Neil Travis - Dec 17, 2012

It's been quite a few years since I had to apply for a job but when I was on the bench occasionally I had to interview individuals for jobs in my office. Applicants had to be able to demonstrate certain skills as part of the application process, and a certain level of proficiency was required before the applicant could be considered for the position. Since my office was completely computerized a person that was not familiar with computerized record keeping would not be able to function in that position.

I have been fishing for nearly 65 years and seriously fly fishing for over 45 of those years. Over those years I have honed a set of skills that has allowed me to enjoy the type of fly fishing that I enjoy, but there are several fly fishing skills that I am not remotely adequate to perform. For example, I'm not a distance caster. I am capable of performing the double-haul but it's not the type of cast that I use for my type of fishing. If I was required to consistently perform this type of cast, especially with a large rod and heavy line, my lack of skill would soon become very evident. In addition, it would not be enjoyable for me, and I consider that the most important point. I fish with a fly rod because I enjoy it and if I don't enjoy it or find that it's more work than pleasure I'm not inclined to spend much time doing it.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece on fishing in the Rocky Mountain West. Some of the fishing is very basic fly fishing, but to make the most of some of the fly fishing that is available an angler needs to have skills that exceed the basics.

You can catch fish on the spring creeks and the tail water streams like the Big Horn or the Missouri with just basic fly fishing skills, but on many days you will be hard pressed to catch anything with just those skills. On more than one occasion I have seen an angler surrounded by actively feeding fish and they were completely stymied because they did not have the necessary skills to catch any of the feeding fish. We have all encountered occasions when the fish seemed to have lock jaw, but it's one thing not to be able to get the fish to take your fly and its quite another to not have the skills to even have a hope of catching one.

During the summer months almost anyone can hook a trout on the Yellowstone, the Madison or one of the other freestone rivers when the trout are taking hoppers or general attractor patterns. Catching fish on these same streams during the fall months when the big fish are in the spawning mode, the water has cooled off, and the key to success is placing a big streamer right in front of their nose is an entirely different proposition. The best fishing often occurs when the weather is at the worst; snow, cold and windy. This type of fly fishing is very similar to fishing for winter steelhead on coastal streams, and requires a special set of casting skills as well as a rugged constitution. I've done it, but it seems to be a lot of work. I've done it but I don't really enjoy it so I no longer pursue it.

Salt water fishing is another specialized type of fly fishing. Fishing on the flats for such fish as bonefish, permit and redfish requires that the angler be able to cast accurately and quickly. Tarpon requires accurate casting using big rods and flies that match. Those skills are the very basic skills that an angler should have before they take the time and the money to pursue these fish.

Recently I had a friend come to visit the area and he wanted to fish the Yellowstone. When he arrived we had just experienced several days of unusually hot weather, and the river was low due to a poor snowpack and lack of rain earlier in the year. The river was not fishing very well, and the best fishing was early in the morning and from sunset until dark. Even during those times it was necessary to cover the water, and have an ability to read the water. I really did not know what skills my friend possessed, and unfortunately they were minimal. Other duties prevented me from fishing with him, and he fished the river for several days and to my knowledge he never successfully hooked and landed a single fish. On the last day of his trip he asked me a question about a casting problem that he was experiencing and when I watched him cast I quickly discovered the reason that he had not caught any fish on his trip. He simply had no casting skills. He was snapping off his flies on the back cast and he had absolutely no concept of drag, drift or presentation. Fortunately, he was just happy to be in Montana and fishing on the famous Yellowstone River.

Now my friend is an extreme example of the need for skill assessment, but I consistently see anglers come to fish in Montana that lack the necessary skills that would allow them to make the most of their trip.

Fortunately, this is not an incurable condition, but it does require an honest assessment of one's abilities. It takes a dose of humility to admit that there are certain skills that we don't possess, but admitting the problem is part of the solution. Now, during what is the off-season for many fly fishers, is a great time to hone those skills that are either rusty or non-existent. If you're planning a trip that demands being able to double haul the time to hone that skill is now and not when you're standing on the casting deck of your guide's flats boat. Maybe you just need to improve your basic casting skills, or maybe you need to improve your ability to cast accurately. Get up off the couch, push yourself away from the fly tying desk and get out there a hone those skills. You'll thank me this coming season.

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