Outfitted to Fish: A Long Post on the Basics
I’ve been fishing long enough and consistently enough a few people have asked me what kind of gear to buy to be able to start fly fishing for trout. Somehow or another this has been a request for a shopping list, often from a buddy that’s been on the stream just enough to want his own stuff. More than once I’ve made a big haul of “the basics” for a few of my friends wives that wanted to have a killer surprise under the Christmas tree. I’ve usually answered two requests: “I want to get my first fly rod and reel, help me” and “I have a new fly rod and want to get all the stuff I need to go fishing”.
To read this series from the beginning, I share my story here with the introduction to this series.
Let’s start the gear conversation here . . . It can get really damn expensive if you try to buy your way into fly fishing. The equipment is highly tiered. There can be some value at all price points, but even in the inexpensive range, if you buy one of everything you’re going to be in pretty deep. If you fully outfit at the budget range, you may find buyers remorse if your skill and passion trumps your gear. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s foolish to go all out- you might not even really like fishing that much, or you may suck at it! Trust me, I have a really-really nice bag of the most expensive golf clubs you could buy in 2004. I still drive under 200 yards with a mean hook and shoot in the high nineties . . . three or four times a year when I get out to play.
Every sport and hobby has a vanity industry around it that’s highly marketed. Honestly that’s true with any sport. I thought soccer was one of the most inexpensive sports for my kids to play- practically free right? All you need is a ball. It’s a global sport played even in the most poverty stricken areas in the world. And then there are cleats and socks and a special bag and warm up suits and slides and clothes that you wear when your not playing soccer so that the world knows you’re a soccer player. Fly fishing has a product culture like this. I don’t knock the culture though. Try to shop local and small. Buy your gear from small fly shops. Even if they are across the country on the internet, they will be helpful on the phone because they appreciate your business. A few of the vanity items are neat widgets for you and really help their businesses.
So you have to ask yourself all the basic questions: When, where, what, how, with whom? WHY? Why in the hell do you want to start fly fishing and how do you figure you’re going to figure it out if you don’t even know what to buy? When folks asked me what to buy to get set up I generally made the assumption, because we are a 45 minute -2 hour drive from great fishing in North Carolina, that they intended to be self sufficient wade fishermen. The second assumption was that they planned on taking a floating guide trip or two. There are big distinctions here. But what if they asked, “what do I need for my first trip to Montana?- I’ve never fished”. So I’ll make a few generalized assumptions that we’re outfitting a novice wading fisherman on small to moderate sized streams catching small to moderate sized trout- classic Eastern wade fishing.
I’ll make a few comments here on getting your first fly rod, but I believe this subject deserves its own post. Look out for that later in this series. It stands to logic that your first fly rod needs to be an all-around, a Swiss army knife/ five iron. With this I agree, but it doesn’t mean that you might or should use it all the time. I’m a huge fan of learning to fish with professional guides. Unless they are guiding you in a scenario that is very similar to one that you are going to recreate on your own, like a small stream wade, I’d use their equipment. Generally, good guides that enjoy beginners have equipment for you. It might not be the VERY best, but they get good stuff and want to ensure your success. A nuance like a little stiffer tip or six more inches of length on the rod might be the recipe to the fishing that day. Your all-around might not be the best.
So what is my all-around? For Eastern wade fishing its an 8’6”, medium fast, 5-weight. Honestly, I’d suggest a 4-weight, but I like the backbone to be able to switch to a heavy streamer and get it out there. If your only have one rod, the five should work for this but still handle more delicate up close casting. A more specialized setup later on might be a nice stiff six weight for those heavy flies (you might carry out to Montana later) and a silky long three weight for delicate dry fly presentation. Reels are a whole other topic. I figured a reel was nothing more than a line holder for years- because I never caught fish large enough to need the drag. Honestly, that is much of the time- and that will need some discussion.
Let’s get this out of the way too, you are going to need waders and good wading boots. This will also be an expensive and important decision—for later. I’d start out with the rod, reel, line and some bag basics- we can discuss that in another post too, should you be so inclined to stay engaged.
Okay, 847 words in and I haven’t even begun the list of river bag basics I set out to list in this post. To me, this is the stuff you get once you have the rod and reel- this is the list the guy that wants to learn always asks for. Again, this is for the self sufficient, solo fisherman. If you show up on a guided trip (which I highly recommend a beginner do right away), all you need are good polarized glasses and sunscreen. In fact, guides are polite enough to keep it to themselves- but they are laughing inside when you have your own bag of nippers, forceps, and unwind a foot of tippet to tie on your own fly.
Here is the list:
- a pack (hip, chest, or a vest)
- terminal line: tapered leaders and tippet material
- tools: nippers and forceps
- flies and a fly box
- strike indicators, weight, fly dressing (floatant)
- a net
I have to confess that when I first started fishing I wore a vest. It was more in vogue back then, some of the OGs still do it. That sum-bitch had every thing I owned that ever had to do with fly fishing in it- all the stuff listed above plus pockets and pockets full of gimmicks and superfluous stuff. A book of hatches and knot tying cheat cards, and a knot tying tool, and a line straightening tool, and flies that I picked up on a trip out West that would never-ever catch a fish in the East, even an extra reel and line… it was heavy, and I thought I was really cool—- gear-head cool. By the time I was in my mid-twenties I usually slid down to the river with a lanyard that had a spool of tippet, nippers, forceps and an old Skoal can with a dozen or so flies. I prided my self on being able to take just the right stuff and catch fish.
Vest or Hipper or Sling or Chest Pack?
There is nothing wrong with a good old vest. You might look like someone from a John Candy movie, but they get the job done. The pros to a vest are having gear tight against your body and out of the way of your cast. The more you use a vest, you tend to memorize where everything is and they’re easy to organize. The cons, aside from losing style points, are that they can feel restrictive, they can make you hot on a hot day, they might not fit well over warm layers on a cold day.
I own two chest packs. They are both made by very well known names in the industry, were expensive and look really nice. I’d argue that they are the most thoughtfully designed when it comes to keeping your river gear organized. They have been hanging out in my closet ever since I bought them. Chest packs are probably the most technical way to get your stuff on the river. If you like to geek out over that, they’re for you. They do have the advantage of being up out of your cast and line strip, but I feel like a NAVY SEAL operator with one on. They’re a little claustrophobic. Generally once they’re on, they’re on with straps going everywhere. Compound that with straps going everywhere on your waders and pray to God that your morning coffee doesn’t hit you fast.
I’m most partial to a hip pack. I’ve fished with the same Patagonia hip pack for about twenty years. It has that “been around the block” look and smells like a wet tent, but it’s still my favorite. It has plenty of separate dividers and pockets to stay organized. I like it because it can serve as a wading belt and is generally out of the way. I like to wear it over my left hip away from where I strip line. It is easy to get off and on and I find myself setting it down on the bank when I’m working a run for some time. I can sling the strap over my head and shoulder if I am wading across deep water. A cousin to the hip pack is a sling style pack, I’ve seen some great ones out there and imagine that they have similar benefits.
In addition to the hip pack, I am very partial to wearing a lanyard with nippers and forceps. I occasionally hang a tippet spool on it or some floatant. On the back of the lanyard, I have a magnet that I snap my net too. Lanyards are commercially available or you you can make them out of paracord. The ones with spacers work better so things don’t bunch up. Some of my favorites have been one with old, broken Winston rod blanks as spacers. I made one when I worked on the Shoshone Reservation out of hollow crow leg bones and turquoise beads on deer leather- it’s freakin’ dope and I still use it today.
OKAY, you have a bag to fill, let’s get more specific about the list.
LEADERS. Leaders are the section of line between the fly line and the fly. They connect with a stiff butt section and become more fine as they reach the fly. This taper assists in the transfer of energy in your cast from the line to the weightless fly. If the taper is too aggressive or abrupt the fly does not turn over well in the cast. The leader is also an “invisible line” relative to the thick fly line, so it needs to be long enough and thin enough to be stealth and deceive the fish.
I would carry about six to ten leaders with me. Odds are you you will only fish with the one you went to the river with, but if you really foul up the line or break it off, you’ll need to start over. Leaders are packed in plastic envelopes and don’t take up any room. You’ll regret the day you don’t have an extra. There are many types, style, and sizes of leaders. For basic stream fishing, buy tapered monofilament leaders (buy in three packs). I would buy a few 5x leaders in 7.5 feet for small streams and 5x in 9 feet length for medium rivers. If you are going to nymph or streamer fish in rough water it doesn’t hurt to have a pack of 4x in 7.5 feet. If you are going to make delicate long dry fly presentations it might not hurt to have 6x in 12 feet (you could always cut this down and rebuild it into a shorter 5x).
TIPPET. Tippet material is the fine line at the end of the leader. It comes in spools to repair, rebuild, and lengthen leaders. Using tippet keeps the terminal tag of the line the correct gauge. It can be used to drop a second fly behind a first. Tippet does have a shelf life so I wouldn’t buy too much or in sizes that you may never use. Get a spool of 4x-5x-6x. There are merits to different materials, I think fluorocarbon is strong, supple, and holds a nice knot. A tippet holder is nice. If you buy one, its a $35 vanity item and your local fly shop will thank you, if you’re sending money to China via Amazon, may I suggest tying a loop of paracord through the tippet spools with a big wooden bead on the end. You can hook this to your bag or lanyard.
THERE ARE TWO ESSENTIAL TOOLS: LINE NIPPERS AND FORCEPS. Nippers do just that. They look a bit like nail clippers without the lever arm. They are a simple tool and really only need to be as good enough as they stay sharp and can nip line very close to the knot. Almost all nippers have a pointed needle on them to clear hook eyes. The cheapest nippers are a ten dollar buy in a bucket by the cash register. These are serviceable, but tend to get dull after a short while- that being said they’re great if you lose things easily. The mid range nipper is a $25-45 buy. They’re normally a little more robust and have finer steel in the cutting edge— if you’re not one to lose things, these are built to last. At the other end of the spectrum are a few machine milled “designer” nippers that get well over $100-200 bucks— these are a nice gift for the “man that has everything” but exist purely to stoke vanity. This is a pertinent example of something you have to recognize in the fly fishing industry, there is a sector of fishermen, especially out West that are deca-millionaires and beyond. Some of the equipment industry is influenced by their willingness to buy “the best” at any cost.
Forceps are used to hold flies as they are being tied. With a little skill you can make knots with them like a surgeon. I’m sure they found their way into the sport from doctors that brought needle forceps and hemostats. They are handy to remove flies from a fish’s mouth. Again on the cheap end of the spectrum are forceps that don’t have the precision to grasp little flies. The mid range fly shop forceps around $30 will do. I would suggest shiny forceps. The black ones I dropped last week in 18” water were never to be found.
THE FLY BOX. Man, let’s save that conversation for another post. It’s so regional and stream specific. I will say this, when you are getting started you’ll probably begin with one larger fly box for everything. A nice folding box with room for about 50-100 size 12-18 flies on rows of rippled foam. Make sure it floats. Don’t break the bank here. You’ll probably come up with a new system once you figure the sport out a little bit.
A few ACCESORIES: I’d argue you will always need split shot, floatant, and a few strike indicators.
A variety wheel of split shot is nice. I suggest lead free and don’t forget this is specific for trout (very small), don’t mistakenly get something for a crappie rig.
If you are going to dry fly fish you will need a floatant to dress the fly and keep it up. There are several brands but generally all of them are some formulation of silicone gel. I used Gink for years, Aquell for many more years, today I put Abalene facial cleaner on my dry flies (I am a frugal Scot). A floatant powder like Frog’s Fanny is also nice and necessary for CDC flies, a desiccant powder is also nice to shake wet and sinking dries back to life.
Strike indicators are the fly fishing equivalent of a bobber. You can drop a nymph under a large dry fly like a stimulator, but I imagine- esp. as a beginner that 75-90% of the fishing you will do will be with a nymph tied under a strike indicator. There are wool blobs, but the most commonly used strike indicator is a plastic bubble like a Thingy-ma-bobber.
Finally, GET A NET. You might not even catch any fish when you first start. The smaller fish you may catch might be easily handled by running your hand down the line. If a fish is large enough, it must be netted to land it. Smaller fish will also be less traumatized if they are landed in a net. Buy a net that has a soft rubber web, the older string nets damage scales, fins, and gills. They are a vestige from a day when fish were kept. Please handle fish delicately and put them back- there are plenty of farm raised trout and salmon at the grocery store.
If there isn’t shop in your town (NO, not the big box store!) —Here are a few fly shops that have generously made me a better fisherman with their advice:
WHEW! I try to keep the posts under 1200 words- thanks for hanging in there on this 2800 one!
Best wishes and Tight Lines,