The Three Never-Fail Rules of Fly Fishihng

By Scott Richmond

My father was an engineer and had absolute faith that every event in the cosmos, from the orbits of planets to the rising of trout, was governed by invariable laws. "If you understand the rules of the universe," he told me, "life is at your command." Fishing was no exception to his philosophy. He was convinced that if he just knew a few basic principles he could fill the boat with big fish.

I never met a man more consistently skunked. Hour after fishless hour, he trolled Puget Sound for salmon. That fact that he rarely caught anything but the tide only convinced him he didn't yet know the rules. He was sure that someday the hidden laws that governed fish behavior would become clear to him. The alternative--that there might not be any laws--was unthinkable.

I used to share his faith in a tidy universe governed by scientific principles. I searched for never-fail rules that applied to the world of angling, and was eventually successful. But like most scientific discoveries, the search was difficult and dangerous, and the conclusions were not what I'd expected.

The Search for "Never-Fail" Rules

When I took up fly fishing, I poured over books and magazine articles searching for an equation that would help me choose between a nymph and a dry fly. I found a few good guidelines, but no real rules, nothing that was true under all circumstances. In my living room, the rules seemed clear and obvious, but when I went to the river and actually fished, the rules seemed to apply to an alternate universe.

For a while, I despaired of finding any rules. Then I took a new tack and stripped fishing to its essence. "Okay," I thought. "Start with the simplest of all rules and expand from there. It is always true that you won't catch fish if your hook isn't in the water." Clearly trout weren't going to jump out of the water and land at my feet, any more than they would swim into my net.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

The next April I was at a desert lake in eastern Oregon. I walked the margins of the lake looking for rises, my nymph fastened securely to the keeper on my fly rod. Suddenly the water beside me erupted and a 20-inch Lahontan cutthroat leaped from the lake and landed at my feet.

With shaking hands I scooted the trout back into the lake. It wasn't the surprise of the trout's sudden appearance that had me trembling. It was the empirical evidence that one more fishing theory had gone up in smoke. As spring progressed, I rationalized that the trout's strange behavior was due to cold weather or maybe some piscatorial silliness associated with the spawning season.

That summer, however, my last vestige of faith was erased.

It was early evening. All around me rising trout were quietly sipping pale morning duns. A few fish had taken my No Hackle fly and left its wings too shredded for further fishing. As I tied on a new fly, I felt a thump-thump-thump on my right thigh, down where my net dangled in the water. I lifted the net and found a trout in it. Was this some seven-inch stocker, newly tumbled from the hatchery truck, that swam into my net in a state of dazed confusion? Nope. It was a wild rainbow trout over a foot long, and I was standing in Idaho's world-famous Silver Creek, a spring-fed fishery noted for its finicky trout.

I instantly decided there were no rules that applied to fishing and became a kind of angling agnostic.

The First Two Never-Fail Rules

A few more seasons, however, showed me that there were indeed a few rules--three to be exact--that apply to all forms of fishing. I have carefully tested them on rivers and lakes and against many species of fish. I have sorted through all my past experiences as well as those of other anglers, and have found these three rules to be as invariable as the second law of thermodynamics.

The first rule is, You should always listen to the experts, but you shouldn't always believe them. If that rule is not intuitively obvious, you either need to spend more time reading or more time fishing.

Once you accept the first rule, the second rule becomes clear: Some people's advice should never be followed. These people are easy to identify--they offer non-stop opinions. A prime example is a retired guy who works part-time at his brother-in-law's gas station/bait shop. He hasn't fished since Eisenhower was president, but he'll give you a thirty-minute lecture on how to fish a green drake hatch. And all you asked him was if the gas station took credit cards.

The Third Rule

The third rule took longer to discover. I recognized its truth on a steelhead trip to the Deschutes River. My companion--a highly experienced and expert angler--and I spent a fishless, strike-less day, finishing at the Hole-in-the-Rock pool at dusk. An obviously inexperienced angler was casting from the opposite bank. My friend said something disdainful that implied this other angler was inept and had certain anatomical confusions of a sexual nature. Ten minutes later I noticed that this neophyte angler had hooked a nice steelhead.

That night my friend and I had dinner at the Oasis Cafe in Maupin. As we paid the bill, Mike McLucas, the owner, said "Yeah, some kid came in and said he caught one at Hole-in-the-Rock along about evening. I think that was the only fish caught today."

Rule 3 was now clear: In any given body of water, on any given day, there exists one really dumb fish that will confidently accept anything presented to it in any manner. Furthermore, there is no relationship between the size of the fish and the stupidity of the technique used to catch it.

Astute anglers will notice that it is a versatile rule. When you are the only one who is fishless, you can use Rule 3 to explain away the success of your buddies. On the other hand, if you are the only one catching fish, remember Rule 3. It will keep you from taking yourself--and fishing--too seriously.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).