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If You Have Never Been Fly Fishing

If you have never been fly fishing, here's everything you need to know to get started, and why the steep learning curve is worth it.

If I have never been fly fishing, what is it that makes it so appealing to those that do it? That is something a bit different for each person. There is always the draw of that pull on the line and the ensuing work to land the fish. Most newcomers to flyfishing are eager to catch as many big fish as they can. Indeed many old timer experts have that same drive. As one gets more experienced, it’s the hunt, reading the water to figure out where the fish are and then getting the right fly, in the right place at the right time. I’ve been fly fishing for over 40 years, long before a “river ran through it.” Now I enjoy as much the sounds and sights of the river, the swirling water and currents, the plants and other animals. In the West, over 80% of wildlife and birds depend, at least in part, on the riparian areas adjacent to a stream, and that land constitutes less than 5% of the total area in Colorado. It becomes a meditative experience, both with the challenge of catching a fish and just the world you become immersed in. Fly fishing is as much an experience as it is a sport. Still, there is no thrill like watching a good trout taking a dry fly off the water’s surface.

Are there gender differences in terms of how a fisher person gears up?
Absolutely. As noted above, a small wife usually doesn’t do well with the hand-me-down gear from her larger husband or father. That doesn’t mean a woman can’t handle a heavier weight fly rod. Far from it. I’ve seen women cast a fly line with greater skill, accuracy and distance than most men can.

Ken Neubecker with his dog, Gus.

Fly fishing is as much an experience as it is a sport

So I want to give it a try. It seems like it needs some skill. Do I need to practice?
You don’t have to, but then you’ll never get to Carnegie Hall either. Practicing casting is essential if you want to be successful. Casting a fly rod needs to become second nature. My wife has Alzheimer’s and when we fish I act as a guide, choosing the flies and telling her where to cast. She is like a beginner in that regard, but after decades of expert casting she can still do it beautifully. It’s second nature to her, done with little thought. If you are new to this, take a lesson or two and then find an open area to work on the basics of casting. Remember, unlike spin fishing, you aren’t throwing a weighted lure like a rock, you are casting the line with a fly that weighs almost nothing at the far end. You want to be able to throw that line so that the fly lands with as little disturbance on the water as possible (unless it’s a nymph) and so that the line itself doesn’t come crashing down on the water over the fishes’ head.

What sort of place does one go? Do I need a guide? How do I know where hungry fish lurk?There are trout in nearly all healthy cold-water streams across the country. You may not be very successful at first, but the fish are there. There is a story about my wife’s late husband Chuck, who was one of the best fly-fishers in the country. He and a friend went down to a well-fished pool only to find another angler casting away. They sat and watched. After the occupying angler had caught four or five nice trout he walked out, letting Chuck have the pool with a parting comment wishing them luck as he had probably caught all the fish in that spot. Chuck walked in and proceeded to land another 22 fish from that pool. There are almost always more fish in the water than people realize. You just have to know where they are and what they want. And be patient. Many good fish are missed by people who can’t wait to get to “better water.”

If it’s your first time out, it’s a good idea to go with either a guide or a friend who knows what he or she is doing

If it’s your first time out, it is a good idea to go with either a guide or a friend who knows what he or she is doing. The learning curve may seem steep, but having a guide or experienced friend along can help that climb immensely. 

As for finding the fish, a great deal has been written on reading water, fish habits and what they eat. Again, you learn a lot from experience and simply observing. That’s how you get to know the fish, their habits and the river they live in. This summer, I took my wife fishing for our 20th anniversary. There was another angler walking the run above us, so we stayed at the bottom. We caught a couple nice trout there, but I kept my eye on the upstream angler. At the top of this run the stream changes from a narrow and fast channel to the wider and slower run, and I knew where “Walter” (from the old movie On Golden Pond) was hanging out: in the small but deeper pools along the current and just across the stream as it changed from fast to slow, from narrow to wide. The upstream angler tossed a few casts in these unassuming pools and then kept moving, disappearing around the bend to where he thought he’d find “better” water. We moved up to the small pools he’d left. There we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between us we landed nearly a dozen good sized trout, fish that held on the bottom, watching the changing current that brought the insect feast to where they lay in wait.

What sort of fish should I be aiming to catch?
You can catch any kind of fish with a fly rod. Trout are the most common, but any predatory species can be taken with a fly. Blue gills on a lake are a lot of fun. In saltwater, people go for tarpon, bonefish and permit, although I’ve pulled many other types into a boat that I had no idea what they were.

Choosing the Right Rod

What sort of rod do you recommend?
A rod that fits you, that fits your hand and your ability. Many people, especially women, begin with a hand-me-down rod, one that usually doesn’t fit. The best all-around rod for most streams is an 8.5 foot five weight. You use lighter rods for smaller water and heavier ones for big water, salt water. As you get better, different types of rods, manufacture and material make a difference. I primarily use bamboo or cane rods these days, built by a friend. My other go-to rod is a graphite rod I built some 25 years ago. Most of my rods are ones I built myself. I started fly fishing as an impoverished graduate student and couldn’t afford a rod off the shelf. I put down $35 for the fiberglass blanks, real seat, grip and guides and in a couple days was happily fishing the streams around Boulder.

Go to a local fly shop and get their advice. Cast a few rods of different weights and lengths out in the parking lot and choose the one that feels best in your hand and with your stroke.

Wet Flies vs Dry Flies

Is there something about wet flies and dry flies?
There is a big difference between the two. All flies try and imitate naturally occurring foods that make up a fish’s diet. Dry flies are the most romantic and float on the water surface as a mature adult insect would. These are the flies where you can see the fish take it, sometimes with a sip, other times with a dramatic splash. Wet flies, such as nymphs, represent the immature or emerging stages of the insects. These flies sink and hopefully bounce along the bottom of the stream without getting tangled too often. While the dry fly is the most romantic, the nymph can be the most successful. The insects that fish, especially trout, feed on, spend most of their lives as immature, going through successive stages until they are ready to emerge into the open air as adults where they mate, lay eggs and die. Mayflies are the most extreme. They can spend months to a couple years as nymphs along the stream bed, only to hatch, mate, lay eggs and die in a short time, sometimes only within a couple hours.

Knowing the life stages, seasonality, and habits of the insects that your flies imitate is as important as knowing the same about the fish.

There are other flies as well, such as streamers. These flies imitate small fish or other aquatic creatures and are fairly large compared to the smaller dries and nymphs.

Approaching the Water

How does one approach the water? Do I need to be very quiet or does it not matter?
Approach does matter, but again it all depends on the water and the conditions. The fish can often see you long before you see them. A cautious, thoughtful approach is best, regardless. If the water is clear and calm, stay low. If the stream is running fast and off color (murky), as it does during runoff in the spring, you can go right up to the edge. You still want to approach lightly and slowly. It’s always best, from my experience, to pause a bit, let yourself become part of the background before casting. I once crawled on hands and knees through the grass to a series of bend pools on the Gibbon River in Yellowstone Park. I did quite well, quietly and slowly stalking each pool. I was also working my way through a herd of elk bedded down along the stream and didn’t want to disturb them either. I looked up toward the end to see a bunch of tourists at a pull out pointing at me as much as the elk wondering just what the hell I was doing. Fortunately, they were far enough away that they neither disturbed me, the fish or the elk. 

I see people who stand in the rushing water. How do they stay warm and dry?
Ha! Sometimes they don’t. Fly fishers, like any other outdoor recreationist, don’t have a corner on the market for common sense. Good waders, fleece pants and plenty of warm top wear go a long way. But then in the summer I usually fish in shorts and sandals; “wet” wading. My wife and I used to try and get out every month. Once we went to a favorite run on the Fryingpan River on January 1. We walked together up the middle of the stream casting at opposite banks (she’s left-handed and I right, so it worked perfectly). At the end of the run we were freezing and our rod guides full of ice. Common sense prevailed and we drove back into town to watch football at the bar.

If I hook a fish, how do I get it in? Is there a net I use? 
Depends on the size of the fish, the current, and particular circumstances of the stream. Generally speaking, when you hook a fish you want to bring it to hand, or net, as quickly as you can without losing it, especially if you are doing catch and release. A long drawn out “fight” may be required to land “Walter” in heavy water but, in most cases, it simply exhausts the fish, which can be fatal.

Catch and Release

Then what do I do with the fish? How do I hold it? Do I release it or take it home to eat?
Again, this depends. If you are going to keep the fish for the frying pan or grill how you handle it is not such a concern. Please give it a knock on the head after you have it in and put it out of its misery. There are few things crueler than sticking a few fish on a stringer to slowly suffocate while you continue fishing.

If you are releasing the fish, handle it as little as possible and always, ALWAYS, wet your hand first. If it’s in a net, try and unhook it while it’s still there. Trout are susceptible to skin diseases and fungus. When you handle them with dry hands you remove the protective film covering their skin which allows pathogens an entry. And never hold it by the gills. How would you like someone squeezing your lungs?

I also try and avoid fishing when it is very cold. A fish’s gills can freeze in a matter of seconds if held out of the water too long in very cold temperatures. But then the football game and a beer are probably the better options.

Importantly, have a valid fishing license and know the local regulations. In Colorado the “bag limit” doesn’t mean the number of fish you keep along the stream bank, it also includes any fish you may have caught on an earlier trip and have at home in your freezer. Two fish in your possession means two fish, period, no matter where they are.

The Best Places and Times of Year to Fish

Where is your favorite place to fish?
Think I’m going to tell you?! You publish this stuff, for crying out loud. You’ll just have to come out and get on the river with us (I’m serious). Then I’m happy to share.

Besides that, My preference is for water that is challenging, in a beautiful setting and not crowded. Places like the tailwaters below dams can become too crowded; wall-to-wall anglers at times. Of course, there are big fish there with plenty of cold water and food coming out of the upstream reservoir, but they are also pretty smart and not easy to catch. Fortunately, I live where there are plenty of other places to go. I may not catch a trophy to grace the cover of a fly-fishing magazine, but then that’s not why I’m there.

What time of year is best?
In Colorado you can fish year-round. Other states have seasons, so that gives you limits. Any time can be good, but if you follow the cycles of the river, the fish and the food you can get in some good fishing. Spring and fall are probably the best. Summers are great, but the water can occasionally get too warm. I won’t fish if the water temperature is above 65F as it gets too stressful for the fish. Lakes are good then, or the aforementioned tailwaters. Winter can be a bit cold and, while I have friends who love to ice fish, I developed an aversion to that as a youngster in Wisconsin.

Sorry about all the stories, but then it wouldn’t be fishing if you didn’t tell stories. I like a quote from Jim Harrison, where I am replacing the words hunting and hunt with fishing and fish (although I did love upland bird hunting years ago): “(Fishing) can be a good experience for your soul, to the degree that you refuse to exclude none of the realities of the natural world, including a meditation on why you (fish), perhaps an ultimately unanswerable question.” When I started fly fishing some 50 years ago, I was hopeful that I could be doing it when I was 60, because then I could say I knew something about it. Now, at 70, I can say that, although there will always be something new to learn about the fish and yourself. I encourage anyone, of any age, to try it. Get out on the water and ask yourself why you like it, or not. It’s sometimes more about you than it is about the fish.

About the author:
Ken Neubecker is recently retired as the Colorado Projects Director for American Rivers, a national river conservation organization. He has also served as the Environmental Representative for the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and is a member of the Upper Colorado River Wild Scenic Stakeholder Group. He is a past President of Colorado Trout Unlimited, as well as past President of Carbondale Rotary. Ken first became seriously involved in river and water issues 30 plus years ago with the Homestake II project and the Eagle Mine disaster in Eagle County, Colorado.

Ken is a graduate of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin (BA, Geology) and the University of Colorado – Boulder (M.Ed., Experiential Education). Over the past 40
years Ken has worked as a professional land surveyor, naturalist, wilderness and river
guide, writer, photographer, teacher and organizer. He lives in Garfield County,
Colorado, with his wife, Paula Fothergill and their “river schnauzer” Walter.

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