An Introduction to Fly Fishing
Anglers fly fish for the same reason some deer hunters use
longbows and arrows. By reducing automation, they make the sport more
personal, more intimate and more satisfying. And, like an archer who
makes his own arrows, a fly fishermen can create his own flies or build
his own rods. The fun in that recipe can add 10 happy years to anyone’s
Fly fishing is different from other kinds of fishing in a couple of
ways. Most basically, the weight of the line propels the cast, not the
weight of the bait or lure. A tiny fly is very light, but it is possible
to present it to a fish 40 feet away by using a fly line.
Most anglers come to fly fishing after a long apprenticeship in other
kinds of fishing, be it with live bait, bass lures or deep sea tackle. I
spent many hours plastered to the seat of a boat dangling minnows over
the side or sitting on a mud-slick creek bank trying to outwit catfish
before ever holding a fly rod.
When I first started fly fishing, I spent a lot of time on streams
full of greedy sunfish and small, naive bass. Casting colorful woolly
worms and little popping bugs, I waded in cool waters for hours on end
catching lots of small, feisty fish while learning to keep a fly line
Missouri anglers can start with one fly rod that will maximize the
fun in catching sunfish, small stream bass and trout. Most fly rods
today are made from graphite and, sometimes, a combination of other
materials, such as fiberglass. This is good, resilient stuff that can be
turned into a light, sweet-casting rod. The least expensive rods will
probably contain less graphite and more fiberglass.
Experienced fly anglers select a rod based on the “line weight” the
rod is rated for, the rod action and the length of the rod. Rod
“actions” are rated fully-flexing, medium, medium-fast and fast. As rods
progress from the most flexible to the fastest, they become stiffer.
Short, light fly rods suitable for sunfish use feather-weight lines,
while longer, more muscular rods used for bass fishing require heavier
lines to tease the leverage out of them. A new fly caster should look
for a rod in the medium range. It will “load” (flex the rod) with its
matched line at short to medium ranges, making casting easier at the
distances most people actually fish.
Another consideration might be how many pieces the rod comprises. If
you carry your rod in a small car, you might like the convenience of a
short tube that holds a multi-piece rod.
For your first fly rod, consider one between 8-9 feet long. A rod
designated for a 4- or 5-weight line is a good starting place. There are
two ways to dive in. One is to buy a rod, reel and fly line separately.
The other is to buy a package that includes these items, plus a
protective tube for the rod and a leader to go with the line. You can
get a good quality, entry-level kit for about $180.
Whichever you buy, I suggest you do so at a full-service fly tackle
shop where knowledgeable people can help you. You can take a step up in a
fly rod by considering a rod alone that costs in the range of $250.
This might get you a better grade of graphite and nicer trim.
The tip of a fly rod is delicate. That’s why some rods now come with
lifetime guarantees. It doesn’t matter if the fish of your dreams breaks
the rod or you slam it in a cabin screen door, the manufacturer repairs
or replaces it at no cost to you.
A fly reel should serve a purpose beyond merely storing line. Use it
to play fish, once they are hooked. Many fly reels have drags to reduce
the stress on the line.
A basic die-cast aluminum reel with a simple drag system costs about
$40 and will suffice for most Missouri angling. By tightening or
increasing the drag, you control how much pressure a fish has to apply
to peel line off the reel. Double the price for a basic reel and you can
get a die-cast version with a more efficient disc-drag.
If you are of the Swiss watch persuasion, you may prefer a reel
machined from aluminum bar stock. These reels are mechanical marvels,
but there is something to be said for starting out with a reel that you
don’t have to worry about dropping on a gravel bar, or denting or
scratching in any other way. If someday you move up the fly reel ladder,
your initial reel can still serve as a reliable backup.
The line is what makes a fly rod work, and while fishing you will
usually be holding your rod with one hand and the line in your other.
You actually manipulate the line with your hand rather than with the
A leader, made of the same type of monofilament material used in spin
fishing lines, connects fly line to fly. Fly anglers generally use
tapered leaders 9-12 feet long. Tapered fly leaders generally cost $3 to
$4. Their packaging specifies the type of fly fishing for which they
are best suited.
Tackle makers use an effective system to size fly lines, making it
easy to match a given line to a given rod. The weight, in grains, of the
first 30 feet of a fly line designates its size. (A grain is the
smallest unit of measure in the U.S. One pound avoirdupois equals 7,000
grains.) Many anglers find a 5-weight fly line (and matched rod) ideal
for Missouri trout fishing. The first 30-feet of this line weighs 140
grains, plus or minus 6 grains.
Fly lines range in length from about 60-90 feet. Consider purchasing a
double-taper or weight-forward fly line. A double-taper fly line is fat
in the middle and tapered to a finer point at both ends. The belly of
the line provides the weight to cast, while the tapered end presents the
fly in a delicate manner, making it ideal for fishing a floating fly.
Double-taper lines also are economical. When one end becomes worn, you
can thread it the opposite way on the reel and have a fresh end to use.
A “weight-forward” fly line works well for medium- and long-range
casting. One contemporary weight-forward line has a tip of about 7 feet,
a belly of 27 feet, a rear taper of 6 feet and 50 feet of thin running
line. The weight that loads the rod and drives the line forward is up
front, while the running portion trails behind. A weight-forward line
really shoots for distance and does well in windy conditions or when
casting bulky flies.
Fly casting at moderate distances is not difficult. The good news is that you can catch fish while you are learning to do it.
The two best ways to grip a fly rod are with your thumb along the top
of the grip, or with your forefinger along the top. To learn the basic
cast, imagine you are standing next to a large clock. Straight ahead is 9
o’clock, and straight behind is 3 o’clock. The motion you will use in
just about all fly casting limits the movement of the rod between the
positions of 10 o’clock (in front) and 2 o’clock (behind).
Start with about 15 feet of fly line off of your reel in a pile at
your feet and about 6-8 feet of fly line beyond the tip of the rod. You
are going to work the line in the pile out by making a casting motion
back and forth, or false casting. Begin with the rod in front of you
with your wrist tilted down slightly. Lift with your arm, then snap your
wrist while briskly moving the rod back to 1 o’clock. At the same time,
pull downward with the hand holding the line. The pull accelerates the
speed of the airborne line.
An all-important pause takes place at this point in the cast. The
pause allows the fly line time to straighten out behind you. Then, bring
the rod “smartly” forward, snapping your wrist down a bit when the rod
hits 10 o’clock. Release the line in your hand; some of it will shoot
forward. Continue false casting until you have the amount of line that
you need airborne, and then release the line, shooting it forward for
the actual delivery to your target.
The most common errors in fly casting are failing to pause on the
back cast, and not applying power on the forward cast. If you do not
pause, your line is going to meet itself coming and going, and it may
actually snag on itself or snag your rod. If you fail to apply power on
the forward cast, the line may simply fall in a puddle at your feet
rather than delivering your fly to its target. A third problem is
waiting too long on the back cast, which can cause the line to make a
cracking sound, like a whip.
If you do not have a friend who can help you improve your fly
casting, your local parks and recreation department may offer a fly
fishing class. A Trout Unlimited or Federation of Fly Fishers club in
your area can show you how to cast and might introduce you to fly tying.
There is beauty in fly fishing. In an article appearing in the
magazine of a national fly fishing club, Michael Fong wrote, “What
separates fly fishing from other forms of fishing is the joy that comes
by feeling and watching as the fly is propelled through the air as the
cast is executed.”
There is something in the sight of an uncoiling fly line that I find incredibly soothing. I’ll bet you will, too.
- 9-foot fly fishing leader tapered to 6-pound test
- One spool each of 3- and 2-pound-test leader tippet to add to above
- One light-weight fly box
- Clipper to trim leader ends
- Hemostat to remove hooks from fish
- Small landing net
- Fishing vest (this is the fly fisher’s tackle box)
- A card or book that illustrates fly fishing knots
- A small selection of flies for the type of fish you pursue