Whatever your reason for catching the fly fishing bug, you as a beginner will enjoy its fruits most fully by learning how to fly fish with the right introduction, knowledge and tactics, as addressed in this article.
Why Fly Fishing?
The urge to fly fish can start quite simply. For example, it could begin with a photo or film of a fly caster: the sinuous flight of the very visible line before it lights upon the stark contrast of blue-green water; the enormous bend of the fly rod after the same angler hooks a fish; the ease in which the angler releases the fish unharmed from the fly’s single, barbless hook.
You might simply catch the bug because you want a new challenge from your favorite sport or you tire of the messiness in using bait. Perhaps you long for a more direct feel of the fish: a fight without the encumbrance of weights, heavy lures or even swivels and bobbers.
In short, the compulsion to fly fish can be rooted in the sport’s artistry, esthetics, bareness and practicality.
Fly casting is not innate – practice first
First off, if you’ve never touched a fly rod before, you might be wondering how the heck you can cast something slightly heavier than a clipped thumbnail—without a weight or sinker, albeit—farther than the length of your kitchen table.
Don’t be intimidated by this conundrum. You may not know it, but you can actually gain the concept of basic fly-casting with a dowel (a broken broomstick works) and six or so feet of thick yarn without even leaving your kitchen table.
- Just tie the yarn to the end of your dowel and start bringing the latter up to approximately an 11 o’clock position—just behind your shoulder—with the yarn following in a back-cast style of motion.
- Before the yarn can lose its backward momentum and begin to fall, bring the dowel forward to about a 2 o’clock position and watch what the yarn does.
As light as the yarn is, especially with nothing attached to its end, you will see it actually lay out almost straight in front of you rather than simply dropping into a pile at your feet.
Once you gain the basic dynamics required to cast something that is nearly weightless, step into your backyard with a real fly rod and reel (we will talk about how to select the right ones imminently in this article) to begin practicing with the real thing.
If your yard is too cluttered with trees or other obstacles, find a nearby park or unoccupied playing field. If you wish to get directly down to the bones of it, find a dock on a lake, but one where you won’t be whipping a sunbather with your backcast.
This isn’t Everest or scuba diving. You don’t need a coach or trainer to learn how to fly cast. Just keep practicing in your yard or elsewhere while using the basic rudiments learned with the yarn and dowel.
That said, you can definitely shorten the time it takes to learn fly casting by knowing an experienced fly fisher who doesn’t mind spending some time with you. Some municipal parks and recreation departments even provide low-cost lessons in fly casting. See if your city does.
The No. 1 essential Fly Fishing Equipment? The right rod and reel
You will learn almost too late that fly casting for an entire day proves somewhat exhausting. Some newcomers even tire after an hour or two.
The best way to avoid such fatigue is by purchasing a well-balanced fly-fishing outfit—the rod and reel. Though bamboo offers a nostalgic touch and fiberglass a sense of tradition, choose graphite for your first fly rod.
Graphite fly rods prove considerably lighter than other rod materials. It is sufficiently strong and it is not nearly as expensive as it was back in, say, the ‘80s. It’s as common as whole-wheat bread among today’s anglers, even more so with fly fishers.
If your quarry is trout, choose a two-piece graphite rod of around 7-8 feet, unless you plan to hike into your trout lake or stream—better done with a three- or four-piece pack rod.
A 7-8 foot rod will likely require a fly line weight of 6-8. Don’t let fly line weights intimidate you either.
Every spool of fly line hosts a label with its weight (we will spare how the weight is attained in another article). Every rod carries an inscription, near the butt end most often, of the line weight that works best with it.
As a beginner, you will unlikely need to dip below 5 or exceed 8 in line weight for trout fishing, though technically weights range from 1 to 15 these days.
- The heavier the line, the longer you can cast, as long as the rod is of correct length and action (e.g., slow, moderate, fast, extra-fast in terms of the speed with which the tip returns to its normal position).
- The lighter the line, the more delicately it will drop onto the water at the sacrifice of distance. For trout, a medium to slow action fly rod often proves sufficient.
If your first prey consists of largemouth bass, migrating steelhead or salmon, you will be best equipped with a rod of fast to extra-fast action.
This means the butt section should be stout and the tip noticeably quick to return to its normal position—essentially not as easily bent with a fish on. In general, you should also use a rod of at least 8 feet and a line weight of 7-9 for these species, while always paying heed to the line weight recommendation printed on the rod.
Fly rods come in half-foot proportions, just like spinning or bait-casting rods: 5-1/2 feet, 6-1/2 feet, 7-1/2 and so on.
Make sure you don’t buy too cheap of fly rod. This sport proves quite addictive once you take the time to get a handle on it; you will want a rod that lasts more than one season.
You don’t have to choose a Redington, Scott, Thomas & Thomas, Winston, Loomis or Sage your first year.
An Orvis, Echo, Moonshine or Lamiglas might be close to the price range of the aforementioned, but a tick less expensive and quite well built.
You can’t go wrong with a variety of mid-priced brands, such as a Fenwick, Cabela’s, Lefty Kreh or Temple Fork. If on a tighter budget, look at some Cabela’s, Abu-Garcia or Tailwater rods.
No matter the rod, examine how well its rod guides or eyes are protected and wrapped.
- Make sure the ferrules (joints at the end of each rod section) are solid yet not so sticky they become a bear to detach.
- Non-corrosive guides and reel seats are best, from the reel locks to their threading.
- Try to avoid the plastic rings for reel locks.
Cork handles offer durability, lightness light and a handy place for safely embedding fly hooks while jaunting from one fishing hole to another on lake or stream. They also help the rod’s buoyancy should you drop it in the water.
If you can, find a lifetime warranty on your first fly rod—one that doesn’t require too many hoops to free replacement or repair.
Normally, shutting the car door or trunk on your rod and similar misadventures don’t qualify under these warranties. That said, each company features different thresholds.
Fly Fishing Reels
If fishing for trout or even bass less than 3-4 pounds, you will discover that stripping your line in—rather than reeling—poses the easiest way to effectively bring fish to hand.
For lighter fish, don’t preoccupy yourself with fast-retrieve fly reels and their high gear ratios. Single-action reels will suffice.
If trying to land hefty fish—steelhead, salmon, muskies, lunker bass and the like—then consider gear ratios and speedy retrieves in a fly reel.
Keep in mind that if the surprise Hercules should hit, you can slow the run by applying measured hand pressure to the line just below the butt of your rod.
No matter their retrieve mechanisms, fly reels should not be too heavy or too light for your rod of choice. Like rods, reel packages will most often include a recommendation of rod weight for that particular reel.
For freshwater fishing, no reel need be as heavy as those you see in saltwater fishing shows. The reel’s line capacity should lie between 35 and 100 yards for a first-timer.
Note that fly-line backing (Dacron, braided or similar) covers those long runs by large, vigorous fish.
✔ Use a loop knot to attach backing to your line if the latter comes with a built-in loop on its back end.
✔ If your fly line fails to feature a built-in loop, use the Albright knot.
Also note that the larger the arbor of a reel (its core or spool), the faster your retrieval of line, whether a single action reel or not.
Look for an easy to reach and easy to turn drag setting on the reel, should you need to reel in a fish.
Avoid drag dials that appear insecure as you twist them. They should exhibit some gravity, so to speak. See how many components are made of metal inside the reel (i.e., gears, pins, arms) and how many are made of thin plastic or otherwise flimsy composites.
Like the first fly rod, you need not spend a week’s wages on your initial reel. A Piscifun, Cahill, Avid, L. L. Bean, Cabela’s or even the classic, time-tested Pflueger all prove ample for the task.
If left-handed, look for a convertible spool, one that attaches easily on either the right or left side of the frame.
First, you should know that unlike monofilament, fly lines lack a pound-test rating. Each is strong enough to hold any kind of fish you seek. Leaders are a different story, as are the designs and engineering of various fly lines.
As a newcomer to the sport, you need to determine where your prey’s point of vulnerability (POV) lies.
Will the fish you seek be dimpling the surface for floating or semi-submerged insects?
Will they be targeting swimming pupae on their way to the surface?
Or, will they be feeding on emerging larvae and nymphs off the bottom?
Alternatively, are they focusing on crustaceans near the bottom?
Where a fish likes to feast will dictate what type of line you use. Full-sinking lines accommodate fish feeding near the lake or stream bottom, while full-floating lines best suit fish feeding on top for fallen insects or those from the deep that spring forth wings and adulthood once on the surface.
Sinking tips on floating or dry lines often prove best in reaching some of the swimming insects or emergers in moderate depths of water.
Whether floating or sinking, lines will be either level or tapered. Some are torpedo tapered to allow longer casting.
Bass fly lines and steelhead fly lines most often fall under this category. Some are double-tapered: They sport tapers at each end of the entire length of the line to allow for a lighter impact when landing on the water.
Double-tapers also allow you to get two lines in one. Once one end becomes too nicked or weathered, you can simply unwind the line and re-spool it to use the other end. protected all the while beneath the rest of the line.
You will also notice intermediate sinking lines, fast-sinking lines and level sinkers which dive without much variation in depth along the entire length of the submerged line.
Remember that the POV of the fish you seek will determine which particular variances you require in a line.
While you’re at it, bone up on entomology
Fly fishing hardly requires a science degree, but if you can learn as much as possible about the aquatic insects in your region, the better your success as a fly fisher.
Cling to any fly-fishing guides pertinent to your region. Watch fly-tying shows or videos. Learn the stages of life for each type of insect you might encounter in your region’s freshwater bodies. Become one with the fish’s food.
The more you learn about your area’s insects, the more you will know about where a fish might be feasting.
Follow the food trail. In this vein, pay attention to which insects are most prevalent during particular parts of a season, such as mayflies, damselflies, dragonflies, salmon flies, sedge flies, chironomids and so on.
Whatever is most abundant often determines which fly pattern will best attract a strike.
Many stream anglers bring a seen or mesh device to catch insects tumbling into it from upstream. They then identify the bugs and match the hatch with their fly pattern.
As a beginner, you might be suspicious of fly patterns that don’t really look like the Real McCoy you actually see on or in the water. In most cases, you can lose the skepticism.
Fly patterns often accentuate, diminish or otherwise misrepresent what you see in the live insect when it comes to colors or even the artificial fly’s raw material—its texture, glimmer or dimension in general. It all looks quite different to a water-bound fish viewing it from down below.
If you are used to spin-fishing, you might be confused by the strength ratings of fly leaders, mostly made of nylon.
Their resilience to particular weights of fish is expressed in tippet strength.
For instance, 1X indicates a strength worthy of really big freshwater fish. A 3X rating can be ample for much steelhead or bass fishing. For most trout, anywhere from 4X to 6X can suffice. Some leader brands even translate the tippet strength rating into pound-test ratings.
You must make sure the knot on the butt end of your tapered leader, where it attaches to the main fly line, is snap-proof.
The double surgeon’s knot finds the most favor among fly anglers for its relatively ease of tying and its proven strength. It also can be used to tie extra tippet to your original tapered leader as the leader shortens from trimming it after each change in flies.
How to fly fish – The easiest way
Dragging a fly, as the term goes, consists of basically trolling your pattern. This method, by far, proves the easiest way to get used to the feel of a hit and the fish on the end of a fly rod.
You can even try short casting to get the line started. By simply feeding out your fly line behind a float tube, a paddle boat or one with an electric motor (slowness is the key)—sometimes just stopping to let the fly drop—you can gain a feel for the line, rod and reel.
Hopefully, you gain a sense of how to fight a fish on a fly rod. Once you get the knack of fly fishing by trolling or dragging a fly, you can stop the boat or quit kicking in a tube and start to cast from a stationary position.
Sometimes just gaining a physical feel for this lightweight and very connected style of fishing can provide some momentum on how to master this very contagious sport.