Classic Pro Tip: Keep Your Fly In the Water

Your chances of catching a gorgeous trout like this increase the longer your fly is in the strike zone.
Photo by Shawn Combs

There’s an old saying among anglers: You can’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the less avid angler often outfished their more-experienced partner on float trips when I guided on the Yellowstone and in Alaska. Whereas the “experienced” angler recognized every great trout lie the boat floated past and felt the need to cast to all of them, the novice was generally more content to keep a given drift going as long as possible. Every time the avid angler picked up their line and started false-casting, they were taking themselves out of the game.

Novice fly fishers should take this to heart . . . and take it to the extreme. Unless you are casting or changing flies, keep your fly in the water. If you need to adjust your sunglasses, take off your jacket, or blow your nose, don’t stop fishing. Simply let your fly drift, swing, and hang in the current. Anytime the fly is in the water, a fish might eat it.

A Devil Bug was the first pattern I ties myself and then used to catch a fish. Click here to learn how to tie it.

This is true even when you’re moving to another spot (as long as difficult wading isn’t required). Cast your fly, and then work your way up- or downstream. If you’re walking upstream, your fly will be dragging behind you, and every longtime angler has a story about catching fish by “trolling” this way. If you’re walking downstream, stay several yards behind the fly, and let it drift naturally for as long as you can. When it starts to drag, cast again and repeat the process until you get to the next spot.

The first fly I ever tied was a traditional Maine pattern called the Devil Bug, which was taught to me by Jim Thibodeau, a fellow guide at Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in Montana. Immensely proud of my new creation, I immediately took it down to the Yellowstone River for a test drive. After about 15 minutes of fruitless casting, however, I decided that the pattern was crap and I should change flies. As I perused my fly box, I allowed my line to hang in the current directly downstream. Before I could decide on a replacement pattern, a 17-inch brown whacked the dangling Devil Bug and hooked itself. Not a bad fish for my first self-tied fly, and I never would have caught it if my fly had been in my hand.

13 thoughts on “Classic Pro Tip: Keep Your Fly In the Water”

  1. Great advice. I caught my first Flounder on the fly as I was walking off a flat to go to lunch; my line ‘trolling’ behind me dragging a #2 clouser.

  2. So true. My wife and I are relative newbies. Both of us have caught fish while fiddling with something else. Of course, in our case it was more of an accident than a strategy, but who cares!

  3. caught 3 browns this summer on zebra midges hanging back in the current. after all the talk about dead drifts it really had me rethinking everything.

  4. I was on my local spring creek one evening back in June when I got a phone call. The water was somewhat muddy from recent rain, so I had been high-sticking and dead-drifting a #12 white Woolly Bugger. I answered my phone and let my fly hang in the current below me. It had been hanging in the same area for about 2 minutes, and I was wrapping up the call, when a nice rainbow hit my fly. Unfortunately, I was holding my phone with my right hand, and the lefthand downstream hookset was a fail.

  5. You may catch a fish by letting your fly hang in the water, but it sure as hell doesnt feel as good as when your actually trying!!

  6. I actually just had this happen yesterday – fishing a clear, cold, calm pool and I really wasn’t expecting a bite, just getting my casting warmed up with a dry. I cast, let it drift by where I thought the fish should be, then turned my attention upstream to a next likely spot. Still looking upstream, I tugged on the line to cast and it didn’t come, courtesy of a 12 inch brown that’d come out of nowhere!

  7. Was on the Yellowstone back in early 70s and got into the cutthroats like crazy. Were going for fly drifting 5 ft below me. Only trouble they were like clones,every one 14in,no variance at all. Never thought fishing could get boring,but was like a trout farm. Nothing like this devil river,Truckee, toughest water ever fished.

    1. not bad form if you’re playing hooky– successfully. One might be surprised just how many important meetings can be taken while hip deep in the Hooch instead of in Midtown Atlanta. Don’t ask me how I know.

    2. Yeah, but sometimes it’s a child or a loved one, and I admit it is bad form, but for me, family is always more important than fishing.
      I’ll finish with this, watch your own indicator (bobber).

  8. Twice I’ve had very nice Smallies hit my fly while I was sitting in a kayak on a Canadian lake with the fly resting on the surface 30′ from me.

    Both times the fly was a Dahlberg Diver and I had not moved the fly for 3+ minutes. On one ocassion I was sipping a beer and contemplating my next move…

  9. I’d love to disapprove of this…but I recall catching a very large wild brown on a cricket pattern on the fabled Letort (where catching ANYTHING is a real achievement) while I walked to another spot. Turns out the cricket was skittering just perfectly through a riffle I’d covered well (I thought) and it my fly got hammered. I’ll never forget that. Lesson learned.

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