Where to begin?

Cash - BannerMy intent with this post is to assist those who are just starting out, and need to know where to begin in selecting their first fly fishing equipment.

In freshwater fly fishing, a five-weight has become the default beginner fly rod, even though it is also used by anglers at all ability and knowledge levels.  This isn’t without some merit, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong with the ol‘ nine-foot-five-weight rod.  But that doesn’t mean that a seven-foot-four-weight (or something else) wouldn’t serve you just as well, if not better.  As you will quickly learn, there is almost always more than one way to approach the fly fishing we do; none of which are necessarily “wrong.”

The Rod Designer, the Professional Guide, the Fly Shop Owner, and the Blogger (like myself) all have an opinion on the matter, and those opinions are likely based upon some facts and hard earned experience.  But widely differing opinions can still be based in facts and experience, and therein lies the problem a beginner is faced with in selecting equipment: They get differing opinions from people “who know,” so who’s right?  The answer is, they all might be.

Not very helpful to you is it?  So let’s go a little further and try to clear the waters.

There are some aspects of fly fishing that are beyond anyone’s opinion, and are simply realities of the natural world we live in.  The laws of physics for example don’t suddenly change because we pick up a fly rod.  Gravity still exists.  The laws that govern momentum and inertia still apply, as do those principles of volume and area.  So irregardless of anyone’s opinion, they simply can’t be changed or circumvented.

That is why the very first thing anyone should determine when choosing new fly fishing equipment is this: What fly sizes do you typically want to use?  You don’t even have to choose the exact flies, just the typical sizes.

The answer to this question will provide the foundation for every other decision that must be made in selecting equipment.  And one of the great things about this question is, it’s probably the least “glamorous” decision you could make, and it suffers from little (if any) influence from biased sources or opinions.

The fly sizes you want to use will certainly be based upon the type of fly fishing you intend to do (Dry Fly, Nymphing, Streamers, All Around, etc.) and the intended quarry you are targeting, but in the end it’s usually a pretty easily obtained and straight forward set of parameters to work within.

Parachute Black Ant - Hook Size 16

Parachute Black Ant – Hook Size 16

Once the range of fly sizes is determined, you have established a clear physical attribute for the fly fishing you will do.  In other words, you have defined one variable in any law of physics that applies to the flies.  And since fly lines are designed (at least in part) with those laws of physics in mind, you now have an easy way of determining what fly line weight rating you should select.

Black Cricket - Hook Size 10

Black Cricket – Hook Size 10

It doesn’t take a physics expert to understand that a smaller fly is (generally speaking) lighter than a larger fly.  It’s also easily understood that given the physics used to cast a fly line (see my post Why Fly Fish?) a heavier fly line is needed to efficiently cast a heavier fly.  And while an even heavier line could likely be effectively used to cast the same fly, at some point the fly line’s weight (and size) becomes a deterrent to gently landing on the water.  For some types of fly fishing this may not matter much.  But for dry fly fishing it certainly does.  Again, physics are at play here, not opinion.  It is simply a fact that the heavier (and fatter) the line, the “bigger the splash.”  So for dry fly fishing, the trick is to use the lightest line weight that will still efficiently carry the load of the typical fly size being used.  Fortunately for us, we don’t have to do all the math to calculate this, and can just look at a handy reference table to see what typical fly sizes correspond to an AFFTA line weight rating.  And for those of you that haven’t educated yourself on hook sizes, remember this:  Hook sizes are like fractions.  The bigger the number, the smaller they are.

FlyToLine

It should be noted that if you plan to add additional weight (multiple flies, split-shot, weighted flies, strike indicators, etc.) you need to take that additional weight into account and move to a heavier line weight, as the table does not account for that additional load on the line.  I personally don’t consider such things, (or line weights above a 7) as I’m a dry fly fishermen and have no use for them. I’ve simply included the information here in an attempt to provide a complete reference table.

Furthermore, (and this does apply to a dry fly fisherman) if you will typically fish where you will experience adverse environmental conditions (strong wind for example) it may require additional line mass to combat their affects on line performance, and using a heavier line than otherwise indicated in the table may be warranted.

So now, without any real bias or opinion entering into the equation (as of yet), another big variable has been decided: The fly line weight rating.  As you can see from the table, it may not be a five-weight, and it is likely that more than one line weight may be appropriate for the flies you’ll typically use.  Your opinion of which of those to choose is likely just as valid as anyone else’s, so choose the one you want.

Once you have the fly line weight rating selected, things tend to get a bit more “opinionated.”  But there are a few things left that can still be decided, or at least narrowed down, by the physics involved.  Consider the reel that is going to hold the line you just decided on.  Every reel, regardless of the size, material, design, or drag system, has a finite capacity.  In other words, it will only hold so much line.  The thinner the line is, the more line a reel can hold, and the opposite is also true.  So if you are trying to put a 15 weight line on a tiny reel, you are likely to be very disappointed, as it simply won’t fit.  Conversely, having a reel that is only half full with the entire line you’ve chosen doesn’t make much sense either, and adding miles of backing just adds additional weight to the reel.  Weight that you likely don’t want or need.  So you can narrow your reel choices down to those reels that have an appropriate capacity for the line weight you’ve chosen, and most of the fly reel manufacturers provide that information for you.  From there you will find all sorts of opinions on which type of reel design and drag system are “the best”.  In the end though, a quality reel of any design or drag will likely fill any need you have.  So again, your opinion is likely a good place to start once you’ve covered the capacity issue.

A Hatch 1 Plus reel has a mid-arbor design, therefore the center of the spool where the line is wound is a larger diameter than on a standard arbor reel.  Large arbor reels are (of course) even larger.  Aside from the aesthetics, they each have their pros and cons that most anglers have an opinion on.

A Hatch 1 Plus reel has a mid-arbor design, therefore the center of the spool (where the line is wound-on) is a larger diameter than those on a standard arbor reel. Large arbor reels are (of course) even larger. than mid-arbor reels.  Aside from the reel’s aesthetics, each arbor size has their pros and cons, and most experienced anglers have a distinct preference (opinion) on them.

The frame and sealed drag system of a Hatch 1 Plus reel.  The mid-arbor spool slides right over the sealed drag, and has a nut that keeps it in place.  (See other photo of the Hatch reel above.)

The reel frame and sealed drag system of a Hatch 1 Plus reel. The mid-arbor spool slides right over the sealed drag, and has a nut that keeps it in place. (See photo of the Hatch reel above.)

The other law of physics that relates here is gravity.  Or in other words, how heavy is the reel?  In some cases a heavier reel may be wanted, in other cases it may not.  But consider that you can usually easily add weight to a light reel, but making any reel lighter is another matter altogether.  So I’ll go out on a limb here, and state that it is my opinion that a lighter reel is easier to balance with a rod.  Now before I go any further into that, lets consider that rod, because the rod is probably what you really want to talk about and buy anyway.

A Hardy Perfect Reel has a standard arbor spool (left);  a winding plate (bottom right) that has a "gear" used in the click-check drag, and a spindle that passes through the hole surrounded by ball bearings in the center of the frame.  In addition to the ball-bearings, the frame (center) has the springs that hold the pointed pawls in place as they engage the gear  on the winding plate.   The pawl clicks as the gear turns, providing the drag and a sound that some anglers love and others hate.  The amount of tension the springs have holding the pawls engaged with the gear determines the amount of drag being applied. The small screw (in between the spool and winding plate) is the locking screw that holds the spool to the winding plate.  All these parts add up, and as a result the Hardy Perfect is fairly heavy for its size and rated capacity.

A Hardy Perfect Reel has a standard arbor spool (left); a winding plate (bottom right) that has a “gear” used in the click-check drag, and a spindle that passes through the hole surrounded by ball bearings in the center of the frame. In addition to the ball-bearings, the frame (center of photo) houses the springs that hold the triangular pawls in place as they engage the gear on the winding plate. The pawl clicks as the gear turns, providing the drag and a sound that some anglers love and others hate. The amount of tension the springs have holding the pawls engaged with the gear determines the amount of drag being applied. The small screw (in between the spool and winding plate) is the locking screw that holds the spool to the winding plate. All these parts add up, and as a result the Hardy Perfect is fairly heavy for its size and rated capacity.

The Hardy Perfect fully assembled.  This is the spool side of the frame, with the locking screw visible in the center of the spool.  Notice the difference in the two sides of the reel frame.  The side of the reel frame toward the top of this photo is much "thicker" because it houses the springs and pawls of the drag system, as well as the winding plate.  But part of the handle is all that is visible of the winding plate.

The Hardy Perfect fully assembled. This is the spool side of the reel, with the locking screw for the spool visible in the center of the spool. Notice the difference in the depth of the two sides of the reel frame. The side of the reel frame toward the top of this photo is much “thicker” because it houses the springs and pawls of the drag system, as well as the winding plate. But in this photo, the only part visible of the winding plate is the tip of the handle.  The translucent portion of the circular line guard is made from a hard polished stone known as agate.

Fly rods are usually what most anglers place their focus on when purchasing new gear, (especially new fly fishermen) and they are also where it often becomes considerably more difficult to differentiate between opinion and fact.  Here is a fact:

A rod designer has certain criteria they are trying to fill with each rod they create, and they have an intended purpose (application) in mind when doing so.  As such, most (if not all) rods produced today will have a recommended line weight rating for the rod.  This is the suggested AFFTA line weight rating that the manufacturer/designer intended the rod to be used with, in the application the fly rod was originally designed for.  In other words, they are of the opinion that to do some form of fly fishing, line weight “X” will provide the optimum performance with that rod.

What that doesn’t mean however, is that everyone that purchases that rod will employ it for this intended purpose, or in the environment (small stream, large still-water, etc.) it was envisioned to be used in. Nor does it mean that the rod designer’s opinion on how a rod should feel and perform in that application is the only correct opinion.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that their opinion will correspond with yours.  So a rod may be designed by a rod designer to cast a given line weight rating.  But if you like it with a different line weight, there is no law (Legal, Natural, or otherwise) that prohibits you from using it that way.

Two rods and their manufacturers line recommendations.  The rod on top is a Hardy Zenith.  It is 9'-0" in length and rated for a 5 weight fly line.  The rod on the bottom is a Winston BIIIx.  It is 8'-6" in length and rated for a 3 weight fly line.

Two rods and their manufacturers line recommendations. The rod on top is a Hardy Zenith. It is 9′-0″ in length and rated for a 5 weight fly line. The rod on the bottom is a Winston BIIIx. It is 8′-6″ in length and rated for a 3 weight fly line.

Now for the final word on rods, I need to come back to the reel.  Many anglers will talk about “balancing” a rod with a reel.  In general, they are talking about the butt end of the rod (where the reel is placed), and the tip end of the rod having an equal amount of weight in relationship to the fulcrum (the angler’s hand on the grip).  The basic idea is that when the angler is holding the rod level, it wants to stay there with neither the tip nor the butt feeling heavier.  In reality, even if this balance is attained at some point, it’s a moving target and it won’t remain balanced.  As line is pulled off the reel and extended towards the tip of the rod (and beyond), weight is being removed from the butt end, and added to the tip end.  As line is reeled in, the opposite occurs.  Like I said, it’s a moving target, and therefore can’t be truly attained in a fishing situation, unless you always keep the same amount of line out.

I do not deny that there are some real advantages in finding some sense of balance with a rod and reel.  But please recognize that it isn’t a static thing, and again, your personal preferences will dictate what type of balance you actually prefer.  Some like their rods to balance more tip heavy, others like them more butt heavy.  Some just don’t care.  In considering this though, you should also remember that the rod acts as a lever, with the mechanical advantage (leverage) on the tip side of the fulcrum.  As such, the tip has more leverage than the butt, so the longer the rod is, the more leverage the tip end will have.  Which also means, the longer the rod is, the heavier the reel can be to counter balance it.  And that is a fact, not an opinion.  Just shoot for something fairly balanced with the reel loaded with line, and you won’t be too far off regardless of what kind of balance you ultimately decide you like.  And if truly in doubt, have it balance “tip heavy” because you can always add weight to the reel if you need to.  (Hence my previous comment/opinion that a lighter reel is easier to balance with a rod.)

Now let me say that the preceding narrative provides some of the basic facts as they apply to selecting your equipment.  But it is not intended to replace the knowledgable individuals you can find in so many fly shops.  These individuals are likely to be your best source for clear guidance on choosing equipment.  Just remember they have opinions and biases that may, or may not coincide with yours.  So start with your flies.  I know it may seem backwards to some of you, but it isn’t.  The flies will dictate the line weight needed to efficiently cast them, and that in turn will dictate the variety of choices available to you in a fly rod and reel from your local fly shop.  And within those available choices, opinion is likely the determining factor of what you should choose, and your opinion is truly the only one that matters.  At least when it comes to choosing your equipment.

~ DFG

5 thoughts on “Where to begin?

  1. Marty
    August 19, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Well said and logical. I almost always end up recommending a 6 wt for general use midges to hoppers and a tad of bass bugging works well…
    One simple fun starter thats often skipped is if you think you might like to try fly fishing hire a guide for a day on the water close to you that you’d likely fish most.
    1. guides are often very good teachers (especially if you make it plain up front you’re a duffer)
    2. you’ll get a feel for what they use on those waters and how they fish
    3. its fun and you’ll catch more fish than wandering out the first time alone.
    Fly size most used does no doubt dictate what you should pick… Current fashion is to go IMHO too light for a first or all around outfit.

    1. Dry Fly Guy
      August 19, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Great suggestion Marty for someone just wondering if they want to jump in.

      ~ DFG

  2. Glass Stixs
    November 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Sticker shock can be a big deterrent to beginners shopping for gear. Please don’t tell my wife but it does not take a $700 fly rod and a $300 fly reel to catch fish although I will be the first to admit that fine gear is part of the experience and satisfaction of a great day on the water. There are many fine entry level rods out there that won’t break the bank or their excitement of purchasing fishable gear.

    For the most part, beginners want to catch fish and will quickly loose interest after several fishless trips. Adverse weather will also reduce enthusiasm even though a dreary day can produce excellent fishing. The suggestion of a guide on home waters is excellent and I would add not only for trout. Panfish can be some of the most exciting fishing there is especially for the beginner. Marty’s suggestion for a 6wt rod for the beginner is spot on. I have several Fenwick 6wt glass rods that I not only fish regularly but have no qualms about loaning out to a beginner. They are pleasantly surprised at the bend in the rod with a big bluegill on the other end of the line. They have some feel of control but are not overpowered by either the rod or the fish. They handle a wide range of fly styles and sizes and still feel good with a small fish on.

    When recommending gear to a true beginner, I shy away from an in depth discussion of line weights and fly sizes as it seems to confuse rather than help. I do question what fish they will be targeting and which water type they will be fishing in and recommend flies that I am confident will catch fish. I try to take them fishing if at all possible. I steer a beginner toward a smooth medium action rod so they can get the feel of the cast. As for reels, a functional reel can be had for less than $100 that will serve them well for many years. I tend to steer them away from the “fly fishing in a package” deals. I try to encourage them to get there hands on a number of rods and cast them before buying. Line is another area that I hear a great many comments about, like $100 dollars for a fly line is insane comments. I have a few lines I like to recommend to the beginner, SA Headstart is a good one. It has a good coating and a little heavier head to help with their casting and the bright yellow color gives them a visual indicator of the line in the air and on the water. I also spend a few minutes talking about leaders and tippet as well as the appropriate knots associated with the different connections. It’s not easy here in Oklahoma to find someone who fly fishes so I try to help those who are interested.

  3. wacokid54
    November 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    I have helped a few people get started in flyfishing, and it seems that a gradual approach works well. I try to give them a taste, and get them started with equipment that will serve them well, and function well as spare stuff if they become equipment junkies later. Try not to flood them with too much info and scare them. Dry fly fishing is a great way to get started, as the rise hooks most beginners solid. I concur with Glass Stix, a glass rod is a great beginner stick.

    Happy Trails
    The Waco Kid

  4. alijo
    April 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    This has been extremely helpful for a “duffer” like myself. Living in the town of Dubois, WY tucked into the Wind River Mountains how could fly fishing not be an obsession?! Last summer I was completely fascinated with all that goes into fly fishing, and have done nothing but read, ask questions from great fisherman and gone out with a few friends that happen to guide the area with aspirations of improving my knowledge and skills. I was always handed a 9′ 5 weight rod (which I love and feel comfortable with) but am excited to try something new and get in the water this spring! Many thanks! Fish on!
    ~Ali Johnson

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