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Beginner's Guide

Fly Fishing Retrieve

by Josh Bourn   |  January 15th, 2012 0

(Visual galleries after article)

Photo: Jay Nichols

As fish hunters we sometimes see the fish we’re after, other times we encounter “searching water” where we ply our trade, and hope the fish come looking for us. These are places where you say to yourself, “If I were a predator, this is where I would feed,” and you engage in the act of visualizing how your fly looks moving above or below the surface. Whether you are hunting rooster combs on a beach in Baja, the wolf-shaped head of a pike in a windy bay, or a navy blue pocket surrounding a rock you hope is the home of a giant brown, reading the water in front of you helps reveal what food sources you should mimic, and along with that, how you should move (or not move) your fly.

Often with nymphs and dry flies our goal is to not move the fly. We manipulate the line in an attempt to keep the fly drifting exactly with the current.

But when we hunt big fish, we often find ourselves using big flies that imitate swimming prey species. How we move that fly depends on our knowledge of the prey species, and our repertoire of retrieves. It’s just as important as reading the water—I call it “reading the retrieve.”

In many situations the movement of the fly is what triggers a fish to look, and a pause between movements triggers a strike. It is not always in this order, but you want to be ready for subtle takes in addition to the hard tug of a strike against a tight line. To be prepared for both, keep a constant connection to your fly by sight and feel. This can easily be achieved with the rod tip just at or below the surface.

All species of fish hunt in a manner that helps them achieve the nutrients they need. When dealing with large food items and larger fish you want to mimic the movement of each food source, while also considering how water temperatures affect fish in slow and lethargic, or fast and energetic states. The following deliveries are options you can try in a multitude of locations, but always remember there is no such thing as a wrong retrieve. Try different speeds, length of strips, and ultimately, let the fish tell you through productive results what movements they prefer.

Some of the most successful guide trips in my opinion are when my guests can catch fish using every discipline. Not only are you learning new techniques for drys, nymphs, and streamers, you are also building confidence with all three.

I often bring a streamer rod on guide trips to use as a cleanup. Once we have tried nymphs and drys, we often finish with streamers. There is nothing more eye-opening than watching a trout turn down a Flashback Pheasant Tail, and then chase and destroy an oversized Circus Peanut streamer.

It is easy to get stuck in the rut of using the same old techniques or rigs. The next time you are on the river in low light, or during high flows, take the time to use these four different retrieves with a variety of flies. It might shake you up to see a more aggressive feeding behavior than you’re used to.

Landon Mayer ( is a Colorado trout guide and the author of three books. His latest is Colorado’s Best Fly Fishing (Stackpole Books & Headwater Books, 2011).

Strip & Give
I started using this retrieve years ago after witnessing many large trout chase a streamer to the edge of the river, then spook and disappear. Sometimes the fish would repeat that behavior numerous times. I soon realized the trout wanted to commit but would not, because I had pulled the streamer beyond the fish’s comfort zone—a covered location with deep water and structure. On most rivers there are three locations where trout hold: shelter, prime, and feeding lies. All of these locations supply quality fish but the prime and shelter lies are often deep with less turbulent water, like at the head of a run where the feeding lie is located. The answer was to create a retrieve that supplies movement and accuracy while the fly remains in the prime area for the fish to eat.

Start by casting at a downstream 45-degree angle. With your rod tip low near the surface, turn your body downstream as your line begins to swing into the holding zone. When you streamer enters the trout’s viewing lane, perform a conventional stripping movement by placing the fly line under the index finger of your rod hand (1). Then, grasping the line with your other hand, pull a few inches or feet of fly line to impart movement to the fly (2). Then, instead of pinching line with your index finger and repeating another strip, take the line out from under your index finger and allow the current to pull back the line you just retrieved (3 & 4). After you “give” line, put the line back under your index finger and begin stripping again (5). This way you keep moving the fly, but the fly stays in the “money water” where the trout feels comfortable and confident in attacking prey.

My favorite patterns for this technique are a Lawson’s Conehead Sculpin (tan/olive/black) or Cravin’s Gonga (tan yellow/olive/rusty) in sizes 6 to 10.