How many times have you been nymphing or tossing streamers and a nice fish begins rising along the opposite bank or somewhere within casting distance, and in your excitement you tie on a dry fly and throw a cast at it that lands poorly and puts the fish down? We’ve all done it, and most of us still do it once in a while. I just did it again the other day even though I know I know better. A nice trout was slashing at egg-laying stoneflies, so I hurriedly tied on a dry, quickly worked out line, and my first (and last) cast puddled hard on the water right over where the fish was holding. It never did come up again despite more stoneflies passing over the area. I guess sometimes the reactive reflex is stronger than the take your time reflex when it comes to fly fishing.
So what should I have done? Well, what I usually do is take the time to make sure my line, leader, and fly will work in conjunction with my cast to present the fly in the best possible way. And what kills me every time I don’t do that, is that it takes so little time to do this. In hindsight, I will usually rationalize it by thinking that I wouldn’t be out there standing in the river in the first place, if it didn’t get my blood pumping once in while. My girlfriend would rationalize it simply by saying boys will be boys.
Making sure your first cast to a rising fish is maximized in terms of presentation is critical for several reasons. The most important reason for making your initial cast count is because that first cast has the best odds of hooking up. With each successive cast, the odds of that fish taking your fly get reduced.
Here’s what I usually do, and recommend to others, as you never know if that one fish may be your best of the day, the year, or ever. Once you determine what the fish is feeding on, or what dry is most appropriate for the situation, check your leader and tippet before tying it on. Most of the time, your leader will probably be okay, but if not, fix it or change it.
More likely, the tippet you have is going to be too heavy, too short, or possibly damaged from split-shot, or maybe just from fishing subsurface flies. Change it, making sure the size and length are appropriate for the conditions and the fly you are about to tie on and fish. Once you have done that, tie on your fly, being careful not to curl the tippet and making sure your knot is secure and strong.
Now here’s the critical part. Let out a little line and make a quick cast just up stream of you and watch as the fly lands on the water. Does it land upright? Does the tippet and leader fall without coiling or puddling up? As you retrieve line, is the fly drifting drag-free and behaving as you want it to? Pick up your line and make another quick cast, and again look for any signs that your fly or leader/tippet are not doing what you expect. If not, fix the problem. This may mean re-tying your fly, changing your fly, changing your tippet, etc. The bottom line is that you want to know your fly is doing exactly what you want it to when you cast it to that rising fish.
Once you know your fly is going to drift the way you want it to, make your first cast to the fish. Knowing that your fly and leader/tippet are doing what you expect will give you confidence, which translates into your making a good presentation thereby increasing the likelihood that the fish will take your offering. The other benefit of taking a few moments to make sure your presentation will be the best it can be is that even if the trout does not take your fly, it is more likely that it will complete the drift without spooking the fish so you have another shot at it. And in terms of time, unless you really have to make some drastic changes to your tackle, it only takes maybe 15-20 seconds, 30 at most, to make a huge difference in your presentation.