If you’ve ever wondered what on earth fly fishing is all about, the wait is over. We’re here to answer your pressing questions and send you skipping off to a river near you!
Most people’s first reference for fly fishing is a young Brad Pitt circa 1992 standing in the middle of a river in Montana in the film A River Runs Through It. Here’s an excuse to connect with your inner Brad Pitt.
My name is Faith E. Briggs and I’ve been fly fishing for three years. I’m excited to share with you what I’ve learned so far and connect you with a few people who you can look to for advice. Here’s what you need to know!
Why + What
Fly fishing is a fun way to bring sport and science to the art of catching fish. Instead of using lures or live bait, the aim is to use artificial “flies” to catch fish. Flies are hooks with intricate patterns tied on them meant to mimic bugs and small critters which fish eat. A hook can be referred to as an angle, so when fly fishing you are called an “angler.” As an angler you get to stand in the middle of the river, feel the water flow around your legs and be a part of the river system for a brief moment in time.
In fly fishing you need flies, a rod, fishing line and clippers to cut the line. It will inevitably get snagged in trees and you’ll want to cut flies off to switch them out. Save your teeth! Bring some “nippers” or nail clippers! In cold water you’ll also want to don a pair of waders and wading boots so you can get into the river without getting wet.
Before you go, don’t forget to get a fishing license and read up on regional fishing regulations! This is essential and legally required. Your local U.S. Fish & Wildlife website will include information about seasonal fishing regulations.
Don’t be intimidated
Tracy Nguyen-Chung is the founder of Brown Folks Fishing, a collective of anglers and sport fishermen dedicated to wider representation, greater visibility and increased diversity in fishing. I’m proud to be both a Brown Folks Fishing and an Outdoor Voices ambassador! I asked Tracy and some of the Brown Folks Fishing ambassadors for advice on how to get started. “Tenkara fishing was my gateway to fly fishing,” Tracy says. “I found it more affordable, portable (for hikes or traveling!), and simple. I could carry just a few flies at a time and usually find success.”
Local Fly Shops aka Knowledge Gems
Other ways to find success include getting local knowledge. Different fish “run” on different rivers. Some rivers have summer steelhead while others have local trout year-round. Stopping into a local fly shop before you hit the river is a great way to learn where to go, what flies to use and to see a bunch of local fishing photos for inspo (you might get the last part even if you don’t ask!).
When to Fish
Sometimes people fish based on “hatches,” that is the time each year where a huge amount of flies emerge from nymph stage and are crawling all over the brush near rivers. There are annual hatches that you could plan to schedule a fishing trip around. Brown Folks Fishing ambassador, Erica Nelson, also had great advice about picking flies. “Trying to select a fly can appear intimidating, you’re wondering if you’re “doing it right.” I have found plenty of luck when I go against advice and try something new, I like to think the fish are stoked to see something different. On other days, I also like to try and “match the hatch,” where I arrive at the river and just sit and observe. I look at what kind of flies are buzzing about and try to match the same color and size. The fish sees the bug from underneath so try to see the color patterns on the actual fly and match yours. If you can pick up a fly and turn it upside down, try and match that to what you got in your stash. It will appear like a nice tasty something that they are already munching on. Either way, have fun and experiment. It’s the best way to learn.” If you want to play in the mud and pick up some bugs, there’s a great excuse!
At Brown Folks Fishing, we work closely with Orvis. Orvis is a fly-fishing focused brand that works with local outfitters to find and train people who are “Orvis approved.” This means they are trained to interact with newbies to the sport and seek to make sure people don’t feel silly for asking a ton of questions and get the help they need to get started. It can feel like a steep learning curve at the beginning, but with a few friends you’ll fall in love quickly. Many people fish with fishing guides the first few times. It’s a little pricier but you can learn a lot and Orvis will have suggestions for you.
Chrissy Atkins is one of the women behind 50/50 on the Water, an Orvis-led, industry-wide campaign to increase gender parity in fly fishing. Chrissy says, “YouTube is an awesome resource, you’ll find tons of free information. A quick casting lesson or Fly Fishing 101 class at your local fly shop can also make a huge difference when you’re starting out.” A quick class on technique can make a huge difference and there are so many places to practice. “One of the best pieces of advice I got around learning to cast was to practice on the lawn or at a nearby park for 20-30 minutes at a time. Walk away before you get tired and bad habits kick in!”
Think Like a Fish
Fish don’t like hot weather, stagnant water or water that is too fast. Think about where you might want to hang out to avoid the heat if you were a fish and cast in that direction.
Tracy says, “What was more critical to being able to catch fish wasn’t necessarily my technical skills with fly fishing, but my ability to read water — looking at the surface of body or water and identify where fish were likely to be — and understand fish behavior. For instance, in moving water such as a stream or river, you might find trout holding or staying in one place in riffles or pocket water. In a lake, trout behave differently, typically swimming the circumference of the lake and usually not far from shore. I might cover a lot of ground walking along a river to find trout, while in a lake I might plant myself in one place and wait for them to come by.”
The Technique: Casting
Casting is the hardest part, but there are tons of resources online. Rather than waste you time describing it, here is an in-depth description with images guide. We also wanted to share a few videos with our friends. Here is a technique video from Orvis guide Alvin Dedeaux, based in Austin, Texas. Here is our friend and advocate Hilary Hutcheson fishing on the Blackfoot River in Missoula, Montana.
The Technique: Catch that fish!
When you feel a nibble, it’s time to “set your hook” to make sure you don’t lose your fish. Once you feel a bite, yank your hook straight into the air. The bigger this fish, the more time it might take to land. Once you’ve set the hook, you get to start yelling, “Fish on!” and hopefully a friend or a guide has a net and can help you out! Even little fish have a lot of fight in them. This might mean it’s going to take awhile and you might need to let the fish tire itself out by letting some line out when they are fighting and reeling when they seem tired. If you’re on or near solid ground, walking backwards while reeling sometimes helps. When you get the fish to shallower water, it’s easier to net. Once you’ve caught your fish and hopefully snapped a quick fish pic, it’s time to quickly release your fish back in the water or… get ready for dinner!
Erica also reminds us that snags and knots are a part of the process. “One thing I didn’t realize til after meeting all kinds of people that have either been fishing their entire lives, professionals, or just started, you can bet we all talk about the same issues and problems: hooking yourself, catching more trees than fish, losing countless flies. I wish someone told me this was normal, as I got embarrassed a lot trying to untangle my line from the bush. However, learning that this happens to everyone took the pressure off and I stopped being embarrassed and instead started owning that this is part of fly fishing!”
Fly fishing is a great way to get outside and try something new and it should be fun! Our friend and angler Chris Hill is the Sierra Club’s Associate Director for the Lands, Water and Wildlife campaign. Her last piece of advice is, “Have fun! Everyone will offer you fly fishing advice, loads of unsolicited advice. And it will always contradict the last piece of advice you got. Just do you out in the water. Grab some friends and have fun. Fly fishing takes time to learn, but eventually it’ll click. At the end of a fishing day, it’s not about how many fish you catch or how big your fish was, it’s about being outside, reconnecting with nature and enjoying quality time with buddies.”
Love fly fishing? Let us know about your best times. If we missed anything, be sure to share your best fly fishing practices and pro-tips with us below.