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Mastering the Fly-Fishing Short Game

The ABCs of making perfect under-20-foot presentations.

The gallery gets excited at every PGA tournament when a favorite pro hits a drive 300 yards out of the tee box onto the fairway, but golfers know that doesn’t win tournaments. It is the short game that elevates pro golfers into the winner’s circle. The same is true in the world of fly fishing. We all love to see laser loops that reach jaw-dropping distances during a casting competition. However, when it comes to the thrill of the hunt, delivering the fly to a trout hugging the bank 10 feet from where you are kneeling will help you slide more fish into the net. 

I will never forget a trip to Patagonia with Andes Drifters and filmmaker Jay Nichols. We were looking to capture footage of large, wild trout hungry for dry flies. I knew we would find them, but I had no idea just how close these encounters would be. On our third day we visited a small creek where Nichols and I found numerous big browns posted up at the head of a run where the water was dropping from a shallow riffle into a deep pocket. This required an army crawl to get into position, and I knew I’d get only one delivery.

Space was so cramped, I planned for the fly line to land on the gravel bar, with my tippet and dry fly landing a few feet above the fish. With my hands shaking from excitement, I crawled to a position downstream of the largest trout and punched a 20-foot tip cast that was a little short of the mark. To our surprise, the fish turned and raced with its whole head out of the water to crush a #10 Royal Adams. 

I’ve found that the most effective way to consistently land larger trout is by using this type of short game. I estimate that 80 percent of the big trout I catch are inside a 20-foot cast. Visualizing and imagining the drift of your fly before you cast is similar to a golfer reading the green and planning the direction of the putt. This creativity forces you to evaluate and plan these opportunities and help you master the short game.

Rigging for Close Encounters

Nymphs. I use a tiered system when I weight my nymph rig. That means I start light and then, if I need it, I progressively add more weight to reach the deeper tiers of the water column. This allows the trout to rise in the water column to take the fly without spooking, rubbing, or snagging the fish by starting with too much weight.

It is true that the difference between a good and an advanced angler is one split-shot, because you are making constant adjustments to achieve the right depth. Trout have become so selective now that this traditional method of achieving depth with split-shot or putty can spook wary trout, as it appears to be an unnatural object drifting by. 

To prevent this, I have a tiered system of tungsten, brass, and plastic beadhead flies I use as an alternative to split-shot. For example, I tie #18 Pheasant-Tail Nymphs and #12-18 Mini Leech Jigs with 1⁄8, 3⁄32, and 5⁄64 tungsten beads to mimic the weight of #2, #4, or #6 split-shot. This is how I use weighted flies to reach progressively deeper tiers of the water column. In shallow water, or with use as a dropper below a dry fly, tungsten beads contribute too much weight so I use flies with brass beads, or flies with x-small, small, or medium plastic beads to get the right depth without spooking the trout. My goal is to reach the trout’s feeding level with a rig that appears natural.

I start with a 9-foot tapered nylon monofilament leader attached with a triple surgeon’s knot to a fluorocarbon 6X tippet of 3 feet for one fly. If the water is swift and deep, I connect the leader to tippet with a micro swivel to prevent twisting and rolling. It also encourages a more natural drift, and you’ll lose only your tippet if you snag the bottom. When I use two flies, I add another 2 or 3 feet of tippet using an improved clinch knot at the bend of the lead fly. If the water is extremely shallow I use a single fly to prevent accidental snagging.

Because the vision of a trout focuses upward to the surface in the shape of an ice cream cone, it is more natural for a trout to rise and feed than it is for them to dive or move sideways. This is why a trout that won’t move 6 inches sideways to take a fly will often rise a foot or more from the bottom to take a nymph. A tiered system helps take advantage of this tendency without snagging the bottom, losing flies, or spooking the fish.

I am a fan of a clear Thingamabobber for use as an indicator, tracking device, and as a suspension tool. When trout look at the surface, it looks like a clear bubble. From our viewpoint, the plastic Thingamabobber reflects the surrounding light, making it easier to spot than some colored indicators that may also spook some fish.

A clear Thingamabobber is easy to spot on the water and spooks fewer fish than brightly colored indicators. Photo Michelle Mayer

Drys. I start with a tapered 9-foot nylon monofilament leader, and use fluorocarbon tippet whenever I’m using small flies for picky trout. When I need a 5X, 6X, or 7X tippet, it’s always fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon is more dense than nylon and technically it does sink, but in these small sizes it’s typically not even heavy enough to break the meniscus of the water. It certainly doesn’t pull down your dry fly. I use it because it’s less reflective, and trout view this material from below. It’s also abrasion-resistant and stronger than nylon. When I’m fishing 6X and 7X for larger trout, I need the strongest material possible. When I’m dry-fly fishing with 4X tippet or larger diameter I don’t mess with fluorocarbon, I just use nylon monofilament tippet.

It’s standard for me to take a 5X 9-foot leader, cut 3 feet from it and replace it with 5 feet of 5X monofilament. (The tippet in the extruded tippet is normally weaker than high-quality tippet you’d get off the spool, even though it’s supposed to be the same diameter.) I then attach a 4-foot piece of 5X, 6X, or 7X tippet depending on the fly I’m using and other situational factors. This gives me a 15-foot leader I can turn over in close situations without spooking trout with my fly line.


I tie on the dry fly using a no-slip loop knot. It’s unusual, but if you watch adult insects on the surface—dead or alive—they spin and rotate slightly as they drift in the current. A tight clinch knot restricts this natural movement more than a loop knot.

Streamers. In shallow water 2 to 4 feet deep, I use a Scientific Anglers Sonar Clear Intermediate Tip Sinking Line with an unweighted fly. I start with a piece of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon from the loop on the line using an improved clinch knot and then again use an improved click knot to attach a micro swivel. I attach a second piece of 12- or 16-pound-test fluorocarbon to the swivel and then tie the fly on with a no-slip loop knot for the same reasons as outlined above. A loop knot gives your fly more natural movement. The intermediate line sinks at 1 to 2 inches per second, allowing your unweighted streamer to swim through shallow water without snagging the river bottom. 

For deep-water scenarios, the short game might mean hitting a deep spot that is only the size of a parking space or smaller. A sinking line needs time to sink, and it also creates a belly in the line that often pulls the fly out of small strike zones. Instead I use a weight-forward floating line like Scientific Anglers Amplitude MPX that is a half line size heavier than the AFFTA standard . Using a fly line that is a full size heavier is not out of the question either.

For these deep-water situations I use a 0X 7.5-foot fluorocarbon tapered leader with a 3-foot tippet of 1X or 2X. I use a loop knot with a heavyweight fly like a Tungsten Conehead Meat Whistle. With this rig, you can quickly reach the bottom of a run behind the drop-off where casting space and the length of your drift is limited.

Viewing Lanes and Windows

A feeding lane is the field of vision trout use to find food. A viewing lane is what fly fishers use to find trout—it is a strip of water upstream or downstream that best allows you to see into the water without glare on the surface of the river. A viewing lane is often 4 to 8 feet wide, and the length can stretch from 5 feet in front of you all the way to the other side of the river. 

A downstream presentation while dry-fly fishing for wary trout helps you present the fly first, without putting your line or leader over the trout. Photo Landon Mayer

Once you find a good viewing lane you want to use that to scan the river in search of trout. Walk upstream, constantly looking into the viewing lane. This will allow you to approach the fish from behind and help you see the fish before they see you. If the angle of the sun and the river causes the viewing lane to be positioned downstream from you, keep a low profile, and slow down. Thoroughly cover the water; this will help to keep the fish from detecting you. In this case, when you spot a fish you’ll have to mark the location and reposition yourself parallel or downstream from the fish before you make your presentation. This keeps you from spooking the fish. 

Large trout often hold in choppy water with a break in the current to give them both shelter from the current and cover from overhead predators. This can be a huge advantage for fly fishers. When fish feel comfortable in these spots, they are more apt to take a fly. The challenge is seeing them. 

The turbulent/choppy surface of the water distorts the image of trout hiding below. This makes it incredibly difficult to spot fish, but you can do better than an osprey by finding a “window” through this turbulent water. A window is a smooth, flat break in otherwise turbulent water. These breaks in choppy water come and go over a single spot, but once they form they move uniformly downstream. Once you spot one of these windows or flatter spots, follow it downstream and scan it while it travels downstream. If you are studying a specific spot, look through successive windows as they pass by. Use these windows and you’ll be able to find fish that are feeding confidently. 

A, B, C Approach

I will never forget a key moment in my third year of guiding when a wise dry-fly purist asked me a simple question. For a moment, I took his comments as dry humor, but I quickly learned he was an artist with the dry fly and he was sharing a piece of valuable knowledge with me.

He said “Do you know your A B Cs”? I laughed and replied “Of course!”

“No,” he chuckled “Not the letters from Sesame Street, the options on where to make the best cast from. ‘A’ is upstream of the trout from the same side of the river, ‘B’ is perpendicular to a fish on the opposite side of the river, and ‘C’ is from below the target casting upstream.”

His advice changed the way I evaluate every presentation and forced me to think about all options, like a golfer dissecting the green before making a putt. This also leads you to better line control, and better decisions to help you make accurate, effective delivery of your fly.

Also, after making the final decision on where to cast from, think about the best way to get there without spooking the fish. Sometimes it requires a hike upstream to cross the river so you don’t spook the target, at other times that might mean drifting your boat wide and downstream, and then hiking upstream to the fish to stay out of view. On stillwaters it might mean determining what side of a windswept bay will give you the best angle to deliver a fly to trout cruising along the shore.

Upstream. The best way to increase hook-ups is to not allow the trout to detect you or your line and leader. Presenting the fly from an upstream position is the “A” position because the first thing that enters the trout’s view is the fly, and not the leader or line.

Getting close to a trout improves your chances of success, but only if you crouch or kneel to maintain a low profile. Camo waders can also help you blend in alove a riverbankn. Photo Landon Mayer

When casting from upstream, plan to cast at an acute angle, downstream into the trout’s feeding lane. This is the classic down-and-across presentation that is often required on the Henry’s Fork, Silver Creek, or Hat Creek. It also works on big fish in every other hard-fished tailwater or spring creek. If you cast too far, you can pull the fly back into the correct feeding lane, and then drop the rod tip to start feeding slack into the drift using stack mends or by wiggling the rod back and forth.

Perpendicular. This is often the best position to allow you to both watch your target and make a cast at the same time. Since you can often see the fish from this position, you should monitor the speed of the water, current lines, and especially the depth and behavior of the trout. Is it feeding high, low, or one side over the other? Look for behavioral cues from the trout to make the best possible presentation.

The drawback of this presentation is that if you can see the trout, they often see you. To combat this problem, kneel or crouch and use slow movements. I’ve also recently been wearing Simms River Camo waders, jackets, and hats to avoid being spotted by wary trout. It helps with my short game because I can get closer to the trout, and if they don’t spot me, they feed more confidently.

Below. Positioning yourself below or downstream of the trout is often a safe bet because you approach from the blind zone directly behind the fish.
This is the most common and obvious way to present your flies to a trout, but it has one serious drawback—in order to get your fly to the fish, your leader and your line often pass over the trout.

To help overcome this, I often recommend a roll cast to avoid excessive overhead casting and to ensure a soft landing that will not spook the trout. You can also use a curve cast to put the fly in front of the fish, or use casting angles to avoid lining the trout.

The Dotted Line

When golfers visualize a perfect putt, they mentally create a dotted line from the club to the cup that takes into account the rise/drop of the green and other factors. When fly fishers learn to make this dotted line from where the fly splashes down right into the mouth of the fish, they are literally feeding the fish, and it’s one of the biggest breakthroughs you can make to take your fishing to another level.

It starts with sight fishing adequately and seeing the target, delivering the fly more effectively, reading the water, seeing where the fly or your split-shot splashes down, anticipating the effects of varying current speeds and depths, and properly mending and controlling the line to take that fly right to the mouth of a trout. It’s like feeding a baby, only 1,000 percent more complicated. And with practice, it works with any discipline whether you are dead-drifting nymphs, feeding cripples to an active riser, or trying to lure a giant brown from the undercut with a furry streamer. All of them require a dotted line from splashdown to the trout.

Long, searching casts have their place but most big trout are caught with short, directed casts that "feed" the fly to a specific fish or anticipated feeding location. Photo Landon Mayer

It’s most effective when you can see the trout, but often you’ll have to read the water to imagine where the trout is, and make your casts and your drifts appropriately. The best anglers fish attentively and make this dotted line with every cast because they believe the fish is there. It’s the optimistic spirit of all fishermen. Look for areas where a trophy trout won’t have to expend much energy to feed. Search soft eddies near turbulent water, drop-offs at the end of the riffle, or at the edge of the shade line along an undercut bank. These are all good spots for lazy trout to feed. 

This dotted line exists for long casts and when prospecting at a distance, but it’s most important and most effective in your short game when you’re trying to close the deal on a big trout. Anyone can lob a fly out there, make a 40-foot drift, and see what happens, but the best fly fishers know how to close the range, determine exactly where the fish is or might be positioned, and make that short putt into the white of its mouth. Try some of these tips the next time you find yourself face to face with a quality trout, you may be pleased with the outcome. 

Landon Mayer is a Colorado trout guide, Fly Fisherman contributing editor, and author of the new book The Hunt for Giant Trout: 25 Best Places in the United States to Catch a Trophy (Stackpole Books, 2018). His new film On the Water with Landon Mayer: Mastering the Short Game is available at

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