Fly Fishing Jazz: “On the Sunny Side of the Street (or River)”

Ella Fitzgerald Singing "Sunny Side of the Street"

Ella Fitzgerald Singing "Sunny Side of the Street"

I’M OFTEN ASKED which side of the river I prefer, in relation to where the caster stands, and where the sun is shining. It’s a fair question, because there are (not surprisingly) two schools of thought on the matter.

Most guides I know like to have the sun at their backs. Why? Because backlight helps them see fish in the river, and staring into glare kills sight-fishing opportunity. Seeing targets optimizes accuracy. Accurate casts lead to more hookups.

However having the sun at your back raises the issue of shadows. And shadows over trout—be they from birds swooping overhead, the profile of an angler on the bank, or false casts whipping across a run—are often deal-killers. Shadows squelch opportunities, no doubt; it’s the number one “spook factor” when it comes to catching trout in a river.

My advice on the topic might just have well been offered by Yogi Berra: “The best side of the river to cast from, is the best side of the river to make a cast from.” Meaning, when all is said and done, I think the angler does himself/herself the greatest service by being in a spot where they can make a comfortable cast into the feeding zone—and more importantly know they can control their drift and presentation—after the fly hits the water, regardless of where the sun shines.

The late, great outdoors editor of the Denver Post, Charlie Meyers, summed it up perfectly when he explained: “Trout have no eyelids… so they don’t like looking into the sun.”

But, all things being equal, I’ll “direct my feet… to the sunny side of the street” (or river, as it were).  The late, great outdoors editor of the Denver Post, Charlie Meyers, summed it up perfectly when he explained: “Trout have no eyelids… so they don’t like looking into the sun.”

Now, granted, that might also mean that trout don’t like looking for flies to eat in bright places. But I think what Charlie was really saying is that the sunny bank of a river can be the “stealthy” side, so long as you understand that shadows are a potential problem, and know how to position yourself and make your casts accordingly.

I’ve started my 10-year-old son, Paul, fly fishing on the little brook trout creek by our home with a Tenkara rod. Tenkara is a traditional Japanese style of fishing—long, supple rod… no fly line… and no reel. Sure, we spend plenty of time practicing casts with standard rods, reels, and fly lines on ponds and in the driveway.  The cast is really important.  But what’s more important, in my humble opinion, for a 10-year-old learning to sneak up on trout with dry flies, is the presentation. And making the right presentation involves things like factoring shadows, and how you drift flies through subtle current seams.

I get charged up watching my little guy crawl through the tall grass, like a lion cub on his first hunt, then making a simple “flick” cast, and watching as a trout eats his fly. That’s the essence of fly fishing.  Honing those sexy, wind-busting loops and all of that other stuff can come later. For right now, I want my son thinking about stealth, and subtlety, and the sneak. And his 10-year-old mind already understands that sunlight plays a major factor in all of that.

We would all do well to put ourselves in this same place, more often. It’s perfectly okay to think like a 10-year-old angler, casting less than 20 feet, if you are also factoring in the angles that let you see, present flies to, and hook fish more effectively. More often than not, the seeing, casting, and hooking, happens from the sunny side of the river, provided you are patient and pragmatic.

(A final note: I am steadfast in my opinion that Ella Fitzgerald had the greatest voice ever recorded. For anyone who wants to argue… I’m ready. But before you fire a rebuttal, listen to Ella here: “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” It’s stunning… American jazz at the highest level. An even better version, IMO, is Ella’s performance with Count Basie.)