A Beginner’s Guide To Fly Fishing
On a crisp fall morning, is there any better place to be than the banks of a trout stream, rod in hand? There are a lot of activities that help us reconnect with nature, but few do it as immersively as fly fishing. When you learn to read the current, predict fish behavior, and mark your calendar by the insect hatches, you feel like a part of the natural world, not merely a visitor in it.
But fly fishing can be intimidating too, and it’s certainly frustrating at times. Learning it makes us feel as though we’ve unlocked the door to a secret world – which, in a way, we have.
Learning to fly fish requires patience, and a willingness to occasionally be frustrated. Even so, it’s neither as difficult nor as complex as it might first appear. With some basic gear and a bit of determination, it’s a skill that anybody can learn.
It also helps if you have a more experienced fly-fishing friend who can show you the ropes and guide you around some of the most common pitfalls. In the absence of such a person, this beginner’s guide to fly fishing will have to suffice.
First Things First
Before we get in too deep, let’s talk about what makes fly fishing different from other types of fishing. Ordinarily, when casting, it’s the weight of the bait or lure that propels itself forward. The line is fairly incidental.
Flies, on the other hand, weigh next to nothing. Consequently, fly line must be much heavier than conventional fishing lines. When you make a cast with your fly rod, you’re not really casting the fly; you’re casting the weight of the line. That might sound like a minor distinction, but it has a lot to do with why fly fishing looks and feels the way it does.
Fly Rod and Reel Selection
The first thing every fly fisherman needs is a great fly rod. It doesn’t have to be the absolute top-of-the-line model – you can get a great entry-level rod and reel combo for a few hundred bucks – but it should be the right rod for you. Just like King Arthur needs his Excalibur and B.B. King needs his Lucille, you need a rod that inspires confidence and makes you want to go fishing.
Fly rods are measured and assessed in various ways, which can be confusing. When you hear a fly fisherman say they use an eight-foot, four-weight rod with fast action, you may quite understandably wonder what on earth that all means. Let’s break it down:
- Fly rod weight is arguably the most important consideration. The weight of a fly rod corresponds to the weight of the line it’s meant for. Fly line weight, for what it’s worth, refers to the actual physical weight of the line itself. Fly rods range from a one-weight (lightest) to a 14-weight (heaviest) and as a general rule, heavier rods are meant for casting heavier lines and catching bigger fish.
- Fly rod length is partly a matter of preference, but certain weight rods feel more balanced at a certain length. The most common sizes are eight-foot and nine-foot, but fly rods are also available in much shorter and longer models. Long rods are generally better for making long casts, while short rods have the advantage of being easier to maneuver in tight spaces.
- Fly rod action refers to the flexibility of the rod, and how much of it bends during a cast. Slow-action rods are the most flexible, bending as far as the midsection of the rod, and fast-action rods are the least flexible, bending only at the very tip. Medium and medium-fast action rods are generally easiest to cast.
- Number of pieces is another way to look at fly rods. Two-piece and four-piece rods are most common, with two-piece rods generally being considered superior. That said, there’s no reason to write off a four-piece rod, especially as a beginner. Four-piece rods are easier to transport, and there are some really great entry-level models.
- Fly reels are rated by weight, much in the same way rods are, and it’s important to choose a corresponding rod and reel so that the reel can hold the necessary amount of the appropriate line. Many fly anglers purchase a rod-and-reel combo, which ensures that the two components are balanced.
What’s the Best Fly Rod?
I’ll start by saying that there’s no perfect answer to this question. As you get more and more into fly fishing, you might find yourself owning multiple rods, each best suited to a different situation or style of fishing. Still, it’s always good to have a solid, jack-of-all-trades rod to start out on.
The most versatile fly rod is arguably a five-weight. That’s just about right for any trout-fishing scenario and can also handle larger fish reasonably well. An eight to nine-foot, five-weight rod with medium-fast action is a great rod to learn on.
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Lines and Leaders
Let’s talk fly line. In a typical fly-fishing setup, the fly line has three or four different components, each of which has an important job to do. These are those components, listed here in order starting with the one that goes on your reel first:
- Backing goes on your reel before you tie on your main fly line. It’s there to help fill the reel – most reels are meant to take around 200 yards of backing – but also to give you an extra line to work with if a big fish makes a hard run and starts taking too much line.
- Fly line is the most important component of your setup. Typical lines are about 90 feet in length and provide the weight needed to make a cast. Once again, lines are measured by weight, so if you have a five-weight rod and reel, you should be using anywhere from four to six-weight line. Most fly lines are weight-forward, with the thickest, heaviest potion at the head, followed by a smooth taper back to the mainline.
- Leaders go between your fly line and the fly. The mainline is thick and highly visible, so you need a thin, low-visibility leader in-between. Leaders are usually between six and 12 feet long – nine feet is a good length to start with – and made of clear or lightly tinted monofilament or fluorocarbon line. Monofilament works best with dry flies because it floats; fluorocarbon is better for wet flies because it sinks.
- Tippets are optional, but many fly anglers choose to add one to the very end of their line. A tippet is essentially an even thinner, almost-invisible line that goes between your leader and your fly. Tippets are most commonly used when nymphing, which is a particular type of wet fly fishing, but in most situations, it’s perfectly acceptable to skip the tippet and tie your flies directly to the leader.
Types of Flies
Building up a formidable arsenal of flies is one of the most fun parts of fly fishing. A lot of anglers take great pride in the breadth of their fly collection. Of course, as you accumulate flies, you’ll notice that there are certain patterns that you’ll use over and over again, while others are basically eye candy.
There are really far too many fly patterns to even begin counting, but pretty much all of them can be divided into two categories: dry flies (which are fished on the surface) and wet flies (which are fished below the surface).
Dry flies are probably the first flies that come to mind when one thinks about fly fishing. They float on the surface of the water and are typically made of feathers, hair, and/or foam. Dry flies are some of the most beginner-friendly flies because they’re easy to see on the surface, and that visibility makes it easy to tell when you have a bite.
Some of the most popular and useful dry fly patterns include Blue Winged Olive, Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and Stimulator. These patterns are all designed to mimic the adult versions of aquatic insects, like mayflies and caddisflies, which hatch in the water and are frequently gobbled up on the surface.
Dry flies also include a family of flies referred to as terrestrials, which are meant to mimic insects like grasshoppers, ants, and beetles, which sometimes fall onto the surface of the water. Popper flies, which are more commonly used for bass fishing, are also, technically, a type of dry fly.
Wet flies are designed to have just enough weight that they sink, and are meant to be fished below the water’s surface. Anglers cast wet flies and either allow them to drift with the river’s current or swing them across the current.
Wet fly fishing techniques are a bit more advanced than dry fly techniques. That being said, they’re useful to learn because trout feed more commonly below the surface than above it. Most wet flies fall into one of two categories: nymphs and streamers.
Nymphs are small flies that mimic the juvenile form of aquatic insects like mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, and midges. Live nymphs often cling to rocks at the bottom of the river and are frequently dislodged and float loose in the current. Some of the most popular nymph fly patterns include Copper John, Prince Nymph, Hare’s Ear, Walt’s Worm, and Frenchie.
Streamers are typically larger wet flies that are meant to imitate minnows, crayfish, leeches, and other aquatic critters. The Wooly Bugger is arguably the single most essential streamer pattern, but it’s always good to have a few handy. Muddler Minnow, Sculpin, and Clouser Minnow are also great patterns.
Fly sizes are measured by the size of the hook used in the fly; each hook size has a corresponding number. These measurements are somewhat counterintuitive because smaller flies have higher numbers (e.g. a size four fly is smaller than a size two fly).
Most fly patterns come in multiple sizes, so you can choose the ideal size based on where you’re fishing, what you expect to catch, and what type of insect or minnow you need to imitate. Fly sizes are typically only in even numbers; odd-numbered fly sizes are more common in Europe than in the US.
The most common nymphs and dry flies used for trout fishing fall within the range of sizes 12, 14, and 16. Larger-sized six, eight, and 10 flies may be effective when fish are actively feeding, and smaller 18, 20, and 22 flies may be called for in cold water or when fish are inactive. The largest sizes, two and four, are typically reserved for streamers.
Fly Fishing Gear and Accessories
There’s a whole look associated with fly fishing – the vest, the waders, the little hat with the flies stuck in it – and you may very well acquire a whole boatload of gear and accessories over time. Only a few of these are truly essential for a beginner.
A basic fly box is necessary to keep your flies safe, dry, and organized. Tools for cutting line and removing hooks are handy too, like a pair of forceps and line snippers. You’ll also need a landing net to help guide any fish you catch safely to the bank without injuring them. If you plan on keeping your catch, invest in a creek to keep them alive while you fish.
Waders may or may not be essential, but they are handy. Most of the best trout fishing takes place in chilly weather, and waders allow you to comfortably enter the water, which opens up a lot of possibilities. The two basic types of waders are hip waders, which are essentially wading pants, and chest waders, which are more like wading overalls.
A fly fishing vest is optional too, but it’s helpful because it provides storage and organization for all your other gear. A good vest allows you to take all this stuff with you as you fish, rather than leaving it behind on the bank.
Casting a Fly Rod
Once you have a rod, reel, line, a few good flies, and all the gear you need, the most important next step is to practice casting. Casting a fly rod is actually quite similar to casting an ordinary fishing rod, but because the weight you’re casting comes from the line, the first step to a good cast is to let some line out of the reel.
When you let out line, it provides some weight that can “load” the rod when you start your casting motion. As a general rule, a good cast starts with letting out about three rod-lengths of line. How you proceed once you’ve done this depends on what type of cast you’re about to make. There are a lot of different casts, but the two basic ones every beginner should master are an overhand cast and a roll cast.
The overhand cast is a basic cast that most other forms of casting are based upon. It’s probably what you’re envisioning in your head if you think about a picture-perfect fly cast, with the rod arched overhead to propel the weight of the line forward in a graceful curve.
A roll cast is a handy maneuver when you’re fishing in tight quarters, such as a trout stream with trees and bushes on either side. In these situations, there isn’t much room to make a big overhand cast, so anglers will instead use a roll cast, which sends the line straight out across the water with a flick of the wrist.
Casting takes practice. Much like developing a good golf swing, it will only improve over time as you get a feel for it. Look for a place to practice where there are few obstructions around, like an open field, or better yet, a sandy beach near an open expanse of water.
Ultimately, there are few things more satisfying than the moment when you make your first perfect cast. Once you’ve done that, there’s nothing left but to head to your nearest river and try it out for real.
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