How to Get Started With Fly Fishing
vintage man fly fishing in river
Fishing with a rod and line, and an artificial lightweight lure made to imitate fish prey — that is, fly fishing — was first recorded around the year 200. And while modern innovation has improved the quality and durability of the materials, the basics of the sport and pastime have remained largely the same. Attach a lure (or “fly”) to a line, cast it in the water, and see what happens.
Growing up, I fished in a boat with my uncle every now and then, but didn’t take it up on my own beyond that. Ever since moving to Colorado 5 years ago, though, I’ve been intrigued by fly fishing. You see fishermen in nearly every stream you pass by, and our family often encounters them on the trails we traverse. It seems like such an elegant way to pass the time and settle your mind, while also fulfilling the ancient role of Provider.
So over Labor Day, I finally decided to hire a guide and learn the ropes. Below, I’ll share those ropes with you: why you’d choose fly fishing over other methods, gear to look for, fly and casting basics, and finally some concrete tips on actually getting yourself started with this age-old pursuit. Keep in mind this is a guide for folks who have either never fly fished, or have only done so a small handful of times and with little knowledge. It’s for men who’ve wanted to get into fly fishing, but haven’t known where to begin.
If that’s you, I hope this guide can point you in the right direction.
Why Fly Fish? What Distinguishes It From Other Types of Fishing?
“To go fishing is the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of sun on blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle-makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men — for all men are equal before fish.” —Herbert Hoover, avid fly fishermen
While spin casting with a spinning reel is a great introduction to fishing, many anglers would argue fly fishing elevates this pastime into a real art.
Why is this? What are the differences?
When it comes to the practicalities, the differences are many. To name just a few, in fly fishing:
the rods are lightweight and much longer
the bait (or “fly”) is super lightweight, artificial, and meant to imitate food (rather than using live bait or heavy lures)
the line itself is heavier, and is what provides the weight to cast, versus the bait or lure itself
you’re typically fishing in moving water (and often in the water) vs. the still water of lakes
you’re almost constantly in motion rather than just sitting on a boat waiting for a bobber to dip; your arms get a good workout
Beyond the practical differences, fly fishing is often labeled as the purer form. It requires craftsmanship and true skill to cast your line, the flies themselves are works of art, and as we’ll see, you become a true master of the environment. When I asked my guide why fly fish, he grinned like the answer was obvious and said, “Why wouldn’t you?”
With spinning reel fishing, the goal is often a combination of relaxation and volume — catching as many fish as you can while having a nice outing on a boat or sitting in a chair on the shoreline. It’s just easier.
With fly fishing, it’s more of a challenge. Can you trick the fish into biting onto your fly/hook? Not only that, can you successfully get the fish hooked at the right moment, and tease it into your hands/net? Can you navigate the stream, and know exactly where to place (or “present”) your fly, so the fish are most likely to bite?
All of this is why you see romantic stories (and even philosophy books!) about fly fishing; it’s just a more poetic and artful form of the sport.
Now that we know the “why,” let’s get more into the “how.”
What Kind of Gear Do You Need?
fly fishing gear and clothing
While you don’t need everything pictured above when you’re first starting with fly fishing, this gives you a general overview of the kinds of things you’ll likely eventually acquire and take with you as you get more into it. For a full description of each item pictured, click here.
When you think of fishing, and especially getting started with it, you likely think of all the stuff you’ll need to be successful. When I first got to the fly fishing shop and my guide was walking through all the gear we’d be taking advantage of, I was a little bit intimidated. There were multiple types and weights of line used, a case full of flies (ranging in size from a pinky nail to finger-length), gel to coat and waterproof the fly, tools and cutters for knot-tying and knot-untangling, not to mention waders, vests, and other clothing essentials.
I think my guide saw my wide eyes, because he then said, “Really, you don’t need this much stuff to start. Grab a pole, some line, and some flies, throw it in the water, and see what happens.” He then told me the story of a kid in town he knew who would tie some line to a stick, tie on a fly, and drop it in the water — and he’d catch some fish to boot. Like with anything, when you embrace fly fishing you’ll likely end up with plenty of specialized gear, but you don’t need all that when you’re first starting out.
assortment of fly fishing flies lures
Fly fishing gets its name from the bait that is used: artificial “flies” made to imitate what the fish are eating — bugs usually (like various types of . . . you guessed it, flies!), but sometimes even small rodents and other creatures.
There are numerous types and sizes of flies — dry flies, nymphs, streamers — and what you use will depend on the fish you’re trying to catch and your setting. If the fish aren’t biting, you’ll often change out a fly and try to intuit what they might be after that day or season. This is why fly fishermen are often amateur ichthyologists (fish scientists) and entomologists (insect scientists). They know types of fish, what those fish eat in what season, what the bugs look like at different times of the year, etc. My guide’s biological knowledge after years of fishing was truly astounding.
improved clinch knot fly fishing how-to diagram
Once you can determine the right fly to use, there are a couple different acceptable knots for attaching that fly to your line, but the “improved clinch knot” seems to a favorite among a lot of experts. Check out this guide to not only that knot, but a handful of others used in fly fishing as well.