I recently got married, and when my wife introduces me to her friends or family whom I haven’t yet met, she always tells folks that I’m a fly fisherman. Inevitably, people ask if it’s hard to learn, because they see the long rods, piles of line, and graceful, arcing loops and think of what a tangled mess that’s all likely to become.
I always answer the question the same way – fly fishing isn’t as hard as it looks. It’s less about skill, and more about spending a lot of time on the water, learning lessons that can’t ever be taught person-to-person. There’s a whole lot of intuition in fly fishing, and the only way to get that is with experience.
That being said, fly fishing isn’t terribly hard to learn. The problem, of which I’ve been guilty of often in my career as a guide, is that we inadvertently have newcomers to the sport drinking from a firehose of knowledge. Do they really need to know the reason that we call 6x tippet 6x to catch trout? Or would they be better off learning how to roll cast, mend, or strip-set?
Anyways, the short answer is that no, fly fishing isn’t hard to learn. The mechanics of it are simple, and the process of hooking, playing, and landing trout on a fly rod isn’t so foreign from conventional fishing that you’ll feel lost in this world.
What equipment do I need to get started in fly fishing?
Gear is perhaps the most hotly-contested topic in all of fly fishing, and that’s saying something, considering that us fly flingers can have a heated argument over the inherent rightness of catching trout on a Griffiths gnat compared to an actual midge imitation.
So, instead of focusing on specific brands (which is sure to cause a ruckus in the angling community), we’ll instead look at the bare-bones necessities you’ll want when out on the river for your first-ever trips as a fly angler.
9’ 5wt Rod: If you’ve ever hunted, you know that the .30-06 is the cartridge that’s likely killed more big game than any other in North America (and it can kill all North American big game, too). In the same way that the .30-06 is a do-it-all caliber for hunting, the 9-foot 5-weight fly rod does it all for fly fishing.
Reel and Line: For the majority of trout fishing, your reel is nothing more than a glorified line holder. Unlike in conventional fishing, where the weight of the lure is what casts fishing line out into the water, in fly fishing, the line provides the mass that transfers the fly away from the fly rod. So, I’d opt to spend more on quality fly line, and less on a fancy reel when you’re just starting out. Any cheap reel will do, but a good $80+ fly line can really make a difference in how well you’re able to feel different parts of the casting process.
Waders and Boots: Not every fly fishing situation demands waders – I like to wet-wade as much of the year as I possibly can – but if you plan on fishing big rivers, or during the colder months of the year, waders and boots are a must.
Honestly, you get what you pay for when you buy boots and waders – much like any other outdoor apparel. My advice is always to buy the best that you can afford, then upgrade as soon as you can. A quality pair of boots and waders can last the average angler five years, at the very least.
Flies, Leader, Tippet: Of course, for fly fishing, you need flies. The flies you pick for a given day on the water depend on where you’re fishing, what you’re fishing for, and what time of year it is. Different bugs hatch at different points of the year, and that will largely inform your fly selection.
Leader and tippet comprise what conventional anglers would call the “normal” fishing line in a fly fishing setup. Leader and tippet are used to attach the fly to the fly line, and you can quickly and easily replace both while on the water.
Various Accoutrements: Floatant is a must-have, so that your dry flies stay floating. You might also want some indicators and split shot, if you’re fishing subsurface flies. And it’s always handy to have a good pair of nippers, forceps, or hemostats. These are basic items you can find at any outdoors store, and there’s no reason to break the bank on buying the products that you’ll use up most quickly.
What Flies are Best for Fly Fishing?
This is yet another source of endless debate, and any angler who’s honest will tell you they have a secret go-to fly for when the fishing gets tough.
But what I’ve found over the course of my fly fishing career is that the same dozen or so patterns work for me just about anywhere. I make slight variations on those patterns based on time of year and location, but in general, my fly boxes don’t see much variety these days.
That’s for the better, in all honesty. It makes picking flies while at the river a much easier process.
In general, the flies that are best for fly fishing are the ones you see consistently for sale in a variety of fly shops. Each shop has their own set of flies tied to catch anglers more than fish, but once you push past the tinsel and feathers, you’ll find the usual collection of Adamses, Hare’s Ears, Pheasant Tails, Brassies, Glo-bugs, Caddis, Stoneflies, and Mayflies. These flies make up almost the entire core of a trout’s diet, and you can use them on virtually any trout water in the world and catch fish.
These flies, and variations on them, are what comprise almost all of the flies in my boxes. From Oregon to Arizona and nearly everywhere in between, those flies have consistently put fish in my net for the better part of two decades.
How to Setup a Fly Rod
Rigging a fly rod for fishing is one of the more daunting tasks you’ll face when starting. How long of a leader do you need? What flies do you need to tie on? How do you tie them on?
Well, the answers can be as convoluted as you’d like, but simplicity is often your best friend when it comes to fishing.
While we’ll focus today on rigging for dry flies, the process for setting up a fly rod for nymphs or streamers is nearly identical.
First off, you want to start with a good, new leader. A nine-foot, 5x leader is the standard across all of trout fishing, although I know some guides who rope up to 3x leaders. After that, you’ll want to tie on a bit of extra tippet, usually the same size as the leader. So, if I had a 5x leader, I’d tie on another 18 inches or so of 5x tippet. This gives you room to work with when you lose flies to trees, and preserve your leaders for a bit longer. Leaders aren’t cheap, so the longer you can make them last, the better.
After the leader and tippet, you can move on to the fly. I use a basic clinch knot to attach my fly to my tippet, and I haven’t yet been given a reason to switch.
Once leader, tippet, and fly are attached, you’re ready to start fishing.
If you’re fishing nymphs, you’ll go through all the same steps as outlined above, although you’ll likely tie an additional length of tippet off the bend of the hook of your first fly. Then, usually four to five feet above the flies, you’ll place some sort of indicator on the line. Split shot can be added as water depth demands.
Basic Fly Rod Casting
Now we move on to the part that gives most folks headaches – fly casting.
While it’s visually appealing, and looks difficult, fly casting is more a matter of timing and basic physics than it is any sort of highbrow know-how. And, it’s much quicker and easier to learn than you’d expect.
The cast you’ll use most while fly fishing is arguably the easiest to master. The overhead cast is the act of casting line directly overhead, in smooth loops, eventually dropping the fly right on the water. This is the image most folks conjure up when you mention fly fishing.
To pull off a good overhead cast, you’ll need to first start with your grip on the fly rod. Your grip should be firm in the wrist, but loose in the hand. You don’t want your wrist moving much, if at all, during the casting process.
Then, in a fluid motion, you want to move your rod tip back to roughly a 70-degree angle directly behind you. This movement pulls the fly line up into the air, and more importantly, into a loop shape that is most effective as transferring power from the fly rod to the line.
You don’t want to whip your rod back and forth, but you don’t want your casting motion to be too slow, either. The trick lies in moving the rod back, keeping the tip high and parallel with the ground, then watching your fly line unfurl behind you. Remember, the goal of the cast is to create a loop, and once that loop is unfurled, you push the rod forward to roughly 70 degrees in front of you.
This basic motion is repeated until you’ve achieved the distance necessary for your cast. Often, two to three sets of “false casts” is enough to get your fly line and fly the proper distance away from you.
Also, remember that the more fly line you have out of your rod, the larger loop that line creates while in the air. That means you’ll pause longer between your front and back casts as you wait for that loop to unfurl.
Practice makes perfect, and you’ll likely pick up the unique rhythm of fly casting within a half-hour or so. Time with a guide or casting instructor is also well-spent if you’re having trouble making your fly cast really sing.
Finding Fishy Water
Now that you know how to cast, the next trick is finding water where rout are likely to hide. We’ll focus on finding fishy water in rivers, because that seems to be where most people have the hardest time.
A glance at any given river probably doesn’t reveal much to the average person, but to the fly angler, it’s a wealth of knowledge. Current seams, eddies, slacks, riffles, and pools are all spots where trout are likely to hide. And if you don’t know what those river features are, don’t worry – we’ll tackle those in just a minute.
The best rule of thumb for finding fishy water, though, is to remember that trout, just like any other wild animal, want to expend the least amount of energy for the most amount of food. So, look for water that seems to have a strong current coming into it, and slow or slack water (sometimes called holding water) where trout can casually feed on whatever bugs get swept down on the river’s current.
It takes some time to locate fishy water, but once you’ve found some, you’re getting close to putting trout in the net. All you have to do is read the water.
Reading the Water to Find Where to Fish
“Reading the water” is the term us fly anglers use to describe how we look at a river and determine where trout are most likely to hide within it. By reading a river, you’ll be able to identify likely holding areas that, more often than not, have a few trout in them.
As I mentioned above, your key is to look for water that maximizes food delivery and cuts down on energy costs for the trout. With that in mind, the first type of water you’ll want to look for is a riffle.
Riffles are long, quicker-moving sections of river that look like tiny rapids. Riffles are almost always caused by submerged rocks, and it’s on these rocks that most of the trout food lives. Caddis, mayfly, and stonefly larvae and pupae cling to the bottom of rocks, occasionally getting swept downstream in the current.
Most of the time, fish won’t live in the riffles, though – it takes too much energy to swim against that swift current for such an extended period of time. Once you’ve found some riffles, though, you’ll want to look for a long slack (sometimes called a glide), which is a stretch of river that has some current moving along, but no riffles on the surface. It’s in these spots that you’ll find a lot of trout.
You’ll also find trout in the pools of calm water directly behind rocks. These are often called pockets, and fishing “pocket water” is some of the most fun you’ll ever have with a fly rod.
Pools can also be found between riffles, and are defined as very long, deep, and slow-moving sections of the river. Slicks and glides move quicker than pools or eddies, which can often be nearly still.
Finally, you want to make sure to keep an eye out for current seams. This is the spot in the river where two different currents meet. The seam creates a pocket of slower water, and fish often hang on the slow side of the seam, waiting for the faster water to essentially force-feed them a steady diet of bugs. If you can get a good, drag-free drift of your flies along a seam, you’ll almost always hook up with a trout.
Reading water is an art that takes time, but after a while you’ll gain a bit of a “sixth sense” about what looks fishy. The key is to really study what’s in front of you, and to work with the river instead of against it. That’s what the trout are doing, after all – and if you want to catch them, it’s what you’ll need to do, too.
Some Ways to Stay Safe Fly Fishing
Fly fishing isn’t inherently dangerous, but some aspects present safety issues. Drowning is likely at the top of most folks’ lists of fishing dangers, but you’re far more likely to suffer a sprained or broken ankle thanks to river rocks, or hypothermia from taking an extended swim you didn’t plan on.
You can guard against ankle and knee injuries by wearing sturdy boots that give you solid footing on a variety of river bottoms. Most rivers have rocky bottoms, covered in moss, so a boot with some sort of studded sole is your best bet. Even the rivers with sandy bottoms can be slippery at times.
I also highly recommend wearing layers, so that if you do take an unexpected swim, you can strip down to the bottom layer and dry the others out quickly. I’m a big fan of Merino wool base layers, as they do an unbeatable job of regulating body temperature while keeping you warm even when wet.
Remember to stay properly hydrated, as dehydration can cause some big issues, especially if you have a longer walk back to your car. And, of course, make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you home. This simple action can really make the difference between a bad situation, and a life-threatening one.
Fly Fishing Terms and What They Mean
Often, it feels like fly fishing has its own language. And when you hear folks talking about emergers, rises, strip-sets, blood knots, or anything else, it’s easy to get lost in a conversation.
While this isn’t a definitive list of fly fishing terms, it should be enough to get you started in any fly shop in the country.
- Rise: the rings you see on the surface of the water when a trout eats a fly off the surface (often a dry fly
- Meat: usually refers to streamers
- Nymphs: subsurface flies that are meant to mimic the larval and pupal stages of different aquatic insects
- Emergers: the stage of an aquatic insect as it’s trying to hatch from the water and into the air.
- Drag: this is caused by current pulling on your fly line, leader, and tippet, which moves your fly in an unnatural direction or speed throughout the river.
- Drift: from the moment you cast your fly upstream, to when you pick it up to recast, is called your drift. A good drag-free drift is necessary to catch fish.
- Hookset: the hookset is the method of setting the hook into a fish’s mouth. In fly fishing, this is often achieved by holding the fly line tight against the cork grip, and lifting up sharply but firmly with the rod.
- Tight loop: this refers to the loops your fly line makes while in the air. Tight loops are a sign of effective casts that are properly executed.
- Blood knot: a type of knot used to join two sections of tippet together.
- Tippet rings: a small metal ring used to attach multiple pieces of tippet to. Usually used in European-style nymphing.
- Bobber: another name for a strike indicator
- Floatant: the gel or powder you use to keep your dry fly floating high on the river’s surface
- Short strike: when trout come up and nip at only part of your fly, instead of swallowing it whole.
Different Ways to Learn How to Fly Fish
Since everyone learns differently, there are tons of different ways you can learn how to fly fish. From online courses to videos and guides, you’ll likely find a method of instruction that fits your learning style. Some ways to learn include:
- Online courses: https://www.how2flyfish.com/
- Fishing clubs
- Casting instructors
- Fly shops
4 Fly Fishing Resources
You can also use these different resources to supplement your independent learning. When I was first starting out, there wasn’t nearly the breadth of fly fishing videos available online as there is today. If you want to figure out the proper way to do a reach cast, there’s a fantastic video for that – and every other fly casting or fishing technique you could think of.
These are resources I’ve used myself to fine-tune my fishing approach.
- YouTube: Arguably the best place to look for informative content on fly fishing. Every major company in the industry has some sort of content on YouTube, and most of it is informative and geared towards all levels of anglers.
- Orvis: Orvis has arguably the most extensive library of educational resources in the fly fishing industry. From their Amazon Prime video series, to the excellent books by Tom Rosenbauer, and all their how-to videos featuring Pete Kutzer, there’s hardly a topic you won’t find covered by the fine folks at Orvis.
- Scientific Anglers: Again, Scientific Anglers has an extensive library of educational resources you’ll likely find helpful. If the presentation style of some of the other sources isn’t your cup of tea, the folks at SA can probably help.
- Books: Yes, books are still excellent tools to help you learn to fly fish. I learned to tie most of my flies from books, before I discovered the glut of fly tying videos on YouTube. I have books published way back in the 1950s that are still full of relevant information. Some modern ones that are worth looking at include The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing and The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing.