So you wanna go fly fishing!
So...fly fishing...super intricate, crazy expensive, and only fit for the most hardcore anglers, right? I've fished for 30-odd years and that's definitely what I thought, but boy was I wrong! I've always aspired to fly fish but never took any steps because it was so intimidating. Recently I lucked into some no-longer used gear and met an extremely gracious fisherman who showed me the ropes and it broke down all my preconceived notions about the sport.
If you walk into a sporting-goods store and browse the fly-fishing section you'll probably get overwhelmed before finishing the first aisle. But like any popular activity, there are a few essentials and many, many "necessities" to entice you to keep spending with the promise of improvement.
Rod and reel - These can be as basic as a stick with line tied onto the end (aka Tenkara style) or as advanced as carbon-fiber stuff that'll cost a mortgage payment. Selecting what will work for you depends on what kind of fish you'll be going after (their size and strength are the key factors) and where. For trout in mountain streams, you might want a 7' long 3-4 weight rod, for bass in rivers and lakes you might go with a 9' long 5-6 weight rod. The rod length will affect things like how far you can cast and how nimble your casting motion can be; the weight will affect things like how big of a fish you can manage and how delicate a fly you can cast. Orvis has a nice guide on selecting a rod.
It is possible to kind of multi-purpose a rod, but you'll sacrifice some performance...probably not enough to ruin your day, but maybe enough to be frustrating. For example, I came into a 9' long, 7/8 weight rod; that'd be good for hitting the Salt River for small mouth, great for salmon, and its manageable for trout. But while I've caught around 15 trout in small streams around Payson in the two outings I've made, I get hung up in trees often and it has a hard time making precise casts with the tiny flies those trout go after.
Honestly, if you're going to be fishing small mountain streams, a Tenkara style rod is probably all you'll ever need. So far, I've only made 3-4 legit, actual, fly casts...but that was just to feel like a fisherman, not out of necessity.
Once you've selected a rod, choosing a reel is basically a matter of picking one that matches the rod's weight and your price range. You generate casting distance with the weight of your line, take up slack with your hand, and really only reel when you're hooked up.
For a beginner, a combo is a good, easy way to go...especially if it's already kitted out with backer and line. Here are a few varied options to start:
Flies - If you got a rod and reel kit, then flies are pretty much the only other thing you definitely need to get on the water and catching fish. This IS where things get a little bit tricky because fish are fickle beasts. The same species of trout might hit one fly in one stream and a completely different fly a few streams over. Until you get the hang of things (and even afterward), just check out fishing reports, forums, or local stores to help figure out what to throw. Orvis, of course, has reports for all 50 states and a handful of countries. Sportman's Warehouse also usually has suggestions. Both retailers, along with Bass Pro and Cabelas, also have large selections of flies at decent prices. Check your local independent fishing store first, though. You'll want a good variety because as you begin fishing you'll be doing a lot of switching between flies until you find what the fish want--and they also are easily lost.
The two main types of flies are dry and wet. Dry flies are fished on top of the water, wet flies below. Within each category are countless varieties, each replicating a different food-source. The one "pro" tip I can offer is that I'm told farm raised trout are lazy and prefer wet flies that come to them, like a bead-head nymph, instead of dry flies they have to come up to. If you want to learn more about types of flies, Backcountry.com has a good overview.
If you just want to get a solid assortment to get started, here are some options:
Fly line and such - This is another area where fly fishing is more complicated than other types...it's not just a matter of spooling on line and heading out. If you didn't get a kit, you'll need backer, line, leader, and tippet. If you got a kit, you might just need tippet (that's the lightweight line you actually tie the fly onto). If you have to spool up the reel from scratch, Orvis has a guide for that. Scientific Angler also has a good guide to fly-fishing knots, including how to tie tippet to leader.
Other helpful gadgets:
Nippers - these are close to a necessity for quick, clean snips of your line. I've always just used a knife to cut my line, but with tiny flies the nippers are much much easier and make a cleaner cut.
Net - Trout are slippery, wriggly little buggers that'll jump out of your hands before you can blink. I found that the brown trout that I had to release didn't fight my hand too badly, it was just the rainbow I wanted to keep that really jumped around. If you're getting a net go with the rubber/plastic that doesn't harm the fish for release.
Magnetic net release - this is a bit of a luxury that keeps your net out of the way but easily accessible when needed. I'm using a big carabiner to keep my net handy but it's not ideal. Many people just stick the net handle in their belt. But if you want to hang your net out of the way a magnet is the way to go,
Chest pack - again, this is a bit of a luxury that you can absolutely fish without, but it's nice to have everything handy for quick changes. I've been hanging a zippered pouch off a belt loop to keep things in easy reach, but between that, my net, my 9' pole, and all the line, I have a lot of stuff flopping around.
Leader straightener - if your leader has developed a memory of its coils just run it between the leather pads to straighten it out.
Knife - sometimes a nipper just isn't enough; plus you'll need something to clean your fish!
Pliers - trout have much smaller mouths than bass and tiny flies can be hard to dislodge, a pair of pliers makes quick work of removing the fly.
Polarized sunglasses - Sunglasses are almost a necessity, polarized sunglasses are a must. They cut through the glare and let you really see into the water. Two of the four fish I caught today were fish that I spotted and casted to.
Fishing shirt - a lightweight shirt that protects you from the sun and bugs, and helps wick sweat, goes a long way to keep your day on the water comfortable.
Sun hat - same idea as the shirt, but for your head!
HOW TO CAST & FISH
This part is best accomplished by getting out and fishing to see just how easy things actually can be...at least with technique. While good technique will serve you well, almost the only thing that matters is getting your fly into the water. You can get that done by a beautiful, technically perfect cast; or you can do it by just hovering your pole over the water and plunking the fly down where you want it to go; or pretty much anything in between.
Fishing Tonto Creek and Horton Creek has so far involved a lot of sling-shot technique--pinching the fly between thumb and forefinger with the barb past my finger pads; roll casting--rolling the rod in a forward circle when the line is in the water to send the lure forward (if you've ever rolled your water hose, it's a lot like that); flinging the lure where it needs to go; and walking-and-dunking to plop the lure into the water and walking down the bank as the fly drifts.
Trout generally face upstream looking for a meal and generally swim upstream when hooked, so keep that in mind with your casting and positioning. You'll want to keep your lure floating downstream to feed the fish.
Once you get on the water you'll look for things like quickly moving channels, and rapids or swift water flowing into pools. Trout might be sneaky and hide in any crevice they can get into, or they might just swimming out in the open waiting for a meal. Make enough casts that you're able to cover the water you're fishing; if you covered it without a bite then move to the next or try a different fly.
A trout hitting a dry fly is an exciting thing to watch. They dart out of nowhere, slam the fly, and disappear again. If you're used to bass fishing, your first instinct will probably be to set the hook hard and immediately. But another good tip I've gotten is that trout take a little bit longer to commit to the bite so you'll want to give them a second before setting the hook and when you do set the hook keep in mind the size of the fish you have on.
If you're using a wet fly you'll probably only know you've got a fish on when you see your bobber or strike indicator go under or stop where it should be floating. If you have on polarized glasses and are fishing shallow water you might see the fish hit here too. Or, if you're me today, you might just watch fish after fish come look at your fly then go home without taking a bite. But that problem solving is just part of the appeal.
Bank fishing or a little bit of wet wading will probably get you to most of the fish you want. If you go after bigger water, then you might want actual waders. I've been going out in boots and long pants to ward off bugs and offer some protection if I find a snake.
So far, I'd pretty much be just as well served with a Tenkara style rod as with a full rod and reel; so if you're just going to do small streams you might consider the simplicity of Tenkara. Outdoor Life wrote a nice piece on Tenkara, if you want to learn more about that style.
Orvis made a series on how to fly fishing that's free if you're an Amazon Prime Video subscriber. It's helpful, but also gets fairly advanced quickly so don't get intimidated. Here's a handy info graphic, too.
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