It’s late June in western Wyoming. The winter runoff is just about over, and the river has finally dropped into shape. The water is a balmy 60 degrees, just how the fish like it. We’ve gotten word that the tricos and mayflies are going off and that the fish are keyed in on them, so anticipation is high.
I’m with an old fishing buddy, on the way to float a favorite river with a 16’ 2005 Clackacraft in tow. The only reason he’s in town is because his guiding job in Russia was canned due to the pandemic and war. So as any dirty international trout bum with a fishing problem would do, he came straight to the Rocky Mountain West for a summer in pursuit of trout.
The steel trailer rattles with every bump in the road, sending reverberations down the fiberglass drift boat. We’ve been talking about fishing for 2 hours and now we’re a few minutes from the boat ramp, hauling ass and creating a dust storm behind us as my buddy puts in a pinch of straight long cut Copenhagen. He asks me if I’ve ever heard of the 5 levels of trout fishing. I had not.
Level 1: All you want to do is catch a fish. Any fish.
Level 2: You want to catch a lot of fish. Don’t care what size or what kind.
Level 3: You want to catch a big fish.
Level 4: You want to catch a big fish, in the specific way that you want to catch it.
Level 5: You don’t care about catching fish. In fact you don’t even want or need to fish yourself. You go with friends purely for the experience of it all.
I gotta admit—almost 20 years into my trout fishing career—that he’s pretty spot on. The only guys I know who are at Jedi level 5 have been guiding for 30 years, fishing for even longer, and have seen and done it all. But even those guys haven’t seen everything.
Trout fishing, as we’re preparing to do on this June morning in Wyoming, is the bee’s knees of all freshwater fly-fishing. It can be as little—or as much—as you want it to be. There’s always more to learn, more to see, and more trout to break off, even if you’ve been at it for 30 years.
Trout fishing changed my life for the better in so many ways that I don’t really know what I would do without it. I’ve seen things while trout fishing that have made me laugh, cry tears of joy, question my career, and lose full nights of sleep. There’s nothing like seeing a 25” brown trout slowly swim up from the bottom and sip your Fat Albert, only to burn you into your backing and then break you off on a log a few seconds later.
Thankfully, the trout usually omit the part where they flip around an iPad and ask you to answer a quick question.
The very concept of fly fishing for trout is at odds with itself. Using a fly rod instead of a standard spin rod means that you’re intentionally making it more difficult to catch a fish. And that’s the game—intentionally challenging. When you get over the steep learning curve of the fly cast, magical things happen.
Diehard trout fisherman are more than just solitude seekers; they are obsessive overthinkers, detailed observers, and superstitious gamblers. And out West, trout fishing is the yardstick by which fishing street cred is measured. You can get as deep and as nerdy as you want—it often gets excessively technical, to the point that most fly fishing jargon sounds like another language.
Fly fishing for trout is not boring or “meditative.” In fact, your mind will be more tired than your body after fishing all day, but in the best way possible. This is the work: Staring at sun-glared eddies to analyze the water, changing flies, changing strategies, casting well and consistently, and a whole lot more. It’s a game of learning by repetition, experience, and mistakes.
Trout fishing isn’t just the original type of fly fishing, it also happens to be one of the most accessible. First and foremost, it's an excuse to get outside—to go to wild places, to view those places through a new lens, or, if you prefer, to just sit in a drift boat and float down a meandering river while drinking cheap beer.
If I had to boil down in just one word the moment when a trout eats your fly, it would be: ‘satisfying.’ You did the thing so perfectly that you tricked the thing into eating your thing. And that’s a thing to be proud of. But maybe the most beautiful thing about it is that when you’re fishing, it’s not totally clear if the actual goal is catching a fish.
In today’s day and age, the hardest part is finding where fish are and people aren’t. Just that search alone is worth your time. And at the least, it’ll give you an excuse to go on a hike—or find solitude without cell service—for a purpose other than walking in a circle to log steps on your Apple Watch.
I’m leaving you with some recommendations that I think are worth your time. Your level of experience doesn’t matter; everyone needs to start somewhere. And when trout fishing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a tech titan, a doctor, or a lawyer—the fish simply don’t care who you are or where you came from. It’s just you and the trout. Time slows down, and the world gets larger than it seemed when you were caught up in your 9-to-5.
There’s more wilderness out there than you think, and billions of trout, some of whom have never seen a fly before. But regardless if you find those fish, the pursuit remains a satisfying, humbling, and challenging experience, inextricably linked with the culture of wild America. Experiencing it will make you a better human.
Palm Leaf hats. These are a summer trout fishing staple. The best part of a real palm leaf hat is that you can dunk it in cold water and it’ll keep you cool all day long.
The 9 foot, 5 weight. As David Coggins once wrote, this is “the blue blazer of fly fishing.” Every trout fisherman has at least one—it’s the gateway rod. There are varying price points and tons of different brands but I use a discontinued rod from Scott. Sage is probably the most common trout rod out there—you can’t go wrong with any of their 9ft 5wt rods.
Fishpond submersible bags. When you spend a lot of time around water, you quickly learn that the phrase “water resistant” means something very different than a truly submersible dry bag. If you want to avoid wet, rusty, broken gear, these are the choice.
Crocs. I never leave home without them—one pair lives in my truck permanently. They’re the perfect after-fishing shoe when your feet are still wet, but in a pinch I’ll fish in them too.
Patagonia/Danner wading boots These are an absolute non-negotiable, must-have item. First timers have no idea how slippery it is to stand in a moving river with moss covered rocks—essentially greased-up bowling balls. It’s unsafe to not wear wading boots in most rivers, so get some. These aren’t inexpensive, they are resoleable and comfortable as hell. I’ve worn mine for 500+ walking miles, including a 30-day trip to New Zealand, and somehow they’re still in great shape.
You’ll want to get a pair of waders eventually, but during summer all you need are a pair of wading socks for wet wading.
Trout eat predominantly aquatic insects, so the trick is finding a specific fly that looks and acts just like what the fish are eating. Stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and midges are the most common types, each with thousands of different types and various life cycle stages.
To trick a trout with a fly, you should mimic the exact bugs that are in the water at that time. This knowledge is gained through experience, experimentation, and sometimes, luck. They eat other stuff too (see the next section below), but aquatic insects are high on the menu.
One of the wildest annual bug hatches is that of the Hexagenia—a very large mayfly that only hatches in the middle of the night. 'Hex flies' are a larger species of mayfly and they hatch in astonishing numbers.
Imagine floating in the pitch dark down a river while blindly casting to hundreds of trout amidst millions of mayflies. You won’t see a fly or bobber move when a fish eats your fly—you’ll only know by the sound of a trout gulping the fly on the water.
Want to take a deeper dive on the Hex? This article from Hatch Magazine has all the details.
Trout also eat terrestrials (i.e. grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets), baitfish, leeches, crayfish, worms, and a whole lot more. Anything is fair game if it falls in the water. Trout are also piscivorous—meaning they will also eat each other.
I once saw a 12” brown trout try to eat my Sculpzilla, and then watched a 20” trout come out of nowhere and try to eat the smaller trout. Then out of the dark depths, an even larger 30” trout came out to try to eat the 20” one.
I’ve seen trout attack baby ducklings, and they’ll eat rattlesnakes swimming across the surface. One of the most fun ways to fish for trout is to use a fly that looks like a mouse. In places like Alaska and the Kamchatka peninsula of the Russian Far East, they mostly eat mice.
Only The River Knows. This fly fishing film from 2012 was made by Peter A Christensen and Rolf Nylinder. It's based on a journal by Lars Lenth.
Ramble On: Fly Fishing in Wyoming with Brad Leone. We documented our recent trip with Brad Leone to northern Wyoming where I brought him to the rivers where I took clients to during my short-lived guiding days.
Trout Bum by John Geirich. This is a cult classic and an endless philosophical fly fishing adventure. One of my favorite quotes: “Really, the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good fishing guide can't is write prescriptions.”
The Optimist by David Coggins. David does a fantastic job evoking the experience of the fishing life even beyond the fishing itself—rituals, traditions, and everything that comes with the pursuit.
How Alvin Dedeaux Became Himself by Steven Schwartz. There are a bunch of fly-fishing publications, but The Fly Fish Journal is hands down the best. It’s the antithesis of a fish-measuring-contest. This article is a great example of what they do best.