The river appears deep from where I stand, but I see a trout rising on the other side of this riffle, taunting me.
I carefully inch my way out, trusting my wading boots to hold their place. Looking around to see if anyone will see me fall, or save my life if needed, I decide to take the next step into the dark water.
I can hear my breath in the background of my thoughts, criticizing my idea to walk into the unknown. Soon, I realize that the murky water is only misconstrued shallow water and I can move quicker to get to the other side than I terrifyingly predicted. Climbing up on the bank, I start to smile; facing fear is a wonderful adventure.
Once on the other side, I start to notice the mayflies dancing in the air and my eyes find the surface just in time to see a brown trout slurp from the surface. I match the hatch with a Pale Morning Dun and tie it on the end of my tippet. My thoughts are directed only to which way I should float the fly through the riffle, and finding the seam where the faster water eases into the pool. I whisk my fly rod two times and after the fly hits the water, I mend the line up stream to make the fly look as natural as possible. Towards the end of the float, the trout rises to my fly and I set the hook. The smile begins again as I keep my line tight and dance around the shoreline until the brown trout is in my net. She is beautiful, with big round black spots and a large golden belly. For a moment we stare at each other. I am in awe and she looks surprised that I have tricked her. I hold her into the water and slowly release my gentle grip. Her tail brushes off of my hand and I pause there for a while, unaware of anything else around me.
Basic Starter Equipment:
- Fly rod – 4wt or 5 wt, 4 or 2 piece set, 8ft long at least
- Reel – confirm it matches the kind of rod you buy, such as a 5wt reel
- Backing and Fly Line (floating)
- Tapered Leader – 5x, or 4x generally
- Tippet roles – 5x, 4x, 3x
- Flies from your local fly shop – dry flies, nymphs, buggers, streamers
- Clippers to cut line
- Needle nose pliers – to get the hook out of fish and de-barb hooks
- Fly Gunk (floatant)
- Strike Indicators (bobbers)
- Weight (split shot)
- Wading Boots
- Waders and Wading Belt – fishing in summer, you can forgo the waders
Learning how to cast is the first step to fly-fishing. Check your local fly shops for casting classes, and watch some YouTube casting instruction videos. Start out with about 3 feet of fly line extending out the end of the fly rod, keep your elbow in, wrist tight, and move the line back and forth, keeping a 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the rod while holding the float line with your other hand. Allow the line to fully extend in each direction, and with each whisk forward, let more line out from your left hand. When you are ready cast the fly, stop the line in front of you and slowly lower the rod. Grab a piece of yarn to tie on the end of the line to practice with until you are ready for a hook. It is essential you spend some quality time practicing and receiving feedback if possible. Wind knots happen, just don’t let it stop you from practicing. You will need to be able to cast long distances once you are truly addicted to fly fishing, so learning the correct form is essential.
You don’t want to be that person out on the river who asks her friends to tie her knots, just like a kid asks mommy to tie his or her shoes. Start with these simple knots and then explore further once you get the hang of these:
- Clinch Knot: for tying tippet to your flies.
- Blood Knot: for tying your tippet to your leader.
Matching the Hatch
Your local fly shop should have a great idea of what is hatching where you are planning to fish. Even before you know the name of all the types of flies, you can simply match what you see under rocks or flying in the air with what you have in your fly box. There are several types of flies and ways to fish them, but generally start with these 3 main ways:
- Dry Fly: These emulate a mature insect. They float on top of the water, or fly down to the water to lay eggs. Dry fly fishing requires mending the line up stream so the float line does not get ahead of the fly and create drag. Trying to create the most natural float will help you trick picky feeding fish. Matching the hatch of what kind of flies you see fish eating is also very essential. Set the hook when you see the fly go under or the fish jumping for it.
- Nymph/Emergers: 80% of fish feeding are feeding underwater. Nymphs are subsurface aquatic insects that are in the process of maturation or reside underwater through their life cycle. Usually, tying a nymph with a dropper nymph is a good idea, with a strike indicator carefully placed to allow the nymphs to tumble on the bottom of the river or near the surface if needed. Sometimes you will need to add weight to line to make sure the nymphs are making it down to the stream bed and emulating a real nymph. Mend the line upstream and treat the indicator like a dry fly, keeping the drag off of the water. Set the hook in a downstream motion when you see the indicator dive under.
- Streamers: These sometimes represent certain underwater animals, like a sculpzilla is a copy of a sculpen fish and a wooly bugger is an emulation of a leech in some ways. Sometimes, a streamer doesn’t represent anything but something moving in the water that looks colorful and delicious to fish. Casting these bigger flies takes some practice and make sure you have eye protection. Streamers are often fished by casting across a pool or up across a river and stripped in. When you feel a grab on the end of the line its time to do a strip in and keep your line tight.
Once you have tricked a fish, it’s time to reel it in. If you have extra line out, make sure you keep it tight while you reel in the excess by holding the line with your left hand and reeling with your right hand. The objective is to keep pressure on the fish by keeping your line tight, while also making sure you give it some leeway so it does not snap your line when it runs. Let the fish tire out for a moment and reel in when the fish takes a break. Applying side pressure to the rod will also tire the fish out quicker. Lift the fish’s head out of the water with the rod and net it head first. Take the hook out with your pliers, snap some glamour pictures while the fish stays in the water in your net, and hold the fish out of the net and facing up stream, to make sure it has some energy to swim away before you completely let it go. The best thing about fly fishing is you don’t have to deal with the messy hook stuck in its stomach or any other gross complications. It’s a simple catch and release with fly fishing.
Always search for shaded areas, in front of and behind rocks, tail ins and outs of pools, sections where a riffle dives off to the side where slack water circulates and around logs in the river. You must learn how fish move in the water during different seasons of the year. For example, in the winter the fish are lazy and will most likely hang out in pools to expend the least amount of energy. In the summer you will find fish feeding in the riffles and pools or wherever the food source is floating. When the summer gets very hot, and water levels slow down, it’s wise to first check the water’s temperature and if it is fishable, find the areas where the water is being oxygenated, such as below rapids or small cascades to find fish.
The number one rule with reading the water is to fish what is closest to you and work your way out. Float the fly in a few different ways through a section and then move upstream. Fishing upstream allows for a natural float and a chance for you to sneak up on unsuspecting fish slurping up bugs that are flowing downstream since fish are generally facing upstream.
Safety in the water is also an important element to reading the waters. Make sure you are wearing a wading belt if you have waders on and make sure you take each step slowly. Fishing with someone else is also highly recommended.
Connecting with Fish Friends
Women in fly fishing are a friendly group of people, willing to accept anyone who wants to learn. Don’t be afraid to reach out, ask for help, and find some gal pals to go exploring with, or what I call “play dates.” Check with local fly shops or Trout Unlimited chapters to find a group of women fly fishers near you. Here is a list of some online women-friendly fly fishing pages, magazines, and groups to be a part of:
- Dun Magazine (women’s fly fishing magazine)
- Kype Magazine
- International Women Fly Fishers Group (Facebook)
- Flyfishergirls Forum (Facebook)
- FlyGal Ventures (Facebook)
- Women of Trout Unlimited (Facebook)
- Women’s Fly Fishing (Facebook)
- Rod’s, Reels, And Heels
- Athena and Artemis Fly Shop (Online Shop for Women)
Although it seems intimidating at first, what keeps most women from moving forward in fly fishing is their fear of looking foolish or not being able to find anyone to stalk rivers with. Don’t wait for the right set of circumstances; take charge, ask for help, invite people to go and very soon you will have your own fly fishing adventure stories- and quite possibly a trout addiction that will change your life forever.
Kaitlin Barnhart is a writer for Idaho Life Magazines and is also published in several fly fishing magazines, blogs, and is the admin for the Women’s Fly Fishing Facebook page. She started fly fishing in Alaska over 10 years ago and is now a huge advocate for getting women involved in the sport and encouraging them to push past barriers that keep them from great adventures. You can find her on Instagram @mammaflybox and find some humorous fishing tales at her blog: www.mammaflybox.wordpress.com.