Fish at Your Feet

I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently to speak with Loren Williams, the head coach of the U.S. youth fly-fishing team and a veteran member of the men’s team.
Williams, who lives in Westvale, near Syracuse, is generous with his know-how. I highly recommend his website,, for its excellent fly-tying tutorials and fishing advice. Information and inspiration abound.
Williams makes his living as a guide, mainly on the hard-fished Salmon River in Oswego County, helping anglers hook into powerful steelhead, acrobatic coho salmon and big Chinook salmon. So whether it’s in international competition against the best fly-fishers from around the world or out on the river with paying clients and fish that have seen it all, Williams is accustomed to finding ways to catch fish when the pressure’s on.
So I asked him: what is the most common mistake that anglers make?
Do you think he said using flies that don’t look enough like real bugs? No. In fact, Williams feels that to a large extent, imitating nature too closely is a poor strategy, for a simple reason: If your fly looks exactly like, say, a Blue-Winged Olive nymph, then it becomes just another bug in an aquatic environment full of them. It may never even be noticed by a trout.
“ I’m throwing imitation out the window,” he said. “To me, flies are little lures.”
“I want the fish to be attracted to the fly. If I feel like I have to fool the fish into taking my fly, then I’m competing against every other natural fly in the stream and the odds go down. As I grow as an angler, I’m starting to see the benefits of setting my fly apart from everything else, as long as it still looks like some kind of food.”
Keep in mind that Williams was talking about sub-surface nymph fishing. He may take a more orthodox approach to dry-fly fishing. But in any case, using the wrong fly wasn’t even close to his answer to my question. Nor did he say people fished at the wrong time of day, in the wrong weather or with an insufficiently natural drift (although that is another subject where Williams is unconventional.)
No, he said the biggest mistake most anglers make was to not bother fishing water that didn’t look “fishy” enough.
“I wish people would learn how to fish more of the water in front of them,” he said. “I think the tendency I see from recreational anglers and my clients is they want to go comfortable water – the kind of water they’ve fished successfully before. They overlook an awful lot of fish and a lot of great experiences, and they don’t learn any new techniques.”
“Whatever kind of water you look at and the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you want to run away from it, that’s great water to attack. Sometimes there’s a reason it’s not being fished, and it’s not because there are no fish in it. Having the ability to fish frog water or skinny water or heavy, deep water opens up a lot more avenues for you.”
“When you compete, you don’t have your choice of water types, you have the water that’s in front of you,” he added. “You do the best you can in the three hours you have.
This is not to say you should waste your time fishing water where you can see with certainty that there are no fish. But except for very shallow, clear water, there aren’t many places like that. Trout count for their survival on being hard to see.
“The fish are there,”Williams said. “It’s a comment I hear a lot: ‘That’s water I never would have fished, and I’m glad I did.’”

–First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y., Aug. 26, 2010

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