Getting Started in Flyfishing
Buy the right gear
How to start getting to grips with the exotic mysteries of flyfishing? Firstly, you obviously need
to get the right gear. Step 1 is to buy the best rod you can afford. For the beginner that means a slower
action, 2.75 m graphite rod. All rods are tapered in that they have a thick butt to give them strength and
a thin tip to give flexibility when fighting a fish. Fast action rods have a fast taper which gives a stiffer
feel to the rod. You need to be an experienced caster to get the best out of such rods. A rod with a
medium fast action will be much easier for a tyro caster. Most beginners usually start with a rod that
takes a 6 or 7 weight line as that can be used on a wide variety of waters. If most of your fishing is only
going to be on streams and you are not going to be throwing heavy flies around, then you could
consider a 5/6 rod instead. The only downside of this weight rod might be on windy days and when
fishing lakes with a sinking line.
Match the rod with the best value reel you can find. The reel is only a line holding device and
you don’t need to spend a fortune on it. A reel with an exposed rim on the spool means you won’t need
fancy drag devices which only add cost and weight. But do buy the best line you can afford. Cheap fly
lines can be very frustrating if they don’t cast well or start sinking when they are supposed to float. A
weight forward floating line is usually the best line to start out with. Some people will suggest you buy a
Double Taper line and cut it in half but you need to know what you are doing to rig up such a line.
Then buy a tapered leader that matches the line weight. This should have a loop at the thick end
that will join it to the loop at the end of the fly line. If there is not a loop the thin end of the leader, ask
the tackle shop person to tie a loop and see how they do that. Next you need a spool of 2.5 kg nylon.
Peel off a metre, tie a simple loop at the end and attach that to the loop of the leader so that they form
a figure of eight. You now have a tippet attached to your leader. Add a fly to the end of the tippet and
you are ready to go fishing.
Other gear like waders, nets, fishing vests can all wait until you have fished a few rivers and
know what you need for the waters you want to fish. Joining the local fishing club will see you also
provided with more than enough of advice on what tackle you need.
Learn how to cast
Once you have bought your tackle, it is time to learn how to cast. This is not as complicated as flyfishers
like to make out. Firstly, attach a 2 cm length of brightly coloured wool to the end of the tippet. Then
find a ring of rubber, like a piece of an old tyre tube inner, and head down to the nearest park. If it has a
lake – even better.
Slide the rubber around your casting wrist and onto the very end of the handle (butt) of the rod.
You can also tie the rod to your wrist or just tuck it under your shirt sleeve, providing it has a button.
Peel off a few metres of line from the reel and let this lie on the ground. Flick the rod back and forward
until you have cast maybe three or four metres of line out in front of you.
The first thing to notice is that you cannot let the rod go past about one o’clock with your wrist
tied to the rod. Without that restraint, your wrist will break away from the rod butt and the rod will go
back to maybe three o’clock. When that happens, the flyline goes way below horizontal and the fly (if
you had one on) would land on the grass, or even worse, the trees behind you. That band around your
wrist will prevent this and enable you to develop a proper fly casting action right from the start. After a
few days casting, you will have gained the feel for the correct casting action and can throw away the
Understand trout needs
To be a competent flyfisher, you need to be able to work out where the fish will be lying. It is
part of the natural instincts of a trout for it to seek protection from its predators and shelter from the
current. No matter how much a river changes, any trout will have the same basic needs. If you study and
eventually understand these needs, you will be able to recognise the type of water that is more likely to
meet the needs of the trout. This means less wasting time on unproductive water and more time spent
fishing water that will hold trout – that is the basis of successful fishing.
So what are these needs?
Quality of water – trout need cool, clear water. They cannot tolerate warm or silty water for very long.
The best trout streams have a constant supply of cold and clear water. This may be from a spring, a
mountain lake, snow-capped mountains or forested headwaters.
Adequate food supply - trout must position themselves in a location where there is a constant supply of
food that can be intercepted with a minimum of effort. This will often be in the food line which can be
determined by the line of foam flowing through a pool.
Protection from predators - the larger the trout, the more likely it is to be found in a position that
provides security. This may be deep in a pool or in a fast riffle where the ruffled surface will conceal its
presence. Or it can be under overhead cover such as trees or other bankside vegetation. Big trout are
often found sheltering behind trees that have fallen into the river as these give them shelter from the
angling predator as well.
Shelter from the current – a trout will seek a feeding or resting position where it does not have to battle
the current. The fish will use the natural obstructions of a river to gain relief from the unceasing flow of
water. This may be at the edge of the main current, behind a large boulder, in front of a boulder, among
the rocks on the riverbed or behind a protruding bank. The bigger the trout, the more likely this will
The angler that has these trout needs in mind, when out on the river, will be the one that finds
trout more often than the chuck and chance it flyfisher. The smart angler will study a stretch of water to
determine if it meets the needs of a trout. When you find water that you consider meets the needs of a
trout, then it is time to look closely for trout and to fish the water thoroughly.
Learn how to spot trout
The ability to see trout in the water varies from person to person. Some have an instinctive
ability to be able to distinguish a trout from the rocks of the river bed. When conditions are on your
side, it is often easy to see fish, especially in clear, placid waters. In rougher, more turbulent water, the
trout will be much harder to see. Instead of trying to see the obvious shape of a trout, expert spotters
break down the task into elements that may indicate that a trout is present.
So what to look for:
Movement - it pays to look for movement first, as this is the most reliable indicator, given that rocks
don’t move. The best idea is to mark the position of the suspicious shape by its distance from a
distinctive rock. Keep checking the object’s position against the marker rock. If the shape never moves in
relation to the rock, then it is unlikely to be a trout (or it is asleep and not feeding).
Flash - a silver or golden flash is a common pointer to a fish moving around. This is most commonly seen
when a hen is spawning but at any time it is a clear indicator that a fish is present in a run. The white
flash of a trout jaw opening can be an encouraging sign as it indicates that the trout is feeding.
Shadow - if the trout is not moving much, then it is necessary look for a shadow on the opposite side of
the fish from the sun. Because the trout is lying clear of the bottom, its shadow will be more distinct
than the shadow of a rock imbedded in the pool. Shadows of rocks do not move so some patient
observation will usually determine if the suspect object is worth a cast.
Colour – even though trout are well camouflaged, they have more colour than other natural objects.
They always have a darker back and a light coloured underside. Careful observation can distinguish that
lighter underside as that means the object cannot be a rock. This skill can take many years to develop as
colour is a less reliable determining factor than movement or shape.
The skill of spotting trout is not easily learned and it can take years to become proficient at
sighting feeding trout. A good idea is to accompany an expert spotter on the river as this is a quick way
of learning the little things that they look for to reveal that a trout is present. Spotting trout is an
essential skill to learn and time devoted to this skill will pay big benefits later in your angling life.
Match the hatch
It is not necessary to be an expert on trout stream insects but there is no reason for any angler
not to have a basic knowledge of entomology. By that, we mean the life cycle and behaviour of the most
common aquatic insects. If you know that much, you will know what is happening when you sight
something unusual when on the river. There are basically four different stages in the life cycle of an
aquatic insect. The insects look very different between these stages and that is why matching the hatch
Nymph - nymphs are actually the larvae of an aquatic insect. When mature, the larvae hatch out. In
most cases, this means that the larvae ascend to the surface. They do this by either swimming or by
using a bubble of gas to lift them to the surface. It is at this stage that the nymphs are very likely to be
taken by a trout. Some other nymphs crawl from the bottom onto rocks to hatch out. They are not as
important as the swimming nymphs, as trout food, as they are harder to imitate. Turning over any
reasonably-sized rock at the edge of a stream will reveal the amount of food in that section of the
waterway. A healthy stream will have several different types of nymphs under the rock and these will
wriggle away when disturbed. Caddis larvae may be secreted under a collection of small stones and sand
Emerger - when these emerging nymphs reach the surface, they are often trapped in the surface film.
Here, they may struggle to shed the nymphal skin as well as to break through the surface film, especially
in slow water. This is when those rough-looking, emerger patterns will be needed.
Dry - once the larva reaches the surface, it sheds its outer skin and the mayfly emerges as the subimago
or dun. It may sit on the surface for a while drying its wings. At this time, they are very susceptible to
being taken by a trout and a dry fly is used to imitate the natural. When its wings are dry, the dun will
Spinner - after a day or so, the dun is transformed into the sexually active adult or spinner. The mating
dance that follows is usually rather short and the exhausted adult insect dies and often falls onto the
water where it is called a spent spinner. The critical difference is that the wings of the dead insect are
spread out on the water. At such times it is vital to match the hatch as trout will refuse any pattern that
does not closely represent the natural.
A small amount of time spent studying typical trout stream insects will advance your angling
Use different tactics when fishing through a pool
One of the skills possessed by all good flyfishers is the ability to analyse the stretch of water
ahead and adjust their tactics to suit the type of water. An experienced angler changes tactics as they
fish through a pool.
First to be encountered is the tail of pool. This often holds the odd good fish in the morning or
evening but they tend to move up to the security of deeper water when the light is on the water. The
best approach is to cast from the rapids below the tail of the pool so only a long, fine leader is landing
on the smooth water. During the day, trout will usually be very spooky if they are holding in the tail of a
Above the tail is the body of the pool. It can hold good fish if the depth offers reasonable cover.
The current has lost momentum and the fish have a lot of time to inspect their food. Long casts and long
leaders are essential, as the line must be kept well away from the trout. A low profile is also prudent,
especially when casting from a bank. Often the best approach is to fish the far bank where the fish are
less likely to be disturbed by the fall of the line, as it will be landing on the faster current in the centre of
the river. It may be necessary to fish with heavier flies to make sure you get down to the level of the
At the head of the pool is a lie favoured by large trout. They lie in the eye of the pool, where the
main current enters the pool. In this position, a trout can see every morsel of food coming into the pool,
yet lie just out of the main current. Anglers are easily seen by the trout, as often the casting position will
be from the open shingle bank alongside the eye. In this case, the ability to make a long cast is a distinct
advantage. If the trout is lying just over the lip, then it is necessary to get the fly down fast or it will be
swept over their heads. Often fish will lie in very shallow water on the near side sand bank, feeding
quietly with a minimum of expenditure of energy. In this situation, an angler needs to be careful when
advancing up the pool, so as not to spook the trout.
By using tactics better suited to the different characteristics of the pool being fished, you will
have more success than just fishing it through with the same method.
Read the water
The best anglers know what type of water is preferred by trout. They have learned how to read
the water and know whether there is a good chance of fish being present. Then they don’t waste time
fishing unproductive water but concentrate their efforts on the most likely sections of the river. Usually
these will be:
Riffles – these can be described as stretches of water flowing at a medium speed over submerged
rocks. The rocks are near enough to the surface to produce a ruffled surface as the water is
disrupted by the obstruction of the rocks below. Riffles are the prime lies in any river as they
provide both shelter and a food source for the trout. Fortunately for anglers, they are easy to fish,
as drag is not a problem and the fish take freely. You can get quite close to the likely places
where fish lie and can fish with a reasonably short line. Keep the leader to no more than 3 m to
make it easy to guide the fly through the joggly water.
Runs – runs are deeper sections of the river where the bottom rocks are too deep to disturb the surface
so it will look smoother than in riffles. Runs are also prime lies as the depth gives trout a sense of
security. Food is brought down at a more leisurely pace so the fish have more time to inspect it than in a
riffle. This means drag will see a refusal and good mending skills are important. The angler needs to be
more cautious as the water surface is usually quite calm and the trout’s window is very effective.
Reasonably long casts are required, as long as the mending can still be carried out. Leaders should suit
the depth of water but around 3 m is usually about right. Indicators are optional but should be
dispensed with if the water is less than 2 m deep.
Anglers that learn how to read the water to know which stretches will be the most productive
will out fish those that waste time fishing unproductive water.
Change tactics with the seasons
A river changes character a great deal between the high flows of spring and the low water of
mid summer. This means a distinct change of approach is required to fish it successfully right through
the season. Spring fishing is often characterised by inclement and changeable weather resulting in heavy
river flows and often-discoloured water. The fish tend to lie deeper in the water at this time of the year
and weighted flies are needed to get down to them. Rarely will rising fish be seen as it is too early for
hatches and terrestrial insects are not airborne as yet. Trout often feed freely and it is probably the
easiest time to catch a trout, as they have not seen an angler for months. Flies with some flash, like
beadhead versions or ones incorporating flashy materials, will usually work well (see the tip on Glitter
As summer approaches, the fish tend to move upstream into their regular home waters. There
may be large numbers of fish present in the sections of the river that have plenty of food and cover or
depth. There is a more stable river flow that will often decline as the summer progresses. Fishing the
runs and riffles is the first choice for blind fishing, be it on the dry or nymph. In the middle of summer,
there will be exciting fishing using terrestrials like hoppers and cicadas. Flies that more closely represent
natural insects will work best. The rivers will get low and clear by the end of summer so long, fine
leaders and careful approaches will be required. This period is the most challenging for the fly fisher as
fishing pressure is at its greatest and the fish are very wary.
In autumn, things change again. The weather can be changeable and river flows vary
considerably. Usually, the better fishing is to be found in the areas that have had some rain. This
freshens up the rivers and the fish respond to the greater flows by thinking of procreation. They may
start the move to the spawning gravels, which will be found in the headwaters or up the tributaries. The
fish, especially the rainbows, will be aggressive with changes to their colour and behaviour. The tactics
to use depend greatly on the amount of water in the river or stream. Where there is adequate water
flows, nymphs with some flash will do best and often the egg imitations are worth trying. Autumn can
provide some good quality fishing and the fish will usually be easier to catch than they might be in the
middle of summer.
Anglers that think about the climatic changes and vary their tactics will outfish those that persist
with the same techniques all year long.
Spring creek fishing
Spring creeks are quite unique in character and provide a real test of angling abilities. Their
source is normally a large spring and they usually flow through limestone country. This gives a clarity to
the water which gives the fish a distinct advantage as they can easily see bank-bound anglers. Such
rivers often have a pumice bed and large quantities of weed; typical characteristics of an English
waterway. The wide, weed-choked margins make angling difficult with a premium on accurate casting.
But it is these large beds of weed that provide spring creek trout with some cover. Without this,
they would be too exposed, silhouetted against the white pumice sand stream bed. Instead they hide
under a clump of weed, emerging only to snatch a passing insect. The most successful method to use on
spring creeks is the dry fly. This should be a small size, such as a size 16 and it should be one that
matches the natural insects that can be seen flying around. Flies like the Kakahi Queen, Dad’s Favourite
and Twilight Beauty are imitations of the most common adult mayflies. Such flies should be the first
choice when fishing spring creeks.
The angler must take care to conceal themselves as much as possible behind streamside
vegetation and keep a low profile. Anything protruding above the horizon will spook the trout. The small
dry fly should be cast out into the current where it flows near a clump of weed. The fish will be using the
solid mass of weed to give it cover from the predators overhead but the appearance of its favourite food
will tempt it out of its hiding place. The rise will usually be slow and deliberate so the angler must be
patient with the strike and wait until the fish has turned back down with the fly. The slower the water,
the more delayed must be the strike. Then the fun begins as the trout heads back to its bolthole in the
bed of weeds. The angler must be patient and try to coax the fish away from the weeds as any rough
handling will see a snapped tippet.
Mid summer fishing
When the river is low, as it often is in the middle of summer, it is time to use different tactics.
You then have to give some thought to where trout will lie when the water temperature is high. The
trout will actively seek cooler and more oxygenated water. The most obvious source of cooler water is
an incoming stream. Trout tend to congregate at the point where the stream enters the river because
the incoming water is significantly cooler.
Most rivers have many small inflows of water such as streams or creeks or even just rivulets.
These are cold and contain plenty of food. When fishing up the river, keep watching out for places
where these side streams enter the river. Often the small inflow is hidden by foliage on the bank and it
is not always easy to spot.
Another summer cool spot is in the riffly sections of a river. Generally trout will feed in the pools
in low light conditions and then move up to feed in the riffles during the day. This is especially so in the
heat of summer when the pools become too hot. At these times, it can be quite surprising where fish
will be found in the middle of the day. Even swift-flowing rapids can yield fish as long as the depth is
enough to cover their backs. The reduced flow of summer enables the trout to stay in water that would
normally be too fast to occupy. The rapids and riffles are cooler and have more oxygenated water, which
is critical to trout survival.
Generally speaking you will need to fish with lighter tackle and longer leaders during the hottest
months when water levels are low. The trout will be more likely to be spotted and smaller flies will be
required as the trout will be more wary in the shallower water. Anglers will be more easily seen by the
trout in such conditions so careful approaches and low profile stalks are essential. A slower, more
patient approach will be rewarded.
Fishing to wary trout
If you are fishing a river that is low and clear, you are bound to find wary trout. They will
disappear as soon as the line hits the water or even at the wave of a fly rod, ten metres away. When you
encounter difficult fishing conditions, you need to change your approach. Spooky trout require special
First step is to change the length of your leader. In heavier water, you might have been fishing
with a three metre leader, which is fine if the trout are taking freely. In low, clear water, this length
leader means the fly line will land too close to the fish. Any small disruption of the placid water will
result in a spooked trout. What you need to do is to remove the one metre tippet and replace it with
one that is two metres longer. This will give you a total leader length of five metres; sufficient to keep
the heavier fly line well away from the wary trout. Naturally, you will be only fishing with a 4 or 5 weight
line in such difficult conditions. It might also be necessary to reduce the diameter of your tippet or use
fluorocarbon tippet material which is less visible than nylon. Reducing the diameter of the tippet will
also reduce drag which is a big turn off for trout in low, clear water.
If you have an indicator on, you should remove it. Although a one centimetre-high snip of yarn
will not scare a trout under normal conditions, these difficult fish are a different proposition. In clear,
shallow water, you do not need an indicator. Why not? Because you will easily be able to see the trout
move to intercept the nymph. Just look out for that white flash as the trout opens its mouth to intercept
If the above tactics fail, then it is time to reduce the size of your fly. Often a fly one or two sizes
smaller than usual will see a trout accept your new offering. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when
you succeed in fooling a fish in trying conditions.