Fly fishing isn’t what you might picture when you imagine someone fishing. It’s a method of angling that uses a lightweight bait; the “fly” – so-called because it often resembles one – is used to catch fish.
Unlike many fishing methods where bait is cast out for fish under the water, in fly fishing, the bait rests on top of the water, or just below the surface.
The idea is that it looks to a fish as though a bug has just landed on the water, and the fish – seeing this as a tasty snack – comes to the surface to eat it.
It can be done in fresh or saltwater, and you can fly fish for a variety of species.
Let’s take a closer look at how fly fishing is done, what equipment you need and some different methods.
History of fly fishing
This type of fishing is no modern phenomenon: it’s thought that fly fishing dates back to Roman times.
At the end of the 2nd century, Claudius Aelianus recorded an account of fly fishers on the Astraeus River. He wrote:
“They fasten red wool… round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it…”
Not much was recorded about fly fishing after that, until 1496 when The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle was published as part of The Boke of Saint Albans. In this treatise, there was an overview of what flies to use at different times of the year along with how to make and dress rods, lines and hooks.
Establishing fly fishing as a sport
In 1653, Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler, in which he described fly fishing as “the contemplative man’s recreation”.
The book celebrates angling as both an art and a sport, and although it was first published in 1653, the author continued to add to it for a further quarter-century, with inclusions from friends such as Charles Cotton, who were more experienced fishers than Walton.
Cotton wrote an essay in the book called Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream.
By the 1700s and 1800s, fly fishing was becoming more popular, not only in the UK but across the world, with clubs popping up and rods and tackles being sold in shops. New techniques and equipment were also developed.
In 1761, Onesimus Ustonson established his shop, Ustonson. He was granted a Royal Warrant of Appointment and became the official supplier of fishing equipment to three successive monarchs: King George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria bringing the sport to greater prominence as a pastime of the elite.
In 1836, Alfred Ronalds published The Fly-Fisher’s Entomology, the first comprehensive work on fly fishing, and still the definitive how-to book to this day. It describes different methods for flying, techniques, and dedicates a large portion of the book to artificial flies, along with illustrations. It describes the different types of insects that trout and grayling eat and the imitation bait that fishers can use. Ronalds was the first to classify and give names to these artificial flies, many of which are still in use today.
Modern fly fishing
By the mid-to-late 19th century, fly fishing was no longer just for royalty and the upper classes.
The expansion of the railway in the UK along with more leisure time allowed more people to travel to rivers and the sea for fishing. Salmon fishing became very popular during this time, with the improvements in tackle making it much easier to catch this type of fish.
Fishers began to develop a new technique in the 19th century, known as the “dry fly” method. Until this point, the traditional way of fly fishing had been with a wet (or floating) fly, which sat under the water.
With this new method, the fly was specially treated to float on the water. It was a controversial development and sparked much debate as to what was the better method.
Today, keen anglers happily use both methods, and it’s accepted that the choice between wet and dry flies depends on what you’re fishing for, and where you’re doing it.
Wet flies can be emergers, nymphs, hatching flies, streamers or larger bait, whilst dry flies resemble fully-grown flies, rodents and insects. Dry flies tend to be used for freshwater fishing.
What tackle do you need for fly fishing?
If you want to try fly fishing, there are a few essential pieces of equipment – or tackle – you’ll need.
A good rod is a must-have for every fly fisher, but there are a few different types, it can be difficult to know which one to get if you’re just starting out. The main types are:
- Single hand rods: For single-handed fishing, available for both overhand and underhand casting techniques
- Double hand rods: Best for fishing with longer length lines, using heavier flies
- Switch rods: These rods allow you to switch seamlessly between single and double hand use
- Skagit rods: Shorter and heavier for Skagit fishing, a particular technique
The right rod needs to be used in conjunction with the right lines. The line you choose will largely depend on the rod you’ve got, but the line weight also depends on what you’re fishing for.
Lines are measured by weight, with different weight being more suitable for particular types of fish.
In general, line weights 0 to 2 are best for small trout and panfish. Weights 3 to 5 are better for small bass and bigger trout, as well as if you’re casting from a further distance. Use line weights 6 or 7 for bigger fish still, as well as bigger flies – you’ll also want to use this weight if it’s windy.
For salmon, pike, steelhead or generally any saltwater fishing, you should use an 8 to 10 weight, and 11 to 14 are also used for saltwater and the heaviest of fish.
Lines also come with a buoyancy descriptor that tells us how they behave on the water. The main ones are:
- Floating: the entire length of these lines float on the surface, and are necessary for dry flies that float on the water
- Sink-tip: with these lines, some of the line sinks whilst the rest floats on the surface, usually used when catching fish that live in deeper water
- Sinking: these lines sit under the water, used for wet flies that are presented under the surface of the water
A fly reel is essential for storing the fly line, and it will help you to retrieve the line and any catch. As with lines, the reel you choose will depend on what fish you’re targeting.
Smaller species require a smaller reel, but if you’re fishing for salmon or bigger fish, you’ll need a large reel that can carry a long length of line and withstand harsh conditions.
A key component of fly fishing is, of course, the flies. There are three main categories of flies and the one you choose will depend on what you’re fishing for, where you’re fishing, the environment and other equipment you’re using. Dry flies are designed to look like fully-grown insects or other creatures that land on top of the water. Nymphs resemble larvae and are designed to float just below the surface of the water. Streamers are slightly larger than nymphs, usually resembling leeches.
There are hundreds of different types of flies under each of these three main categories, each of which are used for different purposes. It’s best to have a selection and then you can choose the one which best suits your needs when you’re ready to fish.
As flies are so small, we thoroughly recommend keeping them in a fly box to keep them safe and dry.
Hooks come in a variety of sizes, from 1 to 32, and the size you choose depends on what fly you’re using, and what fish you’re catching. The lower the number, the larger the hook – so 1 is the biggest hook, and 32 is the smallest.
Our Single Hooks, for example, come in a 10-pack ranging from size 4-12 and are ideal for classic or modern salmon, steelhead and sea trout flies.
Backing, leader and tippets
Three additional pieces of tackle to know about are backing, leader and tippets.
The backing is an extra line that’s attached to your main line, providing an extra length for hard or heavy fish.
The leader and tippet are what connect your line to the fly. The leader is a section of the fishing line that attaches directly to the end of the fly line, and the tippet fixes to the leader, and the fly is attached to the tippet. These two pieces of tackle are important for presenting the fly to the fish, and for landing the fish after you’ve hooked it.
How to fly fish
Now you know all about the history of fly fishing and the essential tackle you need, are you ready to give it a go?
Stay tuned for more guides on how to fly fish and tips for landing your first catch. In the meantime, why not join our Loop Aktiv community to get ideas and inspiration from our fly fishing community all around the world?