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Reel Talk for the Fly-Curious

"Fly-fishing is solitary, contemplative, misanthropic, scientific in some hands, poetic in others, and laced with conflicting aesthetic considerations. It's not even clear if catching fish is actually the point."

John Gierach

fly fishing instructor

The consensus among those in the fly fishing industry is that there are more fly anglers on the water than ever before. While on one hand this means more crowded boat ramps, potentially less solitude and sharing the river with neophyte anglers; it also means the opportunity to teach a new collective of people about conservation and how to care for the resource. Increased license sales help state agencies protect our rivers, lakes and the fish that we all enjoy.

So what do newcomers to fly fishing need to know? I have put together a few tips and strategies to help the fly-curious find their way into an amazing sport.

rainbow trout

Just do it.

I'm not talking about lacing up your Nike's here. I am telling you to get out of your head and go to the water. So often I hear that fly fishing is too complicated, they don't know where to start, or that the fly shop is too intimidating. No one pulls on a pair of waders and instantly knows what they're doing; fly fishing is often a lifetime pursuit.

There are plenty of ways to learn about fly fishing and no wrong way to go about doing so. One of the best ways to learn is to get out on the river and try. Make mistakes and figure out how to correct them. Put in the time.

Watch instructional videos on YouTube and listen to pod-casts.

There are countless uploads of fly fishing related videos for all sorts of rivers, lakes, casting techniques and fish species; some of which are pretty entertaining. Pod-casts are an easy way to listen and learn as you make your daily commute. The Orvis Fly Fishing pod-cast and April Vokey's Anchored are a couple of my favorites.

fly fishing books

Read up.

I studied the pages of the Orvis catalog that came in the mail diligently to learn fly patterns, how to fish them and what they imitated. There are a wealth of books and magazines, not to mention blogs, devoted solely to the avocation of fly fishing.

Hire a guide!

A good guide can trim your learning time exponentially by simply showing you how to rig up for the type of water that you want to fish, demonstrate basic casting techniques, and what flies to start with. If you want to learn to euro-nymph, find a guide that specializes in that. If you've never held a fly rod and aren't even sure if fly fishing is something that will suit you, hiring a guide can help you save the expense of buying equipment that will gather dust in the garage should you decide that fly fishing is not for you.

Fish upstream, set down stream.

Trout typically face upstream, toward the direction of the flow, to feed on insects floating down the river. Begin fishing the stretch of river and plan to work up stream as you fish. When the fish takes your fly, or strikes, set the hook straight up or slightly downstream. Do not set the hook upstream, or you will be pulling the hook out of the fish's mouth. I get asked this question a lot and see a lot of new anglers struggling to hook up with fish because of poor positioning, bad timing and overaggressive hook setting.


If you are a convert from spin or bait casting or have never cast a fly rod, casting a fly rod can seem complicated. When fishing with conventional tackle, you're casting the weight of a heavy lure. When you're casting a fly rod, you're casting the weight of the line. That means that the forward cast and the back cast must be equally balanced and there must be a pause in the casting stroke to allow the line to fully extend before the direction of the casting stroke is changed. Most times on the river, it is more important to have an accurate cast over a long cast. I favor short, accurate casts with less line in the air to tangle and less line on the water to spook fish or create drag on your fly. If a cast isn't exactly where you wanted it, that's ok, own it! It's better to let your "bad cast" drift and recast after rather than immediately picking up your cast to land it again an inch to the left or right, hitting the water multiple times, creating additional disturbance and spooking fish.

fly rod


Another frequently asked question is "what kind of gear do I need?" coupled with, "what size rod should I get?" Gear quality is important but you don't have to spend a fortune. Good quality basics will get you started and last for years. My favorite rod is a 9' 5 weight, it's a staple and can handle most of the fish our mountain rivers and lakes have in Colorado and New Mexico. Here is another opportunity to utilize a guide. Most guides have rods to loan clients. It's an easy way to try a rod for a day to see how it feels for you and your casting style. Some people prefer a faster or stiffer rod action while some like the slower action of a glass rod. Fly shops will also allow customers to test cast rods to see what feels good. I do not endorse trying rods at the fly shop and buying on-line. Small fly shops try hard to accommodate their customers and have a hard time competing with large on-line retailers. Support your local fly shop whenever possible. A good fly shop will be an invaluable resource as you wade into the sport.

fly fishing entomology

"Match the hatch" and 'the foam is home."

Fly fishing enthusiasts have tons of little sayings to aid in the pursuit of trout.

Matching the hatch is as simple as paying attention to what is happening in the water as well as what is in the air above the water. Flip over rocks to see what the trout are feeding on. Caddis, baetis and stone flies (photo above) can be found commonly in rivers in the west. Knowing what flies imitate these bugs is important. If there are mayflies in the air, tie on that Parachute Adams. If you're fly fishing for carp, bass or salt water fish, learning what those fish eat, choosing the appropriate imitation and knowing how to fish it will pay off.

Learning to read the water is equally important; the right fly in the wrong place isn't going to put a fish in your net. Learn where fish like to hang out throughout the changing seasons and water conditions. Behind rocks, in eddies and the foam line are good places to check for feeding fish. "The foam is home" means that the flow of water with a visible concentration of those little bubbles floating down the river, also typically carries food to feeding fish. Drifting your flies through this piece of water at the correct depth should get you a strike.

Final Thoughts

Learn proper fish handling techniques before you head out to fish. Learn what water temperatures are best for fishing for your target species. Sit on the bank and observe what's happening, on and around the river, before you cast a line. Join a local angling group to learn about conservation initiatives in your area and meet other anglers.

Remember, it's just fishing. Having a good foundation of techniques is important, but feel free to develop your own style; everyone finds success in different ways. Take your time untangling the tangles. Stop and enjoy the view. There is more to fly fishing than catching fish; it's the moments, the people you meet, the opportunity to make an impact on the resource, the chance to learn and practice patience and being present.

Let me know your thoughts. I'd love to hear your tips for new anglers or if you learned anything from this blog.

Did this inspire you to get out and find a stream?


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thanks for sharing. Great info for someone like me who wants to pick the rod back up.


HeyMissy! I haven’t fished AT ALL, between familial obligations, caretaking sickos;)

and every stream, lake and river overrun w/white men! (I didnt say that did i?! Oops!

I like people+men ok, just, ya’ know….as Gierach wrote and you quoted: fly fishing can be solitary, contemplative, misanthropic….)

this time last year i hiked far enof to have some river ‘to myself’ w/a friend;)

but weather cancelled me plans this year- and i a’int complainin’ ‘bout the rain!

-but i miss you muchly !

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