One of the most valuable but least practiced aspects of fly fishing is observation. Observation as in simply taking a few minutes to study the water you’re about to fish in an effort to learn what’s happening. It’s amazing the success to which this basic tactic leads, yet I almost never see anglers anywhere other than on the Henry’s Fork spend even a brief moment watching the water before they wade in and begin casting. (Who knows, maybe the anglers I watch are just prescient; oh, to be so lucky.)
Here’s a typical Madison River scenario: Visiting anglers drive to the river, string their rods in the parking lot, tie on flies suggested by the help at the local fly shop, walk down to a likely hole, wade in and begin casting. They cover the obvious water, move on to the next hole and repeat. An occasional change of fly is thrown in along the way, too.
Guess what? That approach works. Sometimes.
But seldom is it the most productive way. Sure, our anglers might catch some small rainbows on weighted nymphs in a deep pocket, but what about the big brown(s) they failed to see rising subtly in the shallows? Those fish are long gone, spooked by adventurous wading or by getting lined.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not passing judgment on a particular approach or method of fishing. We’re all free to participate in the sport in the manner we so desire. But I do think that when we choose our method, we should do so with a full awareness of all the possibilities. And the only way to know those possibilities is to observe the water. No one, expert or otherwise, can always predict in advance where to go, what time to be there, how best to fish, and what flies to use.
But the river (or lake) will always tell us what our options are, and what the best way of fishing will be. I can’t emphasize that enough—the water is always open and forthright, always willing to share the necessary information regarding how to fish it. We merely have to be patient enough to give it a chance. Back to our anglers on the Madison. Had they spent five or ten minutes carefully watching the water, they might have noticed the big brown in the shallows sipping flies from the surface film. They could then have made their choice: cast dry flies to feeding fish, blind fish nymphs in the pockets, or whatever else suited their fancy. To each his own, but my point is that at least now their choice is fully informed. (By the way, my example is not hypothetical—this exact situation plays itself out daily on the Madison for much of the summer. And in my experience, most anglers given a choice would pick fishing for big fish on dry flies.)
I think that one reason observation is given short shrift by many anglers is that it has somehow become disconnected from the act of fishing. Too many fishermen think that if they aren’t actively casting, they aren’t fishing. But observation is an integral element of our sport, and for the complete angler it is inseparable from any other aspect. Observation is fishing.
So next time you’re out, take a few minutes and watch the water before wading in and casting. Give yourself a chance to meld into the fishing landscape, discover what’s happening, and become part of it. I know you’ve traveled a long way and are anxious to cast. So am I. But I assure you that ten minutes of calm observation will yield far greater results than you’ll get from ten minutes of random casting. Have fun and good luck.