How to Fish

Student Of Slay – Building The Foundations Of Fly Fishing

fly fishing school

My progression as an angler shouldn’t just start and stop at saltwater sportfishing, my primary pursuit of late. As important, if not even more importantly it’s about becoming a well-rounded fisherman. Constantly pursuing and experiencing new waters. New species. New techniques. New destinations. Allowing fishing to push me out of my comfort zone and truly embracing the ride along the way. Fly fishing feels the epitome of all these for me and the ultimate platform to balance my love of the mountains for my love of the ocean. But with very limited experience in this realm, I would need some help getting starting.

Enter Orvis’s Colorado Fly Fishing school in Beaver Creek, CO. Which is nestled in the Vail – Eagle River Valley, an area I’m lucky enough to frequent, primarily in the winter when chasing powder. But as my fishing obsession grows, so does my desire to seek out the mountains to chase trout. So after a little due diligence, reading reviews and asking local (Colorado) buddies – the general consensus was the Orvis sponsored program was top notch and a phenomenal way to learn the foundations of fly fishing.

I selected the two-day school option as I figured I could maximize both my learning time and downtime in one of my favorite destinations. One short flight later, I arrived in Denver, picked up a friend’s car (thanks again Karp!), and headed up I-70 towards Vail summit and ultimately Beaver Creek. I couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque welcome into the mountains with a gorgeous sunset backdrop.

fly fishing

I had recently heard about and seen some of the rivers turned rapids but because Colorado was treated to a stellar snow year, the runoff flows were insane. Surely this was going to factor into our fishing gameplans but with the school structured into a mix of classroom, casting instruction and actual fishing formats, I was stoked to dig in and soak up as much knowledge as possible.

Day 1: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day.” “Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”

“I know that quote sounds a little cliché, but that really is the premise of this course. It’s about the foundations of fly-fishing and teaching you to be self-sufficient to go catch fish on your own with or without a guide.” – Orvis Lead Instructor Matt West lead off with.

Our first day started out with a very brief introduction and classroom session. We quickly breezed through some fly fishing basics such as gear, fly line, leader & tippet selection and the basics of fly presentation. What came as a pleasant surprise was this discussion only lasted 45 minutes before it was time to move out to the field. In my opinion, there’s no better way to learn than by actually doing and practicing, which is exactly what we were headed to do. Time to learn the art of fly casting!

fly fishing

We arrived at a beautiful park set in the foothills of the surrounding Vail valley mountains. Our class was a mix of completely new beginners to a few that have fly fished a handful of times at most, such as myself. Casting fly line has always been a point of envy for me towards those who make it look easy. In the past, I would have been happy when a cast makes it 15 feet without the line folding over itself. I have never dedicated the time or found that consistent touch and was excited to be coached up.

“Focus on being able to cast 20-30-feet out to a spot. A vast majority of our local rivers and waters, being able to proficiently cast 20-feet will catch you fish. You don’t need the 60-foot hero cast for a most of style of trout fishing.” Matt advised.

I started casting the way I had done in the past, which was self-taught thanks to YouTube and some pointers from friends. Things didn’t start off as rough as I anticipated but after some quick coaching and minor adjustments from Matt (as well as fellow instructor Hunter), things started to click shockingly fast.

“That’s actually not too bad at all. The biggest thing I see most beginners, including yourself, doing, is going too far back on your back or up-cast. Shorten that up and stop your up-cast at noon or a little past with an abrupt pop to load that rod” – Matt instructed while simultaneously showing me the ropes.

Immediately, this subtle tip yielded dividends increasing my distance (albeit only by 5-10-feet) and accuracy alike. Hunter and Matt continued to make the rounds challenging us to add another piece of the cast such as shooting line, false casting, and hauling.

fly fishing

“Oh yeah, that will definitely catch fish!” – Matt encouraged.

After a quick lunch stop at a local Mexican joint (Agave), we headed back to the classroom. Although the topics covered are probably the baseline basics to the seasoned fly angler, going through things like flies and fly selection, rigging basics, and some specifics for fishing trout was extremely beneficial. Although A LOT of the information discussed was brand new, there were a few things that seemingly carry over to any type of fishing. One little nugget I picked up on and will definitely stick with me was something I believe is priceless but easily overlooked in practice.

“De-liberate. Then be deliberate. What I mean is take the time to read the water before tying a fly on or casting. Take note of your surroundings. Observe what bugs are or are not flying around. Then be deliberate with your approach.” Matt mentioned as part of his everyday fishing regimen.

That is something I strive to be more proactive about on my own trips but always seems to get brushed to the side when caught in the moment and overly excited to get lines in versus slow down to observe. This is something I’ve noticed almost every pro or guide I’ve had the pleasure to fish with do but something I’ve yet to truly find the discipline to consistently practice.

beer tasing

With day one wrapped up, I explored the area and found out there was a local “Vail Valley Brew Fest” with live music and craft breweries set up for tasting. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to cap the day than some delicious yet potent cold ones, live tunes, and another gorgeous Colorado sunset.

Day 2: Making the best of the situation and conditions. “Fishing is fishing and it’s a beautiful day.”

The second portion of the Orvis school is all about putting day one’s teaching into practice. And the ultimate way to practice is to go out and fish!

My streak of all-time weather and water conditions came to an end with this trip. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the river flows were way above manageable, fishable levels as a result of massive something to come back for. It could have been easy to be bummed that the fishing options were limited but let’s call a spade a spade, I’m in one of the most epic places on our planet and still get to fish. Which in hindsight, is an important lesson in itself.

fly fishing

You will never be able to control mother nature or weather conditions so why not treat each situation as the glass half full and adapt to your surroundings. The day I don’t appreciate the opportunity and blessing that it is to participate in this sport, I hope is the same day someone calls me out or puts me in check! Fishing is fishing and I will cherish every opportunity to be outside enjoying it.

But I digress, get off my soapbox and back to the story.

Ultimately we opted to try our luck at a couple of the nearby park lakes, which they keep stocked with a variety of trout to ensure there is always some fishing opportunity on tap. The first spot turned out to be several additional hours of casting practice with little love for any of my flies. As the morning waned on, my patience stretched thin and the few bites I did receive were met with a completely disproportionate reaction. Evidently, I was out there to rip lips and trying to set the hook like the Hulk.

fly fishing

Well, chalk up the morning session and time to focus on getting the smelly black and white critter off my back in the afternoon.

Orvis fly fishing

Maybe I was “hangry” but didn’t notice because, after lunch and our reshuffle to the second spot, I had newly found patience. As we spread out and staked claim to our spots, I tried to take some of those earlier lessons to the field. Taking the time to walk the rocks, I scanned the waters for signs of fish or ideal conditions. De-liberate.

Now it was time to be deliberate in my actions. Focus on putting my casts and flies in the zones where I was seeing fish. Making adjustments to what flies or rigs I was trying. Per guides Jacob’s and Hunter’s suggestion, I opted to try the dry-dropper setup. Which I quickly became a fan of. I am a huge proponent of offering up a “fish buffet”. Having a dry fly on the surface for fish to feed on and also doubling as my indicator, as well as a small midge for the subsurface fish down a bit deeper.

Sure enough, it worked. After missing the first bite of a trout rolling on my dry fly, I connected on another that went for the midge tied on the dropper. It has been a while since I have caught a fish on the fly rod and forgot how fun it is to hand fight on these setups. There is certainly something very pure about this style and being able to feel every subtlety of the fight is hard to describe. I carefully landed the beautifully colored rainbow and had a quick release. The fish shot out away from the rocks and back to grow another day.

I rechecked my flies, applied some fresh floatant, and now was fully in the zone to catch more as time was winding down. My overhead cast and roll cast continued to improve which allowed me to get out to further, deeper zones than earlier. One cast, in particular, yielded a noticeable harder bite and seemingly bigger fish I was able to get tight on. However, the fight was short-lived as it quickly broke off the light 6x tippet line that the midge was tied on.

fly fishing

But I was given one last shot and found a feisty little Cutthroat Trout to cap the day and trip off.

Despite, the less than optimal fishing conditions, this trip turned out to be exactly what I was looking for to spark my pursuits on the fly. With this one being a proper “school” format, the lessons learned were plentiful but here are a few that notably stuck:

  • “De-liberate. Then be deliberate” – putting Matt’s philosophy into practice and taking the time to evaluate things prior to throwing a line is a discipline I want to strive for moving forward. In all fishing pursuits, I think this is an incredibly valuable step.
  • Making the Adjustments – constantly being deliberate (there it is again) and proactive in noting what’s working, what’s not. Keeping tabs on your surroundings and environment. It’s easy to be lazy and try to grind things out but sometimes making big or subtle adjustments will make or break your success rate.
  • Adapting to What You Can’t Control – primarily weather and water conditions. This is more of mindset or attitude adjustment then actual tangible adjustment like above. Some things are beyond your control but you have the choice to embrace and adapt or be bitter and/or quit. A day outside, on the water will always win in my book and I appreciate each one – sometimes despite fish counts.

Of course, a special thanks as always to Matt, Hunter, Jacob and the entire team that puts together the Orvis Fly Fishing School. With a sport that can be somewhat intimidating to enter as a beginner, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place to start.

Jordan Jennings grew up boating and fishing the lakes of his home state of Michigan. Cutting his teeth on the bass, salmon, perch, and pike of local i...