Fly-fishing Expert Shares His Passion and Wisdom

 Paul Scott, 42, of Virginia, has been fishing since he was a tyke. As an adult, he professionally guided for Orvis in Roanoke  for five years and taught classes on the sport at the University of Virginia for four years.  Because he's a long-time fan of RailRiders -- he likes fishing in X-treme Adventure Pants-- we recently spoke with Scott about the many joys and frustration of fly-fishing, especially for beginners. When he's not wading into rivers or streams, Scott is Executive Director of Child Development Resources, which is a provider of early-intervention services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays (


Question: What is the hardest thing for beginners to learn?


Paul Scott:  It seems to depend on their experience with other kinds of fishing. But even if someone is an accomplished fisher in other methods such as spinning gear, the hardest thing at first is usually fly-casting. After that, line management seems to present challenges, and beginners can feel like they're doing the Watusi in a giant bowl of spaghetti. Line management is important because many flies need to be presented drag-free, that is, drifting naturally and not appearing to be tethered to a line.  This isn't an issue with other forms of fishing where you just cast out and reel back, and as a result it often presents a challenge for beginners. Also, most people have to learn the hard way how to wade carefully and beginners seem to barge into fishing spots, make tons of noise, and cast repeatedly until the water is beaten to a froth, then leave frustrated.  They might have had the right fly selected, but spooked fish are impossible to catch. 


Q: Is fly-fishing more difficult to master than golf in terms of technique?


PS: I don't play golf so it's hard for me to say but my fishing friends who golf describe it as quite a challenge. Both obviously take lots of practice and patience to master.  Interestingly, sports like golf, tennis, etc, encourage you to 'swing through' the ball, but with fly-casting there is a need for a definitive check of the cast (or 'swing') to allow the rod to 'unload' and cast the line.  The ability to give the rod a chance to unload usually takes work for golfers and tennis players. I have a friend who says about golf “drive for show, putt for dough.”  The same could be said about fly-casting, as the photos in the magazines often show these long elegant casts, which are great, but most fishing situations demand accuracy instead of raw distance. With golf, if you miss a put, the hole doesn't go anywhere and you can just walk up and finish the putt.  With fly-fishing, if you blow your cast to a wary fish, they'll either spook or just lock up, sort of like missing a putt and having the hole disappear --you just have to move to another hole!



Q: As an Orvis guide and instructor for many years, what are some other common mistakes you've seen neophytes doing?


PS: Simply put, many beginners usually don't practice their casting and knot tying enough and once they go fishing this can cost them valuable opportunities and certainly a lot of time.  Many beginners think that a long cast is needed, when in fact getting as close to the fish as you can without spooking them is a critical skill, and it keeps the casts short and manageable.  Often you only get one shot at a fish, and you really need to make it a good one.  Casting over and over to try and get the perfect cast is counterproductive; it's far better to make a good accurate cast the first time. Beginners might like to practice their technique with pan fish which are those typically found in large rivers, lakes, and farm ponds and include bass, bluegill, bream, perch, crappie. The focus should be on learning how to approach fish quietly and to remain undetected. Gear and distance casting are secondary issues.  All the best gear and the right fly won't help you catch a spooked fish.  Spend less and fish more.


Q: What is the proper etiquette for someone in a stream with other anglers?


PS: It can vary by location and size of the crowd. What is acceptable on opening day of trout season in Michigan, such as walking up and standing six feet away from another angler who is already in the river, would likely result in harsh words, or worse, on a small, meadow spring creek out west. Some steelhead waters have an understood  rotation, that is, you start at the head of the run and fish down, with guys taking turns. It's rude to walk right above someone, or to stick your boat twenty-five yards up current from another fishing party. Generally, give the other person plenty of space, and if you must cross water near them, wade slowly so you don't send shock waves everywhere and put down their fish.  I always try to clean up trash, and be respectful of private property boundaries. 


Q: What is the difference between fishing in the sea and in the river? Do trout and salmon behave differently than their salt-water brethren?


PS: Depending on where you're fishing the sea, it can be very similar to fishing rivers, and in my area (the Tidewater area of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay region), it's virtually identical --fish will orient on current seams, where two different currents collide, often forming a seam where fish can sit in the slower current, while waiting to feed on current coming along in the faster current; or choose structures such as rocks, weed beds, logs, which slow down the current flow and allow them to sit in the slower water while watching for food to appear in the faster water. They will behave in much the same way you'd expect from their freshwater cousins. The open ocean is a different animal all together, and it's best learned with a professional, but very often even tuna, marlin, sailfish, wahoo. and dolphin will orient on current seams, temperature breaks, and sunken structures like  reefs, ship wrecks, and sea mounts which are underwater mountains. All fish will try to maximize the ratio of energy spent eating and energy gained eating, and they will all look for current breaks or structure that will allow them to lie in more or less an ambush position. Salmon are on a different mission and may not strike flies to feed, but out of aggression or territorial defensiveness. Trout are in the salmon family and they also they spawn, but the trout that live in small rivers don't make those grand spawning runs like people traditionally think of salmon doing; they spawn right where they spend most of their lives.  In the Tidewater area of Virginia, we are witnessing the return of shad and stripers, whose spawning runs are a sight to behold. Saltwater fishing opens up a fly-fisherman's world to a huge array of species. Fishing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for example, knowing that you have a fish hooked sometimes doesn't let you know what you have hooked - and that can be pretty exciting. Fisherman could catch bluefish, striped bass, red drum, cobia, pompano, false albacore, croaker, flounder, sharks, sea trout (speckled and grey trout here), among many other. I even had a friend hook a big sting ray on a fly rod (probably by accident) but it put up quite a fight.


Q: What are your favorite places in the U.S. for fly fishing?


PS: I've never met a fish I didn't like anywhere in the U.S.  The Appalachian mountain streams with native fish are great, and fishing the Rockies is hard to beat. I love to fish around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, central Pennsylvania on rivers like the Letort, Little Juniata, Little Lehigh, Yellow Breeches, Spring Creek, and the areas around western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and West Virginia, including the Elk, North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, the Greenbriar, and Shaver's Fork of the Cheat, where I learned how to fish for trout as a young boy.  It's one of the rivers that used to hold wild fish but is sadly struggling due to the effects of coal mining in the area and acid rain. I've had great bass fishing experiences all over the country and the striper fishery on the Chesapeake Bay is simply amazing. The fly-fishing opportunities in the U.S. are limitless, and as a result we have people coming from all over the world to fish here.  But if I had to choose one, I'd pick any fishery that holds wild, native fish. 


Q: How does drought or pollution affect fishing conditions? 


PS:  Trout can survive drought if the water doesn't get too hot, but when it gets low and hot, many fish will perish. Acid rain causes heavy metals to go into solution, allowing it to coat fishes gills, killing them slowly.  Silt, caused by poor logging practices and development,  covers up spawning beds and kills off the invertebrate food base.  We now understand that certain types of pollutants, such as fertilizers coming from golf courses hundreds of miles up the tidal rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay system can have a significant cumulative impact on that fishery.  Lately, we've witnessed the infestation of many fisheries from things like whirling disease, zebra mussels, and in Virginia, a nasty thing commonly referred to as "rock snot" (Didymosphenia geminata)  which forms a mat of gooey material; a large infestation gives the rocks in a river the appearance of being coated with toilet paper or a handful of muddy cotton. Rock snot can start to suffocate riverbeds and forever alter the ecosystem. On a recent trip to Wyoming, I was devastated to see rock snot on a pristine spring creek, obviously deposited there by a careless angler. Many of these pests are transported in the felt of fisherman's wading boots, which is why a lot of us are switching over to rubber-soled boots.  Fisherman should be sure to sanitize their wading boots and on many popular trout streams, concerned anglers have installed sanitation stations for this purpose.  One manufacturer will voluntarily discontinue all felt-soled wading boot production in 2010.These issues are why I became a Life Member of Trout Unlimited whose hard work has helped raise awareness of these issues. 


Q: Have you noticed a decline in fishing populations at your regular haunts? 


PS: I've seen native fish populations decline in western Virginia, West Virginia, and many other Appalachian areas.  Some are from acid rain, others from siltation and some from increased water temperatures. Many streams which used to hold native trout have lost their ability to do so, and are now managed as “put-and-take” or “delayed harvest” fisheries, meaning that the state stocks trout in the fall, knowing full well that they will not survive the following summer, but it gives fishers the opportunity to fish for a few months.  Once the delayed harvest regulations expire, people can catch and keep whatever they want.  That's great for the fisherman, but once the resource is gone, it's gone. Fortunately there are good examples of people bringing trout streams back.  In cooperation with landowners, Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups are helping stabilize stream banks by installing cattle fences, planting trees for shade, and improving river flows, which reduces siltation, increases holding water for fish, and allows the invertebrate population to rebound. 


Q: What is the best way to outsmart trout? 


PS: The best way to outsmart trout is to first not scare it to death, then try to get a fly in front of it that it'll be willing to check out. It all sounds so easy!  Amazingly, trout can be very sensitive to shades of color, and even refuse a fly tied onto  leader material 0.006" thick, but will take the same fly tied on material 0.005" thick. The most cunning trout are usually wild fish (versus stocked or hatchery-raised fish), with wild browns seeming to be a little more picky than other species.  


Q: What do you recommend for gear-- rod, reel, line, wading gear?


PS: Get good, versatile gear that will last a while, but don't break the bank on the hottest new thing.  You can't buy practice, so save a little money on gear, and spend the rest to get more time on the water either by investing in a guide, or in gas to drive to a good spot.  As a guide, nothing used to give me heartburn more than someone showing up with thousands of dollars worth of brand new gear that he hasn't practiced with.  I'd rather have the guy with the $200 outfit who has practiced with it enough that can hit a pie plate at twenty yards ninety percent of the time. Consistent success depends on one’s ability to hit a target, and pretty gear doesn't help one do that. Practice does. That is why beginners should start by identifying what kind of fishing they will be doing most of the time, and make gear decisions from there.  Most fly-fishing retailers appreciate it when you let them know what you can and want to spend, and they'll find an outfit that's appropriate for what you want to do.  


Q: What do you like best about RailRiders apparel?


PS: What's not to like!  It's tougher than a giant bluefish, and the stitching and seams are very high quality.  The gear is both functional and great looking.  I have worn my RailRiders gear pretty hard, washed it repeatedly, and have been very impressed with its durability, especially the reinforced knee and seats.  For fishing, it's also great that the material dries so quickly. 



Q: What was the biggest  fish you caught and where? 


PS: The biggest fish I caught was probably a seven-foot lemon shark in Key West.  It was fun and explosive for about ten minutes, then became twenty minutes of hard labor and I was glad when it was over.  I suppose there is no such thing as landing a seven- foot shark, but the fight was pretty intense, getting it close to the boat was like standing atop a three-story building, and lifting cinder blocks off the ground with a shovel handle.  I'd pull the rod back a foot, reel a few times, do it again, then it would take off and I'd have to start over, and so on, for almost thirty minutes. I've heard it described as lifting a man-hole cover off the ocean bottom.  My arm was almost too shaky that night to hold up a beer, but I switched hands and everything was okay. 


Q: What do you like most about fly-fishing? Is it an art, science, or religion?


PS: I love everything about it, especially the life-long aspect of it.  One of my favorite writers, John Gierach, said, “I think I fish, in part, because it's an anti-social, bohemian business that, when gone about properly, puts you forever outside the mainstream culture without actually landing you in an institution.”


Q: Do you do any other outdoor activities?


PS: I love mountain biking, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, kayak fishing, and I do lots of hunting (spring turkey and deer), and am fanatic about morel mushroom hunting.  I brew my own beer, wine, and mead, and usually do that outdoors, but I'm not sure if that counts. I've got quite an organic garden going this year including three varieties of beer hops.