Varying your technique and presentation to match the fishing conditions at hand is key to consistently catching fish.
The dictionary defines the phrase, “One trick pony” as “a person or thing with only one special feature, talent, or area of expertise."
I see fly anglers all the time who are one trick ponies — for example, only fishing with dry flies or dry and dropper rigs no matter what the stream conditions are. Even guys who nymph fish can get caught up in only euro nymphing or only indicator nymphing.
"The Tellico Nymph Syndrome"
Anglers should utilize all the flies in their box from terrestrials and streamers to midges and dry flies. This varied fly selection includes a Fish-Skull Baitfish Head streamer and a nymph tied with a Nymph-Head Evolution Stonefly tungsten beadhead.
This is a story I commonly tell during my fly fishing presentations.
I was working at a fly shop and a gentleman came in and asked the age-old question, "What are they biting on?"
I told him they were taking small pheasant tail nymphs size 20 or 22 fished behind an attractor nymph.
He said, "Let me see one of those."
He studied the fly and said, "I don't really like the looks of those, what else are they taking?"
I told him there was a decent little yellow stonefly bite in the late evening when they came back to lay their eggs and fish were taking #16 or #18 yellow sally dry flies. After looking at one of those he said he didn't care much for those either. He informed me that he probably caught 90% of his fish on a Tellico nymph.
I looked at him and said, "I bet you fish it almost 100% of the time, don't you?"
He pondered a few seconds and said, "I guess I do."
And you know what he did? He bought 6 more Tellico nymphs and went on his way.
Anglers like to fish what they have confidence in and I understand this, but if you never try anything different it’s impossible to gain confidence in different techniques.
Base your fly presentation on water conditions
Low clear water calls for different techniques than normal or high water conditions.
Low clear water usually requires smaller realistic flies, lighter tippets, and fishing techniques that allow delicate presentations, whereas higher and possibly stained water usually calls for larger darker or brighter flies, more weight, and anglers can get by with heavier tippet at most time. Notice I used the word "usually" when describing both scenarios. There are no rules in fishing that are chiseled in stone.
That being said, there have been plenty of times when I've seen anglers fishing large nymph rigs with big indicators that plop down on the surface when the water is low and clear, and fishing dry and dropper rigs when the water is high and murky. These anglers are certainly limiting their success by not matching their presentation to water conditions.
Case in point, Euro nymphing is all the rage nowadays and is extremely effective under certain water conditions, but just like anything else there are times when another technique would be more productive. Lately I've seen a lot of anglers on the stream who only use the Euro nymphing technique even in low clear slow-moving water or who skip water that is not suitable to this technique. They are confining their possibilities of success to only a portion of the stream or river.
Don't be afraid of taking an unconventional fishing approach
I know a guy who was fishing a large hole on the Davidson River in North Carolina without success. The hole was full of fish that are subjected to an extreme amount of fishing pressure and have PhDs on how to avoid being caught. His son asked if he could try a pink woolly bugger about a size 4.
The guy responded, "Sure, what the heck, nothing to lose."
Now this fly broke all the rules. A big bright attractor pattern fished under low clear water conditions to highly pressured fish. His son proceeded to catch three trout in as many casts before the trout caught on. His father while fishing like he was “supposed” to be with small midge pupae and light tippet caught zero.
The point of this story is sometimes fish become conditioned to the same presentations with the same flies even when it seems like the "correct" way to fish in the given situation. Sometimes all it takes is something out of the ordinary to produce.
One time a client of mine invited me on a fishing trip with him to fish a popular trout stream. The first morning we were met with rainy overcast conditions. This stream lends itself to euro nymphing with a lot of fast moving choppy runs. We were both rigged with euro rigs as we stepped into the stream as the rain came down.
After half an hour of unproductive fishing I begin to think that with the overcast skies and rising water a streamer could be the ticket. I tied on a streamer and swung it across the stream and as it restarted end of the swing I stripped it once and was met with a hard hit but missed the trout. Two casts later I was hard into a nice trout. We proceeded to catch trout on streamers all day.
The rain kept most anglers off the stream that day but everybody we encountered was euro nymphing, doing what they were supposed to be, but without much success.
Putting it all together
Nice rainbow trout caught on a streamer when most folks were nymph fishing.
To be successful under all conditions, fly anglers should become proficient with numerous techniques without being married to any of them. Different types of water and different water conditions require different techniques and tactics to be consistently successful. Euro nymphing, indicator nymphing, dry and dropper rig, swinging streamers, stripping streamers, and even drifting streamers are all techniques anglers should have in their quiver to pull out when conditions call for them.
We've all been guilty, myself included, of sticking to a favorite technique or fly for too long when it’s not producing. Usually because we like fishing that way or have had success in the past with a particular fly or lure.
There is an old saying that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So if how you are fishing on a particular day is not producing, try a different fly or technique until you become successful. Don’t be a one trick pony, that would be insanity!
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About Marty Shaffner:
Marty Shaffner is a guide with Tri-State Angler Guide Service, fly tyer, freelance outdoor writer, and avid outdoorsman. He has been guiding for 15 years in northwest NC and southwest VA for smallmouth bass and trout, on the New and James rivers for smallies, the Watauga and South Holston rivers in TN, the Tuckaseegee and Nantahala rivers in NC, and numerous small streams in NC, VA, and TN for trout. He is a lifelong angler who has been fishing for almost 50 years.