Pro Tip: Keep Your Fly in the Water!


If you’re walking downstream, let your line drift or swing below you.
Photo via Orvis Fly Fishing Learning Center

There’s an old saying among fishermen: You can’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water. I believe that this is one of the reasons that wives often outfished their more-experienced husbands on float trips when I guided on the Yellowstone and in Alaska. Whereas the husband recognized every great trout lie the boat floated past and felt the need to cast to all of them, the wife was generally more content to keep a given drift going as long as possible. Every time the husband picked up his line and started false-casting, he was taking himself out of the game. (Of course, this is a gross generalization not meant to discount any accomplished female fly fishers out there, including lots in this building.)

Novice fly fishermen 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.

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 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.

The first fly I ever tied was a Devil Bug, which I immediately took down to the Yellowstone for a test drive. After about 15 minutes of fruitless casting, I decided to 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 fly, and I never would have caught it if my fly had been in my hand.

12 thoughts on “Pro Tip: Keep Your Fly in the Water!”

  1. Great advice…the first fish that I caught on a fly happened the same way. My fly was hanging in the current while I contemplated changing flies, I decided to stick with what I had and when I went to lift my line something pulled back.

    1. Same here, had a small olive adams on, was letting it hang downstream while looking in my little box and wackooo

  2. That is how I caught my first Battenkill trout – totally unintentionally – a beetle just hanging a few feet below me in the surface while I was wasting time and energy trying to figure out what to use next .

  3. I learned this one very windy day on Utah’s green river. I was more focused on walking quietly and not slipping, keeping the fly in the water was a no brainer not only because of the wind, but also because fish kept hooking themselves.

  4. First decent sized fish I caught was because of this tactic. I had been missing strikes all over the river, and was pretty frustrated. I started walking upstream to what looked like a fishy spot, dragging my fly behind me. Went to make a cast, and wham a 14 inch brown had taken my fly. I was shocked. Great advice.

  5. That’s a lesson that my father taught me and I’ll never forget it.

    When I was a kid, I’d spend more time exploring in the woods than fishing.
    Dad says.. “you can’t catch a fish if your line’s not in the water”
    I figured I’d show him…I walked away, going up stream, dragging my fly in the water as I went
    Bam !

  6. Thanks for the reminder. Last fall sitting in my lil 7ft punt I left my line in in the water out of laziness to reel it in while I poured a coffee and grabbed a snack. No sooner did I pour the coffee I heard that beautiful whiz of my line running. A 10min play and landed a nice 3lb rainbow trout. Wouldn’t have caught it if I hadn’t had my line in the water jsut hanging there!

  7. When walking upstream I am a great fan of ” Hike and Strike”. Trailing a weighted fly that mimics my step works quite often. As you move upstream there is always a pause as you check out next step or look for a rising fish. The fly drops during the pause and then pops and swims a foot or so, then falls. Kind of like teasing a cat until they pounce.

  8. In a similar style, I stepped off a ledge and was flailing to swim across a narrow stream. As I stepped ashore..yes I had a trout on the line. Interesting technique, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a regular basis.

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