The Secret of Fly Fishing

By: Matthew Harding

I stood nearly waist deep, fishing a heavy riffle while enjoying the view of the sunlit sawtooth mountains in the distance. I was having an excellent morning of fishing on a river in Idaho. After spending the last few years mainly fishing the highly pressured tail waters at home in Colorado where a handful of fish in a morning is a good trip for me, this river was nearly child’s play. Trout and mountain whitefish came readily to the net on an assortment of flies and techniques. I had the river to myself early, but now that it was warming up as lunchtime neared, folks in kayaks and rafts began drifting by at intervals. A particularly large group drifted by and one of the men yelled to me asking if I’d caught any. I gave a short “yes” and waited as patiently as I could while the group passed. He persisted with “how many?” Normally when asked this question I simply answer with a standard “a couple”, but my annoyance with the size of the party and the man’s loudness baited my ego into giving a real answer. “Eighteen” I called back, and was rewarded by the man’s reaction. “Eighteen?!” he turned to his friends “He said he caught eighteen! Where are we on the river?!” He looked around frantically for landmarks and said something about coming back to steal the spot. I couldn’t help but laugh as they drifted off.

As I continued fishing for a little while longer, I reflected on the man’s belief that he had just floated through a “honey hole” and had to find his way back to “steal the spot”. I couldn’t help but remember my early days of fishing and the alluring idea that a particular location on a river, the unbeatable fly, or the killer technique bore the secret that would always result in a banner day. Even in more recent years, innumerable videos on YouTube purported to teach me the secrets of fly fishing and I pursued the techniques, the flies, and the hot-spotters with relish, sometimes happily surprised, but often frustrated. Watching professional fly fishers catch fish seemingly at will, and then going out and catching none can be pretty disheartening and reinforce the idea that there truly are secrets that only they know. I bought their gear, tied their flies, fished their rivers, and copied their techniques often to no avail.

Over time though, my study, my practice, and experience on the water began to yield results. I focused on listening to people who weren’t purporting to have secrets, but instead were providing valuable information on a variety of techniques, flies, and gear. I learned about the bugs and their stages and how to recognize them on the water. I practiced tying patterns. I learned about the water types, where the fish hold, and how to get the flies to the fish. Slowly more and more fish came to the net regularly. I noticed that I was catching fish on big flies, little flies, dries, nymphs, emergers, streamers, pheasant tails, hare’s ears, blow torches, copper johns, perdigons, and stoneflies. I was catching them with floating line, with a mono-rig, and with euro-nymphing line. I was catching them on pressured water and on the odd spot where I found myself alone. I began to believe that the secret was ‘there is no secret’.

Then one evening after catching fish after fish in the pond at the end of my street and finding that I felt oddly bored, it all clicked. I realized I had learned the secret of fly fishing and it was more satisfying than I could have imagined. Yes, there are some flies I like to fish more than others and there are days when the fish seem to be crazy for a particular pattern. There are spots on the river that I feel more likely to catch something. And I still get surprised to find fish in the unlikely places and on the unlikely fly. But none of that was the point. The real secret is, the joy of fly fishing is in the challenge, and in your ability as a fly fisher to take what you know for now and adapt to the situation you are in to succeed in catching fish. Sure, there are days when you fail, but those failures only make the successful days richer and more rewarding. The most magical thing about the challenge: it never ends.

Matt Harding began fly fishing and tying flies in Utah in the late eighties. For the last eight years he’s lived on the Colorado front range and enjoys fishing the fantastic rivers and lakes it offers anytime he gets the chance.

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