How to Get Started in Fly Fishing
Over 20 years or so I have had the honor of introducing thousands of people to fly fishing. It has been an incredible privilege for me to do something I love. Most of these people have been guided clients, many visited the fly shop where I worked, some were kids in the community, a few have been close friends or family, and recently some co-workers have been getting lunchtime casting lessons and a little advice on getting started.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these people run into very similar problems as they transition from learning fly fishing to truly getting into fly fishing.
As people make that transition to the next stage of their fly fishing journey the conversations I have with them are surprisingly similar (fly fishing pros out there can probably relate). An acquaintance catches me at a soccer game, a co-worker pops into my office, a neighbor bumps into me in the halls at church, a relative starts a chat at a Christmas party, all with something like: “So, are you still fly fishing?”
In the subsequent conversations people ask for advice about really getting into fly fishing. Some need gear advice. Many ask about where to go. Others need to learn basic entomology and the corresponding flies that work in their area. And others still need to improve their technique.
It pains me that I can’t take a few days for each person who’s interested. It’s just not possible. So this blog post is an effort to at least answer the first question I so often get: “How do I get started in fly fishing?”
This is how I would do it. I hope it helps.
Start with Gear
This may sound a little cart-pre-horse, but I’ve met a lot of people who have been fly fishing a few times with borrowed gear or with a guide. They almost all tell me they tried it, enjoyed it, but didn’t stick with it. Well, there’s nothing like an investment in a pile of stuff to get you fully invested.
Are you going to do this or not?
So, if you are serious about starting to fly fish, I would get the gear.
Get most of your gear from a local fly shop. It’s always best to support your dedicated local shop instead of a heartless big box store or discount online merchant. Yes, once you’re more seasoned, you will probably eventually buy plenty of stuff online that you can’t get locally. However, your local fly shop is almost certain to provide the best advice and support as you learn to fly fish. Support their efforts, they will support your learning, and you’ll catch more fish.
If you don’t have a local fly shop I would start with Orvis or one of the one-stop online shops. These websites provide good online learning resources as well.
Starter Gear for Fly Fishing for Trout
Rod: 9 foot, 5 weight with a medium to fast action (bends more toward the tip, easier to learn to cast). You can expect to pay anywhere from $120 to $300 for a nice starter rod with a good warranty. You can find something workable for less, but if you break it you may not be able to replace it. Most good rod warranties replace or repair broken rods for $30 – $60. You will break a few rods eventually.
Reel: Get almost any reel in a size appropriate for a 5 weight line. Good reels will be made of machined aluminum for durability and consistency, with good bearings and a disc drag. That level of construction can cost you. However, you can get away with saving money here, reels just aren’t that important. Budget $40 – $140 to get started.
Line: Get a middle of the road floating line with the specs: WF 5 F. This means it is a weight-forward, 5 weight, floating line. This is the easiest line to learn to cast and the most effective for most styles of fishing. Budget $30 – $50.
Leader & Tippet: Get a 9 foot, 4X leader to start plus one backup. Get at 9 foot, 5X leader for smaller dry flies and a 7.5 foot 2X (0X if you have big fish) leader for streamers. Get a spool of tippet in each of these sizes: 1X, 3X, 4X, 5X, 6X. You may want a couple extras in the 4X and 5X since these are your most commonly used sizes. Budget $35 -$50.
Flies: Start with a good collection of dry flies, nymphs, and streamers. Now this is going to cost far more than you’re expecting. Once again, this is an investment in doing this the right way. Note that, although I’ve fished a variety of places around the world for trout, I mostly fish in the Western US. You may find that your local fly fishing shop doesn’t carry some of these fly patterns or suggests some other can’t miss local patterns. Try to get most of them and ask for expert suggestions on replacements. Get 4 of each to be sure you have enough when you find what’s working (2 each of the big expensive streamers is ok). This list may seem huge, but believe me, these are the bare minimum (a fact that should move you to learn fly tying). Budget $200 – $300
|Parachute Adams, Size 14
Parachute Adams, Size 18
Griffith’s Gnat, Size 20
Parachute PMD, Size 16
Grey Elk Hair Caddis, Size 16
Tan Elk Hair Caddis, Size 14
Tan Klinkhammer, Size 14
Grey Klinkhammer, Size 16
Yellow PMX, Size 10
Royal PMX, Size 10
|Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph, Size 18
Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph, Size 14
Rainbow Sow Bug, Size 16
Black Zebra Midge, Size 20
Olive Zebra Midge, Size 20
Bead Head Prince, Size 16
Bead Head Prince, Size 12
Surveyor, Size 14
SOS, Size 18
SOS, Size 14
Black Rubber Leg Stonefly Nymph, Size 8
Pink Wiggle Worm, Size 8
|Black Bead Head Crystal Bugger, Size 6
Black Bead Head Crystal Bugger, Size 10
Brown Simi Seal Leech, Size 10
Olive Simi Seal Leech, Size 10
Olive/White Clouser Minnow, Size 6
Grey/White Clouser Minnow, Size 6
Olive Sculpzilla, Size 4
Natural Slumpbuster, Size 8
Natural Galloup’s Sex Dungeon, Standard
Fly Box: Start with a couple of fly boxes. I like Tacky fly boxes for their durability and ease. Get an Original for smaller dry flies and nymphs and a Big Bug box for streamers and large dry flies. Budget $45 – $65.
Pack or Vest: I would get a small sling pack or waist pack to start, but really anything you like to carry gear is good. Just ask your local shop for their preference and try on a few to be sure they work for you. Budget $30 – $100.
Sunglasses: This may not seem necessary. It is. Get a decent pair of polarized sunglasses with brown, copper, or amber lenses for the best contrast and visibility. They will not only help you see fish, they will protect your eyes from UV rays and sharp flying objects that may get a little too close for comfort as you learn to cast. Budget $40 – $60 for your first pair and move up to some Smiths or Costas when you can afford them.
Waders & Boots: I would definitely recommend breathable waders. Your comfort will impact your focus and limit your frustration level. Don’t go for the waders with attached boots. They aren’t nearly as comfortable and eventually develop leaks where the waders attach to the boots. You can find decent breathable waders for $100 – $175 and decent wading boots for $45 – $70. Please don’t get felt soled boots. The felt sole material has a tendency to transport invasive species of plants and animals between waterways. Felt soles are illegal in some places and never a good idea. Get rubber soles instead.
Gadgets: You’ll learn quickly that there are about as many fly fishing gadgets as there are fish. Fly anglers are notorious gear hogs with a penchant for innovation. That said, you don’t need to jingle as you walk. You’ll need forceps/hemostats for removing flies. Find a doctor and ask for their cast offs (clean these thoroughly), or pay a few bucks for the cheapies. You will want snips to cut leader and tippet; also just a few bucks. You will also need some fly floatant. I like the liquid kind like Gink or Loon’s Aquel. There are several other kinds of floatant, the powder desiccant can be handy as well. Grab one pack of strike indicators. Thingamabobbers are easy to use. Budget around $40.
Ok, so now take a deep breath.
Your total investment in basic gear could be anywhere from $650 to around $1,500 US.
Upon hearing this, you might be tempted to go try out a Walmart rod, reel, line, leader and a dozen flies. While this may technically allow you to go out and catch a few fish, it’s really challenging gear to learn with. You’ll run the risk of giving up as you frustratedly watch feeding trout without the tools to actually catch them.
Consider gear costs in comparison to other lifetime sports and pastimes like golf, tennis, running, hiking, photography, art, music, whatever. Fly fishing gear lasts a really long time. Fly casting is not likely to cause injuries unless you’re not doing it right. In addition, there are no recurring fees except a cheap annual license, replacing a few flies, and transportation.
I promise you, it’s a great investment!
One of the largest differences between fly fishing and more conventional forms of fishing is that, in order to actually catch fish, you need to master the basic techniques and these techniques are challenging.
I’m reminded of this quote from A River Runs Through It.
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. – Norman Maclean
Fly fishing is not easy but it’s also not prohibitively difficult and it’s the challenge that makes fly fishing so intensely gratifying. When you catch a fish on the fly, you’ve clearly done something hard-to-do and that feels great.
Following are a few of the basic techniques that you will want to learn.
Learn the basic 2 Casts First
Probably the biggest challenge for most people when they get started in fly fishing is learning to cast. Fly casting is a physical skill requiring coordination and timing. And, although this will sound a little pretentious, fly casting really is a bit of an art.
The great news, like finger impressionistic painting or adult coloring books, virtually everybody can cast.
Fly casting’s most basic elements are pretty easy to comprehend. The fly caster (you) causes a simple flexible lever (rod) to bend against the mass of a weighted fly line, storing energy in the bent rod by accelerating through the stroke. As the casting stroke comes to a sudden, and hopefully complete, stop on both the forward and back casts the rod subsequently straightens, unloading energy into the line, which propels it forward or backward.
Got it? Yeah it’s pretty difficult to comprehend in paragraph format.
Luckily, here’s a good video from fly casting expert, Pete Kutzer.
It’s critical to remember that in fly casting you are casting the line first, and the basically weightless fly simply follows the line. At the end of the cast the leader rolls over, straightens, and the leader and fly settle to the water.
After practicing the basic cast, learn the basic roll cast on a pond or lake. This will serve you well in a lot of situations where your back cast is blocked and it will help you learn the basic mechanics of loading and unloading the rod.
Here’s a roll cast primer.
After LearNing to Cast, Learn Line Control
Whether you cast with your right or left, it’s more important than almost any beginner realizes to learn what to do with your other hand. The off-hand is used to manage fly line in a variety of ways. Work on controlling line with this hand as you strip in slack, as you cast, and more. As your casting progresses you’ll learn to haul the line with your off hand to cast farther as well.
Line control also refers to some things you do with the rod. For example, a mend is a line correction that helps you achieve or maintain a dead drift. In order to mend line you usually lift the line off the water with the rod, then flip the line up or downstream.
Get on the water and go for it
Once again, some people claim my method is perhaps a bit out of order, even backwards, but I’m a firm believer in the concept of learning by doing. Call it fake it till you make it, on-the-job training, or whatever you will, there’s no substitute for time spent on the water trying to fool a fish.
I learned this way out of necessity. There was nobody around to teach me any differently. So I fished, and I learned to catch fish by observing fish and figuring it out. Every decent fly fisher has to do this. So, find your nearest trout stream, bass lake, or park pond and get out there and try to catch a fish.
Let’s get this out of the way. Your first forays to the river’s edge will be frustrating.
Don’t worry if you don’t catch a fish your first, second, or even third time. You will eventually and you’ll remember everything you did to do it.
Any idiot can shove bait on a hook, cast, and wait. You’re about to embark on a different path, a more challenging one. One of the rewards of fly fishing is the satisfaction you get in knowing exactly how you will catch a fish, then executing on your plan.
Another favorite quote from A River Runs Through It.
If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to catch a fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him. – Norman Maclean
You will need to prepare with some background education. However, realize that fly fishing education can happen in many ways.
I read everything as a kid, magazines, books, catalogs, the back of fly fishing gear packages, but I’m a reader.
You may prefer to learn by watching videos or prefer to learn from other people. Whatever your learning preference, find out where you can access information and help. YouTube has a lot of great videos and various guide services offer schools or private lessons. Find a buddy or maybe a fly fishing club. The resources are available.
Pick the educational resources that appeal most to you and go for it.
Fly fishing, especially teaching it, has brought me innumerable insights, happy memories, lessons learned, friends, problem solving skills, and an abiding appreciation for nature. I really wish I could teach the world to fly fish.
I mean it. I LOVE it. And I wish you well.