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March 31, 2011 / flogginwater

A Fly Fishing Primer – Part One

I was originally asked to write this by a member of the Oregon Fishing Forum. Instead of modifying some of it, I’m copying it straight from my original posting over there. This is an on-going piece, so far there are four parts written, and I’m nowhere near done yet. Please keep checking in, as I’ll eventually get the whole thing written!

I’ve been asked by another forum member to do a write up, similar to my spin-fishing thread – about fly fishing, geared for those who’re just starting out. I don’t proclaim to be an expert fly angler – but I’ve been fly fishing for 18 years, so I’m not exactly a beginner either. I’m an alright caster – folks like Rajeff and Kreh need not worry about loosing to me in a casting contest any time soon, and there are folks who are a lot better at just about every aspect of the game than I am. With most rods, I’m good out to about 60 feet, most of the time. 90% of my fishing is done 40 feet or less – and on small waters that I do the bulk of my fishing – 30 feet is a long cast.

Fly fishing can be as simple or as complex as you want – but for a beginner it can be overwhelming – so I’m making my fly fishing primer a multi-part one. This first section will focus on selecting appropriate gear and giving some recommendations based on what *I* like. Each angler will have their own casting style – which may or may not be suited to the gear I recommend. The best thing you can do before committing to a purchase, is test the gear yourself. Any fly shop worth a damn will let you test cast a rod in the parking lot, or an adjacent field – and some are lucky enough to have casting waters out their back door. So lets get started.

First and foremost – the fly rod. Without a fly rod, one cannot fly fish, after all. To pick the right fly rod, you’ve got to know what you want to do with it. If your primary pursuit is going to be sunfish and small trout – there’s little point in buying a heavy rod – you’ll tire yourself out too quickly, and the fish won’t be much fun to land on heavy tackle. On the flip side, if you’re planning to chase bass, big trout, or carp – a 3 weight is going to be pretty far away from your best tool in most cases. And if you’re someone that’s really in to self punishment – you’re probably going to enjoy fly fishing for salmon and steelhead. You’re going to want one of those rods that’s just slightly more wiggly than a pool cue, and weighs just an ounce or two less than one. Landing a 10 inch trout on a 10 weight flyrod is about as much fun as a break dancing contest at an old folk’s home. And of course, there’s a good chance you could cast a 10 inch trout with a 10 weight flyrod and not really know it.

If you’re just beginning as a fly fisherman – starting out with a heavy weight salmon or steelhead rod isn’t the ideal route. That’s not to say that it can’t be done – there are a number of folks who have done it – but it’s not the best way to go. Starting out with an outfit for general trout & panfish is a much better way to go. The rods are lighter in hand, easier to cast repetitively, and the fish are easier to catch, and thus they build confidence and let you learn proper casting, line manipulation, fly presentation, and landing techniques.

Almost every fly fishing book, magazine, and internet site is going to recommend the same outfit for beginners – a 9 foot long 5 weight graphite two or three piece rod, with a weight forward line and a click-pawl reel, or maybe a fancy disc drag model.

And you could be doing well with such an outfit, on most waters, most of the time, for average to large trout, and panfish. 9 foot rods are great for waters that are open – lakes and ponds, along with streams without a lot of over-hanging brush. Longer rods will generally equate into longer casts – simple physics on that one. The longer the lever, the more leverage you get. A fishing rod is just a lever.

If this is how you’ll be fishing most of the time, I would personally recommend an 8’6″ to 9′ 5 or 6 weight fiberglass or graphite rod. Both have pros and cons. Graphite is lighter, glass is stronger. Graphite rods are generally faster-action, glass rods are slower and a bit more forgiving to poor casting form. Graphite rods are great for booming out longer casts, but faster action rods usually don’t perform as well close in. Glass rods are better for close in work – but take more effort to really haul out 60+ foot casts. For a beginner, a mid-flex (medium action) graphite or glass rod makes the most sense.

I really like my WW Grigg Heritage series fiberglass 5/6 weight rod. It’s 8’6″ (used to be the most popular rod length for trout rods, and still very versatile length today).

I’ve matched that rod up with an Okuma Sierra standard arbor fly reel. The Sierra has a cast aluminum frame and spool, and a good disc drag. It has a clicker that can be disabled, which clicks when line is pulled off the spool – and features a silent retrieve. The matte black anodized finish is non reflective, so it won’t spook fish – and it’s hard to go wrong with black – it matches any rod’s looks. My Grigg rod cost $60 new, the Sierra fly reels cost about $30 give or take.

If you’re like me and you fish a lot of smaller waters, brushy streams, or cramped meadows – shorter, lighter rods will serve you better. The fish are generally smaller, the casting conditions can be tighter, and the lighter rod will let the fish shine. The lighter rods are also better for fishing smaller flies that can be more productive on such smaller waters.

If small water trout, and sunfish are going to be your primary goals – a 3 or 4 weight rod is a good way to go. They’re generally lighter than most folks will recommend for beginners – but the lighter rods and lines will make mastering the two basic casts easier. Think of it like learning to shoot. You CAN start out learning with a .45 auto, but mastering basic fundamentals of marksmanship can be a hell of a lot easier with a .22 instead.

A rod that is 7 to 8 feet long for a 4 weight line would be just about perfect. Graphite rods shine here with the lighter line weights, as they will be lighter in hand and more delicate – although again, glass rods will be hardier and more forgiving when you snag the rod tip on a forward cast.

An inexpensive setup for this route is the Pfleuger Purist 7’6″ 4 weight 2 piece rod. It’s a good mid-flex action, made of lower modulus graphite than the high dollar stuff, which actually makes it a bit less fragile than the higher end stuff. These rods run $35 to $40. You can pair that up with a single action click pawl reel from Shakespeare, which run about $15, or go a bit fancier and bump it up the Okuma Sierra for $35 and get a nice disc drag reel.

Berkley has recently expanded their Cherrywood line up of rods to include fly rods – and they have a 7’6″ or 8′ 4 weight model that is quite nice, they cost about $40.

The Cabela’s 7’6″ 3 piece 3 weight rod is another great light rod – that has a really forgiving, slower action. I had one for years and absolutely adored it. I regret selling it. Being a short 3 piece rod, it was great as a pack rod too. Each section was just over 2 feet long. You can buy these rods in a combo, or solo. Alone, I believe these rods run about $70 or so.

Or you can spend more for a mid range rod similar to my Grigg made rod. It’s an 8′ 4 weight 2 piece, with a nice wood reel seat insert, and metal uplocking hardware, with single foot snake guides versus standard two foot traditional snakes. I’ve matched my rod up with a Ross Flywater #1 mid arbor reel. The rod cost me just over $100 from the defunct GI Joes, and the Flywater Reel cost me about $120 – but that was a few years ago and the Flywater reels have come down in price to about $90 retail average for the #1 (which is meant for 3/4 weight lines).

On the heavier side of things – sticking with single-hander style flyrods – if you’re going to be chasing steel, salmon, or big bass, you’re going to want a rod meant for 7 to 10 weight fly lines, 9 feet would be the minimum length you’d want in such a rod, and a 10 footer would be better, if you can find one.

Graphite is going to be the name of the game here – since graphite will be much lighter than glass of the same line weight ratings, and these big thunder sticks get tiring to cast.

If bass and summer steelhead are your thing, a 7 or 8 weight rod will be good for you. You can get a reasonably good 8 weight rod for $40-90 – pair it up with a large size Okuma Sierra, Pflueger Medalist and you’re set. The nice thing about fishing these big line sizes, our tippets won’t be micro thin 6, 7, or 8x stuff, so you don’t need a drag that light. You’re probably also not going to need a disc drag capable of stopping a freight train either – so these reels will be fine.

If you’re going to target winter steelhead or coho salmon – an 8 or 9 weight rod makes more sense. You’ll probably wind up chucking sink tip, or full sinking fly lines for these fish, and heavy flies. Reasonable starter rods will be $50-100. Redington Red Start rods, Dick’s Sporting Good’s “Field & Stream” branded rods, or the entry level Lamiglas rods are the best bargains in this neighborhood. Cabela’s also makes excellent rods in their Three Forks line up.

If you want to get really wild and target Chinook salmon – a 10 weight or heavier makes the most sense. They can be landed on lighter rods – but really – when you’re fishing for fish that stand a good chance of being 25-30+ pounds, with the potential to double that – you want all the rod you can get.

Lamiglas makes a 10 weight rod with their entry level line that sells for around a hundred bucks. That’s what I’ve got – and I currently have it paired up with an Okuma Integrity mid arbor disc drag reel. I’ve had their Helios reels – very nice setup. The Integrity is a mid level reel for Okuma – but it doesn’t compromise on quality. It’s an attractive matte gray finish, it has a widely adjustable disc drag, along with being quiet.

The second part of your basic setup is of course going to be your fly reel.

These can range from $10 single action reels with no adjustable drag feature, to $1000 pieces that have aerospace engineers designing them.

For most general trout and panfish fishing – you don’t need a fancy drag. A click-pawl setup will do just fine, especially if it’s got an exposed spool rim (meant for palming or fingering to add resistance – the original disc drag!). For fishing for large fish with light line – disc drags make a lot of sense.

If you’re going to be making long casts, or fishing for big fish – mid or large arbor reels are nicer than standard arbor models – as they take up a lot more line with every crank of the spool. With modern materials and engineering, large arbor reels weigh no more than their standard arbor counterparts. I prefer mid or large arbor reels over standard arbor for almost all my fishing needs.

Single action reels – meaning the spool rotates once for every turn of the handle – are by far the most popular. Multiplier action reels are generally reserved for the largest reels, which are meant for saltwater fishing. We won’t talk about multiplier reels right now – because you won’t need one as a beginner.

I’m a big, big fan of Okuma fishing tackle – from their rods to their reels – they make quality gear that’s affordable for everyone. Their Sierra, Integrity, and Helios lines are no exception. I’ve been using the standard arbor Sierra models for the better part of a decade on every 5 or 6 weight rod I’ve had, and I’ve used them on a 4 weight in the past as well. They’re excellent reels – even better when you realize you get a real disc drag, silent retrieve, and metal frame (with metal reel foot) for about $25 to $35. Best value in the budget line you can get.

I’m also a BIG fan of Ross reels. Ross reels are not cheap – but they are soooo worth the money if you can afford one. They’re light weight, they’re rugged, and they’re made in the USA. They are without a doubt in my mind the best engineered fly reels available today – in every one of their price points. The Ross Gunnison is legendary, and if you’ve got $200+ to drop on a reel, get yourself a Gunnison. If you can swing $90 to $100 – get yourself a Flywater reel. If you’ve got $300 to drop on a reel, get a Ross Evolution.

There are other great reels – the Orvis CFO reel is another legendary reel, well built, machined from bar-stock aluminum. They’re damn near bullet proof, and come with a good warranty. G. Loomis makes some nice reels – but if I’m spending that kind of money, Ross Reels are better.

For the most part a reel is going to be just a place to store your line, but if you get a good fish on – it’s better to play the fish off the reel than it is to try to control it by holding the line. One strong, quick run from a good fish is either going to wind up cutting/burning your hand – or you’re going to break the fish off. Let it take line while you reel up the slack, and get that fish on the reel as soon as you can. Smaller fish you can bring in by stripping line.

As I said earlier, you don’t need a fancy drag for most fishing – but when you’re fishing for big fish, using light tippets – you’ll appreciate a well designed drag system.

Make sure, when you purchase a reel, that it balances well with your rod. You want to test this by attaching the reel to your rod, and finding the balance point. It should balance level on your finger at a point just at the end of the cork grip of the flyrod. If the reel is too light, the rod will feel tip heavy and your going to tire yourself out. A heavier reel will make the setup butt heavy – and can cause you to be more whippy with your casting. Either way, you’re going to work harder than you should to cast well. Balance your setup and casting will be much more enjoyable.

You should also test the balance with a full reel – and about 20 feet of line stripped off of it – the loaded reel will balance differently than an empty reel.

As for the last – and possibly the second most important choice in your trifecta of main equipment – your fly line.

The fly line is what you cast when you fly fish – it provides casting weight. There are three basic line taper types – level, weight forward, and double taper. Level lines are just that. Weight forward lines have a short, thicky belly section, with a short taper on each end, and a long thin running section. They’re meant for punching out longer casts, or turning over wind resistant flies. They’re fine for over head and side arm casting – but they’re not the best choice for roll casting, at least once you get the back taper off the reel.

Double taper lines have a long thick belly section, with long, equal tapers on either end of the line. They generally offer more delicacy than weight forward lines, at the cost of some casting distance for most casters. They’re a more versatile line, in my opinion, and they’re what I fish 90% of the time.

There are specialty lines – shooting heads – which are just a radical take on the weight forward concept. These are generally more advanced line types – and as a beginner you won’t be fishing them much. They’re meant for really punching out long casts with heavy flies – usually for steelhead, salmon, and big trout.

And you’ve got 3 main types of fly line buoyancy – full floating, floating/sinking (aka sink tip), and full sinking. Sinking lines are rated in types, which are determined by sink rate. Slow sinkers, intermediate sinkers, and fast sinkers. As a beginner you’re better off with a full floating line, as they’re much more versatile – and if you need to fish deep – split shot will do the trick, as will heavily weighted flies. Floating lines let you switch from fishing dry flies, to dredging nymphs, to swinging streamers and wet flies without changing lines. You can also purchase short sinking sections that loop to your floating line to turn it in to a sink tip line. Like I said, floaters are the most versatile line you can get.

I’m a big fan of Scientific Anglers lines. Don’t skimp on a fly line, buy the nicest line you can afford. The better the line, the easier it will transfer energy from the rod to the fly. Casting is easier, and more efficient. They will tend to last longer than cheap lines as well, and have less line memory (the tendancy to coil up) than cheap line. I like the Mastery series lines by SA. Cortland is another great line maker – their 333 and 444 line series are great. I haven’t been as huge a fan of Rio lines – bad experiences with them years ago. I hear they’ve changed, and make good lines now – but I’d rather not spend $60 to find out, when I know that same cash will get me an excellent SA Mastery line.

If money is tight, both SA and Cortland make budget lines that are decent.

I wanted to touch on a couple more things real quick:

1st – some people will wonder why I didn’t mention high end rods like Sage, Loomis, Orvis, Burkheimer, etc. It’s simple – unless you sleep on a pile of cash and wipe your naught bits with hundred dollar bills – I would never recommend a beginner plunk down the better part of a grand on their first fly fishing setup. As wonderful as those rods are – and as fun as I find fly fishing to be – not everyone will like it, and and spending $250-$500 for a rod, another $150+ for a matching reel, and then tossing in $60 or $70 for a good line to match it just doesn’t make sense on a hobby that you’re just easing in to. Beginning casters won’t be able to appreciate the real performance those rods can accomplish – in fact I would venture to say MOST fly fisherman won’t. Sure, they’re lovely casting tools – and the super stiff high modulus stuff is great for casting a runway’s worth of line – IF you’re good. It takes a LOT of practice to get that good – and sometimes you have to like casting more than fishing to get there. ANd that’s fine if that is what turns you on – but chances are you won’t find that out until you’ve spent time on the water, and mastered the basics of the cast. A $100 TFO, or a $70 Cabela’s rod, or a $30 Okuma rod will let you do that without the financial sting. You can get decent at the basic casts and then you’ll have an idea of what works for you and what doesn’t. The best thing to do is try a lot of different rods, to see what works for you.

Conversely – you’ll note that I did sort of pimp the higher end reels – this is with reason. When you start out with a basic, no frills, el cheapo outfit, you may or may not keep that rod, or keep fishing that rod. If you put a nicer reel on it, it saves you money in the long run if you stick with the sport, when you decide to upgrade or change to a different rod – your reel goes with you. And it’s not like one single action reel is terribly different than another – they just look different, but mechanically they’re pretty much the same as the old school brass reels of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. We just have fancier finishes, and better metallurgy today. Of course – I wouldn’t spend *too* much on my first reel either – not until I decide I like the sport.

The one thing I will flatly recommend you spring for the best stuff on right off the bat is your fly line. THAT is no place to scrimp. A crappy fly line on the best rod will perform with mediocrity, but a great fly line on a cheap rod will still turn over smoothly and transfer power effectively into your leeder and turn your flies over – provided you do your part of course. And given that a high end fly line will only set you back about $60 or 70 – it’s one of the least expensive of the high end toys in fly fishing, and they’re worth every penny you spend. Good lines float higher, have slicker coatings, less line memory…they’re easier to cast, easier to mend, and make casting much more enjoyable – especially when you find the right type of taper for your casting style. Try your rod out with different double tapers and weight forward lines. Try the rod with a line size too heavy, and a line size too light. Sometimes the line weight written on the rod isn’t the right line for you. That super stiff 5 weight boom stick probably really is just a 6 weight blank, that they are calling a 5.

The more you dig into fly fishing, and read about things – you’ll hear of lines like the Wulff Triangle Tapers, and Jim Teeny lines. Both fine lines – the Wulff is more of a general duty line – while the Teeny lines are more application specific.

In my next section, I’ll cover other useful pieces of equipment.

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