Fly Fishing, the mere word can cause dismissal or confusion to casual observers with connotations such as “it’s an old man’s sport”, or “it’s just standing in one place and swinging your arm all day long”, often coming to mind. The fact is, Fly Fishing can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. You can be the person who is decked to the hilt with all the latest and greatest gear, all the way down to the battler with just a cheap rod and a handful of flies.
The sport of Fly-Fishing, once written into folklore and obtained only by the very select few is now an entirely different proposition. Not only is gear available at a fraction of the cost it once was, but access to our waterways is mostly free and unhindered. Gone are the days of an eldery man standing in a pool for eight hours, casting a big heavy rod into the unknown. This has been replaced by a more nimble, active angler in pursuit of never ending exploration and adventure experience.
New Zealand’s waterways are renowned as some of the finest in the world and not for the reasons you would assume. As a Professional Fly Fishing guide in the South Island, I spent up to 200 days on the water every season. It was not necessarily the fish that kept my clients and myself from coming back. It was the allure of the unknown, anticipation of the challenge and of course, the feeling of being immersed amongst magnificent scenery.
Fly Fishing doesn't have to be scary, overwhelming or unapproachable. It is a sport based on a few simple ideals, not that different to other outdoor fishing or hunting pursuits. So if you're new to this, or been trying to get into it, read on. Now’s the time to forget all your pre-conceptions, sit back and enjoy spending the next five issues exploring the in’s & out’s of one of my greatest passions, The Art Of Fly Fishing.
Introduction - So what is Fly Fishing?
If you are entirely new or unaware of what fly fishing actually is and why it exists, a quick overview… The purpose of Fly Fishing is to imitate a fish species’ natural food source and lure it to eat.
In this 5 part series we will cover mostly fishing for trout, but many points are also relevant for other freshwater and even saltwater species.
The ‘Fly’ part of the name derives from the fact that most of the time, what we are trying to imitate with our bait or ‘Fly’ is an insect in its various forms. It has nothing to do with the fact that the line ‘flies’ through the air. The reason you see fly fishermen waving their rod back and forth all day is because the ‘Fly’ weighs next to nothing. So it is impossible to ‘throw’ the fly as you would a spinning lure or bait. Therefore we must use the rod to cast the fly line which transfers momentum from the rod, through the line and into the fly which eventually lands on the water.
Although that may sound complicated, if you have ever cast a spin or bait rod, it is essentially the same premise. However with fly fishing you need to repeat this casting motion both forward and back, often multiple times to achieve the momentum in the line required to catapult the fly into place.
Now I won’t go into the specifics of casting here as there are much more comprehensive publications or YouTube videos you can watch on this topic. Although it can take some time to pick up the ‘natural’ feel for it, the casting actually isn’t that complicated and a bit of practice will get you casting to a sufficient level and onto your first fish in no time.
Gear - What do you really need?
As highlighted, there are two extremes and it is entirely up to you what you use. Gear these days ranges from just a few hundred, to thousands of dollars and it is a no-brainer to start at the cheaper end and slowly build towards premium gear, as and when you need it.
There are however a few essentials to get started:
Fly Rod & Reel: Depending on where you live, you are going to want to start with a 5wt or 6wt rod. These ‘weights’ are basically the overall strength/power of the rod and the higher the number, the stronger the rod.
In New Zealand we have a wide variety of waters, so before you buy you need to understand the types of water where you will be spending most of your time. If you live near meandering farm streams like in the Waikato or Southland, you are better off starting with a 5wt, as these provide more control in tight places. However if you will be fishing larger, more exposed rivers like in the Central Plateau or the Southern Alps, you are going to want to go for a 6wt so you can better tackle the wind. You can pick up a rod from as little as $100 all the way up to $1500 and when starting out you won’t know the difference, so just get what your budget allows.
- Fly Line, Leader & Tippet: This is an area that I never understood as a young angler 20 years ago when I started Fly Fishing, which meant I didn’t catch a fish for 3 years! But it is pretty simple once you get a basic understanding. On your reel you have the following in this order: 1. Backing 2. Fly Line 3. Leader 4. Tippet 5. Fly
Backing: This is the ‘fail safe’ of any rod to ensure if you run out of fly line on a fish, it’s not all over. This is just standard braid, generally around 100m in length and something you cannot cast. It is spooled onto the start of your reel and the Fly Line is then attached to the end. It is inexpensive or free with some reels.
Fly Line: As mentioned, this is where all the action happens. This line is what you will be casting and their purpose varies depending on their density and taper. Simply put you want to start with a standard ‘Weight-Forward-Floating Line’ that matches the weight of your rod. These lines are usually around 90ft long and will start thin while gradually tapering to thick at the end that you will spend most of the time casting. As the name suggests, the line will float on the top of the water, allowing you to better control the line while it is on the water and manage the depth of your flies. These lines range in price depending on quality from $50 up to $250.
Leader: This is where any normal fishing experience comes back into play. The leader is a tapered piece of nylon that starts thick at the fly line attachment and tapers down to the thin end where the tippet is attached. This is because you want to evenly transfer the momentum from the fly line, down the leader and into the tippet, allowing the line to lay out straight on the water instead of in a big pile. Leaders tie onto the end of your Fly Line and generally come in a 9-12ft in length with an ‘X’ rating which we will get into next. These are relatively inexpensive and last several fishing days.
Tippet: The business end of any rig setup. This section can be the do or die of your fishing attempts. The tippet is the final piece of nylon that is tied to the end of the leader and then onto the fly. It’s purpose is to be deceptive enough so that the fish does not see the line connected to what they are about to eat, this is the reason why we use the lightest and thinnest nylon in fly fishing.
Trout instinctively feed by sight over smell, especially in a river where it may have a split second to decide whether or not to eat something flowing by. So you need to make an informed decision on the thickness of the line you can get away with and not necessarily how much weight it can hold. This is where the ‘X’ system comes in. It is a standardized measurement of the diameter of the line. The higher the number, the thinner the line. The most commonly used sizes in NZ range from 0X down to 6X.
Generally the cheaper the line, the thicker it will be for its weight rating. So considering we are focusing on what the fish can see, we want a thinner line with a higher weight rating. Therefore this is one area where we want to get a good bang for our bucks and invest in quality products, so do take time to compare brands.
So what’s next?
Now you have the basics sorted, it’s time to get out and invest in your first gear setup. Head into your local store and speak to the staff that are fly anglers themselves, they can help you understand everything you need.
Then it’s time to get home, spool up your reel, rig up your lines and start casting in your backyard. Yes, your backyard!. This will allow you to focus solely on learning the intricacies of casting without the distraction of water and actually fishing. Even to this day I still cast in my backyard when i’m preparing for a new trip or am feeling a bit rusty. So watch a few videos, and start getting the feel for your new rod and line.
One tip: Tie a piece of wool to the end of your tippet and this will prevent the line cracking like a whip, acting as a decoy fly so you know you are on the right track
In the next issue we will dive into different types of water and methods that can be applied to increase your chance of success. This will help you put your casting practice to work and allow you to better understand where you can find the fish and how to target them.
So get out there, give it a go and hopefully you will fall in love with the ‘Art of Fly Fishing’ just as I did.