10 Fly Fishing Myths Debunked

Every activity with a loyal following will at some point become riddled with myths and rumors. Some of these turn out to be true. Others started off based in truth, but over the years have been skewed and edited to be more fiction than fact. A handful were never true, but make great conversation.

Fly fishing is no different. While there are plenty of factual scraps of wisdom developed over the years (for example, you should often change your presentation before your fly, and NEVER bring bananas in the boat) other pieces of advice fall somewhere between slightly misleading and complete hogwash.

Here’s a handful of things I’ve either learned over the years the hard way, or have just found on the Google machine after a bout of curiosity. If there’s a myth you have heard and debunked over the years, please let me know so I can add it to the list!

1. Brook trout are trout

Brook trout look like trout, but they aren’t. Brook trout are actually members of the char family, which also includes lake trout (not a trout), bull trout (not a trout), arctic char (appropriately named), and Dolly Varden.

Although very similar in characteristics, char and trout are not the same. They are very closely related, and for all practical purposes as an angler don’t really need to be distinguished. Trout, like browns and rainbows, generally have dark spots on a light background. Char, on the other hand, generally have light spots on a dark body. They also lack a set of teeth on the shaft of the vomer, a bony plate on the roof of the mouth. Again, probably not something you’re going to pay much attention to while you fish.

Just remember next time you say “brook trout” that you’re really referring to a char.

Two brook trout lie together in a fisherman's net

2. To catch big fish, you have to use big flies

This one is perhaps mildly rooted in reality. For example, you probably aren’t going to catch a 6-inch fish on a big, articulated streamer. In this case, yes, your big fly will probably limit you to big fish. But, you don’t need to use big flies if you want to catch big fish.

Plenty of massive fish have been caught on teeny tiny flies. While at some point, many large trout will become piscivorous and eat more fish than insects, lots of big ones continue to feed on bugs throughout their lives.

It doesn’t take much effort to debunk this myth. The first time you hook into rod-bender on a midge, this one will be thrown out the window. There’s also something oddly satisfying about seeing a big one take a fly you can barely see. And it happens pretty often with enough time on the water.

3. Trout bite best just after daybreak

It’s not wrong that trout can bite best just after daybreak, but it’s also not a hard and fast rule. Trout feed when their food sources become available. This is often determined by water temperature. Sometimes, depending on the weather, the fish turn on right after the sun comes up. Other times, it takes a few hours for things to get going.

I’ve had days where I only catch fish in the morning. I’ve also had spinner falls in the evening that absolutely crush the morning in terms of fish numbers. Many times the mornings are great, but to treat this myth as gospel could cost you lots of fish if you only go out before noon.

4. Fly fishing is expensive

Don’t get me wrong. Fly fishing can definitely be expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. For those addicted to fly fishing, it will probably become costly at some point. For these avid folks, it’s well worth the money.

In reality, though, you don’t need much to hit the water. Sure, it’s fun to buy packs, zingers, leader straighteners, tippet rings, fluorocarbon line, and a host of other knick-knacks, but these are frills. The only true necessities are a rod, reel, line, leader, and fly. A basic set up can be achieved for under $150. Add a few other cheap additions like nippers, hemostats, a fly box, and floatant, and you’re even better-prepared, but still not broke.

It’s not until you’re really committed that you need to invest in waders and the other fun gadgets we all love to collect.

5. Catch-and-release is harmless

Depending on where you’re fishing, catch-and-release may be required, encouraged, or prohibited. In some places where populations aren’t doing well, it may be illegal to keep fish. On the other hand, streams or lakes overrun by nonnative predators may require keeping fish.

Even where catch-and-release is mandatory, it’s not perfect. Depending on a variety of factors like water temperature, fish handling, and how the fish is hooked, caught-and-released fish may not make it. When everything goes right, most fish will be fine. But, you can’t always control whether things go right. Maybe the fish was foul-hooked in the gills. Maybe you didn’t realize that water temperatures were too high. Maybe the fish was just having a rough day. There will always be some level of mortality in fishing, even in released fish.

Although catch-and-release fishing can be a great way to keep populations healthy, it’s not harmless. Being aware of your fishing habits and doing your best to respect your catch will keep the damage to a minimum.

6. Fly fishing is only for streams

Many first-time fly fishers I’ve guided were shocked when I mentioned that we had the option to fish a lake. “But in the movie, it seemed like fly fishing was for rivers!”

It never occurs to some people, especially beginners, that fly fishing can be done on nearly any body of water. Stream fishing is so glorified that lakes often fall by the wayside. And heaven forbid you mention that fly fishing can be done in the ocean!

I love stream fishing. The moving water keeps things interesting, and reading the water is half the fun. But realistically, I think it’s much easier to learn to fly fish on a lake and can also be a blast for seasoned anglers. Fishermen who think lake fishing can’t be fun have clearly never watched a cruising fish make a 180 to come grab a dry fly.

If you ever want to get some solitude on the water, and probably also catch a boatload of fish, consider hitting up a backcountry lake or pond. You’ll probably have so much fun you’ll forget you aren’t even Brad Pitting.

7. Fly fishing is only for trout

In the same vein as the stream-only mentality, the trout-only mentality is also pretty prevalent. While I love trout, and fish mostly for them since they’re the most common fish I find in the backcountry, I don’t discriminate based on species. Catching bass, panfish, and a myriad of other species is just as fun.

A bluegill caught on the fly is held in a fisherman's hand
Bluegill are one of the most enjoyable species to catch on the fly.

This one is also pretty common among people who haven’t done much fly fishing. The thought is that you fly fish for trout and spin fish for everything else. Jaws drop when I mention fly fishing for marlin (a double whammy with the non-ocean-believing crowd), and even bass fly fishing seems foreign to many.

This myth, probably rooted in the fact that a ton of people fly fish for trout, isn’t far from the hogwash end of the spectrum.

8. Matching the hatch will guarantee fish

Matching the hatch is both fun and effective. Fishing during a prolific hatch can make your life easy because you can most likely choose quickly from your box and start catching fish.

However, the idea that you have to exactly match whatever you see coming off the water is a myth. While it’s always a good idea to choose a fly that matches something in the water you’re fishing, simply matching the type of prey isn’t a guarantee you’ll catch fish.

Presentation is just as important as fly choice, if not more so. You can throw on an elkhair caddis in the middle of a caddis explosion and catch nothing due to bad casting and drag. In this case, you may be better off throwing something else with a delicate cast and drag-free drift.

While matching the hatch is definitely something to take into account, don’t let it cause you to forget reading the water, good casting technique, fly depth, smooth drifts, and keeping a low profile. All of these things together catch fish, not just matching the hatch.

9. Wild fish = native fish

I hear the words “wild” and “native” used interchangeably at times. These terms are quite different, though, and can be a bit confusing.

Wild fish, regardless of species or location, were born in the wild. The only place they have ever lived is a lake or stream in nature. This is opposed to fish born in hatcheries and later released into wild waters to be caught by anglers. Wild fish often have brighter colors and appear healthier than their hatchery counterparts.

Whether a fish is wild is completely unrelated to whether it’s a native fish. Native fish are fish found where they would have lived before human interference. All browns and most rainbows in North America are not native. They were brought in years ago and would not be here without the help of man. Brook trout are native in the eastern US, but nonnative in the western US, though they are plentiful across the country. Cutthroats are native to much of the west.

It’s important to remember that fish can be both wild and native, wild but not native, and neither wild nor native. Many fishermen would agree that the crème de la crème of fishing is to target fish that are both wild and native, but remember that those words aren’t interchangeable.

For more info on wild and native fish, you can read about them here.

10. Fish have a 5-second memory

The old saying that fish have an extremely short memory can be debunked pretty easily by fishing a heavily-pressured river.

Go to a remote alpine lake and you can pull in 50 fish in a day. Go to the South Platte and you may be lucky to land one. Fish can certainly be caught more than once. On our golden trout trip, I caught a fish on day two that had my broken-off fly in its mouth from the day before. But to assume that fish caught multiple times can’t get wise after a while doesn’t give much credit to the wary ones of the popular fishing spots.

The fact that this myth is false can also be pretty apparent by fishing something other than what the local fly shop recommends. When the fish see the same fly over and over in the same spot, they may be more willing to take something they’ve never seen, or been caught on, before.


There you have it! Have you ever debunked any fly fishing myths that everyone you know insisted were true? Head over to the Contact Page and let me know so I can update the list with new ideas.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. paul ricco

    You kno after reading this I am convinced that some of these trout have a masters degree cause some rivers I fish u can b there 4 days and not catch anything but the wind and there r days where almost every cast is a winner, however there’s q1 myth I need to clear also, in winter where they tend to go for deep pools, stay hidden and make u work harder than usual I’ve often heard they will not rise or may not rise to the top, I beg the differ, several streams I fished n (at freezing temp.) around the afternoon I saw movement n the water and luckily I had some dry flies wit me and to my unbelievably success it was overwhelming so I’m convinced if they’re hungry by all means u’ll have a warm winter’s day

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks for reading, Paul. I agree, I’ve had myself a handful of amazing dry fly winter days, and those are some of my favorite hatches to fish.

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