How to

Switching to Fly

Interested in learning how to fly fish? Keen wand waver BRAD THOMPSON explains the basics.

FOR some reason, I recently had cause to reflect on the first time I cast a fly. I’d just flipped a rock and was trying to identify – at least in size and colour – the myriad of critters that sought refuge on the riverbed. A range of mayfly nymphs were skittering over the rock along with countless caddis larvae hidden in their temporary stick houses. Five years ago, before I was a fly fisherman, I didn’t even know – let alone care – what a nymph was. Now I take photographs of them! How did this happen? How did I go from casual estuary and beach fisho to a self-confessed trout addict? More importantly, what have I learned along the way, and what would I do differently?

This article is aimed at helping those of you with a hankering to try fly-fishing with the basics you need to get started out. A word of warning: learning to fly fish takes commitment and time. If you don’t want to put the time in to learn it properly, then don’t even start …

Slow down
It may sound basic, or even stupid, but the single most important piece of fly-fishing advice that I have received is to “slow down”. No bumbling up to the river, striding straight into the first pool and lobbing one out. Make yourself a brew and take a minute to observe your environs. Is the weather as predicted? What is the water level and temperature? Any insects dead on the car? Any fish rising? Any nymphs under rocks? Any other bastard on the river? There is something to be said for ruthlessly and efficiently targeting likely trout lies by moving quickly through pools and runs to cover more ground. However, the slow and steady approach, in my experience, is the way to go when starting off.

Slowing down can be surprisingly hard to do. Nobody fishes as much as they would like and the temptation is strong to hit the river quick and hard. Fly-fishing is about adjusting to the rhythm of the river and the environment. It’s about learning the life cycle of the river and all its tenants, even fleeting ones like grasshoppers and beetles. It’s about trying to solve a multi-variable equation, where each of the inputs vary from day to day and can only be determined through careful observation. Variables such as:

Where: The famous US fly-fisher Jim Teeney says, “If I can spot ’em, I got ’em”. Spotting fish will dramatically increase your catch rate and your enjoyment. So slow down and methodically scan that pool. If conditions are not favourable for spotting fish (high, dirty water or significant cloud cover), learn where trout lie during various times of the year. There is plenty of good literature on trout lies but there is no substitute for spending time on the water. In this case, it may be worthwhile concentrating the first few months on getting to know one river intimately and learning more about trout lies that way. That knowledge can then be applied to other rivers in due course.

What: Obviously if you can identify the exact insect that the trout is feeding on, you can “match the hatch” and choose an appropriate fly. While this is not always necessary, it certainly helps. Associated with that is what level the fish are feeding at. Surface feeders may be easier to spot, but fish taking nymphs sub-surface may be more difficult to identify. Once the feeding level is determined, then the appropriate fly pattern for the water level and flow can be determined.

When: Different food sources will be more prevalent at differing times during the day. Sometimes fish feed only during low light, other times they will be active all day.

How: Once you’ve figured out all of the above, you then need to figure out how to get a fly to the fish without spooking it. Trout have an excellent awareness of their environment and clumsy fishing is rarely rewarded.

Get some help
Well, you’re reading this magazine so it would be safe to assume that you already understand the importance of reading widely. Talk to anyone and everyone when you are starting out in fly-fishing. Some of the best advice will be a gem from a stranger you pass on the stream. For the most part, fly fishos are a sharing lot, and as long as you aren’t casting ahead of someone or tramping through their pool, you will be met with encouragement and assistance.

A couple of areas where I would strongly suggest getting help early on are casting and streamcraft. Fly-casting is not as difficult as it seems but it is much easier to learn with professional assistance than from reading about it in a book. There are quite a few reputable casting instructors around who are not only gun casters, but also excellent instructors. Make use of them. Similarly, there are some fundamental streamcraft lessons that made no sense to me in a book. Chief among these are reading the water and line management. Organising a guide to help with your streamcraft after your casting reaches the “good enough” stage will help explain some of critical concepts such as drag management. This help costs money but a little cash stimulation early in the project will pay dividends in the long run.

If you are already mates with (or can befriend) a gun fly fisho then you’ve got it made in the shade. Spend as much time as you can with them on the river and always ask “why”. Either way, your fishing will exponentially improve with some solid guidance early on in the project.

Try & try again
I can’t remember how many times someone’s yelled at me in the park: “The water is that way!” If you can’t get to the river often enough to practice your casting, head down to the local park. Just watch out for mothers with prams on your back cast! Fly-fishing really is a game of persistence. It took me nearly six months to independently land my first trout on fly and I’ll never forget it.

What type of rod?
It all depends on where you’ll be fishing, but for moderate sized-streams and lakes, a 9ft 6/7-weight rod with a medium action is a good place to start. Seek advice at your local tackle store and online, but basically buy the most expensive rod that you can afford. Cheap, poorly matched combos should be avoided (they will set your casting back). If you are exclusively fishing salt water, you should go higher, anywhere from 8 to 10 weight, depending exactly on local conditions. A good quality generic line to start with is a weight forward floating line, something reasonably dull in colour. For trout fishing, the reel is less important than the rod and line, but go for the best you can get. Plastic cheapies in general should be avoided.

Do I need waders?
In short, yes. If you plan to fish a lot, or to do a lot of walking to get off the beaten track, you should invest in a pair of breathable chest waders with neoprene stockings and wading boots. Maintained well, these should last a couple of seasons. The chest length gives you more flexibility and the breathable material ensures you stay cool in the summer and have some protection against snakes. During late autumn and spring, you can adjust to the cooler water temperatures by wearing thermals. If you are going to fish and walk less, you can definitely get away with canvas thigh or chest waders, which are significantly cheaper. And don’t forget Aquaseal for plugging any small leaks.

And the rest…
There are a few  other accessories that I would say are essential in any starters kit. A fly vest, a fly box and polarised sunglasses top the list. You can work the rest out later.                

If this all sounds overly daunting, take a step back. Fly-fishing is not fundamentally different from any other type of fishing. It may be magical, but it’s not magic! If you set yourself a reasonable plan, soak up the beautiful surrounds and learn from
as many people as possible, the mysterious world of fly-fishing for trout will slowly reveal itself. The rest is simply a lifetime of adventure.

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