new but is still really good.” So manufacturers “innovate” to keep the name out there. Occasionally something actually innovative comes along – but not that often. Maybe a jaded view and maybe not as completely articulated as it could be, but that’s how I feel. I’m not naive and I know that business is business – still it doesn’t mean I can’t be sick of being fed a bunch of…fill in the blank.

Let me add that I am not unaware of the irony of trying to write a blog – and trying find something to say that hasn’t been said a million times already – and reviewing products, and how that’s not so different from what I say I’m tired of. Fair enough, I am sometimes a hypocrite and part of the problem.

It can be easy to get caught in a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. I know that it happens to me all of the time. I just bought a new tenkara rod that I absolutely didn’t need but for some reason felt that I needed. And now there’s another new rod that I “need” (tenkara rods can be like potato chips – its hard to have just one). So, yeah, I’m absolutely as guilty as the next guy. Like I said this post is as much a reminder to myself as anyone else.

So I don’t say all that to point fingers and to whine and complain about the fly fishing marketing machine. It is what it is. I can live with that. Why bring it up? See below.

So to the point. For anybody new to fly fishing and tenkara – remember this: The only real point of all that gear is to deliver a fly to a fish.

The real secret of successful angling is to break that sentence down, look at its parts and work on those things. Bear in mind that I most often fish small to medium sized streams for trout – that’s where most of my experience comes from, that’s my point of reference for this discussion.

So here’s my attempt to break down fly fishing into it’s basic components.

1) Learn where fish like to be and find the fish
2) Don’t spook fish
3) Put fly where fish can see it – without spooking fish
4) Detect the strike, set the hook
5) Land the fish

That’s the basics. Sure there’s more to it but that’s the basic outline.

So what is the most important part of the puzzle? Without a doubt the most important thing is locating the fish. Get good at that and you have the biggest part of the puzzle solved. Without the fish you have nothing but hiking with a fancy stick. What’s the second most important thing? Don’t spook the fish. These two points are actually hard to separate – even if you know where the fish ought to be – you will not actually find many fish if you spook them first.

So my first bit of advice to the new fly fisher is this: take some time to focus on these two things – finding fish and being stealthy – they are the most important things. No gear will really help you with this (well okay, polarized glasses can be helpful – but are certainly not necessary).

Read the articles and the books on how to read water, learn about daily and seasonal movements of fish. Learning to find fish is a simple idea but can sometimes be complicated. Hey I’m not all that great at it myself sometimes.

Here’s a bit of advice to help you out – and this is what I grew up doing and still do.

Put the rod away – and go hiking along a small stream when the water level makes it possible to see fish. Preferably this is a stream with spooky wild trout. Stocked streams and heavily fished catch and release waters can have fish that sometimes behave in very conditioned ways that are unlike natural wild fish. Big streams and rivers don’t work so well for this because you may not be able to spot fish in big water. So find a nice little wild trout stream and go look for fish, and when you see fish sneak up on them. If it’s a stream that you know has fish and you’re not seeing them – then that’s a clue that you’re spooking them before you can get close enough to see them. What I’ll do often is find some tiny hemlock cones, or tiny bits of twig and toss them into the water. Often eager mountain stream fish will reveal themselves when they come up to inspect these things – often actually eating them and spitting them out (making you reconsider fly pattern importance).

The point is to take time out from thinking about gear and fly patterns and rigging and just observe. It may help your sanity and it will likely help your small stream fishing.

Hopefully I can get it together and write a few more posts in this series for the beginning angler.

10 Comments on The Secrets to Successful Fly Fishing (and Tenkara) for the Beginner: Part 1

  1. Anthony,
    Great post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Your point (For anybody new to fly fishing and tenkara – remember this: The only real point of all that gear is to deliver a fly to a fish) hits home with me. I’ve been a bit fired up of late about tenkara (you’ve probably read some of my commentary on the Interwebs), and as a beginner myself this post is well received. I come to tenkara and fly fishing from the direction of spin fishing, so my views are a bit tweaked. I’m aching a bit during these cold months to get out of my head – to get gear and fly tying out of my head – and get onto the water.

    • Neil thanks – “I’m aching a bit during these cold months to get out of my head – to get gear and fly tying out of my head – and get onto the water.”

      Well said – you and me both!

  2. That is probably the most true and best advice that could be given to any new or old angler. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Nice, I hope you write some more. I like the line “Without the fish you have nothing but hiking with a fancy stick”. That’s gonna stick in my head awhile, I have seen so many fisherman do something just like that.

  4. Kiwi and Thomas thanks for the comments guys. I often have thoughts for posts like these – but usually over-think them, try to get them perfect, and then never actually post them. So I really appreciate the feedback and encouragement.

  5. You said it like it is. Good stuff. Looking forward to parr 2.

  6. Very good article …. thank you very much.

  7. Excellent points (finding & stealth) and exactly those I was taught by an experienced expert decades ago when I was just learning fly fishing. He could literally pull out a fish with every cast, so rarely fished unless he wanted a trout dinner.

    This was up in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico along the Rio San Antonio (grand name; very small stream.) It was heavily fished from Friday through Sunday evenings by people driving up from Albuquerque. His view was that the fish would take a couple of days to calm down and get over the disturbance of all those people stomping up and down the stream, so only gave me lessons mid-week. The point of my writing this is to remind us that if someone else has recently, clumsily fished that great stretch, the trout may be there, but may already be too spooked to strike.

    • How lucky you were to have a good fly fishing mentor – having somebody help you out when first starting can make a world of difference.

      That’s a good point too about how somebody else coming through before you on a small stream can really put the fish down. I fished a stream in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer, a stream I know to have loads of fish – and I wasn’t catching anything. I couldn’t figure it. Then I saw a guide with about 8 folks walking back downstream from ahead of me. Apparently I was fishing behind this group. As soon as I got above where they reached – bingo suddenly I was catching fish again.

      Thanks for the comments Bosque Bill.

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