Fly fishing is a challenge and a skill which takes time to ‘master’. I say master in inverted commas because in all my years as an angler, I've never spoken to any fly angler that ever referred to themselves as a master of the craft.
Good fly anglers are quick to point out that whilst they may be a much better caster than I will ever be, they are always learning about trout behaviour and the environmental conditions that can turn a trout on or off the bite; not to mention building their knowledge of fly patterns, entomology (otherwise known as the study of insects), and the many other factors that can come into play. Fly fishing is an art and watching a good fly angler go about their business is mesmerising, just as watching a bad one can be quite hilarious.
Traditionally, fly fishing is a method used for targeting trout and salmon in freshwater streams and lakes using a line and an artificial fly to mimic the food trout are feeding on. You probably would have heard of the popular phrase ‘match the hatch’, which means exactly that; matching your fly to the insects currently hatching in the area. The skill is getting a lightweight fly into the fish feeding zone.
Modern fly fishing is not just a sport for targeting trout, but is a challenging way to target all sorts of freshwater and saltwater species. Targeting Bonefish on fly, for example, is a sport that has gathered momentum in the last decade. Only the skilled fly angler would even dare target these powerful fish.
Getting started fly fishing
The first thing any beginner fly angler should do is get an understanding of the equipment out there and learn some of the lingo. You may have watched a video or read about fly fishing, or even seen someone doing it so this is a good start for gathering information.
It is incredibly important to learn the right techniques early on to prevent bad habits; much like driving a car. Therefore the next step is to book a one-on-one fly fishing guide at a stocked impoundment. Here you’ll start off the day with an introduction to fly fishing principles, practice basic casting techniques, and learn about other aspects to improve your chances of success.
Learning from a guide is worth every penny you spend as their enthusiasm and knowledge will help you learn the basics the right way right while having some fun.
Knowing some of the lingo and educating yourself on what fly fishing is about will allow you to go in armed with questions to get the most out of the guided session.
Now it’s time to invest in some gear and accessories and venture out into the wild to continue learning and improving.
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.
Fly lines are classed in weights, rather than pounds or kilos. If the weighting of a rod is a 5wt, this allows you to narrow your choices of fly reel to ensure you choose one that accommodates fly line weighted from 4 - 6.
A fly reel is a single action reel 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 and provide drag when a fish makes a long run. An important feature of the reel is that it is designed to counterbalance the weight of your rod when casting.
Fly reels are traditionally simple in their construction. But modern variants are becoming more advanced with addition of features such as disc-type drag systems that allow for improved drag adjustment and consistency, and resistance to drag friction.
Fly line is a vital part of your gear. 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. Available in different sizes, tapers and densities fly line is weighted allowing the angler to use the rod to propel the fly towards the target.
Fly line is not as simple as the line you’d use for a spinning rod. The coding is completely different, so understanding what the letters and figures mean on a box of fly line will help you make the right choice.
A typical 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 is has a Weight Forward Taper (WF), has a Line Weight of 6 (6) and the line floats (F).
It is a complex subject, so I’ve outlined some of the basic terms to help unravel the mysteries.
Fly line density is simply whether the fly lines floats, sinks or suspends. As a beginner, casting dry flies with floating line can be rewarding and addictive as you can see the line and see the fly and/or strike indicator. Sinking or suspending lines are suited to nymphing or wet flies.
Fly line taper refers to the line’s width as it changes from one end to the other. Weight-Forward Taper is the most versatile and popular fly line taper for casting, but Double-Taper 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 generally used for small fish, ultimately designed for casting in small areas using small flies, like creeks targeting stream trout.
4wt fly line is generally 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.
Line colour refers to the colour of the line and whilst it might not seem like a big deal, it kind of is. Fly line, being thick, will cast a shadow which can spook fish so it’s important to choose a line which you can see, but the fish can’t. Green, red, orange and yellow are popular floating fly line colours, but this will depend greatly on the target species’ feeding behaviour and the location that you intend to fish. Darker lines (brown or black) are more effective for submerged line fishing. Water colour can vary depending on clarity and surroundings so also take this into account when planning too.
Leader refers to the fishing line that is used to connect your fly to your fly line. Leader is clear which aims to prevent spooking the fish when it is tempted by a well-presented fly. A leader should be about as long as the rod (or about 9ft) and should taper to the fly to ensure a smooth cast. You've got two options for leader:
Tie a thick clear line to the fly line known as the ‘butt section’. Then tie another length of line known as the ‘taper section’ that is of a lesser diameter to the butt section. Finally we tie the tippet section', a fine, nearly invisible fishing line to your tapered section. It is the tippet to which you will tie your fly.
Or, do things the easy way. Nowadays you can purchase pre-tapered leader lines and tippet lines which save having to tie many knots.
To wade or not to wade, that is the question. Well for many freshwater fly anglers, waders are a must. Especially in the icy cold streams of south-eastern Australia, particularly during the winter, early spring and late autumn seasons. As the body acclimatises to warmer temperatures, you could pass off the waders as a nice way to cool down after a day’s work, but generally, 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 more 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. There are also newer, better materials on the market which are breathable and more comfortable to wear.
Waders not only keep you dry and improve access to fish feeding zones but by being in the water and having a lower profile to the water level, you can reduce the likelihood of spooking fish. This is particularly useful when lake or estuary fishing.
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. Choosing your vest mostly a matter of personal taste.
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 also provide a valuable barrier between your fly hook and your eyeball.
Many fly anglers over time accumulate many fly boxes 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 to match 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
Don’t rush it.
Before venturing out its worth just getting used to some of the gear like wearing waders and even practice casting a few more times following your guided lesson. Once you’ve purchased your rod and reel, a great place to further develop your casting skills is to go to a footy oval and really get some good practice under your belt. 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.
Remember that trout and any other fish species for that matter, are easily spooked. Getting a fly caught in a tree and waving the rod in the air is not going to lead to a productive day out.
Learn the stream or body of water that you’re going to fish too.
Work out an entry point and path to follow if you’re heading upstream wearing waders.
Remember that walking back with the flow can be risky so keep this in mind if the flow is strong.
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.