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Tough Days are Inevitable: Adjustments to Make When Fish Aren’t Cooperating

Wild Brown Trout


It would be nice if every day was a banner day. It would be nice if every car ride home after fishing was a windows down, radio up kind of ride, driving with a smile on your face as you called to mind every trout brought to hand. But this is fishing, and not every day goes as planned, and sometimes the drive home is long and quiet.

I actually don’t mind the tough days. They provide a necessary contrast to the great days, and perhaps inspire us to not get complacent, to learn more, and do better.

I had one of those days recently on Bald Eagle Creek, where I met two friends, Justin and Bill, on what I thought was going to be a killer morning. I was fresh off a fantastic outing the day before on a different stream that produced over 20 trout and feeling confident that another great trip was in store. Well, as that old song goes, I was riding high in April only to be shot down in May. Bald Eagle was a challenge, with unseasonably high water and extremely hot weather. Although all three of us caught fish, we had to work our tails off for every single one of them.

Reflecting on the day, I see a number of things I could’ve done differently from the start, but at least I made the adjustments. Some of these are obvious, yet it’s amazing how even the obvious things can elude us in the moment. In no particular order, here are a few adjustments I made throughout the day, which are similar to the same type of adjustments I make any time I encounter a tough day on the water.

Rod Choice Matters

My 6-weight rod was still strung up from the previous day, and since Bald Eagle Creek is big water below Spring Creek, I figured I’d just go with it, even though I knew it wasn’t ideal. I’ve tight lined many times with this rod, but it does lack the sensitivity of my 3-weight TFO Drift Rod, and in tough conditions, it’s not the best choice. Also, when fish are hitting light, you need a rod with a sensitive tip to detect strikes.

The 6-weight is a great indicator nymphing rig, and excellent for big water. But after an hour and a half, I realized this wasn’t the approach I needed, so I walked back to the truck for my 3-weight. Returning to the stream, I landed two fat rainbows almost right away. I then moved down to where Justin and Bill were and hooked a small wild brown that shook off halfway in. Bottom line, I could feel the strikes much better with the lighter rod. Looking back, I can’t remember why I initially went with the 6-weight, other than out of laziness since it was already set up. But I made the adjustment and was able to at least get into a couple fish.

Shorten the Presentation

Another mistake I made with the 6-weight was trying to cover too much water at once. That’s the allure of bigger streams, though, especially those that hold a lot of trout and a lot of big trout. But that approach is a sure-fire recipe for a tough day. Yes, you can pick up a few trout, maybe even luck into a lunker, but the shotgun approach rarely provides any consistency.

Once I retrieved my 3-weight from the truck, my whole mindset shifted. With this setup, the shotgun approach just isn’t feasible. Tight lining, which I’ve come to view as my version of Euronymphing, requires a stealthier approach, shorter line, and more focus. It forced me to buckle down and get into better position to present the fly. Also, I was more engaged because I wasn’t relying on an indicator to tell me when to strike. Even more importantly, I started focusing more on the water right in front of me, targeting specific seams.

Change of Focus

This increased focus is not something to overlook, and I attribute any trout I caught after the rod change to a change in mindset as well as equipment. When you don’t have success right away (or within a reasonable amount of time) on a stream, it can be a downward spiral, and you can mentally check out and say “Well, it’s tough today, that’s why I’m not catching fish. Bad conditions, poor weather, etc.” After all, we can’t win ‘em all!

But while it’s true that you’ll inevitably have a day where you just can’t buy a fish, for one reason or another, that’s no excuse for failing to continue making on-the-water adjustments. And the number one adjustment you can make is your attitude — and it’s also the hardest.

I do this a couple different ways. A walk back to the truck is always good. Take a break, grab a snack, string up a new rod. All of these can help you reset. Just sitting on the bank, staring at the water for a few minutes is okay, but you’ll have better results actually moving from your location. The physical change fosters the mental change.

A Class A Trout Stream in Centre County

Exploring a short section of this Class A trout stream in Centre County was one of my favorite parts of the day. Sometimes a change of scenery is necessary when you’re having a tough day on the water.

Try a New Spot

Moving to a different part of the stream, or even a new stream, can help change the course of your day. Many times, just getting onto a new stretch of water can change your mindset. It’s truly like starting fresh.

After lunch, we decided to check out a nearby Class A brown trout stream. I landed a stunning 6-inch wild brown on only my second cast. We explored about 150 yards of stream and I landed only one more very small brown and missed a few others. By then, it was hot, and I do mean a scorcher — low 90s with a cloudless blue sky. About as far from brown trout weather as we could get.

Even still, I felt like that little visit to a new Class A greatly improved to overall situation. It’s always fun to see some new water, and it’s one that I wouldn’t mind hitting again in better conditions. There were a ton of juicy hangouts and undercuts that didn’t produce trout, but we knew they had to be present. Even on a small stream where we knew we were over fish and making good presentations, they still weren’t cooperating, which made me feel a little better about the overall situation. Maybe this really was one of those times when there’s really nothing you should be doing any differently. Sometimes you have to just chalk it up to bad timing and come back another day.


Spend too much time on social media and it’s easy to believe that everyone else has it figured out except you. But you’re only seeing their highlights. You can’t judge or compare your experience against anyone else’s experience, and no matter where or when you’re fishing, it will never be an “apples to apples” comparison.

I typically judge my days by asking two questions:

1. Did I try my best? In other words, even if I started out with the wrong rod, wrong tactics, or whatever, did I make the necessary adjustments to put myself in a better position to succeed?

2. Did I learn anything that will help me in the future?

To answer the first question, yes, I made adjustments, which I’ve mentioned here. I ended up with 4 fish in approximately 4 hours of fishing. Certainly not my best day of the year, but (gulp!) not my worst either!

And second, not every day will be a banner day, but every day is an opportunity to learn something new — or perhaps even relearn an old lesson. In this case, I relearned that laziness catches up with me every now and then. I tried to take the easy way out, settling for the wrong rod in the wrong situation even though I knew better, and that never works out for me. Would it have made a huge difference early on in the day? Maybe. But maybe I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch those two rainbows I caught on Bald Eagle Creek, and I would’ve caught them anyway. However, I’d suspect the change in focus and mindset were the real keys to success there.

It’s okay to struggle sometimes. The tough days just add perspective and make the great days that much sweeter. Besides, all three of us caught at least a couple trout, and more importantly, spent quality time on the water. These are wins, and I’ll take them every time.

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