The 5 Stages of Fly Fishermen

Like most outdoor pursuits, fly fishing is downright fun. The tug of a fish on your rod, seeing a trout take a dry fly, and holding the fish of a lifetime will all get my heart pumping and put a smile on my face. But, what I find the most fun about fly fishing has changed over the years. Like many anglers, I’ve progressed through stages that have shifted what I appreciate the most about my time on the water.

Although a transformation happens, this isn’t a switch that flips overnight. It’s an evolution that takes place over time, through failures, successes, and learning opportunities. Through flooded waders, broken tippet, big fish and small fish, and countless hours spent waving a stick in the air.

There are five stages of fly fishing (and a bonus “five-and-a-half” stage, in my opinion), that people often reference. These stages mostly revolve around what an angler strives for while fishing.

Although there’s no “right” stage to be in, I think most people would agree that it feels satisfying to see yourself progressing from one stage to the next. It can almost be thought of as maturing as a fisherman.

Stage 1 – One fish

The first stage is very simple, and one that most avid fishermen look back on fondly. In this stage, all you want is to catch a fish. A single fish. When you are in this stage, and you’re on the water, nothing in the world matters more in that moment than catching a fish.

This also means that when you do catch a fish, you feel on top of the world.

A brook trout caught on a blue winged olive fly
My very first fish on the fly.

At this point, you don’t care what kind of fish you catch, how big it is, how long you fight it, where you catch it, or anything else. All you want is to get it in your net and look at it and love it for a few brief moments.

This is also a really fun stage to watch others go through. Seeing the joy on someone’s face when they catch their first fish is unbeatable. When you’ve been fishing for years, it’s easy to get comfortable and not truly appreciate every fish you land. Spending time with someone else who is still in stage 1 gives you the opportunity to go back in time for a moment and remember how much fun it was to catch just one fish.

Stage 2 – Heaps of fish

Once someone has gone a few times and reeled in a handful of fish, they pretty quickly progress onto stage 2: catching lots of fish.

It’s common knowledge that a bunch of fish are better than one fish.

In stage 2, catching as many fish as possible is what matters most. You’ll fish wherever you hear there are tons of fish, and have absolutely no interest in fishing somewhere that might only produce one or two.

If you go out and have a lousy day, you might bump the number up when people ask how many you caught. You need to save yourself from the embarrassment of having a slow day. I mean, how can you expect anyone to be friends with someone who doesn’t catch buckets of fish?

While stage 2 can surely be fun, it also comes with a decent bit of stress. The problem with stage 2 is that, most times, you won’t catch a lot of fish. This can lead to disappointment. Whereas stage 1 is pretty easy to satiate by catching a single fish, stage 2 can be hard if your expectations are not realistic.

Stage 3 – Hogs

Odds are, during stage 2, a person will at some point hook into a very large fish. And, that might just be enough to get the ball rolling toward stage 3.

Stage 3 is the quality over quantity stage.

An angler in stage 3 wants to catch the biggest fish they possibly can. When deciding between a tried and true brookie stream and a mystery river that might hold big fish, they’ll choose the latter every time. Why waste time catching small fish when there are big fish?

In this stage, an angler generally makes quite a bit of progress in terms of skills. While it doesn’t necessarily take a great cast or presentation to land small fish after small fish, catching a hog does.

Fishermen in this stage go through tough times trying to figure out what works. When they finally figure it out, they’re rewarded with large fish. They’ll want to make sure they get lots of photos of their monster, and will be sure to tell you how long it was.

Stage 4 – Playing hard to get

Stage 4 is all about chasing the fish that play hard to get. Once you’ve mastered the previous stages, catching fish (including big fish), isn’t all that rare. It’s fun, but the fish can start to blend together, and most aren’t worth calling home about.

At this stage, making your own trip difficult for the sake of it becomes fun. In the same way a hunter might get more satisfaction out of hiking 5 miles into the backcountry vs. shooting a deer in his backyard, a stage 4 fly fisherman would rather fish through hail and cast under an overhanging branch at an elusive fish than go where he’ll surely find success. He probably won’t be ashamed to admit he caught absolutely nothing, and will be excited to talk about all the bad stuff that happened.

Stage 4 is what makes a lot of fishing stories fun to listen to. No one cares when you say you went out and caught 20 fish. Everyone wants to listen when you talk about flooding your waders, floating downstream, and going over a waterfall because you were trying something dumb.

Some anglers in stage 4 also enjoy trying new techniques that may (at least temporarily) make fishing harder. This is engaging, challenging, and fun. Picking up a tenkara rod, learning to Spey cast, or trying Euro nymphing for the first time could all be fun for a stage 4 fisherman looking to experiment.

Stage 5 – Fish? What fish?

Stage 5 is the culmination of the journey so far.

Sure, a stage 5 angler likes catching fish. A stage 5 angler likes catching lots of fish, and also big fish. But a stage 5 angler also couldn’t care less about the actual fish.

What matters most to a stage 5 angler is everything else about fishing that doesn’t involve the act of hauling a fish in.

In stage 5, you might appreciate how the river sounds, how colorful the wildflowers are, how refreshing it is to be alone in the woods, or spending time with close friends.

Two women get snagged while fly fishing
Watching both of my friends get enthusiastically snagged at the same time is way better than actually catching two fish.

When you come home and talk about the trip, you might even forget to mention your catch. You’ll find people asking halfway through your story, “wait, so did you catch anything?”

At this point, you’ll go fishing whenever you can, even if you know the fishing will be absolutely terrible, just so you can be fishing.

This is also a stage that is more individualized. Each person probably values their own set of things about the experience. Stage 5 is a great stage to be in, because it’s very, very hard to be disappointed at the end of a trip. As long as you can fish, you’ll be happy.

Stage 5.5 – Joy in others

Although there are usually only 5 stages mentioned, I think there’s another worth listing. It doesn’t necessarily come after 5, although it’s definitely toward the top of the list. This is probably not a stage you would experience before stage 2 or 3 (unless, perhaps, you’re the parent of a young child who is fishing)

Stage 5.5 is about finding joy in other people’s successes on the water. At stage 1, if another person does well on the water and you don’t, you’re going to experience a whole lot of jealousy.

Later on though, seeing other people find success, regardless of your own, brings you an immense amount of joy. Watching your child, friend, partner, or family member land their first fish will make you happier than catching it yourself. It will also take you back to the time in your career when you felt the same amount of joy from a single fish.

This is a stage you’ll probably never leave once you’re in. Once you’ve been bitten by the bug, it’s over.

It’s worth noting that one of the great things about fishing is that it’s possible to stay in previous stages, even when you graduate to the next.

In some activities, you can’t be in one stage while still being in another. By moving on to a new stage, you’ve given up the last.

In fishing, though, you’re able to participate in all at the same time.

I can go fishing and get really excited when I hook a fish. Then, I can be equally excited about catching 10 more fish. Then, if I catch a monster, I can be thrilled about that. Maybe after that, I decide to spend an hour fishing for the one stubborn fish in a run. And finally, maybe none of that happened, but it sure was a nice day out. And, I loved that too.

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.