One of the basic characteristics of a successful angler, regardless of the method, is the ability to solve problems; what lure to use and how to use it. Fly anglers are faced with many problems that are not encountered by anglers using other methods of fishing. This is basic to the sport of fly fishing where the angler has a choice of presenting their offering to the fish either on the surface, in the surface film, just below the surface and anywhere from just below the surface to right on the bottom. How we approach this aspect of fly fishing will ultimate determine how successful we are in catching fish under a variety of situations.
Here is a common scenario that fly fishers face when fishing for trout on a stream. You are confronted with a hatch of flies; let's say a hatch of mayflies. The trout are visibly feeding, so the first problem that you need to solve is whether they are feeding on emergers or emerged insects. In addition, if they are feeding on emergers are they emerging in the film or below the film? These are just a couple of the problems that confront the angler facing this situation.
So where do you start? As lame as it sounds the key is observation. Slow down; use your eyes and the knowledge that you have to help you determine what the fish are doing. This applies not only to trout but to all types of fish and all types of fishing situations.
When confronted with a number of rising trout the tendency is to quickly begin to start fishing, and this is often a major mistake. The second tendency is to do what inexperienced bird hunters often do when confronted with several birds flushing at once. Rather than concentrating on one target they try to shoot at the entire flock and the results are usually not very productive. The angler needs to concentrate on one target; either one specific fish or a group of fish feeding in a small area; nothing larger than an area the size of a bathtub. Watch closely since all of the fish may not be feeding on the same stage of the emergence. One fish may be holding in one spot and feeding on dry adults while another fish may be moving around taking subsurface emergers as they rise toward the surface. Only by taking a few minutes to observe will you be able to see what each individual fish is doing.
Make certain you know what the fish are taking. We have all heard of the "hidden hatch" or the "masked hatch" but they are only hidden or masked because the angler assumed that the flies that they saw flying around were the flies the fish were eating. By sampling the drift with a small fine mesh net you can save yourself lots of frustration fishing what appears to be obvious when what the fish are eating is something entirely different.
What if you are fishing a proven pattern for the hatch and you are not having any success? When should you change your fly? Many anglers blame their lack of success on the pattern that they are using rather than thinking that the problem may be an issue with their presentation. Before changing your pattern try changing the angle of your presentation. Get closer to your target, shorten up your cast and place your fly closer to where the fish is feeding. Remember, especially with dry flies or emergers, that the longer your fly is in the water before it gets to where the fish is feeding the more likely you will experience drag.
Fishing over fish that are obviously feeding gives you a place to start but what do you do when there is no apparent feeding activity? Once again observation is the key to success. What are the conditions? Is the water clear, cloudy or dirty? Is it high, low or normal? Do you know what the fish have been feeding on recently and what type of food is normally available? If you have fished this water before what has produced in the past? Reading the water is an invaluable skill when you are fishing blind. Current seams, areas that taper from shallow water to deeper water, around structure like logs or rocks, and deep slots between weeds are some areas to prospect. Work slowly, vary your presentation, work the entire water column until you find where the fish are holding and feeding. Under these conditions you need to experiment.
Finally, remember that you can't catch them all. Try to earn from your failures but mostly just enjoy the experience. A day spent on the water surrounded by the beauty of God's creation is reward enough even when the fish are not cooperating.