Fly Fishing New Water – Rivers
One of my favorite things to do in fly fishing is to go check out new rivers. Weather it’s for new places to guide or just for fun I always enjoy seeing new rivers. This also includes rivers I have been to and I haven’t gotten back to them in a while. One thing is for sure rivers change from year to year. Big flow years, erosion, stream improvements are just a few things that change a river throughout the years. Recently I got a chance to check out a new property that I have access to guide on with fellow guide and my fly fishing partner in crime Jerry Vigil. I have fished the Yampa River in Steam Boat Colorado many times but I had never fished this section of water before. This property has over a mile of water and if you didn’t have a systematic approach and a good plan of attack it would have made for a long day of fishing. Lets face it even being a guide Fly fishing new rivers can be very intimidating but if you follow the tips bellow you will have the tools to make your experience more enjoyable and systematically learn new water.
First you want to do your research on the new river or section of river before you even get there. I like to use Google maps and get a bird’s eye view of the river I’m going to be fishing. It gives me a mental picture of what to expect and I can start building a plan of how to attack that river.
Know where the different boundaries are as to where the public land ends and begins. Use a great guide like this one. This is important to remember when you want play in your sandbox! I have actually had warning shots fired at me because I was too close to a boundary.
Check the stream flows. This is very important because you don’t want to be surprised when you get to the river. Links like this or apps on your smart phone are great tools for this. I will follow flows throughout the day if I have service.
Get a good weather report for the day. I follow the weather closely because I want to know what’s going on at all times while I’m out. I use an app on my phone called weather underground and have found it to be the most accurate. They have a ton of substations and you can always find one close to where you are fishing. It is also pretty accurate on wind conditions.
Check out the local fishing reports. I will warn you- most of these reports are a couple weeks out of date or not kept up with. It’s always good to look back in previous years in their reports for the same time frame you’re fishing. Remember these are just a guide for your plan of attack; don’t hold on to these reports like they where written in stone. I know this report is very accurate and kept up with all the time. Pat Dorsey does a great job with his reports.
Now you have done your research and you’re ready to hit the river. When I set out for new rivers I always have a couple of rods rigged up with different methods of fly fishing. I will always have a nymph rig set up. I like to use an indicator setup for fishing new rivers so I can cover a bunch of different types of water. The other rod will either be a streamer setup or a dry – dropper – dropper rig. (This depends on time of year and conditions that present themselves- I will cover this more in later posts).
I always start at the bottom of the area I’m going to fish and work up stream. In this case it was a mile walk down to the bottom of the property line on the Yampa River. I work up stream so I can come in behind the fish instead of working down stream and the fish see me as I’m approaching.
Observe the water; don’t just start fishing. Plan your attack. Scan the water see if you can find fish feeding. Look for flashes or shadows moving. I teach my clients to watch the water for periods of time and you will see move movement. I call it getting in tune with the river. I know this sounds a little freaky but if you give it a good try you will be surprised at the results.
Section off the river into smaller pieces; don’t look at the river as a whole. In most instances I will even break down each run into sections. The Yampa River is a pretty big tailwater by Colorado standards and on this property there was quite a few big deep runs with tail outs and structure. When I break down a run I will start at the tail out section and methodically fish my way forward to the front of the run. I will repeat this for every run I have broken down in the section I’m fishing. I like to fish in a grid pattern to make sure I cover every section of water. I don’t want to miss any areas and helps me to learn where fish like to hold in the river. One thing on new water I constantly have to tell myself is “fish slow, be methodical and cover every piece of water.” We get so excited to see all this new beautiful looking water to fish we forget our plan of attack.
I will always pick certain runs or sections to come back and fish throughout the day. Big deep long runs are what I target to get back to throughout the day.
I want to see how the fish feed at different times of day in different sections of the new river. This is important because if you just fish the run in the morning you don’t know what goes on in that run the rest of the day. We have all had those times when you get to the water and someone is standing in the run you want to fish. Well, if you know what is going on in that run at different times a day it’s no big deal, you can come back to it later when no one is there and be successful. Of course, this is for your return trips to the new river; you’re not just building an attack for that day you are building for future trips to that new river.
Learn the bug life in the new river. You can get a look at it through your research but nothing is like seeing it in person. I will turn over rocks in the river and do scans periodically throughout the day. I will also pay attention to those snags and stick fish you pick up with fishing. Most people are annoyed by moss and twigs on the end of the files, not me that is the time to see what’s going on with the bugs in the bottom of the river. Most time when you bring those things up you can look at them and find some kind of bug life on them. (Pic 9) Again, I want to know what’s going on at all times with bug life. For the record, I am not a big fan of pumping fish stomachs but if that’s your thing please do it properly because you can hurt the fish. It’s a good tool to see what fish are eating. My theory is if you catch a fish to pump his stomach you already know what he’s eating. Just thought I would throw that in there! I have a general rule that I follow when I’m matching bugs that I find in the river: Size, Shape (Shape being type of bug like stonefly, caddis or mayfly), Color. If you can only have the option for two size and shape are the most important!
My next tip is to keep records on your smart phone or camera. Take pictures of runs sections of water and bugs. I typically organize them by trip, in other words I do a trip report on every trip I do guiding or personal fly fishing and I attach those pics I take to that report. It helps me to remember what was going on with that new river or section of water and I can refer to it. This is a fantastic tool to help you learn that new water and you can build on that every time you go back.
While you’re fishing, it will be important to constantly change weight and depth. It is very important on new water to get perfect drifts. Presentation is everything on new water. Find where the fish are feeding in the water column at different times of the day. If you fish the same rig or same method your chances of catching fish go way down. Fish different methods and test out those skills. For example, on this day at the Yampa River, I fished nymphs Streamers and I even ran Dry – dropper – Dropper rigs. Streamers and dry – dropper rigs did not work very well. I found fish where feeding deep around structure in fast and slow currents on very small midges and mayflies (M&M’s). So, to match this I had a heavily weighted nymph rig for the faster currents and a lighter weighted nymph rig for the slower currents. I continually made fine adjustments to these setups for the different current patterns I was presented with. It proved to be very affective we got into a bunch of big hungry fish. I will tell you it took a lot of adjusting and hard mythical fishing to get them figured out and stay on fish. That is a mistake I see with a lot of fly fishermen; they don’t want to put in the work necessary to catch fish and be successful on new water.
The last tip I have for fly fishing new water is think outside the box. This is hard for us fly fishermen to do me as well. We get set in our ways of doing things. When you are on a new river you can do all the research and planning of attacks possible, but there are times you must throw that all out the window if you want to catch fish. For example, when we were fishing the Yampa some of the big perfect beautiful looking runs just did not seem to be producing fish. Trust me, Vigil and I tried everything! Your average fly fishermen would just move on and try and find fish. I happened to take some time and watch the river. (Getting back in tune because I was getting pissed I knew there was fish in these runs- there had to be!) As I was watching the river after a little bit I saw a shadow moving very occasionally in and out of a fast deep seem. I was thinking “I got-ya now bastard!” I put a few drifts through that spot and nothing. I knew by the shadow this was a tank of a fish so I decided I was going outside the box. I put a #8 Olive Brown Shafer’s – Ella’s Beast as my bottom fly in a three-fly rig and I put two midges above it. I already knew the fish on this day would not eat a streamer. The theory was that bottom fly would get down fast because of its heavy weight and bring those upper bugs into his feeding zone quickly. First drift through that seam and the fish blew it up! I ended up landing him after a nice hundred-yard sprint downstream and a very trying fight. He was stuck with the Shafer’s Thin Blue Midge and 24 inches long and easily weighed in at 5 pounds. Now, just so you know I smacked that same run for almost an hour trying to figure these fish out. Sometimes patience and thinking outside the box is the way to go!
I hope you have enjoyed learning about how I fish new rivers. In the coming weeks and months, I will expand on each one of these sections in writing and with videos. Stay tuned- great things to come from joeshaferflyfishing.com!
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Great advice! I never thought much about using an Ella’s Beast as a ‘hypothetical’ weight to get your upper flies down — while knowing that the fish would never take the streamer. Definitely going to deploy that tactic more than just tying on another nymph and couple that with a non-leaded split shot.
Have you found color to be critically important when matching imitations? It has to be close but I prefer to think that the silhouette and size to be more essential.