Getting Started in Fly Fishing

Getting into fly fishing can seem overwhelming. And one of the most overwhelming aspects can be the gear. You see fly fishers on the stream who look like members of SEAL Team 6 with the arsenal of gadgets, gear and packs strapped to various places on their bodies. If you walk into a fly shop, it gets even more complicated when you see the endless displays of rods, reels, lines, tools, waders and thousands of fly patterns. Where in the world do you start?

First, it’s important to understand that there are things that you need to go fly fishing and there are other things that might just make a certain task easier but aren’t essential. And there are other things that are just fun or cool! Listed below is a list and description of necessary items to get going in fly fishing. From there you can add all of the extra bells and whistles you want.

The Essential Essentials

Fly Rod: Probably goes without saying but you’ll need a fly rod to get started. Rods vary in size and what exactly you need depends on where you plan to be fishing and what you plan to fish for. And prices are all over the place. You don’t need a $1000  fly rod to get into the sport, but buy the best rod you can afford. Learn more about fly rods.

Fly Reel: The reel will need to be an appropriate size to match the rod and line size you’ll be using. For most freshwater fly fishing, the reel is more of a line storage device than a fish fighting tool and it doesn’t require much of an investment. In saltwater fly fishing, the reel is probably the most valuable piece of equipment and you will want to invest a significant amount of your fly fishing budget. Learn more about fly reels.

Fly Line: The fly line is a critical piece of the equation as it is the weighted line that you will be casting. You don’t need a $100 fly line to start fly fishing but, like the rod, a good fly line can make a big difference and you should buy the best you can afford. Learn more about fly lines.

Terminal Tackle

Leader: The leader is the tapered, “invisible” connection between your fly line and the fly. It provides the critical transfer of energy during the cast that allows the fly to land properly on the water. The skinny tippet end of the leader allows the fly to drift properly. Leaders are relatively inexpensive and are something that you will replace regularly. Learn more about leaders.

Tippet: When you buy a leader, it has a tippet section built in. It’s the thinnest part of the tapered leader. You will want to have spools of tippet material to rebuild or alter the leader as the tippet section gets shorter through the process of changing or breaking off flies. Learn more about tippet.

Flies: Flies are what we use as lures in fly fishing and there are A LOT of choices! Sometimes specific flies that match a hatch are required but often, a few generic fly patterns are all you need to catch fish. Get started with a basic selection of generic patterns and add to them gradually. Learn more about fly selection.

Tools & Gadgetry

Nippers: I suppose you could use your teeth but I’d recommend a pair nippers for cutting your line. Nail clippers will work in a pinch but they are made of incredibly cheap metal. You’ll start seeing nicks in the blades almost immediately and it won’t take long for them to rust. For about $10 you can get a pair of stainless nippers that will last a whole lot longer and they include a nifty “needle tool” for clearing the hook eye. Learn more about nippers.

Hemostats: I use these for everything. They’re helpful for hook extraction, crimping barbs, crimping split shot… you name it! You can use the ones your buddy that works at the hospital gave you, but those are built to be disposable. They’re fine to get started but I wouldn’t wait to long before buying some durable ones made for fly fishing. Learn more about hemostats.

Fly Box: You’re going to need something to put those flies in. An Altoid box might do the trick in the beginning but it won’t take long to outgrow that. There are a lot of different sizes and styles of fly boxes to suit any organizational and storage needs. Learn more about fly boxes.

Not Essential but Pretty Darn Useful

Strike Indicators: If you’re going to do much nymphing, particularly in slower water, you’ll want some of these. Just don’t call them bobbers. They come in a variety of styles, shapes and colors. Learn more about strike indicators.

Split Shot: Again, if you plan to do much nymphing, this will be something you want. Many nymphs have their own weight built in but some don’t. And some that do need more. These are just small weights of various sizes that can be crimped on to leader to add weight. Learn more about split shot.

Polarized Sunglasses: It’s all I can do to not put these on the essential list. Polarized glasses cut glare on the water allowing you to better see the stream bottom, your fly and sometime the fish. I never fish without them. Learn more about polarized sunglasses.

Fishing Pack or Vest: While not essential, you’re going to need some way to carry all of this stuff around with you on the stream. You can probably find something to get you by in the beginning. For me, it was my uncle’s marine shirt with the two big chest pockets. But you’ll soon want something designed for the task. Learn more about packs and vests.

Waders and Wading Boots: How soon or how badly you need these items will depend on where you fish and what time of year you fish. Learn more about waders. Learn more about wading boots.

Landing and Handling Trout

Smoky Mountain Rainbow
A lovely release

It all finally came together. You made a good cast to the right spot and your fly is drifting down the current for mere seconds before a trout intercepts it. You react quickly with a smooth lift of the rod and the fish is hooked. Maintaining steady pressure, you resist against the trout’s evasive maneuvers and inch him closer to you. Now what?

For many, this is when a panic party ensues in an attempt to wrangle the trout and remove the hook from his mouth. You end up dropping your rod in the water and filling the reel with sand all while tying yourself up in a web of fly line and leader. For others, this may be when they begin a long, slow process of torturing the fish in an attempt for that perfect photo.

Catching a fish should be a fun experience and it should be quick and painless for you and the fish! Here are a few tips to show you how:

Playing the Fish

The first rule here is you want to make the fight as quick as possible. Don’t try to keep the fish on longer than necessary in order to feel it more or hope he jumps. Put solid, steady pressure on the fish with the rod and get him in as soon as you can. This is a stressful experience for a fish. Trying to extend the fight only exhausts the fish and can reduce his chance of survival.

Playing Fish with Side Pressure
Good use of side pressure

This is especially true with bigger fish. Certainly it will take longer to bring in a large fish, but it shouldn’t be an all day affair. Don’t be afraid to use that flexible lever called a fly rod to put pressure on the fish. You always want to have a bend in that rod and try to do the opposite of what the fish does. If the fish runs to the left, drop your rod to the right and put side pressure on him. If he goes to the right, drop your rod to the left. If he runs straight away, hold the rod straight up.

Try to always have a bend in the rod and never point the rod tip toward the fish. If he pulls so hard that the rod tip is being pulled forward, let him take some line while still maintaining that steady pressure. If you find yourself at a standstill with the fish where he’s not really running or coming to, try to bring his head to the surface. This will usually accomplish one of two things. He’ll either submit and slide right to you, or he’ll make another run and hopefully burn off one last bit of energy so you can land him. Remember that you want to be the one in control – as much as possible! All of this will not only help ensure that the fish will stay on the line, but it will shorten the fight, which benefits you and the fish.

Landing the Fish

I see a lot of people, beginners mostly, bring in line to where the fish is just inches from the tip of the rod. This habit probably comes from fishing with a shorter spin or bait rod. But your average fly rod is 8-9′ long and if you reel or strip your fly line and leader all the way into the rod guides you’re going to encounter three problems.

First, if it’s a large fish that decides to make one last run, the knot connection between the leader and fly line can easily get hung in the guides resulting in a break off. Second, if you pull that much line in, it leaves the fish close to your rod tip and you can’t reach him without sticking your rod in the water or trying to set it on a bank. Not only does that increase risk of damage to your rod and reel, it’s just really awkward. Third, if and when you do get hold of the fish, you don’t have any slack line, which makes it extremely difficult to remove the hook.

Landing a Trout
A nice example of landing a fish

Always try to leave at least a little bit of fly line past the tip. To land the fish, reach your rod up and behind you and grab the fish or the end of the leader with your other hand. Once you have it, bring your rod back down and forward and you’ll have slack line for easier hook removal. A landing net makes this process easier, where you just scoop the fish in the net rather than grabbing it. I don’t usually fool with a net in the mountains because your average fish isn’t very big and can be easily managed by hand. I always try to have a net in places like tailwaters where I’m more apt to catch bigger average fish.

Handling the Fish

There’s a reason we don’t see fish walking around in our yard. They can’t live out of water. And the longer we keep them out of water when landing them, the more harm we are causing them. Try to make this process as quick as possible.

I will often not remove the fish from the water at all. I land them as described above but rather than grabbing the line or fish, I will simply clamp the fly with my hemostats. With a little twist of the wrist, the hook usually comes right out and the fish swims away happy and unharmed without ever coming out of the water. You can do the same with a fish that has been netted. Just put the hemostats on the fly while the fish is in the net. This works even better (as does any hook removal) with barbless hooks. I almost always crimp the barbs on my hooks and encourage you to do the same.

The only reason I can think of that you would need to remove the fish from the water is if you’re going to take a picture of it. Actually, you can get some pretty cool pictures of the fish in the water, but if you want to be in it too, than the fish will need to come out of the water – or you’ll need to go in!

Photographing Fish

If you are going to handle trout, it is important to first wet your hands. They have skin, rather than scales, that contains a “slimy” protective coating. Dry hands can remove or damage that coating making them more susceptible to disease. Now back to the obvious statement above, fish don’t live out of the water, so try to do this as quickly as possible.

Don’t hold the fish in one hand while you fumble around to pack or vest looking for your camera. And most definitely don’t walk downstream with the fish so your buddy can take a picture. Preparation is the key here.

For starters, keep your camera in a place that’s easy to get to, not tucked away in your backpack. Try to keep the fish in the water until the camera is out, on and ready. Then grab the fish gently (with wet hands), take your picture and get him right back in the water. Remember you’re not shooting the cover of Vogue. You don’t need ten different poses from the fish. Get one or two quick shots then get him back in the water.

I can’t resist a brief rant here. You don’t need a picture of every fish you catch! I definitely understand getting a couple of photographic memories from the day. I certainly do the same. Maybe get a shot of the two or three bigger ones, or maybe that one that was just a little more colorful. But your Instagram followers don’t need to see fifteen pictures of what looks like the exact same fish. I know. It’s the world in which we live.

Tips for Better Photos

Face cropped to protect the innocent

While we’re on the subject of photographing fish, there are a few things to keep in mind that will be better on the fish and will result in a better photo. The first thing is to show the fish to the camera, not your hands. Don’t grip the fish like it’s a baseball bat. The fish won’t love it and you’ll be disappointed in your picture. Instead, gently cup the fish from behind so that you can see as much of it as possible. I recommend one hand for smaller fish and two hands for bigger fish – assuming you have someone else to take the picture.

The guitar pose

Try to avoid putting pressure on his fins and certainly try to keep your fingers away from his gills. Hold him right-side up (yes, a lot of people hold them upside down) and try to extend him away from your body a little, rather than pinning him against your body like a guitar.

While I do recommend handling the fish as little as possible, I do suggest holding the fish for a good photo, even if it’s in the net. Many anglers try to hold the line with the fish suspended. This results in a rotating fish and a “Hail Mary” for the photographer, attempting to snap the shot at just the right time in the rotation.

The million dollar question is what to do with the rod. The trendy thing for a while was for anglers to put the rod in their teeth. More recently, folks have taken to resting the rod behind their head on their shoulders. Y’all are stuck with my opinion here, but my opinion is that both of these things look stupid. If you’re near the bank, you can set the rod down. If you’re not, just stick it under your shoulder. But it’s your picture and if you want to stick your rod in your mouth like a dog with a bone, have at it!

Releasing the Fish

Smaller fish tend to be a bit more resilient. Typically, you just set them back in the water and they dart away. Bigger fish, however, tend to need a little more time. They are often tired from the fight and will sometimes want to float on you if you just toss them back in the water. This doesn’t mean that you need to do some weird version of fish CPR that I’ve seen many anglers attempt.

Releasing Trout
A nice release

Just find a little slower patch of water out of the main current and set the fish in it. Before you let him go, simply keep a hand on him underwater, gently supporting him and keeping him upright. The fish will soon begin to wiggle his tail and eventually swim away on his own power.

Reusable Water Bottles

My grandfather always thought it was absurd that people bought water in plastic bottles. That someone would go to the store and pay for something that comes out of the kitchen sink, throw it away and do it again absolutely blew his mind. Even worse he thought, were all the plastic water bottles people didn’t throw away – the ones he regularly found at the places he hunted and fished.

My grandfather fly fishing for “channel cats” mid 1930’s

No, he wasn’t an environmental activist. He was an insurance claims adjuster from a small town in the Midwest who rarely had anything at all to say about politics or activism. Instead, his perspective likely came partially from that common generational reluctance to embrace a different way of doing things. He was from the canteen generation. But his perspective was also greatly influenced by living through the Great Depression, when most folks simply couldn’t afford not to reuse everything.

My grandfather’s approach to the simple task of taking water into the woods was born purely out of necessity and common sense. Now there’s a whole lot of data that says he was right for reasons he knew at the time and for reasons he couldn’t possibly have foreseen: the overflowing landfills, the wasted oil, the wasted energy, the leaking toxins, the impact on wildlife and the mountains of plastic waste that end up in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.

However, my intent is not to write a detailed article on the specific detrimental impacts of single use plastics. There are an overwhelming number of articles and studies on the topic already. If you are unfamiliar with the problem or don’t believe there is a problem, I recommend taking a little time to research.

When it comes to fishing trips, I have always used reusable containers to carry my water. When I was a kid, I used a canteen like my grandfather did. In more recent years, I’ve been using hydration bladders or stainless steel water bottles. The choices today are vast from simple, inexpensive containers to those heavy, high dollar Yetis that will keep ice for days. As with any other piece of fly fishing gear, you just have to find what works best for you. All are better alternatives than buying water in single use plastic bottles.

Partly because I do consider myself an environmentalist and probably more because of the influence of my grandfather, I try to reduce waste as much as possible, whether it’s water bottles or anything else. If you have ever had one of my guide trip lunches, I provide real forks and cloth napkins not to be fancy (as some have commented), but because they are reusable. Lunches are also packed in reusable containers. There are a few things in the lunches that need to be wrapped either for practicality or sanitary reasons, but I’m proud to say the only thing that gets thrown away from one of my lunches is two pieces of cling wrap!

The fact is it would be way easier to pick up a boxed lunch full of disposable containers, paper napkins and plastic utensils and just throw it away at the end of the day. One of my least favorite things to do at the end of every day is to go home and clean all the lunch containers. Yes, it is WAY more work but to me, it is worth it.

I’m not trying to preach here or act superior because I produce less waste. I’ve used my share of disposable containers and I have certainly succumbed to the convenience of a single use plastic water bottle. After all, we do live in a world of convenience and sometimes you just don’t have a choice. But sometimes with just a little more effort, you do.

For years, while carrying my personal water in reusable containers on guide trips, I provided single use water bottles for clients. Yes, those water bottles were recycled after use but there are a lot of questions about the viability of recycling single use water bottles. I have always wanted to eliminate those plastic bottles altogether from my guide trips but thought I didn’t have a choice. It turns out I do. Much like my lunches, it will require a lot more work (and a little more expense) on my end, but like the lunches, I think it’s worth it.

New guide trip water bottles

Effective immediately, I will no longer be providing plastic water bottles on guided fishing trips. Instead, I am encouraging each client to provide his or her own reusable container for water. Many of my clients do this already. For anyone who does not have their own water/container, I will provide aluminum bottles of water. These bottles will be cleaned thoroughly at the end of each trip and reused for future trips.

Sure this will cost me a little more money and it will definitely be more work, but it’s worth it. As someone once told me, “I may not be able to make this world any better, but I sure as hell don’t have to make it worse!”

Balancing a Fly Rod

Every year, it seems every fly rod company comes out with a new rod that is not only supposed to cast itself, but is substantially lighter than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, the average graphite rod today is probably about 1/3 the weight of the average graphite rod of 30 years ago. And that difference is far more substantial when you start comparing the weight of today’s graphite rods to the bamboo and fiberglass rods that your father or grandfather may have used. But none of this matters if your rod is not properly balanced by your reel.

It’s a phenomenon called “levered weight.” If you carry two 20lb. buckets of water, one in each hand, it will feel more comfortable than carrying just one 20lb. bucket of water in one hand. One side balances out the other. The same concept applies if you have the lightest fly rod on the market but have a reel on it that is too heavy. It will feel heavier in your hand than a heavier rod that is properly balanced by its reel.

Pretty well balanced rod

When it comes to trout fishing and really, most freshwater in general, your reel does not play a very significant role. Unless, you just have to have “the best,” it is not necessary to sink a lot of money into a reel. However, just because it may not be the most important piece of equipment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some consideration into things like its size. It needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the fly line and appropriate amount of backing, and it needs to balance the rod. In most cases, a rod and reel are balanced if it will self-balance when you set it on one finger positioned near the tip of the cork grip.

In the picture above, the reel is just a little too heavy for the rod. I prefer the balance point to be just a little closer to the tip of the cork. But it’s close enough to not feel uncomfortable.

Most companies will designate specific reel sizes for specific line and rod sizes. If a reel is for 4 – 6 weight lines, it not only means it has the capacity to store those line sizes, but it should balance most 4 – 6 weight rods. Of course, things like the material from which the rod is made and the length of the rod can determine if it actually falls in the “balance range” of that particular reel. If your rod is a short, super light 4-weight, you may want to bump down to the next smaller size. On the other hand, if your rod is a 6-weight bamboo, you may want to bump up to the next larger reel size.

The design of the reel seat on the rod will also be a factor. Almost all modern graphite rods have an uplocking reel seat, which positions the reel just behind the cork grip. Some bamboo rods may have a downlocking reel seat, which puts the reel almost right at the butt of the rod. The latter can help when trying to balance a heavier rod.

As reels become lighter and lighter, it has become far more difficult to find appropriate size reels to balance bamboo rods. However, one reel manufacturer, Ursus, has designed a reel that has removable brass plates on the interior. The weight of the brass plates help to balance heavier bamboo rods. When using the reel on a lighter graphite rod, the plates can be removed. Pretty cool.

In any case, no matter what rod you fish with, keep this in mind when selecting your reel. It will greatly reduce casting fatigue and result in much more enjoyable days on the water!

Poppers

Fly Fishing Popper
Hard Body Popper

A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.

Deer Hair Popper
Deer Hair Popper

Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.

What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water.  A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.

Sneaky Pete Slider
Hard Body Slider

A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.

Fly Line Backing

Orvis Dacron Fly Line Backing
Dacron Backing

There are many fly anglers that don’t even know that they have fly line backing on their reel. Many more are aware that it’s there, but have no idea why. It’s just something the kid at the fly shop added when he strung up the reel and fly line you bought. If you’re a freshwater trout fisherman, it’s of no obvious value because you likely never see it. If you’re a saltwater fisherman, you’ve seen it plenty of times… and it made you nervous! Whether you’re accustomed to seeing your backing or not, it has value to you as a fly fisherman.

But what is it? For starters, backing is a thin, synthetic line that connects your fly line to your reel. It is most often made of Dacron, a strong synthetic material that will not dry rot and will likely never need to be replaced. So, even though you may need to replace your fly line every few years or so, you’ll likely just attach it to the same backing that was originally put on your reel. It has two primary purposes: to fill up space on the reel and to act as an “insurance policy.”

Let’s first talk about its role as insurance policy. The average fly line is 90–100 feet in length. So, if you make a 40’ cast and hook a large fish that runs 50’ or more, you’re in big trouble! But with an additional length of backing on the reel, you are able to deal with longer runs made by big fish. So, why not just use longer fly lines?

Fly lines are expensive. A 90’ fly line will commonly cost $50-$100. However, you can get 100 yards of backing for about $5-$10. Some fly shops even give you the backing for free when you buy a reel and line from them. And again, you’ll likely never have to replace it. What’s that, you say? You only fish small streams and there is little to no chance of a fish running out 100 feet of line?

As mentioned above, the other purpose of backing is to fill space on the reel. Fly line has a significant amount of “memory,” and if you wind it directly on the small spindle of a trout reel, it will create small tight coils in the fly line. It will also require more turns of the reel to pick up line. However, by filling the reel with an appropriate amount of backing, you create a larger arbor for the fly line to rest on. As a result, you’ll have larger, more manageable coils in the fly line and more efficient line retrieval.  

The average trout reel will have a capacity to hold the fly line and probably 50–100 yards of backing. Larger saltwater reels will hold significantly more – anywhere from 200–600 yards. How much backing a reel holds depends on the size of the reel, the size fly line on the reel, and the type of backing used.

Dacron backing typically comes in sizes 12–30 pound test, with the heavier strength taking up more space. Gel-spun polyethylene backing is also available. It is more expensive but has a significantly greater strength to diameter ratio. For that reason, gel-spun backing is often the choice for saltwater fishermen.

Multi-colored Fly Line Backing

Finally, backing has become a bit of a fashion statement for many fly anglers in recent years. While it has traditionally come in white, there are now multiple colors of backing available, providing brighter color schemes on the reel.

How Stuff Works: Fluorocarbon

Orvis Mirage Tippet Spool
Fluorocarbon Tippet

In the general population of humans, you regularly find two extreme views when those humans are contemplating two similar items that are priced significantly different. One perspective reasons that the two items are so similar that there is no way the more expensive item could be that much better. The other perspective assumes that because an item is more expensive, it must be better. When it comes to choosing fluorocarbon or nylon fishing line, you can bet both of those assumptions are regularly made. And both of those assumptions are very wrong.

Fluorocarbon began gaining popularity as a material for fishing line in the early 2000’s. It was billed as invisible and came with a cost nearly three times that of its nylon counterpart. That pricing disparity is still present today. For example, a 30-meter spool of Orvis nylon tippet costs $4.95. A 30-meter spool of Orvis fluorocarbon tippet costs $14.95. That’s a pretty big difference! But is fluorocarbon that much better?

First, it’s important to understand that the higher price of fluorocarbon is more a result of its manufacturing process than it is its fishing value. With that said, it does have some significant advantages over nylon, but it has a few disadvantages too.  Where you’re fishing, what you’re fishing with and what you’re trying to accomplish should ultimately determine which material will best suit your needs.  Below is a categorical contrast between fluorocarbon and nylon to help you decide.

Strength:

When you compare nylon and fluorocarbon of the same diameter, it will vary a little from brand to brand, but fluorocarbon nearly always has a higher breaking strength. And fluorocarbon is a harder material so it is significantly more abrasion resistant.

Visibility:

The light refractive index of fluorocarbon is very similar to that of fresh water. For this reason, it is far less visible in the water than nylon. Do you want to see for yourself? Take a piece of 5X nylon tippet and a piece of 5X fluorocarbon tippet and dip them in a glass of water.

Density:

Fluorocarbon is denser than water, which means it sinks. That’s a good thing if you’re trying to drift a nymph near the bottom. It’s not a good thing if you’re trying to drift a dry fly on the surface. Nylon suspends on the water, making it a far better choice when fishing dry flies.

Knotability:

Nylon is far suppler than fluorocarbon, giving it a big edge when it comes to knots. Because fluorocarbon is stiffer, the knot often doesn’t seat properly. Since the knot is always the weakest link in your set-up, this can sometimes offset the superior breaking strength of fluorocarbon. When tying knots with fluorocarbon, take your time and use extra care to ensure that your knots seat well.

Summary:

I personally use both of these materials, depending mostly on where I’m fishing. In the Smokies, I fish a lot of dry flies. And even when I’m nymph fishing, it’s usually in fast, broken water where line visibility is just not an issue. For those reasons, I almost exclusively use nylon. Fluorocarbon just doesn’t seem to provide any real advantage.

However, on many tailwaters like the Clinch, most of the runs are very clear, unbroken and slow moving. Therefore, line visibility can be a major factor. Additionally, I am fishing with nymphs probably 90% of the time on rivers like the Clinch. Other than the handful of times I’m using a dry fly, you can bet I have fluorocarbon tippet tied to my fly on the tailwaters.

What I do not use, however, are fluorocarbon leaders. Even when I’m nymphing, I still need to control the depth of the fly and I don’t want the entire leader to sink. On the Clinch, I’m usually only fishing a couple of feet deep. So, I prefer to use a traditional nylon leader with the appropriate amount of fluorocarbon tippet attached to the end. 

Another situation when I routinely use fluorocarbon is when I’m sight fishing for carp on mud flats. The water on these flats is usually slightly stained so tippet visibility is not a great concern. But I’m hooking a commonly 5 to 20-pound fish in about a foot of water. That fish is inevitably going to run me over rocks and chunks of wood while I fight him and I like having the superior abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon to get him landed.

In conclusion, don’t let price dictate your choice one way or another. Think about the place you’re going to be fishing. Consider the methods you’ll be using. Weigh these things in your mind and choose the best tool for the job!

The Effect of Severe Weather on Trout

In the wake of our recent heat wave and drought conditions in East Tennessee, I’ve been hearing the same question that always surfaces after a severe weather event…. the same questions that came up after out flooding in February 2019. What does this do to the trout? It depends. It depends on the fishery and it depends on the fish.

First, let me clarify that what I’m going to talk about here is severe conditions. For instance, a few hot days and a little bit of low water does not constitute drought. Those conditions have to persist over a longer period of time. Similarly, a few days of high water doesn’t equal severe flooding. What we’ve had this February (2019) is severe flooding.

Bald River Falls, TN
Bald River Falls after last week’s floods

In general, when you get severe conditions as described above, you’re going to lose some fish. A major drought is harmful to all trout but tends to impact the bigger fish. Low, hot water depletes oxygen and bigger fish require more oxygen. A major flooding event will have the greatest impact on younger, smaller trout because they don’t know where to go. Stocked trout are also very vulnerable to high water events for the same reason young wild trout are. They just don’t know what to do.

Nearly 20 years ago, we had a major flood and were catching large brown trout around the picnic tables at Metcalf Bottoms. However, I should point out that it wasn’t a guide trip. Rather, it was a group of very experienced Smoky Mountain trout fishermen who all knew the area VERY well. In other words, don’t try this at home! But the point is, the bigger, older wild fish knew where to go to get out of the heavy currents. In that case, it was under a normally dry picnic table!

Flooded Little River, TN
Little River in the trees

So, you are absolutely going to lose some fish, maybe a lot, when these sorts of things happen. For some fisheries, it can be devastating. In a small, stocked stream, you may have some really crappy fishing until they stock again. For the Smokies, it tends to be a good thing in the long run.

As I’ve discussed before, the streams in the Smokies are very healthy as far as fish populations, but they are nutrient poor. Nutrient poor streams have a far less dense population of aquatic insects. When you have trout streams with very healthy fish populations but an inadequate food supply, you end up with a lot of small fish. So, when you get a major drought or flooding event that “thins the herd,” there is more food for the survivors and they get bigger.  In the Smokies, this is especially true for the rainbows and brook trout.

Years ago, we had a major drought in the Smokies. Prior to the drought, we averaged 4000 fish per mile. Following the drought, the number dropped to an average of 2000 fish per mile. Half of the fish were gone! Local fishermen learned about this and started pulling their hair out thinking fishing in the Smokies was going to be terrible.

Instead, in the year or two after the drought, they found that they still caught about the same number of fish they always did, but the fish averaged an inch or two bigger. After all, you’re only going to catch so many in a pool before you spook it. So, you may only catch six fish out of a pool whether it has fifty fish in it or one hundred.

Abrams Creek Rainbow
A really nice park rainbow

The impact drought has on fish size is not usually apparent for a year or two. But the impact that floods have on fish size are often more immediate. You tend to find noticeable differences that same year and significant differences the following year.

In other words, if you fish the Smokies this year and next year, don’t be surprised if the rainbows you catch aren’t a little bigger! 

Adjusting Weight When Nymphing

Split Shot

Warning! This article contains terrible illustrations!

Several years ago, I was fishing a stream in the Smokies that I probably know better than any other. It was an early spring day and the water temperature was marginal at around 50-degrees, and the water level was a little high because of recent rainfall. I’d been fishing for two hours and hadn’t even had a strike. I knew it wasn’t a dry fly kind of day. Therefore, I continued to switch nymph patterns, trying to find something that would fool one trout.

Eventually, I decided to stick with one fly pattern, a Pick Pocket, that I had a lot of faith in and to begin altering the way I fished it. Since it was an un-weighted wet fly, I already had one split shot about 8” above it. I began swinging the fly a little more, but the result was the same. Next, I added a second split shot and fished with a mix of swing and dead drift techniques. Nothing. Finally, I added a third split shot and hooked a fish on my second cast. I proceeded to catch another 30 fish or so over the next couple of hours.

I should have known better but we all seem to get too caught up in fly patterns and lose sight of other important factors like drift and depth. Well, I had been fishing good drifts all day, but these fish were hugging the bottom. My fly was not getting, or at least staying, down in their feeding zone.

Split Shot Assortment
Split Shot Assortment

Do you use split shot when you’re nymphing? There are definitely times when you need to. One of the best nymph fishermen I have ever fished with is Joe Humphreys. It is excruciating to watch him fish because every time he moves to a different spot, he adjusts the amount of weight on his line! But he often catches fish that others don’t because of those adjustments!

Being willing to add or remove split shot to your line is the first step. Knowing where and how to place those weights is the next. For instance, if you put three split shot right next to an already heavily weighted fly, you may have a hard time keeping it off the bottom. So, you have to figure a lot of things, like how heavy your fly is, how deep the water is and how fast the water is. Just the weight of the fly may be all you need to get the nymph near the bottom in slow water, but faster currents may move that fly all over the place. Extra weight can be used not only to get the fly deeper, but also to slow the drift and keep things where they should be.

Shot placement is tricky in places like the Smokies where depth and current speed can vary significantly, even in the same run or pocket. Short casts and good line control can significantly help combat this. Strategic split shot placement can also make a big difference.

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed at the fly

The closer you put the additional weight to the fly, the more you’re going to put the fly on the bottom. As a result, you’ll probably hang up more. But if you put a concentrated amount of weight on a section of leader above the fly, that portion of leader will be what drifts deepest, and the fly will ride above it. The farther the split shot is above the fly, the farther off the bottom the fly will drift.

Of course, there are variables like how heavy the fly is and how much split shot you use. Sometimes you just have to play with it a little bit. When you get as good as Joe Humphreys, you can make those calculations in your head and adjust perfectly for each new spot you fish. Here are a few examples of how you might want to adjust your setup. 

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed above the fly

The Clinch River often has long, slow slicks that maintain fairly consistent depths. Consequently, the weight of the fly alone should be sufficient to get and keep the fly where I want it. In a 6’ deep plunge pool in the Smokies, I’m going to need a lot of weight to get my fly deep and keep it there because of the water depth and turbulence. I’ll likely use a heavily weighted fly plus a few pieces of split shot placed near the fly. But fishing pocket water in the Smokies, the depth in one pocket probably varies from 12-24”, with a lot of fast currents. Here, I would probably use a lightly weighted (or un-weighted) nymph with one or two split shot placed 6-8” above the fly. This will keep everything down but allow the fly to drift just off the bottom where it won’t hang up as much.

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed below the fly

There is another method that some anglers use where a separate piece of tippet is added to the leader or to the back of the fly. The desired number of split shot are then added to that piece of tippet, allowing the fly to remain above the weight. It works, but I find that split shot hanging on a loose, vertical line like that have a greater tendency to get hung up and pulled off on rocks. As with most things, you sometimes have to play with a few methods and figure out what works best for you.

There are, of course, different sizes of split shot and what size you use can certainly determine how many you need to use. I typically use small to medium size shot because it gives me more flexibility and versatility to add or remove as needed.

In any case, if you are only nymphing with a weighted fly under a strike indicator, you are just scratching the surface of nymphing. I encourage you to experiment with different amounts of weight and different weight placements. You’ll probably start catching a few more fish… and maybe a few bigger ones, too!

How Stuff Works: Fly Categories

Box of Wet Flies

If you’re new to the sport, sometimes it is difficult to navigate all of the terminology. There is probably no facet of fly fishing where that is more complicated than in the world of flies. I’m not even talking about specific names of flies. That water can definitely get over your head in a hurry. Before you can even begin to make sense of those fly pattern names, you have to get a handle on the more general categories under which they fall. And that’s what we’re going to tackle here.

Let’s start with the term flies. I frequently hear it misused as its own separate category. For instance, someone might ask me if we’re going to be using flies or nymphs. That’s kind of like asking if you have a poodle or a dog. Of course, a poodle is a type of dog. And a nymph is a type of fly. Regardless of what it is supposed to imitate, any lure that we fish with a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly. Flies are then broken into more specific categories.

Dry Flies

Popping Bug
Popping Bug

While it can certainly be broken down to more specific sub-categories, the main category of Dry Flies refers to any fly that is designed to float and be fished on the surface. This would include something like a Parachute Adams that might represent some sort of adult mayfly. It would include a Dave’s Hopper that imitates a land-based grasshopper that has ended up in the water. Or it could even be a large, hard-bodied popping bug used for bass fishing.

One might fall under the sub-category of Trout Flies, another under Terrestrials, and another under Bass Bugs.  But they are all flies because they are fished on a fly rod and they are all dry flies because they float on the surface.

Nymphs

Hare's Ear Nymph
Hare’s Ear Nymph

Nymphs are a category of flies that you typically fish under the surface and more specifically; they imitate the juvenile stage of an aquatic insect. A Tellico Nymph, for instance, represents the juvenile stage of a stonefly. A Pheasant Tail Nymph imitates, most often, the juvenile stage of a mayfly. Most nymphs drift helplessly in the current and we use tactics that allow our imitations to do the same.

To confuse things a little, some flies that don’t imitate juvenile stages of aquatic insects get lumped into the nymph category because they are fished like nymphs. For instance, a Green Weenie is a representation of an inchworm that has fallen into the water. Though an inchworm is obviously not a juvenile stage of an aquatic insect, when it falls in the water, it sinks and drifts helplessly with the current. So, you fish its imitation like a nymph. Sowbugs and scuds are other good examples of this. They are actually crustaceans that will never hatch into an adult that flies from the water. But their imitations are most often fished like other nymphs, so they fall into the nymph category.

Wet Flies

Early Wet Fly
Typical Wet Fly

The category of Wet Flies is a little confusing and could probably be more of a sub-category of Nymphs – or vice versa. Wet flies are usually not tied with materials that allow them to float. They are also not really designed to sink. Rather, they often have a soft hackle that provides a lot of motion and you commonly fish them on a swing rather than a drift. So, you mostly fish them in, or just under, the surface film. A wet fly could imitate a variety of things. Mostly they are suggesting a mayfly or caddisfly as it is emerging to hatch.

Streamers

Clouser Minnow
Streamer: Clouser Minnow

Streamers are also flies that sink but more specifically, imitate things that swim. Again, anything you fish on a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly, but these flies represent things like minnows, crayfish and leeches. So unlike nymphs that you usually fish on a dead drift, or wet flies that you usually fish on a swing, you typically strip and actively retrieve streamers through the water.

Naturals and Attractors

So you can take all of the flies that are out there and lump them into four categories: Dry Flies, Nymphs, Wet Flies and Streamers. Now, you can take all of those and split them into another two broad categories: Naturals and Attractors.

A Natural is a fly that specifically imitates something that exists in nature. A Blue Wing Olive dry fly specifically imitates a Blue Wing Olive mayfly adult. The Hot Flash Minnow Shad is a streamer that specifically imitates a threadfin shad. A Green Weenie imitates an inchworm. They’re all fly patterns intended to represent something specific.

Hot Flash Minnow Shad
Hot Flash Minnow Shad

You most often fish naturals when fish are keyed in on a specific food source and you know what it is. If there is a big hatch of Blue Wing Olives, trout may not eat anything that doesn’t look like a Blue Wing Olive. Or because stripers are working a school of threadfin shad, they may not consider anything that doesn’t look like a threadfin shad.

Attractors are flies that don’t look like anything in particular. They are also sometimes called Generals or Prospecting Flies. They might just be something very generic that looks like a lot of things. Or they might be something that doesn’t look like anything at all. They may just have a certain color or other trigger that generates a feeding response from a fish.

Most of the time, you are fishing with attractors, especially in places like the Smokies where fish are more opportunistic. There are rarely big enough hatches in the Smokies to allow a fish to efficiently key on one particular bug. You fish things like a Parachute Adams because it resembles a lot of things fish might see on the surface. Or you fish a Prince Nymph because it has characteristics that trigger a feeding response from a fish.

Wooly Bugger
Wooly Bugger

If you’re fishing for smallmouth and you’re not sure what they’re feeding on, you might tie on a Wooly Bugger. Depending on its color scheme and how you fish it, it could pass for a minnow, leech or even a crayfish. Essentially, it just looks like something to eat.

Yes, flies and the vocabulary that describes them can be confusing. Hopefully this article has helped a little. Don’t get frustrated. Embrace and enjoy the chaos. It’s all part of the fun!