How to handle a tough day on the river

New Zealand fishing legend and Professional Guide, Chris Dore, lends some advice on what to do when the fish just ain't biting. 

Tough days

We’ve all been there. A long awaited day out on the water however nothings doing. At all. Nada. “I'm sure this river has trout in it?”

It doesn’t seem like it today…

As a professional fly fishing guide we have to deal with these days more often with most simply due to the law of averages - spend every day on the water and some will suck. However we spend a lot of time learning to deal with these days and ways to turn things around, even to just get in with a fighting chance. 

Not every day will be a blue sky day with fish out in the open sipping dries. No one can control the weather. No one can make the fish feed. However here are a few ideas to make the most of those rougher days.


Fly Fishing Success


Adjust expectations. 

Unless something drastically changes you probably wont net a dozen fish on days when the river just isn’t playing ball. 

Steve and I headed into the hills early on a forecast fine and sunny day to make the most of summertime terrestrial action. By 10am the cloud was intensifying rather than burning off as predicted and consequently nothing was moving out to feed. We broke our expectations into a new series of successes: 

  1. Simply find just one fish
  2. Get our fly to him without spooking
  3. Get the eat
  4. Land him.

Then reset and look for just one more if we got lucky.

Fortunately for us we ticked the first four off soon after and while the river trumped us for the remainder of the day we had beaten the conditions on a day when very few, if only just that fish was out looking for food.

Form a process

Are you going to spend your day working the water blind or are you going to cover the miles and look for those few fish that are out? If working the water pick a trusted method and work it methodically through the absolute best of the water, and fish it well. Chances are the fish aren’t feeding hardcore and may take a few presentations to move to your fly so if nymphing a riffle, grid it out and work each section carefully. If banging deep cuts with streamers work carefully, covering new ground each cast but close enough for a fish in the last area to have the opportunity to again chase.

If sight fishing and walking the miles don’t blow your eyes out looking across the entire river. Choose the most likely water and position yourself to best look into it. Staring into glare and giving yourself headaches is just stupid. 

Fly Fishing with Chris

Fish close to cover

When fish aren’t feeding, they are in cover. Like us. Do we hang around the kitchen between meals? If there’s no food they wont be there, so use this logic wisely on days whenever the river isn’t showing out. Work your flies down that deeper side of the riffles and closer to that drop off. Drop your dries along the far / bank side of that current seam. Move along that deep, high bank rather than walking that easy shallow beach. 

If there isn’t much food drifting then maybe look towards that heavy white water where nymphs may get involuntarily washed free? 

“At home in the foam” only applies when there's enough chow there to draw the fish into that position. Otherwise, they’re in cover.

Change water types

There are many different types of water on any given stream and if you’re just fishing the pools, and the fish aren’t in those pools then your day is going to suck. Search out the heavy runs, maybe the cut banks. Look around the tail outs or the outside edges of the riffles. Look at shallower, deeper, sunny stretches and those in the shade. Mix it up and go searching for those fish. If in doubt, up sticks, clean your gear and relocate to another stream of a different nature. Complacency wont get you anywhere if the fish just aren’t feeding, you simply need to find those who might be.

Fish deep

That cute wee 2mm beadhead may rock it throughout that shallow riffle head when the fish move into there pre hatch, but its a far cry to expect that same nymph to pitch deep into the run by itself if the fish are holding down. If they are most likely on mayfly nymphs, then you should give them a mayfly nymph, not switch to a stonefly or other alternative just because you need weight. 

Switch your flies about according to flow and depth on tough days so you know that you are getting right down in each bit of water you hit. Dores Depth Control PT are a size 14 do-it-all pattern in four different weights so you can make sure you are feeding the fish as the river depth, or flows change. If that fish isn’t hitting that 2mm bead, switch to a 2.8. Still nothing? Try the 3.5mm bead. An extra foot of depth can make all the difference when fish aren’t lifting. 

Dores Depth Control Fishing Fly

 Dore's Depth Control PT in action 


Chuck ‘em some meat! 

Sometimes if they just aren’t feeding you need to make them attack. Play on their territorial instincts. Look for spill ins, drop offs, deeper guts and undercut banks - anywhere fish will make their own, and pitch a streamer. And I don’t mean a small streamer - give them something to chase! Mr Glisters, Sex Dungeons and mini dungeons all have that pulling power, and don’t be subtle! Smack them in and rip them back. Excite the fish into chasing.


Fishing Fly Sex Dungeon

 Sex Dungeon - Black

So be methodical and keep on working the water on days where very little is happening.   If the same old, same old isn’t producing, try something that may! 



Chris Dore is a battle-tested fly fishing guide with over 20 years of professional guiding experience, battling the demanding, ever-changing conditions that New Zealand rivers throw at you.

Chris became one of the first New Zealanders to successfully pass the internationally recognised Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructors examination and has since taught many thousands of anglers to up their skillset.

For more in person and on river fly fishing advice and upskilling why not book Chris for a day or three?