Maybe you’ve been dreaming of it your entire life. Or recently re-watched A River Runs Through It and fell for the father & sons, golden-lit romance of it all. Or just looking for a reason to finally get out of your house, away from your screens, and be one with nature again (an urge we strongly support)—once you give fly-fishing a go, it might, um, hook you for life. We asked writer & producer and fly-fishing aficionado Luke Watson to walk us through everything you need to get you going—from all the gear you’ll need, to some of the best guides and spots out there.
WHY I FLY FISH
In 1994, I was having lunch with my friend—the late, great painter Bryten Goss, when I overheard him telling a female friend, “Women are naturally better at fly-fishing than men. Men force things too often.” I may not be a woman, but I don’t like to force things either. I was sold. That Christmas, I got my first fly-fishing rod. And it’s been one of my life’s great joys ever since.
Everytime I get on a river, I disconnect from everything in my day to day life. The hustle, the stress—it all fades away. I re-connect with something that feels, for lack of a better word, pure. Youthful and innocent even. I re-connect with nature. I re-connect with memories from my childhood: a ski trip with my mother, a ball game with my father. I also re-connect with Bryten, who passed away far too young.
TO START, YOUR FLY ROD AND REEL
Just like tennis or golf, it’s not about the racket or the club—it’s about the player. The same holds fairly true for fly-fishing. If your grandpa has a fly rod and reel in the garage, put some new fly line on it (old line will have lost it’s floatation coating) and get on some water.
Other types of fishing require bait (actual food for fish, living or dead); or lures (plastic, rubber, or metal, manufactured imitations of prey). Fly-fishing is called such because the “lure” is a delicately hand-made representation of a fly. These artificial flies land and float on the water, referred to as, “dry flies”. Or they move naturally under water, referred to as, “nymphs”.
In order to deliver your fly to a spot on the river where a fish may eat it, you will need to cast anywhere from 10 to 60 feet from you. With flies being so delicate and light, they don’t have the weight of traditional fishing lures or bait to accomplish the trajectory needed from your cast. Think of throwing a marble versus throwing a feather. So, in order to accomplish distance and accuracy in casting, fly-fishing uses a “fly line”—a thicker and heavier fishing line that will carry through the air as you cast the rod, landing the fly near your target, with the fly line floating on the surface.
If you’ve never seen fly-fishing, pull up a video on YouTube. That beautiful “loop” going back and forth in the air is the fly line. With each of those motions, the angler is pulling off more and more fly line from the reel until the fly can reach the intended target.
MY FIRST ROD AND REEL
These are classic tools, but they still work well.
MY SUGGESTED FLY-FISHING ROD AND REEL ON A BUDGET
For 160 bucks you get a quality rod, reel, and fly line, all made and measured to work with ease and balance by this respected fly-fishing company.
MY FAVORITE TROUT SET UP
Sage is a premier brand that makes high-end to mid-level rods and reels. The first time I took my dad fly-fishing—my way to repay him for all those times he took me lake fishing as a young boy—was to the White River in Arkansas. I brought this rod and reel, with which he caught 14 fish. I’d sell out before I’d ever sell this rod. However, it’s a fast action rod, which means that your casting motion has to be quick, and your timing has to be perfect to set your fly line up for a nice presentation of the fly.
If your fly line is messy on the cast, it’ll smack the water surface and spook the fish away. So, I recommend a medium action rod for most anglers in general, especially beginners. It’s more forgiving with your casting motion. However, when you get into longer distances and fishing into the wind, a fast action rod is often desirable once your casting technique can support it.
MY FAVORITE SMALL CREEK SET UP
Spring and summer days hiking up to a mountain creek and casting short distances with delicate flies for small brook trout is very gratifying. In this circumstance, a lighter weight rod and reel combo with a shorter overall length for easier control is the way to go.
The weight of a rod and reel is designated to support the matching characteristics of different size fly lines. This “weight” isn’t pounds, it’s just an industry standard numerical value. The standard weight rod for trout fishing both dry flies and nymphs is 5 weight. But there are rods, reels and accompanying fly lines as small as 1 (for little itty bitty fishies), and as big as 12 (for monsters).
MY FAVORITE STEELHEAD AND SALMON SET UP
I’ve driven up the coast to the Umpqua River in Oregon in late August to camp streamside, so I could fish for Steelhead coming upriver to spawn. The water is wide, rushing furiously, and the seams (the places on the surface of a moving body of water where the glassy “pools” meet the choppy flow of faster moving water—fruitful targets for fly-fishing) are sometimes a good distance away.
However, there are a lot of trees along this river, and you don’t want your “back” cast getting your fly hooked on a tree branch. Scaling a tree to undo a fly line is cumbersome and embarrassing. A friend told me so. For these conditions, I like “spey casting”—a style of fly-fishing the Scandinavians have been doing for eons. Figure “8” motions with a long 2-handed rod, keeping all of the fly line in front of you and then shooting it to distances as great as 100 feet. It’s powerful, graceful, and can be very practical.
You’ve probably noticed that fly fishermen are generally wearing waders. Standing in the water often gives a better vantage point for making that perfect cast to an unsuspecting fish.
There are thick waders for the wintertime. I have friends who actually prefer winter fly fishing in Utah with snowy banks and icicles hanging from the trees.
And there are ultra thin, packable lightweight waders for warm creeks in the summertime.
Just make sure they fit well—particularly the booties. I’ve had my booties be too small, and my toes went so numb I cut out after only an hour, empty handed. You also want to make sure you get good wading boots. Some waders have built-in boots, but most waders and boots come separate.
Traditional fly-fishing boots have felt soles— these allow your feet to get a good grip on algae-covered, slippery rocks. However, felt can house bacteria, and therefore should only be used on connected waters.
Boots with a rubber sole are great because they can be used anywhere without liability to the ecosystem, and they are better for hiking to out-of-the-way spots. For rubber soles, you can screw in small metal wading cleats provided by the manufacturer for additional bite on slick river bottoms.
MY SUGGESTED WADERS & BOOTS ON A BUDGET
Simms is synonymous with fly-fishing. They make quality waders and boots from economy grade to professional. These waders and boots are well-made with no frills. If they fit your feet well and you take care of them, they’ll work fine for a long time.
MY FAVORITE WADERS
These are the top of the line waders on the market. Simms and Orvis both make fantastic products, but the features and tech that Patagonia put into these waders has surpassed all others. They are thicker than most waters, which is great for durability, but on Summer days they can get hot, so Patagonia designed them to slide down around the waist securely. With a leak proof zipper for watering the bushes, double waterproof chest pockets for fly boxes, a flip-out ziplock pouch for your phone and keyfob, side hand-warming pockets, and an internal storage pocket, they covered it all.
Nearly 100% of the fabric in these waders is from recycled materials, and proceeds of Patagonia’s fly-fishing products go to protecting America’s waters, so they’re beyond eco-friendly. They’re not cheap, but considering they have a life-time guarantee, they’ll be the last pair of waders I ever buy.
MY FAVORITE SUNGLASSES
It’s been a long-standing fact that Maui Jim makes the best sunglasses for water, but for years their limited frame styles were mostly worn by Florida Man. Not anymore. This frame for example is pretty classic looking. They make a variety of shapes to fit almost any face or style, but as long as you have a true polarized lens, you’ll be able to see the fish in the water.
No matter what brand you choose, make sure they are “true optic”. Your Prada sunglasses are putting undetectable strain on the focus and correction mechanisms in your eyes, probably leading to prescription glasses in your future.
Ray-ban, Oakley, Vuarnet, and Luxxotica are some of the other true-optic eyewear brands.
MY FAVORITE FLIES
Fly tying is an artform and craft that I admire tremendously but don’t have the time for, so I buy my flies from Umpqua—the industry leader in fly tying materials. They have assortment fly boxes with flies indigenous to California, the Rockies, and Eastern Trout. I suggest you start with one of these.
Then, as you discover what flies you have luck with, go to their website and purchase more of those exact patterns. Whenever fishing a new spot, I like to stop by the local fly shop and have them select whatever flies they have that fish seem to be biting at the moment. Remember, there are hundreds of different fly patterns, and it can be the slightest variation in size, color, and shape of fly that makes the difference between no bites, or landing a 24-inch brown trout.
Also, please pinch the barbs down on the hooks if you’re setting free the fish you catch. Yes, this makes it difficult to keep them on the hook, but it’s less painful and wounding to the fish.
MY FAVORITE TOOLS
A lot of fly-fishing is “catch and release”, and so you want to get a fish into your net, unhook it, and gently set it back into the water as quickly as possible. Rising Fish makes the perfect net. It’s lightweight, durable, with a long handle and a wide mouth for easy landings. Made in the USA, there is a full-quart capacity for your bourbon in its handle, complete with leak-proof screw cap. The rest of Rising Fish products are awesome too. From nippers to tweezers to you name it – they make it, and they make it to last!
MY FAVORITE GADGET
There are numerous fly-fishing knots, but 3 that are used constantly. This tool helps you make those 3 knots precisely and quickly. You want that out on the river, because often you are switching flies. You may try a fly, nothing’s biting, so you try something else. Or, a fellow angler nearby might catch a nice fish so you give him the thumbs up, and he exclaims “Small Parachute!”
You’ll want to reel in, snip your fly off your life, grab a small Parachute Adams from your fly box and tie it back on ASAP. Fly-fishing guides can do all of this in less than a minute, whereas even the experienced angler can spend up to 10 minutes re-rigging—and your would-be trophy fish has now swum away. Until years of tying knots have made your fingers adroit, grab this tool. It helps you tie the essential knots with lightning speed.
MY FAVORITE KNIFE
Made in the USA by Kershaw, Zero Tolerance is their high end line of knives. This particular blade that I carry is made from 20CV steel, which is able to get the finest razor sharp edge while still maintaining good durability. 20CV knives are rarely as affordable as the 0357.
This model has a G10 grip which maintains good handhold even when wet. The flipper mechanism enables it to be opened quickly with one hand, while the template is designed to keep your fingers from being able to slip up the blade. I carry this for cleaning fish, and a sense of security when alone on the river.
The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing $13
This is a wonderful selection of fly-fishing anecdotes and pointers from the old masters.
Pocket Guide to Fly Fishing $13
Keep this little waterproof book in your pocket to troubleshoot things like knots, fly selection, casting, and strategy.
I’m sorry, but the movie just doesn’t hold up. However, this book it was based on is timeless. If it doesn’t inspire you to fly-fish, take up bowling instead.
Check out our List of The 24 Essential Fly-Fishing Books
MY FAVORITE GUIDES
Chris is based out of Park City but guides all over the Midwest. He’s got the stoke of a surfer (he grew up in San Clemente) with a fly-fishing ethos and wisdom beyond his years. He’s a legend for knowing secret spots—and having them snaked by other guides. He’s the most fun guide I’ve ever fished with.
The guru. The fish whisperer. Walt guides mostly out of Wyoming now but he’s a master of all waters from Colorado to California. The biggest fish I’ve ever caught were with Walt in Utah.
MY FAVORITE DESTINATIONS
HOT CREEK, CALIFORNIA
Just 4 hours drive from Los Angeles, it’s my favorite “local” spot. With Mammoth Mountain towering upriver, this idyllic fly-fishing only creek (enforced by law) is never crowded and features a variety of water terrain – mirrory pools, baby rapids, countless seems, deep holes, and shallow banks where browns and rainbows abound. Not 10 minutes from Hot Creek is Convict Lake Resort. Straight out of an 80’s Chevy Chase movie, however the cabins have heated floors and other modern amenities hidden within their modest appearance. The restaurant is surprisingly fancy inside, which becomes less surprising when your 4 star meal is prepared by a world-class chef who left San Francisco for the simple life.
The Jerusalem of fly fishing. Blasphemy aside, most anglers who’ve experienced it will agree. The long history and culture of fly-fishing in this area, the breathtaking landscapes in every direction, and the trophy size trout inhabiting those waters—it all adds up. If you go, I suggest glamping with a group.
Or if you want to keep it easy, just stay at the Lark hotel. It’s got the 4 C’s: comfortable, contemporary, clean, and close to the water.
122 West Main St. / Bozeman, Montana / 406.624.3070
MY BEST TIP
PRACTICE AT HOME
YouTube the standard fly-fishing cast, and the “roll cast”. Then tie a cotton ball where you’d tie a fly at the end of your line, and go to a swimming pool and practice these two casts over and over. You’ll know when you’re doing it right, and you’ll also learn what your fly line is saying about what you’re doing wrong. Get these down before you go on your fishing trip so you have more fun on the river and a better chance of catching fish.