Learning Path... Full Article

The Fly Fisher’s Handicap

By Ken Louko

www.SpringCreekAnglers.com


What’s your Handicap?


That’s a question typically asked of golfers. But does it also apply to fly fishers? My contention and answer to that question is "YES". Here’s why...


Unfortunately, most people that pick up a fly rod for the very first time, proceeding down the road of learning how to fly fish, focus all of their initial attention on the third stage of learning how to fly fish — Presentation. They want to catch fish.

 

This approach immediately leads them down a path that is both detrimental to their skill set and greatly adds to their learning time. Some by as much as years instead of months!


Defining the Problem...


Initially focusing on the Third Stage (Presentation), rather than the First Stage (Casting) often adds years to the learning process. It’s a learning speed problem. The desire is to go from zero to 60 in as short a time period as possible. This approach adds all kinds of issues, sometimes called "bad habits" (and detours), into the personal learning experience.

Going from 0 to 60 Gradually (Good); Going from 0 to 60 Rapidly (Bad)


The concept of going from 0 to 60 can take many forms other than driving a hot Porsche or Ferrari. However, many fly anglers end up initially slamming on the brakes going from their desired "60 — to near 0" or "60 to 20" without even realizing it. Some even abandon the sport prematurely due to their unrealistic expectations and their initial approach while getting into fly fishing.


"To maximize your learning speed, adopt an intentional and realistic Learning Path."


"I just bought a fly rod, let’s go fly fishing". This is a common mistake made by many anglers who purchase a fly rod never even thinking about initially getting some casting lessons which is Stage 1 (Learning to Cast) of actually learning how to fly fish. Sometimes this is compounded by purchasing high end equipment believing that the equipment itself, as if by magic, will enable them to cast further, catch more fish, or even make better "basic" casts for that matter. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Going from 0 to 60 (too fast) in this sport may be exhibited by any number of things... such as waving the fly rod like a flag; making poor fly selections; being unable to manage slack line; or, even blindly wading into perfectly fishable water. 


Going from 0 to 60 (way too fast) could also just be a desire to catch fish (Right Now!) without even thinking about needing to use additional fly fishing knowledge or skills to enable good Presentation skills in Stage 3. An on-stream example of this is simply being unable to initially read the water. How can you even start to make a presentation without having some sense of being able to read the water?


Another going 0 to 60 (unrealistically fast) fault involves the thought that since you are fishing, that you should also be, by default, catching. Hmm? As the old sayings go... "Rome was not built in a day" and "It’s called fly fishing; not, fly catching! There are many other "0 to 60 faults" that quickly creep into your overall fly fishing experience if you don’t follow a prescribed path to actually learn HOW to fly fish.


Having a prescribed learning path in your head, based on the three stages of learning how to fly fish, will enable a much faster learning process.


Frankly, I see too many fly fishing enthusiasts who just want to go "0 to 60" as fast as they possibly can. Many have been guided clients with almost non-existent casting skills — or self-taught casting "skills". The failure to slow down a little to develop their skills in Stage 1 and Stage 2, before hitting Stage 3, always handicaps their effort at building a well developed fly fishing skill set. Obviously, anyone that takes up fly fishing will be on the water fairly quickly. However, ignoring the importance of Stages 1 and 2 comes at a high price.


Adding Years to the Learning Process


All of the rapid 0 to 60 approach gotchas literally add years to your learning process. Casting, the first stage of learning how to fly fish, NEEDS to be the FIRST stage, not a "I’ll learn as I go stage". Those are reserved for Stages 2 and 3.


As a word of caution and advice, NEVER initially attempt to learn how to cast a fly rod while on the water. In the old days, that may have been your only choice. But today, you have many more choices as the sport has grown in popularity.


To lead yourself down a haphazard learning path will take to you off on many detours. Backtracking your detours adds even more of your valuable time before getting back on your learning path. Detours are wasted time.

The path to actually learning HOW to fly fish is wrought with detours. Eliminate as many detours as possible!



Stages of Learning How to Fly Fish


There are three (3) major stages of learning how to fly fish.


The First Stage:  Learning to Cast. (Taking you from 0 to 20)


Learning how to cast is the foundation skill set of fly fishing. This is the going from "0 to 20" stage. Predominantly, most people learn to cast with a single hand rod because they are pursuing trout in relatively shallow water. Typically, using a double haul is not a requirement while trout fishing though many fly anglers use it. If you extend your fly fishing experiences to lakes and saltwater, learning to double haul becomes a necessity to ensure that your fly swims longer (by spending more time in the water) and that your watercraft does not spook fish by getting to close.


Casting with a two handed rod is the other major form of fly casting. Lightweight Trout Spey rods allow the caster to fish either single handed or two handed — the best of both worlds. Energized roll casts allowing the "D" loop to load the rod is the hallmark of this style of casting. Use of the bottom hand, rather than the top hand to power the rod, is also essential. 


Fly Fishers International’s "Five Casting Essentials"


FFI lays out the five (5) basic casting essentials for single hand rods:


1. There can't be ANY slack line during the casting stroke.


2. There MUST BE a stop and a pause at the end of each stroke.


3. The Casting Arc MUST vary with the amount of line beyond the rod tip.


4. Application of power MUST OCCUR in the proper amount, at the proper place, in the casting stroke.


5. During the casting stroke, the rod tip MUST travel in a straight line path (SLP).


Once you have a firm grip on Stage 1 (Casting), it’s time to move on to Stage 2 (20 - 40) and Stage 3 (40 - 60) of learning how to fly fish. The order is important!


The Second Stage is:  Line Selection, Leader Set Up, and Fly Selection.

(Going from 20 to 40)


Most often, this is the "Forgotten Stage", except for selecting your first fly rod, reel, and fly line. Fly shops even select the line for you initially — as a beginner. This stage is driven by the species of fish that you intend to pursue and the type of water that you intend to fish.


Single Hand Rod Selection Examples:


Trout...

5 or 6 weight rod with matching reel; Weight Forward Floating fly 

line (WF-F). Other line or head set ups are available.


Bass...

6 or 7 weight rod with matching reel; WF-F fly line — or a number of sinking line strategies designed for specific situations.


Striped Bass...

8 or 9 weight rod and matching reel with a good drag system; Full Intermediate slow sink fly line. Optional faster sinking lines.


Saltwater... 8 to 12 weight saltwater rod and matching reel with a good drag system; Various saltwater specific lines.


Now the more complex part... set up.


Rod selection (single hand or two hand), line selection, head selection, leader set-ups, tip or tippet selection, fly selection, and even weighting methods are all variable elements in Stage 2 (going from 20 to 40). It can be quite simple or vary in complexity dependent upon many factors. All affect the depth, speed, and desired behavior of the fly. All also affect your individual approach to an area to be fished, the fish species sought, and what actually happens in the next (and final) stage.


The Third Stage is:  Presentation. (Going from 40 to 60)


The Presentation Stage is where you will spend most of your time AFTER becoming proficient in Stage 1 (Learning to Cast) and Stage 2 (Equipment Selection and Set Up). This is your focus while actually on the water fly fishing which is the reason that all people take up the sport. This is the 40 to 60 stage. It’s also your "presentation techniques " stage. Start at 40, then 50, and aim for getting to 60. During this stage, which may last the rest of your lifetime, is where you perfect your craft as a fly angler. The on-stream variables are endless and vary with each and every day that you are on the water. Getting "into the zone " from a focus perspective can completely consume, and relax, the fly fisher. Time can go very quickly in this stage and leads to desiring to not stop from making that "last cast " of the day.


Presentation starts off with assessing the current environmental conditions (water conditions, stream flow, air temperature, wind speed and direction, etc.); and, reading the water. Learning how to read the water is extremely important.


If trout fishing...

Paying attention to any insect emergence may determine fly selection and your presentation technique.


If bass fishing...

Being able to read and even envision lake underwater structure may drive where to make your presentations.


If saltwater fishing...

The water temperature, depth and drop off’s, and feeding bird activity may drive where to make your fly presentations.

 

However, in all of these scenarios, if you come to the table lacking the initial skills learned in Stages 1 and 2, this will immediately handicap you as a fly angler.


What happens is that you become a "Non-Fly Angler" if you minimized the importance of Stage 1 (Learning to Cast) and Stage 2 (Line Selection, Leader Set Up, and Fly Selection). The first detours of your fly fishing experience have been set in motion. You are doomed to failure — at least for the time being!


Unfortunately, more fly anglers than I can count, seem to believe that Stage 3 (Presentation) is Stage 1 of their fly fishing experience. This belief typically results in disappointing results and tons of on-water frustration. If you had a successful day on the water (with assistance), that euphoria may quickly fade when you are totally on your own. Especially, if fish "catching " takes priority over actually learning how to fly fish.


Presentation becomes a struggle if you fail to first learn how to cast in Stage One. Also, believing that you can cast at a proficient level when you actually don’t have the necessary  skills to do so, immediately creates your first major detour.


Desiring to go from 0 to 60 immediately NEVER works out well for the fly angler that wants to get into this sport!


The Guide’s Dilemma


The guide’s dilemma is also the individual fly angler’s dilemma. The fly angler that decides to hire a guide to go fly fishing, should first be proficient with their fly casting skills. That means that they have mastered all the major single hand rod casts including the Pick up and Lay Down cast, Side Arm and Back Hand casts, Roll Cast, Reach Cast, and the Belgian (Elliptical) Cast. If fishing in saltwater or for any lake species, the Double Haul needs to be added to the list of mandatory skills to learn. The Double Haul is also useful while fly fishing for any river species such as trout or Smallmouth Bass.


At an even more basic level, understanding and performing the Fly Fishers International "Five Casting Essentials" (the Casting Basics) becomes essential.


Start with Stage 1, understand Stage 2, and put everything together in Stage 3. This progression takes time. A fly fishing guide can assist with technique improvements or suggest  a presentation that may enable you to catch fish on any particular day. An on-water guide can not teach you how to fly cast, or even how to fly fish, in a single day.


Handicapping yourself by not having the necessary casting skills learned in Stage 1 (that may have been bypassed too quickly), you also handicap the fly fishing guide. Their role is not teaching you how to fly cast. If you come to the game without casting skills, you are basically out of the game. A guide can potentially get you through the day; but, have you really optimized your day of fly fishing and your overall experience — without learning the basics ahead of time?


Casting (Stage 1) is a learned activity that initially takes you from 0 to 20. Casting is an activity that involves intent, guidance, time, and practice. However, learning only one or two casts does not prepare you to be successful at fly fishing. Expand your skill set.


Stage 2 set up details are often overlooked by some excellent fly casters. Just casting is not fly fishing. This stage gets you from 20 to 40.


Presentation (Stage 3) always takes place on the water. It’s your "Ready to Go" time. The initial goal after Stage 2 is the Presentation stage which begins at 40; and, then work on getting to the ultimate stage goal of 60 — your lifetime achievement award! 


The Presentation stage is where your balanced skill set really kicks in and you become totally comfortable on the water. 


Fly fishing is not a 0 to 60 "in-a-day" sport. Slow down and enjoy the experience.


So... What’s your personal Fly Fishing Handicap?