The mountain air was cool, but the sun was high and I was getting warm in my waders. But there was a riffle ahead of me, one just big enough to hold a brown trout.
“Put your fly right behind that biggest rock,” said my friend Doc Greenlee. I cast, and the fly just settled onto the water before it disappeared in a swirl of motion. I lifted the rod tip, and the trout was hooked. And so was I—on fly-fishing.
Many anglers, whether beginner, novice or expert, tend to shy away from fly-fishing for some strange reason. Simply put, there’s no reason whatsoever not to try it. Fly-fishing is as much fun as it looks, and easier than you’d think. With the right equipment and some good instruction, you can learn the basics quickly. Beyond the basics, though, is a whole world of special techniques and specialized flies.
“True anglers will naturally gravitate towards fly-fishing.” These are the words of Felton Harrison, longtime fly angler and maker of fine fly rods. “It’s the classic style of fishing. You use the fly rod almost as you would a violin. Once you’ve caught a lot of fish on a standard rig, you ask yourself if you can catch those same fish on a fly. There are so many aspects to fly-fishing that it could take a lifetime to learn it all.”
Be sure to buy a fly rod and reel that matches whatever you'll be fishing for. Photo by Mike Blair
Begin At The Beginning
Jimmy Jacobs is the author of four books on fly-fishing in the southeastern United States. He emphasizes that fly-fishing truly isn’t difficult to learn.
“If you’ve seen ‘A River Runs Through It’ and you’re thinking about having to throw a hundred yards of fly line, it’s not like that,” he says. “In order to fish in most places and under most conditions, you only need to get 30 feet of line out there. It’s much like golf—once you get the swing down, the rest of it follows.”
With that in mind, Jacobs says don’t go out and buy a rod and reel before you’ve learned the basic technique. Instead, take a class that supplies rods and reels for students to learn on. “You don’t want to buy any gear before you’ve tried it, and talked to someone who knows something about it,” he says. “And a class is probably the least intimidating way to do that. You’ll find out in the class what kind of gear you need.”
Joining a local fly-fishing club can help you get to know which waters are productive in your region of the country. More experienced members in the club can be a great source for free instruction. Independent fly shops and the fly-fishing departments of various retailers like Orvis, Galyan’s and the like can usually point you in the right direction.
Buying Your First Fly Rod
After you’ve learned the basics, it will be time for your first fly rod and reel. The first thing you need to know before you buy is what kind of fishing is available in your area. Then, match the rod and reel to what you’ll be fishing for.
Once you have a rod and reel, you’ll need to match the line to the rod. On the rod you’ll find information telling you the line weight you should use with the particular rod.
“You’ve got to have the rod, the reel and the line match each other,” Jacobs says. “Beyond that, if you’re going to be fishing on big, open water like a large river or saltwater, you’re going to want an 8- or 9-foot rod. On the other hand, if you’ll be in the southern Appalachians on a small stream, you’ll want something in the 7- to 8-foot range, as well as a much lighter line. It all depends on what your interest is.”
For most beginners who want an all-purpose fly rod, Jacobs recommends an 8- to 8--foot rod in a 6-weight, which will handle everything from light saltwater to a mountain trout stream. “It’s not ideal for any of them, but it will work on all of them,” Jacobs says.
Once you have a rod, reel and line, you’ll need a leader, and most of the time, a tapered one.
“The weight of the leader is marked on the package,” Harrison says. “For small fish you want a light leader. The length of the leader is also important. Short leaders are easier to handle. The leader is important because fish can see the line but not the leader. You may be casting out 30 feet, but the last 5 feet is what you’re actually fishing with.”
Why A Fly?
So why do they call the little fuzzy thing with the hook a “fly?” Because 60 to 70 of them imitate some kind of aquatic insect, usually mayflies, stone flies, and caddis flies.
There are two main categories of flies, dry flies and wet flies. A dry fly floats on the surface, and a wet fly sinks.
Fishing the Rock River in McFadden, Wyoming. Photo by Carolee Boyles
“When you put a dry fly on the surface, it imitates a terrestrial insect that’s fallen into the water and is floating downstream,” Jacobs says. “Or, it may be the adult of an aquatic insect; generally when they’re floating on the surface they’re laying eggs.”
On the other hand, a wet fly can imitate a terrestrial fly that has fallen in the water and gotten wet and is sinking. Or, it may imitate the larval or nymph stage of an aquatic insect that lives on the bottom.
Yet a third category of flies—streamers—is a notable exception to the aquatic insect imitation rule. These flies imitate minnows and other vertebrates and invertebrates. “You can even have streamers that look like crawfish and that you bounce along on the bottom,” Jacobs says.
To choose any fly effectively, you must select one that matches an insect or other forage item in the fish’s environment.
“’Match the hatch’ is more than a just a short poem,” Harrison says. “Sometimes trout will eat only a certain stage of the hatch, holding in disdain any other type of insect. This is a freshwater phenomenon, not a saltwater thing. You need to know what time of the year certain hatches occur, and what type of insect is hatching.”
One way to find out what’s hatching is to go to the stream or river and look. “When you get there, start looking for what’s floating on the top,” Jacobs says. “Then try to throw something that looks like it.”
If you get to the stream and nothing is happening, you have two options. If you enjoy fishing dry flies, use one of the so-called “attractor” patterns.
“They don’t really look like any specific insect,” Jacobs says. “They have a bushy insect outline when they’re floating on the surface.”
The other option is to fish nymphs or wet flies that look like things that fish feed on under the water.
“If you don’t see anything on the surface, start fishing nymphs that float downstream,” Jacobs says. “Hopefully there will be fish there in a feeding mood that will be looking for something around the bottom of the water column.”
Another source of information about what’s happening is a local fly-fishing shop. They’ll have the information you need, and a good selection of flies you can purchase.
“Besides that, there are a number of fly-fishing clubs around the country for women now,” Jacobs says. “And in most of the Trout Unlimited chapters and the Federation of Fly Fishing chapters that I’ve run into, there are women in them.”
In fact, developing a relationship with your local fly-fishing shop or club is pretty important to learning the sport and knowing what to use. Most are receptive to beginners, and will be glad to have you as a member and help you learn more about this angling art form.