By Gary Borger:

For some reason, the “romance” of fly fishing often dictates the angler’s choice of gear, clothing, flies and tactics. But we need to remember that the fish is not out to catch fly rodders. The fish is a wild animal simply trying to make it another day, and subject to the same three biological drives that influence every living organism. The prime biological imperative is protection. Second comes nourishment. Third is reproduction of the species. Put simply, these three, in order of life-importance to the organism, are (1) Save your butt, (2) Fill your Gut and (3) Have kids. 

Predators always understand that by far the number one biological drive of the prey organism is to save its butt. Fly fishers seem to be more focused on the second imperative: fill your gut. They seem to think that fish would rather eat than scurry for cover at the first sign of danger. Thus, fly rodders tend to spook more fish than they should, often times without even knowing that they did. 

There are those who say no talking while fishing. Talking does not spook fish; the people who tell others to be quiet just want quiet for themselves. So talk if you want. There are, however, several things that we do as fly rodders that really do spook fish, any one of which, for the fish, is a top fear-inducing activity. 

Clothing selection can be very significant. Fish are not fashion conscious, unless we can say that they don’t like clothing colors that fail to line up with the nature surroundings. Charlie Brooks illustrated this very nicely with his gear. An air force major, Charlie moved to West Yellowstone, Montana, upon retirement. He had visited there many times before, and figured it was the best place in the contiguous United States to consistently catch big trout. 

On his many visits, he learned of a fly fisher that the locals called “Old Monotone.” Seems that this person caught more big fish than anyone else. He was so dubbed because he wore camouflaged clothing, hat and face paint, polished the shiny finish off his fly rod, used a black reel and brown line, and could cast lying on his stomach. Other anglers would see him playing big fish, but rarely saw him actually fishing because of his clandestine nature and coloration. Charlie really wanted to meet “Old Monotone” because Charlie loved to catch big fish, and admired anyone who would go to such lengths to be the ultimate predator. But no one knew who he was, and they had no way of getting in touch with him.

One day, he was having lunch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and another angler came in and said that he had seen “Old Monotone” earlier in the day fishing at Mule Shoe Bend on the Firehole in Yellowstone Park. Seems like ”Old Monotone” had landed a very nice brown about mid morning. The only reason that the fly fisher had seen “Old Monotone” was because the splashing of the fighting fish has caught his attention. Charlie was stunned. No wonder he couldn’t meet “Old Monotone,” he was “Old Monotone.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to go to “Old Monotone’s” lengths to be a good predator. But certainly wearing clothing that blends in with the environment is a good place to start as a predator. There are no fluorescent orange lions for a reason.

Ozzie Ozefovich produced a most revealing DVD on what fish see of anglers. In the DVD, his brother Joe stands 30 feet from the underwater camera wearing a green hat. One has to look hard to see him. Then he puts on a white hat. It’s like a neon sign. Instantly, one can see the need to be nature-neutral in clothing colors. 

And then there are several aspects of line delivery that can spook fish. (1) Excessive false casting. (2) Casting with the line too high above the surface. (3) Poor casting accuracy. (4) A poor pickup.  (5) Associated with casting is line and leader flash and rod flash.

Excessive false casting is a trait inherited from the early days of single-hand rod casting (from about 1850 onward). In those days, rod action was quite soft in order to protect the rather delicate, gut tippets. Fly rodders had no fly floatants of any real value, and the fly line was braided silk. False casting became a very necessary activity to flick water out of the fly and the line, and the slow rod action necessitated quite a few false casts to manage this.

Today we have great floatants, plastic coated lines and graphite rods. Flicking water out of the fly is done with basically a one or two false cast effort. And if one knows the “C” pickup, then false casts are unessential. The rod tip is snapped around quickly in a “C” movement—starting at the top of the “C” and ending at the bottom. The rod is then immediately lifted into the backcast. The line pops off the surface and the fly snaps around, popping all the water out of it. Only a few false casts, or none, means the fish has far less chance of seeing the aerial line.

In this same regard, many fly casters seem to think that the rod must be held vertically for every cast. This is another left over from the early days of casting development that has no place in modern fly fishing. Casting with the rod vertical keeps the line very high above the surface, and therefore much more visible to the fish. My fishing cast is typically an elliptical stroke with the rod tipped 30 to 45 degrees out to the casting arm side. In this position, the line travels lower over the surface, requiring less time for it to drop to the surface at the completion of the cast. Less time means the fish has less chance of seeing flash from the rod, line and leader, and less time for the wind to influence its movement. Pay attention to this aspect of staying unnoticed by the fish.

Casting accuracy is simply essential, but many fly fishers spend little or no time practicing this necessary skill. Dropping the fly on the fish’s head usually spooks it, and not being able to get the imitation in the fish’s feeding lane is not only frustrating but a real time-waster. Casting beyond the fish’s feeding lane, and dragging a dry over its head, can put fish down or put them on alert. 

Target practice with hula hoops laid out at a variety of distances from the caster is a great way to develop accuracy. Two stakes a foot apart can greatly improve lateral accuracy. The fly rodder casts the line between the stakes from a variety of distances. Casting to a wall or other similar structure from a variety of distances can greatly improve distance accuracy. Try it when shooting line, also. 

Ripping the fly off the surface with a poor pickup can be a very definite fish-spooker. There are ways to avoid sloppiness in lifting the line. Start slowly and get the fly moving before increasing line speed at the start of the backcast. If the leader sinks, a fast lift can cause a dry fly to dive under and make a loud popping sound. This can certainly spook or put fish on alert. Using the “C” pickup described above is probably the smoothest way to get the fly up off the water with the least disturbance. 

Line flash and leader flash can most definitely be seen by the fish, and can be minimized by using lines that are more earth tone in color—greens, tans, olives, even blue. Hot orange, yellow and red lines flash more than their earth-tone cousins. When Ozzie shot his DVD, he had one section that showed the line flicking back and forth overhead. The leader actually created more flash than the line. Interestingly, I use Maxima Chameleon (MC) for the butt section and tapered section of the leader. In the air, MC looks black and has no flash. I did not know this when I began using MC in my leader designs (in the late 1960s), but I will certainly continue to use it for just that reason.

Walking the shoreline like an overweight elephant is not the smartest tactic. Sounds generated by walking on shore can definitely be transmitted into the water, especially if the bank is soggy or extends out over, and is in contact with the surface. The fly rodder should be stalking the fish, not giving it every opportunity to flee. 

In the same regard, wading like a wounded hippo is not the smartest move, either. Sloppy wading generates displacement waves (the ripples and waves that are generated). Fish detect these with their highly sensitive lateral line mechanism. Such displacement waves are a sure sign that a predator is close, and are one of the best ways to spook fish, especially in quiet water areas. In fast-water areas like riffles and rapids, displacement waves are immediately swept away, and of no concern to fish. But in pools, flats, runs and lakes, wild-eyed wading is a great mistake. Move quietly and slowly to generate as few displacement waves as possible. 

Another aspect of an improper approach is not staying low enough when getting close. To stay in the highly compressed zone at the edge of the fish’s visual window, and blend in with the background, the fly fisher has to stay under a 10-degree angle. That’s 10 degrees above the surface of the water, not 10-degrees above the bank. A 6-foot-tall angler needs to stay 34 feet away from the fish to stay under the 10-degree angle. To get closer, the angler has to crouch, or kneel or crawl on the belly. Wading is another way to decrease one’s height above the water’s surface. If the angler is up on a bank that is only 2 feet above the surface, then the 10-degree angle requires the fly fisher to stay back a long 45 feet. 

So, plan on staying low and moving slow. Don’t be overly anxious to race up on feeding fish. Now back to clothing. Wearing a white shirt, yellow rain jacket, orange hat, etc., and staying under the 10-degree angle will not decrease the fly caster’s visibility. The bright clothing will stand out strongly against any background.

While we are discussing getting close to the fish, let me remind you that taking time to stalk the fish, and then casting with the rod vertical is not the wisest move you can make. Keep the casts low. And, just getting close is not enough if you are in a poor position to make a cast, or if the cast will not position the fly in the best feed lane, or if the cast will cause the fly to drag, and so on. Think it through carefully before plotting the approach strategy. 

In lakes, fly fishers have the problem of the boat. First, sitting high in the boat or standing while casting makes the fly fisher visible to the fish. Flats fishers often complain that they have to cast so far to reach a bonefish or tarpon. With the guide up high on the poling platform and the caster standing on the bow of the boat, it’s any wonder they can ever get close enough to make any length cast. I much prefer to wade the flats when bottom composition with allow it. I’ve caught many bones within easy casting distance while wading.

Then too, there’s the problem of bow displacement. Trying to get close to fish on the flats, or in lakes when the fish are up near the surface, can be problematic because the displacement pressure of the boat can be detected by the fish. On the flats, displacement pressure spells shark to the bones. In lakes, trout are not concerned when they are feeding several feet deep, but when feeding near the surface, bow pressure displacement-vibrations can spell predator. Flats fishers using kayaks find they can get much closer to the fish because the caster is lower in the water, and the kayak has a small bow displacement. Float tubes are highly successful watercraft in lakes because of the same two reasons. When float tubing, I’ve had surface feeding fish swim toward me, duck under me and continue feeding behind me. 

Don’t spook the fish with bad angling habits. Paying attention to good predatory skills goes a long way toward a more successful day. 

Episode #: 29 (click to listen)
Duration: 1 hr 23 min
Topics Discussed: The impact of “A River Runs Through It”, the man behind the books, what the industry used to look like.
Buy Gary’s Books and DVDs: PresentationFishing the Film (Fly Fishing – The Book Series, 1)
Bio: Gary Borger is an important part of the fly-fishing community.  Author, instructor, presenter, and all-round wealth of knowledge, he’s been in the industry since 1971.