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.

Finding Feeding Trout

You can have the best gear and be a great caster, but it won’t mean a thing if you don’t know where to find feeding fish. We’ve covered a lot of these things separately in other articles, but here is a quick breakdown of the four things you really want to look for before you make that first cast.

Water temperature

A wild trout’s water temperature range for feeding is typically between 50 – 67 degrees. Ideal temperature is upper 50’s to low 60’s. There are plenty of exceptions that you can read about in Understanding Water Temperature, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb and should be your first consideration when trying to locate feeding trout.

Check that water temperature

If you’re not already familiar with a particular stream’s seasonal variations and trends, a stream thermometer will be your most useful tool. Submerge it for a minute in water that’s about 1-2 feet deep. If, for instance, it’s July and you get a reading of 68-degrees, you should, at the very least, seek out shadier parts of the stream. Ideally, you should try to get to a higher elevation where it’s a little cooler. If it’s March and you get a reading of 47-degrees, seek out sunnier places and, if possible, move to a lower elevation.

Part of this may require a little research on your part as well. If you’re fishing in a low elevation stream where the water temperature stays above 70-degrees for much of the year, there likely won’t be trout in there at all, even during colder months. Again, this is for wild trout. Some streams that might be too warm to support wild trout year round, could be stocked with trout during the colder months.

Depth

Once you have located an area with a suitable water temperature, you need to look for deeper water. We’re not talking about water that has to be over your head, but something at least a foot or two deep. In times when food is incredibly abundant like a heavy hatch, trout will sometimes feed in shallower water. But in general, they will choose water with a little more depth for more protection from predators.

Current

Even if you have ideal water temperature and adequate depth, trout don’t do a lot of feeding in still pools. And even when they do, they can be very difficult to locate and catch because they’re often cruising and feeding sporadically. A defined current is essentially a conveyor belt of food. Most feeding trout will be near currents, watching and waiting for food to come to them.

Abrams Creek Smoky Mountains
Currents can vary significantly in a single run

In currents with a slow to medium speed, trout will likely hold right in the middle of the current and on the edges. Hard currents with a lot of speed are a little different.  A trout won’t hold in the middle of a hard current because it requires too much energy. Instead, the trout will be on the edges of these currents or between currents in seams and pockets.

Structure

A trout often has a few places in an area where he likes to hang out. He may have a favorite spot to feed and a spot under a rock where he likes to hide when he senses danger. Sometimes, you’ll find a place that looks perfect as far as depth and current speed go, but the stream bottom may be nothing but flat bedrock. These areas usually don’t hold many fish because there are few, if any, safe places. Try to look for a bottom with a lot of rocks where fish can hide.

Significant structure like fallen trees or large boulders often attracts the bigger fish, particularly if that spot meets all of the other criteria mentioned above. If you find any of the characteristics mentioned above, you’re apt to find a few feeding trout. When you locate a spot with ALL of these characteristics, you’ll likely find the most and/or the biggest trout.

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!

Preventing Broken Rods

Broken Rods
Broken Rods

Over approximately 30 years of fly fishing, I have broken one rod. And that was kind of a fluke. About 25 years ago, I was floating extremely high water on the Cumberland River in Kentucky when I hung a streamer on some submerged wood. While trying to dislodge it, the river began pushing the boat toward a “sweeper” that likely would have capsized the boat. Since I was in charge of steering the vessel, I had to act quickly and the rod was an unfortunate casualty in my evasive maneuver.

Some might say I’m lucky to have such a long streak without breaking a rod. And the fact that I’m putting this in writing all but guarantees I’ll break one the next time I go fishing! It is certainly possible as accidents do happen. But in the span of approximately 25 years of guiding, I’ve seen dozens of rods broken by clients. Dozens… and that’s being conservative! With that kind of disparity, I can’t help but think there may be a little more than luck at play.

Yes, accidents are going to happen, but there are a number of things I see anglers repeatedly do with their fly rods that lead to breakage. And there are plenty of other things that may not instantly break the rod but will stress it, leading to a seemingly inexplicable break at a later time. So here we go… Here are the top 10 ways to prevent breaking your fly rod.

1) Store your rod in a tube.

Rod and Tube
Rod and Tube

Many rods get broken or weakened in transit. Folks toss them in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car and then set something on them, a cooler shifts, etc. I’ve never seen a rod break while it was in its tube!

2) Be gentle.

This one should be obvious, but it’s not for many. Set you rod down. Don’t toss it. Few things make me cringe more!  

3) Keep the tip up.

When walking with your rod, be mindful to keep the tip pointing up. I can’t tell you how many times I see people jab the tip into the ground when walking on a trail. Even if it doesn’t break, you’re potentially damaging the rod every time that happens.

4) Keep the rod ahead of you when walking through the brush.

There are many who disagree with this and argue that the rod should be pointing behind you when traveling through the brush. I’m sure I’ll hear from you! Fly line, leaders or rod guides can easily get caught on branches when carrying the rod pointing behind you. Because you don’t see it happen, you continue moving full speed ahead and pull hard against the branch. I’ve seen guides get completely ripped off and I’ve seen rod tips snap. I like to see where the rod is going so I can steer it around obstacles in the woods.

5) Don’t hold the rod by its tip section.

I sometimes see this happen when people are stringing up the rod at the beginning of the day. However, it mostly occurs on the stream when the line gets tangled near the tip. To reach the tangle, the fisherman will hold the rod somewhere between the tip and mid section of the rod while the heavier butt end causes the rod to bend. Your rod is not designed to do this and it stresses the graphite tremendously. You don’t want to hold the rod like this in any circumstance, but it’s even worse in the stream when the reel is attached. To reach a tangle at the tip of the rod, set the butt end of the rod on the bank or a rock to support the weight.

6) Don’t pull against the limb with the rod when trying to pull a fly out of a tree.

If the line is wrapped in the limb, you may end up with a broken rod tip. Instead, point the rod straight at the limb and pull straight back. Or grab the line and pull it with your hand. You’ll not only protect your rod tip, but you’ll be more likely to break the line near the fly.

7) Don’t set the rod flat on the ground (or boat bottom).

When taking a break, lean the rod upward somewhere, like against a tree. Setting the rod flat on the ground is an invitation for you or a buddy to step on it.

8) When fighting a big fish, use the whole rod.

Broken Rod
Don’t Do This!

Many fishermen are taught to put their hand or finger midway up the rod to apply more pressure on a large fish. Instead, you are applying more pressure on your rod. Your fly rod is a precision tool designed to bend in a very specific way. Holding the rod by the handle and not applying pressure farther up the rod will ensure that your rod is bending where it should, protecting your tippet and your rod tip from breakage on a big fish.

9) Use the recommended fly line to match your rod.

If you have a 5-weight rod, use a 5-weight line. Sure it’s okay to fudge up one size if you deem it necessary, but routinely overloading a rod with a significantly heavier line can stress the rod over time.

10) Learn how to fall.

I know, I know. This one sounds harsh, but respect the rod! I learned very early on in my fly fishing career to break my fall with my non rod hand. As a matter of fact, when I stumble in the stream, my rod hand immediately goes up! 

Also see related article: Fly Fishing Gear Maintenance

Pond Fishing

People are telling me all the time that they don’t fly fish very often because they don’t have anyplace to go. I know as well as anyone that there are an endless number of things that keep us from fishing as often as we’d like, but not having a place to go should never be one. While you may not have a world-class trout stream in your backyard, or even in your state, there are plenty of other alternatives. You may just have to get a little creative.

bluegill
Bluegill

For instance, almost every city has some sort of park or green space with a pond. These can be productive little fisheries, typically containing bass, carp, catfish and some sort of variation(s) of sunfish. They are a lot of fun to fish and at the very least, they will keep your casting skills and fishing instincts sharp between fly fishing vacations.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a friend who has a farm pond. These provide all of the same benefits as those city ponds but without all of the people. I had access to one when I lived in Kentucky that I fished three or four times a week. Sunfish like bluegill will readily take a fly and fight as hard as any fish I know. And a big bass boiling on your surface bug at dusk is a tough thing to beat.

sneaky pete
Sneaky Pete

It helps to know what fish are in the pond when deciding what gear to use. You can effectively fish for bluegill with the same outfit you use for trout. A number of small to medium topwater terrestrials will work well. Small popping bugs are a good choice, too. They’ll eat trout flies but they’ll tear them up in a hurry. Therefore, I’d recommend more durable foam or hard-body flies.

As exciting as it is to catch those bluegill up top, I often catch the biggest ones below the surface. Wooly Buggers are productive, as are a large variety of rubber-leg nymphs. However, if you want to get a little more specific about imitating their food source, try crayfish patterns and damsel and dragonfly nymphs. They tend to be attracted to brighter colors. An old fashion Green Weenie has been one of my favorite subsurface flies for bluegill. As a matter of fact, fishing a Green Weenie as a dropper off a popping bug can be very productive.

whitlocks fruit cocktail
Whitlock’s Fruit Cocktail

Bass will eat many of the same flies as mentioned above, but big bass are often looking for a little more of a mouthful. A variety of streamer patterns can take bass in ponds and are always a good choice. But I love getting them on the surface when I can. Large hard-body poppers and sliders and spun deer hair bugs are a blast to fish with. However, these larger flies are very difficult to cast with a light trout outfit. If you do much of this type of fly fishing, I’d recommend picking up an 8-weight.

When fishing ponds, look for structure like rock piles and tree stumps. Also, these fish like the edges of things. Cast to shadow edges and the edges of shallow and deep water. In addition, during summer months, expect better fishing early and late in the day.

Follow the Leader

Orvis Leader Package
Leader Package

For beginners, the leader and tippet represent one of the most misunderstood, or unrealized, components of critical fly fishing gear.  Many don’t understand the relationship between the tippet and leader or tippet and fly, while others simply don’t understand what the difference is between the leader and tippet.  And while intermediate anglers may have a working knowledge of how the tippet relates to the fly, few take the time to contemplate how the right overall leader design can contribute to their success on the water. 

To better understand leader design, let’s start from the beginning and define what the leader is.  In simple terms, the leader is the monofilament connection between the heavier plastic fly line and the fly.  While it varies in length, the leader typically measures between 7 1/2′ and 9’ and has two primary purposes: To allow for a less visible connection from fly to line and to transfer energy during the fly cast.  It tapers from a thick butt section that attaches to the fly line, down to a very fine section that attaches to the fly.  The finest section that attaches to the fly is referred to as the tippet. 

So, the tippet is the piece attached to the fly and its appropriate size is determined by what size fly you’re fishing and how you’re fishing that fly.  At least those are the primary reasons.  Other factors such as water level, water speed, and clarity can also contribute to that decision.  Smaller tippet sizes are not only less visible to the fish, they offer less resistance in the water, allowing for such benefits as less drag and/or faster sink rates.  Of course, smaller tippets are not as strong, but when dead-drifting dry flies or nymphs, the fish is typically “sipping” the passing fly, not ambushing it, so it is not often an aggressive strike that will snap the line.  Rather, you are lifting the rod and tightening the line somewhat smoothly, and then all of the shock absorbing properties of your rod come into play to, when used properly, help protect that fine tippet and keep it from breaking. 

However, when fishing a streamer fly, you are usually stripping the fly to suggest the movement of a wounded or fleeing baitfish, crayfish, etc.  This will most often provoke a more violent strike from the fish, and too light a tippet will often snap under such a jolt.  Since you are imparting movement on these flies anyway and a dead drift is not desired, a heavier tippet will better move the fly and better withstand the more aggressive strike. 

Tippet Sizing Chart
Tippet Sizing Chart

In essence, you want the tippet to balance with the fly for a more efficient cast and drift.  For this reason, tippets are sized primarily by their diameter, but also have pound test ratings like spin fishermen may be more accustomed.  Those details are all given in the fine print on a tippet spool or leader package but the most obvious marking is a single number followed by an “x” – 4x, 1x, 6x, etc. 

It’s a strange system that can be confusing at first, but it relates directly to the diameter of the tippet, so 6x does not mean 6 pound test.  Rather it all corresponds to the base measurement of 0x tippet, which is .011”.  If I subtract the diameter of my tippet from this base of .011” I get the appropriate “x” designation and vice versa.  In other words, if I have tippet that is .005”, 11 – 5 = 6, or 6x.  On the other hand if I subtract the “x” number from .011”, it gives me the actual diameter.  For 3x, 11 – 3 = 7, or .007”.  I know.  Wouldn’t you think there’d be a simpler system?

What you should notice is that the bigger the number, the smaller the tippet.  So, 6x is smaller than 3x.  Fly (hook) sizes work the same way.  A size #18 fly is considerably smaller than a #4 fly.  But if you know the size of your fly, there is a pretty simple formula to determine the perfect tippet size to match it.  Take the size of the fly and divide by 3.  As example, for a size #12 fly, the perfect tippet size is a 4x.  Who knew there would be so much math in fly fishing? 

Tippet to Fly Sizing Chart
Tippet to Fly Sizing Chart

It doesn’t need to be this scientific, but using this formula will give you a good baseline in determining a tippet size that will balance with your fly size.  You can always fudge up and down as needed.  Just keep in mind that when using the above formula, the more you stray to the small side of ideal, the more difficult it will be to turn the fly over with a cast and there’s a better chance of snapping the fly off.  The more you stray to big the big side of ideal, the more visible your tippet will be and the more it will negatively impact natural drift. 

Without trying to complicate matters too much, the length of the tippet will also impact things like how freely the fly drifts.  For example, if you’re trying to dead-drift a size #14 dry fly, you will likely be able to better achieve a drag-free drift with a 5x tippet that is 20” long than with a 6x tippet that is 10” long.  Conversely, if you are trying to impart movement on a streamer, a 4x tippet that is 10” long will provide much more control and immediate movement than a 3x tippet that is 20” long. 

All of this is a piece to a bigger part which is the leader, and a lot of people don’t understand the difference in the two.  Tippet is just a part of what makes up a leader just like tires are part of what makes up a car.  If you merely tied 9’ of straight tippet to the fly line, you would certainly be able to execute good drifts but you would have an extremely difficult time casting the fly where you wanted to and would regularly experience the fly and tippet landing in a pile, just inches from the fly line. 

Therefore, the leader is tapered and consists of three parts: The butt, the taper, and the tippet.  We already know what the tippet does.  The thicker butt section turns the leader over with the rest of the cast, which helps eliminate piling.  The taper section essentially dampens the energy of the fly cast, allowing the fly and tippet to land softly on the water. 

When you buy a tapered leader at a fly shop, it is usually knotless.  They achieve the taper by running the nylon material through a machine.  On the package, it will indicate the leader’s overall length and its tippet size.  So it might indicate that it is a 9’ 5x leader.  In fine print, you can also see the exact diameters of the butt and tippet as well as the pound test.  It has tippet built in and is ready to go right out of the package.  So what’s with the spools of tippet?

Orvis Tippet Spool
Spool of Tippet

Tippet material can also be purchased on a spool with a number designation as described earlier – 3x, 4x, 5x, etc.  This is purely straight tippet with no taper and its primary purpose is to rebuild or alter your leader.  When you wear out the tires on your car, you can replace them without having to replace the entire car, and it’s the same with a leader and tippet.  Through the course of a day, the tippet on your leader will get gradually shorter as you change flies.  Or it may quickly get dramatically shorter if you hang up in a tree or two.  What started out as a 9’ 5x leader is no longer 9’ and no longer 5x. 

Rather than going to the trouble and expense of changing the entire leader when this happens, you can simply pull an appropriate length of 5x tippet off the spool, tie it to the leader, and you’re back in business.  Over time, you’ll cut back so far into the taper that you eventually have to change the leader, but by rebuilding with tippet, you can significantly extend the life of your leader.

As mentioned, you can also use tippet material to alter your leader.  You may be using a 9’ 6x leader and want to add an additional few feet of 6x for a better drift, making it a 12’ 6x leader.  Or you may be changing flies that vary dramatically in size and style.  For example, you might be stripping a #6 Wooly Bugger on a 7 ½’ 3x leader when a hatch of #16 Sulfurs starts to come off.  Instead of changing your entire leader, you can simply add a couple of feet of 6x tippet and you have a 9 ½’ 6x leader.  Just be sure you’re adding the same size or smaller.  Adding a bigger piece to a smaller piece will not only create a weak link above the final section of tippet, it will also create an undesired hinging effect in the leader. 

I sometimes tie my leaders rather than buy them from a fly shop.  This is done by knotting together different diameters of monofilament to achieve a taper.  There are established formulas you can use for this, but through the experience of trial and error, I developed my own formulas that best suit my needs.  While I have a lot of specialty leaders, my go-to, everyday trout leaders are all tied ahead of time in a length of 7 ½’ to a tippet size of 3x.  Since I’m rarely fishing a tippet size bigger than 3x for trout, this allows me the flexibility to add the final piece of tippet on the stream to match the fly and situation.  If I’m going to fish a #14 Parachute Adams, for example, I’ll add a 2’ section of 5x and I’m ready to go. 

I first started tying my own leaders when I was on the limited budget of a college student because I realized I could pay $3.50 for a leader or I could make them for about 30 cents each.  Over the years, I continued making my own because I prefer them and like being able to design them for my needs.  For instance, I find the commercial trout leaders to have too big of a butt section and I don’t like the way they turn over or straighten out.  By using a thinner diameter butt and a different type of monofilament for the butt and taper sections, I get a leader that turns over and lays out beautifully.  I also like having a few knots throughout the leader as locations to place split shot and strike indicators without them sliding down the line. 

I have a variety of other specialized leaders for specific situations.  My bass leaders have thicker butt sections to turn over large flies.  I have hatch leaders that are long and thin, designed to achieve perfect drifts over wary trout.  And I have shorter, small stream leaders for punching flies under tree limbs in extra tight conditions.  I also make short leaders designed to fish on sink tip lines when streamer fishing big water. 

These are all things to take into consideration when making your own leaders or even when you buy them at the fly shop.  Understanding the basics like length and tippet size will inevitably make a difference in your success on the stream.  Better understanding how the butt and taper figure into the equation will give you vital tools to begin catching fish that other anglers can’t! 

On the Fly: Putting on Waders

Tucking Pant Legs into SocksPutting on waders hardly sounds challenging enough to warrant advice. But there are a couple of things you can do that will make you more comfortable during the day. More important, there are things to do to protect and extend the life of your waders.

Prepare your boots and waders before putting them on.  Walking around on the neoprene feet of your waders looking for boots and other gear is a good way to damage them.  Have your boots ready to step into as soon as you slip on your waders and consider having a mat to stand on.  Also, tucking your pant legs into your socks ahead of time will prevent them from “riding up” your legs when you  put on your waders.

“On the Fly” is a feature in my monthly newsletter offering quick fly fishing tips to make your life on the water a little easier…

Stream Etiquette

Crowded River
Believe I’ll fish someplace else…

When I first started fly fishing, it was a different time. It was before everyone had access to the Internet. There were no message boards. Twitter didn’t exist and neither did Facebook. Many fisheries didn’t receive nearly as much pressure simply because not nearly as many people knew about them. And to the fishermen who did know about them, they were closely guarded secrets shared only with a handful of trusted friends.

I realized that early on and I respected it. I learned quickly that I not only needed to learn and develop a set of skills to be able to catch fish, but I also needed to conduct myself in an appropriate way to earn the trust and respect of fishermen who had been doing this a lot longer than me. Part of this simply meant knowing how to keep my mouth shut when someone did share a particular fishing spot. It also meant not behaving like an inconsiderate moron when you were on the stream.

The current trend of photographing and videoing every single fishing trip and sharing it, complete with GPS coordinates, on multiple social media outlets is probably the subject of an entirely different article. But regardless of how you feel about the trend, it has most certainly resulted in a lot more fishermen on more remote streams. And with easier access to this information, many of these “newer” fishermen have never been exposed to the idea of stream etiquette. Some folks are always going to be inconsiderate no matter what. Most violations of etiquette likely occur simply because someone doesn’t know better. Since it is just as important now as ever, if not more so, I thought this would be a good place to share a few basics.

Stream etiquette really just boils down to common courtesy and common sense. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are not entitled to any piece of water. If you have a favorite pool or stretch of water and someone is fishing it when you arrive, get over it. Move on, and fish it next time. Even if that someone is not in the pool but they are approaching it, don’t try to rush up and cut them off. Particularly in smaller mountain streams, fishermen don’t typically stay in one spot for long periods of time. Rather, they move up the stream covering stretches. The assumption is that the fisherman is working upstream and you should give him plenty of space to continue.

The appropriate amount of space to give another fisherman is always up for debate. On a crowded tailwater with limited walk-in access, that space might be 100 yards. If it’s a somewhat crowded roadside river in the mountains, that space may be a quarter of a mile. On a backcountry stream where there are very few fishermen, that space may be a half mile to a mile. You kind of have to get a feel for the traffic flow and act accordingly. I always think of it like a movie theater. If it’s opening night for ‘Star Wars’ and the theater is packed, you’ll likely be sitting right next to someone else. If there are only two other people in a movie theater and you sit right next one of them, you’re being an ass.

When in doubt, communication is always the best way to ensure everyone has a positive experience. “How far up are you planning to fish?” Most fishermen appreciate this and will typically extend the same courtesy… Typically. On one occasion when guiding a couple of fishermen on Little River, we found ourselves walking up the trail alongside two other fishermen. Since we were already a couple of miles up the trail and obviously heading in the same direction, I made conversation with them and asked how far up they were planning to go. In a gruff tone, one of them replied, “Farther than you!”

If I had been by myself I might have hiked all the way to the stream’s headwaters purely out of spite! Instead, I politely explained that I just didn’t want to get in each other’s way. By being so obtuse, he was sabotaging an easy way of accomplishing what we both wanted to accomplish. Most fly fishermen, particularly in the backcountry, are nice folks and they’re in the backcountry for the same reason you are: to get off by themselves. Usually, there is plenty of water for everyone. Being willing to communicate will help ensure that everyone gets what they want. Be nice!

And if you make a mistake, apologize and move on. There have been plenty of times when I inadvertently cut someone off in a stream because I didn’t see them. It happens to all of us. When this happens and you’re close enough, apologize and move on to another area. If you’re far away, wave and move on to another area. If someone inadvertently cuts you off and acknowledges it with a wave or an apology, cut them some slack. Mistakes happen. Be nice!

A Lot of Rocks Stacked in a Stream
This trend is WAY out of hand

Finally, stream etiquette includes blending in with your environment. Don’t take away from someone else’s current experience by making a lot of commotion like shouting up and down the river. And don’t take away from someone’s future experience by altering the landscape. This most definitely means don’t leave any garbage behind. It also means don’t litter the landscape with “sculptures” made of sticks and stacked stones. This not only disturbs and damages sensitive ecosystems, it is an eyesore. People visit wild places to see mother nature’s artwork, not yours!

Again, as mentioned earlier, this all pretty much boils down to common sense and common courtesy. Unfortunately, both seem to be in short supply these days.

Visit Leave No Trace for more information on being a better outdoor citizen.

What Trout Eat – A Look at Aquatic Insects

Golden Stonefly Nymph
Golden stonefly nymph

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects like houseflies and mosquitoes often come to mind. Many familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout. Those are especially important in the summer.  But aquatic insects are most abundant to fish throughout the year. And most artificial flies imitate these water-born bugs.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers. Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges are the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles.  But they are similar in that they begin in one form under the water. They all emerge and transform to another stage. And they all ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Quill Gordon Mayfly
Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Quill Gordon Mayfly Nymph
Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day. Its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, females will return to the water to lay their eggs. Upon completion, they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds will get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.