Well, the title's a bit tongue-in-cheek inflammatory, but I wrote this post to dispel some of the myths about how fly fishing is really done most days, versus the highlights that you see in photos, books, and vids. I've learned a few things in my fly fishing journey that I don't see discussed or written about much. Many of these are probably apparent to old hands but most beginning fly fishers have never heard about them.
1. Learn to roll or spey cast
In most fly fishing situations you won't have room to make a majestic cast like the ones in "A River Runs Through It" or that you see in photos or at the casting pond. There is usually too much brush, trees, or other obstacles behind you to allow a big backcast. You're going to have to get creative and learn to roll cast or spey cast on your single hand rod. Spey casting is just a higher powered variation of roll casting. It's not something just for experts. And it's no harder than a regular overhead cast to learn well. In most rivers less than 50' wide you'll be doing as much spey/roll casting as overhead. You won't have to wade out into the middle of the river to cast (spooking untold numbers of fish) and can fish closer to cover. And maybe you'll spend more time with your fly in the water rather than in tree branches.
This great video taught me the basics of single handed spey casting for trout. Jeff Putnam's single handed spey casting video:
Here's an excellent book I used to learn to single hand spey cast:
Single-Handed Spey Casting: Solutions to Casts, Obstructions, Tight Spots, and Other Casting Challenges of Real-Life Fishing
2. Tight loops and pretty casts are bad
Ok, this is true only sometimes. But in many situations you will be casting a heavy fly, multiple flies, a sink tip, sinkers, and/or an indicator. These implements will cause tangles if you cast tight, snappy loops with them. Widen up your loops in order to avoid that. Practice casting with these items on your line because it's a different feel and stroke than just casting a single light fly. Also, learn to water haul. It's an ugly but effective lob cast that gets the job done when fishing heavy rigs.
3. Accuracy is much more important distance
You will cast to many more fish at close range of 10-30' than anything else. This is one that is not discussed much in fly casting instructionals. This is an easy cast distance for even a beginner. However, if you can't put your fly into a hula hoop size target (as a baseline), you're going to have a hard time. Putting in your casting practice time learning to hit dinner-plate size targets at close range will put more fish on your line than learning to bomb casts 80'.
4. The fish are usually not near the surface
The dry fly gets all the glory but most of the time the fish are feeding in the bottom half of the water column. Get deep. Learn to fish and tie nymphs and streamers. This applies to rivers as well as lakes. Rig your gear so that you can get deep. Use sinkers, sink tips, weighted flies, and learn to mend and present your fly so that it sinks quickly. One of the reason gear anglers are so successful is because their lures are heavy and lines are thin, so that most of the time they are fishing near the bottom.
5. Sinkers are a necessary evil
This combines with #4 but one of the biggest things I had to learn when I started fly fishing was that sinkers are a quite prominent part of fly fishing. Without them you can't get deep. You of course can weight your fly but I believe that detracts from your fly realism and motion.
6. The smaller the river, the better suited it is to fly fishing
This one's pretty basic. Small creeks and streams are shallow and the fish can be spooky. This makes it hard to use gear or bait, since that stuff makes more of a splash, and also snags bottom more. Flies, on the other hand, are light so they float or suspend nicely in the current. On a creek or a larger river during low water, this is a marked advantage. Conversely, fishing larger, deeper, swifter rivers demands more weight and requires less stealth. This provides more advantage to the gear/bait fishermen. Obviously you can still do well fly fishing, but the bigger water conditions tend to favor the gear guys.
7. Presentation is more important than the fly
Most of us are seeking that magic fish magnet fly, and of course fly selection matters. However, in most cases, if that fly isn't fished in a way that looks like the natural, the fish aren't going to go near it. Don't try to seek the "magic bullet" fly. Often, a fly that approximates the size and silhouette of the natural is enough. The magic bullet is your presentation. Learn to present your fly naturally in different situations to get fish to buy what you're selling.
8. Don't skip the fast water
Resident trout, especially rainbows, hold in much faster and shallower water than you think. This was made clear to me in Wendell Ozefovich's videos, "The Underwater World of Trout." He shows large trout holding in 6-12 inch deep riffles picking off nymphs. The riffled water provides cover, making it more attractive for a trout to be there. His videos show how trout actually expend less energy holding in faster currents than slower ones. The lesson is, don't ignore the crappy looking water that everyone walks by.
A corollary to this is that the riffles are where much of the bug life in the rivers calls home. The shallow water allows sunlight to penetrate and promote plant life while the whitewater provides oxygenation. Bugs need this, so a riffle has many times higher bug density than those fishy-looking deep pools that many anglers pound.
9. Find feeding fish
When fishing you may see fish in deep pools, or you may just be blind fishing those pools, but in many cases the fish there are resting. Sure, some of them, especially browns, are willing to chase a large meal should it present itself, but if you're looking for numbers of fish, they are in the riffles or runs below the riffles. Also, if you see fish tight to the bottom it's possible they're feeding on bottom nymphs but they may also be resting. Same for fish sitting back in eddies. Most of the players are suspended slightly and are in or very close to a strong current that transports food in front of their noses. Find these fish for action.
10. Small flies catch more fish
If you're looking for numbers of fish, use smaller flies. The reason for this is that most of us do not "match the hatch" accurately. We may see what looks like size 14 caddis crawling around. However, if you put that caddis next to your flies, you will usually see that you'll need a size 16 or 18 to match the natural. This part of the tip is more about sizing your flies accurately than using small flies. But most of us oversize our fly.
The corollary tip is not to fear that fish won't see your small fly. If they are keying in on this size prey, you will get more grabs with this than a larger fly. If you want fish to see your little fly a little bit better than the natural you have a few options: use a little flash in the fly, use long wavy materials in it for more motion, or use a larger flashy attractor fly in tandem with your little fly. I've found that the small flies will outfish larger, showier flies at least 5 to 1. The only caveat here is that the murkier the water, the less this applies.
Anyone have any more things they've learned that no one really talks about? Agree or disagree with what I've written? Please post it to the comments. Would love to hear from others about their experience.