When you first start fly fishing, there are only a few basic things you need: a rod and reel, some flies and a decent pair of sunglasses. But, the catch with fishing gear is that it largely depends on where you’re going. Generally speaking, saltwater fly-fishing requires a heavier rod and a reel with a good drag system to deliver casts in the wind and surf, and to battle strong fighters like striped bass, redfish, bonefish and tarpon. Freshwater fly fishing hinges on how you present the fly so that the trout — no matter how picky — will eat your fly. You’ll want a smaller, lighter rod that can place dry flies precisely and delicately, just a real fly would land.
So much of fly fishing is specific to the season, the species for which you are angling and the type of water you are fishing. The sport is so richly populated with gear — rightly so — that it can be overwhelming for beginners. Prices range widely from brand to brand, and many offer beginner-, intermediate- and advanced-tier gear. Knowing which items to spend more on is essential so you don’t walk out of the store with top-of-the-line gear that you don’t know how to use.
We’ve tested the following gear in Belize, Montana, upstate New York, Florida and many places in between, gathering tips and tricks from the plethora of guides and devoted anglers we’ve encountered. There’s a lot of great equipment out there, but if you’re just getting started — or you’re looking for some new gear — read on.
Rods and Reels
There are a lot of opinions about what rod and reel combination is best. The rod action and weight and the type of reel and line you use will differ with each use case, and finding the combo you’re most comfortable with will take time on the water. A good fly shop is always a helpful place to start. You can get your hands on the equipment, ask questions and let them hone in which gear is best for your skill level and target species.
Don’t let price sway you. A pricier rod or reel doesn’t always mean better. Low-priced options are usually designed to handle a wide range of applications, work well and can save you hundreds when you’re learning the basics.
Freshwater: L.L. Bean Quest 5wt Rod
A nine-foot 5wt rod is an excellent all-around choice for freshwater. Many companies offer bundles for beginners, but the L.L. Bean Quest is a good place to start. It’s a stout rod and will give you a nice balance of strength and delicacy for an entry-level price. The Quest is a medium action rod — fast action rods are stiffer, which is good for power and quick line speed so you can cast farther and in windy conditions, but it’s hard to fish softly and with control. A slow action rod is the inverse, it makes timing your cast much trickier as the rod is more willowy and bendy so it slows everything down. As a beginner, you want something right in the middle to learn how to cast. And, when it’s time to upgrade, you’ll love knowing you’ve got a sturdy rod as a backup.
Freshwater: Orvis Battenkill III Reel
A freshwater reel is often simply a line holder as it’s rare that you’ll hook into fish powerful enough to engage the reel; most fish can be played with the rod alone while the excess line is pulled in, or stripped, by the non-casting hand. Still, as a beginner, you’ll want something with a disc drag for when you do. A disc drag is essentially a brake system on a reel that keeps the line from unspooling freely when the fish decides to run. With this in mind, it’s hard to beat the Orvis Battenkill series reels. Well made and sharp looking, the Battenkill III is a go-to that will outperform higher priced reels thanks to the disc drag. Pair it with Orvis WF (weight-forward) Hydros Trout Line. It’s a quality, versatile line and Orvis will mount it on the reel for you so it’s ready to fish out of the box.
Saltwater: Orvis Helios 3D 8wt Rod
Orvis’ new Helios 3 line is a terrific place to start when rod shopping for saltwater rods. Though pricey, the H3 collection is the most accurate set of rods ever built by the company and likely anywhere on the market. The 8 wt is a great starting point as it offers you fighting strength as well as casting power and accuracy for those windy days in the surf. The nine-foot H3D (vs. the 3F) has the precision to land small flies accurately for bonefishing and enough punch to deliver big flies to snook and striped bass.
Hot Tip: Always rinse your rod and reel thoroughly after use in salt water. Salt can corrode reels, degrade cork grips and even weaken line and backing.
Saltwater: Tibor Everglades Reel
Tibor (pronounced TEE-BOOR) Reels have accounted for over 900 saltwater fishing world record catches, making it the winningest reel maker in the business. Tibor reels are famous for their robustness and resistance to salt corrosion and wear and tear. With excellent line capacity for runners (think, Bonefish) and substantial enough drag for heavy hitters (striped bass), the Tibor Everglades is one of the best reels on the market owing largely to its bullet-proof American-made build quality. Most saltwater reels are just too heavy duty and unnecessary for freshwater. The Tibor Everglades is a size that can cross over from salt to fresh when you’re angling for larger species like steelhead, salmon and pike. Though a little pricey, when you think about the fact that you’ll likely have this for the rest of your life, it’s more manageable. I’ve paired mine with Rio’s InTouch Striper line, a good all-around line that will cast well at close range and be strong enough for bruisers.
Fishing means being in the elements. Having the right apparel can help make the most of your sometimes limited time on the water and help protect from injury and exposure. Personal taste and style aside, here are some recommendations for apparel that you should keep on your packing list, from head to toe.
Hot Tip: I always err larger when ordering fishing clothes and apparel online. A garment that wears a little large will help with layering and provide extra room in action points like knees and shoulders.
Freshwater: Filson Logger Mesh Cap
Just about any cap with a brim will work for most of the freshwater fishing season, colder temps aside. Look for a cap that has a dark fabric on the underside of the brim, which helps absorb light from the water’s surface, instead of reflecting it. Go with a muted color; most fish can spot bright colors, especially on the highest point of your silhouette. The Filson Logger Mesh Cap is a good option thanks to its mesh back and light color under the brim.
Hot Tip: Attach a small square of the fuzzy side of a piece of self-adhesive velcro to the brim of your hat on your non-casting side. It makes a great, easily accessible patch for drying flies after or between uses.
Freshwater: Smartwool Merino Wool Baselayer
A cold day on the river is a bad day on the river. I started fishing in merino wool base layers about four years ago and haven’t looked back. It might seem excessive, but temperatures can vary widely throughout the day and even a summer evening can get chilly, especially if you’re wading in cold rivers. Unlike cotton, merino will insulate even when wet, making it a warm choice.
Freshwater: Poncho Outdoors Fishing Shirt
Fishing shirts have been around for a long time and haven’t changed much in the past decades. Poncho Outdoors makes a great solution for those who are tired of baggy button-ups. The shirts are lightweight and packable, offer a way to secure cuffed sleeves and have a stiff standing collar to help protect from sun exposure. The magnetic front pockets are a useful touch.
Freshwater: Simms Waders
If I could give you one solid piece of advice: invest in good waders — one that feels like your most comfortable pair of pants, are lightweight yet hefty enough to resist tears from thorns and other debris. There is nothing worse than hiking to the river to find your waders in shreds. I have used Simms for several years and have put them through their paces, and while they’ve performed fairly well, I have had to patch them a few times each season. I went with the model down from these and wish I paid up for something that’s more robust, well-constructed pair.
Hot Tip: Before you head out, put a couple of wraps of duct tape around a Bic lighter. Stow it in your gear in a ziplock bag. An inch or two of duct tape applied to the inside and outside of a small tear in your waders can often be enough to stop a leak streamside.
Freshwater: Darn Tough Hunter Merino Socks
Worry less about wicking and more about warmth — for that, merino is the best solution. Your feet are almost always in the water and get much colder than the rest of your body. The over-the-calf Hunter sock from Darn Tough is a good choice because of its higher cuff that decreases slippage and chaffing where boots, waders and socks meet.
Freshwater: Orvis x Michelin Wading Boots
If you get the stocking-foot waders, which tend to cut down on blister and chafing, you’ll need a pair of wading boots. It’s a more customizable fit and feel when you add boots. Orvis recently teamed up with tire-maker Michelin to build a new pro-level wading boot. Beyond the outsole — which has been designed specifically for better wet rubber traction — the boot has a single-piece cast polyurethane upper, totally eliminating the seams which lead to blisters and boot breakdown.
Saltwater: Columbia PFG Freezer Zero II Neck Gaiter
A lot of people think a gaiter is excessive, but when you’re on the open water for 10 hours, protecting your neck, face and ears is crucial. The Freezer Zero II from Columbia’s PFG line is an excellent choice with its elongated tail for added neck protection and a perforated front panel which helps to reduce sunglass fogging.
Saltwater: Columbia PFG Terminal Deflector Hoodie
The Terminal Deflector Hoodie uses Columbia’s proprietary Omni-Shade Sun Deflector technology, designed to bounce UVA and UVB rays away from your body. I tested this product in Belize and was surprised at how well it worked in direct sunlight. The hood and integrated neck gaiter were a welcome addition and protection from the sun, and the thumb holes on the sleeves are a thoughtful and useful touch.
Hot Tip: Some sunscreens and bug repellents contain chemicals that will break down your fly line. Carry a chamois or a towel in your bag to help remove the excess from your hands before you start fishing.
Saltwater: Orvis Jackson Quick-Dry Pant
Technical pants can go wrong really quickly. Stick with something comfortable, lightweight and easy to dry. Zip-off pants are an option if you want to have ultra-utility, but after years of fishing on saltwater, I have never once converted pants to shorts during a trip. I like the Orvis Jackson Quick-Dry pants. They’re built well and have loops for a belt, making carrying a pair of pliers or a tool much easier.
Saltwater: Simms Intruder Saltwater Wading Boot
For extended trips on tough salt flats I like the Simms Intruder Saltwater Wading Boot. The reinforced sole provides ample protection and the neoprene sock and fold-down gravel guard help to keep out sand, shells and bits of coral. It’s designed to be worn without socks, which is a welcome feature that helps prevent blisters.
Like most outdoor activities, there are more fly fishing accessories out there than you could ever need. Here’s a list of my most trusted tools and some things that you won’t want to be without once the fish start biting.
Hot Tip: Tethering your accessories to your vest, pack or person with a piece of paracord or a zinger is a good practice. One fumble streamside can send a vital tool tumbling into deep water, leaving you unarmed and miles from the nearest sporting goods store.
Freshwater: Gerber Line Driver
The Line Driver from Gerber is a great new multitool that makes it easy to manage your line when you need to add a knot, thread a new line or clean an old one — and it has found its way into my kit. With six different functions, including scissor nips, line threader and crimper for attaching split shot or flattening barbs, it’s a handy addition to traditional forceps and nippers.
Freshwater: Orvis Magnetic Net Holder
A simple tether that lets the net hang on the back out of the way while you fish keeping clear from your line while casting and fighting fish. A light tug on the net will separate the magnetic closure when you need it and the tether keeps it from floating away when it’s out of hand.
Freshwater: Brodin Phantom Landing Net
Avoid the black netting found on cheaper nets as it can remove the protective coating on fishes skin/scales, exposing them to infection. Get a fish-friendly net with the eco-clear webbing. I’ve used a Brodin for three years on countless trips and it has held up beautifully.
Hot Tip: Unhook your catch while your net is in the water. The fish will stress less and won’t injure itself flopping on the shore or a boat. Mashing the barb on your fly will make unhooking easier and cause less damage to the fish.
Freshwater: Filson Mesh Fly Fishing Strap Vest
Some people are vest people, some people are bag people, and I am a vest guy. I like having everything at hand. I have been fishing with the Filson Mesh Fly Fishing Strap Vest for five years and absolutely love it. It has enough storage for what you need and the strap design (versus full vest) works over layers or rain gear.
Freshwater: High Stream Gear Trekking Poles
If you ever fish fast moving water or in early spring when the water is high, you’ll want a good wading stick. I have found that most sticks designed for fishing are held together with an elastic cord, which can come apart on you at the worst times. I use this hiking pole pair because the cables lock into the handle so the staff won’t come apart and you have a nice cork handle for grip.
Freshwater: Suncloud Optics Sunglasses
You could read about fishing eyewear for days and not hit the bottom. And to be totally honest, it’s personal preference to a point. Dark lenses will kill your visibility in the early morning and evening, which is why you’ll want something lighter, like a yellow-tinted lens. Polarized, amber lenses are a good all-around fit; they allow you to see into water in most light conditions and will help highlight bright flies and colorful line indicators. I found these to be inexpensive enough that I don’t worry about breaking or losing them, albeit you can’t get them in an RX.
Saltwater: Gerber Salt RX Magnipliers
From setting knots in heavy line and leader material to removing hooks from toothy mouths, a good pair of pliers is essential on salt water. Gerber’s new Salt Rx Magnipliers have lockable spring-loaded jaws and a built-in line nipper and are designed to be corrosion-resistant. They also come with a sheath and lanyard and have replaceable tips with carbide cutting blades.
Saltwater: Columbia PFG Terminal Deflector Zero Fishing Gloves
Unless you fly fish regularly, it’s a good idea to have a pair of gloves tucked away in your bag. I always wear them the first day on the water, letting my hands acclimate with the added protection from salt, wind, sun and frequent casting. Columbia’s PFG Terminal Deflector Zero Fishing gloves are lightweight and have saved my mitts on numerous occasions from that red, flaky and irritated-look.
Hot Tip: Reduce blisters or hot spots on your casting hand by clapping. A few strong claps will stimulate blood flow to your skin, helping to stop the formation of blisters.
Saltwater: Orvis Waterproof Backpack
I always assume that pack I am going to bring on board a boat will get wet, making a reliable waterproof bag is essential. I recently tested the Orvis Waterproof Backpack and found that it not only kept all my gear dry but was also a comfortable pack for carrying a day’s worth of gear. A padded bottom protected the camera gear and padded straps with adjustable sternum and waist straps protected my shoulders. The side pockets work great for water bottles or carrying a backup rod.
Saltwater: Yeti Rambler 26oz. Bottle
A good insulated bottle will help keep hot drinks hot on the coldest days, and iced drinks cool on the hot ones. Yeti’s Rambler is a great choice for any temperature. The wide mouth allows you to drop in ice and makes for easy cleaning. And, a screw-on lid reduces spills and doubles as a lashing point when you’re on the move.
Saltwater: Smith Optics Guide’s Choice Sunglasses
If you want the best possible eye protection for the open water, go with Smith Optics. The Guide’s Choice line with its big frame and wide lens make for a great field of vision. Smith’s Chromapop lenses in bronze highlight your line while cutting through glare, helping you spot fish easier.
Saltwater: Adventure Medical Kit Watertight Medical Kit
Fishing the salt means long hours on a small skiff or flats boat, usually a good distance from civilization. I carry a medical kit whenever I go out, even with professional guides. The Watertight Medical Kit is a compact option. It’s lightweight and stocked with enough supplies to mend most minor to medium injuries. Inside, DryFlex waterproof bags keep bandages dry and sterile.
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