An Introduction To The Art of Fly Fishing: Part 1

My addiction started about 15 years ago. When my grandfather passed away we found an old bamboo fly rod in his basement. Not knowing anything about fly fishing I started to dig into the mystery of the sport. After a little bit of research I was surprised by both its simplicity and complexity. With only a modest investment of time, the average person can easily learn the sport and begin catching fishing. For those who share my addiction, fly fishing offers a lifetime of learning and adventure.

Through some casual conversation over the years I have noted that there is a certain mystic around fly fishing. Many people, even other anglers, don’t understand the appeal of the sport, the specific equipment used or the basic mechanics of fly fishing. I can’t be too critical of these individuals because before I took the plunge into the world of fly fishing, I had no idea what it was about either. This series of articles is designed to introduce people to the art of fly fishing and (hopefully) help to demystify this amazing sport.

A Brief History of Fly Fishing:
It would be a daunting task to wade through a detailed history of fly fishing but I thought that it would be worth touching on some of the highlights. If you have no desire to learn about the history of the sport, skip down to the next section.

References to anglers using small pieces of coloured wool and other materials to mimic popular food supplies for fish go back as far as the 2nd century AD. The first complete reference on fly fishing came from Dame Juliana Berners in 1496. Her writings included discussions on rods, lines and fly selections as well as pairing up these 3 vital elements of fly fishing.

In 1613 John Dennys published his The Secrets of Angling which seems to be the first mention of actually casting a fly to catch fish.

Perhaps the most famous historical book on fly fishing was released in 1653 by Izaak Walton; The Compleat Angler. While Walton is credit with writing this book it should be noted that this work was a collaboration by several authors including John Dennys' earlier works, Thomas Baker and Charles Cotton.

In the mid 1700's bamboo started to be used for the upper half of rods. Eyelets were being added to the rods to allow for more accurate casting and the sport was beginning to gain popularity in England. The commercialization of the sport was becoming apparent and equipment and tackle was available for sale to the more Aristocratic English Gentlemen.

Later that century winches came into vogue allowing for longer lines and better storage. The term winches has since been replaced with reel.

With the Industrial Revolution flying fishing products became cheaper and more easily accessible by the masses.

Over the last 200 years the sport of fly fishing has evolved and grown with the times. Knowledge has been shared and passed on from angler to angler. Materials have improved and technology has pushed the sport into the 21st century. Walk into any friendly local fly fishing shop and it is easy to see just how much the sport has evolved from it's humble beginnings.

How Fly Fishing Differs From Other Forms of Fishing:
The 2 most popular methods of sport fishing are spincasting and baitcasting. Both of these styles of fishing use the same principles in slightly different ways. In both cases, a weight or heavy lure is attached to a light line and cast out. The weighted end creates the necessary momentum to pull the line off of the spool. Fly fishing reverses this logic and a heavy line is used to build momentum in order to cast very small, almost weightless lures (flies). This difference seems minor but it changes the mechanics required to properly cast a fly to eagerly waiting fish.

Important Terms - Weight:
Throughout this series we will provide some definitions of important fly fishing terms. The first term that will help gain a better understanding of fly fishing is weight. Logically most people will jump to the conclusion that weight is just that, the actual weight in pounds of kilograms of a specific item. This however is not the case. Weight is a classification used to rate rods, reels and fly lines. When putting an outfit together the goal is to balance your weights for optimum performance. If you have a 5 weight rod you will want a 5 weight reel loaded with a 5 weight line. Weights will typically range from 1 to 14. The lower numbers (1,2,3 etc.) are more delicate and used for smaller, less aggressive fish. The larger numbers are used to target larger, aggressive game fish.

Basic Equipment Required:
As the title suggests I am only going to introduce the basic equipment required to fly fish. As with most things in this day and age, the fly fishing market is flooded with all sorts of 'toys' to help you catch more fish or bigger fish. In the interest of brevity we are sticking to the absolute basics that will allow someone to get on the water and catch fish.


Fly Rod: Most modern fly rods are made from IM6 or higher graphite components. This makes the rods extremely light and durable. Rods come in a variety of different lengths typically ranging from 7' to 15' depending on your style of fishing and the game that you are after. An average length for most game fish would be in the 9' to 10' range. These rods generally come in 2 piece although there are 3, 4 and 5 piece options available depending on how compact you want to go.

Fly RodsAfter the length of the rod the most important factor is the weight of the rod (see the above definition of weight). Weights range from 1 to 14. The lower the number the more delicate the rod will be. These lower end numbers are ideal for casting short distances to achieve delectate fly presentations for smaller game fish (pan fish, small trout etc). The larger weight rods are great for throwing big flies, long distances and fighting larger, more aggressive fish.

If you are looking for a good, all purpose rod I would recommend something in the 5 to 6 weight category and with a length of 9' or 9'6".


Fly Reel: Fly reels serve a much different purpose from the reel on spincast or baitcast rods. The primary role of a fly fishing reel is line storage. Unless you're hooking into big, aggressive fish then you're not going to use all that much line and may never us your reel at all to land the fish.

Fly ReelsFly reels offer up a modest drag system for those times when you engage in a long fight. The 2 major styles of drag systems are 'click and pawl' and disc drag.

The older click and pawl reels have a catch that engages with a spinning cog in the reel. Once engaged, any line that is taken out will be slightly slower as the pawl increases the resistance. This style of reel really only have 1 (possibly 2) drag settings. It's simplicity however allows for a lighter weight reel.

Disc drag systems have an adjustable knob that increases or decreases the amount of pressure added to the spool. They are easy to adjust and offer a more dynamic level of drag but they are more complicated in design and are slightly heavier.

Reels are also rated with the above mentioned 'weight' system. To have a well and proper balance setup the reel should have the same general weight rating as your rod.


Fly Line: Modern fly lines are typically made from braided nylon coated with plastic. They usually come in lengths of about 90' but for larger game fish you can add nylon or dacron backing.

Fly lines use the same weight system that rods and reels use. If you have a 5 weight rod and reel combo you will want to go with a 5 weight fly line.

There are 2 other feature of fly lines that need to be noted as well; the taper of the line and the buoyancy of the line.

Line taper can help with the ability to cast or allow for a more subtle presentation of the fly. A weight forward line is ever so slightly tapered towards the shooting (casting) end and does allow for easier casting. A double tapered line gradually tapers towards the middle of the line and has an equal size on both ends.

Finally fly lines will come with various buoyancies. Floating lines will stay on the surface of the water while sinking lines will gently sink into the strike zone. There are full sinking lines which sink fast and intermediate sinking lines that gradually sink over time.

Fly Lines and Leaders


Leader: The leader connects the fly line to the fly itself. These leaders come in 2 different styles; tapered and knotted. The more modern tapered leaders have a gradual and even taper from the butt end (thickest) to the tippet end (thinnest). These leaders are made out of monofilament, similar to regular fishing line.

Knotted leaders use 3 or 4 different sizes of monofilament in 2' or 3' sections to taper the leader down. While these seem a little more crude by design this style of leader can easily be made by anglers and they are effective in catching fish.

Leaders also have a rating system and just to make this fly fishing more complicated, it's a different scale from the weight system rods, reels and lines use. Leaders are rated from 0x to 8x where 0x is the thickest and 8x is the thinnest and most delicate. The selection of your leader will depend directly on the size of the fly as we will see later.


Flies: The final piece to the fly fishing puzzle is the fly. A fly is a generic term used for the lure. In a lot of instances they are designed to mimic actual flies, but there are literally thousands of fly patterns that are also meant to emulate everything from baitfish to frogs, mice and grasshoppers.


Given the importance of flies to the art of fly fishing, I think that we will hold off until our next article open up that can of worms. Stay tuned for part 2 of our series on the introduction of fly fishing.