The Beginner’s Guide To Fly Fishing

When you think about the quintessential fishing experience in America, the first thought that springs to mind is probably a focused fisherman in a pair of rubber waders, standing out in a running stream, flinging his rod back and forth in the hopes of catching something tasty.

That image is, for many, very close to how they were raised and watched friends and family enjoy that style of fishing before they tried it themselves.

Fly fishing is a unique type of fishing that requires a whole lot of skill but a lot more excitement, using flies that resemble insects and hatches found in the area where the fish are to try and lure them to feed. What it involves, though, is a whole lot more including casting, entomology, fly tying, stealth, and patience.

Fly Casting Basic Tips

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there were close to 4 million fly fishers in this country, but that number is likely to have grown since their last report. As a sub-category of angling, it’s pretty obvious that people love the thrill and challenge that this unique style of fishing has to offer and that’s why so many are eager to learn more.

There’s a lot that goes into fly fishing, whether it’s looking at all of the gear and accessories you need or knowing how to correctly use them and sight fish, or pick the correct fly for the job, and this planning and process makes it even more powerful when you land one.

Fly anglers are patient with their hobby and rewarded ten fold when they catch a fish as so much has gone into their beloved passion.

If you’re completely new to the concept of fly fishing but want to be part of the millions who know and love everything about it, this comprehensive beginner’s guide is the right place to start.

We’ll take you through the history of the sport all the way through to the tips and tricks you can use to help you land your first fish, and with a little bit of practice, you’ll become as hooked on fishing as everyone else.

What Is Fly Fishing?

Although one of the most recognized forms of fishing in the world, some people are still a little confused about what fly fishing actually is. In basic terms, fly fishing is when the angler uses an artificial fly as bait in order to catch fish, but there’s a whole lot more that goes into it than just that.

The fly used to catch fish is imperative to the success of the fisherman and depending on where you’re fishing and what fish you’re trying to land, you’ll need to change it up quite a bit. Usually, fishermen go by a phrase ‘match the hatch’ which means to match their fly to the insects hatching in the water nearby, as this is what the local fish will be used to feasting on.

However, as with any style of fishing, there’s a lot of patience and craft that goes into it and because you’re using a fly you want it to be as enticing to the fish as possible. This means you need to study your own movements as well as how the fly moves in the water, as all of this works together towards your success.

Fly fishing was traditionally done in streams, however, nowadays there’s really no limit to where you can cast your line. Using a traditional rod and reel, as well as carefully selected flies, you can set up at any freshwater or saltwater body of water and try your luck at this special style of fishing, realizing why it’s so popular when you land your first fish.

The History Of Fly Fishing

Just like anything we enjoy today, fly fishing has itself undergone some changes since it was first introduced and all thanks to the wonders of technology. One thing that has never been truly established was when exactly the first fly fishing ever occurred, although we can assume it was around the end of the 2nd century in Rome.

Local Roman, Claudius Aelianus, noted that he saw Macedonian fisherman using a technique that we today recognize as fly fishing where they would use red wool and feathers from a bird to lure fish onto their line. The very first iterations of flies were made from natural materials like this, however today it’s common to see more artificial materials being used.

During the 18th century, inventions like running rings on the rods were invented in order to give anglers more control and eventually they began being made of things like bamboo for greater flexibility. Once fly fishing became a commercial hobby it was common to see flies and rods being sold in department stores, and from there we saw the production of books on the art.

One of the biggest revelations to fly fishing came with the 1836 book by Alfred Ronalds titled The Fly-Fisher’s Entomology which featured detailed colored images of which flies would suit which fish a well as detailed guides and instructions on the fishing style.

To this day, these types of illustrations are still seen and this amount of detail is still used by those in the angling industry.

The rods were another significant area of development as they moved from bamboo onto more modern materials including graphite and carbon. 

Orvis was the first to develop the novel reel and fly design in 1874 which is still considered to be monumental to this day, and from there the modern reel as we know it was made.

Why Fly Fishing Is So Popular

Those who don’t know as much about fishing assume that all types were created equally, but you ask any fly angler and they’ll tell you that their style of fishing is best. These are just a few reasons why fly fishing is better than other types of fishing, and how you can benefit:

  • Challenging: There’s an extra level of challenge that comes from fly fishing but it only serves to make the reward even more enjoyable. With all the planning and thought that goes into finding the right fly and presenting it to the fish, you’ll be so satisfied when you finally land one.
  • Easy to learn: People assume that fly fishing is only for the experts, but there are actually many beginners who manage to land a fish on their first go. To make it easy there are even plenty of great starter packs that have everything you need to begin.
  • Always adapting: The study that goes into fly fishing is always discovering new things, and it’s an art and science that is always evolving. You will constantly learn something new and never tire of it.
  • Getting into nature: Whether you’re fishing in a stream and wading out in the water or sitting a boat on the ocean, you’ll really appreciate how close fly fishing gets you to nature. A lot of fly fishing is about sitting still, assessing the area, and getting to learn the local wildlife which does wonders for your stress levels.
  • Health Benefits: Studies have proven that fly fishing restores attention, gives a sense of purpose, and boosts innate survival mechanisms. A 2012 study even found that fly fishing is a great form of exercise for those with limited mobility or disabilities, so it’s a work out you didn’t know you were getting.
  • Spending time with loved ones: If you have family and friends who want to spend less time in front of their TVs or smartphones, a day-long fishing trip will be exactly what you’ve been searching for. It’s also a great way to teach children about nature and conservation with the catch and release method.

Common Fly Fishing Species

There are countless species of fish out there and all of them present their own unique challenge to the fisherman, but here in America, there are some that we most commonly try to land.

Some are considered easy to catch and are great for beginners but others are more of a challenge that the expert angler tries to land.

  • Trout: The original fly fishing species and still the most popular, trout can be easy to catch if you take time to study their habits.
  • Redfish: For the angler looking for a little fight and challenge, redfish make a great choice to target.
  • Salmon: Another popular choice for fly fishers, salmon behave similarly to trout and are a favorite for people who love this style of angling.
  • Pike: As one of the larger species that fly fishers target, you’ll need the right line if you want to land one of these prized fish.
  • Bass: Some of the most common fish in the US and the world, with popular choices being the largemouth and smallmouth bass.
  • Carp: Although people don’t fish for carp for food, due to their flavor, they’re a common fish found in the US and easy to land.

The Essential Fly Fishing Gear

Just like any other form of fishing, fly fishing can get expensive if you get carried away with all of the gear and accessories. There’s no need to spend a lot just to get the basics, and here are some things you might want to consider, in addition to your flies.

  • Rod: Perhaps the most important piece of gear you need, a fly rod has to be flexible enough to bend but durable enough to land a larger fish. There are various materials used in their construction including carbon, fiberglass, and bamboo, with some more suitable to saltwater and those for freshwater. They come in different sizes measured in feet and also refer to the line and reel that they best suit.
  • Fly Reel: A reel is just as important as the rod and the two must work together to create an outfit. Fly reels are where you keep the line and backing and they must be able to smoothly and quickly disperse the line when casting and trying to land a fish.
  • Line: Some believe that line is even more important than your rod and reel, however, it’s up to the angler to decide. Using a good, expensive line will work well on cheap and expensive rods so it’s crucial to get right. There are different categories for the line including taper, level, weight forward, and triangle taper, and all are weighted to match certain other accessories.
  • Waders: These are like large pants that you wear over your regular pants in order to keep yourself dry underneath. Commonly made from materials like neoprene and rubber, waders are waterproof and essential for any type of fly fishing where you’re going to stand in the water.
  • Vests: A vest is somewhere you can keep all of your gear and it uses many compartments to organize accessories and flies. This means you don’t have to move back and forward to a tackle box and possibly spook the fish around you.
  • Accessories: There are countless other bits and pieces you can use to make your fishing experience more enjoyable or complicated, depending on how you look at it, including nets, hats, sunglasses, and fly boxes.

Popular Fly Fishing Methods And Techniques

The most common technique people want to learn is how to fly cast, as this is completely different to other styles of fishing.

These simple steps will help you perform a fly cast, although you’ll need to put in hours of practice to get it right.

  • Similar to cracking a whip, you’ll need about 6 feet of line stripped off from the reel and placed in front of you in preparation for casting.
  • Pinch the line with your middle and index fingers against the rod handle, and hold the rod out in front of you.
  • Raise the rod to eye level and quickly lift the tip of it above you in a swift motion. Do it fast enough so that the movement actually bends the rod and once your finger is in an upright position, stop the movement.
  • Hold the rod upright for a few seconds and wait for the tug as it straightens behind you.
  • Pull your elbow downward and sweep the rod forward and once it returns to the eye level position you can stop the movement again.
  • Once the line straightens out, you can lower the line and let the fly rest on the water.

Other Techniques Used In Fly Fishing

In addition to the standard type of fly fishing, there are many other variations you can try, which is what makes this sport such a diverse one. Here are some common fly fishing methods you might want to practice:

  • Spey Casting: This is a special casting technique commonly used for landing large trout and other bigger species, and requires you to use two hands in order to cast the line. It’s best used for situations when you have to cast larger flies over longer distances as it helps you do a more powerful motion.
  • Cold Water Fishing: Fly fishing in winter can help you land a special type of fish, but you need the right gear, new sight tactics, and an understanding of how they move in colder climates in order to be successful.
  • Dry Fly Trout Fishing: A dry fly is one that sits on top of the water rather than submerging somewhat or completely, and people usually prefer this method for catching trout.
  • Saltwater Fly Fishing: The most common fly fishing is done in freshwater but there are many who prefer saltwater fishing for the new species and challenge. However, you need to purchase a rod, reel, and line made specifically for saltwater.

Every angler is different and might have their own spin on casting or other techniques and that’s one thing that makes this sport so special. Over time, you might even find your own way of casting that best suits you and be able to pass this knowledge on to friends and family, too.

The Many Types Of Artificial Flies

A huge part of the fly fishing process is the flies that you use, and choosing the right ones will be even more important than the rod and reel you select.

These are a few types of flies and how they differ from the rest:

  • Wet flies: The most common category of flies are used with materials that soak up water easily including rabbit fur and bird feathers. Wet flies are meant to imitate insects that sink below the surface to lay their eggs or an injured mayfly that might begin to go under.
  • Dry flies: Made specifically to stay afloat on top of the surface, a dry fly are usually made of feathers and hair to help them do so. They mimic the actions of insects like caddisflies and mayflies as if they were just touching down on the water, leading the fish to jump up and take a bite.
  • Nymphs: These special types of flies are made to look like the larval and pupal stages that insects go through, making them especially attractive to fish. An artificial nymph is weighted so that it sinks to the bottom just as these larvae would and those resembling pupae have to be able to emerge from the water as if it were beginning its next stage of life.
  • Saltwater flies: Usually used to attract the larger species of fish only found in saltwater, these flies are great for gamefish. Various kinds include the Buck N’ Bunny for marlins and large gamefish and the Black Death which is great for tarpon.
  • Streamers: Called streamers for their long streamlined bodies, these types of flies are commonly used to land larger predatory fish. Their design is meant to look like an injured baitfish which is why they attract these species of fish.

Within these categories of flies, there are thousands and thousands of varieties, each designed with a particular species in mind.

One of the best things about fly fishing is that in addition to buying ready-made flies that look like these insects, many anglers prefer to create their own flies with natural materials which only adds further to the excitement and satisfaction of the sport.

A Special Style Of Fishing

After just one try of fly fishing, you’ll see why it’s enjoyed by so many, and will quickly realize why four million Americans love it so much. With so much to learn about this special sport you could easily spend years researching it before you ever set foot in the water, but half the fun is about practice and getting amongst nature as you learn.

The best place to start is by looking at your local fishing spots and spending some time there researching the environment and what insects are around. You might even spot a fellow fly angler who is happy to give you some tips and tricks, sharing their passion for the amazing style of fishing.

There are plenty of guides and books to keep you busy, but for the most part, you’ll learn everything you know from experience.

To get yourself started with your lifelong passion for fly fishing, you’ll need the right gear. Thankfully, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get started and there are plenty of great ways to start with simple and affordable gear. We’ve created a buying guide just for this purpose so that you can find the right rod and reel to suit your needs.

According to the research, our nation’s love for fly fishing only grows bigger and better, and we’re now seeing even more women get involved in the sport. This is a great activity for nature lovers, the elderly, families, and friends, or those who like to have some alone time in the wilderness, and it will motivate and satisfy you in ways you never thought possible.

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