Secondary Skills — Who Needs Them?
By Mark Blauvelt
A recent conversation with a tournament bass fisherman included a discussion about secondary skills. Secondary skills can give you an edge over a pea-brained, but challenging fish, no matter what the species. So what is a secondary skill? These are the skills that allow you to be successful. For example, a bass fisherman needs to be able to control a boat and use and interpret the information from the boats electronics. Learning to pitch, flip and diagnose bottom composition from the “touch” of a jig crawling across the lake pan, are more examples, but let’s talk about fly fishing.
Perhaps you are an excellent caster of the long rod learned from many practice sessions on the pond and you can hit 95 out of 100 circles with great consistency. Practice has certainly paid off and folks consider you a great caster. Sooner or later someone will invite you to the river and now you are in a vastly different world. I imagine everyone has experienced this, at some point, and we all know how that day turned out for the pond caster. Now is when those secondary skills will turn you from just a great caster into a fish catching machine!
The first skill we should talk about is, knowing your bugs, by way of doing some basic stream Entomology. The easiest way to learn this lesson is, getting to a stream, and doing a little rock rolling. In simple terms, if all the nymphs you find are about a size 16 and green, guess what? You know which fly to start with! Lesson learned. Only time and experience with can really help you here. Look for local hatch charts and do a little research on the Internet. Go fishing, shake the bushes and talk to local shops. All of this will help you become a master at figuring out what the fish are likely to be eating!
Practical Casting is the next skill. Not for distance, but for effect. Use several casts, including a Roll Cast, Side Arm Cast, Cross Chest Cast and a Reach or Mend Cast to greatly improve your success rate. The ability to get a fly where many others can not is critical. If you can get a good drift to hard to reach spots, you WILL catch many more fish. If you are a right handed, and are forced to fish from the right hand side of the stream, use a Cross Chest Cast or a Right Handed Reach Cast to reach these areas. Be creative. If you see a fish rising and make a mistake, so what! Put a fish down? Use that spot as practice, to figure out all the different ways to get a fly there, on the first cast. Think about which of these ways would result in the best drift and use it the next time.
The ability to Read the Water comes with experience. A simple understanding of how streams meander and how to identify the deepest parts, on the outside bends, and how those spots relate to the riffles is a great start. You should be able to stand in a stream and look upstream or down and figure out how you are going to wade to hit the next spot. In a sense, you should be moving from left to right and back to left as you zigzag up the stream, always standing on the shallow spot fishing the deeper spots. Also, learn how water scours holes under trees and around obstacles, and use this to your advantage.
Ok, so now you can wade into position and get the right fly to the spot. Now what? This is where Line Management comes in. Getting the fly to the right spot is only half the battle. You have to get a dead drift with minimal slack line over the fish, at the just right moment, so he will come and eat. This is much easier said than done! It requires that a great many details come together at the right time, in the right order. Casting, mending, stripping slack out of the line and, all the while, you must be doing it without taking your eyes off the fly. Practice, Practice, Practice! It's the only way to manage this, and this single skill is what makes the difference between a good fisherman and a great one. While guiding I see folks put a hundreds drifts over a spot, with no result. Occasionally, I'll take a shot at it with the same rig and catch a fish. I do this on about every trip I do to prove a point. When folks see it, then they become believers. Dead drifting is an art and must be done exactly or it can spook more fish than not!
Ok, now were cooking! You’ve hooked a good fish (you'll get bigger fish because your skill levels have improved) and you have to bring him in. This is where most anglers never have enough practice. Landing fish is a skill, too! Learning, while playing the fish of a lifetime, is a bad idea. I suggest you practice a few things that will come in very handy when you are landing a big fish. If you have switched to the long rod from a lifetime of spin fishing, then you’ll do ok. But if you're new to fishing as a whole, its unlikely you actually know how much pull is ok on a 5X tippet or on 4 lb test. Go out and spin fish for carp with corn with a spin reel with 5X tippet then use your fly rod. Put enough pressure on the fish to break it off. Do it over and over again. The length of the rod is a valuable asset. Learn how to lead the fish on long runs, learn how to switch sides on the fish to stop him from resting in the current. Learn how to adjust the drag. Lastly, learn how to land them - by yourself! You should intuitively know which fish are hand-landable, versus fish that require beaching. You need to beach a larger fish, if you are by yourself. Worst case, go to a private pay-to-fish trout club or private lake where the fish are hand fed. Practice catching bigger fish on light tackle, play them quickly and efficiently, and then return then unharmed, to fight another day.
These are just a few of the Secondary Skills needed to increase your odds against even the smartest of fish. Next time we will talk about wading skills, stalking fish, spotting fish, detecting rise forms, knots and netting fish. Until then, you’ve got homework!
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