STYLES OF FLY FISHING
With the publication of Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler in 1653, the fly fisher was idealized as a gentleman angler casting dry flies on an English chalk stream to dignified trout. But Walton fished with frogs and worms, and some flies are tied to look like things other than flies
(deer-hair mice, for example-big browns love 'em, especially at night). Since Walton's book, fly fishers
have developed a range of techniques and tackle
effective for catching everything from undignified
carp to 100+ pound tarpon; popper-smashing
largemouth bass to rod-shattering musky; native
strains of alpine cutthroat trout to East Coast striped bass at high tide.
A fly fisher with a one-handed rod creates a continuous, dynamic 'loop' that can shoot a size 24 midge emerger across a river to a rising fish.
In baitcasting and spin fishing, the weight of a lure or sinker is used to cast a lightweight line across a body of water. The heavier the lure, the lighter the line, the further the cast.
Fly fishing, or more specifically fly casting, switches the roles: flies are tied light, and fly lines are made heavy. For example, a typical dry fly, say a size 18 Adams, is tied light enough that it floats on or at the surface of the water.
It follows that a fly with so little weight could never generate the momentum necessary to make much of a cast. But a weighted fly line can generate line speed using a quick stop on the fore and backcasts. A fly fisher with a one-handed rod creates a continuous, dynamic 'loop' that can shoot a size 24 midge emerger (the higher the number, the smaller the fly) across a river to a rising fish. Fly lines and leaders are tapered, with more weight in the tip section of the fly line so that the loop turns over smoothly at the end of a cast.
Flies are 'tied' to imitate insects, invertebrates, baitfish, crustaceans, small
animals, and other fish fodder. Traditionally, flies were tied with natural materials like feathers,
thread, and animal fur or hair. Now, a range of synthetic and natural materials are used, sometimes on the same fly.
Flies fall into roughly 5 categories: dry flies, wet flies, streamers, poppers, and saltwater flies.
Dry flies are fished on or at the surface of water and typically imitate adult or emerging insects like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, grasshoppers, and damselflies. Flies are tied in patterns, general recipes for specific types of imitations. Dry flies are thought by some (especially those in the Walton tradition) to be as good as it gets in fly fishing because the fish's take is visual, requiring accurate casting and delicate presentation. Most good dry fly fishing requires a set of very specific conditions, conditions which don't always materialize. But when conditions are right, say a hatch of adult Blue Wing Olive mayflies coming off a western trout stream on an overcast day in early spring, the fishing can be electric. Medium- to slow-action rods put dry flies on the water more delicately than faster actions, and so a growing number of dry-fly purists prefer bamboo rods.
Wet flies are fished below the surface, and are tied to imitate things like pupal- and nymph-stage aquatic insects, scuds (freshwater shrimp), fish eggs, worms, and crayfish. 'Nymphing' is a type of trout fishing using wet flies suspended in moving water, with weight added to sink the rig to the fish's feeding depth. The strike happens below the water's surface, so the fly fisher must see (more like sense) the strike by watching for line movement at the surface or fish flashing below the surface. Most nymph rigs use strike indicators (flyspeak for 'bobbers'), made of yarn, foam, or plastic, to help the fly fisher see the strike. Czech Nymphing, or high-sticking uses weight suspended below the nymphs, with the fly fisher raising the rod tip as the line passes down current to keep the drifting rig relatively straight and in the feeding lane. Casting nymph rigs is not usually graceful: because of added weight and strike indicators, the traditional backcast becomes more of a chuck-and-duck lob. Trout spend most of their time feeding underwater, so, graceful or not, nymphing is often the most effective technique for cold-water species, especially when conditions are off for dry fly fishing. One-handed rods 9 feet or longer make for easier mends (adjustments to the drift of a nymph rig by lifting the line in the current).
Streamers are larger wet flies tied to imitate baitfish, leeches, crayfish, and other small animals. Streamers are typically fished like lures: the fly fisher retrieves or strips in the lure to imitate prey. Fish hit streamers hard; strikes with streamers tend to be territorial or predatory, and usually violent. Think big browns ripping up deer-hair mice patterns after dark. Doesn't get much more fun than that. Streamers are fished with one- or two-handed rods, and can be effective for essentially any type of fish in almost any condition. Even in the most technical dry fly fishing, most fish will give a well-presented streamer a good look, especially larger, predatory fish.
Poppers are blunt- or scoop-headed flies fished on the surface of water with quick strips and twitches, imitating wounded baitfish, frogs, mice, and other small prey animals. Poppers were borrowed directly from the baitcasting crowd—bass and warm-water species love these flies. Largemouth bass are known for their explosive takes on poppers—the boil looks like a toilet flushing.
Saltwater flies are any flies used to fish for marine species of fish, and as such span a huge range of sizes and shapes. Most saltwater flies are wet flies tied to imitate crabs, shrimp, and baitfish. Saltwater patterns borrow heavily from streamers and poppers, though are typically much larger than their freshwater counterparts.
The salmonids' taste for a clean and quick-moving habitat tends to mean beautiful settings like the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the backcountry of the far north.
Fly Fishing for
Trout & Salmonids
Trout and their cousins—char, salmon, and greyling—are the fish Izaak Walton chased after back in the day, and they remain the fish most people associate with fly fishing. Trout prefer colder, cleaner, more oxygenated water, and are often grouped together as 'cold-water species.' Trout and salmonids tend to live at latitudes further north or south, or at higher elevations, often in rivers and streams that move quickly down mountain ranges. That's a plus—the salmonids’ taste for a clean and quick-moving habitat tends to mean beautiful settings like the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the backcountry of the far north. Brown trout are able to put up with a lot in terms of warmer water temperatures and less pristine conditions, which, combined with their aggressive nature, has made them the most prolific of the cold-water species in most regions.
Cold-water species are fished for in rivers and streams as well as on stillwater-lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. Rivers and streams are often waded, with deeper rivers sometimes floated in flat-bottomed 'drift' boats or one-person pontoons. Stillwater can be fished from shore or waded, but many fly fishers prefer using inflatable personal watercraft like pontoons and float tubes to get to fish holding away from shore.
Fishing for trout typically involves one-handed rods between 7 and 9 feet, in weights from 6 down to 00, depending on the size of fish you're after. Dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, and streamers can all be highly effective, depending on conditions.
Fly Fishing for
Think bass, perch, bluegill, walleye, pike, carp. Maybe a musky if you're lucky (or unlucky, if your rod explodes when the musky runs you into your backing). Using fly tackle for warm freshwater species is relatively new in the history of fly fishing. Fly fishers developed many warm-water flies from trout and salmonid tackle, picking up lure designs (like poppers) and techniques from baitcasters and spin fishermen along the way.
Warm-water species tend to mean heavier rods, 6 to 8 weights, with large arbor reels and sturdy drags. Rods run lighter for perch and bluegill, heavier for pike and musky. Warm-water species are most often fished for on stillwater—lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, where a 10-foot rod can help push a heavy bass fly into the wind. Fishing from shore or working shallows can be effective, but many warm-water fisherman fish from float tubes, pontoons, or boats.
Steelhead are sea-run rainbow trout, which, along with Atlantic salmon, constitute a branch of the salmonid family tree that deserves its own category. Fly fishers have tried for steelhead and Atlantic salmon as far back as Izaak Walton's day—and “try” is the key word. Steelhead and Atlantic salmon can get big—very big—while at sea. But en route to their freshwater spawning grounds, where most fly fishermen run into them, both species lose their appetites. Accordingly, techniques that evoke territorial rather than predatory responses are preferred. Steelheaders tend to fish brightly colored streamers and egg patterns to large and reluctant fish on rivers that are wide and deep. Long casts—lots of them—are the rule for steelheaders, as landing a few in a season is a significant accomplishment, and a few in a day a rarity.
Hardcore steelheaders are a breed apart—something about the combination of workman-like casting techniques and the persistent possibility of fishless days makes for fly fishers with a cult-like commitment to the species.
A two-handed cast that uses the tension of slack line loops on the
water to load the fly rod (rather than line suspended in air in front
of or behind the rod, as in traditional fly casting), is particularly
suited for the long days of long casts on wide rivers that
Hardcore steelheaders are a breed apart—something about the combination of workman-like casting techniques, the cold, wet conditions of peak runs on steelhead rivers, and the persistent possibility of fishless days makes for fly fishers with a cult-like commitment to the species and a tendency to fix a blank stare at a distant point on the horizon when the conversation shifts away from steelheading.
Long, one-handed rods in 7 to 9 weights or two-handed spey/switch rods in 7 to 10 weights can put heavy streamers across wide rivers day in and day out. Reels with large arbors and sturdy drag systems can handle the heavier fly lines and long, leaping runs of steelhead and Atlantic salmon.
Though saltwater species range more widely in size and shape than all the freshwater species combined, fly fishing for most saltwater species does share one key characteristic: it doesn't happen on rivers. Saltwater fly fishing tends to require heavier tackle and corrosion-resistant equipment, which often means higher-quality materials and higher-tier price tags than, say, a 5-weight graphite trout rod. Saltwater fly fishing is typically done from a boat: flats skiffs for bonefish, tarpon, permit, and redfish in shallower water, or larger offshore boats for tuna, marlin, dorado, and sailfish. But surfcasting with fly tackle—casting from beaches for cruising bluefish and striped bass—is growing in popularity, as is casting from sea kayaks and paddle boards for flats fish.
Tenkara emphasizes a minimalist approach—the masters use one general fly for all situations.
Tenkara is a style of fly fishing developed on Japan's high mountain
streams using long, telescopic rods with level (weighted, but not tapered)
lines attached to the tip. Tenkara emphasizes a minimalist approach—
the masters use one general fly for all situations, and tackle tends to be spare and lightweight. It follows that Tenkara has experienced a surge in popularity with North American ultralight backpackers and backcountry fly fishers, as well as fly fishers looking to catch trout without the hyper-specialization of most modern tackle.
As a result of efforts by conservation and fisheries advocacy groups, in all disciplines of fly fishing, catch-and-release ethics have become the norm. Fish are released upon landing with an eye to minimizing stress on the fish. Some fly fishers do keep a fish from time to time to eat, especially backpacker and backcountry fly fishers in the vein of John Gierarch's seminal Trout Bum. But in overwhelming numbers, fish caught on fly tackle are released.
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