Fly Fishing - I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now - Part 2
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
So in our last article we discussed the different types of flies and their uses. In this article I hope to shed some light on gear. What’s important. What isn’t. Where to spend your money and where you can keep it in your pocket.
The world of fly fishing gear can be, in a word, overwhelming. Here are my thoughts on where to place that hard-earned cash.
I’m going to start with the three most basic pieces of equipment you will need: a rod, a reel, and fly line. We’ll get into some of the other fun stuff in a later article.
1. Rods. The technology today has really leveled the playing field in terms of making quality rods accessible. Yeah, you can spend $1,200 on a rod and it will be awesome, but you can also find great rods for around $200 and honestly many of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
When we talk about rods there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is rod weight. Rod weight refers to the weight of the fly line it can handle and should be used with. The weight of the fly line makes it possible to cast an un-weighted fly, unlike conventional fishing where the weight of the lure carries out the line.
Rod weights come in sizes as small as 1 and go up to 14. When determining what rod weight you should use, there are several things to consider but typically the bigger the fish you are chasing, the heavier the weight rating of rod you should use. A one-weight would be the equivalent of an ultra-light spinner rod and then obviously heftier as the number goes up.
For most trout fishing the common weights are 4-6. A four-weight will work well for lighter dry flies, nymphing and very small streamers. A five-weight is the most common size for trout being the do-all rod and a six-weight can handle larger dry flies, nymphs and bigger streamers.
For smaller fish you can go down in weight (like a 2 to 4) and for larger fish like steelhead or salmon you would want to go up (probably in the 7 to 10 range). Even larger game fish like pike or saltwater species would put you in the upper end of the range (10-14).
The next thing to consider is rod action. In the most simple of terms, rod action refers to the stiffness of the rod or how much and where the rod bends.
Actions are typically described in one of two ways: “speed” slow, medium, or fast (which indicates how fast the rod bends and unbends), or “flex” ranging from full-flex, mid-flex and, tip-flex indicating how far into the body of the rod it bends. A rod is typically thought of in three sections: the butt section, the middle and the tip.
These two measurements line up in a way that a “slow” rod would be the same as a “full- flex”, meaning the rod would bend throughout the entire length (down to the butt section) and would bend and unbend (load and unload) relatively slowly. A “medium-action” rod would be the same as a “mid-flex” wherein the rod would bend to about the middle and load and unload at a medium speed. A “fas- action” rod would be the same as “tip-flex”, meaning the rod bends only through the tip section and loads and unloads very quickly.
Again, in general terms, slower rods can be more forgiving and nicer for up-close casting or more delicate presentations, whereas faster rods require better timing and are generally better for throwing distance.
For starting out, again using trout fishing as an example, most people recommend starting with a medium/mid-flex rod or medium/fast.
Rod Length. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but rods do come in various lengths, shorter for smaller, tighter water and longer for bigger water and different uses. The most standard length of all-purpose fly rod for trout is 9 foot and most rods are sold at that length.
Look for a medium or medium/fast action 9-foot, 4-piece in 5-weight and you will have a great multipurpose rod to get started.
2. Reels. Ok, reels are an area that can get pretty touchy for people and again, you can spend a small fortune on a reel – and again it will be awesome. But let me say up front that for most trout fishing, targeting fish under 20”, I personally don’t think the reel is a huge factor. When you get into bigger and more aggressive fish, yes, but for fish that you will likely be stripping in by hand (versus needing to really put the screws to) the reel simply acts as a line holder and needs to balance your rod – that’s it. For trout fishing, I personally would not break the bank on your reel.
Here are a few factors to take into account when selecting a reel:
Size - pick one that can hold the necessary amount of backing and fly line for the weight of rod that you are fishing with.
Drag - a good drag system (there are several types with disk being the most common) will hold up to hard-running fish and you pay for that. Again, for most fish under 20” an economical drag system should be more than adequate to get the job done. For saltwater fishing a sealed drag can be important but for freshwater, this can be overkill.
Construction: another big driver of cost is comparing a “cast” reel versus a “machined” reel. Generally speaking cast reels are less expensive but heavier and more brittle. Machined reels are more expensive, but lighter, more durable and more corrosion resistant.
In my opinion, for general trout fishing targeting fish primarily 20 inches and less, a “cast” reel serves just fine.
One other recommendation is to buy a spare spool for your reel. This allows you to easily switch out various fly lines (we’ll talk about that below) for your rod without needing to change the entire reel.
3. Line. To me, line is critical. It’s like the tires you put on your truck - put crappy tires on a great truck and you can expect sub-par performance. The same holds true for fly line. Getting the optimal performance out of your rod requires an investment in quality line.
Floating versus sinking: The first distinction to make when selecting fly line is the use. There are two basic types of lines, Floating (F) or Sinking (S) with dozens of variations.
If you intend to fish on the surface (dry flies) you will want to select a Floating line (F). Floating line can also work for wet flies/nymphs and can work for streamers in shallow runs or slower moving water. Floating lines are the easiest to cast and fish for someone new to the sport.
Floating lines are sold by weight. It is important to match the weight of your fly line (5 weight for example) to the weight of your fly rod for best performance. Casting power comes from the relationship of line to rod. When you make your cast, the line "loads" the rod on your back-cast by adding enough weight to flex it fully. Then, with a properly timed forward cast, the flexed rod straightens out, driving the line forward.
Floating lines also come in various tapers. A taper refers to adjustments in size/thickness of portions fly line made by the manufacturer to improve casting.
For our purposes and general fishing we will cover three basic types of tapers.
Level line – with level line there is essentially no taper and the line is an even thickness throughout. Level line is the cheapest and is often found on reels or combo set ups that come pre-lined. My advice is to get rid of it as soon as possible and switch out to one of the following. You will have much better feel for the rod loading and your casting will improve tremendously.
Weight forward (WF) This is the "standard" taper for trout fishing. A weight-forward taper is a fly line that has additional weight and thickness added to it in the first 10 yards (or more/less) of fly line. The remainder of the fly line is then of uniform thickness and weight. The purpose of the weight-forward taper is to provide additional "heft" to the fly line. This "heft" makes casting easier, especially on windy days, allows for longer casts and, helps larger flies turn over properly for optimal presentation.
Double Taper (DT) On a Double Taper fly line the first fifteen feet of the line gradually widen in diameter. The next 60 feet of the fly line remains a constant thickness. The final 15 feet of the fly line then gradually loses width and weight at exactly the same rate as was gained on the front of the fly line.The lighter front-end weight of the fly line allows for a "lighter touch" when casting and presenting the fly. However, the trade off is that it is more difficult to cast in windy conditions and shorter casts are more difficult to control.
Both WF and DT lines make casting much easier. You should choose what works best for your application, but for general trout fishing I typically recommend a weight-forward option.
A few last things to consider when purchasing floating fly line:
Slickness – many manufacturers have proprietary methods for ensuring your fly line is “slick” allowing it to zing through the rod guides more fluidly.
Floating ability – some fly lines just float better than others. Cheap line does not float well. Neither does dirty line. One simple trick for cleaning your fly line is to use a rag coated in Armor All every now and then to keep your line clean and slick.
Stiffness – as you are looking for your floating line, be aware of the relative stiffness or suppleness of the line. Some fly line is intended for special applications. In most cases stiffer line is more appropriate for warm applications (typically saltwater) and supple line works best for cold-water applications. For all-around use, you’ll want to land someplace in the middle and avoid special-purpose line.
Built in loop – I highly recommend purchasing fly line that has an end loop built right into the line – it makes connecting and/or switching out your leader much easier (nail knots are a pain in the ass).
If you intend to fish subsurface with streamers in deeper or faster water you will want to look at sinking line.
Sinking line comes in various sink rates measured in inches-per-second (ips) – which basically equates to how quickly your line will sink per second in the water. This measurement is typically displayed as “Type” and then a number, with the lower numbers sinking slower and the higher numbers sinking faster – usually close in "ips" to the number listed. So, for example, a Type 1 sinking line will sink approximately 1” per second, whereas a Type 6 sinking line will sink approximately 6” per second. Sometimes the sink rate is also shown from slow to fast with slow/intermediate being more like a Type 1 and extra super sinker being more like a type 6. For most trout fishing the sweet spot is in the Type 1-4 range.
Also, just to keep things interesting, the weight for sinking line is measured in “Grains” versus “Weight”. As with floating line, it is important to match the line grains to the rod weight you are using in order to achieve optimal performance. Below is a basic way to translate line grains to the rod weight you are using.
4 weight rod = 114-126 grain line
5 weight rod = 134-146 grain line
6 weight rod = 152-168 grain line
7 weight rod = 177-193 grain line
8 weight rod = 202-218 grain line
9 weight rod = 230-250 grain line
Adding sinking line to your arsenal can greatly improve your streamer fishing and help you connect with those larger meat-eating fish we all dream about.
The last thing to think about when talking about fly line is leader and tippet. Again you can drive yourself a little mad just talking about these two areas, but I will try to break it down to its most simple form.
Leader. Leader is the clear fishing line you attach to your fly line – the link between your fly line and your fly.
The first debate when you get into this world is monofilament (mono) versus Fluorocarbon (fluoro). To keep this very simple I would recommend using mono when you are fishing on the surface and fluoro when fishing subsurface. Mono is slightly more visible but floats better. Fluoro is less visible but denser so it tends to sink. It is also more durable so it tends to hold up better to abrasion that can occur sub-surface.
Next you will need to understand how leader weight is represented (yeah another measurement system). Leaders and tippet materials are measured in “X” for diameter/weight. There’s actually some interesting history regarding how this came about – but we’re not going to get into that here. What you basically need to know is the smaller the number (1X for example) the thicker the line, the larger the number (6x for example) the thinner the line. Simple right? Yeah, I know.
Basically you will want to determine your leader size/weight by the size of fly you are fishing. Bigger flies require heavier (smaller number) leader and smaller flies require lighter (bigger number) leader material.
A common rule that helps to determine what ‘X’ size to use is to take the size of the fly you are using, say a Size-12 Parachute Adams for example, and divide that fly size by 3. In this example our fly is size 12, divided by 3 gives you 4. That would work out to be a 4X tippet size. Say your fly is a large size-3 streamer - 3 divided by 3 gives you 1, which would in turn be a size 1X tippet. It’s a basic rule that holds pretty true.
While you can certainly tie your own leaders, I find it a bit cumbersome. I prefer to purchase pre-made leaders from Scientific Anglers. Most pre-made leaders are tapered, being thicker on the butt end (closest to the fly line) and thinner closer to the fly itself. This helps with casting and presentation. They often also come with loops pre-tied which allow for easy loop-to-loop connection to your fly line (make sure you purchase fly line with a built-in loop). Pre-made leaders typically come in a range of lengths, with 7-1/2 and 9 foot being the most common.
With dry flies I typically use a 9 foot, 4x or 5x premade tapered leader. With extra spooky fish you may want to consider a lighter (6x) or longer leader (or using more tippet – more on that in a minute).
For streamer fishing, I typically just use straight 8# or 12# fluorocarbon with a loop tied in the end for connection to the fly line. I personally don’t feel a tapered leader to be necessary when fishing streamers. Also, when throwing streamers you are going to want a shorter leader – typically somewhere in the 3’ – 6’ range to give you greater control on your casting and keeping your fly closer to the sinking line, allowing it to get into the zone more quickly. No tippet is required in my scenario. Just keep in mind that without tippet and using heavy gauge fluoro (IE 12#) if you get into a bigger fish, that line is not likely to break – but your rod might…I’m serious. The same goes for snags. If your streamer gets really hung up on a log or other underwater obstruction it’s not going to simply break off that easily – you're either going to work your streamer free with some effort or snap your rod (tip- pull the line, don’t use the rod to free snags), bend the hell out of your hook, or pull the log out of the river before you break off.
Tippet – tippet is made of the same materials as leaders and is essentially the same but is not tapered and comes on small spools. The purpose of tippet is two-fold. First, it allows you to make the final presentation of the fly to your fish. Second, it allows “break offs” and fly changes to happen without shortening your leaders (which can be expensive to replace). It is most common to use tippet in the same weight (IE 5X) as your leader or one size smaller, so if the leader is 5X the tippet would be either 5x or 6x. I typically use about 2-3 feet of tippet on my leader and attach it with a Double Surgeon’s Knot – you can see how to tie that know here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIsD5-W6pFE