With affordable tackle and friendly tuition widely available these days, there has never been a better time to cast a fly. So how do you start fly fishing? Fishing author and guide Dom Garnett provides some handy tips and starting points for beginners.
You probably know the fly fishing cliches already. It’s easy to think of posh gentlemen, exclusive rivers and those daft J.R. Hartley ads. In reality, however, this fantastic branch of angling is nothing like as complicated or exclusive as many imagine. In fact, with just simple gear and a little casting practice, you can be fishing before you know it.
Fly fishing kit itself needn’t be complicated, for starters. Out of all the different types of angling, the gear is among the simplest of all (as we’ll discuss shortly, along with a handy checklist). As for the craft of catching fish on an artificial bug, there is more knowhow available than ever.
Why go fly fishing?
Above: A tranquil sport? Fly fishing can offer excitement besides relaxation!
There are so many reasons to go fly fishing, but first and foremost is the great enjoyment it brings. It’s certainly relaxing, but don’t instantly imagine something sedate bordering on watching paint dry. From watching a fish rise to take your dry fly to feeling the manic surge of a big fish on a fly rod, it can deliver heart-stopping thrills too.
On a deeper level, however, it’s perhaps the escapism and contact with nature that are so rewarding. Learning about rivers, lakes and living things is endlessly fascinating, while it’s also an excellent way to take a break from the mad modern world we live in.
Is fly fishing hard to learn?
Perhaps the one thing that puts some would be fly anglers off is the technique. We imagine endless tangles, or the obsessive father in A River Runs Through It (a must see film, if you’ve never watched it). However, while casting can become an amazing art in itself, most beginners can learn the basics in an afternoon. Don’t be fooled by the idea that you need ninja-like skills to get going and catch fish!
Books and YouTube videos can help, but there is no substitute for getting in touch with one of the manu friendly coaches all over the country. Do look for a qualified person though: you could try an organisation like APGAI, or indeed use the Angling Trust’s Find a Coach map tool. These folks can let you borrow the gear too, so you don’t have to jump in at once or risk buying the wrong things.
Another excellent starting point is to attend one of the many annual free fishing events. These take place all over the country at some of our most famous fly fisheries, such as Grafham, Chew Valley, Draycote Reservoir and many others. Keep an eye on www.getfishing.org for events near you. All the gear and tuition is provided, and usually you only need to bring yourself and suitable outdoor wear! Many fisheries and local fishing clubs offer starter sessions and events too, so don’t be too shy to ask.
Where is it possible to fly fish near me?
Once you’ve learned to cast and bought the kit, the next step is to find out where to go fly fishing. Your first stop here should be the local tackle shop or fly fishing club. These folks will know your area best and exactly where to go.
You can try the fly anywhere from a tiny stream to a large reservoir, as long as you get permission or the right permit first. But for most beginners the ideal starting point is a small stillwater (try using simple phrases like “trout fishery” and “fly fishing” in Google or Google Maps) . These places have lots of casting space and tend to be well-stocked, greatly increasing your chances of early success. On most you will be fishing to catch stocked trout which you take to eat; the vast majority of “wild” fish are strictly catch and release.
Once you have the basic skills, most anglers will want to try bigger waters or natural rivers, which can be more demanding. Fishing clubs are the best source for affordable venues to try, but token style “passport” schemes are also excellent, often providing wild fly fishing for under £10! The Westcountry Angling Passort (South West), The Fishing Passport (Wales and West Midlands) and Peak Angling Passport (North & North Midlands) are all highly recommended for those who love a little adventure.
Essential fly fishing gear: A tackle check list for beginners
Admittedly, the fly fishing world can be a bit daunting if you’re new to it. So we’ve kept things really simple with this list. After all, you don’t need waders, a boat or a thousand and one flies to catch fish. All that other, more complicated stuff can wait till later, frankly. So what do you need to go fly fishing from scratch? Here are the basics:
- Environment Agency Rod Licence: Anyone fishing in England and Wales will need one of these. Sometimes a cause of confusion, because there different categories. Salmon and sea trout require a more expensive license. These species tend to be for more experienced anglers, however, so for most beginners, a simple “Trout, Coarse Fish & Eel” Licence. Children of 12 and under don’t need a licence, while those from 13-16 can apply for a FREE one. Click here for full details and online licence registration. You may also then need a day ticket or permission from the fishery owner.
- Fly rod: in a suitable length. Most anglers will begin with small stillwater fishing, where a 9ft long 6 or 7 weight rod is ideal. For river trout, lighter rods in the 3 or 4 weight class tend to be preferred, either short (7 or 8ft ) for smaller, bushy rivers, or perhaps 10ft for larger, more open waters.
- Reel: Pick a model to match your rod’s rating but don’t feel the need to spend a ton on something super bling if it’s your first; it mainly just holds the fly line.
- Fly line: Start with a simple WF (weight forward) floating line to match your rod’s rating. It’s worth spending the money on a good one (typically £25-£40) rather than a posh reel when starting out fly fishing. You can always add sinking lines later as you develop.
- Landing net: The best value is usually a “combo” of net and handle in one. Some will clip on your back for convenience.
- Leaders: The “leader” is the thinner, normal fishing line between the thicker fly line and your actual fly. So-called “tapered leaders” are the best starting place. These cost around £3 and help your presentation no end. Leaders of 6lbs strength are about right to begin stillwater trout fishing.
- Flies: Start with a simple selection for your venue. For small stillwaters you can’t go far wrong with a few classic lures (Cat’s Whisker, Damsel, Fritz) and nymphs (Buzzer, Daiwl Bach, Hare’s Ear). Get a basic fly box to keep them safe too.
- Polarising glasses: Not only help spot fish but protect your eyes from wayward casts; especially important while you learn!
- Fly vest: Holds all your essentials neatly and removes the need for you to carry lots of baggage.
- Forceps: A quality pair is a must to remove hooks from fish- and can also be used to de-barb flies where catch and release is permitted.
- Floatant and sinkant: Very useful to treat your leader. Grab a tub of Mucilin, along with a tub of “Leedasink” or fuller’s earth.
- Trout priest: Much of stillwater fishing is “put and take” with stocked fish, meaning you must take your catch home (but wild fish MUST be released!). This item is there to humanely dispatch fish. Called the priest because it administers “last rites” swiftly and mercifully! You’ll also want to take a tough waterproof bag to keep your catch from ponging out the car!
Fly fishing tips for beginners
So, you have the gear and are raring to go; but what are the best ways to pick up the skills you need and “hatch” into a true fly angler? Here are some useful fly fishing tips and ideas to get you going:
- Take it one step at a time and always be open to advice: Everyone learns at their own pace, so enjoy the journey and don’t rush. Perhaps the best tip for the beginner is to ask other anglers and professionals for advice. A session with a coach is the best investment you will ever make.
- Start with simple, shorter casts: You don’t need to hit the horizon to catch fish, period. Most of us end up taking more line off the reel than needed in the earlier days, and our casts get messy! Cast a comfortable distance and if you are struggling, shorten it and tidy the basics up to boost your confidence. Many of the best fish are caught close to the bank.
- Don’t skimp on the basics: While you might be fine with a cheap but functional rod and reel, try to avoid dirt cheap fishing line, flies and other essentials. Quality counts; and this is especially true of your leader materials and fly patterns.
- Learn to be stealthy: One part of successful fishing far less discussed than tackle or tactics is the importance of not scaring fish. Be mindful of your approach, whether it means crouching, slowing your movements or making fewer but more careful casts, and you will catch more.
- Be curious: One of the wonderful things about fly fishing is how much you learn about nature and different waters. You don’t need to be thrashing the water for hours on end. Time spent just watching the fish, talking to locals or seeing what’s hatching is seldom wasted.
- Join the club: There are fly fishing clubs all over the country and many are excellent value. More than this though, they give you the chance to meet and fish with experienced anglers who can share advice and local knowledge that money can’t buy! Many are looking for new members and you are sure to be made welcome.
- Come to a FREE fly fishing event! www.getfishing.org.uk has events all over the country at some brilliant fly fishing venues. Just select ‘Game Fishing’ from the search options to find an event near you where use of tackle, casting lessons, fishing tips, advice and a day’s fishing licence are all included!”.