Three steps for success when you go fly-fishing

Let’s assume that you have come into the possession of the basic accouterments to start fly-fishing: rod, reel, line, backing, leader, tippet and some flies (aka “stuff”).

Let’s further assume you have participated in some basic form of “how to fly-fish” instruction. This instruction most likely came from a book, video or well-intentioned friend. But, somewhere in all the stuff and instruction, the skills to catch fish was lost.

Well, being a self-appointed fly-fishing consultant, I am going to help you in your quest to catch fish.

I believe after learning a basic cast there are three areas that need to be mastered to make you a successful fly fisherman. They are, in order of importance: presentation, line management and fly selection.

Presentation is more than just casting your fly onto the water. You have to be able to put the fly where the fish are, and do it in a manner that will trick them into eating your fly. If it were that simple, all the fish in all the lakes and rivers would have been caught a long time ago.

To practice your presentation, I suggest you start on a grassy area casting at paper plates. When you can hit the plate 10 out of 10 times, replace the plate with a cup. It can be a large cup, just smaller than the plate.

After the large cup is easy to hit, go to a smaller cup. Now, practice this presentation at different distances. Once various distances are easy practice with wind as part of the exercise – not just a gentle breeze from behind you; find West Texas-style wind from all directions.

Now move to a stream. Cast to rocks, fallen leaves, anything that will give you a target. You will be amazed how being in a stream will make it harder to achieve the perfect presentation.

Line management is next. It’s one thing to bounce a fly off your target; now you need to know how to make it behave like a real bug. Mending and having the right amount of line out are paramount. Simply put, a mend keeps the line from dragging the fly through the water so fast no fish with half a brain will be fooled. Even if you’re casting to a really stupid fish, the fly will be moving too fast to be caught.

The amount of line you have stripped off the reel is also important. If you have 40 feet of line wrapped around your legs as you attempt a 20-foot cast, it ain’t gonna work. Be sure you have only enough line out to make the cast. It is embarrassing to make the presentation, mend the line just right, then miss the set on a 20-inch trout, simply because you have too much line in the water.

Now, how do you know the correct fly to select? This is a tough question.

Ask any 10 guides and you will get 10 well-thought-out reasons to pick a certain fly. There also are books about how to pick the correct fly. I think the best one on the market is Dave Whitelock’s, A Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods. It is 210 pages long, and goes into such detail it can be confusing. I have read his book, underlined some of the suggestions and spent more time than my wife thought was necessary trying out various ideas presented in the book.

To keep you in good graces at home I have simplified the formula to just two variables: size and then color. I am a firm believer that first you need to match a fly to the size of the bugs around the water. Then to close the deal, match your flies color to what you’re seeing. Try those three steps and see if your fish count doesn’t improve. If it doesn’t, I’ll be happy to refer you to another consultant.

Reach Don Oliver at