A Beginner’s How-To

Fly fishing for trout can look like a rather imposing and complicated endeavor at first. What do I need? Where do I go? It can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many avenues open to the beginner to help with gear, destinations, and techniques. It helps if you have a friend or family member to be your mentor, but we now have many other sources of information. Most fly shops have very helpful staff and a variety of instructional courses, from rank beginner level to advanced specialty casting. There are many good educational videos, and too many books to count. Many of the good fishing magazines have a “how-to” column in every issue. New Mexico trout has a fairly good library for our members, with several books and videos on these topics. 

The gear needed can be fairly simple, or you can go for every last gadget and top of the line equipment. When you are starting out, you may not even need to buy your gear. Some fly shops can rent a good quality outfit, including the rod, reel, and line. You will need to buy a few basics, like leaders and flies, but a lot of the extras can wait until you have been fully hooked. The basics you cannot do without include a rod, reel, line, leaders, flies, a fly box, nippers or scissors for trimming the line, a fishing license, and some sort of pliers or hemostat for removing hooks from fish (and yourself). You will need a hat with a brim, preferably dark underneath. You will see more fish if you wear polarized sunglasses. Glasses are also a safety item, in case of stray hooks. If the water is warm, you won’t really need waders, and a pair of old tennis shoes may do. If the bottom is slippery, glue felt soles onto your old tennis shoes for better traction. These are available at fly shops for repairing the soles of waders. For small fish you won’t need a net, so long as you know how to handle fish gently. For the big ones, a net definitely makes it easier to land and release a fish with far less trauma to both of you. If you are going after fish bigger than about twelve inches, get a soft-meshed landing net, and hang it on a big zinger or a bungee cord. If you keep your gear simple, you may not need a vest. Many people keep all the necessary items in a small fanny pack. A small backpack will hold more gear, plus lunch and a rain jacket. That’s it. Optional extras include fly floatant, extra tippet spools, small split shot for sinking nymphs, strike indicators, sunscreen, drying patches for used flies, and any number of useful gadgets from the shelves of the local fly shops.

What type of rod do you need? It depends upon what type of fishing you are going to do. Rods are rated on three scales: line weight, length, and flex. The line weight is chosen mostly for the size of fly you are casting, and the amount of wind you are casting against, not so much upon the size of fish you are chasing. Lines are sized by the weight of the first thirty feet, and range from zero (a specialty line for tiny flies, short casts, and super spooky trout) up to eighteen (also a specialty line, for casting enormous streamers to marlin and tuna). Most trout fishing is done with lines from two up to about six weight. There are some circumstances where a heavier line is needed, such as casting big streamers in big rivers to monstrous trout, where a strong rod will be necessary to pull them out of strong currents. For the most part, heavier lines like eight and up are used for bass, pike, salmon, and saltwater fishing.

A good compromise is the five weight, which is light enough for fine dry flies, and heavy enough for nymphs and medium size streamers. The length of rod depends upon the water you are fishing: shorter for small, bushy streams, longer for open water where you may have to manipulate the line on the water. Nine feet is most commonly used.

When you are going to buy a rod, this is one item where it does not pay to be cheap. A good rod makes casting a joy, and a poor rod can make you cry. You’ll probably blame yourself, but it may be a poorly designed rod making casting feel clunky and unbalanced. If you buy a cheap rod at first, I guarantee that you will want a better one within a year. Save yourself the trouble and buy the best rod you can afford.

The reel is basically a place to store your line, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money here. The only time you would need to upgrade to a higher end, better quality disc drag system, is when you are going after very large fish with very small flies and fine leaders. In this circumstance you will need a very fine, smooth drag to let fish run without hesitating and popping the tippet.

The line is what you will actually cast. It is the weight of the line that loads (bends) the rod and carries the nearly weightless fly with it. There are many different types of lines for different purposes, designated by certain characteristics and shapes. The lines usually are tapered at various points to give them certain casting features. A level line has no taper, and is made with a uniform thickness for its entire length. These are rarely used today. The double taper is fattest in the middle and tapers down to a finer tip on each end. This allows a lighter splashdown when the line hits the water, and after season or two of use, you can turn it around and use the back end, which is identical to the front end. Many anglers choose double taper lines for this reason. A weight forward line has its heaviest section near the front end, then a short tapered section at the tip, and a long, thin section at the back end. This is easier for casting long distances, something that is not really necessary for most trout fishing, but can come in handy on lakes and big rivers. Most trout fishing is done with a floating line, but there are times for a sinking line, or a line with a sinking tip. You don’t need these now, but you might want them in the future. Buy a line that matches the rod you will fish with, though some very stiff rods may cast more easily with a line that is one weight heavier than they are rated for. If you keep the line clean, and try not to step on it, it will last a lot longer.

Fly lines are heavy and opaque, so you need a transparent leader to connect your line to the fly. Most of the time you will use a tapered nylon monofilament around nine feet long, which comes pre-manufactured in little envelopes from the fly shops. You can build your own from various sizes of monofilament fishing lines, but this is almost never necessary. The fine tip of the leader is called tippet, and you will need some extra tippet spools to add on to the end of the leader, because every time you change flies, you will cut off an inch or so, and it will be gone by the end of the day. Leaders and tippet are sized by their diameter, with higher numbers designating finer lines with lower breaking strength. Most trout fishing is done with tippets size 4X to 6X, though there are rare occasions when you can get away with heavier 3X, and times when highly educated, persnickety trout will require 7X. 7X is around 2 pound test, so you’d rather not have to use it. 5X is about 4 to 5 pound test, and is what I use the most.

Flies imitate insects, and are sized by the gap of the hook, the opening between the point and the shaft. The larger the number, the smaller the fly. In the Rocky Mountain West, the flies tend to be fairly small, when compared to the eastern US. Here we use flies ranging from size sixteen to twenty, and in some tailwater streams and spring creeks, they even get smaller than size twenty-four. That is about half the size of a cumin seed. Start out with a small selection of common patterns recommended by your local fly shop to imitate your local bugs. A few patterns are all that is necessary. Most important is to come close to the size and silhouette of the insect you are imitating, then color, and only rarely are fine details necessary. Things that look generally buggy are going to catch fish in most situations. Dry flies float on the surface and are meant to imitate hatched adult insects. After a few fish they will need to be dried and re-treated with floatant. Flies made with deer or elk hair tend to float better and longer than those with just feathers, as the hollow hair fibers trap air. Nymphs are meant to sink under the surface to imitate the nymphal form of the insects. Emergers are a type of nymph that imitates the transition from underwater nymphal insect to adult in the process of hatching. These are usually fished in the surface film or just under it. Streamers imitate baitfish and are fished under the surface. The old rule of using big bait for big fish does not really hold for trout fishing, because trout of all sizes feed primarily on insects, with a few exceptions.

Putting It Together

Before going to a stream, assemble your gear to make sure you have it all together, and practice casting on the lawn for a while. To put the gear together, first mount the reel on the rod. Tighten the nut that screws down on the reel foot until it is snug, so the reel doesn’t wobble, but not so tight that you damage the threads and can’t get it off at the end of the day. Next, wind on some backing. This is a dacron line that fills the base of the spool, and allows enough line that a big fish can run. Most fly lines are only about a hundred feet long, so backing is insurance. Tie the backing to the fly line with a nail knot. Wind on the fly line. Tie a leader to the tip end of the fly line with a nail knot or a needle knot. For a small fee, the salesperson at the fly shop can put it all together for you, and show you how to assemble the rod, reel, line, and leader. This sort of thing is also part of the curriculum of all basic fly fishing classes. Thread the leader and fly line through the guides of the rod, making sure that you don’t twist it around the rod anywhere in the process. Now you can tie on a fly. Use an improved clinch knot, angler’s knot, or uni-knot. See our knot page for instructions, or check one of the books on knots, like Lefty Kreh’s Practical Fishing Knots.

Casting is not something you can effectively learn from text. You need pictures, and preferably motion pictures. The instructional videos are great for this, because you can watch the instructor demonstrate a casting motion, stop the tape and try it, and rewind the tape over and over. A certified instructor will also give you feedback on what you are doing. Often it is helpful to rent the video, use it for a while, then take a class, then maybe rent the video again. A good instructor can be invaluable in identifying small errors that are impossible for you to find yourself.

On The Water

Let’s assume you have chosen to fish a small to medium sized stream for relatively small, not too educated fish. To start out, you don’t want to challenge yourself with PhD fish. In moving water, fish almost always face upstream into the current. They will lie behind rocks, logs and other obstructions that break the current, making it easier to maintain their position. They will be watching for food items drifting down in the current. In most small streams the fish are not overly picky, as they don’t have a constant flow of a single type of insect all day long to get keyed in on. They will take what they can get, as long as it looks like food. Remember also, they are constantly on the lookout for anything that might try to eat them, like bigger fish, hawks, bears, and humans. If you barge right in where they are holding, you will spook everything for a hundred feet, and in their haste to get out of your way, the nearby fish will spook other fish. Walk softly, stay low, and don’t wear bright colored clothing. Don’t kick over a lot of rocks, and try to stay out of the water as much as you can. In a small stream, you can pretty much cover the whole stream from the bank. The bigger fish pick out the best spots to lie in wait for food, where they have a good view of the stream coming down to them, a good break in the current, shade, and a quick escape route to an undercut bank or hole.

Stand downstream of the spot where you think a fish may be, and cast upstream. This way you can sneak up closer to the fish from behind. Cast your fly a few feet above likely holding water, and let it drift down through the good spots. Natural insects float free, and the fish will be very accustomed to the normal pattern of drift. Your imitation must drift free also, as if there were no leader attached to it. If the leader drags your fly even slightly, no fish will take it. This is true of all types of flies, dry and wet. Streamers are the only real exception, which should move like a minnow, with little jerks and strips. As the fly floats down toward you, strip in the fly line little by little, to keep it from building up slack. You want only a tiny bit of slack line so the fly can drift freely. Excess slack will drag more, and will prevent you from setting the hook when a fish bites. When the fish takes your fly, set the hook by gently raising the rod tip. You don’t have to jerk hard, like in bass fishing. If you set the hook too hard, one of two things will happen. Most of the time you will break off the fly in the fish’s mouth, because it is only four pound test tippet. The other thing that may happen is a small trout will come sailing out of the water to flop around on the bank behind you. This is very hard on the fish, and he may not survive it. When you have hooked a fish, strip the fly line in, keeping control of it by clamping it against the rod with your index finger. Only with a big fish will you need to play it off the reel. Net the fish carefully, and remove the hook with your hemostat. The fish will be pretty tired, so before releasing it, hold it gently in the current, facing upstream, until it recovers well enough to swim out of your hand. try to release your fish into an area of quiet water, so he won’t have to work too hard right away.

While you are trying to catch fish, there will be a lot of other things going on. You will tangle your fly up in trees, bushes, sticks, and rocks. We all do. The more experience you have, the less often it happens, but it still happens to the best. You will lose some flies in trees, in fish, and on the bottom. If you didn’t, you would only need one fly. You will get frustrated and angry when this happens, but it is just part of learning. Expert fishermen still lose flies, they just get more philosophical about it. Don’t forget to look around a lot. Trout usually live in beautiful places. That is one reason we like to fish for them. Keep an eye open for bugs. This can guide you to choose one type of fly or another. It helps to learn a little about the insects, so you will recognize what type of bug the fish are eating. The most common are caddis, mayflies, and midges. You don’t need to know all the Latin names, but you will need to be able to tell the fly shop owner “it was a small, olive colored mayfly” so that he can help you select the right flies to stock your fly box. At first you will have a hard time catching any fish, but with time, practice, and the guidance of a friend, you will start catching them. Don’t give up too easily. First you will try to catch any fish you can, then you will go for numbers. After outgrowing this phase, you will start trying to catch only the most difficult, challenging fish. These are phases we all go through.

No matter how many fish you catch, remember why you are there. It isn’t really just to catch fish, it is to get away from the pressures of the office, to see some birds, bugs, maybe a deer. It is to smell a few flowers, and hopefully, to touch a wild part of nature. Trout are beautiful, wild things that nature has produced, and you have the chance to fool them, fight them, and hold them in your hand. You can then have the pleasure of releasing them back into their home environment to fight another day.