If you’re reading this and have always been interested in fly fishing, but were confused about what gear you needed, then you’re in luck. Getting started fly fishing and knowing what gear to pick up can be a frustrating process. Compounding these frustrations, many fly shop employees feel the need to answer any newbie fly fisher’s questions the following way: By giving the most lengthy and complicated answer possible, simultaneously confounding the would-be customer and flexing their deep knowledge of the sport.
I went to a certain big box store a couple years back to ask what fly I should get for fishing bass in June. Instead of just point out a couple of good options the employee presented 30-40 different options referring to them all by complex names I had never heard (hopper, dropper, popper, wooly bugger, and so on and so forth). He then proceeded to tell me I would need a lot more information to be able to pick a fly.
Needless to say I left empty-handed and more confused. Let’s talk basics and get you started with a good quality setup that won’t cost as much as a used car.
This one is a pretty obvious need. But what you probably don’t know is which one to get. The materials, weights (strength of the rod), and action all impact which rod you should buy.
To start selecting a rod you will need to know what you will be fishing for. The weight, size, and fight of the type of fish you will be chasing will all impact rod selection.
Rods come in “line weights” of essentially #4 through #8. Rod line weights below 4 exist and those above 8 do as well, but unless you’re only going to fish for the smallest panfish or largest bonefish or salmon well stick to the range of 4-8. You are going to want your line weight to match up with your rod weight. We’ll get to lines later.
If you are going to stick to the classic fly fishing game fish and target trout, the #5 weight rod will be a great all-around choice. However, to find trout (especially in their natural habitat) you will typically have to do some traveling unless you are lucky enough to live near the au sable or a similar river.
That being said you may want a rod that is a little more versatile and can target fish near your home. Bass fishing with a flyrod, while not traditional, is rapidly gaining traction. The #7 or #8 weight rods will both work very well for large and smallmouth bass, steelhead, and smaller salmon.
You may be tempted to pick a #6 weight rod and split the difference, which is fine if you don’t ever plan to get a second rod. If you do, however, I would shoot for a #5 for trout and smaller fish and a #7 for bass, steelhead, and larger fish. Whichever you get first will depend on your local river populations.
Shoot for a rod in about 8’5″ length which will provide the proper amount of backbone for longer casts, but not be so long to make it hard to fish smaller streams.
Finally, rods come in 3 main actions. Fast action or tip-flex, medium action or mid-flex, and slow action or full-flex. The speed of the action refers to how the rod will bend on the backcast and how long it will take it to straighten back out. Fast action rods can be tricky to learn on and are less forgiving. Slow action rods will be overly flexible for everything except small trout on small streams. Medium action is what most people should choose because it is the most versatile and easier to learn on than fast action.
For rod material you will want to stick to graphite. Aluminum is found on junk rods of yesteryear and bamboo is found on very lightweight rods with slow actions. Any bamboo rod under $1,000 is going to likely be junk anyways. The grip should be natural cork which will dry easily and provide a comfortable grip.
Finally, with your first rod stick to a 4 piece rod. One-piece rods are becoming more popular, but are much harder to travel with and won’t even fit in some vehicles.
My recommendation for a starter rod is the Orvis Clearwater in either #5 or #7 weight. At a price of $300 it is a great value for the money and includes the Orvis warranty which will replace a broken rod with no questions asked for 25 years. The rod is a mid-flex moderate action rod and will be perfect to learn proper technique with.
The reel for fly fishing is not nearly as important as it is for spin fishing or baitcasting. That is because in fly fishing you do not use the reel to bring in the fish. You strip line by hand. The drag of the reel will come into play determining how the line will shoot off the reel for longer casts, but the retrieve is only used to reel the line back in after an unsuccessful cast.
The reel weight should match your rod. My recommendation is to pick up the Waterworks Lamson Liquid reel. Made in the United States it features the best value you will find in the $100 range. Another bonus is you can pick up extra cassettes which hold different types of line and can be easily swapped out in your reel.
Type of Line:
Fly fishing line is expensive. A good line from Scientific Anglers can cost $80 while the Orvis Clearwater line is about $50. Unlike regular fishing lines, fly line is made from braided nylon or dacron and then coated in PVC. This gives it a smooth and durable finish. The typical fly line is about 100 feet and a typical reel holds about 200. The rest of the reel is filled with backing. Backing is cheap, strong, and stretch resistant. It fills up the first section of line and won’t really be used except for very long casts. The end of the line utilizes tippet which is essentially a speciality leader for fly fishing. This is what you will be cutting, tying off, and changing out regularly depending on the fly you are using. A fly line that is cared for well (cleaned and dressed regularly) should last 2-300 use days.
Type of Line
The two main types of line we will concern ourselves with is Sinking and Floating. If the fish you catch will be on the surface and you are going to use dry flies (flies meant to stay dry and ride the surface of the water) you will want a floating line. Floating line is the best choice for trout. If you are going to bass fish and use heavier wet flies to target fish below the water’s surface you will want to use sinking line. The best of both worlds is to have two reel cassettes, one with sinking and one with a floating line.
Fly lines have several different tapers. The only 2 we will focus on here are weight forward tapers and double tapers. Weight forward means the line has extra weight and body in the first 10 yards of fly line. This helps smooth out your cast and allows you to cast farther and in windier conditions. A double taper line gradually increases in width and body for the first 15 feet or so, levels off to a uniform size, and then tapers back out decreasing in size and width at the end. This is nice because you can use the other end of the line if the first part wears out. Also the double taper is great for very small flies.
I recommend going with a weight-forward taper for your fly line. Its the best all-around profile. Match the weight of your line to the same weight of your rod and reel. This will give you the best performance. I also recommend bringing your reel with you to the fly shop when you buy line and they can usually add the backing and wind the reel for you. You will have to purchase tippet separately. For my money, Scientific Anglers line is the best you can buy, but I understand if you want to go with a less expensive line for your first fly rod.
Phew. We have covered a lot of information and hopefully this provided some clarity instead of further muddying the waters. My basic recommended setup consists of the Orvis Clearwater rod in #5 or #7, the lamson liquid reel in a matching weight, and the scientific angler’s line in the same weight as the other two items. This setup would run you about $400. While not cheap, it is a quality rod/reel combo that you will use forever. Even if you eventually get into higher-end rods/reels you will still use your Clearwater.
Next time well talk more about waders, flies, and some of the other accessories that help you catch fish on the fly. For now, get the basics. Then you can start fishing and working on your flycast.