5 Fly-Fishing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Those days when things just don’t go your way can have long-lasting effects.

One of the great things about fly fishing is that there’s always something new to learn; dedicated anglers will never run out of new techniques, species, waters, or fly patterns to figure out. This very blog is dedicated to helping anglers of every level, from novice to expert, to become better, and there are lots of other ways to learn: books, magazines, fellow anglers, and the like. However, trial and error also plays an important role. For me, there are several fly-fishing lessons in which the “error” part of that phrase served up an unforgettable rebuke. You never, ever want to make that mistake again. Here are a few examples.

1. Roll your hip boots up before you wade into the river.

The very first pair of waders I bought were canvas hip waders, and I was so excited to use them that I drove right from the store to the Powwow River below Trickling Falls, in southern New Hampshire. I knew that a certain run was chock-full of stocked brook trout eager to take my flies. I walked down to the water, rigged my hand-me-down fly rod with a Parmachene Belle wet fly, and waded right in. The sucking sound of the river water filling my boots caused my heart to sink, as I realized what I had done. My excitement turned to despair as I sloshed my way back to the car to empty my boots in the parking lot. I drove home cursing my luck.

2. Make sure your desiccant container is securely closed before you put it in your pocket.

The plastic container that Orvis Hy-Flote Shake-N-Flote comes in has a lid that snaps shut with authority, and it turns out that there’s a reason for that. I was wet-wading a local brook-trout stream on a summer day, casting a Stimulator into pockets and runs and having a grand old time. About an hour into the trip, I shook my fly dry but didn’t hear that telltale snap! as I shut the lid before putting the desiccant into the pocket of my shorts. The next time I reached for the Hy-Flote, my hand found a pocketful of desiccant. Here’s the problem: you can’t wash the stuff off because it is hydrophobic and you end up with awful-feeling dry skin. And what to do with all the powder in the pocket? I am now OCD-like in my diligence when it comes to closing that lid, and I usually check it a couple times before it goes back in the pocket. (As an aside, one thing I don’t seem to learn is how to spell desiccant correctly the first time. Ever.)

3. Don’t slap the water with your rod tip out of frustration.

I had never broken a fly rod in my life when I went to guide on Alaska’s Copper River, which flows into Lake Iliamna. One day in July, however, I couldn’t take the fact that I’d butt-hooked another sockeye while trying to target the big rainbows holding among the salmon. As the bright-red fish zoomed downstream with my Glo Bug snagged in its tail, I vented my frustration by slapping the tip of my rod on the surface of the water. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized that the top three inches of the rod were sliding freely along the fly line between me and the fish. My frustration increased exponentially, which was the opposite of what I needed right then.

4. Make sure you have an exit plan when you wade deep.

Like most young men, I had a tendency to leap before I looked when I was a beginning angler. I remember fishing below Middle Dam on Maine’s Rapid River and spotting a midstream rock that would make the perfect platform for casting to rising salmon on the other side. I was right: I caught three nice fish. But when I turned around to leave, I realized that the route I’d taken to get to the big rock—a route that required me to wade in water about an inch below the top of my chest waders—wasn’t going to work for the return trip. The fact that the sun had already dipped below the horizon didn’t help. The first step off the midstream boulder turned my misadventure into a chilly swim and an uncomfortable walk back to the lodge.

5. If the knot doesn’t feel right when you seat it, you’ve tied it badly.

I’d been fishing for about two hours without seeing any sign of trout, and I had accepted that a serious skunking was my fate. I was casting a double streamer rig and decided to try a different pattern as a dropper. I tied on a sparse brown Hairwing, and when I went to tighten up the knot, something didn’t feel quite right. “Doesn’t matter,” I thought. “I’m not catching anything anyway.” Three casts later, just at the point of the swing when you’d expect the take, I felt a heavy fish hammer the fly. I set the hook, watched the buttery side of a 20-inch brown roll just below the surface, and then felt the line go slack. When I brought the flies in, the telltale curlicues where the bottom fly should have been were the source of much self-flagellation.  

21 thoughts on “5 Fly-Fishing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way”

  1. Oh yeah…. that last one about the knot. Still makes me sick to my stomach. Also along those lines… ‘I’m not gonna waste time cutting that wind knot out if my leader… I won’t catch a big enough fish that it matters anyway’.

    1. Amen, I landed a 24″ rainbow, biggest fish of my life to that point. No need to re-tie, I’ve never seen a fish that big. A half dozen casts later I hooked a fish that was noticeably bigger. You guessed it, snap – gone.

  2. When you loose a big fish and the end of the tippetlooks like a pigs tail. Your knot failed you.

  3. Key fobs for modern vehicles are expensive & essential for departure from fishing sites. Protect electronics in water-proof containers/bags. Learned the hard way that pouches on chest waders are not to be trusted to keep essential items bone dry!

  4. Best knot seating advice I ever received was to 1) push down and tightly snug the knot to hook eye, then 2) tighten firmly from the tag end. Knot failures have been drastically reduced when I do this.

  5. What would have happened if the desiccant sifted through your pocket
    liner and found it’s way to your…..
    I don’t want to know.

  6. Years ago Mucilin was about the only fly flagrant available. On hot days it would melt in the metal canister and leak out. Every fishing vest I owned from that era had one stained pocket. In addition, it was always a mess to open the canister containing the liquefied floatant. But those were certainly the good old days, leaky rubber waders and all!

    Thanks for the tips, I’ve done then all and not just once.

    Bill Love
    Sandpoint, Idaho

    1. The old Folkerts hook and bullet (plus soda fountain and cuckoo clocks) in Phoenicia, N.Y. sold floatant that was a mix of paraffin, gasoline and something else. Came in a little brown vial with a white screw cap which invariably leaked. My vest, my father’s, everybody had a perma-stain on their vest from the stuff.

      It worked though.

      1. Am I the only amateur fly girl that reads these comments. I learn so much…. keep commenting guys… I am learning even how to tie my shoes

  7. Ooops…that darn auto-correct changed floatant to flagrant when I wasn’t looking. The leaking Mucilin did make my vest very fragrant if you enjoyed an essence of parafin smell.

  8. Check your knots
    Fish your fly with confidence.
    Check your line and fly regularly.
    Listen to your guide.
    Mix it up on retrieve strategies.
    Don’t grow roots – move.
    Practice casting skills. Often.
    Don’t pee on the trail.

  9. You only make the mistake of not seating your knot correctly once! Or you should do!! Made all of these mistakes but lived to tell the tale.

  10. When casting in the wind make sure you position yourself so that your casting arm is downwind not upwind.

    Roll casting requires that the line be on the OUTSIDE of the rod and not inside between your body and the rod.

    Don’t ask how I know these things.

  11. Tip 4: Also make sure that the river isn’t rising when you are wading. I made this mistake and was rescued by the Fire Department! They used a throw rope from shore to get me off a mid-stream boulder that had become submerged due to rainfall far upstream the previous evening.

  12. My hard learned tip: Be aware of your surroundings. Phil posted this on May 25, 2023. The next day, after reading his tips, I was fishing a small stream in a section pretty choked with trees. Using side-arm roll casts and low trajectory water loaded casts, I was able to get a decent drift and hooked a very nice rainbow for that stream. Keeping my rod low, I successfully fought the trout, got down on one knee with my net out, and then reached up with my rod to slide the trout into the net. Unfortunately, the rod tip hit the branch above me and tangled my line maybe about 10 feet above the trout. The trout thrashed for a few seconds, before the barbless nymph came loose. Of course, I knew those trees were there. I had successfully dealt with them in the casting, presentation, and fight. But unfortunately, in the excitement, I forgot about the overhead branches as I was landing the trout. Oh well, another long-distance, or in this case 1 foot, just beyond the net, release. I’ve had trout and steelhead jump into bushes and trees, but that was the first that I lost that way. Hopefully, I wont make that mistake again.

    Have Fun!

    PeterG – Batavia, Illinois

    1. Darn, next time same stream, but out in the open, no trees nearby, I was landing a smallmouth bass that took my perdigon nymph. Standing on the shore, I reached back to slide the bass into my net, and got the rod tip tangled in a wild rose bush. I was closer this time and was able to grab the leader below the bush and slide the bass into the net, and quickly release it.
      I guess its hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but I’ll keep trying!

      Peter G – Batavia, Illinois

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