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Fly Fishing With Confidence – 5 Tips From TFO Ambassador Tim O’Neill

Yogi Berra once famously said, “90% of the game is half mental.”

Of course, Mr. Berra was talking about the great game of baseball, but the thought process is spot on for fly fishing.

Fly fishing, like baseball, requires a level of mental involvement. You can have all the new gear, tons of flies, and fish the best waters in your area, but if your confidence level isn’t at its highest, you may be in for a long, unproductive day.

How do you get and keep your confidence up as you go through a day or a week of fishing? Here a few tips that help me fish at my best, and I hope they’ll help you.

1.) Gain Experience

We’ve all heard the saying “there’s no substitute for experience.” I believe this is 100% true. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill here. The only way to gain experience is to put footprints on the riverbank.

Get out and fish as much as possible – as your experience increases, so will your confidence.


2.) Fish Confidence Patterns

If you were to look into any of my fly boxes you would be underwhelmed at best. You will see well-organized boxes with a bunch of flies – what you won’t see is a bunch of different patterns.

Hone in on the handful of patterns that work well in your area and stock your boxes with them. Remember, presentation is usually much more important than the fly on the end of your tippet. Speaking of presentation…


3.) Get A Good Presentation

You aren’t going to fool wary, wild brown trout with poor presentation.

I’m often asked if the most important ingredient in nymphing is size, silhouette, color or presentation. Without a doubt, my answer to that question is always presentation. If you’re in the ballpark with your fly selection and you give a solid presentation, you can usually coax a fish into eating. Conversely, you can be spot on with your fly selection, but if you don’t present it naturally to the fish, your chances of a hook up are pretty slim to none.

Many things can aid you in a proper presentation. When speaking of nymphing, and particularly tight line of euro-style nymphing, I like a light weight, 10′ rod. My go-to nymphing rod the past few years has been the TFO Drift Rod. the down locking reel seat and adjustable weight system allow me to balance the rod perfectly with a moderate weight reel, which is usually a problem for most 10′ rods. The TFO Drift has enough backbone for a solid hook set, but has a light overall feel. You can hold this rod high for a full day of hard nymph fishing and not have to worry about shoulder or elbow strain.


4.) Fish With Anglers Who Are “Better” Than You

Better is a subjective term here, but you get the idea. Be it a mentor, local legend, or a guide, seek out people you can learn from and fish with them as much as possible. Knowledge translates into confidence.


5.) Slow Down

With all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, sometimes we forget fly fishing is meant to be fun.

Don’t be in a rush to get to the next riffle or run. Take a minute to read the water and the currents, flip over a rock and see what’s living under it as an indicator of what the fish might be biting on at that time.

When you catch a fish, take a minute to recount where in the river the fish was. Why fly did it take, and at what point in the drift did he take it?

All of these little bits of information will help you put together the pieces of the puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle will increase your confidence, and the more confidence you have…well, you get the picture.


Quick Review & Story

I was standing knee-deep in frigid water on the inside edge or a bend of the Elk River in Western Pennsylvania, assessing the situation.

Across and a little upriver from my position there was a spot – you all know that spot. A submerged boulder with the tell tale dark area that every fisherman seeks out. The type of spot you KNOW holds a fish.

I cast my nymph rig upriver and drifted it down past the boulder…nothing. Two more drifts…nothing. An indicator adjustment…nothing. I added a little weight…nothing.

As a last ditch effort, I re-positioned myself and threw a huge upriver mend as the indicator hit the water. The rig had drifted about 10 feet when the 3/4″ diameter white float darted out of our sight.

I lifted and instantly came tight to 25 inches of angry steelhead.

It took me several adjustments to get the drift dialed in, but once I did, I stuck three fish out of that spot, landing two of them.

Why did I spend so much time drifting a 6 square foot area?

Confidence. “90% of the game is half mental” –  Words that hold true to baseball as well as fly fishing.


Words & Photos by Tim O’Neill

Tim is a TFO Ambassador based out of Hockessin, Delaware. He is also ​the founder and owner of O’Neill’s Fly Fishing as well as the owner of the Norvise fly tying system.

The Art of How to Present the Nymph

Editor’s Note: Below is a submission from TFO advisor Jason Randall. Enjoy.

Since the dawn of time, at least angling-wise, anglers have embraced the need for drag-free dry-fly drifts. Only in more recent history, however, have anglers come to realize the importance of a natural drift while nymph fishing. Just as with dry flies, having the right fly helps, but presentation trumps fly selection; you’ll catch more trout with the wrong fly and the right presentation than you will with the right fly but a poor presentation.

Euro-nymphing and other forms of tightline or contact nymphing have surged in popularity not only because of improved strike detection, but also the control they offer over the presentation. By minimizing the effect of subsurface drag, these methods allow the flies to stay in the strike zone, which is the bottom 20 percent of the vertical water column, with a more natural drift.

You can think of the shorter drifts typical of most tightline techniques as having three distinct stages. The first, just after the cast, begins as the flies descend to the strike zone, and the current begins to pull them downstream. Ideally, get your flies quickly to the strike zone with a tuck cast or equivalent, which shortens this phase and lengthens the next. Many strikes occur during this stage, so it pays to keep contact with the flies while they sink.

TFO’s Drift Rod is an excellent choice for the serious nymph fisherman. Photo courtesy of Jason Randall.

The second stage begins when the flies reach the strike zone — often signaled by a slight tightening of the sighter, which is a short segment of brightly colored and thus highly visible monofilament spliced into the leader. No line or leader on the water makes a single entry point as the leader pierces the water, and the drift is tracked downstream towards the angler’s position and below. The drift usually moves slightly slower than the current speed seen from the surface since the strike zone layer near the stream bottom moves slower than the layers above. This speed mimics the drift speed of naturally drifting organisms. An occasional bottom snag confirms that our flies are in the strike zone. Strikes are often felt as a tug, but more commonly seen as change in the ‘sag’ or droop of the sighter.

The third stage can be varied according to angler preference, but starts with the end of the dead drift as the flies tighten to the leader. At this point, we often simply lift to the next cast, and sometimes justly so if fish are hitting during the previous stages. But when fishing is slow, try modifying this final stage- it can trigger strikes. For instance, once the flies tighten, allow them to rise slowly to the surface like a rising insect, even allowing them to swing across the current like a wet fly. If fish are in a chasing mood, this might seal the deal. This works even with rising trout during a hatch.

Choose current threads for your drift within one and one-half rod lengths or less from where you stand as measured by holding the rod horizontally and directly across stream. Cast less than twenty-five feet upstream in that thread. If you choose a thread too far across stream, you’ll get drag during the drift as the flies pull across currents. A longer rod helps reach that current thread that might otherwise be too far away. Longer rods also help lengthen the drift.

TFO’s adjustable length Drift rod lets you add or remove segments according to the situations you may face in the course of a day’s fishing. Adding length allows you to extend a drift or reach an otherwise unreachable feeding lane. The shorter length comes in handy when fishing in tight quarters or on streams closed in by vegetation. With the Drift rod, you only have to carry one rod to the river.

Any questions, comments about the Drift or nymphing techniques, feel free to reach out on one of our social media channels.


Jason Randall is an outdoor writer whose articles frequently appear in fly-fishing magazines. He is the author of four books published by Stackpole Books.