Flyfishing Basics by
Let's start with a basic premise. One that is important to overcome
in order to enjoy fly fishing in the north country. FLY FISHING IS NOT
JUST FOR STREAM TROUT. Fly fishing gear can be, and is, used to catch
every conceivable species of fish on the planet. From tiny rainbow trout
to saltwater species weighing hundreds of pounds. So use your flyfishing
gear anyway you see fit.
the north country flyfisherfolks use their fly rods to take panfish,
walleyes, smallmouth bass, lake trout, northern pike, native brook
trout, rainbow trout, steelhead, salmon, and more.
If you are looking to take up this intriguing sport then consider
yourself fortunate that you will be able to practice on one of the most
prolific and aggressive game fish around. The smallmouth bass that
inhabit nearly all of the lakes in our region.
Watching a smallie inhale your popper on a warm summer evening and
then watching it make leap after leap after leap on the way to the net
simply cannot be beat. A two-pound smallmouth will make you think you've
hooked into a much larger fish. And releasing them, unharmed, will give
you a second thrill as well.
Another myth we need to lay to rest is that fly casting is difficult
to learn and difficult to do. Not so. Most of the time you are simply
tossing the fly a short distance which requires only a small amount of
practice. All the ''false casting'', as it's called, that you see on
television is a waste of time and energy.
So, what do you need to begin. Obviously, you are going to need a fly
rod, a fly reel, some fly line, a monofilament leader, and a fly. Let's
take them one at a time.
I would recommend that you get yourself a fly rod in the 7-8 weight
range. That's the way fly rods are rated and you'll get a fly line
that's rated to match it. A 7-8 wt. rod will handle all the species you
are likely to go after in the canoe country region and will also handle
larger poppers and a fair amount of wind.
You don't have to spend a lot of money on a fly rod. I would check
out the basic rods from L.L.Bean and Cabelas first. They will probably
offer a starter kit with rod, reel, line, backing line, and a leader. I
have several rods and the moderately priced one I got from Bean is my
favorite to cast with. Even more than rods I spent hundreds of dollars
Be sure to get at least a two piece rod and, perhaps, even a three or
four piece if you plan to do a lot of airline travel. I have two, three,
and four piece rods and I haven't noticed any real loss of performance
in any of them. Make sure your rod is mostly graphite as cheap
fiberglass, or composite, rods do not hold up well or perform well.
In general, a fly rod should be neither too soft or too firm; much
like a spinning rod. The rod actually bends and "throws" the
fly line so it must ''load up'' and then release properly. Most rods you
buy, in the moderate price range, will do so nicely.
A fly reel is a simple place to hold your fly line. You do not fight
your fish with the fly reel; but simply do so with your hands and the
line itself. So, while your reel should be sturdy enough to stand up to
the rigors of a fishing trip you should not spend a lot of money on it.
You begin fishing by stripping the fly line off the reel and casting
the line you have stripped off. You fight the fish with your hand and
the fly line and then use the reel to gather up the fly line when you
are done fishing that spot. Having said that, you might want to look at
the large arbor reels that are popular these days. The inner part of the
reel is much larger than a traditional reel and they reel up the excess
line much, much faster.
The fly line is the most important piece of equipment you will buy.
Don't scrimp on the fly line. Poor quality line performs poorly and will
frustrate you in short order. The price tag on a box of fly line can
surprise you but it's worth it. Fly line can be used for years so you'll
get your money's worth out of it. Trust me.
You'll want to be a FLOATING WEIGHT FORWARD line. They are the
easiest to use. By far. You'll graduate to other types of lines as your
interests develop. Again, make sure to buy a line that is matched to
your rod for balanced performance.
When you purchase your line be sure you purchase fly line cleaner and
lubricant and some pads to apply it. You should clean your fly line
before EVERY fishing outing because a clean, lubricated fly line
performs ten times better than a dirty line. And your line gets dirty
just by virtue of being used. You simply pull your line through some
sort of pad, that's got the cleaner/lubricant on it, and the dirt is
removed immediately. As with any fishing equipment, keep the reel and
the line out of the sun or a hot car or hot trunk. When you store the
line for the winter you should take it off the reel and store it coiled
up in large loops so that it doesn't retain the memory of the reel's
Fly line backing is simply Dacron line that you use to fill up the
spool on your reel. It makes the fly line come off the spool much
easier, helps eliminate the coils in your line, and is there should your
prey make a huge run and pull all the fly line off your reel. (As a side
note, I've had a king salmon rip off 80 feet of fly line and 250 yards
of backing and never even slow down. A good reason to keep some back up
fly line and backing in your fishing kit.)
A fly fishing leader is pretty much like a spin fishing leader. They
are generally tapered down to a smaller diameter and come in various
pound tests. For your first forays into smallmouth fishing you should
use a leader in the 6-10' length and in the 8-10 pound test range.
A fly fishing tippet is simply more monofilament line that you tie on
the end of your fly leader so you don't have to cut off the end of your
leader each time you re-tie a fly. And it also allows you to use the
smallest diameter tippet material possible in case the fishing
conditions, or finicky fish, demand it. With smallmouth, hitting
aggressively, this is not generally much of a concern.
My favorite smallmouth flies are those hard-bodied "cork"
poppers that you've seen around for ages and ages. Generally they come
in a little round plastic dispenser box and are quite inexpensive. You
are going to lose a lot of flies to northern pike, trees, and rocks so
bring plenty. Tie the flies on directly to your tippet material.
Other basic flies, for smallies, are Woolly Buggers. These flies do
not float, like the poppers so you'll use them when the bass are not
hitting on the surface. Be sure your kit has some olive green, black,
and brown Buggers and you'll be all set. You simply let them sink, after
casting, and then pull the line back in with your hand in an erratic
If your travels bring you near trout waters then you'll want some
small ''mosquito'' flies in your box. You'll also want to have some fly
floatant to apply to them so they sit on the water properly. In general,
you are trying to imitate the bugs that the fish feed on naturally so
keep that in mind at the fly shop. Fly shop owners are the best source
of info as to what to bring to our region.
The most important distinction, between fly casting and spin casting,
is that in fly casting the FLY LINE carries the nearly weightless fly!
In spin casting the weight of the lure carries the line forward.
So, simply put, you must get that fly line moving in order to propel
the fly forward. Begin by stripping half of your fly line off the reel
and off the rod, at your feet. You can practice this on your lawn, in
the gym, or even in a parking lot. To practice, attach a leader but not
A fly. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble and a number of flies.
If it looks like you are going to have to practice on a hard surface
you'll want to designate one fly line for that purpose. A fly fishing
friend of mine keeps a rod in his office and sneaks out periodically to
practice in an alley in Chicago. The fly line is well worn, from the
asphalt, but it has made him an outstanding fly caster.
I usually begin by moving my rod tip from side to side in order to
get some fly line off the rod. Then with the rod and reel in my right
hand, and the fly line in my left, I simply lift the rod tip and move
the rod, my hand, my arm, and my shoulder behind me. The line should
follow and create an arc behind you. When it reaches its apex you simply
move your rod, hand, arm, and shoulder forward; bringing the line with
I've found that, when practicing, it's best to stand a little bit
sideways so you can watch the line in front of and behind you. That way
you can see if you're getting a decent "roll" in your line.
This should be a slow, measured movement; never hurried. Fly fishing is
supposed to be a relaxed, gentle activity. If you are whipping the rod
back and forth you are missing the rhythm essential to fly casting.
Remember that the weight of the FLY LINE must move the fly back and
Retrieving the line is simple. You hold the rod in one hand and pull
the line in with the other. Your index finger, on your rod holding hand,
holds the line as you retrieve with the other hand. When it gets close
to your lowered rod tip you then pick up the rod tip and the line and
begin another cast. Really quite simple.
When a fish strikes you do the same motion. Again, you do not
retrieve a fish with the fly reel; only with the line and your hand. You
must play a fish, on a fly rod, more carefully than with a spinning reel
as you don't have the spinning reels adjustable drag to compensate for
the fish's coming and going.
When the smallie inhales your popper, or your Bugger, you must have
the line held tightly in that rod hand index finger and lift your rod
tip up quickly, to set the hook. Then, like in spin fishing, you keep
the rod tip high and keep pressure on the fish as best you can. With all
of the Boundary Waters smallies there are you'll get plenty of practice.
There are not a lot of places to wade and cast in the canoe country.
So I generally don't bother with waders on canoe trips. In July and
August you can wade in your shorts and sandals but otherwise you'll
likely be fishing from your canoe most of the time.
If you are lucky you'll have a canoeing partner who won't mind
paddling you around to fish. I've found that trying to fish with a
spinning outfit and a fly outfit, from the same canoe, is hard to do.
Mainly because, as a fly fisher, you need to be closer to your prey and
positioned more accurately.
The best way I've found to fly fish is to take turns paddling and
fishing. That way your partner can watch for flies whizzing by his or
her head and put you in the best position to make a cast. I'd recommend
taking the extra time to make one GOOD cast as opposed to flailing all
over the place. Trust me, the smallie will know that a fly has landed
nearby and, if you're patient, they'll come and get it! With a rush!
It's The Experience!
I always say that if you must get the fish in your boat or canoe then
fly fishing is not for you. You'll lose many more fish, on a fly rod,
than you'll ever land. That's just the way it is.
Fly fishing is about the act of fishing. Not so much about the act of
catching. It's about figuring out where the fish are hiding, figuring
out what they might hit on, and then making a cast, or casts, to lure
them from their hiding spot.
It's about making the odds between you and the fish considerably more
even. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the fish have the odds in
their favor. And when you become a fly fisher you'll begin to
understand, as I did, that you'll start rating the experience by the one
perfect cast you made rather than how many fish you landed.
There are literally hundreds of books and videos available on the art
of fly fishing. Pick some up and spend some time practicing this winter.
But don't get too caught up on technique. Practice picking up that line
and laying your fly back down again. In one simple cast. And then
relaxing your mind enough to let that smallie stare at that fly until he
can't stand it anymore. Then, hang on to your hat! Because you're fly
fishing. Just like that.