Fly Fishing - I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now - Part 1
Updated: Apr 28
Fly fishing: it’s one of the most exciting and addictive endeavors I have ever taken part in. It requires a unique combination of the skills used in hunting and those found in traditional spinner fishing. It’s challenging and, because of that, it is wildly rewarding, and invariably takes place in some of the most beautiful locales in the world.
The trouble is it can be a little intimidating to get started. The learning curve is steep, requiring a new set of casting skills, a knowledge of insect and other “fish feeding” behavior, the ability to tie a number of different knots proficiently and gear and gizmos that are both expensive and overwhelming. On top of that you need to really know and understand the water you intend to fish, and some of the best spots are secrets held tighter than many national security issues. Oh, and last, right or wrong, it can be a bit of a fraternity — a special club of insiders that might seem difficult to breach.
Below I will cover some things I’ve learned since I’ve gotten into fly angling that I hope will help take some of the mystery out of the sport and accelerate your learning curve. The advice below is based on angling for trout in rivers or streams but can be modified in various ways for other species and bodies of water.
First, don’t go it alone.
Okay, this one seems obvious but finding a friend that is a fly angler and willing to take you under their wing is by far the fastest and most effective way to accelerate your learning curve. And guess what? Most of these anglers love their sport and would love to bring someone new into the fold. Surprised? Don’t be. The secret fraternity is not nearly as unbreachable as it seems. It’s made up of people that, at one point or another, were in your exact same shoes – or breathable waders (more on that later).
If there isn’t a friend or family member that you can latch on to, the next best bet is to hire a guide for a day. I guarantee you will learn more in that one day with a guide than you will in months of reading and the frustration of trying to figure things out on your own – trust me. These guys put people on fish for a living and most of them love to teach. It will be the best investment you can ever make in your fly fishing journey.
Next, let’s talk flies.
If you are just getting started and anything like me, one of the most confusing riddles to decipher out of the gate was flies – the generic term used to describe all things meant to entice fish on the end of your fly line. So let’s break down some fly basics.
First, there are essentially three types of flies: Dry Flies, Nymphs, and Streamers.
Dry flies– those that float on top of the water and attract rising fish. These are the flies most everyone thinks of when they think fly fishing and they are certainly some of the most exciting to fish. There’s a lot to understand here, but the basic is this – fish feed on bugs on the surface of the water.
Of the flies that hatch there are three basic categories: Mayflies, Stoneflies and Caddis - the easiest way to distinguish them from one another is by their wings. Of course within each category there are a number of specific species that range in size and color. My advice to get started is to narrow down the basic category of fly (Mayfly, Stonefly or Caddis) that is hatching (watch the top of the water and the air around you) and then come as close as you can in size and color.
Beyond hatching flies in the dry fly category are “terrestrials” - bugs or other critters that come from the land and basically fall into the water and become trout food: grasshoppers, ants, spiders, beetles, even mice (more on this later). These dry flies are typically found later in the summer once the majority of the hatches are done.
The cast. Properly casting and presenting dry flies can be one of the more difficult skills to master. The idea is to naturally float your fly over the head of a feeding fish in a way that looks as realistic as possible. In theory, it's relatively simple.
For dry fly fishing you will be using floating line, leader and tippet. The fine-ness of the leader/tippet will largely depend on how slow/clear the water is and how pressured/educated the fish you are chasing are. Once you have selected an appropriate fly for the hatch and located a feeding fish (over time this is something that will become easier and easier to identify) you will make your cast upstream of the fish's feeding line and allow your fly to float over the head of the fish (fish always face upstream) drag free. That last part is the kicker. Floating fly line by nature gets pulled along by the currents in the water. Often times there will be multiple current channels in the stretch of water you are fishing. What can happen is that a fish will be feeding in a current on a slower outside bend, meaning you have to cast across a portion of the river that may have a faster current than the one your target fish is parked in. When you cast to your spot your fly will be floating at a slower rate of speed (in a slower current) than the body of your fly line (in a faster current). This will eventually lead to your fly line being pulled down river which will begin to pull your fly in an unnatural way IE: skating. To fix this issue you need to "mend" your fly line (sometimes more than once) during a drift. Mending your line essentially means lifting and placing it upstream from your fly during the float – ideally without causing any movement in your fly itself. It's a little tricky and takes some practice. I would reccomend mending when your fly is even with your position in a run, then use the full length of the rod to lift as much fly line as possible off the water and, with the rod tip pointed toward the sky, sweep the line upstream. It takes some practice. My son will tell you I still suck at it. During the float watch for the fish to rise and take your fly (sometimes it will be an aggressive take and other times it will be a small sip), lift your rod tip and set the hook. It's a very visual method of fishing and it is highly addictive.
To get started here are three basic dry flies I would add to my box:
• Caddis in a few different sizes and colors
• #12 Adams Parachute – it imitates a number of Mayflies well enough to fool most fish.
• Foam grasshopper – this will be a great fly to have in your arsenal later in the year when the hatches are done.
Beyond that the best bet is always checking with the local fly shop to see what is hatching and what they recommend.
Nymphs – these flies represent insects in the nymph stage of their life cycle that live under the water. It is estimated that nearly 80% of a trout’s diet consists of feeding under the water, so nymphing can be extremely productive.
Just like with dry flies, nymphs exist for each of the three categories of insects: Mayflies, Stoneflies and Caddis. Most of these will be present in the river at any given time in some form or another. If you want to get a little more sophisticated, grab a stone or two out of the river and look at the bottom of it, often times you will see various insects in the nymph stage attached and you can use this to match what you want to throw.
The cast. Good news here, casting and presenting a nymph is one of the easiest methods of fly fishing – it requires much less, in terms of presentation, than a dry fly. You will be fishing your fly under the water near the bottom and flowing with the current.
Fishing a nymph can be done using floating line, leader and tippet and can be rigged either with or without an indicator (yeah, it’s a fancy word for bobber). There are pros and cons to both methods. An indicator allows you to maintain a relatively consistent depth with your fly and it can alert you to small strikes that you might miss if going only by feel. On the other hand, it’s one more thing attached to your line – which can complicate casting, and it does require some mending. My preferred method for fishing trout with a nymph is to go by feel. Again you will be looking for the feeding channel that will be holding fish. If you watch carefully you can literally watch fish park in this channel and binge on passing nymphs. Rainbow trout are especially easy to spot with their white mouths. Once you find the feeding channel you will work upstream of the fish, cast across the feeding channel/bubble line and allow your fly to “swing” downstream and through the channel until it eventually comes to a dangle. The idea is to work the fly through the feeding channel and in front of the fish. Your fly should look like a nymph that is free-floating down the river. Be ready for a strike at any point through the swing and keep your rod tip following and pointed at your fly through the process. When you feel the strike, lift the rod tip to set the hook. And keep in mind, a good majority of strikes happen on the dangle, so let your fly sit there for a few beats before you re-cast.
To get started here are three basic nymph patterns I would add to my box:
• Bead Head Prince Nymph in various sizes
• Copper John in various sizes
• Pheasant Tail in various sizes
Again, it always makes sense to check with the local fly shop to see what flies they are recommending.
Streamers. Ah yes, throwing big protein to attract big fish. Streamers are meant to imitate baitfish or other larger underwater food sources such as leeches and sculpins. Streamer fishing can be extremely exciting and very productive. This method of fishing most closely resembles spinner fishing using a Mepps Spinner or crank bait such as a Rapala but rather than reeling to retrieve your line, you are stripping the fly back to you in a method that gives the streamer movement and action in the water – often times enticing aggressive and explosive strikes from large fish.
As with dry flies and nymphs, streamers come in a variety of sizes and colors meant to imitate different food sources. Most have some type of weighted head meant to get the streamer down to the fish. Streamers can be fished with floating line or sinking line – it largely depends on the depth and speed of the water you want to fish (more on this later). Shortening up your leader (I recommend 3-6’) makes casting these heavier flies much easier and more controllable. In many cases I will simply tie my own leaders from 8# or 12# fluorocarbon.
The cast. Once learned, throwing streamers can become quite easy – especially if you keep your leader short and make sure you are using a rod with enough backbone for the streamer you have selected IE bigger/heavier streamers require bigger/heavier rods to throw effectively (more on this later). If you have room, you can use a typical false cast approach to get your streamer where you want it, but I find that a roll cast can be much less frustrating. The good news with streamers is that the cast doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to get the fly where you want it. Casting presentation is not the key here, the retrieve is. There are a number of theories regarding streamer placement and retrieve – the biggest thing to keep in mind is that you want your streamer to look like a live fish going through the water and you have to move it in a way that will entice a strike. My preferred method is to cast up stream of the targeted area and as close to the bank or structure as possible – and then retrieve back to me downstream through the current. I have found the most success with this method and I believe that is because fish are feeding facing upstream. Pulling a streamer downstream and past them provides (in my opinion) the most realistic look, it also ensures that when I strip-set the fish I am pulling my streamer into the mouth of my fish versus out of it. I recommend starting with smaller (easier to cast) streamers at first and varying your retrieve/strip speed until you find some success – many professionals believe that fast and aggressive is the best method, drawing out predatorial strikes from fish. My fly fishing mentor, Matt Workman, recommended stripping (your line) to the tune of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – the key is finding what works for you and on your water. Mix it up. Experiment. And be ready for hard, aggressive hits.
To get started here are three streamers I would add to my box:
• Any version of a Wooly Bugger
• Mini Sex Dungeon
Again, it always makes sense to check with the local fly shop to see what streamers they are recommending.
We’ll be talking more about gear options – what you need and what you don’t, the basic knots, some casting tips and other things that should help you get up to speed faster in future posts.