How To Be A Better Angler Part 3 – Pay Attention

[This is the third in a series of posts about somewhat unconventional advice for becoming a better angler. It’s not tips, tricks or tactics, as such, but suggestions for becoming an overall better angler that you might not otherwise think of.]

I fished a favourite small stream recently.

It was a beatutiful day, the sun was shining and the fish, seemingly, had taken the day off. Normally, I can tie on an elk harris caddis and pull in a fish every few casts on this stream, especially when the weather is nice and the sun is out. As you an imagine, I was a little confused.

Then, as I was walking along the to next run, I saw a stonefly nymph husk on the a rock near the water’s edge. Then I saw another one.

Without wasting any time, I dug out my stonefly pattern–something I apparently need to get more of–and starting drifting it down the stream.

After a few casts, I felt that always exciting tug on the end of my line and it was fish (briefly) on.

If I hadn’t noticed that husk, I probably would have spent the rest of the day tossing dries and whatever nymphs I could find, without ever even thinking about the stonefly. It wasn’t something that I had ever really fished before and, to be honest, I hadn’t even known what a stonefly was until recently, when I read this piece.

Luckily, because of all the time I had spent learning all about fly fishing, I did notice it and it paid off.

Paying attention to what is happening on (or near) the water can be one of those things that can make or break a day of fishing. Even a few minutes spent watching the water–for any rises or insect activity you might see–can mean the difference between a good day of catching fish and getting skunked.

It’s such an important lesson that it’s basically one of the major rules of fly fishing–match the hatch. In other words, if you notice a bug coming off the water, tie on an imitation. Chances are the trout are going to gorge themselves on that fly until the hatch stops.

Pay Attention to What, Exactly?

Anything and everything you can think of, frankly.

It could be something obvious like a lot of the same insect flying around, or it could be something less clear, like birds focussing all the energies on one particular part of the water.

You’re basically looking for anything that will give you an idea as to what the fish might be eating that day. For example, if you arrive at the boat launch and you see a dozen or so leeches that might be a good place to start.

To help guide your observations, here’s a few things that you should keep your eyes open for as you’re fishing:

  • nymph shucks
  • leeches swimming around (the more you see the better)
  • birds–swallows focussing their attention on one area means there’s likely some kind of hatch over that spot
  • insects you see coming off the water – some are more obvious to spot than others
  • lots of bait fish — I know a few lakes where the goto pattern is modelled after the minnow population there

How Do You Know What To Look For?

You won’t, at first.

You’re going to see all this stuff that’s just going to seem like a bunch of random things going on in the water, like the fact that you keep seeing one kind of bug or the first few fish you caught just happened to throw up the same thing.

Eventually, though, what will happen is that you’ll see something enough times, that looking for it becomes and noticing it becomes second nature. You’ll start looking for those husks on the rocks nearby or you’ll notice the plop a backswimmer makes when it hits the water.

Sometimes, it helps to pick up a rock or two near the boat launch, or from the river bed. Most of the time, you’re going to see something squirming around there. And, most of the time, what you see there is a great place to start when choosing what to put on the end of your line (same thing goes for any minnows you might be seeing near the shore).

How Does This Help?

Well, like in my example, when you notice things, it helps guide your tactics. You learn that it doesn’t make any sense at all to keep fishing dry flies, when they’re likely keyed in on nymphs.

You also learn to look for things that you might not ordinarily do, like taking a look at the piece of water that those big trout keep splashing around in, if you can–where you learn that they’re probably feasting on minnows that day.

Mostly, you just get better at reading the water, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to catch more fish. But, it does mean that you’re probably going to have better luck when you’re fishing new lakes and streams.


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