When Good Fly Fishing is Bad

When Good Fly Fishing is Bad

If you’re like me and you follow Reddit or are on any number of Facebook groups, there have been a lot of similar posts over the last year or so. They usually start off by saying something like “So, I’m a pretty good angler, but I haven’t caught ANYTHING the last few trips out.” Why is this? When does good fishing turn bad? Let’s dive into that in this article and I’ll help you troubleshoot what may be going on with your fly fishing prowess. What gives me the authority to speak on such matters? Well, I’ve been through this many times and actually feel like I may be in one of these slumps right now.

But first . . .

You set two alarms. You rolled yourself out of bed to drink your coffee set on a timer. You jump in your truck or SUV with 2 four banger River Quivers (you know, just to show others how serious you are about fly fishing). All your gear is already loaded. You take a road you’ve driven many many times before. You know exactly where you’re going. Your rods are already rigged knowing, in your mind, what will work.

You pull into the spot you’ve parked in more times than you can count. You gear up, grab your rod (maybe an extra rod to be safe), and walk past those rocks that you recognize and past those overgrown bushes that hide your favorite spot. Is Frank gonna be there this time? “Frank” is what you’ve named the fish you’ve caught no less than three times out of this particular hole.

When good fishing is bad,
 

You start in the same spot with the same rig and the same cast at the same time. Nothing. Odd, you think to yourself. You keep fishing. Nothing.

It can’t be the rig . . .or the flies . . .or the spot. . .or you, right? You absolutely crushed it the last several times you were up here. After all, you and Frank are on a first-name basis. It’s approaching noon and your net is bone dry; it hasn’t touched the water and you’re wondering why you even brought it. “What the heck is going on?!” Is this real?

You have to leave by 2 pm to pick up your kids from school. Frustration REALLY sets in. Your casts suck now. You’re more annoyed than anything else. You’re missing the birds flying overhead and the wonderful smells of nature. At 1:45, you hang your head in defeat and walk back to the parking lot. The 2 four bangers are now almost an embarrassment. “I’m not deserving of that,” you say to yourself. “I don’t even deserve the rods or rods I have in my hand.”

Then it happens again. Maybe you catch one fish, but it took you all day. Then maybe even again. You debate giving up your favorite hobby and scraping off those 17 fly fishing stickers off your back window. Good fishing has turned bad.

Don’t fret, friend! I got you. Let’s dive into why good fishing may turn bad and how to fix it so you can justify a 3rd River Quiver.

 

Weather

This one has nothing to do with you. You have to talk to God and go to church to even attempt to change this one. Weather has a huge impact on fly fishing. It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing in some high alpine lake, a local tailwater, or the flats, weather can be king. Now, I’ll tell you, fish have to eat, but their habits can change almost by the hour. Ever wonder why you start getting more takes when the clouds set in.

Well, the clouds provide more cover so they feel like they can eat more freely. Remember, trout, in particular, want oxygen, food, and cover with the least amount of effort. Cold snaps or warmups change the water temperatures which can easily change when and where the fish are eating or holding.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time. Fly fishing keeps us humble whether we like it or not.

Seasons

Seasons matter too. Fish do different things based on the seasons and time of year. Sure, this has to do with weather and water temps too, but the time of year can change everything. Remember, in our western waters, the Brown Trout run to spawn in the fall (usually toward the end of October) and the Rainbows run in the spring.

Interestingly, the Rainbows hone in on the browns because they want to eat their eggs and vice versa. This one simple thing can change the way a river fishes entirely. Side note, don’t EVER fish a Redd (a trout’s spawning bed) unless you want someone to burst into your bedroom on those special nights to rip you away from your significant other, make you fight for your life, and then leave you exhausted down the street.

Maybe you felt like you were crushing it in the spring, but now it’s summer and those fish are up in the riffles, or the bugs have changed. Being an amazing angler one day doesn’t make you one the next, but it definitely doesn’t make it you an amazing angler year-round.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last season.

Flows and Water Temp

You drove 2 hours to try that freestone. You crushed it, of course, because you’re awesome. You go again two weeks later and nothing. Why? The flows have dropped (seemingly overnight) and the water is warmer. This matters. Remember, fish are cold-blooded. Their metabolisms are directly tied to their body temp. Fun fact, Brown Trout have a slower metabolism than Rainbows. In addition to that, high water temps can mean lower suspended oxygen.

Fish don’t stop eating, but they may not eat as much as they used to or they’re eating something different entirely. Remember, many of the insect hatches in our streams are determined by time of year and water temperature. Caddis generally need a water temperature of 54 degrees to hatch, for example. Higher flows can mean more suspended oxygen, but those fish will often be pushed behind structure, to the bottom, or near the banks so that they don’t have to work as hard.

These things matter. You should start looking at flows before you go to any stream or river. Not that it will guarantee anything, but it will give you an idea. I also started carrying a Fishpond Thermometer in my front pocket of my waders so that I can check the water temp when I get to the river and then throughout the day if I notice a change in something such as fish rising or the bite totally dying off.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time. Weird, is this solution the same as the others?

Bugs

“I have to match the hatch!” “Are you fishing that size 22 RS2 in grey or olive?” Do bugs matter? Yeah, they do, although most guides, including myself, will tell you that fish eat a good drift more than they eat one type of fly in a particular size or color. However, the hatch does matter. Just because you caught a mess of fish on that size 18 JuJu Baetis last week, it may not work this week.

Most rivers have the same bugs year-round, but they can be in different life phases and the fish can be honed in on something different. I remember a few years ago that black bunny leeches were where it was at. It seemed like 2/3 fish I caught were on those. Red leeches didn’t work. White was questionable. Antron leeches didn’t work at all. I spent an entire winter tying up as many bunny leeches in black as I possibly could and then, nothing.

I caught maybe 5 fish that next season on a black bunny leech. Why? I don’t know exactly. They were the same fly used in the same river at the same locations. I still caught a lot of other fish, but not on those. Perhaps there were fewer leeches in the river. Perhaps so many other anglers were using leeches that the fish became wise to our collective tactics. I don’t know.

Bugs change week to week, month to month, season to season, and year to year. Seine the river if you need to. Try new colors and patterns. I learned recently from a study out of Pennsylvania that 60% of a trout’s diet is exploratory. This explains why when I was a kid and used to keep my fish I would find sticks and other weird things in a trout’s stomach.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time.

Same old same old

When good fishing is bad, an excited man holding a fly fishing net with a stick in it

We’re all guilty of this one. We absolutely crushed it in this one spot last time, or the last several times, and we just keep going back regardless of how well it’s fishing now. Fish don’t leave the stream entirely, but they do move around in the stream.

I know someone, who will remain nameless, who had several lights-out days back-to-back in this one spot on the South Platte. He kept going back again, and again, and again . . . and again even though he was getting skunked each time. We get stuck in what we know, and we want that same success without the effort. I had to remind this particular person that he had worked to find that spot. He put in the river miles. It was time for him to walk some more.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time.

Cockiness

I’ve not only run into these guys on the river over the years, but I’ve even been one myself. Cocky anglers are their own worst enemy. Are there those anglers who can catch a fish in a parking lot? Absolutely. Usually, they’re humble, though. Cocky anglers, on the other hand, had one good day or a great season. Either way, they think that they can do no wrong by the River Gods and they think that their fishing has more to do with some innate quality of theirs, as opposed to a skill they mastered or the amount of time they invested in learning.

Some of you may feel a little convicted. Have you trolled someone in a parking lot who had a bad day by telling them that you “only” landed 19 fish? Have you stopped to lecture someone on how they should be fishing or what they could be doing better? Don’t worry. All is not lost. If you’re reading this article, you probably started having some bad days again. It does ebb and flow, but most importantly, you stopped learning. You stopped putting in the effort. You got cocky, and you may have angered the River Gods.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time.

Changing and Adapting

This encompasses several of the previous paragraphs. In fly fishing, we have to continue to change and adapt. I’ve not had one season of fly fishing (or fishing in general) that has been the same as the previous season. I’ve fished spots that are epic one season and are just okay the next. I’ve seen runs that have perfect river structure before the runoff and then they’re filled with silt after runoff has passed. COVID showed how impactful stocking programs can be on a stream when the Division of Wildlife wasn’t able to stock the way they were before and the brown trout population in the hatcheries had a disease.

Nothing is static in fishing. Stocking, weather, angling pressure, collective fly selection, new types of fly fishing, river changes, temperatures, and so much more all interplay with each other. Where this hurts us as anglers and makes good fishing turn bad, is when we don’t adapt and change with it. This is really one of the things that makes it fun, right? Fly fishing would be pretty boring if it was exactly the same every day.

I took my brother and father-in-law on a guided float trip this year down one of the most scenic river sections in the United States earlier this year. I could have rowed them in my own drift boat (another blog article is forthcoming), but I wanted to fish too. Everyone caught a mess of fish, but it took a few hours and our guides were struggling first thing in the morning.

I chatted with my guide about this after lunch. He said, “Well, this time last year, these flies were working really well, but today it’s sunnier, the flows are up slightly, and it’s way less windy than it has been the last week or so.” He switched out 5 or so flies (sizes, colors, and shapes) after the first slow hour of the morning before we started getting into them. He also rigged us with a dry dropper when it was nymphing for the last month or so. Our guide was changing and adapting.

Had he simply said, “Well, this is what we were using yesterday and last year, so we’re sticking with it,” our fishing would have been terrible. How do I know? I talked to some other clients from other guide outfits at the river takeout. One boat landed only one fish, and another landed three. When they asked me, I said “a few” because I didn’t want to embarrass their guides or appear cocky in any way.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time.

Overthinking

Fly fishing is a “thinking” hobby. We’re supposed to think analytically. We’re supposed to work through problems and find a solution. This is probably why so many engineers like fly fishing. With that said, we can turn good fishing into bad fishing when we overthink it. Overthinking leads to frustration. I’ve heard countless stories of people breaking their $500 rods over their knees or chucking them into the river.

It wasn’t fly fishing, but my brother was on a pier in Virginia. The angler next to him hadn’t caught anything when everyone else around him had filled their buckets. This now-frustrated angler walked over to my brother and offered my brother his entire setup for $5 because he said he was NEVER doing this again.

We’ve all been there. We want to quit. This is usually because we’re overthinking it. Remember, your trout has a brain the size of a pea. We don’t need to think that much, but we do need to be analytical. Sometimes the proper analysis is recognizing that today is not the day or that something may be going on that we cannot control.

A few years ago, I was guiding a few clients on the South Platte by Deckers. The water was gin-clear and the flows were extremely low. The fish were in there, but those we could see were so spooky that anytime we got within casting distance, it was like someone put caffeine in the river and they were darting from bank to bank.

I could have tried to teach my clients to cast farther, tied on a 15-foot leader, or employed something else unconventional. That wasn’t the solution. I didn’t need to overthink it. These fish were freaked out because they had no protection. They weren’t going to eat because protection and cover were primary. We walked downstream and started fishing where we couldn’t see the bottom of the river or any fish for that matter. We netted several fish and they had a great day. Don’t overthink it. Start thinking of this as trout hunting and not trout fishing. In hunting, you have to think proactively. Fishing, you’re sitting and waiting.

Your solution is to stay curious and work through it analytically instead of relying on how good you were last time.

The Last Cast

Good fishing is always good until it’s not. Good fishing can be bad when we lose sight of some of the basics. I’m also a firm believer that in fly fishing, as in life, we need to fail sometimes. We need to have our butts handed to us. This allows us to appreciate the good days. Otherwise, we’d have no point of reference.

I had to guide clients recently and we ended up on Boxwood Gulch totally by ourselves because the other clients who were supposed to be there had to cancel. We had this epic private section all to ourselves. We could jump around, target specific fish, and do pretty much anything we wanted to do. We caught a ton of fish. Although we usually do well on private water, I reminded her that she would likely never find this type of fishing on public water.

As I’m writing this article, I’m reminded of a day of fly fishing that I had with my father-in-law a few years ago. We were on one of Colorado’s tailwaters. The weather was overcast and the flows were down. We got there late and only had a few hours to fish. I caught 62 fish and he caught 42 fish.

We caught so many fish that we were tying on new flies because they were falling apart. We caught so many fish we actually got kind of bored after the giddiness wore off. The next time we fished that stretch, we put a few in the net, but nothing like that. I’ve not had anything like that on that tailwater since. There were a ton of factors at play, but what I know is that the hard days that followed on that river made me appreciate that day even more.

Don’t let good fishing turn bad. Stay curious. Stay analytical. Remember to have fun. Know there will be factors out of your control. Learn something new every time you go out. Don’t ever be a braggart in the parking lot. Keep good fishing . . . good.

Call us now to book a guided fly fishing trip to help you get back to good fly fishing.

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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