How to choose the right rod, line, reel, and other gear for your fishing
To get started fly fishing, at the very least you’ll need a rod, reel, line, and a box full of flies. If you are shore fishing for pond panfish or wet wading a small trout stream on a hot summer day, you can be comfortable in sneakers and shorts, but to fully immerse yourself in all trout fishing has to offer you’ll also need waders and boots; a wading jacket; and a vest or chestpack to help carry your flies, leaders, tippet, split-shot, hemostats, and often a water bottle, lunch, and camera.
Choosing a Rod
All rods have several important characteristics—length, line weight, and pieces. This information is usually printed in some abbreviated form on the base of the rod shaft near the cork grip or handle and on the outside of the rod tube.
Line weight. When someone says “I’m using a 4-weight rod,” they are not actually referring to the weight of the rod, they are referring to the weight of the line the rod is best suited for. (The actual weight of the rod in ounces is usually printed on the rod shaft along with the line weight.)
You can purchase fly lines in weights 0 through 15, and fly rods are sold in corresponding “weights” to match these lines. A 5-weight rod is designed for a 5-weight line, a 10-weight rod is designed for a 10-weight line, etc. Expert casters sometimes over- or underline their rods for specific purposes, but if you are a beginner it is important that your line and rod are correctly matched.
The line weight is important for many reasons. A heavier line traveling at the same speed as a light line has more kinetic energy and can more easily deliver larger flies over longer distances and help you overcome obstacles such as wind. Since a rod made for a heavier line is also heavier (in ounces) and stiffer by design, it is a more efficient tool for landing large fish such as steelhead, salmon, or saltwater fish such as tuna and billfish.
The drawbacks of a heavier line weight are obvious. Heavier line weights are more tiring to cast. It’s possible to cast an 8- or 9-weight line and rod all day, but it is physically challenging. A heavier line lands on the water with a splat that can startle trout in calm water, and a rod that is too heavy can take the fun out of landing a small, beautiful native trout.
A common line weight for most trout fishers today—in medium to large rivers and stillwaters—is a 5-weight. It has the heft to cast grasshopper imitations or a nymph and strike indicator rig on a windy Western river, but is still adequate for smaller dry flies and wary trout.
As you develop your fly-fishing preferences you’ll find a need for a lighter rod for especially spooky trout in flat water, small flies, spring creeks, and tiny mountain brooks. A 5-weight is a good rod in a drift boat or wading a large river, but if you get into bass—which sometimes require large flies—or large trout and steelhead on big rivers where long casts are required, you may want a 6-weight or larger.
Rod length. Most trout rods are from 7 to 9½ feet long. Anything shorter or longer than that is a specialized casting tool you may consider later.
Your first 5-weight rod for trout fishing in medium to large rivers should be 8½ to 9 feet long. Ask at your local fly shop what length they use on your home waters.
Long rods give you more line control—you can lift more line from the water and reposition it more easily when you have a longer lever. However, longer rods are a little heavier, more awkward in a boat with two anglers, and more likely to catch on overhanging branches and shrubs while casting. Longer rods up to 10 feet are excellent for stillwater fishing from a float tube where there is no shrubbery and your body is low to the water—the extra length can help maintain your casting distance.
Rod pieces. Twenty years ago, most rods came in two pieces with a ferrule in the middle to join the sections. An 8-foot rod would come in a 4-foot tube that easily fit in the trunk of your car. Four-piece rods were considered travel rods, since the compact size was easy to pack in carry-on airline luggage. Most fly fishers preferred 2-piece rods since 4-piece rods were generally heavier and the extra ferrules acted as “dead spots” on the rod that hampered the rod action.
Today, modern materials and construction techniques have mostly overcome these drawbacks, and most experts agree that the 4-piece models of top brands now cast just as well as their 2-piece counterparts. Due to their convenient size, far more people buy multi-piece rods, and some companies no longer sell 2-piece rods.
Beware of buying rods with too many sections—such as 5- and 7-piece rods—unless you have a specific need. Ferrules can slip and twist and you can break the rod at the ferrule if you seat it incorrectly. A 4-piece rod fits in any backpack, you can strap it to a mountain-bike frame, and you can stow it in an overhead bin on any commercial jet. There’s rarely a need for anything more compact.
How much should you spend? As with a bottle of wine, a high price doesn’t guarantee a great rod, but it’s a reliable indicator. Taste is also an important factor and everyone has different preferences. You can often find a bottle of wine—or a rod you enjoy casting—for a moderate price.
The most important thing you can do is to test cast different rods at your local fly shop. If you don’t have a fly shop where you live, or you haven’t yet learned to cast and can’t tell the difference between a great rod and a broomstick, the next best choices are to rely on the advice of an experienced mentor, or buy an inexpensive rod just to get started and plan to replace it once you refine your skills.
Most fly rod manufacturers have entry-level or value rods for between $100-$275. These are a great way to get started without breaking the bank.
Another great way to learn to cast before you make your fly rod purchase is to enroll in a fly-fishing school. These programs frequently do a wonderful job of immersing new fly fishers in the world of entomology, casting, and presentations, and use of the school’s equipment is a good opportunity to “try before you buy.”
You immediately notice cosmetic differences between a value rod and a $700 premium rod—the cork has more imperfections, the rod guides are chrome—not titanium—the epoxy finish may not be as attractive, the reel seat insert may be graphite instead of exotic hardwood, and the reel seat hardware will be similarly inexpensive.
As you gain expertise, you may notice that these differences are far less important than the performance levels of an entry-level rod compared to a high-end rod that has different design specifications and proprietary materials. These expert-level rods are often lighter (in ounces), have a lighter feel or “swing weight,” and most importantly are designed for specific needs such as long casts, delicate presentations, or lifting heavy sinking lines.
Rod designers vary the graphite in their best rods—and sometimes add other materials like boron or Kevlar—and use high-tech resins, epoxy, and polymers to bind the graphite fibers into a cohesive tube. These advantages are unimportant to a beginning caster but as your skills and knowledge increase, you’re likely to seek the best rods to get the most out of your sport.
In spin fishing, the line is a nearly weightless monofilament trailing behind a relatively heavy lure. In fly casting, the weight and energy is in the fly line itself, which makes the line an essential consideration.
In terms of casting performance, fly lines are perhaps even more important than the rod you use. Unfortunately, some intermediate and even advanced casters use lines that are worn out or lines designed for other purposes. Don’t make these mistakes. Expert casters replace their lines when they lose their buoyancy or slickness. As a beginner, you don’t need the extra challenge of an old, worn out fly line.
If you are new to fly fishing, and want to get started fishing for trout in rivers and streams, your first fly line will likely be a general-purpose floating weight-forward freshwater line such as Scientific Anglers Trout, RIO Gold, Cortland Trout Precision, or Orvis Generation 3 Trout. These high-quality floating lines are designed to meet the needs of most trout stream anglers. You can use them for dry-fly fishing, nymphing, and most streamer fishing.
Taking the Next Step
As you progress as a fly fisher you will need more than a general-purpose floating line. For instance, most floating trout lines are poor choices to cast bass popping bugs, catch trout in deep water, or catch steelhead and salmon in large swift rivers.
Before you can make a wise purchasing decision for a specialty fly line, it’s helpful to know how the lines are built, and how the core, coating, and taper of each line affect performance.
Core. Think of the core as the skeleton of the fly line. It gives the line all its strength, determines how much or how little it stretches, and also determines how flexible it is. Fly lines with monofilament cores generally have less stretch and are less flexible (stiffer) than lines with multifilament cores. Stiff lines cast farther because they “shoot” better and tangle less frequently. In cold weather and in cold water, however, lines with monofilament cores often have too much memory, leaving you with coils that are difficult to cast. Monofilament-core lines are therefore best suited for hot weather or tropical species like bonefish.
Lines for trout and other coldwater species are most often made with multifilament cores which gives the line manufacturer more control over how much memory the line has, how much stretch it has, and how stiff (or limp) it is.
There are a few lines out there with no-stretch cores made of Kevlar or other materials. The benefits, say manufacturers, are solid, quicker hook-sets on fish, and performance casting due to the fact there is no stretch to drain energy from your casting stroke. The downside is that if you can’t stretch the line, it’s difficult to remove line coils after you strip it from your reel. No-stretch cores might have someadvantages but have never really caught on with the general angling public and you should probably avoid them while you are learning to fly fish.
Coating. The coating is the plastic covering the manufacturer applies over the fly line core. Most line companies use polyvinylchloride (PVC) for the fly line coating—the same PVC used for everything from making credit cards to household pipes. PVC can be made soft and flexible by adding plasticizers and you can make it slippery by adding lubricants. Most fly line companies have their own propriety combinations of these ingredients to produce the line qualities they are looking for.
[The U.K. company Airflo does not use PVC as a base material for its fly line coatings. Airflo uses polyurethane; a polymer it says is more durable and resistant to cracking. Cortland has a single specialty saltwater line made of a proprietary blend of polyethylene that is inherently buoyant. The resulting line has an overall smaller diameter which means it has less wind resistance, and creates less disturbance when it hits the water. Cortland says the polyethylene coating has a lower coefficient of friction and shoots farther than PVC-coated floating lines, and that polyethylene is more durable and abrasion-resistant than PVC lines. The Editor.]
By varying the plasticizers in the PVC coating, manufacturers can also make a fly line more or less stiff. A line advertised as a bonefish line should have a stiffer coating that still shoots through the guides when it is 95 degrees F. and won’t turn gummy and more prone to tangling. Trout lines are specifically designed to perform best in cold water.
The fly line coating—or rather, what a manufacturer adds to the fly line coating—also determines whether a fly line floats or sinks. Manufacturers can add tungsten powder to create a dense line that sinks, or add glass microspheres to make a less dense floating fly line. Manufacturers also combine these materials to make a line with a tip that sinks and a floating rear portion.
[Tiny glass spheres have been the industry standard for decades but RIO recently began making fly lines with an additional buoyancy material it calls AgentX. As part of its Super Floatation Technology (SFT), RIO uses glass microspheres on the interior of the coating and AgentX in the exterior. The result, RIO says, is a higher-floating fly line that is also smoother since it doesn’t have the microbumps associated with microspheres. The Editor.]
While some companies go the extra mile making their lines smooth, Scientific Anglers has recently unveiled a whole series of Sharkskin lines with a textured surface you can hear going through the rod guides, and feel with your hands. According to SA, the textured surface reduces friction because only the high points rub against the rod guides, and Sharkskin floats higher because of the way the ridges create contact points with the water’s surface.
Taper. A fly line’s taper directly affects the way it shoots, turns over a heavy fly, presents a small fly delicately, or casts efficiently at long or short distances. The line taper (its outside dimension) is the result of varying thicknesses of the line coating—some parts are thicker and have greater mass, other parts are thin and have less mass. This distribution of mass along the length of the line determines how the line will perform in a variety of conditions. For instance, if you want the line to easily cast a large, wind-resistant bass popper, you need most of the line weight as close to the fly as possible. This additional mass, concentrated at the head of the line, helps turn over large flies during the final delivery. However, this is not ideal for fishing small flies on flat trout water where you need a long, delicate tip for stealthy presentations.
There are two major groups of fly-line tapers: weight-forward and double-taper. Double-taper lines are economical and sufficient for most short- to medium-range fishing situations but have fallen out of favor with most fly fishers because they are not the best lines for making long casts.
Weight-forward lines cannot be reversed like double-taper lines. They have a narrow, level-diameter running line at the rear that shoots through the guides easily allowing for longer casts. The head of the fly line includes the front taper that starts at the tip and gradually increases in diameter; the belly, where most of the weight is concentrated; and the rear taper that decreases in diameter as it joins the rear running line. Look for the abbreviated WF on your fly line box to determine if it is a weight-forward line.
Weight-forward tapers include nearly every specialty line on the market, including lines made for bass, tarpon, steelhead, salmon, trout, and pike. If you want to make your casting as easy as possible and enjoy productive fishing, choose the weight-forward specialty line that matches your situation. If you are fishing for trout, get a line advertised as a trout line. If you plan on fishing for bass, you will be frustrated trying to cast large bass bugs with anything other than a bass line. It isn’t just a marketing ploy—there are significant differences between the various specialty lines.
Think of shooting-tapers as radical weight-forward lines designed for distance casting. They still have a thin running line and all the weight up front, but the transition is more severe. Shooting tapers—often called shooting heads—are typically heavier than a regular weight-forward line, and the running line is thinner and lighter.
Often, the shooting head itself is separate from the running line and you connect the two using a loop-to-loop system. This allows you to keep a single running line on your reel and change the shooting head from floating to sinking, or from one weight to another depending on the fishing situation. A sinking shooting-taper with a floating running line can also be called a sinking-tip line.
Some shooting tapers are integrated, which means the shooting head and the running line are contiguous just like a regular fly line. These lines still have the same casting characteristics as other shooting tapers but there is no loop connection to jam up in the rod guides. The disadvantage is that if you want to change an integrated shooting taper you must replace the whole line. You can’t just change the head of the fly line.
Sky Blue or Sunset Orange?
Which color of fly line should you buy? If you are just getting started, you should use a brightly-colored fly line you can easily see in the air and on the water. The easier it is for you to see your fly line, the easier it will be for you to improve your casting and presentations. It can also help you locate your fly, detect strikes, and determine whether your fly may be dragging or not.
Trout can see colors, but most of the time color is far less important than a heavy splashdown or the shadow caused by a moving line. This is especially true on most American waters where the clarity is not always perfect and there is frequent flotsam in the water the trout deal with every day.
In New Zealand—where the water is famously clear and often free of floating weeds, sticks and logs, and other debris—a fluorescent fly line can spook trout. Guides there insist on using drab, olive-colored lines to avoid spooking trout.
Fly lines with monofilament cores can have a clear coating. “Clear” may seem to be the best color in terms of not spooking fish, but an all-clear line serves little purpose since in most cases the trout only sees your leader. Clear sinking-tips or clear full-sinking lines for lake or saltwater fishing can be an advantage since you can use a short leader and gain more control over the depth of your fly without sacrificing stealth.
Trout, bass, steelhead, and many other fish come to the surface for exciting moments of topwater feeding, but most of the time they skulk deep, not feeding, or feeding only occasionally on food items that come to them. Using a floating line is a pleasure, but if you want to catch fish regularly, you need to get down to them. In fly fishing, there are two general ways to do this: You can either use your floating line with a long leader and attach weight (split-shot usually) near the fly end of the leader, or you can use a sinking line and allow the weight of the line to sink the fly to the fish.
In shallow water up to 2 or 3 feet deep, a floating line with a weighted fly, or a fly and split-shot attached 6 to 12 inches above it works fine for both dead-drifted and swimming flies.
In moving water from 3 to 6 feet deep you can effectively probe the bottom by dead-drifting flies with a weighted nymph rig. At this depth in moving water, streamers and other swimming flies tend to ride up too high in the water column unless you use an unwieldy amount of split-shot. An alternative is to use a sinking or sinking-tip line.
As mentioned previously, sinking lines have tungsten powder in the line coating which makes them denser than water. (Sinking lines originally contained lead powder but tungsten is heavier and less toxic.)
Sinking lines fall through the water column at different rates, from intermediate 1.25 to 1.75 inches per second (ips) to fast-sinking 4.5 to 6 ips. Extremely fast-sinking lines sink as fast as from 7 to 10 ips.
Some sinking lines are marketed by their grain weight—300-grain, 400-grain, etc.—but don’t be fooled by the weight of the fly line. Grain weight helps you match the line to the rod but the grain weight isn’t what makes fly lines sink—there are 750-grain floating lines out there. It’s the density of the fly line that causes it to sink, so match the grain weight to your rod weight (see chart on page 10) and match the sink rate (in inches per second) to your fishing situation.
Full-sinking lines are best suited to fishing in stillwaters (lakes and ponds). They are designed to get flies down to the level where the fish are feeding, which could be 1 foot under the surface or 60 feet under. When you are fishing over sandy shallows 1 to 3 feet deep, you may want to use an intermediate line to keep the fly where the fish are feeding while avoiding hanging up on the bottom. If the weather is extremely hot, and trout are holding in the cool depths of the lake, you’ll need a fast-sinking line to get down to them. An extremely fast-sinking line that sinks at 10 ips will take around 12 seconds to get the fly 10 feet deep, so you’ll have to use the countdown method: Cast, then count to 12 to get the fly where you want it.
Lines that sink uniformly (evenly) or tip first are the best lines for fishing stillwaters. Because they sink in a straight line, they allow you to detect strikes easier and set the hook more efficiently.
Some sinking lines do not sink uniformly: The middle sinks faster than the thin, less dense tip, creating a U-shaped belly that can cause you to miss strikes. When the fish takes the fly, the tension may take up some slack in the belly while the angler doesn’t feel anything.
Most modern full-sinking lines sink uniformly to provide a straight-line
connection to the fly, allowing you to detect a high percentage of strikes and thus catch more fish.
Sinking-tip lines have a front sinking portion connected to a rear floating line. They are better in flowing water than full-sinking lines because you can mend and control the rear portion of the fly line while the tip continues to sink to the fish’s level. Sinking tips range from intermediate- to fast-sinking to bring the fly to the fish through a variety of both depths and currents.
Since it takes time for fly lines to sink, you’ll need a fast-sinking tip to get your fly down to the fish quickly in fast-moving water.
The length of the sinking portion determines not how quickly the line sinks, but the final depth of the fly. Because the line sinks at an angle from the base of the floating portion to the tip of the fly line, a longer sinking portion will ultimately get deeper. For instance, a 30-foot sinking-tip section that sinks at 5 ips will get your fly much deeper in the water column than a 10-foot sinking section with the same sink rate.
Sinking-tips are extremely important pieces of equipment for West Coast steelheaders who use them to swim flies slow and deep in the water column. Pacific salmon fall to the same strategies and no angler should visit British Columbia or Alaska without a full compliment of sinking-tip lines for 8- to 10-weight rods.
Striped bass fisherman who fish off jetties and in deep tidal rips also require fast-sinking-tip lines to reach the fish. Trout fishermen use them to “pound the banks” from drift boats, to fish streamers in deep holes, and billfish anglers use the weight of heavy sinking shooting-tapers to deliver extremely large flies quickly at short distances.
Cleaning Your Fly Line
Fly lines collect dirt, algae, and salt. A clean line floats higher, casts farther, mends more easily, and will last longer since things like dirt and salt are abrasive.
Fly lines should be cleaned regularly with warm water and a mild soap such as Ivory. Wipe the line with a soft cloth.
RIO sells a fly line dressing to coat the fly after you clean it. Cortland sells a Fly Line Cleaner Pad that does everything in one step. Scientific Anglers sells a line cleaning pad and line dressing package.
It was once popular to clean fly lines with automotive products such as
Armor All or other cleaner/protectors, but fly line manufacturers tell us the opposite. Harsh soaps can dry and crack fly lines. Automotive products may make your line slicker immediately after treatment, but in the long run deplasticize the line, making it crack prematurely.
At the end of the fishing season clean all your lines and wind them back onto their original line spools or store them in loose coils. Always store your lines out of direct sunlight. Ultraviolet light and high heat (a hot car trunk, for instance) can cause the line coating to deteriorate swiftly. With proper care your lines should last from three to five years under normal use. Anglers who fish more than 100 days per year may replace their primary lines annually to get maximum performance.
In conventional fishing, the reel is an integral part of the casting process. In fly fishing the reel doesn’t play a role in casting, but it’s still an important piece of equipment. It needs to be sized and balanced correctly for the rod weight. A reel that is too large is heavy and awkward. A reel that is too small makes the rod tip feel heavy because there is no counterbalance. Manufacturers size their reels to certain line/rod weights, so be sure to get a reel that matches your rod.
A good trout reel can run from $50 up to $500. Lower-priced reels are cast: Molten aluminum is poured into molds to form the reel spool and reel housing. More expensive reels are machined or sculpted from blocks of aircraft-grade aluminum. Machined reels have much more exacting tolerances—each piece fits together more closely—and machined pieces are by nature made from harder, more durable aluminum and can withstand more abuse.
Good reels are anodized, an electrolytic process that hardens the reel surface by increasing the depth of the oxide layer on the surface of the aluminum alloy. Anodized reels are corrosion resistant, and more durable.
Arbor size. The arbor is the spindle or shaft at the center of the reel. Some reels are advertised as “large-arbor” reels but hopefully what the manufacturer means is that the reel circumference, width, and the arbor are all larger to help you pick up line faster while reeling, and to store the line in looser coils. If you merely increase the arbor size and leave the reel diameter and width the same, you don’t have a functional large-arbor reel, you merely have reduced the reel capacity.
Drag type. All reels have drag—the mechanical function that controls and slows the line as it comes off the reel. This prevents backlash—not just when you are dealing with a large, long-
running fish but also when you are pulling line off the reel by hand to prepare for casting. A smooth drag can also help protect fine tippets and small flies when you fight large trout. The simplest drag mechanism is click-and-pawl. It has been used in reels like the Hardy Perfect for more than 100 years and it still works well for most trout fishing.
Disk drags work more like the brakes on a car, where a pad rubs against a smooth surface to create friction. The surfaces can be metal, cork, Rulon, Teflon, carbon fiber, and several other types of materials. Disk drags are smoother than click-and-pawl devices, and can apply much more tension. They are required for saltwater fishing, or any fishing where the fish are strong and you need a mechanical advantage to wear the fish out. As a result, many trout fisherman also use a disk drag just in case they hook the big one.
Wading boots are as important to fly fishers as mountaineering boots are to climbers, and for good reason. If you slip and fall the fun is over, and in some cases your life could be in danger. Therefore, your primary concern with buying wading boots should be safety, stability, and fit/comfort.
Felt soles have been the fly-fishing industry standard for decades. Felt wears rapidly on rough dry rocks but holds up reasonably well in the water, and clings to even moss-covered rocks. The problem with felt soles is that they absorb and hold water and can therefore transport pathogens and nuisance species like didymo algae, whirling disease, and New Zealand mud snails. Because of these threats, responsible manufacturers have found an alternative—sticky rubber soles originally developed for rock climbing and sold in the fly fishing market under various brand names including Aquastealth and Vibram.
While the Fly Fisherman editorial staff has not had a chance to use the new Simms/Vibram rubber-soled boots, the other rubber soles we have tried do not perform as well under a variety of conditions as regular felt soles. In a gravel-bottom river like Alberta’s Bow or Montana’s Bighorn, the only difference you’ll notice is that rubber-soled boots are much cleaner when you get in and out of the boat, and when you throw your boots in the bag after a day of fishing. However, in difficult wading situations in deep, fast current, and when navigating round, moss- and algae-covered boulders, rubber soles do not “stick” as well as felt. In these situations, we recommend rubber soles with metal (tungsten) studs. Studded rubber soles perform as well or better than felt in any situation—except on the fiberglass floor of your guide’s new drift boat.
You can also add your own removable studs to rubber soles using a power drill and Simms Hard Bite Boot Studs ($14.95, 20 per package) which are ¼” hex-head screws with tungsten carbide pellets welded to the screw head. In a pinch, you can also use ¼” galvanized sheet metal screws. Fasten 8 to 12 screws to the contact areas on the boot soles and you are ready for action.
Besides river traction, other important factors to consider are comfort, support, and stability. In swift, rocky rivers you need a boot with a stiff sole and good ankle support. Falling down is only one of the dangers of wading—you can also easily twist your ankle, bash your toes, or bruise your foot bottoms if you have cheap, flimsy boots.
On a hot summer afternoon, there’s nothing better than wet wading in a pair of quick-dry shorts and wading boots. Unfortunately, the best fishing is often in the evening when the air cools, or in spring and fall when it can be cold all day. To make the most of your fishing day, you need to stay dry and comfortable, and that’s why a good pair of breathable waders are important.
Old-fashioned neoprene and rubber waders are bulky, heavy, and trap perspiration, leaving you wet and clammy at the end of the day or earlier. Breathable waders (Gore-Tex and other brand names) may be the most significant improvement to fly-fishing tackle in the last 15 years.
Breathable waders transport moisture from the inside of the wader to the exterior, even while standing in deep water. In fact, the movement of perspiration toward the outside of the wader is most efficient when you are standing in cool water because the temperature difference (warm on the inside, cool on the outside) is what makes the one-way membrane work.
Gore-Tex is one type of breathable fabric licensed by wader manufacturers such as Simms and Cloudveil. Patagonia, Orvis, and other wader manufacturers have their own breathable fabrics. Many companies use premium fabric and construction in their most expensive waders and sometimes use a completely different brand of fabric (with different construction methods) for more economical models.
With waders, you get what you pay for. Expensive waders should be more comfortable—they are tailored to fit more sizes, have articulated knees and left and right booties and, according to the manufacturers, the fabrics are more durable and more breathable, which should keep you drier and more comfortable.
Cheaper waders rarely fit as well (fewer size choices, fewer tailoring details) but if a standard medium fits you fine, and you rarely encounter rigorous fishing conditions—high heat; cold, wet weather; thorns and briars—then a value wader may be the best choice for you.
Good waders can cost from $100 to $700, so making a purchasing decision may be difficult. It’s hard to predict how long waders will last—a sharp stick, barbed wire, or thorns can end the life of any wader prematurely—so the “extras” that make the wader functional and comfortable become important. Things like built-in gravel guards, wader belts, fleece-lined hand-warmer pockets, pockets for tippet spools and other items, a comfortable shoulder strap, or a front zipper are all available options.
When it is hot in the summer, you may want a wader that easily folds down and converts to waist-high pants to keep you cool. Plan on doing any winter fishing? Be sure to size your waders appropriately for accommodating extra clothing layers such as quick-drying synthetic underwear and insulating shirts and jackets.
Vests and packs. In addition to a rod, reel, line, waders, and boots, you’ll need a vest or pack to carry your fly boxes, tippet spools, leaders, split-shot, strike indicators, fly floatant, dry shake, and many other accessories, not to mention your lunch, water, and other necessities.
Before deciding on a vest, hip-, or chestpack, decide how much you want to carry. If you prefer backcountry hiking and fishing, you might want something with a removable backpack to carry your boots and waders while you walk. If you are a match-the-hatch angler on an insect-rich river, you’ll need a pack that accommodates many boxes for all your different types of fly patterns. Some anglers can keep it simple: If you are rock-hopping a small mountain stream, and all you need are a few attractor drys and some beadhead nymphs, a small chestpack might be best (and it’s also much cooler). It may take some time to decide what’s right for your type of fishing.
Fly boxes. Flies are a big investment of money and—if you tie your own—time. You don’t want your fly collection to get wet if you wade too deeply or drop a box in the river. Most trout flies are tied on hooks that can rust, so a waterproof fly box is more than a good idea.
You also don’t want your dry flies to blow away in the wind—one of the main reasons old-fashioned compartmentalized fly boxes have fallen out of favor. Foam boxes keep your flies in place but hooks can destroy the foam. Slitted foam boxes keep the flies in place, organized in neat rows, and because you remove and insert the flies from the same slit, the foam does not deteriorate and require replacement.
Wading jackets. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good wading jacket made specifically for fly fishing. Often the best fishing is in the spring and fall when it is cool and wind, rain, and even snow can accompany your fishing. If you have no jacket, or don’t have the right jacket, weather can force you off the stream and cause you to miss some of the best fishing of the season. There have been dozens of times—in an Alaskan downpour (in a jet boat), drifting through a hailstorm on the Henry’s Fork, or steelheading in a Great Lakes blizzard—where my fishing companions have commented that their jacket may be their most important piece of fishing equipment. If you are too cold and wet to continue fishing, your rod brand becomes irrelevant.
Wading jackets are short so they don’t drag in the water when you wade deep. They have large pockets for fly boxes and convenient zippers so you can reach inside to your vest without unzipping the jacket. The hood should be adjustable so you can wear it over your baseball cap, and fleece-lined hand-warmers are a nice touch.
Get a jacket made of a breathable material, so moisture doesn’t build up inside when it’s cold out. As with waders, there are numerous breathable fabrics on the market, each with varying degrees of breathability and durability.
Your jacket should also have a durable water repellent (DWR) coating, a chemical treatment that causes water to bead and run quickly off the exterior of the jacket instead of soaking the outside of the jacket. When the exterior gets waterlogged, it can make you feel cold and wet, even though water isn’t actually penetrating the jacket membrane.