Fly Fishing 101
An Introduction to Fly Fishing
Fly fishing is any sort of fishing in which the weight of the line is used to cast a fly so as to lure a fish to bite. Sort of.
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. 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.
In this article, we’ll cover everything from casting techniques to gear recommendations – in short, a basic overview of everything you need to know to get hooked on fly fishing.
Fly Fishing Techniques
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 (essentially lures) 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.
Fly Fishing for Trout & the 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. 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 7.5 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 Warm-Water Species
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.
Steelhead & Atlantic Salmon
Steelhead are sea-run rainbow trout, which, along with Atlantic salmon, constitute a branch of the salmonid family tree that deserves its own category. 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.
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).
- Skagit: particularly well suited for casting big flies, Skagit casting employs short, heavy lines
- Scandi: this technique of spey casting typically uses lines that are thinner and longer, and is better suited for use with smaller flies
Saltwater fly fishing tends to require heavier tackle, and corrosion-resistant equipment, which often means higher-quality materials and sealed drag systems. 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 paddleboards for flats fish.
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, as there is no reel —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.
Fly rods are rated by weight. The weight indicates the size of fishing line that matches the rod. Generally you can line up or down by one size, which is why a 5wt is the best universal size for a trout rod. Most people think about fish species when it comes to choosing a weight and while that works just fine, I would also encourage you to think about the size of fly you are going to be throwing, and the intended use of the rod. Even though trout on the Provo River run a little small, I use a 5wt rod to help turn over the strike indicator, split shot, and multiple flies I’m often using. If I am headed north to Idaho to throw small dry flies at large, selective trout, I will have my 4wt in hand. As a general rule on rod weights:
- 1-4: sunfish and small trout, small streams
- 4-6: general trout, larger streams and rivers
- 6-8: bass, carp, light steelhead, salmon and saltwater
- 8-10: winter steelhead, salmon and saltwater
- 10-14: big game
Fly rods act as a lever, so length is a very important aspect when picking a fly rod. The longer the rod, the easier it will be to get more distance on your cast, mend your line, and fight fish. However if you are on a smaller stream you will want a shorter rod to navigate overhanging brush and for added precision when casting at close range. As noted before, the standard trout rod is a 9ft 5wt rod. This length lets you get the distance, accuracy, and line control needed in most trout situations. There are some rod models that are longer than 9ft for fishing out of a float tube or other special situations. Also, two handed spey and switch rods are growing in popularity and range anywhere from 10-14ft long.
There are other features to a rod that might make it the best choice for you.
- Number of pieces: These days most rods come in two or four pieces. Four-piece rods are becoming the standard as they are easy to pack and travel with.
- Materials: If you are a saltwater angler you will want to make sure you are looking at a rod with guides and reel seats that will not corrode in the saltwater environment. Many rod makers offer saltwater-specific rods featuring anodized aluminum or other salt-water-friendly materials. Most rods these days are composed of a graphite compound, although fiberglass has been making a comeback in recent years. Fiberglass is very soft and well suited for light delicate presentations, small streams, and smaller fish.
In addition to length and weight, another way fly rods differ from one another is in their action.
Loosely defined, it’s related to the flex pattern of the rod; the action and flex of the fly rod significantly affect its feel and performance.
- Fast: Most fast-action rods will be tip flex, meaning only the tip of the rod is going to bend while the butt is very stiff. These rods can be hard for the beginning angler to cast, but if you are on big, windy water and need distance, fast-action rods are for you.
- Medium: A medium-action, mid-flex rod is the best all-around rod, since it will throw big flies and still give you a somewhat gentle presentation.
- Soft: A full-flex, soft-action rod isn’t the greatest for distance and wind, but is the ultimate tool when it comes to getting a perfect presentation to a big fish selectively feeding. These rods are really only designed to be effective with a cast that’s 15-35 feet long; however, they are insanely fun to fish with.
Choosing a Reel
To the seasoned fly fisherman, there is no sound sweeter than the mechanical hum of a quality fly reel, especially when the drag sings under the strain of a big fish.
Modern fly reels are more than just line holders. The correct reel will help balance the fly rod, perform smoothly, and most importantly, help you land that big fish. Following are some things to look for as you consider your next reel purchase:
Like rods, reels are often rated by weight or size. When looking for a new reel you will want to match the reel size to your rod for a correctly balanced outfit; for example, if you’re fishing a 5-weight trout rod, you’ll want to pair it with a 5-weight reel.
Other things to consider when looking at reel size are the type of line you will be using and backing capacity. Most reels can handle 2 to 3 sizes of line. For example a size 3.5 Lamson reel will handle a 7, 8, or 9wt line.
Switch and Spey reels are oversize to accommodate larger shooting head fly lines, while salt water reels often feature more backing capacity as those fish are prone to long runs.
Fly reels are constructed in two ways: pre-cast and machined. Pre-cast reels are made from liquid metal poured into a mold. These reels are typically heavier and slightly less durable than their machined counterparts, but they can also be had at a more reasonable price point. The reliable performance and affordable price of pre-cast reels makes them a great choice if you’re looking to get started in fly fishing.
Machined reels are milled out of a solid block of metal. This process leads to a lighter and stronger reel; machined reels will last a lifetime and offer the best performance over time; not surprisingly, they are also more expensive than pre-cast reels.
Another thing to consider is the finish on the reel. An anodized finish will stand up to salt water, which is very corrosive, and this is essential if you’re planning on fishing in the ocean.
Drag is one of the most important features of the fly reel. The drag provides the braking power to stop a big fish from pulling all of the line off of the reel. There are two main systems on the market: click and pawl, and disc drag.
The traditional style is click-and-pawl and offers less adjustability and stopping power than a disc drag system. Because of this, the click-and-pawl is a great system if you are on a budget or chasing smaller fish such as sun fish or small trout.
Disc drag provides the smoothest and most efficient drag system. It is a great choice for stopping large game fish, or when you need to smoothly stop a large trout on light tippet.
Arbor refers to the cylinder at the center of the reel that the backing and fly line is wound around. Most modern reels feature some type of large arbor as they retrieve line faster and create less ‘memory’ in the line and leader. If you are chasing warm water or salt water species, pick a reel with a larger arbor as this will aid in smooth runs as well as retrieving a lot of line quickly when the fish turns and runs back at you.
Classic trout reels are generally smaller in arbor, as are beginner fly reels. They are usually lighter, less bulky, and less expensive than their large-arbor counterparts.
Fishing flies are patterns designed 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 several categories, including 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 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. 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 or fiberglass rods.
Nymphs / Wet Flies
Nymphs and 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. Wet flies are typically winged and are swung in the current, while nymphs are usually dead drifted. ‘Nymphing‘ is a type of trout fishing using patterns 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.
Some 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 patterns 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.
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.
Within these basic types of flies, there are several different types of patterns and thousands of pattern variations. The type of fly you choose will depend on the type of fish you’re after, the season, the region, and the water.
At Backcountry, there are plenty of people who love nothing more than discussing fly fishing (myself included). So if you have any other questions about rods, or anything regarding fly fishing, please get in touch with us.