Fly fishing is arguably the most challenging, and satisfying, form of fishing and can take considerable time and practice to ‘master’. That said, in all my years as an angler, I've never spoken to a fly angler that referred to themselves as a master of the craft.
This is because fly fishing requires a broad range of skills that includes: casting, fly tying, entomology (the study of insects), stealth and stream craft (recognising where the fish will be). There is always more to learn about fish behaviour and the environmental conditions that can turn them on or off the bite.
Fly fishing is as much an art as it is a science and watching a good fly angler go to it is mesmerising – just as watching a bad one can be quite hilarious.
Traditionally, fly fishing was used for targeting trout and salmon in freshwater streams and lakes but nowadays it is also a challenging way to target all sorts of freshwater and saltwater species. Targeting bonefish on the fly, for example, is a sport that has gathered momentum in the last decade.
Whatever species you’re targeting, fly fishing involves using a line and an artificial fly to mimic the insects and larvae the fish are feeding on. Choosing the right fly is an important part of the process – a grasshopper fly, for example, might be just what trout are looking for in late summer, but they won’t give it a second glance in early spring.
You may have heard the phrase ‘match the hatch’, which means matching your fly to the insects currently hatching in the area. It’s always a good idea to look around the area you’re fishing and see what you can find. What kinds of insects are flying over the surface of the water? The closer you can match your fly to insects in the area, the better your chances of landing a fish.
Getting started fly fishing
It is incredibly important to learn the right techniques early on to prevent bad habits forming; much like driving a car. Many budding enthusiasts book a one-on-one fly fishing lesson at a stocked impoundment. These usually cover an introduction to fly fishing principles, basic casting techniques and many other aspects that will improve your chances of success. Learning from a guide will fast-track your learning process and help eliminate any bad habits from the outset.
Knowing where the fish are feeding is essential for a successful day out. Species such as trout and salmon love to hang out in areas where there is fast moving water, but that allow them to use as little energy as possible while feeding; that is, they let their food come to them. Rocks or fallen tree branches can create eddies that fish like to sit behind waiting for insects and smaller fish to drift past. Deep pools can create a similar effect. Fast moving water will naturally slow down as it moves to fill deeper sections of a river or lake and fish will wait there for food.
Fly rods & fly reels
Fly rods are specifically designed for use with a fly reel. Fly rod manufacturers give their rods a weight rating which is usually printed above the rod grip. This rating might be written as ‘5wt’ or ‘5 weight’ which is the recommended fly line weight to use with the rod.
A fly reel is a single action reel that is worked by stripping line off the spool with one hand while casting the rod with the other hand. The fly reel’s purpose is to simply store line, provide drag, and counterbalance the weight of your rod when casting.
Fly fishing reels are extremely simple pieces of equipment when compared to other types of fishing reel. For example, a spinning reel uses lots of gears and moving parts to get it winding front on, whereas a fly reel essentially uses the angler as that gear – as you're winding, the drag pulls on the spindle, which helps you wind the line onto the spool and (hopefully) bring in a fish.
Fly line is a vital part of your set up. Because a fly is almost weightless, it is the weight of your fly line that (hopefully) gets your fly where you want it to go. Quality line will cast well on either a cheap or expensive rod so it’s important not to sacrifice quality to save a few pennies. The coding on fly line is completely different to regular line, so understanding what the letters and figures mean on a box of fly line will help you make the right choice. A fly line code represents the fly line taper, the line weight and the line density. An example of this is WF-6-F, where the line has a Weight Forward Taper (WF), has a Line Weight of 6 (6) and the line floats (F). Here is a break-down of what these terms mean:
Fly line density
Fly line density determines whether the fly lines floats, sinks or suspends. As a beginner, casting dry flies with a floating line can be rewarding and addictive as you can see the fly sitting on the water’s surface and watch the fish as it strikes. Sinking or suspending lines are suited to nymphing or wet flies.
Fly line taper
Fly line taper refers to the line’s variation in width from one end to the other. Weight-Forward Taper is the most versatile and popular fly line taper for casting, but Double-Taper line can be useful for small stream fishing.
Line weighting is a specific rating system for fly fishing line. The weight of the line will depend on the target species. Choosing the right line weight will determine the rod and reel required to do the job. Below is a basic guide to line weighting:
1wt – 3wt fly line is used for targeting small fish such as stream trout.
4wt fly line is used for medium-sized freshwater fish like trout in bigger rivers.
5wt – 6wt fly line is used for larger freshwater fish in lake scenarios where you need a longer cast targeting species like lake trout and bass.
7wt – 8wt fly line is used for larger freshwater species in open water using large flies and casting long distances. Can be used in saltwater too targeting small-medium species.
9wt – 16wt fly line is a heavy line used predominantly for targeting saltwater species on large flies.
Leader and tippet
The leader is a tapered piece of fishing line (usually monofilament) that is used to connect your fly line to your tippet (an even thinner piece of monofilament), which connects to the fly. Leaders and tippets are clear to prevent spooking the fish. The leader and tippet should be about as long as the rod (or longer if fishing very clear water) and should taper to the fly to ensure a smooth cast.
For many freshwater fly anglers, waders are a must. Especially in the icy cold streams of south-eastern Australia. Often, the best approach to freshwater stream fishing is to don the waders, stand in the stream flow and cast upstream into fish feeding zones.
Chest high waders are most common but there are waste high or individual leg waders which are sometimes suitable. Typically, they are made from neoprene which is a versatile tough, material. Other materials include Nylon which is flexible but not breathable and can get very hot.
Fly fishing vests
Fishing vests not only help you to look the part but are a vital piece of clothing as they are effectively your tackle box during an outing. On your vest you will have your leader lines, maybe a spare spool with a different coloured or weighted fly line, your fly box with various fly patterns, scissors and landing net. You may even have your lunch on you too!
Fly fishing accessories
Polarised glasses will be your best friend while fly fishing as they cut out the reflective glare on the surface of the water allowing you to spot fish feeding.
The rule of thumb is that brown/red polarised lenses are best for freshwater fishing and blue/black lenses are best for saltwater fishing. Sunglasses, of course, do much more than just help you spot fish, they also provide UV protection for your eyes and are a valuable barrier between your fly hook and your eyeball.
Many fly anglers accumulate many fly boxes over time to help them manage flies, strike indicators and nymphs. Out on the water, you may only take one fly box which has a suitable range for the day. This doesn’t mean back at the car there isn’t a boot full of fly boxes. Remember the saying? Match the hatch. It’s no good rocking up to your fishing spot and realising the perfect fly is at home.
Choose a landing net that is big enough to suit the fish you are chasing. There’s no point carrying around a big cumbersome landing net while stream trout fishing. A compact landing net with a short handle that can clip to your fly vest or wader belt is ideal.
Some helpful hints for fly fishing success
Before venturing out, it’s worth practicing casting a few more times following your guided lesson. A great place to develop your casting skills is a footy oval. By cutting the barb off the hook on your fly it won’t get hooked up in the grass. Practising on an oval can save a lot of lost fishing time and frustrations out on the water.
Breathe...it’s only a knot
Fly fishing can indeed be frustrating at first. The act of flicking your fly back and forward will sometimes tangle your line. This will happen a lot at first. Slow down and enjoy the view and work the knot slowly.
Fish can feel you trudging heavily over the rocks as you make your way towards the river. The vibrations you create can be enough to turn your chances of catching fish to. Treat the riverbank or lakeside as a stalking ground: the longer you remain undetected, the more likely you are to catch fish.
Doing some reconnaissance before fishing allows you to look for insect hatchings, see what fish are feeding on, find fish feeding zones, work out the best approach and work out a safe passage to wade.