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4/23/2014
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Email a Friend It's All About the Short Game
By Amy Hazel

Click photos to enlarge It's All About the Short Game
A feeding trout just five feet off my rod tip under a tree.
It's All About the Short Game
A trout in heavy cover will require an accurate cast.
It's All About the Short Game
This trout has tilted back to inspect the bug before taking it.
It's All About the Short Game
A trout in a back eddy inspecting the foam line for bugs.
If you enjoy whacking a small white ball around a manicured lawn with the ultimate goal of dropping it into a small hole in the ground (golf, people, golf), then you fully understand the old duffer’s saying: “Drive for show, putt for dough.” Translated into layman’s terms: “Hit the first shot of the golf ball a long distance in order to impress your golfing buddies, but the 2 to 30 foot short strokes are the ones that win the game.” About now, you may be wondering, what the heck does any of this have to do with fly fishing for trout? The answer is, nearly everything. It’s all about the short game!

When I am guiding for trout on the Deschutes, the following scenario commonly unfolds: While stalking the banks, I spot a nice rising trout for a client; we carefully position ourselves to have a shot at the trout (often we are only 15 feet away from our target); we observe the rise form; we observe the insects on the water that are the table fare of the day; we select the appropriate insect as an imitation; we check the leader and knots as we tie on the fly to be sure that we have at least 2 feet of tippet and of the correct diameter (a tippet gauge is handy in this situation); we take inventory of all of the shrubbery around us; we strip off just enough fly line to put the leader and fly upstream of the trout in his feeding lane; we check the drag and line to make sure that there will be no glitches once the fish is hooked; we watch the fish feed a few more times to make sure that we have triangulated his position in relation to the rocks, trees, grass tufts, shadows, etc.; THEN we make the cast. If the cast is accurate, we hook the fish, play it, maybe land and release it, maybe it breaks us off or comes off the line, but we count ourselves successful for hooking the elusive trout and move on to find the next one. During our scenario, we spent 5 minutes getting ready to cast, 5 seconds casting, 2-6 minutes playing and landing the fish. If we add up the time that it took us to spot, position, cast, and catch the trout – we could calculate about 10 minutes at the most. In a nine hour day of fishing, if we had opportunity like that all day, we might hook over fifty trout. But we will only do so if we are able to put the fly in the feeding lanes of the trout quickly and accurately.

A more common situation on the river is that we spot the fish and get into position, but the client has difficulty delicately presenting the fly in the right spot on the first or second try. The first cast goes too far left….the second goes too far right....the third lands in a heap just short of the trout….the forth lands in the branch that is hovering eight feet above the trout….we have to break the fly off and cause a twig to splat on the water right on the nose of the trout….the trout spooks and stops feeding but stays in his feeding station. A minute or two go by as we replace the tippet and tie on a new fly, which gives the trout time to feel that the danger has passed and the trout once again starts feeding on bugs just a few feet off our rod tip. The client attempts the cast again and the fly lands too far to the left….again….too far to the right….again….short….again….perfect!....but the fish had turned to the left to eat an actual bug instead of our perfectly presented fly….again….the fly went a bit to far beyond the fish and began to drag as it hit the feeding zone….the fish is spooked and we no longer see it rising nor do we see its shadow in the feeding station….we wait….if it doesn’t begin to rise again within 3-5 minutes, we can assume that we have spooked it for sure this time and we do not want to wait around for a long time for a fish that may not be in the feeding mood for 20 minutes or more. We had our window of opportunity, but the more casts we made the smaller the window became until it finally closed entirely. On the first or second cast the trout was ours for the catching, but we couldn’t seal the deal because we were confronted with a tricky cast, and without an accurate cast we couldn’t put the fly where it needed to be. No big deal, we see another fish rising 15 yards upstream and we forfeit the now spooked trout and wade through his lie to get in position for the next one. This one is in a little more open water and it only takes two casts – fish on!

So, given the scenario of having a very picky fish rising in front of us, we know that we have only a small window of opportunity to make an accurate cast. If our casting stroke is just a little bit off we are going to line the fish, or our fly will drag, or the fly and fly line will land with a splat on the water next to the trout, or we will make an errant off-target cast and rip it off the water in frustration, or we will hang up in the brush and have to break the fly off, and any of these scenarios will probably spook the fish and ruin our chances of hooking it.

If an angler were to improve his/her casting skills prior to visiting the river, the result would be less frustration and more fish hooked in the course of the day. How so? Well, if an angler sneaks up the bank and sees a rising fish, if his/her cast is accurate and lands in the feeding lane on the very first attempt, the trout will rise unsuspectingly and confidently and eat it the first time he sees it. If it takes 17 attempts to get the fly to the fish – the window of opportunity closes a little bit with each attempt. Every cast that doesn’t land in the correct spot results in a dragged fly or a splash down presentation or getting caught in the trees/grass/bushes right next to the trout or shadows and flashes from false casts or a million little things that make the feeding trout warier and warier until he finally (or suddenly in the case of a splashy presentation) quits feeding and drops down in the water column to seek asylum for a while.

It is clear that the key to dry fly fishing success on the Deschutes is to put the fly on the target on the very first attempt. True, finding the target (a rising or holding trout) is the first step in the right direction, but not messing it up when you have an opportunity is key to successfully hooking as many fish as possible in the course of a day. If you are sneaking along the banks, stalking quietly and carefully, taking time to observe likely holding spots, you WILL see trout rising slowly and deliberately for winged morsels coming to them in the foamy current lines.

Once you have spotted your quarry, it is up to you to get yourself into a position where you have the best shot at getting the fly to the trout without interference from trees, bushes, overhanging branches, or whatever other obstacles may be in your way. We call this “taking inventory.” Take inventory before you even think about making a cast – that way you can avoid the frustration of getting stuck in the trees behind you in the midst of making the perfect cast to a rising trout. If you spot the trout from the high banks and need to climb down a steep hillside to get to it, but sure that you are very careful in your approach. That means, keep your rod tip behind you so the trout is not spooked by a flash of the guides or the shadow if the rod tip. Approach well down current of the trout and creep slowly as you come up behind the trout. If you see the trout rise for an insect, try to look through the water to see if you can locate the dark form of the trout – if not, assume for the first cast that the trout is feeding directly above its lie. In reality, many trout will drop back a bit with the food to carefully check it out before taking it, but that is not always the case. It is better to err on the side of caution and come up short in your first cast as apposed to “lining” (casting fly line over the trout and thus spooking it) the trout on the very first cast.

Most of the time, the trout are feeding opportunistically on a certain insect and they are not much interested in anything else. Sometimes, when stalking the banks, you will come across a trout that is hovering just inches below the surface of the water with its head tilted to the surface. These hovering trout will move 18 “ out of their normal feeding lane if the right morsel comes along, but for the most part they are waiting for a surge of foamy water to carry the insect life right to their noses. If you can put your insect imitation in the foam line as it surges overhead the trout, it is certain that the trout will do one of two things: he will either inspect your fly then confidently inhale it, or he will inspect and subsequently reject your bug by swirling next to it or refusing to surface altogether. If you get a refusal, do not put the same fly out there again. The trout has already clearly communicated to you that he is not taking that exact color, or size, or shape, try again. Immediately cut the fly off and tie on something a little bit different. This will give the trout time to rest. If the trout was steadily rising when you arrived on the scene and it stopped rising after seeing your insect imitation, it is on the verge of being spooked. Changing your fly and waiting until the trout begins rising again is the best option for you at this point. When you present the correct fly with an accurate cast, catching big trout is as simple as taking candy from a baby.

So, how do you get an accurate cast? How does one improve casting skills? The best way is to practice casting on a regular basis. Practice casting? Do people really do this in their free time? YES – good casters do practice in their free time. This is how casting ponds came to be – though the casting pond in Portland has been drained for years, sadly enough, but I used to go there all the time to hone my casting between visits to the Deschutes. It is nice to be able to cast over water, but it is not necessary for most casts.

If you think the idea of practicing your casting sounds weird or ridiculous, think about it in this way: Wouldn’t a golfer with a destination golfing trip to Pebble Beach want to prepare for the tough golf course by spending hours and hours at the driving range and the pitch & putt to prepare for the trip? Wouldn’t a hunter planning an upland bird trip at a famous hunting lodge prepare for the trip by shooting several cases of clay pigeons at a skeet trap course in preparation for the hunt? They absolutely would. But most fly anglers find it perfectly acceptable to travel miles and miles to a destination trout river and hire a guide for the day, when the last time they picked up a fly rod was during the previous summer on another guide trip. The angler has made no effort between trips to improve his/her casting skills because most anglers think that they must have a trout stream to practice on. Yes, it is nice to practice your cast on water with trout as your casting targets, but if you had that in your backyard, you would have no reason to travel to fish! I encourage my clients to practice their casting in between trips on their lawn, in a park, or in a pond if one is available.

Start your practice session by tying a small piece of yarn (part of a strike indicator) onto the end of a leader (preferably a leader that is of the same length and tippet strength that you will be using on the next outing). The yarn will keep the leader from snapping and cracking like a whip and it will give you a “fly” that won’t get caught as easily in grass and trees as one with a hook on it would. You can also get wild and try crazy casts that you wouldn’t necessarily try with a hook on the end of the line! Start with garbage can lids placed out in the open in the yard and try to land your fly right in the center of the lid. Change your position frequently to practice short casts (15-20 feet) and medium casts (20-50 ft) and long casts (over 50) which are going to come in handy when you lake fish, saltwater fish, and on some large rivers. Put a tree or a rock in between you and the target. Practice on windy days – cast with the wind at your back and try to keep the fly from slamming down, cast with a cross wind, cast into the wind and try to punch the fly through the wind (tip: do not let the tip of your fly rod tilt back behind you – and keep your wrist straight, and your thumb pointed to the sky when you stop your rod on the back cast). Pretend you are on river left (for right handers) and practice your off-shoulder casting. You’ll also have to cast off-shoulder whenever you have a cross wind in order to keep the yarn from slamming into you. When you cast off-shoulder, practice keeping your palm and the reel pointed at the target (don’t turn around and cast down stream and try to backhand it into the target on the last cast, you will sacrifice accuracy and the ability to drive the fly through a headwind when you cast in that manner).

Keep your practice sessions fun – make your targets shrink as your skill improves. Garbage can lids shrink down to pizza trays, and then to Frisbees, and finally down to mayonnaise jar lids or cat food cans. Challenge your self to hit targets under overhanging tree branches, while balancing on one leg, curve your cast around a tree trunk, have a competition with a friend, cast yarn pieces to large live targets that will chase them (“cat” fishing is a popular pastime for some of my clients!) One idea I have heard of but never tried is to tie on a fairly large fly like a hopper or stone with the hook removed, then set mouse traps all around the yard. Every target you hit will spring up in the air to reward you for a job well done!

If an angler were to practice even once every two weeks for 30 minutes, he/she would notice a dramatic difference when faced with a rising fish in a tough spot on the river. Muscle memory (built during all those hours of practicing your casting) takes over and stress of making an accurate cast melts away as the fly lands delicately right on target on the very first attempt. Have fun with your casting games during your practice sessions, and you will surely have a more successful day on the river during your next outing.

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Deschutes River Guided Fly Fishing, Spey Casting, Spey Rods, Spey Reels, Spey Lines, DESCHUTES ANGLER - INFO & ARTICLES, Fly Fishing Classes and Clinics, Spey Fishing, Steelhead, Trout, Beulah Rods and Lines, Spey Rods, Spey Reels, Spey Lines, Spey Casting, Spey Video, Switch Rods, Spey Rods, Spey Reels, Spey Lines, Spey Casting, Spey Video, Spey Rods, Spey Reels, Spey Lines, Spey Casting, Spey Video, Switch Lines, Spey Sink-Tips, Deschutes angler carries Winston Fly Rods, Sage Fly Rods, Beulah Fly Rods all year round, Fly Fishing Reels, Fly Reels, Nautilus, Ross, Galvan, Sage, Tibor, Hatch, Running/Shooting Lines, Shooting Head Wallets and Bags, Fly Lines, Fly Leaders & Tippet, Waders & Boots, Fly Chest/Waist/Back Packs, Fly Boxes, Fly Fishing-Accessories, Fly Fishing Handy Gadgets and Tools, Sunglasses/Optics, Gear Bags & Luggage, Rod Tubes, Fly Float Tubes & Pontoon Boats, Fly Fishing Books and DVD's, Gift Certificates, Rental Equipment, Rental Cabins on the Deschutes, Fly Fishing Closeouts
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