Words paint a mental picture, and, oftentimes, certain words immediately bring to mind a specific image. For instance, the mention of fly fishing often brings up a very vivid and nostalgic scene. Many folks immediately imagine an angler standing knee-deep in a pristine trout stream, attired in waders, a fishing vest, and a wide-brimmed hat.
Perhaps he is in mid-cast with the fly rod arched and a perfect loop of line about to be deployed to a waiting fish. Can you see it? Yes, that is fly fishing—but fly fishing is and can be so much more.
The versatility of fly fishing
Fly fishing equipment and techniques span a very wide range of angling pursuits beyond the trout stream. Anglers fly fish for the diminutive bluegill and other panfish on small farm ponds. They cast the ocean for tenacious battles with huge saltwater opponents. Heck, there is even a contingent of folks who target carp with a fly rod.
The one-dimensional image we often get while thinking of fly fishing merely scratches the surface of the endless possibilities.
Fly fishing can be many things, but more important is what fly fishing is not. It is not like a bass fishing tournament. An effort to see how many fish can be swung over the side of a boat in a short amount of time. Instead, fly fishing is more about the method, the grace, the learning to do it right.
Fly fishermen derive their satisfaction not from accumulating numbers, although the idea is to still catch fish. The inner satisfaction from fly fishing comes from reading the water, knowing where to place the bait, making a perfect cast, and then seeing it inhaled.
It is the culmination of acquiring the gear, learning to use it, appreciating the method, and seeing it come to fruition.
Getting started with fly fishing
So once the decision is made to explore the world of fly fishing, next comes the need for equipment. The first thing to remember is it is not necessary to purchase every piece of expensive gear that can be found just to get started.
One could literally spend several thousand dollars buying the biggest names and most expensive on the market and outfitting with every conceivable piece of gear one might need. That is definitely overkill and completely unnecessary for a beginner.
That said, one should buy the best quality of gear within a reasonable budget. Start out with the basics and, then, if fly fishing fever really catches hold, more and better equipment can be added later.
The bare essentials obviously include a rod and reel, plus line, tippets, and some flies or other baits. Let’s take a look at each of these and then some of the other accessories to add along the way.
Choosing a good stick
Most fly rods are made of graphite, fiberglass, or bamboo. They come in a variety of lengths, styles, and weights. These factors all combine to determine how and where the rod can be used, what size line and flies to be paired with, how the rod casts, and the presentation it provides for the fly.
There is no one perfect rod for every taste and every fishing situation. Likewise, discussing different brands and styles with seasoned fly fishermen will result in a wide range of opinions.
The fly rod is what delivers or casts the line and fly to the fish. The rod and line need to be a matched set in order to perform properly. Larger flies or streamers require heavier rods and lines to cast. Casting into the wind or in tight quarters with overhanging branches are other considerations.
Most anglers start out fly fishing by targeting trout and bluegill, or bream. These species are plentiful, widespread, and allow anglers to learn the art and craft of fly fishing before moving on to other adventures.
A close friend of mine, is an avid fly fisherman and loves pursuing everything from panfish to saltwater species and is especially fond of trying to outwit huge carp.
He said, “Fly fishing is a fast-growing segment of angling in general, and fly fishing for bream is a great way for the novice to practice technique and presentation. You can get away with a little more error on bluegill than a wary rainbow trout.”
The “best” rod to start out with is debatable, but most anglers should probably start with a 9-foot 5-weight rod. This is a good all-around setup for a variety of fishing scenarios and perfect for trout and bream.
As experience increases, anglers develop personal preferences for style of fishing, species pursued and favorite brands of equipment. Some folks recommend starting out with a tenkara setup.
Tenkara is an ancient form of fly fishing that originated hundreds of years ago in Japan. It is simply a setup consisting of a telescoping rod with a fixed length of line and fly attached, and no reel.
The angler simply casts the fly with the set length of line and then brings a hooked fish to hand without a reel. This method allows beginners to learn the art of the cast without having to manage all the extra line.
The basic reel
There are variations in reels too, but reel choice is not nearly as critical as the fly rod and line. Most reels used today have braking and drag systems built into them as opposed to older styles that had to be “palmed” to control the line while fighting a fish.
There are automatic reels that retrieve line by flipping a lever, but this design is not very popular. Most reels today have a crank and line is retrieve manually. The crank can be on the left or the right depending upon a person’s preference of holding the rod with the dominant hand and cranking with the other or casting with the dominant arm and then switching hands to crank.
The right line
Arguably, the most important aspect of fly fishing is the line. It is also the most complex to understand.
Fly line comes in floating and sinking varieties, and even at that, the rate of sinking is even variable. Lines come in a variety of color, although many people prefer a two-tone line so they can easily see where the running part of the line begins.
Taper is a very important part of the line and it is designated on the line package such as front taper, rear taper, belly, tip and more. Lines are also classified as weight forward (WF), shooting taper (ST), double taper (DT) and level (L). There are also tapers designed for special applications.
Fly line is listed by weight and must be matched to the rod. For instance, a 5-weight rod must be paired with 5-weight line. The rod weight and proper line to use with it are usually indicated on the rod near the grip or on a butt cap.
Lines are often specially designed for a certain type of fishing and are indicated as such on the packaging. For instance, a line may be designated as “Bass” or “Trout.” Line is also coded with abbreviations that describe the line. An example would be “WF-4-F,” which means weight forward, 4-weight, floating.
The leader is yet another very important and somewhat complex part of the setup. Leaders have three sections including the butt, middle or body, and tippet. Leaders connect the fly line to the fly and are designed to turn over and present the fly in a realistic manner when it hits the water. Leaders and tippets can be purchased ready to go or they can be hand-tied by the angler.
Flies are obviously the first thing that comes to mind when fly fishing baits are discussed. They come in an endless variety of patterns, sizes and styles. They come in both floating and sinking varieties and can be purchased from big-name manufacturers or from smaller custom or handmade suppliers.
Anglers can even tie their own flies and doing so adds another very enjoyable aspect to fly fishing for many folks. But flies are not the only game in town.
Streamers are another popular bait and are basically oversized flies. But whereas flies generally are designed to imitate insects, streamers are more often patterned and fished to resemble minnows or perhaps crayfish or other natural foods. Streamers are fished actively and allow the angler to cover more water quicker. Some anglers also like to use poppers for panfish with fly fishing gear.
Waders are often an assumed must-have item for fly fishing although not all fly fishing requires wading. However, if wading is on the agenda, then waders are definitely on the to-buy list.
They may be hip waders or chest waders, but don’t skimp on price and make sure to try them on before purchasing. Ill-fitting waders are not only uncomfortable, but they are more prone to wear and possibly even to accidents.
Other items to add along the way include specialty fly fishing boots, sunglasses, hat, vest, net and wading stick. Of course, some type of storage device for flies is also handy. Don’t forget implements such as hand towels, hook sharpeners, line clippers, and other tools.
Learning to cast
Outside of learning about the gear, learning to cast properly is one of the most daunting aspects to fly fishing. There are different types of casts used for different species and different situations.
The roll cast, haul cast and two-stroke cast are but a few variations. It is very understandable to be concerned about casting, but it definitely should not be a reason to avoid fly fishing.
If you are someone who enjoys conventional fishing but are a little apprehensive to try fly fishing, fear not. It’s not rocket science and there are plenty of instructional videos on the Internet to show you casting techniques. With just a little practice and patience, you can pick it up in no time.
The Internet is definitely a good source for casting instruction, but other help is available too. One method is to seek the advice of an experienced fly fisherman who can both teach and observe, commenting on your technique.
Many fly shops have staff or customers more than willing to help get a newbie started. Yet another learning opportunity is to attend a fly fishing class or even an on-the-water school.
The most important aspect to learning to cast is to learn how to do it right the first time. It is much easier and decidedly better to learn the proper techniques to start rather than develop bad habits that might be difficult to break later.
Take the leap
Yes learning about fly fishing, the gear used and fishing techniques involve a steep learning curve, but as the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Learning, gaining experience and getting better is part of the enjoyment of fly fishing.
Start simple. Begin with basic, decent quality, matched gear and master a basic cast. There is a whole world of opportunity waiting from that point forward.
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