Neil Travis - Aug 16, 2017

After a person has mastered the basics of fly fishing – casting and knot tying – and has a basic knowledge of the food that fish eat, the next most important ability that they need to acquire is the ability to observe. This single ability is the most important skill that one can possess to enhance the enjoyment of and the success of any angler.

There have been volumes of words that have been written about fly casting, fly tying, how-to, where to, and when to, etc., but what is often overlooked in our eagerness to master the mechanics of fly fishing and the when and where is the is the how of discovering what the fish are actually doing. This can only be obtained by knowledgeable observation. This ability applies to all aspects of fly fishing, whether fresh or salt water. It applies to fly fishing for trout, salmon, bluegills, bass, tarpon or bonefish; in short it applies to all situations.

Consider this sentence: “As I approached the stream several fish were rising and I noticed that the birds were flying low over the water and after watching the birds for a few minutes I noticed some small dark colored mayflies over the surface of the water.” The most important part of that sentence is two words –“I noticed” – but most anglers would not have gotten that far, they would have stopped at – “several fish were rising.” Quick, there is no time to waste, tie on a fly and start casting. A few minutes of quiet observation and contemplation would prove to be far more effective than the ‘shoot from the hip and hope you hit them’ method.

When I head out to spend some time fly fishing I turn on my fly fishing mindset. I enjoy the total fly fishing experience, but I also want to fool some fish. If you think fly fishing is about catching fish you need to understand that first you have to fool them before you can catch them. In order to fool them you have to know what they are doing, what they are eating and how to present you’re offering in a way that will take advantage of that information. To get that information you need to be observant.

From the moment I arrive at the place where I intend to fish I begin to observe what is going on at that location. Since I have been fly fishing for many years this preliminary observation period is more or less subconscious. As I get my gear in order I am making a mental note of the weather – sunny, cloudy, windy, stormy – general observations that may have an impact on my fishing. I am also taking note of any obvious activity that may tell me what may be happening when I get on the water – are there any birds around, do they appear to actively chasing insects over or near the water – are there any insects flying around and are they near the water? When I get to the water I take note of the condition of the water – is it clear or cloudy, is the flow normal, high or low? I may not be consciously thinking about these things but I am observing them because I have trained myself to do so.

One of the pitfalls that many fly fishers fall into is approaching a fly fishing situation with a predetermined plan. “I’ve come to fish dry flies” but what if the fish are not feeding on dry flies? “The PMD’s should be hatching” but what if the PMD’s are not hatching? It does not matter what you think the fish SHOULD BE DOING, what matters is WHAT THE FISH ARE DOING!

When all my gear is assembled and I’m ready to begin fishing my general subconscious observations are replaced by fixed, specific observations. Now I concentrate on what is happening on the water that is before me and what I observe will determine what techniques I am going to use and what flies I am going to use with that technique. This more focused form of observation will allow me to determine what the fish are doing, and conversely what they are not doing. This may take some time but it will be time well spent, eliminating much trial and error. There is no point in fishing a size 14 dry fly if the insects that you observe the fish to be eating are size 18. This may appear to be obvious but I have been amazed at how often I encounter anglers that are fishing their favorite pattern without any regard for what the fish are eating.

However, my on-stream observations are more focused than merely noting the insects. If the fish appear to be feeding my first task is to observe how the fish are eating those insects. Are they eating the adult insects floating on the surface of the water, in the film, or just below the film? Are the insects that I can easily see the only insects that are on or in the water? Are there some less obvious food forms available that the fish are actually eating like spinners, or a small insect that is less obvious, perhaps terrestrials like ants or small beetles? Are all the fish that I observe eating the same insect and are they all feeding in the same way? Are some fish eating the adults and other fish eating the emergers? Can I use a combination that will allow me to use imitations that will imitate both the adult and the emerger? If so, how do I accomplish that? These are but a few of the question that the angler needs to answer before they can take advantage of the opportunity that is presenting itself, and the answers can only be obtained by observation.

Observation is not only important is fly fishing for fish like trout or salmon; species that may be feeding on insects. Observation is equally important when fishing in salt water and fish in ponds and lakes. While normally fish in salt water are not eating insects, they are feeding on certain other types of bait and they are feeding in certain places, at certain depths and on certain types of bait. Fish in lakes and ponds may be feeding on insects, especially if they are trout, but other species of fish require the successful angler to be observant and to take note of what is happening in the water. Whether you are fishing in fresh or salt water, streams or lakes, for trout or tarpon, the angler that spends just a few moments observing what the fish are doing will find it time well spent.

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