No, it’s not something to do with men’s trousers or catching flies.
To some, fly fishing is an art. To others, it is a passion, an occupation, a spiritual experience, or even a crazy thing to do. So, what is it really, and what makes it different from other types of fishing?
“Are you fishing for flies when you ‘fly’ fish?” someone once asked me, tongue in cheek. This person was familiar with fishing using worms or other types of live bait, or spinners and plugs, but did not really know what it meant to fly fish. I am going to assume that you know the basics about fishing, and that most anglers use a rod of some sort, with a reel. You probably know that the rod is used to cast out a lure of some sort at the end of the line into water that hopefully contains fish.
Fly fishing is not that much different. Rather, what makes it distinctive from other types of fishing is that, while fishing with worms or other types of lures, fly anglers are casting a hook that generally has bits of feather, fur, foam, yarn, or other similar material attached using thread. This results in what is termed a ‘fly’. Traditionally, a fly was meant to represent some type of insect that fish feed upon. (It should be noted here that a fly doesn’t just have to immitate an insect. Some fly anglers, who snobbily consider themselves ‘purists’ believe that the only real fly fishing is when a ‘dry fly’ is used. In fact, flies can represent the different stages of a mayfly or other insect; a minnow, a grasshopper, crayfish, or other food that fish feed on.) To get a better understanding of what a fly looks like, take a look at our ‘Fly Gallery’ where you will find images of flies that have been ‘tied’ onto hooks.
As you can imagine, a fly has very little weight. It is hoped that when the fly is cast into the water, it will immitate an insect. Therefore, it is usually not a good thing to be adding split shot or other weight to the line above the fly. So, how does one cast such a light weight object?
Most anglers are familiar with monofilament, the fishing line that you find on spinning or bait casting reels. This line is made to withstand a certain amount of force before breaking, and is rated in ‘pound test’, or the amount of pounds that the line can hold without breaking. Fly line is completely different. Rather, it is rated by ‘weight’. Generally, the most popular line weights are 5 to 8 wt. If a fly line is a 5 weight, that means that the first 30 feet of line weighs 5 grains. The first 30 feet of a 2 weight line will weigh 2 grains; the first 30 feet of a 12 weight line (which is considered pretty heavy line), will weight 12 grains. Get the picture about how fly lines are rated?
A fly rod is rated differently than a spinning or bait casting rod. Whereas a a spinning rod will generally be rated for the weight of the lure it is casting (ie. 1/8 to 1/4oz.), a fly rod is rated by how the amount of a given line weight it can efficiently cast out. For example, a 5 wt. fly rod is designed to efficiently load 30 feet or more of 5 wt. line with an 8 to 15 foot leader attached, for a total of 45 feet. Now, with today’s high modulus graphites and stiffer rods, a good caster should be able to easily cast even greater distances than that, but we are talking generalities here.
There are a variety of styles of fly lines, but the two most popular are called ‘weight forward’ and ‘double taper’. Within these groups, we also have floating and sinking lines. We’ll get into fly lines in a different article. But suffice to say that a weight forward fly line and a double taper line both have their advantages and disadvantages. It only seems complicated – it really isn’t, though.
Fly lines are quite thick and are not appropriate for tying a fly to. To solve this problem, a fly angler will tie what is called a ‘leader’ to the fly line. Although similar in some respects to mono filament, a leader generally tapers to a fine, thin diameter at the end where the fly is attached. This allows for very natural drifts and actions of the fly in immitating a real insect.
Although it is possible to use a fly on fishing gear other than a fly rod with fly reel, most anglers would not consider it truly fly fishing unless a fly rod and fly reel are being used. Historically however, before reels were invented, an angler would tie a fly onto the end of a line that was simply attached to the tip of a long fishing ‘rod’ made from wood, and would ‘dapple’ the fly in the water. The fishing rod was very very long because it was not possible to cast a great distance with this type of set-up. For some interesting history, be sure to look at Fishing Rods.
So, what’s with all this funny casting stuff? When you put it all together – the virtually weightless fly, the 8 to 15 foot long leader, the fly line, rod and reel, you have to try to imagine casting that fly to a rising trout. Because it is not the same as casting a more heavily weighted lure with a spinning rod, it often takes several ‘false’ casts to load the rod with the desired length of line which will allow the angler to drop the fly where he wants it.
In order to do this, sometimes it is necessary to cast the line a few times in the air, back and forth with the fly remaining in the air. This is what is termed ‘false casting’ and basically what is happening is that the rod is loading up with the weight of the fly line, and more line can then be fed out to increase the length of line that is in the air, until the desired length has been reached and the angler can then set the fly down onto the water at the distance desired. In other words, the rod is casting the weight of the fly line, and is not casting the weight of the lure as spin/bait rods do.
So, what really makes fly fishing, fly fishing? There are some fly anglers who believe that ‘true’ fly fishing is that which uses a split cane rod, fly reel, and dry flies only. Then, there are some who feel that fly fishing is not as limiting; a fly can immitate just about anything a fish would eat, including minnows, roe, crayfish, and more, as long as a fly rod and reel casts the fly.
Izaac Walton however, would probably have argued this point. In his day, there was no such thing as a ‘fly rod’ or ‘fly reel’. In fact, before our more modern tackle was invented, anglers would ‘dapple’ flies onto or into the water using a long wooden pole that had no reel attached to it. In my opinion, flyfishing should be fun.
For now, it is generally considered fly fishing if one is using the tackle that has been designated as fly tackle. In 100 years from now, who knows what evolution will have occurred in the sport to change things a bit?
“O.K.,” I hear you asking, “why does it seem so darn complicated sometimes? What is all this entomological stuff, hatch charts, and weird numbers with x’s after them?” Good question, but don’t let this hold you back! To get started in flyfishing, you really don’t need to know all this stuff. Knowing a bit more about how to match hatches, tippet sizes, and fly tying will enhance your experience in the long run, but certainly it’s not required to get out there on the stream and start catching fish! Just take it one step at a time, and have fun.
I hope that this helps you understand a little better about the technical differences between fly casting and other types of fishing! If you still have questions, be sure to visit the resources available here on the site, and you will find that it soon will all come together and make sense!