Another grouse season has come and passed here in Minnesota... Now what are we gonna do?.... As variously colored ruffed grouse fans hang freshly splayed on our walls, two english setters eagerly await the call that only comes from one dawning blaze orange and a side by side shotgun. That call however, will not come. Unknown to the four legged die-hards, blaze has been stowed away, side by sides fondly cleaned and stored, and the wait until bird season has begun for their two legged partners. With that, preparations begin for a different, equally cherished season. Fly fishing. Poorly neglected fly tying vises find their way out of hibernation onto messy workbenches, and a steady diet of hooks fed through their jaws, first bare, then feathered and furred. Many decorated hooks prepared with the colors of the previous fall - feathers from harvested Timberdoodle, Rail, and the king of all - Ruffed Grouse. Strangely enough, the birds we hunt through thicket and thorn also become valued tools in catching the picky finned predators of lake and riffle. An interesting, almost spiritual partnership is thus observed between fly fishing and the hunting of elusive game birds. In spite of my relatively short time with either sport, it is plain that the enjoyable elements of upland hunting, especially those hardest to explain to those who haven't experienced it, also seem to pervade fly fishing. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the numerous friends, family, and acquaintances that have expressed their interest in fly fishing but don't know where to start; therefore I want to go over a starter list of items necessary to get into the art of fly fishing.What do I need to get started? You can't fly fish without a fly rod, reel, and line.There's a huge variety of fly rods out there to intimidate the newcomer, but I wouldn't be too worried about fully understanding them when buying your first rod. Experience is your best teacher, and in order to grasp the concepts behind the rods, you need to fish with one. I will however briefly explain the term 'rod weight'. The strength and size of a fly rod is measured by weight (often abbreviated 'wt'). The lower the weight the less strong the rod, the higher the weight the stronger the rod. The weight of your rod influences the size fish you can handle, and what size flies you can throw. You'll notice also, when looking at fly lines, that they are also rated in weights. That's because fly rods are meant to be paired with a line of the same weight to cast the way they are meant to. For example, on a 5 wt rod, you would want to match it with a 5 wt line. I would recommend purchasing a four piece fly fishing outfit for your first setup between eight and nine feet long. These outfits usually come with a rod, a reel, fly line, and even a rod case. They can be very affordable, and most fly rod companies carry great packages. Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, Redington, Orvis, St. Croix, Temple Forks Outfitters all sell good quality, cost friendly outfits.
When choosing a fly rod you need to ask yourself what species of fish you are intending to catch. Brook, brown, or rainbow trout? Smallmouth or Largemouth Bass? Bluegills? Muskies? Steelhead? Maybe salmon? The underrated carp? Each species of fish will fight differently and come in smaller and bigger sizes, so you want a rod that can fight them and deliver the appropriate flies effectively. I recommend a 0 wt-6 wt for trout and bluegill, 5 wt-8 wt for bass, 6 wt-9 wt for steelhead and salmon, 9 wt-11 wt for muskies and pike, and 7 wt-8 wt for carp. This doesn't mean you can't fish for bluegills with a 7 wt, or smallmouth with a 5 wt, these are just my recommendations for a "best fit". My first rod was a 9 foot long 8 wt my brother bought me for smallmouth, pike, and steelhead in mind, but it being my only rod at the time, and I ended up using it for brook trout and bluegills all the time! It was a little overkill, but that's okay, those experiences helped me decide on a more appropriate rod for smaller fish. Chances are if you're just getting started, you're looking to fish for trout, bluegill, and bass. What I would do if I were you would be to get a 5 weight rod for your first one; this a great all around rod, and it can throw a variety of differently weighted flies, it's delicate enough to present dry flies, and has sufficient backbone to manage a strong tugging smallmouth bass. Also, the 5 wt is an excellent platform to learn basic casting techniques. If you like yellow, you could also buy an Eagle Claw Feather Light Fly Rod. These rods are extremely popular, even for the experienced fly fishermen due to their retro feel and cheap price. You can pick one of these rods up for around thirty bucks and pair it with any old reel and line in a matching weight. I have one of these set up with a vintage click and pawl fly reel I picked up at a flea market for four dollars. To learn more, or even order one for yourself, take a look at The Fiberglass Manifesto's review of the rods, and if you like the looks of it you can even order one from him.
Regarding fly reels, I'd just look at your reel as a fly line storage device for now. You can spend anywhere from a few bucks, to hundreds of dollars on a reel. Chances are the reel included in whichever outfit you buy will be a perfectly capable one. However, If you plan on fishing for hard fighting fish such as big smallmouth, carp, and steelhead, I would recommend spending more on a reel so you get a nicer sealed drag, but it's not necessary. Most fly reel companies have a model under $100, and they are all fine quality for getting started, but as mentioned, a fly outfit reel will be just fine, and don't rule out a garage sale score! Though the reel doesn't have to be a perfect match for the rod in terms of rod weight, having a reel that is rated for the rod you purchase will make it more comfortable to cast and balance out the rod.
Fly Line, Leaders, and Tippet
If your fly reel didn't come with fly line, you'll need some line backing and fly line. I wouldn't get to picky to start, just get a cheaper weight forward or double taper floating line and some basic fly backing line. Scientific Angler is a great place to start for grabbing an entry level line. You may be asking yourself "How the heck am I supposed to tie this huge fly line to that tiny fly?" or "Won't the fish see my fly line?", the answer to that is a tapered leader and tippet. Tapered leaders come in a variety of lengths the most common being between 7ft all the way to 12ft. I often use a 9ft leader for most of my fishing. The tapered leader is supposed to move with your fly line during casting and will help keep the fly from tangling with it. Additionally, at the end of a cast the leader will help the fly land more accurately and further away from the fly line itself so the fish don't get spooked. Tippet material is a non tapered line most commonly made out of monofilament or fluorocarbon. I prefer the monofilament myself. The job of tippet is to remain supple and prevent water currents from causing 'line drag' which can pull dry flies underwater. Finally, the strength of both tippets and leaders are usually labeled for example "6X" or "5X", the higher the number the smaller the material is, conversely the lower the number the bigger and stronger it will be. Usually companies who sell tippet and leader also put the breaking strength rated in pounds as well. I often use a 3X leader tied to 3X or 4X tippet when throwing small streamers for smallmouth bass. For brook trout I use a 5X leader, if the water is high and dirty I will use 4X to 5X tippet, low and clear 6X or even 7x tippet.
Waders are important for those intending to fish on rivers or lakeside during the colder months to keep from getting wet and cold. You can certainly fish from the bank, or wade during warmer months, but waders certainly make the experience easier when a 20" brown trout takes you for a ride downstream! Primarily waders are made of rubber, neoprene, nylon, and Gore-Tex. I recommend getting breathable nylon waders with a pair of wading boots. It feels just like wearing a heavy pair of pants and hiking boots and supports your ankles nicely on slippery rocks. I'd pick up a pair from Frogg Toggs, like their Breathable Stockingfoot Hellbender waders, they are about a hundred bucks and lasted me about three years. After that time you can decide if you want to invest in a nicer pair.
Now you'll need some wading boots for those stocking foot waders. Redington, Frogg Toggs, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabelas sell some cheap wading boots as well that will last you until you want to upgrade or longer. Keep an eye open for boots with a nice tred on them. They do make felt soled wading boots, and I would recommend staying clear of these as more and more regulations are restricting their use due to their increased likelihood of transporting invasive species than rubber soled boots. If you have some old rubber or neoprene waders you want to use, or some hip boots, go ahead and go that route, it's up to you. Waders are really more of a convenience item in most situations than a necessity, though as you use them, you won't go to a river without them!
There is certainly much more to the fly fishing equation than just the equipment we've gone over here, and will post a part 2 concerning flies, knots, technique, and other tips. This should be a great starting point for getting the essentials to begin the addiction. As with many other hobbies, there really is no right and wrong way to go about it. Get out there and find some beginning gear in your budget and go after it however is right for you; better yet, hook up with an experienced fly fisher and see if you can tag along a time or two to learn the basics, and very likely they will have extra gear you can give a try before purchasing anything to start!
-Adam Regier, Modern Wild