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Trouts Journal

A Beginner's Guide to Fly Fishing

Jon Moore / Jul 15, 2022

Introduction

Is your spare time consumed by endlessly scrolling through your social media app of choice, binge-watching your most recently discovered Netflix series, or worse? Have you found yourself longing to spend more time in the great outdoors? Perhaps you have heard rumors of a sport that takes you to beautiful places, allows you to experience up-close encounters with wildlife, and always leaves you feeling a bit more at peace in between the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Maybe you have even watched the timeless drama A River Runs Through It, in which Hollywood’s favorite (and seemingly ageless) leading man, Brad Pitt, portrays an avid fly fisherman.

So, you are interested in learning how to fly fish, but you have no idea how to get started fly fishing or where to begin? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here at Trouts Fly Fishing, we might consider ourselves experts now, but we’ve all been there before and needed a little guidance on how to get started in our fly fishing endeavors. After all, fly fishing can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but rest assured that fly fishing is not as complicated as it might initially appear. So sit back, relax, and let this guide help kickstart your journey into the incredible sport of fly fishing.

The Basics

There are a number of differences between fly fishing and what one might consider, “conventional,” methods of fishing. There is no need to get down deep in the weeds here, so we’re going to keep it pretty simple.

Using conventional fishing methods, the weight of the lure, bait, or other form of attractant propels the line when you make a cast. In essence, it is the weight at the end of your line that carries it in whatever direction you make a cast. In fly fishing, the opposite is true. More often than not, flies (which will be covered later in this guide) are essentially weightless. You might be asking yourself, “If flies are weightless, how can you cast them anywhere at all”? The answer: fly fishing line is weighted. That’s correct, in fly fishing, it is actually the weight of the line itself that propels your cast from point a to point b. The motion of casting a fly fishing rod transfers kinetic energy through your fly line, enabling you to effectively place your flies where you want them. It’s as simple as that.

The other major difference between fly fishing and conventional methods of fishing is that flies are never flavored and are always odorless. Fly fishing hinges on your ability to present flies in a location or direction that is visible to a fish. Whereas bait or lures might attract a fish purely from scent alone, you do not have this luxury in fly fishing. Sounds hard, right? It isn’t. With a little practice of some basic casting techniques, you too can put flies in the line of sight of a fish. With a little luck, you might even fool that fish into eating one of your flies.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “how much does it cost to start fly fishing?” It is worth noting that there is a general misconception surrounding the cost or initial investment that is required to get started fly fishing. Not dissimilar to any other sport or hobby, you can invest as much money as you wish. That is not to say, however, that you must spend a lot of money initially. There are a number of fly fishing combo or custom beginner setups that are relatively inexpensive. Additionally, nearly all major fly fishing companies have ranges of price points for gear for entry level to seasoned anglers.

Gear

With the fundamental differences between fly fishing and conventional methods of fishing out of the way, let’s move on to some basic knowledge that you will need about the gear you are going to be using on your next fly fishing adventure.


The Rod


A fly fishing rod is designed differently than a conventional fishing rod and is made specifically for fly fishing. While we could do a deep dive into the complexity and nuances of the construction of a fly fishing rod, we’re going to stick with our theme of keeping this Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing simple.

Here’s what you need to know: fly fishing rods are usually longer and more flexible than a conventional fishing rod. The average fly rod is nine feet long. Fly fishing rods also come in different sizes than a conventional fishing rod. Generally speaking, most fly fishing rod manufacturers make rods in sizes 2-12. A note about fly fishing rods: the size of the fly fishing rod is known as the, “weight,” of the rod. Though there are rods made by companies outside of that range, those are the most commonly produced weights of fly fishing rods.

“So what do the weights of the rods mean?” you might ask. It’s actually pretty intuitive. The higher the number associated with the weight of the rod, the stronger the rod. For example, a two weight rod is much less strong than a ten weight rod. Typically, rod size directly correlates with the species of fish that you would like to fish for. However, that does not mean overlap between certain species does not exist. Generally speaking, if you want to learn the basics of fly fishing for trout, you will want to use a nine foot, five weight fly fishing rod. If you are interested in fishing for other species of fish, but have questions regarding which size rod you will need for your adventure, the staff here at Trouts Fly Fishing have the answers you need.


The Reel


If at this point you’re thinking that fly fishing reels are unique to fly fishing, then you’re correct. Just like the rods, fly fishing reels are made specifically for fly fishing. Fly fishing reels are designed to only work with fly fishing rods and fly fishing lines. Fly reels are designed to compliment the casting techniques used in fly fishing and to accommodate the larger diameter of lines. Like fly fishing rods, fly reels come in different sizes. Unlike fly fishing rods, fly reels come in sizes that accommodate a range of fly fishing rod sizes. For example, if you are using a five weight rod for trout fishing, you will likely be using a 3-5 or 4-6 size reel. What these numbers mean is that they can accommodate fly fishing line sizes between 3-5 or 4-6. Spoiler alert: fly fishing line sizes directly correspond to the weight of the rod. Don’t worry, we’ll get to fly fishing lines a little later in this Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing. All in due time, friend.

Like conventional fishing reels, fly reels are often equipped with a drag. You might be wondering what a, “drag,” is. Simply put, it is the mechanism in a reel that allows you to apply pressure against the fish pulling your line on the other end. Essentially, the drag helps the angler maintain control over the fish.

Similar to fly fishing rods, the size of the reel is determined by the species of fish that you are targeting. While more overlap exists between the desired species of fish and the size of the reel, you will want to stick to a reel size that is appropriate for the weight of your fly fishing rod and line. Like fly rods, fly reels are made to accommodate specific amounts of stress and abuse. What we’re saying is, you wouldn’t want to use a trout-sized reel to take on any species of saltwater fish and vice versa. Just like we mentioned in the section about fly fishing rods, if you have questions about which size of reel you need for a specific fish, we’re here to help.


The Line


Fly fishing line, like almost all other aspects of fly fishing gear, can become somewhat convoluted if you perform enough Google searches. However, fly line is one of the easier components to understand. First and foremost, choose a line size that corresponds to the weight of the rod. Just like fly rods, lines come in “weights”. Got a five weight rod? You need a five weight line. Pretty simple, right?

If you are sitting there thinking that choosing a line is the easiest part of acquiring the necessary gear for your first fly fishing adventure, you’re mostly right. Fly fishing lines are tapered, as are most things in the world of fly fishing. This taper helps to slow the transfer of kinetic energy as you cast. Without a taper, your line would hit the water with so much force that fish in the immediate area would be too scared to eat your delicious-looking flies that you have carefully selected. In fly fishing, we call this “spooking” the fish. Now, there are different tapers depending on which fly line you select. If you’re sticking with our nine foot, five weight rod suggestion for targeting trout, we recommend a five weight, floating trout-specific fly line.

Hold up, there are sinking lines? Well, there are actually a few different types of fly lines. There are floating lines, sinking lines, and intermediate lines. Moreover, there are distinct differences between fly lines made for use in freshwater and fly lines made for use in saltwater. However, as a beginner, we recommend that you start with a good ole freshwater, five weight, floating line to go along with your five weight fly rod, like we mentioned earlier.


Leader vs. Tippet


Fly fishing leaders and tippets are one of the more complex, yet fundamental, aspects of gear that you need to understand as a beginner. Choosing the right leader and tippet can ultimately affect your chances of success on your first excursion, but what exactly is a leader and a tippet? Don’t fret, it’s not all that serious. With that said, the following is the jist of what you need to know.

What is a leader? Essentially, the leader is a piece of tapered fishing line that connects the ends of your fly line to your fly. If you were to somehow tie a fly onto the end of your fly line, you wouldn’t be able to place your fly in a desired location with precision or delicacy. Usually a leader is nine feet long. The general rule of thumb is that you should match the length of your leader to the length of your fly rod.

So what is a tippet? Well, tippet is the last section of your leader where the taper ends. So why do you need a spool of tippet material? As you inevitably change flies or break them off when they get stuck in trees (it happens to the best of us) throughout the course of the day, your leader is going to get shorter with each fly change. Thus, you use tippet material to rebuild your leader.

With that out of the way, leader and tippet come in different sizes. Leader and tippet sizes are represented by a number followed by the letter “x”. For example, sizes are labeled as 3x, 4x, 5x, and so on. Unlike the rods and reels, leader and tippet sizes use a descending order regarding strength. Basically, the lower the number, the stronger and thicker in diameter the leader and tippet. We know... why can’t all the sizes in fly fishing be ordered the same way? It’s a complicated story, so don’t shoot the messenger. We’re trying to keep this simple, remember?

There are two common types of leader and tippet material. There is nylon and there is fluorocarbon. What’s the difference? Glad you asked. The short story is that one floats and one sinks. Which kind of flies you choose will determine which material you will want to use (I promise, we will eventually get to flies). We recommend that you match your leader material and your tippet material, at least to start. Yeah, yeah, yeah... you’re right, there’s certainly more that can be unpacked here, but that’s what you need to know to get started.

Waders

One of the most iconic pieces of fly fishing gear are the waders, but depending on the time of year that you are planning your first adventure, you may or may not need them. If you’re fishing for trout, the water is generally cold. If you’re fishing in the warmer months of the year, throw on some lightweight, quick dry clothing and you’re good to go! The cold water that trout are found in will probably feel refreshing. Wading in a body of water without waders is known as “wet wading”. However, if you find yourself fly fishing in the cooler months of the year, that cold water is probably not going to feel so refreshing. In this case, you will likely want to find a pair of waders to keep you dry. It is worth noting that fly fishing waders are never designed to keep you warm. You will want to appropriately layer underneath them to keep yourself warm for maximum safety and comfort.


Other Accessories


There are a few other accessories that you might want before you head out on your first fly fishing excursion. While some of these accessories can be substituted with common household items, they are made specifically for fly fishing and are consequently more durable and will make your overall experience more enjoyable.

These accessories include:

• Handheld fishing net
• Nippers
• Hemostats
• Split Shot
• Strike Indicators
• Floatant


Other than these suggested accessories, we strongly recommend wearing a good pair of polarized sunglasses (yes, polarization matters), protective clothing, and potentially insect repellent depending on which time of the year you are going on your first fly fishing outing.

Flies

It’s finally time to discuss the quintessence of fly fishing -- the flies. In fly fishing, flies are used in place of lures, bait, or any other means of attracting a fish in conventional fishing methods. As a beginner, there are three basic types of fly fishing flies that you should be aware of.

Dry flies


Fly fishing flies known as “dry flies” derive their name from their ability to float on the surface of the water. Get it? They stay dry because they float. Dry flies mimic the sexually-mature, adult stage of an insect’s life cycle. If you find fish that are breaking the surface of the water -- known in fly fishing as “rising” -- a dry fly might be a good place to start in your flybox.

Remember when we talked about the difference between leader and tippet materials earlier in this guide? Time to put that knowledge to use. For dry flies, you’ll want to use nylon leaders and tippet because they float, thus helping your fly stay high and dry on the surface of the water.

Nymphs


Although dry flies are, without a doubt, one of the most exhilarating ways of catching a fish, they are not always the most productive or efficient way to catch a fish. Specifically in the case of trout, more than 90% of their diet is consumed subsurface rather than from insects landing on the water’s surface.

Nymph flies mimic the early stages of an insect’s life cycle that occurs underwater, where they spend a majority of their relatively short lives. Unlike their dry fly counterparts, nymphs sink. Since we know that trout mostly feed on nymphs beneath the surface of the water, choosing a nymph can often lead to a more productive outing.

Before we move on, back to the important topic of leader and tippet selection. If you’re thinking, “If nylon floats... fluorocarbon leaders and tippets must sink.” Bingo! If you’re fishing with nymphs, it’s time to break out your fluorocarbon leaders and tippets.

Streamers


There is one last major category of flies that you should be aware of. Streamers are effectively flies that mimic anything that swims in the subsurface world. Examples of creatures that streamers might imitate include baitfish and crayfish, among others. As a beginner, we recommend that you stick to dry flies and nymphs until you become more comfortable with casting and other various fly fishing techniques.

The Cast

Casting might seem like an incredibly complex, precisely-choreographed motion that takes an incredibly long time to learn. That is not the case. While there are certain casting techniques that will require dedication and lots of practice to master, you can start fishing almost immediately using the first two basic techniques that we are about to discuss.

Pick-Up and Lay-Down


As the name implies, the pick-up and lay-down technique is basically as simple as it sounds. Pull out enough line to get the fly where you want it to land, pinch the line between your index finger and the cork of the rod, and pick the rod up with the rod tip ending somewhere around the 2 o’clock mark on the face of a clock. This motion will send the line shooting behind you. At this point, you will want to make sure the line completely straightens out before you bring the rod forward. Right before the line loses energy and begins falling back toward the ground, bring the rod forward with the tip of the rod stopping around the 10 o’clock mark. Once the line has straightened out in front of you, gently lower the rod with the tip pointed directly at your fly. Congratulations, you have now learned the pick-up and lay-down casting technique.

Roll Cast


In the sport of fly fishing, sometimes there are certain instances in which making a backcast is not possible due to brush or foliage. We have an easy solution for these precarious circumstances. Like the first casting technique we discussed, the roll cast effectively illustrates what the name implies. To perform the roll cast, have your line laid out in front of you. When the full length of the desired line is out in front of you, begin to slowly bring the tip of the rod back to the 2 o’clock position. It is critical that you do not drag the line back at a speed that lifts it from the surface of the water or whatever you might be practicing on. At this point, there should still be line in front of you. When you bring the rod all the way back, your rod and line should form what is known as the “D loop”. Your rod should depict the backbone of the D, while your line should be draped in the shape of the curved portion of the letter D. Once you have created the D loop, flick the rod tip forward and point in the direction in which you would like your flies to land. If everything goes according to plan, the line should roll out in front of you, performing a somersault, carrying your flies to the desired location.

There is not a complex set of gentleman’s rules that govern how you should behave on the water. There are, however, a few rules that one should adhere to, as well as a couple things to avoid.

First and foremost, when you catch a fish, keep in mind that a living creature is now at your mercy. There is a saying in fly fishing that all fly fishermen must live by. That saying is, “keep ‘em wet.” The saying is pretty clear regarding its instructions. In that magical moment when the fish has found its way into your hands, keep the amount of time that the fish is out of the water to an absolute minimum. Sure, snap a quick picture with the fish. However, remember that the fish has just exhausted itself throughout the duration of the fight that you and it have just taken part in. The longer the fish is unable to swim away freely, the less likely it is to survive.

Always, and we mean always, know and follow laws and regulations. Be sure to make sure you have a current fishing license in your possession. In most states, you can purchase a fishing license online or at select retailers like Trouts Fly Fishing. Not all bodies of water have the same regulations regarding harvesting fish, types of flies or lures that are allowed, time of year that fishing is permitted, etc. It is your responsibility as the angler to always be informed on the laws and regulations pertaining to your desired fishing location.

The next rule to adhere to is that you should always keep your distance from other anglers on the water. Entering a body of water directly above another angler is known as “high-holing”. Conversely, entering a body of water directly below another angler is known as “low-holing”. Avoid performing either of these mistakes and your presence will not disturb the other anglers out on the water.

To close, the only other obligation that you will have as an angler is to be kind and courteous to your environment, as well as other anglers. The Golden Rule even applies in fly fishing.

Now go get out in nature and try your hand at the incredible sport of fly fishing. If you’re anything like the rest of us at Trouts Fly Fishing, you will never be able to quench the insatiable desire to be out on the water.

We hope that this Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing has helped illuminate how accessible and easy it is to get started in the sport of fly fishing. If you have any questions that remain unanswered after reading this guide, do not hesitate to reach out to our team. Our mission is to share the sport we love with others and to break down the barriers between beginners and fly fishing knowledge.


Tight Lines!

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