The water speaks to you as it rushes by. It babbles, “Trout are in my midst!”
An early morning mist rises in columns in the pool below you, just a few yards down river. The moisture in the air conveys a fecund smell to your chilled nose – is it an aromatic clue that your quarry is nearby, or is it just the fresh remains of a mound of crayfish carcasses picked clean by raccoons on a nearby bank. Are those elongated shadows in the water merely rocks? What is it that breaks the surface every once in a while – do your eyes play tricks on you – is it simply an inconsistent riffle appearing every so often with surge in the flow of the river. Or, is that a hungry trout taking insects as they emerge, metamorphosing from an underwater existence as a wingless worm to an airborne existence above the surface.
You lift the dry fly lightly off the water at the end of it’s downstream drift, flicking a nine foot – five weight fly rod back and forth, gracefully permitting the fly-line to unfurl to it’s entire length in each direction and delicately dropping the fly across and slightly upstream of where you stand in your lightweight breathable waders. The fly floats in a perfect ‘drag-free’ drift with the flow of the current, seemingly unimpeded by the length of line that connects it to you. The fly is a tiny sailboat peacefully riding the undulations of the current until, with surprising ferocity and a flash of pink and silver, a rainbow trout breaches sideways from behind the fly, and inhales it on the way back down. This is a startling development despite your full concentration and anticipation of this very event. Perhaps a second and a half goes by before you finally react by gently raising the rod tip. Yes! You feel the pressure of the hook as any slack in the line disappears and eighteen inches of piscean muscle engages you, your line, your rod, your reel, and your wits in a contest of wills. In order to present your fly with such a natural drift you had been forced to employ one weak link in your tackle – two feet of fine tippet – thin, clear, thread-like nylon that attaches the fly to leader. This particular tippet has been tested to demonstrate a minimum breaking strength of two pounds. Your challenge is to strike the perfect balance. On the one hand is the pressure you exert through the rod, reel, and line to contain the fish and eventually retrieve it to the net. On the other hand is the trout’s natural urgency to flee by allying his weight with the force of the current. Thus, you strive to keep constant pressure on the fish to tire it and keep it away from rocks, logs and other submerged debris, but not so much pressure that you snap the tippet, or bend or dislodge the hook. At times you must allow the trout to ‘run’ with the current, taking the line off the spool, and hopefully not to the limit of the line. Eventually, you might be skillful (or lucky) enough to bring the rainbow to the net, where it should be appreciated, admired, photographed, resuscitated (it is probably near exhaustion) and released.
This is why we fish: For less than a minute you are privileged to behold first-hand a wild and predatory dweller of another world. It might have taken weeks or even months to acquire or hand-tie flies and gather all the gear and equipment you need to participate in this sport. It might have taken hours to prepare for this outing, It might have taken considerable time driving and hiking to this location. It might have taken a few minutes or a few hours of wading and casting and drifting your fly to fool this trout into taking it. It probably took five or ten minutes to land this trout. But it is all worth it, because 45 seconds of admiring the splendor and beauty of this wild creature in this setting is a joy that can last a lifetime.
Sufficiently motivated to get started? But how? Your best bet is to find a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who can help you out. Don’t be shy; most fly-fishermen and women (25% of fly-fishermen are not men at all) are happy to share their enthusiasm. If you can’t find someone, check around for a local chapter of Trout Unlimited. Twenty-five bucks for an individual membership in TU will gain you access to a whole network of people who can show you the ropes. Get your friend to point you in the direction, or accompany you, to a fly-fishing outfitter. If you just want to get your feet wet (so to speak), you can rent an outfit and hire a guide to bring you out.
You can fish successfully year round, but when you are first starting out, you will want to maximize your chances of success by going out when the fish and insects are most active. Here in the East, that would be from May until mid-July or so. In mid summer many streams become so warm that the fish shut-down. Falling temperatures in Autumn re-energize their metabolism and they will resume voracious feeding. The guys at the fly shops can give you advice and reports about conditions local to you. In Winter the water temperatures are so cold that fish metabolism slows way down, but fish will still take the opportune tidbit that floats close by their lie. The fisherman has to do the work to locate the trout and present the fly (wets, and nymphs) down deep where the fish are holding.
If you are serious about wanting to try fly-fishing, you’ll have to take the plunge and buy some equipment. If you take care of your gear, it can last a long time, so it is worthwhile to invest a few bucks in something that will serve you well. Stay away from the cheap stuff, because you will probably just be frustrated and uncomfortable.
Waders are essential. For comfort you can’t beat lightweight breathable waders like those made by Simms and Patagonia. Buy the ‘stocking foot’ version of these along with a pair of wading boots. You can wear fleece-type sweatpants underneath with wool socks and be very comfortable in water at temps from 40-60 degrees. Neoprene waders can be used for colder water, but I like to use my lightweight waders and just put on some extra layers underneath.
Fly rods come in assorted varieties and this can be confusing for the beginner. The ‘weight’ of the rod indicates the kind of line for which it has been built to cast. For trout fishing in most situations a ‘five weight’ rod will serve you well. The ‘action’ on the rod is a measure of how much it bends (and where) when you cast. A slow rod bends more and makes wider loops when you cast. In perfect conditions this is usually easier for the beginner to handle, but if the wind comes up the larger loops can become awkward. A fast rod bends less and makes tighter loops. Medium action is in-between. Medium may be the best compromise for the beginner, but if you are going to spend a couple to several hundred dollars for a rod, you should work with an outfitter to find a rod that suits you. If you are just starting out, you will want to buy a graphite rod. Bamboo is a much more expensive treasure you can covet later on in your fly-fishing life…
The outfitter can recommend a reel that is suited to your rod. Better reels are lighter. Reels differ in types of drag systems they employ (reel drag is the adjustable resistance that the fish will encounter when he pulls line from the reel during the run). Less costly reels have a ‘click and pawl’ system which is similar to a ratchet mechanism in a wrench. These reels may also rely on the fisherman’s palm (against the spool) to provide increased resistance. The best reels have a disk (usually made of cork) that is the source of the resistance and have an adjustment to increase or decrease drag while fighting a fish. Some reels are called ‘large arbor’. This refers to the diameter of the spool and will retrieve more line with each rotation, allowing you to reel the fish in faster.
When you buy the reel ask the outfitter to wind line onto the reel. He or she can put backing (an extended length of thinner braided nylon which only comes into play when a big fish runs for a long time). Lines can be floating or sinking. They can be ‘weight-forward’ (easier to cast) or double taper. The latter can be reversed to use the other end when one end wears out. Of course, as mentioned before, the weight of the line matches the weight of the rod.
Leader and tippet are thin clear sections of nylon between the fly line and the fly that are intended to be invisible to the fish. Tapered leaders are drawn out in manufacturing in a way that graduates their diameter from thick to match the size of the fly-line while the other end is thin to match the tippet. The tippet is just an extension of the leader to which the fly is tied.
Fly selection is beyond the scope of this article. Get advice from your friends, the guide, or the fly-shop. Buy extra copies of those you select. Size of the fly is considered the most important factor – the fish will often be ‘keyed in’ to the size (and color) of the insects that are hatching at the time. A good strategy is to bracket the size – buy a few extra copies of the fly one size smaller and one size larger than the size that is recommended. Get a fly-box to hold your flies, but while you fish, be sure to dry the flies you use before returning them to the box. Learn to tie your own flies!
A vest is great for organizing fly boxes, supplies and tools. Make sure you have a patch (often made of sheepskin, on which to dry flies after you use them.
Wear appropriate clothing and don’t forget suntan lotion. If you use bug repellent be certain to avoid getting it on your hands or it will be conveyed to the flies and repel fish!
A net is recommended to help control the fish while you prepare to extract the hook.
There are some great books about fly-fishing – seek a recommendation or borrow them from the library or a friend. You can learn a lot about everything from strategy, to presentation, to tying your own flies, to fishing destinations from books.
More than anything else, be prepared to enjoy the beauty of the natural settings you find as you spend time on the water. Good Luck!