A Beginner Fly Fisherman’s Primer

So you watched A River Runs Through It on cable the other night and, your brother’s gambling issues aside, you’ve decided to try fly fishing. What do you need?


Editor’s Note: Fly fishing gets a funny response from a lot of people. They know it’s a storied sport of some kind, and they respect it — but they don’t really know what the hell it is, what it entails. What’s with the waving? This might be a stupid question, but are you actually fishing for… flying fish?

For the fishermen who’ve been hooked, this isn’t frustrating, but rather a little disappointing. They know the secret, you see. They have the perfect excuse for camaraderie, for gear hoarding, for trips to gorgeous, hidden locations, for excitement, for a true sporting challenge. So consider the next two days — during which we’ll be giving you the fly fishing jump into the deep end — a happily bestowed gift. We hope you enjoy, and more importantly, that you’re inspired to give it a try.

So you watched A River Runs Through It on cable the other night and, your brother’s gambling issues aside, you’ve decided to try fly fishing. What do you need? Well, you could start with just a hardware store rod, reel & line, a few flies in a plastic box, and some clothes you don’t mind trashing. But you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more if you have some decent gear in hand.

KEEP FISHIN’: Bucket List Fly Fishing Destinations | 30 Minutes with Fly Fishing Legend Lefty Kreh | Why Fly Fish? An Essay


The place to start is with a rod and reel. These need to be matched so they balance each other. Rods are rated by line weight — basically a number between 1 and 12 assigned to the physical weight of the last 30 feet of fly line. To make things simple here, start with a 5wt. That will see you through most freshwater fishing situations. As you’ll hear quite a bit throughout this guide, get help from your local fly shop when it comes to selecting a rod. Good brands include Orvis, Sage, Loomis, Scott, St. Croix, Redington, Winston, and Templefork.


Now you need a line. Fly lines are thick and heavy relative to other fishing line because their purpose is to carry the fly, which weighs nearly nothing, to the fish. They’re tapered for a smooth transfer of energy as you cast them. They generally come in what’s called Weight-Forward (WF) or Double-Taper (DT), and are about 90 feet long. As the names imply, a WF line has more weight at the front of the line while a double taper is symmetrical front to back. There are reasons to choose one over the other, but you can’t really go wrong with either at this stage, so we’ll make things simple. Select a WF. Since you’ve chosen a 5wt rod and reel, your line will be a WF-5F. That last F stands for Floating. Yes, you can get sinking lines. For now, don’t. Scientific Anglers, Rio, and Cortland are the big names in lines. Have the guy at the shop load it on your reel with 100-200 yards of 20-pound-test Dacron backing (this is your final defense against a really big fish that takes out all your line). Be sure to figure out which hand you want to retrieve with. Fishermen are divided on this, and being left or right handed has little to do with it.


Leaders and tippet come next. Both are monofilament, the kind of fishing line you’re more used to seeing. The leader is tapered to continue the physics of energy transfer of the tapered line. The tippet doesn’t taper, and is simply the last couple of feet of the leader. Since you’ll be continually tying flies onto the tippet and either changing them or losing them (yeah, those bushes behind you are hungry), you need a spool of tippet to replace what gets cut away or broken off. Tippet comes in sizes designated by an X: 2X, 3X, 4X, 5X, 6X, etc. Tippet material is pretty fine stuff, and the X system is simply the size in reverse order. Subtract the X number from 0.011 inches and you have the diameter. For example, 5X is 0.011 inches – 0.005 inches = 0.006-inch diameter. For those of you who were daydreaming about Mary Lou instead of paying attention in math class, that’s six thousandths of an inch. About as thick as two sheets of paper. Get a spool each of 3X, 4X, 5X, and 6X; different conditions, flies and fish call for different sized leaders.


OK, now fish live in water (ahem) so you’re gonna get wet. You can just “wade wet” wearing just old sneakers (not bad on a hot day, and the norm in salt water), or you can get some waders. They come in several varieties (rubber, neoprene, nylon, GoreTex, and other breathable fabrics) and two versions — boot-foot and stocking foot. This is not a place to skimp. Go straight to some sort of breathable fabric, GoreTex or similar, and we recommend stocking foot rather than boot foot. Boot foot waders just never fit quite right, and you’ll do a surprising amount of walking and other occasional acrobatics while wearing them. Stocking foot waders allow for wading boots, which are specially designed to fit well and provide traction while wading the slippery, sandy, and rocky bottoms of streams and rivers. The guy in your local fly shop can guide you to the right combination. Simms is the big name in waders, but Orvis, Cabela’s and others have good options. Korker, Chota, and Simms are solid names in wading boots.


Let’s talk safety for a minute. We all know that when you’re cool the sun shines all the time. Turns out the same is true when you’re fly fishing. What we’re saying is that you need sunglasses. Remember, you’re flinging a little piece of really sharp wire covered with feathers back & forth past your face and ears at 30 or 40 miles an hour. Not really something you want hitting your eyeball. Polarized sunglasses protect your eyes from flying wire & feathers and from the sun’s harmful UV rays to boot. As a bonus, they’ll help you see in to the water so you can scope out the slippery little critters you’re chasing. Lesson: polarized sunglasses. Even when it’s cloudy. Get some. Oakley, Bollé, Smith Optics, Costa, and Ray-Ban are some good brands.


Now, the real reason a gear-head likes to fly fish is the need for a zillion gadgets. A clipper for trimming tippet, thermometer for measuring water temperature (fish are surprisingly sensitive creatures), boxes to hold your flies, hemostats to remove hooks (hopefully from fish lips, not yours), floatant to keep your dry flies dry, split-shot to make your wet flies sink, maps and a compass to find your way, magnifying “cheater” glasses if you’re… er… of an age, flashlight to find your way home in the dark, and so on.

You’ll need a place to keep all those gadgets. Your options are a vest, chest pack, or satchel of some sort. The choices here are endless, really, and anything we recommend will undoubtedly cause an argument or motivate some angry mail. Consider what will work best for you, check your local fly shop, and check out a few fly catalogs from the likes of Orvis, L.L. Bean, Cabela’s, and some independents like Madison River Fishing Company and Blue Ribbon Flies.


KEEP FISHIN’: Bucket List Fly Fishing Destinations | 30 Minutes with Fly Fishing Legend Lefty Kreh | Why Fly Fish? An Essay

Finally, yes, Brad Pitt looked like a mountain-bred Adonis in A River Runs Through It, casting like the rod was part of his arm. Reality is just a little more complicated. So get yourself to a fly shop and take a few casting lessons. That will set you up to enjoy fishing your water and fish of choice, rather than getting all angry and frustrated and heaving all that new gear to the bottom of said water.

KEEP FISHIN’: Bucket List Fly Fishing Destinations | 30 Minutes with Fly Fishing Legend Lefty Kreh | Why Fly Fish? An Essay

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