We all love the simple joy of casting a treble hook with a worm into a still lake. The best part is how little thinking you have to do. You just cast, reel, and set the hook when it’s time. But if you had been doing this your whole life, you would probably be hungry for something new.
If you have never tried fly fishing, we highly recommend it. It is a whole new approach to something you may have been doing the same way since you were a kid. It is a heck of a lot harder than just casting cheese on a hook with a regular old baitcasting rod, but it is also a lot more rewarding. Fly fishing requires strategy, technique, finesse, and a naturalist’s eye. But once you get a handle on these things, you will start pulling fish you would not have even dreamed of before.
Why Fly Fish?
But who cares? If I can sit on the dock and hook into the same sunfish all summer, why shake it up? There are a ton of answers to that question.
First and foremost, fly fishing opens up rivers as fishing options in ways that trolling simply can not. You will be able to use eddies, flat water, and riffles to your advantage rather than fighting against them. Fly fishing offers different tools to exploit each of these features and more. You will walk the river slowly, using streamers in bubbly, cobbled shallows or setting dry flies over a deep eddy.
But that does not mean you can not use fly rods in other water bodies. Fly casting on lakes and estuaries is viable. You will just have to think about it differently. Most of the time you are watching one fish in particular, finding the proper angle, picking the right fly, and setting up for a single cast. Fly fishing allows you to do this just about anywhere.
You may be hard-pressed to catch a catfish on a fly. We are not saying it can not be done, just that it probably is not the appropriate tool. Likewise, fishing for river-dwelling species like trout, steelhead, salmon, and some sunfish is where fly fishing shines. Particularly in places like Alaska, where the sport fish have not been caught, fly fishing makes catching steelhead and salmon almost too easy.
Most of all, fly fishing is a completely different sport from casting with lures and bait. The motions, techniques, and strategy – the whole game of fishing are different. If you know a fly fisherman, you know how poetic they can be about this. Fly fishing requires a level of touch sensitivity that you just do not get with other methods. You will find yourself waist-deep in a river the better part of the afternoon watching one fish. Plotting your moment to strike. When you do hook him, it’s a magical experience. There is just no other way to put it.
Gear You Need To Start Fly Fishing
If you are going to try fly fishing out, you will need to invest in some new equipment. Fly fishing requires a completely different rod, reel, line, and even some different apparel. Here is the low-down on how to get set up for fly fishing without breaking the bank.
Fly rods differ quite a bit from your old Ugly Stik. And we are not just talking about the cork handle. Fly rods are usually longer, break into more pieces, and flex like crazy. The length and flexibility create the “whip” motion that you need when casting flies. When picking a rod, you also want lots of sensitivity, so you can feel exactly what the fish is doing on the other end of the line. And of course, fly rods come in multiple weights. So what should you buy?
First, you have to think about the size. Most first-timers will go for a 5- or 8-weight rod. 5-weight rods are better for light river fishing, where 8-weight rods can handle bigger river fish as well as estuary fishing. 5-weight rods are probably the most versatile. Unless you plan on fishing in the ocean immediately, we recommend starting there.
Next, consider the length. Fly rods run the gamut from seven to 14 feet in length! Shorter does better in small creeks with lots of vegetation, longer does better for making huge casts over flat water. You’ll most commonly see rods in the eight to nine-foot range. This is a good zone to start in as a beginner.
Last, consider how it breaks down. Most fly rods break into three or four pieces, though some have two, three, or five. More pieces mean it packs smaller, but can also affect the flex of the rod. Maximizing packability without sacrificing too much flex, you’ll probably want a four-piece rod.
Any fly rod you find that meets these criteria will probably do just fine. We like the Cabela’s Bighorn Fly Outfit as a starter rod. It is surprisingly high-quality, made of high-carbon graphite.
Going to the fly shop, you’ll probably notice there are about a million different reels out there. But picking one is a lot simpler than it looks. For beginners, there are two main things you should consider: size and drag.
For size, you just need a reel that will accommodate the weight and length of your rod. What this means is that it can hold all the line and backing you’ll need at the distance you’ll be casting and with the weight of fish. With a 5-weight rod, you need to be sure your reel can handle a 4-6 weight line. As long as your reel is compatible with the line that is in the same weight range as your rod, you will be fine.
Drag is where it gets tricky (and expensive). The drag system on the rod determines what you can fish. Cheap ones won’t be able to stand up to large saltwater fish, for example. If you’re sticking to rivers and trout an inexpensive (~$50) reel will do just fine. Reels with better, stronger drag systems can run well into the hundreds. It all just depends on what you’re fishing.
The reel that comes with the Cabela’s Bighorn combo (above) is also a great starter choice. But if you want to step your game up and go for a nicer reel, the Orvis Clearwater Outfit will perform spectacularly.
Line, Leader, and Tippet
Naturally, your reel needs a line. You will need a neon-colored, heavyweight line for casting, as well as a clear leader and tippet to attach your flies to. Fly lines are typically bright yellow or green. This feature makes it easier for you to watch the line for movement. Fly lines have different tapers that affect how they are cast. For now, let us keep things simple and say we are looking for a weight-forward (WF) taper. This makes casting easier, especially when you are fighting the wind.
At the end of your line, you’ll have several feet of leader, which creates distance between your line and the fly. It’s heavier than your tippet but lighter than the line. There are different leaders for different uses. To start, a dry fly leader will probably work best. Last is the tippet, which you will cut and replace often. Tippet is how you rig your flies, which you can do in different ways.
When buying your first line, you mostly want to keep an eye on the weight of the line. Remember, we need the weight of the line, reel, and rod to match. Anything in the four to six-pound range will do just fine for your first fly setup. You can buy leader, line, and tippet together or separately. We recommend Cabela’s or Airflo for starter lines. Both get the job done and will not break the bank. A nine-foot 5X monofilament leader will work nicely in most situations. We like the RIO Powerflex. RIO also makes a good tippet.
Fly Patterns, etc.
There are a million kinds of flies you can use for fly fishing. This is not an exaggeration. What you use will depend on where you live, the time of year, the elevation, the temperature of the water, and what you are fishing for. Your best bet here is to talk to your local fly shop. They will set you up with some basics based on all of the above. We will cover fly types in-depth in a later post. For now, you’ll want a mix of dry flies, wet flies (like this leech and streamers (like this wooly bugger.
Waders and Dry Gear
What you need to stay dry depends on who you ask. Some will tell you you’re asking for trouble if you don’t get $400 chest waders and wading boots. Others will tell you a pair of waterproof sandals is just fine to get started. We see merits to both approaches.
For shallow water, sandals like Chacos are great. Especially when you are battling midsummer heat, there is nothing better than cooling your heels while you fish. They are easily the most comfortable option and perform well on the hike to and from the river.
If you are going to be spending a long time in deep water, waders are a no-brainer. You can start with a pair that incorporates boots . This will work well to get you started. Once you are ready, a pair of sock foot waders with separate wading boots will be a smart upgrade.
In our humble opinion, there’s one option that is often overlooked here. We are talking about a neoprene hip boot. If you’re not going to be above your waist, but plan on being in the water a lot, this is the winner. They are relatively cheap and durable enough to last you until you’re ready to commit to nice waders.
The Call of The River
Now that you have got some fun new toys, all you need to do is make your way to your local creek and start casting! We give our guarantee that as soon as you hook into your first fish on a dry fly, you will be addicted. As they say, the tug is the drug, and it is a powerful drug at that.
Conrad Lucas is a biologist, naturalist, and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, climbing and fishing. You can follow him on IG @drinkfluoride and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com