Welcome to episode #5 in the Fly Fishing for Beginners blog and video series. To quickly recap what we’ve covered so far, in episode #1, I answered the question, “What is fly fishing,” as there are many misconceptions. In episode #2 we explored the fascinating history of fly fishing. In episode #3 we looked at the wide variety of fish that you can catch with fly fishing. In episode #4 we covered how to find places to go fly fishing in your local area, and in this 5th installment, we’ll address the topic of essential fly fishing gear.
Let me start things off by sharing a quick story with you. Many years ago, while on a fly fishing trip in Arkansas, my buddies and I took a break from fishing one afternoon and went to a nearby sporting clay shotgun club to watch a friendly skeet shooting competition. All of the guys in the competition had beautiful, though very expensive, custom-made shotguns…except for one. There was one good ol’ boy who entered the contest with a beat-up, rusty Remington 870 pump that looked like he bought it for five bucks at a garage sale. No elegant engraving, no custom fitted stock, no fancy case like the other guys had…just an old worn-out hunk of wood and iron. As the match got underway, however, that guy with the beat-up old Remington DESTROYED the competition! It wasn’t even close! As he put his gun away in a cheap vinyl case afterward, he looked around at his astonished competitors and humbly said, “You know boys, the only thing that matters is that you can hit what you’re shootin’ at!”
That same dynamic holds true with fly fishing gear and pretty much any other outdoor gear for that matter. No don’t get me wrong, beautiful custom-made fly rods, shotguns and all the rest are true works of art that take incredible skill to produce and that are worthy of great admiration. And, it can certainly be a joy to fish with such a finely crafted rod. But, the point is that you certainly don’t need fancy, super expensive fly fishing gear to catch fish and thoroughly enjoy your time on the water. As I mentioned back in episode #1, many folks unfortunately buy into the stereotype that fly fishing is only for the wealthy and elite, which is certainly not true. You can get started with fly fishing on any budget and you don’t need near as much gear as you may think. Let’s have a look at the essentials.
First of all, you’re going to need a fly rod. Fly rods are long, lightweight, highly flexible, and specifically designed for casting with fly line. Most fly rods are around 8 to 10 feet in length, but some are longer and some shorter. Along with being available in different lengths, fly rods are also available in different weights and actions. The action of a fly rod is generally a matter of preference. If a fly rod loads and unloads the fly line quickly, it’s considered a fast action rod, and if the rod casts slower as a result of the rod taking longer to load and unload the line, then it’s identified as a slow action fly rod. Some like a fast-action rod, and some like a slower rod. Again, it’s a matter of preference that you’ll develop as you get more experience.
The weight of a fly rod doesn’t refer to how much the rod actually weighs in ounces or pounds, but rather, this is a reference to the overall size and strength of the rod. Lower rod weights are used for casting smaller flies and fishing for smaller fish, and larger weight rods are designed for bigger flies and bigger fish. Some fishermen enjoy the challenge of using a smaller weight rod for big fish, but you do need to be careful with this. If you wear out and exhaust a fish too much because you used too light of gear, there is a good chance that the fish will die not long after you release it. So if you plan on catch and release fishing, make sure you use the right-sized gear for your target species of fish and don’t fight the fish longer than you need to.
To give you an idea about what weight rods are ideal for certain species of fish, 3 to 4 weight rods are common for panfish, small trout, and similar-sized fish. 5 to 6 weight rods are a popular choice for larger trout and char species, smallmouth bass and medium to small-sized largemouth bass, small salmon such as pinks, etc. 7 to 8 weight rods are a good choice for larger sized species of bass, salmon, carp, steelhead, bonefish, pike, muskie, and similar sized fish. And finally, 9 to 10 weight rods are popular for king salmon, big pike, carp, and any other jumbo-sized, strong fresh or saltwater fish.
When deciding on what rod to purchase, consider the species of fish you’ll primarily be pursuing as far as the ideal weight you’ll need. And, if the store will let you, try casting the rod a little to see how it performs as far as the action. Basically, you want to get rod that has a good feel to it and that will be fun to fish with. Again, much of it is a matter of personal preference that will develop over time.
While fly reels can look fancy and quite different from other types of fishing reels, in reality, they’re quite simple in design and function. A fly reel is basically a big spool that holds and dispenses your fly line as needed. A great deal of fly fishing is done by maneuvering the fly line with your hands, so you really only use the reel for winding up excess line that you may have taken out while casting, or when you’re fighting a big fish. Most fly reels have an adjustable drag system that helps with these tasks.
Fly line is different from any other kind of fishing line. There’s quite a bit of variety in fly lines, but the most commonly used lines are a thick, heavy, often brightly colored floating line. The heavy line is designed to be used in conjunction with a fly rod to cast out the small, lightweight flies that fly fishermen use. Fly lines have different tapers to help increase the momentum of one’s cast, and again, they come in a wide variety, including sinking lines to go after fish who hang out in deeper water. For most beginners though, you’ll want to get either a weight-forward or double taper floating fly line that’s matched to the weight of your fly rod. This will cover most fishing scenarios, and you can always add a weighted extension to your fly line to get down deeper and faster if need be.
If you hook into a really big fish (or you foul hook one) that fish may make such a long powerful run that it takes all the fly line off your reel, which is a great feeling, but you certainly don’t want to lose all that expensive line! This is where backing comes into play. Think of backing as your safety backup line. Backing is simply strong, usually braided string that attaches from the back end of your fly line to your reel. You can typically get quite a bit of backing on your reel and it’s very rare to get all the way to the end of your backing during a fight with a fish.
Most fish are not going to take a whack at a fly if it’s presented to them on a big, thick, florescent line! Thus, the need for a clear, thin, stealthy leader and tippet to present your offering. The leader is simply a piece of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon line that attaches to the casting end of your fly line. Some leaders are tapered, and some are straight, and like any regular ol’ fishing line, they come in a wide variety of species-appropriate sizes and strengths. Prepacked leaders are available, or you can simply use a section, or several sections, of monofilament of your choice.
The tippet section is a shorter piece of line that’s tied to the end of your leader and is then connected to your fly. Tippet material is thinner, lighter, and sometimes clearer than the leader and is designed to give your fly presentation that added degree of stealth. As with leader material, you can buy the fancy, rather expensive, prepackaged tippet material, or you can just use a smaller section of standard monofilament or fluorocarbon line.
Obviously, you’re going to need some flies to go fly fishing. There are many different styles and categories of flies that fly fisherman use, which is too big of a subject to adequately cover in this installment. I’ll be addressing this topic in an upcoming episode, so stay tuned!
No matter what kinds of flies you use for your target species of fish, you’ll need a box to keep them in. Fly boxes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and models to choose from, which is all a matter of personal preference. Some also come with really cool designs!
If you’re going to be wading in cool or cold water while in pursuit of your fish, you’ll most likely want a pair of waders. Waders come in a variety of styles from hip waders to full chest waders, and they’re also made from a variety of materials, such as rubber, vinyl, neoprene, and breathable Gore-Tex style fabrics. Some are insulated, and some are not. Some have boots attached to them, and some are stockingfoot which will require you to wear wading boots on top of them. As with many things in fly fishing, wader styles are also a matter of personal preference. I recommend chest waders though, as they’ll cover every situation from shallow to deep water fishing. Also, many prefer stocking foot waders over boot foot waders, as a separate set of wading boots do provide much better ankle support and mobility.
If you decide on a set of stocking foot waders, you’ll need a set of wading boots. These too come in a wide variety of styles and are made from materials that are designed to increase traction and help you be more stable while wading. In the not-so-distant past, felt-soled wading boots were a popular choice as they helped to prevent sliding around on slippery rocks, but these are now prohibited in many states as they have been found to carry and transport a variety of unwanted organisms to other bodies of water.
Fishing Pack or Vest
Some fishermen are gear junkies and like to have all sorts of gizmos and gadgets with them when they go fishing, and others are minimalists and only take along the bare necessities. Whatever the case though, you’ll want to have a pack or a vest to keep it all organized and readily accessible. Packs and vests come in a wide variety of designs as well, and like most of other the items we’ve covered thus far, much of it is a matter of preference.
While many fish can be landed right on the shore, if you’re in deeper water, away from shore, you very well may need a landing net. Nets also come in different sizes and you can attach them to the back of your pack or vest with a bunji cord or a retractor device. If you’ll be doing mostly catch and release fishing, it’s advisable to get a net made from soft, non-abrasive material, which will be gentler on the fish’s skin.
Let’s quickly cover some of the odds and ends you might want to have along in your fly fishing pack.
Floatant – If you’ll be fishing a lot of dry flies, which are designed to float on the surface of the water, then it’s a good idea to have some fly floatant along. Dry fly floatant comes in a variety of materials including gels, powders, and pastes.
Strike Indicators – Strike indicators can be used to help detect the subtle strike of a fish, or they can be used to control the depth of your presentation when fishing sinking flies such as nymphs or small jigs. They come in different sizes, shapes, and designs, including brightly colored yarn, small stick-on pieces of foam, and small bobber-style indicators.
Nippers – You’ll definitely want a set of nippers on your pack or vest which are used to clip excess line when tying on your flies or rigging up your line. Many have built-in eye buster tips to clear out any leftover head cement on your fly, and some also have a variety of knot tying attachments. No matter what kind you use though, it’s a good idea to have it attached to a small retractor for ease of use.
Hemostats – Hemostats are a small, skinny, scissors-shaped tool that acts like a micro-set of pliers. These come in very handy for removing hooks from your fish and can be clipped right to your pack or vest. Dehooking devices such as this one also come in handy, especially for catch and release fishermen.
Split shot – You may need some extra weight to get your fly down to where the fish are. Thus, small split shot, or the newer twisty tie leads will do the trick.
Nail knot tool – The many nail knot tools that are available these days come in quite handy for quickly tying nail knots, and other trusty fishing knots which are important for fly fishing applications.
Hook sharpener – This is a tool that is often overlooked by many fishermen. It’s amazing how many fish you’ll lose because of a dull hook and how many more you’ll catch because of a sharp hook! Taking a few seconds to sharpen the hook on your fly every once in a while will pay off big time!
Tape measure – There may be size limits on the fish you can keep from certain bodies of water, so be sure to always check the regulations for the area you’re fishing, and bring along a small tape measure.
Polarized sunglasses – A quality pair of polarized sunglasses are indeed essential gear, as they tremendously reduce the glare on the water, allowing you spot and see the fishing you’re going after much easier. In fact, in many cases, you won’t see the fish at all without polarized glasses, so don’t forget them! And if you wear prescription glasses, have no fear, as you can get polarized sunglasses that will go over, or clip on to your prescription lenses.
Those are pretty well all the essentials. You may want to have some additional items along such as a good pocketknife and/or a multitool, a water bottle, pen, micro-survival kit, snacks, camera/phone, and whatever else you’d like to bring. To quickly wrap things up, if you’re still on the fence about getting started in fly fishing in general, you can start out with moderately or even low-priced fly-fishing gear. But keep in mind, you generally get what you pay for, and if you buy super cheap, low-quality gear that will no doubt not perform well, you very well may get frustrated to the point that you’ll quickly give up your fly fishing efforts. If you’re serious about getting into fly fishing, I recommend buying the best you can afford, or even buying quality used gear, which there is a lot of on places like eBay and other online marketplaces. Respectable fly fishing brands such as Temple Fork Outfitters, Sage, Orvis, and others have quality rods, reels, and other products available in a wide variety of price ranges and many of their products have lifetime warranties.
You can also save a lot of money when it comes to all those accessories such as packs, vests, leader materials, etc., by simply buying the more generic, moderately priced products that are meant for other styles of fishing. Improvising, adapting, and getting creative will go a long way and save you a ton of money when it comes to fly fishing. Like many things in life, you can make fly fishing as difficult or as easy as you’d like. The choice is yours. And, like I learned from that good ol’ boy at the shotgun range in Arkansas, learning to do more with less goes a long way and can be a major key to success.
Check out the video below to see more…