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Fly Fishing Lessons: Targeted Angling

Updated: Feb 28

On many fisheries around the world anglers can go about their day on the water making routine casts in areas likely to hold fish and come away with a reasonable number of bites and fish to the net 80-90 percent of the time. However, certain pieces of water require more attention to detail on the part of the angler. Places with spooky fish, low numbers of fish, or most importantly, large or trophy sized fish often require a more targeted approach than most. During my first few years of fly angling, the opportunities at trophy sized trout were scarce to nonexistent, but I did spend a reasonable amount of time on waters with very spooky and exceptionally rare trout.

Having the mindset to go out and limit yourself to a quarter or less of the normal casts you would typically make in a day is difficult and requires incredible patience and discipline, but the rewards for success are usually second to none. Most of the time anglers would do this under conditions where sight fishing is possible, but it can be used when fishing blind as well. A majority of my most memorable trout have been landed while sight fishing to a visible target or a fish I was confident was in the area. The first of which came on a trip to Japan where I planned on targeting the native Cherry Trout (Yamame) and White Spotted Char (Iwana).

Fly Fishing Japan

The beginning of the trip began on several small streams around the ski town of Nagano. Here it did not take long to cross the Yamame off the list. Although there were Iwana located in these sections of stream we had little luck coaxing a bite from them. While the Cherry Trout tended to behave much more similarly to the abundant rainbow trout here in North America, the Iwana’s behavior more closely paralleled that of the brook trout. Opting for the smaller, colder water streams and the dense cover of the forest undergrowth, the char was certainly more elusive like its brook trout cousin. After failing in these streams, the decision was made to move to another watershed further north along the Kinugawa River near the town of Nikko.

After arriving in Nikko just before sundown, I was fortunate enough to meet the fisheries manager for the prefecture (county/state) who pointed me in the direction of his favorite small stream where he had seen some Iwana recently. He was a kind old man who would not let me leave without taking one of his handmade posters for the local annual fishing derby.

The next morning I made my way to the short stretch of a small creek he mentioned. I methodically made my way up the creek with no success to the final two holes before I would reach a dead end. One hole was located below a waterfall, the other was a much deeper hole created by the spillway of a small dam which created a tiny reservoir above. After approaching the first hole below the waterfall and making a quick cast, I noticed two silhouettes spook from the tail of the shallow pool and bolt upstream for the deeper hole. After several more casts I realized my opportunity had been blown so I moved up to the upper pool below the spillway. Here I saw the same amount of success and decided to leave the small stream for the larger Kinugawa River below and allow the fish to set back up.

I spent the lunch hours and early afternoon catching a good number of Yamame and stocked rainbow trout, with each hookset and netting bringing with it the disappointment of seeing another trout that wasn’t my target species. Here I was able to catch fish by blindly casting into short runs and riffles with little effort. I knew I must return to the small stream during the evening hours for another opportunity. This was my final day before heading back to Tokyo for my flight out. With limited transportation opportunities I knew I had to concentrate on the trout I had seen earlier as leaving would be a major risk.

As the light began to fade I made my way back to the small creek. I patiently made my way upstream fishing each run, plunge, and pool that looked like it may hold a trout. I saw no signs of life until I reached the small run below the water pool where I had seen the trout that morning. Here the trout was sitting low in the water and did not seem very active. I crept into position behind the trout. My first few casts went unnoticed by the trout as my casts were a bit off of their mark. After a dozen casts the inactive fish seemed to become agitated and moved upstream to the pool beyond my line of sight. In fear of spooking the fish I decided to be patient and wait

under the waterfall for the trout to return. After a half hour to an hour, the trout slowly slipped back to the shallow run he had been before. I continued observing his behavior for a while longer and realized he still wasn’t very active. After another half hour, the sun began to sink below the ridge line of the valley. The trout began to become more active in the low light. Zig zagging back and forth feeding on nymphs and occasionally rising to the surface to eat something I was unable to see as the light faded. I decided this was my opportunity. I peeled just enough line off of the reel to make the cast I needed. I made a soft cast with my elk hair caddis to the head of the short run where the fish was positioned. Immediately the trout rose to the fly, I set the hook and the fly flew from the surface. A golden opportunity was lost. The trout had missed the fly and was now gone. I waited another 20 minutes until dark but the trout never returned. My train for Tokyo would leave at 9am the following morning. I would have one more shot at the trout.

The sun began to rise just after 4am the next morning and I was geared up and ready for one more try. The mile long walk through the mountain town was slightly surreal as the normally bustling streets were completely vacant. I arrived at the small creek just before 5am and decided to pass the unproductive pools of the lower stretch and return to where I had seen the trout the prior day. Sure enough, the trout was right where I had left him. Occasionally rising for a fly below a small plunge that was below the run I had seen him the evening before. I watched for ten minutes or so as the trout picked several flies of the surface. I prepared my rod and peeled line from the tip. My first cast went a hair long and landed in the plunge. I slowly raised my rod tip to allow the caddis to find its way back to the surface. There was a small boil, and my line became taught. I set the hook, and after a very brief fight I had my first Iwana corralled in the small pool at my feet. There were very few fish I had ever been more proud to catch. After a few photos I sent the Iwana back on his way.

I wanted to thank the old man for sharing his secret spot and share my fishing adventure but figured showing up unexpected before 6am on a Sunday may be a bit much. Instead, I would make my way back to the hotel for an early breakfast and collect my things. The walk back was one of the more peaceful experiences I’d had in quite a while. The gratifying experience and the relief of not going home empty handed allowed me to soak in the calmness of the morning and the still vacant streets. I was able to relax and breathe a bit deeper while taking in the blooming rhododendrons, camellias, lilies, and oleander that lined the tight alleyway, I had failed to notice the day prior. I had accomplished my goal of the trip and learned one of the best lessons that would pay huge dividends for me in the future.

In my hunt for the rare and endangered trout species around the globe, using this targeted approach has paid off many times when fish are scarce and spooky. As a Fly Fishing Guide in North Georgia, this is also the most effective strategy when looking for trophy sized trout in our local rivers and streams. The biggest lessons I learned from targeting are that finding trout is easier with a high sun and better lighting, but your approach must be slower and more methodical when approaching the fish. Moving quickly will tip off spooky trout in skinny water or trophy sized trout that are more wary to begin with. Targeting these trout during periods of lower light will often find them more aggressive but more difficult to find if they haven't been located yet. Using this strategy on smaller trout close to home is a great way to practice for the day you stumble across the fish of a lifetime. Be sure to check out our other Fly Fishing Stories and Fly Fishing Lessons that will help you have more success on the water.

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