Welcome to Guide to Life, a series of tips, tricks and insights designed to help you get the most from your gear.
Fly fishing is to fishing what road cycling is to biking, stick-shifting is to driving and using a straight razor is to shaving. It’s a sport that requires precision, poise and patience and grants those who practice it a lifetime of pursuit. It’s not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.
Though easy to romanticize, fly fishing is also a practical method of fish catching. Many species of fish, especially trout, will only eat a carefully presented fly. That's a big reason the discipline crossed the Atlantic from Britain in the late 19th century and became ubiquitous on U.S. rivers by the early 20th century. According to the most recent statistics, nearly seven million Americans fling flies from Washington State to rural Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and just about everywhere in between. And that number is on the rise.
Ask a hundred anglers why they fly fish and you’ll get a hundred different answers. For some, simply casting a fly rod is an exercise in achieving a yoga-like flow state. For others, it’s a surgical technique that unlocks close encounters with some of the world’s most beautiful and exotic fish species. Therein lies its poetry. Fly fishing is a living sport; with its origins in antiquity and its future being constantly reimagined by intrepid innovators, it is one of a handful of sports — like golf, skiing or soccer — that has changed so little yet come so far. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
1. Where to Go (and When)
Contrary to the imagery you typically see, you don't have to be on the banks of a slow moving British chalk stream or in the seat of a drift boat out West. Fly fishing can be done in just about any body of water that holds fish. By employing different rod types and weights and a selection of species-specific flies, you can fly fish for anything from striped bass to carp, northern pike to tarpon, brook trout to salmon. However, the majority of fly fishing is done on streams or rivers for various species of trout.
While trout are present in most rivers and streams (that can support trout to begin with) year-round, you’ll have the most success catching them when the water temperatures range from the mid 40s to mid 60s Farenheit. For most US states, that means late spring and mid-autumn. In summer months, tailwaters — rivers downstream of a dam — can continue to fish well, especially if the dam is a bottom-release dam. These structures release cold water from the bottom of the reservoir, keeping the water temperatures conducive to trout feeding regardless of season. Rivers like the White River in Arkansas, the Bighorn in Montana and the Farmington in Connecticut are treasured by anglers and produce record-challenging catches nearly every year.
Stillwater fishing on lakes and ponds can be incredibly fun and diverse. While one could fly fish for bass and pike with topwater lures when conditions are right, there are several times of the year when different species of trout are near the surface and will take dry flies or small nymphs.
Fly fishing in salt water can be challenging — ever present wind, blazing sun, choppy seas — but introduces exciting battles with powerful fish like tarpon, permit and bonefish. While saltwater wading is possible, most outings are done from a flats boat or small craft and require the knowledge of a local guide. For most, saltwater fly fishing provides much needed sun and warmth when lakes and rivers are frozen, and can become a lifelong pursuit in its own right.
Several outfitters and companies offer condition reports for the nation’s premier fisheries. Orvis, for one, provides interactive maps with detailed condition reports contributed by local Orvis-endorsed guide outfits. Most rivers are monitored by the USGS and will have flow and temperature gauges. These gauges provide real-time reports and historical data. Knowing flows and scheduled releases is crucially important when fishing tailwaters; a large release from a dam can make rivers unfishable and can even cause water levels to rise quickly, making wading dangerous. Apps such as the RiverApp can be set up to provide alerts and are handy tools for fishing on the go.
Other factors such as spawning activity, a hatch or migration of a significant food source can alter fish behavior and catchability. Therefore, working with a local fly shop, guide service or lodge is always the most reliable way to set yourself up for success on the water.
2. What You'll Need
All told, you should be able to purchase a full beginner selection of gear for less than $350. Outfitters like Orvis and Bass Pro Shops make it easy to get everything you need in one location and often have experts on call for more specific questions. While there are many options that only get more nuanced with experience, a beginner package should include: a nine-foot, 5-weight rod with matching reel, a WF 5-weight floating line, two to three 3,4 or 5X leaders and a few spools of corresponding tippet. A small box of ‘universal’ flies would suffice in most North American waterways. Now, wtf does all that mean? Keep reading...
Fly fishing is often regarded as an expensive hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. Simple, solid rod, reel and line bundles can be purchased fromL.L. Bean, Orvis and Bass Pro Shops at very reasonable prices. Rods and reels are broken down by weight, ranging from 1 to 12, and come in three action classes: fast, medium and slow action. While rods come in a range of lengths as well, a nine-foot rod is the most common and a suitable length for just about every freshwater consideration.
With this in mind, a five-weight, nine-foot, medium-action rod is the best all-around setup for trout, panfish and smaller bass. Stepping up to a six weight can be a good choice for beginners, especially if you’ll be targeting more bass than trout, as the added backbone will help deliver larger bass flies. Heavier weight rods — usually seven to nine weight — are more suitable for saltwater species, larger bass or pike and steelhead. An eight-weight, nine-foot fast-action rod is a good choice for those quarries.
Reels should match the rod weight, though many manufacturers specify a range of weights for reels. Reels can also come in a small or large arbor. The size of the arbor dictates how quickly you can retrieve slack line. A small arbor is adequate for most trout and bass whereas a large arbor is more suited to strong, aggressive fighters like bonefish, pike and steelhead.
As with reels, your line should match your rod weight. A line that is too light or too heavy will not load the rod correctly and limit your casting. Nowadays there are very specific line designs that cover cold and warm climates, different species, different casting types and bodies of water. Selecting a cold or warm water is really only important at the extremes; using a line designed for cold freshwater won’t flex properly in the heat of the Caribbean. There are floating and sinking lines. Sinking lines are necessary for getting deep and are most often used for lakes, deep saltwater or large, fast-moving rivers. They are broken down by weight and sink rate which is measured in inches per second (ips).
The most common line is a weight-forward floating line; this refers to the thicker section of line at the end that assists with casting. A WF floating line of the correct weight can be used for almost any type of fish and style of fishing. Orvis, Rio and Scientific Anglers are all good options for lines and make the process of pairing with and rod a reel intuitive. As always, consulting a local fly shop or guide is a great way of identifying the right type of setup to use.
Leaders and Tippet
At the end of your line you’ll need a leader. Today, leaders are a single piece of extruded nylon that tapers from a thick butt section to a fine end. Leaders are also broken down by weight from 0x to 8X (the lower the number, the thicker the gauge of the leader) and come in a variety of lengths. For a five weight rod/reel setup with WF 5-weight floating line, a 5X nine-foot leader is best, though 3X and 4X leaders can be used for feistier fish. Meanwhile, 6X to 8X leaders are considered ultrafine and are best for small fish or more experienced anglers.
Add a piece of tippet to the end of your leader. Tippet resembles standard fishing line and is affixed to the leader end in 8- to 12-inch sections. Tippet protects the end of the leader from being continuously snipped back when you change flies or get broken off. Like leaders, tippet is measured by gauge from 0X to 8X. Most often, your tippet material should match or be one gauge smaller than your leader. Thus, a 5X leader would pair best with 5 X or 6X tippet, a 4X leader with 4X or 5X tippet, etc. Using similar gauges will make your knots stronger and help with casting and presentation.
Leaders and tippet are the most consistent costs, as they wear out over time. Flies can also be lost or worn out, but you are able to reuse them indefinitely with some care and a bit of maintenance. For example, drying flies out after use will help prevent degradation of material and rusting of hooks.
Fly selection is heavily dependent on species, location, conditions and time of year. There are several ‘standard’ flies that cover a wide swath of variables, but consulting a local shop or guide is crucial for knowing what to use and when. Most fishing reports will include a rundown of ‘hot’ flies and hatch charts of the most commonly found insects for each month of the year.
While purchasing the required fly fishing tackle will get you fishing, having a few basic accessories will prepare you for fully-fledged outings and, most importantly, catching fish. Gear like packs and vests, nets and garments are highly personal choices and will also need to be tailored to the type of fly fishing you intend to do. While a pair of comfortable shorts, flip flops and a lightweight sun shirt, sunglasses and a brimmed hat are just about all you need on a trip to the Florida Keys, other climates — and quarries — will necessitate a bit more.
Specialized equipment like waders, wading boots and rain gear can make some cost-conscious enthusiasts bristle, but there is a silver lining. Advancements in outdoors equipment as a whole have found their way to the fly shops, making it easier than ever to get quality technical gear that is designed for fly fishing for less. What’s more, most equipment will last for many seasons without needing replacement. At the very least, you should make sure you have a pack or vest to carry flies and additional tackle, a fish-friendly net, polarized sunglasses and an earth-tone hat. As you dial in your fishing, so too will your gear needs and preferences evolve.
3. How to Cast
Casting is the most important part of a beginner fly fisher’s journey. An effective, accurate cast is essential to delivering your fly to the fish. If your cast is too short or too far from the fish, it will likely not spot and eat the fly. If your cast is too long or too close, the fish will spook or disappear altogether. Casting techniques differ with species, conditions and type of fly, but being able to put the fly exactly where you want it, the first time, is paramount to success. Whether you’re casting 20 feet or 60, the mechanics of a good cast adhere to the same central idea: a smooth acceleration of the rod to a stop.
A fly rod is a linear spring. An appropriately weighted line will bend the tip of the rod as you begin to cast. This is called loading. As you work out the line, the rod will load with more energy and transfer that energy to the line when you stop the rod on your final forward cast. But like riding a bike or shooting a basket, casting a fly rod is much easier done than described. Orvis hosts beginner fly fishing classes at various locations across the United States, which are highly recommended for a first timer.
Should you prefer self-learning, YouTube and other outlets are rife with casting videos, tips and tricks. One of the best ways to practice your cast is to take your fly rod to a yard, ballfield, park or any other grassy area free of trees and shrubs. Use a small bundle of yarn to simulate a fly (it’s much safer than a fly with a hook!) and set up a target. Start with a large target — think the size of a hula hoop — and work your way down until you can consistently hit a target with a 6- to 8-inch diameter.
Here are a few mechanical tips to keep in mind when you’re practicing:
10 o’clock to 12 o’clock
A good caster lets the rod do the work. To maximize the rod’s spring-loaded potential you should think of casting between 10 and 12 o’clock with a decisive acceleration between these two stops.
Stand up straight with your shoulders and hips square. Hold the rod in your hand and with your upper arm tight to your body, bend your elbow until the rod tip is directly out in front of you, keeping the rod and your forearm parallel to the ground. This is nine o’clock. With your upper arm stationary and your wrist locked, raise the tip of the rod until it is perpendicular to the ground. It should be pointing directly overhead. This is 12 o’clock.
Now, lower your forearm until it and the rod are at a 50-degree angle to the ground. This is 10 o’clock. As you cast, force yourself to stay within 10 and 12 o’clock, stopping briskly at each location. This is your casting window. Extending forward of 10 will cause the cast to go limp and tumble into a pile of line. Passing 12 will cause the line to drop behind you, hitting the ground (or whatever else) behind you, losing valuable energy.
As you get more confident and your accuracy improves, you can loosen your upper arm, hip and shoulders until your casting stroke feels light, natural and effortless.
Don’t break your wrist
One of the most common mistakes when fly casting is breaking your wrist on your back cast. It’s a terrible habit and can delay your casting development by years. To avoid it, grasp the handle of the rod with your thumb on top, pointed toward the tip of the rod. There should be a straight line from the tip of your rod through your hand and forearm to your elbow. As you cast, maintain this straight line. Breaking your wrist will cause your rod tip to move down behind you — well past 12 o’clock — and destroy your cast. It may feel awkward at first, but your cast will benefit from proper technique over time.
If you have trouble breaking your wrist, try one of two hacks. First, you can use a rubber band to hold the butt of the rod to the underside of your forearm, limiting your ability to bend your wrist as you cast. You can also rotate your grip on the rod so that your forefinger points down the rod instead of your thumb. Your extended forefinger will keep your wrist from bending backwards.
Simply put, most beginners cast too fast and use too much force. A nine-foot rod can store and deploy a lot of energy and its tapered shape is very efficient at transferring that energy to the line. Practice casting as slow as possible at first, ensuring brisk stops at 10 and 12 o’clock. You’ll be amazed just how much energy the rod will generate. If you’re struggling with speed, remove the yarn from the end of your leader. Casting too quickly will result in the leader cracking like a whip. Slow down until the cracking stops.
Too much force on the rod will break a cast down quickly. Many beginners cast like they’re chopping wood. Think of your rod as a spoon full of whipped cream; a light flick is all you need to send it flying.