Fly Fishing 101
Michael Alberghini / Sportsmens Compass Team Member
To me, fly fishing is possibly the most rewarding way to bring a fish to the net. It is much more intimate than conventional fishing, leaving you feeling much more connected to your finned opponent. The objective is the same but it is the path leading to that goal where the intrigue lies.
Casting a fly rod is the primary difference between it an conventional fishing. With a traditional fishing rod, the casting is accomplished by using the weight of the lure combined with the flex of the rod to launch the cast. With a fly rod, your lures are flies, which by design are very light. So a fly cast is performed using the weight of the line instead of the lure to propel the cast. Fly line is made of a braided Dacron core coated in PVC to provide a slick coating that will glide smoothly through the guides. The fly line has a taper, or shape to it. This taper adds weight to the front of the line to load or flex the rod, and allow it to cast.
Dynamics of Casting
Fly casting is a difficult thing to explain through words but I will try my best. First, it is important that the caster stays in one plane with his casting stroke. What I mean by this is that your back cast and forward cast need to be the same angle off the grounds, not different ones. What you do not want to do is have your back cast be a little side arm, and then have your forward cast be straight over the top. Let’s say your body is 90 degrees and the ground is zero. If your back cast is at 45 degrees, make sure your forward cast is also 45 degrees.
Now lets talk about how to preform the casting stroke. Start with the rod in front of you. You want to bring up the rod starting fairly slow and accelerating to an abrupt stop. This motion is similar to picking up a phone off a table. You start slow, accelerate up to about your head then quickly stop. You want to let your fly line cast back and you will feel the weight of the line “load” the rod. When the rod is fully loaded, you do the same thing only forward. You want your actions to be mirror images during the forward and back cast. For now, try to bring your back cast to 10 o’clock and your forward cast to 2 o’clock as seen in the diagram below. Casting back and forth without letting the line down like this is referred to as a “false cast.”
When you are ready to finish your cast, stop the rod high and sharply, just like you would during a false cast. It is important to not drop your rod tip to the ground here. You want to just freeze at the end of your forward stroke. this will allow your cast to roll out and land softly in front of you.
Fly casting is not as difficult as it may appear and most people get the hang of it relatively quickly. I suggest watching a few videos and then going out and giving it a try! It is important however that if you are going to have someone teach you, that they have a thorough understanding of casting dynamics. You don’t want someone to teach you his or her bad habits and incorrect technique!
Differences Between Fly Fishing and Conventional Fishing
One common misconception is that fly fishing is strictly for trout, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Practically any fish that can be targeted with conventional tackle has been successfully caught on a fly rod, and that includes sharks, tuna and sailfish to name a few.
Like conventional fishing, there are infinite ways to present a fly, in moving or still water, from dead drifting to steady retrieving and everything in between. One major difference between the two categories is that fly fishermen are more often trying to elicit a strike by imitating a fish’s natural forage. Flies are designed with natural colors and movements in mind. Now, this is not to say that all flies are meant to be close imitations. Many, many flies are designed with the same principles that conventional lures are designed around, flash, bright colors, and even their movements.
A few major differences between fly fishing and conventional fishing lie within the construction of the reel. A spinning or bait casting reel is geared, meaning that with every one revolution of the handle by the angler, the line is wrapped five, six, even seven or more times around the spool. A fly reel has a 1:1 ratio, meaning that for every one rotation of the handle by the angler, the line is wrapped one time around the spool.
Possibly the most significant difference in reel designs is that with a spinning or bait casting reel, the drag system has the final say in line control. Let me explain what I mean by this. Let’s say you have a fish on, you start reeling as fast as you can, and all of a sudden the fish decides so turn around and start running. If you have your drag set light enough, the line will come off the spool even though you are still reeling in. The drag system is independent of the handle on the reel, making it impossible to overrun the drag system. With a fly reel, the drag will only work if you stop reeling and let go of the handle. If you do not, the drag will not engage and you will immediately break the fish off. The beginning fly angler needs to practice with his or her reel and learn how to properly use the drag system in order to prevent breaking off fish by accident.
Let’s move onto rods. Your average length fly rod is around 9 feet, and coming from a conventional background this is much longer than the 6 or 7 foot rods you’re used to. This extra length allows the angler to cast further by increasing line speed during the cast. The extra length simply allows the line to be moved further during the forward and backward stroke of casting, resulting in higher line speed. Higher line speed allows you to make longer casts before gravity begins to interfere. The longer rods also helps when setting the hook, fighting fish, and other ways. The way that fly rods flex also varies from conventional rods. A conventional rod has a taper meant mostly to fight fish. They often have a slightly soft tip that leads abruptly to lots of backbone and do not flex as deeply as a fly rod needs to. Since the cast is dependent on the taper of the fly rod, the flex is often deeper and smoother to keep the casting stable.
Another difference is how one retries a fly. With a spinning or bait casting rod, you retrieve the lure by reeling in the line, sometimes imparting action with the rod tip. A fly angler retrieves the fly by stripping in line with his hands and rarely imparts action with the rod. This is one of the many reasons why I feel that fly fishing is more intimate. Picture yourself retrieve a large baitfish imitation fly through a lake, and all of a sudden a big bass comes and whacks it, it might pull the line right out of your hand! You have to be ready for it, and when you set the hook you may have to let a little line slip through your fingers in order to not break off the fish. And if all goes right, fish on! But it very easily could go wrong. With conventional tackle you would just feel the fish and rip back on the rod, no big deal, the fish is hooked. If you set too hard, the drag will let line out for you. It is that small step closer to the fish that draws me to fly fishing. It evens the playing field, so to speak, and I think that is what draws in many new anglers to the sport as well.
To begin fly fishing you need a few things. A complete fly rod and reel outfit consists of a rod, reel, fly line and backing. The backing is there to give you extra line in case a fish pulls all of your fly line out, which is usually only 90 feet. At the end of the fly line you attach your leader, which is made out of nylon monofilament or fluorocarbon, just like conventional fishing lines. This leader is tapered, starting from a thick butt section and tapering down to the desired size. at the end of the leader, we attach “tippet,” which is just more nylon or fluorocarbon. Anglers carry a few different size depending on the size fly they wish to fish with. Most trout fishing is done with 3 to 12 pound test tippet. Of course, you will also need flies. I suggest going to your closest fly shop and asking them for a local assortment. No one can help you more than they can. Also, if you choose to enter the water (which is highly advisable for success in rivers and streams) you will need a pair of waders and boots, if they do not come with them.
So let’s wrap that up. You will need at minimum the following:
- fly rod
- fly reel
- fly line