A version of this article first appeared in the Blue Ribbon Flies catalog. The ideas expressed in it are timeless.
One of the most valuable but least practiced aspects of fly fishing is observation. Observation as in simply studying for a few minutes the water you’re about to fish to see what’s happening. It’s amazing the success to be had from this basic tactic, 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 simply prescient. Oh, to be so lucky.)
Here’s a scenario common to the Madison River: Visiting anglers drive to the river, string their rods in the parking lot, tie on flies suggested by the help at the fly shop, walk 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) rising subtly in the shallows? Those fish went overlooked and are now long gone, spooked by adventurous wading or from being lined.
Note 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 desire. But I do think that when we choose our tactics, we should do so with a full awareness of what’s taking place around us. And the only way to know that 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 water will always tell us what our options are. It is open and forthright, always willing to share the necessary information regarding how best to fish it. We merely have to be amenable to receiving its message.
Back to the Madison. Had our anglers spent five or ten minutes carefully watching the water, they might have noticed the big brown(s) in the shallows sipping flies from the 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 the point is that their choice would be 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 opt for big fish on dry flies.)
I think that one reason observation is given short shrift is that it has somehow become disconnected from the act of fishing. Too many fishermen think that if they aren’t casting, they aren’t fishing. But observation is an integral part of our sport. Observation is fishing.
So next time you’re onstream, take a few minutes and watch the water before wading in and casting. Give yourself a chance to meld into the landscape, to 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 will ten minutes of random casting. Have fun and good luck.