Going fishing?

Ask yourself these questions for greater success

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

My plan was simple and well-thought-out: park at a pullout on the Gallatin River, fish a few choice pools and runs, and get shuttled back to my car by a friend a few hours later. The weather on this late January day cooperated beautifully for afternoon dry-fly angling – clear skies all morning and then cloud cover. When the clouds appeared, I shirked my afternoon responsibilities to search for fish rising to hatching midges. But like many well-laid plans, they were destined to change.

As I left the fly shop, I knew the section of river I wanted to fish. Arriving at the pullout, a fellow guide’s truck sat in the parking lot. I asked myself the first of many questions that afternoon: “Did he go upstream or down?”

Here are a few other questions I asked – and ultimately answered – that day.

How do I approach the stream?

I try to approach the river undetected. The process of becoming invisible begins long before I wade into the water. Presentation includes everything from “the costume to the cast,” so I dress in clothes that match the color of the surrounding landscape. Walking toward my starting point, I stay out of the water if possible. I’ll walk on the softest ground I can find, and if I must walk on gravel or cobbles, I’ll travel wide of the stream and creep my way to the water.

While watching wade fishermen on guided trips over the years, I’ve determined that it’s the approach to a run that largely determines success – not necessarily the cast or even the fly.

Did I survey the situation?

I sit and watch for a while before wetting a line, observing the bug life on the water and in the air. If I can’t see any airborne or water-bound bugs, I check nearby spider webs and foam back-eddies. Then I look for feeding fish, both on the surface and in the water column – flashes and boils of water can indicate fish feeding on nymphs or chasing minnows.

I consider the time of day and the water temperature – am I too early for a peak-activity period, or too late? Should I be anticipating a hatch with an emerger pattern or perhaps did I miss a hatch and use a spinner pattern?

Have I fished “top to bottom?”

If a hole or run looks productive – meaning it contains good holding water – and I’ve fished it without success, I ask myself: Have I fished from top to bottom?

Usually, I begin by fishing a hole in the least obtrusive way possible: with a dead-drifted dry fly. With multiple casts I’ll try to cover the water with a fan-shaped pattern, moving upstream as I go, getting the longest drifts possible. When fishing a run from top to bottom, give fish as many different looks as possible: top-water options, deep options, dead-drifted options, swinging options, twitched options. When I get to the top of the run again with my less-than-successful nymphs, I’ll switch to a streamer, or maybe two streamers of different colors, and strip them through the run.

What about other anglers? Is my etiquette appropriate?

If I’m wading upstream and spot another angler up the creek, I’ll either look for another spot or get on the bank, wide of the stream.

I’ll approach the other angler courteously, letting him know that I’ll be walking at least three bends upstream before beginning to fish. A kind-spoken, “How’s the fishing?” will usually elicit an answer that tells you whether the angler wants to talk. If the dude drops his head to the water and grumbles, I just keep walking. If the guy perks up and says, “They’re crushing a size 12 orange Humpy,” then I’ll stay and chat for a while.

As for my well-laid plans, I never ran into my fellow guide and didn’t make it to the rendezvous site in time. I found a few fish eating midges off the surface, but the best part of the day came during an interaction with another angler. I had just released a rainbow trout when I saw him walking upstream. He approached with his five-weight rod in one hand and an open Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy in the other.

“How’s it going?” I asked, masking my disappointment in seeing another angler.

“Great,” he said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

He was making an honest effort to overcome his interloping, and he knocked it out of the park. He then asked how far up I was intending to fish, clearly deferring to my best interests. We never exchanged names, but our interaction ensured we both enjoyed our day and were able to fish how – and where – we wanted.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and along with a partner owns a guide service on the Missouri River.

Before entering the water or making a cast, always survey the situation.

Before entering the water or making a cast, always survey the situation.