When you’re getting started fly fishing and learning the fly fishing basics, it can sometimes seem rather overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be. Everyone starts out in the same place. Some have friends or family to help them along and learn at a quicker pace, others are venturing down this road alone. There is always something out there though that you wish you had a little insight into when you are getting started fly fishing.
I’ve compiled a list of 10 things I wish I knew when learning to fly fish. Hopefully these will help you out even just a little bit.
1. Equipment doesn’t matter as much as you’d think, but it’s nice
Fly fishing is a sport that involves a lot of equipment. From fly rods, fly reels, choosing fly lines, fly fishing leaders and tippets, to the millions of flies and waders and gadgets. The list goes on and on. The key here is that expensive equipment is nice, but not 100% necessary. You can get by and catch loads of fish just fine with a $20 fly rod combo and waders made out of plastic. Trust me…I did just this for many years.
The main difference in the higher-end equipment is that they can make things easier for you and they last a longer in most cases. If you can afford it, great. If not, try not to worry and think that you catch loads more fish is you had that new Sage X fly rod. The biggest factor is practice (see below). I spent a good couple years with a VERY inexpensive fly rod combo. It was bulky and heavy, but I practiced with it and caught a bunch of fish. Yes, I eventually upgraded when the situation changed for my specific needs. They may change for you too. The key is to just get out there and fish and try to not worry so much about gear.
2. Learn to nymph fish
I love dry fly fishing. It is one of the funnest experiences out there in fly fishing I think. Seeing that trout rise up and sip in your fly floating softly on the surface is something you don’t easily forget. I still remember the first trout I caught on a dry fly. However, trout specifically spend around 80-90% of their feeding time under the water. That means you need to get down there in order to catch some fish.
Nymph fishing intimidated me tremendously when first learning the fly fishing basics. I didn’t know what I was doing and missed a lot of fish as I started out. I could never tell if I was deep enough or if the fish took the fly and I didn’t notice. I really felt like I just sucked at it. Practice again was key here.
I’ve spent years learning to nymph fish. To this day I still go out and practice different nymphing techniques to fish sub-surface flies. It’s an ongoing process, but it pays off. My catch rates increased dramatically when I started getting the hang of it. Now, it’s one of the funnest parts to fly fishing for me and it pays off when you want to catch some fish.
3. Learn how to read the water
Fish live in all sorts of different places in a river or lake. The downside is that if you don’t recognize those places, you end up spending loads of time fishing spots that just don’t hold any fish. Learning to read the water and determine how your fly will drift and the most likely spots a fish will hold is so important.
Rivers and lakes come in all shapes and sizes. Pocket water rivers for instance have very specific places that fish like to sit and wait for food. Lake and reservoirs have bottom structures and depths that attract fish better than other areas. Part of the fly fishing basics is learning to recognize these areas can help improve your fly fishing leaps and bounds. Spend some time on it.
4. Learn basic entomology
I’m not entomology expert. However, it is still one of the most important aspects out there in fly fishing. Learning the basics of fly fishing entomology will help you no matter what water type you are fishing. If you’re struggling to find the right fly, take a minute and turn over a couple rocks. with a proper fly fishing entomology education, you can sift through those little critters and match your flies to what you see.
Fly fishing entomology doesn’t just apply to nymph fishing though. There are many different stages to a bugs lifecycle. Knowing what stage they are in and what matches that stage sends you in the right path to catch more fish.
5. Practice your casting
Fly fishing is pretty hard to do without being able to cast. That’s not to say you can’t fly fish without casting. You’ll just be limited to specific types of fishing and specific types of waters you can fish.
Watch some videos. Take a lesson. Head down to your local park or even just your backyard. Fly casting is an enjoyable part to the whole game. It’s a beautiful thing to watch when it all comes together. The thing is that it takes practices. I’ve never met a person that has picked up a fly rod and been good at it right off the bat. So don’t feel bad if you’re having struggles in this area. Everyone does. You just need to spend some time, off of the water, where you can focus solely on getting the basics of fly casting down.
I specifically mention off of the water there. That is a key point. When you’re out fishing, you want to fish and catch fish. That keeps your attention and you don’t focus on other aspects as much. If you remove that focus grabbing part, you can spend all of your energy drilling the fly fishing basics of casting in. After a while, it becomes second nature.
6. Start small
Don’t go out and fish a river like the Henry’s Fork your first time out. It’ll do nothing but frustrate you. Start on some smaller, less technical, streams and rivers to get the fly fishing basics down and get some practice under your belt.
Large rivers, and particularly the more famous ones, are technical and require a good understanding to have a successful day. These fish are wise. They’ve seen it all. Spend a bit of time on your local streams that you can almost jump across. The fish here are, in most cases, less technical and far more willing to take your fly.
This will give you the practice you need to get used to nymph fishing and detecting strikes, or timing the set when a trout takes your dry fly. By spending time catching a few fish in these smaller waters, you will not only boost your confidence, but you’ll get those fly fishing basics cemented in your mind. I spent many days when I was first starting out by fly fishing an irrigation canal in my small hometown. There were eager trout and difficult trout in there. It taught me a lot and has helped me translate all of that into fishing those larger bodies of water and be successful in doing so.
7. Dry fly fishing is super frustrating…but it gets easier
As I mentioned previously, I love dry fly fishing. It frustrated me to no end when I first started. I would see the fish come up and take my flies and miss every single one of them. If you’re in the same situation, don’t fret it. There may be some naturals out there that time setting the hook just right on their first time out, but I feel like they are few and far between.
Keep at this. You’ll get frustrated. Then there will be that one time when the stars align, the fish takes your fly, and you set the hook on it. After that, you’ll still miss fish on dry flies, but it gets to be a less common experience.
8. Learn the best ways to catch and release
This one may not apply to everyone. I have nothing against those that catch and keep their limit of fish while out fly fishing. I did this early one and made the personal decision later to switch to catch and release exclusively.
For those of you that merely enjoy the sport for catching a beautiful fish and watching them swim away, learn the best techniques to help ensure that the fish lives after being released. Read up on tips for photographing fish with the least affect on a fish out of water. Practice using barbless hooks to minimize the mortality rate. Even use a different net with a softer material that doesn’t harm the fish.
These fish are a valuable resource that we have and many people out there enjoy them just as much as we do. If we don’t take the time to care for that, it will eventually disappear. I’ve seen this happen sadly on local streams I spent my childhood learning to fly fish. It’s sad. I just urge you to read up on a few tips to help preserve these creatures and prevent that from happening. And if you choose to take a few home, do so within the limits set for the specific waters. They are set for a reason.
9. Learn a couple basic knots very well
It almost seems like fly fishing and tying knots go hand in hand. With all of the leader and tippet you end up going through along with all of the fly changes, knowing some basic knots are invaluable (clinch knot, surgeons knot, etc).
My tip here is to learn a couple and learn them very well. Get your fly to leader, leader to tippet, and leader to fly line knots down. Learn just one of each to start with. That way you always know you can cover any scenario when you’re out on the water. And when you get to know them well, you can tie them faster and faster, saving you more time for actual fishing.
Take a little time at first to go through the different knots and see which ones work for you and which ones provide the most benefits. Some knots are super hard to tie but have great break strength. The break strength may not matter to you if it takes 15 minutes to tie the knot. Learning one that has a lower break strength, but you can tie in 30 seconds, can give you far more benefits.
Once you get those few knots down, then venture out into the other knots. Practice on those and eventually you’ll build up your knot toolbox and be prepared for any situation.
10. Practice, practice, practice
With everything that has been said, the main key is to practice. Fly fishing is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t pick it up and have some fun outdoors. Just as with any other sport, this one takes time to practice the fly fishing basics and get used to what you need to do to cast, and to match your flies, and even where to look for fish. Fly fishing is part mental and part physical, which is part of what makes it such an enjoyable sport. You can get out and enjoy the flowing water and great outdoors all while exercising your mind in order to catch that next fish. Like they always say, practice makes perfect. I hope these few topics help you realize that if you’re starting out fly fishing or are getting frustrated with where you’re at in the sport, you’re not alone.
Well that does it. Some of these items are more personal to me than others, but I feel that many beginner fly anglers out there will be able to relate. Above all, get out there and enjoy yourself. This sport is fun and it’s meant to be enjoyed by big and small and young and old. Have fun and tight lines!