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The Manual: Backcountry Fly-Fishing

Find fish-jumping action, spot streamside sanctuaries, and--if you're allowed to keep your catch--pull divine meals from pristine waters.
skills fly fish 445x260Illustration by Supercorn


Smaller backcountry streams demand bigger flies. Why? Food is scarce in cold, clean water and high-country fish want a feast—not a snack. The perfect sizes and shapes vary based on region, season, waterway, and time of day, so ask local fly shops for recommendations on specific hatch-matching styles. For a sure thing, bring basic stimulator patterns ranging from size 10 to 16. The Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff draw strikes across the country.


Accustomed to anglers, frontcountry fish often feed in plain sight—making them easy to see and cast to. But fish in high-mountain headwaters are stealthy and skittish. They hide from predators (like hawks) beneath undercut banks, in deep pools, and in the eddies of submerged rocks and logs, which also provide respite from pushy currents. Polarized sunglasses (like the Smith Riverside, $219, can help you spot them, but don’t always rely on a preview of your specific quarry. Use these tricks to find trout and avoid spooking them:

  • Walk at least six feet from the water’s edge. Tracking any closer creates vibrations that put fish on high alert.
  • Mind your shadow. Backlight makes fish spotting easier, but casting a silhouette onto the water scares them into hiding.
  • Cast from behind natural obstacles (such as boulders) and crouch low when there’s no cover. Sharp-eyed trout can spot tall objects better than short ones.
  • Drift your fly down currents that skirt fish hangouts instead of fast, midstream ones.
  • Cast across and upstream to keep your line from landing directly above fish and spooking surface dwellers.
  • Explore for productive water. Natural obstacles segregate fish, so some river stretches will be empty while others teem with trout.


Learn to loop or “roll” your line along the water’s surface—an essential move where brushy banks prevent a traditional back cast.

  • Strip out 20 to 30 feet of line. Holding your rod over the water, wave the tip back and forth to feed the line out through the guides.
  • Slowly lift your arm to a 90-degree angle, tilting the rod (keep your elbow in, hand out) so the line falls beside you. Your thumb should be at forehead level and the rod angled at 45 degrees.
  • Pick a target and aim your elbow at that spot.
  • Freeze your arm briefly (which anchors the line in the water), then rotate your arm from the elbow, accelerating quickly.
  • Finish by snapping your wrist down, punching forward with your thumb to accentuate the flick of the line at the end of the cast.
  • Switch it up: Practice casting from the left and right sides, which lets you adjust to changing winds.
  • Troubleshoot your cast. If your line doesn’t fully extend, finish with a stronger wrist snap. If the line collects in the water beside you, keep your elbow high until the final wrist snap.


Backcountry fish are smaller than their frontcountry kin, so filleting can be impractical. Cook them whole and add a dusting of salt and pepper for a gourmet campfire meal.

  • Dispatch the fish with a fast blow to its head and rub vigorously in a stream to remove the natural slime layer. Don’t sweat the scales; cooked skin slips easily from the flesh.
  • To gut the fish, slice its belly from the throat to the front of the anal fin. Cut the skin and flesh only, leaving entrails intact. Make a second cut below the jaw, perpendicular to its spine. Grasp the loosened jaw and pull (with attached innards) toward the tail. Scrape out the bloodline.
  • Brush with olive oil and pan fry, covered, over medium heat. High heat burns the exterior before the inner meat can cook. When the flesh flakes with a fork, it’s done.


Forget the net. High-mountain fish are small enough to reel in without one.

  • Keep the fight in open water by positioning yourself between your catch and features (like strainers and logs) where it may try to seek refuge.
  • Follow your catch downstream. If it takes off, the fish’s fight combined with the water’s pull may snap your line.
  • Keep the tip up so you maintain a slight bend in the rod to distribute tension along the entire line. A straight rod stresses weak points: the end knots and tippet.
  • Releasing your catch? Reel quickly to avoid fatiguing the fish, and keep it in the water while you retrieve your hook.

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