Everything you need to plan, prep, and enjoy your new life as a fly angler—even if you’ve never been one for the outdoors.
Standing in waders, waist-deep in the water, the river rushing around me, focusing on my cast, focusing on the line, making sure it doesn’t tangle up in anything, aiming for a certain spot in the shade under the trees on the bank, casting the line there, being ready to pull back the rod at just the right moment to hook a fish if it bites… the first time I tried fly fishing, I learned it was about so much more than fish.
I was trying my hand at the sport—which has a reputation for being pretty much exclusively enjoyed by old white men—because that reputation is changing. Across the U.S., and especially in the New York Catskills where the hospitality and tourism scene has seemingly exploded with ways to make the notoriously closed-off sport more accessible to newcomers, it has been growing in popularity and becoming more diverse, in terms of race, gender and age, with every passing year.
Immediately, I can see why: The hours flew by. I didn’t look at my phone once—and in fact, I physically couldn’t. Both my hands were occupied and I was standing in the middle of a body of water, sometimes leveraging my weight against the flow so as not to be knocked right over. Fly fishing was just what I needed, at once incredibly peaceful and so constantly active that I forgot to wonder what my inbox looked like.
For many, the idea of “going fishing” evokes an image of a person sitting on a dock or a boat, holding a pole with a spinning reel on it in one hand, maybe a beer in the other, waiting for the bobber to disappear below the surface—waiting for a fish to bite.
Fly fishing enthusiasts will tell you their version of the sport is a different experience altogether: it’s active, requires focus, and unlike pole fishing, fly fishing relies heavily on a person’s knowledge of rivers and river ecosystems, on a person’s casting technique, and on a person’s choice of bait—in this case, not a worm or other dangling tasty treat, but a “fly,” which is a fishing hook tucked discreetly into an arrangement of meticulously assembled materials that mimic the appearance and behavior of fly larvae.
Made with feathers, furs, fabrics and more—from elk hair to peacock herls, mohair yarn to gold tinsel—flies are works of art in themselves. Choosing one that will fool a fish depending on the weather, time of day, or point in the season adds another layer.
There are plenty of reasons to fall in love with fly fishing—whether you want to spend more time in nature or nerd out over fly tying. But because it requires a little gear and a little know-how, and it can be a financial investment depending on where and how you do it, the first thing you need to do is get out on a river once, and see if it’s for you.
Here are some pointers to help you get your feet wet.
5 Fly Fishing Tips for Beginners
1. Learn the Basics
“It’s a lifetime sport, but the first time you fly fish, you are a fly fisher. It’s not like a badge you need to earn. If you’ve done it for one day or 10,000 days, the point is about going fishing,” says Paul Robertson, former Director of Sales and Programming at Sage Lodge in Pray, Montana, where fly fishing poles lean up against a stand by the check-out desk for guest use, and lodge staff teach lessons at a breezy pond conveniently set between the Absaroka mountains and the lobby bar. “There are a lot of barriers, though: the casting, the equipment, how do you get to the river, what fly do you use? There are so many things you need to know in order to have a chance. But a 20-minute overview gives you everything you need to know to at least decide whether you want to do it.”
For that overview, many first-timers start by taking a workshop or hiring a guide who can offer fishing spot recommendations and all the equipment you need on loan. This may cost a couple hundred dollars for a few hours. If that’s prohibitive, a friend with some experience, or some carefully selected YouTube videos, may offer an adequate alternative. For example: Joan Wulff, an award-winning caster for decades, now in her early 90s and still teaching fly fishing out of her casting school near Roscoe, New York, has posted her lessons online.
2. Get a License
In order to try fly fishing (even if you rarely catch anything!), in most places, you’ll need a Fishing License.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, getting one is “quick, easy and directly contributes toward conservation efforts.” In most states, you can buy them online, for a single day or for an entire season.
Be sure to keep a print-out in your pocket when you head out on the river.
3. Gear Up
Your kit of fishing gear is called your tackle, and for fly anglers, that includes, at minimum, a fly rod, a fly reel, a special line (which consists of backing, a leader, fly line and a tippet), and last but not least, a few flies.
The simpler your kit, the more you’ll look like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. (Some outfitters sell startup kits, like the “Encounter” from Orvis, available for $169.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hermés makes fly fishing rods, creels (baskets for fish) and even flies for about $13,000.
If you don’t know where to start, stop in your friendly neighborhood fly shop and ask the experts for a little guidance.
4. Learn and Practice Good River Etiquette
Fly fishing has social distancing built in. But there are other etiquette rules to bear in mind.
Often, if an old-timer is generous and trusting enough to share a good spot with a newcomer, they’ll hope you don’t “fish n’ tell.” In many ways, this antiquated attitude has helped keep the sport exclusive to a fault. Meanwhile, younger anglers—and more social media-savvy ones—tend to be more open about their tips and favorite spots, removing some of that barrier to entry for newcomers.
Old and young agree, the more anglers there are, the more friends rivers have—and as environmental protections for waterways are being rolled back across the U.S., now more than ever, rivers need friends.
That said, when it comes to social media on the river, don’t go overboard.
Geo-tagging locations could lead to overwhelming and harming natural ecosystems. Especially on rivers, where people who don’t fully grasp the concept of “Leave No Trace” may be prone to activities like building superfluous cairns that mar the view and meddle with the environment, a good attitude to take is that you’re a guest in the natural world: Tread lightly.
“The ‘grip ‘n’ grin’ is what we call it,” Chaz Davis, manager of the Fly Shop of the Bighorns in Sheridan, Wyoming, told me when I stopped in last summer. For some anglers on social media, he said, fly fishing is less about catching fish than it is about being out in nature. But for others, it’s all about the size of the trout in the picture. “It gets to the point where people will take changes of clothes, different hats, and shoot new photos of the same fish from different angles” just to post pictures of their catch on social.
The distraction of posing for a photo can not only get in the way of a good experience for the angler, but the survival of the fish.
“I always teach my clients to wet their hands before they touch the fish in order to not strip their protective slime off of them—it acts as their immune system,” said Jessica McKay, a Gen Z fly fishing guide for Sasquatch Fly Fishing in Estes Park, Colorado. “I make sure to always use my net, wet my hands down, and keep the fish in the water until I have my camera ready to take a picture and release the fish as soon as I can. Also making sure to hold the fish in the water until they have adjusted and are ready to swim away.”
Best practices for keeping fish healthy means there will always be more for you, and other anglers, to catch.
5. Jump Right In
Now that you are ready to give it a try, make your way to a pond or river near you. Fly fishing-specific publications and outdoor guides offer recommendations from New Mexico to Wyoming, the Berkshires of Massachusetts or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, down to the isles of the Carolinas. In the New York Catskills, the Livingston Manor Fly Fishing Club in the Western New York Catskills welcomes first-timers and shows them the ropes (er, lines) no judgment, and fly shops like Esopus Creel or Dette Flies are happy to help you figure out what flies and gear you need if you’re ready to take the plunge.
But if you’re not escaping the city anytime soon, don’t feel left out: From the Seattle to Milwaukee, from ponds of NYC’s Central and Prospect Park to the concrete canal banks of the L.A. River, you can find a community of people ready to share the joy of urban fly fishing.