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Now that your fly fishing gear is all set and proper, you are ready to get out to the water! Before trotting out to the local trout stream, you may want to read this to better prepare for what to expect. Things are not always as straightforward as they appear.
There are many factors and “moving parts” in fly fishing, and for these reasons I typically bring my new anglers and clients to the local panfish pond to get their feet wet (See what I did there?) in the sport of fly fishing. I do this for many reasons. Often, panfish such as bluegill and perch, are very willing to eat a fly, and they are often locally accessible. In addition, fishing stillwater allows us to practice our casting in a much more controlled environment, reducing some frustration.
I always suggest practicing for a few sessions on a pond or small lake if possible when picking up your fly fishing rod for the first few outings. Often, fly casting is not fishing, as fly fishing, isn’t always fly casting. Situational awareness of what is required of you that day on the lake or stream will only come once the basics of casting are learned first. Here are a few tips for your setup, and how to begin casting on your first few trips out.
Once you arrive to the water, you may be wondering where to start. Simply put, assemble your gear. The rod will piece together and the guides will face downward towards your reel, and your fly line is pulled out of the spool. The line will then be fed through the guides, and out the rod tip, or tip-top. The line will often have a loop at the end, and will be attached to your leader via a loop to loop connection. There are many good knot options to tie one into your leader, but many commercially available tapered leaders have one pre tied. After your leader is connected to your fly line, find a wide open side of the pond or lake with plenty of room behind you. Preferably, find a bank with over 50’ of space all around you.
When you’ve found your place, and have your gear assembled, we tie on a fly. Often, a great fly to start with is a Wooly Bugger. These flies imitate a plethora of forage foods such as bait fish, leeches, and even large insects. Small poppers are extremely addictive and fun to fish as well, especially for eager panfish. We will begin our casting by stripping out about 15-20’ of fly line.
To strip out fly line, pull the line away from your fly reel, and towards the ground. If you have the ability to stand in the water while you do this, you may spare your fly line any unnecessary damage. Once you have a few coils of line out, begin by pulling around 10’ of fly line out the tip of your rod. Remember, the fly line is the weighted element in the equation, and therefore, will have to be moved to accelerate the fly.
Begin with your fly, leader, and line as straight out in front of you as possible, with your rod tip low to the water. A simple euphemism that helps new fly casters develop muscle memory early on, is to pretend you are sitting at a table, in front of a cell phone. The phone is chest level, and it begins ringing. Your hand is on the phone, and what do you need to do to answer the phone? You bring it up by your ear to a quick and sudden stop. This motion must start slowly and progressively increase in speed until the sudden and abrupt stop. This is loading the rod. You will notice that by answering the phone, you will deliver the fly line behind you, and this is called the back cast. In order to prevent the line from landing behind you, and to propel it back out in front of you, you must wait (patiently) for the line, leader, and fly to unfold from the loop created behind you, and before it falls to the ground, you must accelerate the phone back out towards the table and abruptly slam it on the table with a quick stop. Timing this is what many consider the art of fly casting. This basic cast has a few key elements that are crucial to your success.
In fly casting, the sudden stop is critical. This is what turns the fly over and creates tighter loops. The timing of your cast will vary as well, depending on a few factors. The longer the cast (the more fly line and weight being casted), the longer between back cast and forward casting motions must be. If you initiate the casting strokes too early, you will crack your line like a whip, and snap off your fly! Additionally, you may find yourself covered in a pile of leader and line.
Practicing the pickup of line from the water, performing one false cast (a back cast and forward cast with no intention of delivering the fly to a fish), and delivering the fly in a straight line in front of you is a great first step to becoming an accomplished angler and caster.
So once you have the basic overhead cast unfolding regularly in front of you and you are comfortable doing so, let’s begin targeting some fish! Panfish and bass in the pond or lake in which you are located make for great fun on the fly! There are two main categories of retrieves used in most fly fishing, and they vary depending on what fly we are using! For the example used earlier, let’s fish a wooly bugger…
A Wooly Bugger is a type of fly classified as a streamer and we fish these typically subsurface. To retrieve most streamers, we will use a method called, stripping. Jokes aside, it is a very efficient method of fishing. With your rod tip low, and the line from your rod and guides being pinched under your casting hand’s pointer or ring finger, grab the line that runs between the reel and your pinched finger with your non-casting hand. This is a very common grip for most fly fishing applications, and will be essential for setting the hook as well as fighting fish moving forward.
Stripping is simply using your non-casting hand to pull line through your pinched finger in varying lengths and speeds, mimicking the swimming action of baitfish or other quarry with your fly. Stripping in line at six inch pulls is a basic and common method of fishing a streamer. Make sure to keep your rod tip low, and when you feel a tug, you will perform one of two main types of hooksets. When you are stripping line, it is important to keep your line and leader taught throughout the system. This makes for faster and less awkward strip sets. To stip set on a fish, simply pull a much longer and faster pull of line through your pinched finger when you feel the pull from a fish. Once you feel the fish on you line, you may lift the rod and begin fishing it!
Strip setting the hookset is a more efficient way to fish streamers, and the importance will play a larger role later on in other applications. The first few outings, I would practice the strip set, and when you hook into a fish, you may fight it without even using the reel! Your pinched finger may act as your drag on smaller fish. Additionally, you can strip in large lengths of line faster on running fish, than your fly fishing reel can.
If fishing topwater flies called, dries, you may use the trout set method, which resembles a bass fishing hookset but requires much less power. Flies use small hooks, and penetrate much easier than larger hooks used for bass. This means a bit of finesse is used when setting a fly skyward. Practice doing so without breaking your leader off before you get too frustrated with old habits!
These first few trips will be important in creating muscle memory that will aid in developing additional casts needed for moving water and differing species. Be sure to take the time to practice, practice, practice until your arm falls off! This will allow us to take a look at how to read the water and find a few fish in your local creek or stream next time… Tight lines!