Ask the Experts: What is the Most Common Fly-Fishing Mistake?

Knowing how to cast is important, but so is knowing when to stop casting and start fishing.
Photo by Sandy Hays

A while ago, we asked you to pose some questions for our panel of experts. Our latest question for them to chew on is: “What is the single most common mistake you see your clients make, and what can I do to avoid it? Their answers are below.

Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Co. (Troy, Montana):
The single most common mistake clients make? Clients make too many false casts.  You can’t refute the fact that fish are caught with flies in the water. If you have an angler in the front of the boat who makes one false cast and puts the fly right back on the water, and the angler in the back of the boat makes two false casts every time, theoretically and all things being equal, the angler in the front of the boat will have his fly on the water twice as much throughout the day. You could reasonably assume that will translate into more strikes.

The remedy for overzealous false casting is simple. As a guide, I keep a Taser gun right next to me. If a guest makes more than one false cast, I let them have it. Generally it only takes a shot or two and the problem is solved. This method is tried and true. But keep in mind if you’re a guide and decide to employ the Taser method, be sure to have your feet planted firmly on the rubber mat each time you let it rip. One time, the bottom of the boat was wet, and I gave the guy in the front of the boat a good jolt. Seems the current traveled the length of the boat and hit me and the guy in the back. Later that day, one of my guides wondered why he saw the three of us slumped over and floating downstream with a fog of smoke surrounding the boat. I told him it was the Hibatchi.

Joe Demalderis, Cross Current Guide Service (Milford, Pennsylvania):
A very common error I see is when a dry-fly angler makes a cast that is close (e.g. short), but not close enough, and then rips the fly off the water to make another cast. Almost always, this results in the fish being spooked. Instead of ripping your fly off the water, let it float by the fish and only then pick it up. Now you can make another cast to the same fish that’s clueless as to what’s going on.

Mike Canady, Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington):
I think one of the biggest mistakes that guests make isn’t really a mistake in the way they fish or any technical aspects. Instead, it is the guests not being up-front and honest with their guide. Every morning, I ask my guests what their goals are for the trip, what they believe their skill level is, and if there are any techniques they want to get better at–such as how to mend better, or how to throw tighter loops, or even read water.

Too many times, we hear our guests say that they are very good casters and they just want to put a bunch of fish in the boat. That is a fine goal, and I will definitely try my hardest to accomplish it. However, I think that you can get so much more from your guided trip if you just be honest with your guide in the morning and say, “Hey I have only been fishing for X amount of years, I really want to catch some fish, but I would also like to learn how to do X better during the guide trip.”

The way that I look at it is that you are paying good money and spending your valuable time when hiring a guide, so you might as well get all you can out of the day. I always feel that if I can help a guest become a better angler in some way during their time out with me and they can go out later and put that knowledge to use the next time they go fishing, then I have done my job.

Capt. Chuck Hawkins, Hawkins Outfitters (Traverse City, Michigan):
Streamer fishing: Angler recast to the same area immediately after making a cast that fell a foot short.

Dry-fly fishing: Anglers don’t control the line to eliminate drag and don’t cast to the lane where the fish rose–meaning they don’t properly mark a rising fishes location

Nymphing: Anglers take their eye off the indicator.

Overall: Anglers don’t work to continually improve their casting.

Capt. Dave Pecci, Obsession Charters (Charlotte Harbor, Florida):
The most common thing I run into as a saltwater guide is inadequate casting. Most anglers have trouble casting in windy conditions and achieving the necessary distance.

You can avoid casting issues by working with a casting instructor and practicing prior to your trip. If you don’t have your own equipment, go to a fly shop and try out demo rods with a store associate. If you do that, the responsibility for a fun and successful fishing trip falls on me as your guide.

Capt. Lucas Bissett, Low Tide Fly Fishing Guide (Slidell, Louisiana):
Lack of preparation prior to the trip. Many customers come onto my boat without having picked up a fly rod since their last trip.

Doc Thompson, High Country Anglers (Ute Park, New Mexico):
There are a few reoccurring things I see on the water. One of the biggest is anglers spooking fish.  This comes in many forms, from crashing casts to noisy wading to dragging drifts, etc. Narrowing it down, I would say on the smaller rivers and streams it is spooking fish from noisy or fast wading practices, when the actual wading spooks fish one or two pools up. I often remind people that it doesn’t matter how great a cast or drift you make; if the trout already knows you’re there, it won’t eat. The easiest way to solve this is to slow down and move along or through the water slowly and quietly.

Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips (Monticello, Minnesota):
This is perhaps the easiest question we’ve been asked so far. It’s all about casting, when it really come down to it. We have a big fall get-together called Musky Camp. Fellow guides and friends gather for four or five days of musky fishing. This is one of the rare times that I get to fish each year.

I was in the bow of the boat, my son was in the back, and my good friend Jon was on the sticks.  We drifted down the river throwing chicken flies. I was really struggling with my cast. My son barked at me from the back,  “Dude your casting sucks.” Well, it did. As I sat there pouting, it dawned on me: Hey I don’t fish much anymore, so how can I really be as good at it as I once was? The moral of the story is that no matter how long you’ve been fly fishing, you still need to practice. Let’s be honest: we’re not as good as we think we are. It took a smart-mouth 15-year-old boy to prove the point to me.

Maggie Mae Monaghan, The Tackle Shop Outfitters (Ennis, Montana):
Fly fishing is one of those sports where you are constantly learning each time you’re out.  As a counselor and guide, I find mistakes to be things that will help you to learn and grow. Here are the three most common mistakes that get us learning when out with a novice angler.

Strong knots: I get many clients who want to learn to tie on their own flies, which is so great! We usually start with an improved clinch knot, which can be used for just about any size and type of fly. The angler will learn very quickly if that knot is tied well; the first time you lose a fish to a poorly tied knot, you’ll find yourself becoming a knot tying expert!

Fly Choice: Many clients (especially kiddos) want to dig through my fly boxes and pick their own flies. Most want to put on something pleasing to the eye, like a big flashy streamer.  A quick entomology lesson about what is hatching or how trout are selective feeders usually lets the client know we need to switch up our fly to match the hatch.

Good presentation: My saying in my boat is “You can’t catch fish in the air!” Some novice anglers think you need to be a great caster to catch fish. This is not true. We work on a natural presentation and keeping that fly in or on the water as much as possible. Once they understand that we’re trying to imitate a certain bug and provide the most realistic drift possible, they find themselves getting into fish.

Capt. Tony Biski, Monomoy Fly Fishing (Harwichport, Massachusetts):
Too often, anglers cast to the same spot over and over. I telll them to fan their casts to cover more water.

Stefan Woodruff, , Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington):
One of the biggest mistakes I see clients make in my boat is not letting their flies fish. As much fun as casting a fly rod is, most fish are caught in the water, not in the air! Maximizing the amount of time the fly is in the zone–especially when dead-drifting dry flies or nymph rigs–means mending effectively and efficiently to achieve the longest drift possible, which will in turn show your flies to more fish. Unless your only goal is to look like Brad Pitt in “The Movie.” Then, by all means, cast away!

36 thoughts on “Ask the Experts: What is the Most Common Fly-Fishing Mistake?”

    1. Parachute Adams, small woolly buggers, hares ears and black foam beetles have been some of my best brookie flies.

  1. “The remedy for overzealous false casting is simple. As a guide, I keep a Taser gun right next to me. If a guest makes more than one false cast, I let them have it.”

    Great idea. I wonder if Orvis could build one into a rod? Swing it too many times and ZAP!

  2. When walk/wade fishing stay out of the water as much as possible and only when necessary for a casting advantage! Your spooking the fish dude!

  3. Good comments and I particularly like Canady’s remarks. It’s almost a given, if a client starts off telling you how great he is, you just know it going to be a long long day (true hunting, also!)! I would add not taking the time to study the water they’re about to fish and wading where they ought to be fishing.

  4. After 68 years a fly fisher, I have fished the Bahamas, the Carib, Mexico, coastal Maine, RI, Mass, Conn, NJ, and
    interior sweetwater, PA, NY,NJ,N Carolina,practically all over. I will always listen to a guide, and I have been humbled even by youngsters who have said to me “Mr. , your not gonna catch a fish with that thing!!
    Your never too old to learn. Even my fly tying sucks but I don’t care I just enjoy it!!

  5. One great mistake has to be casting to water where the fish ain’t! Fast water is always a good starting point. Another is casting with flies with dull hook points. Keeping the hooks sharpened makes a big difference.

    1. Ron, Tim is actually regarded as one of the nicest guys in fly fishing. He was the 2013 Orvis Fly Fishing Guide of the Year, an award that is based mostly on customer reviews. Linehan Outfitting Company has 284 reviews on their page ( 280 of them are 5 stars, and 4 are 4 stars. There are ZERO 3-star, 2-star, or 1-star reviews. He is beloved by both his clients and other guides. He was just trying to have a little fun here.

      1. Phil, that’s all I was trying to do. I was talking with Joanne and made a comment the other day about how we can all get way too serious about this. In the end, it’s supposed to be fun. I thought folks might get a laugh and thought the ridiculousness of the comment would be obvious. Sorry if I offended anyone.

        1. I’d hire you in a second…as long as you keep that comedic approach coming all day long. I’d also recommend everyone who wants to learn to fly fish skip watching “A river runs through it”. I never caught a fish as far away as I can cast.

        2. Tim, your idea is similar to what my regular guide and I came up with. After more than 8 years, he must really be tired of saying “Set” to me so we thought maybe a dog shock collar would work and he could save his vocal cords. I keep telling him that he has crappy indicators and should get some that float and aren’t underwater every time I look for it.

    2. Hi Ron,
      Indeed I was just joking! And in this business we can all get way too serious sometimes. I was simply having fun. Forgive me if you thought I was out of line and if you think my comment was inappropriate. And send me your address and I’ll send you something I hope you’ll enjoy. And it’s not a Taser!

      1. Sorry Tim, I thought the same! I wouldn’t even get on a boat with a Taser-wielding Captain. But, I guess you had to be there, then it would be hilarious. (Until you whipped it out) LOL.

    3. I’m with Ron, who the hell wants a guide with a sense of humor? Seriously, I want my guides to have the personality of a piece of wet cardboard. If, while fishing, you’re having more fun than having the flu then you’re doing wrong. So if the guide is a nice guy with a personality making me laugh while also teaching me to be a better fly fisher then I knew he just doesn’t get it and he’s surely not getting tip form me. Fly fishing is no place for jokes. Ron, do you guide? I’d like to hire you, we would get along great just being bitter all day on the water. It would be awesome.

      1. Guides know all the best Jokes. One time I was floating with a friend, guided by about the best guide in No. Cal back in the 80’s. The guide would tell great jokes…laugh mao. My friend would try and one up him with his own jokes, which naturally feel flat. Finally after about 30 minutes of this the guide said: “Look laddie, you catch the fish, leave it to me to tell the jokes.”

  6. I cant stop laughing!
    Hank Paterson should take a lesson from Linehan.
    Fix that “snap it” problem real fast.

    Thanks for posting that Phil.

  7. On a recent trip on the Madison our guide stopped our raft in a side channel and explained how he would fish it. What I took away from that lesson was pretty simple, “fish it before you walk in it”. How many times have we waded into some fairly shallow water near the bank and seen fish take off upstream? I’ve seen it enough times to always throw my flies to spots ‘that couldn’t possibly have a fish in them’ only to get a take or a swipe at my fly.

  8. Well done Tim Linehan. You and me fishing – you could expect to be pushed in the water if you don’t shape up. Just returned from a fly fishing trip for bill fish. We had spent the two days out deep finishing off within swimming distance of the reef with ten minutes of daylight left where we achieved our boats goal.first thing guide said was he came in close so he didn’t have to swim to far, if he had congratulated me first I would have felt a bit let down. If your a great guide you deserve to bring your humour and laughs to your work place good on ya Tim. What about a series where anglers can suggest what guides can bring eg no rusty hook, no rotten tippet, a lodge that actually exists, ability to fish etc

  9. I know that I’m no expert in the art of fly fishing but I feel that the mistake most fly fishers make is not following the professional advice and tips that are given by world renowned expert fly fisher and guide Hank Patterson. Imho with out humor and laughter we tend to take ourselves to seriously and we get angry and discouraged which diminishes our love and joy of this beautiful sport.JS
    PS Please don’t become offended anyone by my post and if you are go fish it off and think of old Snap himself, it just might make you smile

  10. Most common mistake for beginners: Too much line flopping around, which means no control. Beats gratuitous false casting (GFC) by a short head.

    For intermediate anglers: GFC, by a long shot. Related to Grass Is Greener Syndrome (GIGS), in which the patent firmly believes that the Big One is on the opposite bank.

    Number two is when the angler plants himself firmly in one spot and spends the next three hours showing the same couple of flies to the same fish.

    For people who have been at it a while: Complacency.

  11. Two comments. First, Tim Linehan is an amazing guy. Very down to earth and an excellent guide / angler. And a great sense of humor. He did have to tase me twice though – I do love to false cast.

    The other is that I am surprised that only one of the experts said that bad wading is a common mistake. Perhaps it is because a lot of these folks utilize a boat more than wade fishing but in my experience (not as an expert but simply an observer) it is clear that too many anglers pay little attention to their wading skills.

    The best two anglers I know are adept at approaching big, spooky fish and putting themselves in a position to make 30 foot casts. They also have the fly on the water far more often than in the air. A fly on the water catches fish. One that is waving back and forth above the water doesn’t.

  12. I love these saucy guides! Thanks for the great tips. I do work on all the things they recommend. I am a perfect sport!

  13. This is great information. I work with a lot of women. My one comment is, women new to the sport tend to under estimate their skills. Many women I work with listen and learn but may have a lot of time between fishing because of other obligations. It is always good to take a few minutes to evaluate the clients casting and give pointers. It was one of the first guides that I hired that told me I was false casting too much and the proceeded to give me the confidence to cast the larger flies effectively.

  14. Occasionally a guide needs to be educated. Fishing Florida for peacock bass,guide says only live bait will work (very expensive there). I came to catch them on flies. Changed to flies, first two casts…two peacock bass. Made a believer of the guide, requested to use video on his website. Always something for everyone to learn.
    Tight Lines!

  15. A lot of comments about boats. Seen so many wade fisherman come barreling down the banks into the water and bomb casts. Slow down, tread lightly, and read the water before the boots get wet. My grandpa caught 3 fish to my 1 because he couldn’t move as fast, but became a huge advantage!

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