Fly Fishing For Beginners

So, what does it take to learn to fly fish? Is it just a matter of picking up the rod and “flicking your wrist?” Does it require certain physical characteristics? Or is it just a matter of natural talent? Well, it’s really none of the above. What it does take, besides having the right equipment, of course, is some good instruction, some practice, and some perseverance.

Pudge Kleinkauf is fly fishing the Talachulitna River for Rainbows.

Let’s take them one at a time. Good instruction is really the key to learning to fly fish. And, thankfully, there are a lot of great women’s classes and schools all over the country now. Most women feel they learn best from a woman. It’s not that men can’t teach women, rather it’s that men and women learn differently and communicate in different ways. Women tend to ask more “why” questions and like the answers to be couched in terms they understand, not just sports metaphors, which men tend to rely on. Women also prefer to learn with other women where they feel less intimidated about asking questions.

A Beginning Fly Fishing Class
In your beginning fly fishing class, you should learn about the rods, reels, and lines, how they work, how they are matched to each other, and what each is used for. It’s important for you to be able to differentiate equipment that is used for smaller species such as trout and bass from heavier equipment that is needed for salmon, pike, or steelhead. You also need to understand when floating lines and sinking tip lines are used and how reels act to store and control the line as well as help you play the fish. If you don’t understand how and why a fly rod works, it’s pretty difficult to learn to cast it.

Many schools concentrate only on lightweight set ups because that is what their students will primarily be fishing with after the class is over. The classes and on-the-water fly fishing schools I teach in Alaska, on the other hand, enable a fly fisher to master both a light-weight rod-reel-line set up for smaller fish and a heavyweight rod-reel-line set up for the salmon that we Alaskans are so passionate about. If you plan to fish for both trout and larger species, you should be sure the class or school you attend will help you master both.

Your class should also address the leader, which connects your fly line to your fly, and teach you the basic knots for constructing such a leader. Really being an independent fly fisher (and, by the way, that is the proper non-sexist term for anyone who fishes with a fly rod) requires that you be able to tie these knots and change your leader when necessary. If you always have to depend on someone else to help you do these tasks, you’ll be more limited in the enjoyment you derive from the sport.

All classes will familiarize you with the flies that fly fishers use for different types of fish in different conditions so you’ll be able to understand the different approach that fly fishing takes to catching fish. And catching fish should also include learning about practicing proper catch and release techniques. Fly anglers as a group is dedicated to preservation of fish species and return most fish to the water unharmed. Make sure you learn how to do that.

And, naturally, your class should include instruction in casting your fly rod. While you might think that you’re going to have to achieve the level of expertise that Brad Pitt demonstrated in “A River Runs Through It,” relax. Such proficiency is not necessary to catch fish and to have a great time on the water. At the same time, you do have to learn to control your line and place your fly where you want it.

In spite of the fact that many people believe that distance casting is crucial to fly fishing, accuracy and line control are much more important. Good fly fishing instruction should help you learn how to transfer the energy from your arm and shoulder to the rod in order to make the line go out. It’s called “loading” the rod. Loading occurs because you grip the rod in a certain way, stop your hand and the rod in certain ways, and “push” the rod forward in certain ways. It’s the essence of casting.

Once you learn the basics of casting, you must practice until your brain accepts the motions and tells your arm to do them as a matter of course. Just like playing tennis or bowling, the brain and body connection are essential. Practicing fly casting usually involves setting up an area for yourself in your back yard, or in a nearby park where you can spend at least 15 or 20 minutes several times a week working on your skills. I recommend students get a hula-hoop to start with and practice hitting it at increasing distances. Then I suggest they start reducing the diameter of their target by switching to a pizza pan, then a pie pan, and finally to a salad dish. I tell them that if they can hit the target pretty consistently at a minimum of 30 feet to 40 feet they can fish most places. Once you accomplish that, then you can get additional instruction to help you achieve more distance.

And, last but not least, as a beginning fly fisher, is persistence. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t catch fish on a fly right away. And don’t be discouraged if you aren’t able to “match the hatch” to start with, or you get a fish on but fail to land it. Think of your days on the water as a good excuse to go out and enjoy the river and a glorious spring day because you have to go practice your fly fishing!

Fly fishing is a sport that never gets old partly because there is always so much more to learn. You really do have to fish to understand what you heard in your class about techniques such as “mending the line” and leader to keep fish from seeing them, about that thing called “drag-free drift”, or about “palming the reel” to play a large fish. But that’s what all the fun is about. Take a class with a friend so you’ll have someone to “practice” with after it’s over. Join a women’s fly fishing club, (check out the state by state list on our web site below) or take a woman-only guided trip. They’re all ways to increase your enjoyment of this incredible sport and keep learning in the process.

Reprinted with permission of Pudge Kleinkauf. She has lived and fished in Alaska for 28 years. She owns Women’s Flyfishing, an instruction and guide service headquartered in Anchorage.

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