• Fly fishing with confidence: How to get the most from a day on the water.
  • Post author
    Tim O'Neill
  • fly fishingfreshwater

Fly fishing with confidence: How to get the most from a day on the water.

Yogi Berra once famously said “90% of the game is half mental.”

Of course Mr. Berra was talking about the great game of baseball, but the thought process is spot on for fly fishing.

Fly fishing, like baseball, requires a level of mental involvement. You can have all the new gear, tons of flies, and fish the best waters in your area, but if your confidence level isn’t at its highest you may be in for a long day. The trick is how do you get and keep your confidence up as you go through a day or a week of fishing?

Here are a few tips that help me fish at my best and I hope they'll help you.

1. Gain experience.

Get out and fish as much as possible – as your experience increases so will your confidence.

We've all heard the saying “there's no substitute for experience.” I believe this is 100% true.

Unfortunately, there's no magic pill here. The only way to gain experience is to put footprints on the riverbank.

Get out and fish as much as possible – as your experience increases so will your confidence.

2. Fish confidence patterns.

You will see well organized boxes with a bunch of flies – what you won’t see is a bunch of different patterns.

If you were to look into any of my fly boxes you would be underwhelmed at best.

You will see well-organized boxes with a bunch of flies – what you won’t see is a bunch of different patterns.

Hone in on the handful of patterns that work well in your area and stock your boxes with them. Remember, presentation is usually much more important than the fly on the end of your tippet.

3. Speaking of presentation...

You aren't going to fool wary, wild browns with poor presentation.

You aren't going to fool wary, wild browns with poor presentation.

I'm often asked if the most important ingredient in nymphing is size, silhouette, color or presentation.

Without a doubt, my answer to that question is presentation.

If you're in the ballpark with your fly selection and you give a solid presentation, you can usually coax a fish into eating.

Conversely, you can be spot on with your fly selection, but if you don't present it naturally to the fish… Well, you may as well go play golf.

4. Fish with people who are “better” than you.

Fish with people who are “better” than you.

Better is a subjective term here.

Be it a mentor, local legend, or a guide, seek out people you can learn from and fish with them as much as possible.

Knowledge translates into confidence.

5. Slow down.

With all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, sometimes we forget fly fishing is meant to be fun.

Don’t be in a rush to get to the next riffle or run. Take a minute to read the water and the currents, flip over a rock and see what's living under it.

When you catch a fish take a minute to recount where in the river he was. What fly did he take and at what point in the presentation did he take it?

All of these little bits of information will help you put together the pieces of the puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle will increase your confidence, and the more confidence you have… You get the picture.

Quick review & a story.

I was standing knee-deep in frigid water on the inside edge of a bend of the Elk River in Western Pennsylvania, assessing the situation.

Across and a little upriver from my position there was a spot – you all know that spot. A submerged boulder with the telltale dark area that every fisherman seeks out. The type of spot you KNOW holds a fish.

I cast my nymph rig upriver and drifted it down past the boulder… nothing. Two more drifts… nothing. An indicator adjustment… nothing. I added a little weight… nothing.

As a last ditch effort I re-positioned myself and threw a huge upriver mend into the cast as the indicator hit the water. The rig had drifted about 10 feet when the ¾” diameter white float darted out of sight.

I lifted and instantly came tight to 25 inches of angry steelhead.

It took me several adjustments to get the drift dialed in, but once I did I stuck 3 fish out of that spot, landing 2 of them.

Why did I spend so much time drifting a 6 square foot area?


“90% of the game is half mental” – words that hold true in baseball as well as fly fishing.

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About Tim O'Neill:

Tim is the founder and owner of O'Neill's Irish Flies, an online community dedicated to all aspects of fly fishing with values centered on education and introducing people to our great sport. He began fly fishing at the age of 10. During the following 3+ decades, his passion for the sport carried him through many parts of the industry, culminating in managing Delaware's only full-service fly shop from 2009 to 2014. When asked what's his favorite fish to catch, his response is always the same: “the one on the end of my tippet." Please feel free to contact him to discuss all things fly fishing at tim@oneillsirishflies.com.

  • Post author
    Tim O'Neill
  • fly fishingfreshwater

Comments on this post (6)

  • Dec 03, 2020

    Sounds like fun, Bass… been too long since I’ve been out fishing. As for me, my Sunday/Monday off work were spent baiitbstyng a 4-year-old overnight for my wife’s uncle and aunt. My outdoor time this weekend was spent under the spray of a hose and in a swimming pool… not exactly “roughing it”, but a good time nonetheless.And I, too, did some drinking…

    — Hiroko

  • Dec 03, 2020

    I really enjoyed the article. Some sound advice with my favorite being to “Fish with people who are better than you”. It fits well into a saying that has served me well in the past “A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others”.

    You won’t get better at anything if you aren’t challenged by or have access to great mentors. There is so much wisdom on the streams in the form of long time fly fishers and they are usually more than willing to share.

    — Stephen Plut

  • Dec 03, 2020

    Thanks – found this article retweeted on twitter. @haandances

    — Mary Wohl Haan

  • Dec 03, 2020

    Yep, I like simple flies, the ones I can tie in 3 minutes or less, taking the time just watching what is going on is the hardest part of the game, most tend to cast across the stream when the fish are almost at your feet! Don’t cast longer than you have to, you will be surprised on how both your hook up and landing rate will be if you cast no more than 20 feet of fly line! be willing to move, some times all it takes is making the drift from a different angle! Its all about if its not working change things, most of the time the change is very small that goes from no hook ups to one of those days were you have a fish on with just about every drift!

    — George Semel

  • Dec 03, 2020

    I’ve been at the sport of fly fishing 50 + yrs. it is solid info. that u give too bad some flyfishers have a hard time to learn what u have written and a harder time to break bad habits. great read keep it up



  • Dec 03, 2020

    Hey guys this was some great reading. I try and do everything it says but sometimes I forget one or two. But don’t we all huh. Can’t wait to see more. Thanks for sharing.

    Best Regards, Ken

    — Ken Elliott

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