Fly Fishing Tackle Checklist
May 19, 2014
Fly fishing is a beautiful, deeply involved outdoor pursuit built on a framework of craft (fly tying), science (understanding, appreciating, and participating in aquatic environments), adventure, skill, and of course like other sports, we love the fly fishing tackle and the toys that come with it.
The best advice I can give anyone who is starting at square one is to find a local specialty fly shop, explain your situation, your budget limitations, and explicitly ask for help. If there's no specialty shop near you, you'll need to shop online to get the tackle you need. Here's a few tips to help with your purchasing decisions.
Boots. Some people will debate this issue with me, but my advice is to avoid felt soles. The material is not durable, and will not last the life of the boots. And while felt provides excellent traction on smooth, mossy river rocks, it has lousy traction hiking to and from the river, on snow, wet, grassy riverbanks, and mud and clay river bottoms. Felt is also difficult to clean and travel with, and can also carry aquatic nuisances in the wet material.
Get boots with rubber soles, and add aluminum or tungsten carbide studs for extra traction. My favorite boot bottoms are Patagonia's Aluminum Bar Boots, or Simms Rivertek Boa Boots with Hardbite or Alumibite Star Cleats. Tungsten carbide is hard and sometimes "skates" on clean, hard river rocks, but it does a good job of getting through moss and thick slime in fertile rivers. Aluminum sticks best on clean boulders that are annually scoured by ice and floods.
It's fine to buy a modestly priced rod if you're just learning to cast. You likely can't tell the difference between a good rod and a great rod, and the best rod won't help (nor harm) your casting until you become proficient.
When you become proficient at casting, you can upgrade—and by that time you'll have your own preferences about what brands and what weight of rods you'll want for your local waters. For most people your first rod should be a 9-foot 5-weight because that's the best all-around size for trout and panfish, it's light enough that it won't wear you out, and heavy enough that you can feel the rod loading while you try to perfect your timing.
Truthfully there are very few "bad" rods out there, but once you develop your casting skills you'll have your own ideas about what feels right to you. A fly rod is a bit like a musical instrument. When you first learn to play the guitar you don't need anything special, but once you master the basics, you might develop an affinity for the sound of a Gibson Les Paul over, say, a Flying V.
You also might want to forgo a traditional fly-fishing rod and reel combination and instead start with a tenkara rod, which is a traditional Japanese form of fly fishing that uses a fixed length of level line tied directly to the rod tip. It simplifies fly fishing because you don't have to manipulate the line with your hands—you move the line, and sometimes the fly, all by moving the rod tip.
All tenkara rods are telescoping, but the new Tenkara USA Sato has a "triple zoom" that allows you to use the rod at three different lengths. Use it in short mode when the stream is closely shrouded in trees and brush. Stretch it to its full length when you are on bigger water, and you have more room for your backcast.
A great fly line can make a difference in your casting right from the beginning. Here's how important it is (proportionately): If you have a budget of $150 to buy your first rod, reel, and line, I'd say spend $80 on your fly line, and the rest of the cash on the rod and reel. It's that important.
Look for a fly line with a lot of weight up front to help you load the rod deeply even at short distances.
Also, get a two-tone line that gives you a visual clue to where the head of the line (the thick part) ends, and the thin running line begins. The RIO Grand and the SharkWave GPX from Scientific Anglers both are extra heavy and clearly marked to show you where to pick up and load the rod.
The longer you fly fish, the more fly lines you'll accumulate. You'll buy floating lines, sinking lines, and lines for specific species, and of course different lines for different rod weights.
Some people use spare spools to store different fly lines, but I don't recommend this strategy unless you are a super-organized, type-A personality. A spare reel takes up about as much space as a spare spool, and if you're trying to save money, just get a modestly priced reel like the Orvis Clearwater Large Arbor ($80, orvis.com).
My problem with spare spools is that when I want to switch from a floating line to a sinking line (for instance) I usually want to keep the floating line rigged up on a rod because I know I'll use it later in the day. Multiple rods and multiple reels is far more practical than switching spools all day.
Don't Internet-order your waders. If you must order online, take careful measurements and pay attention to the manufacturer's sizing charts. The "best" waders are the ones that properly fit you, so it's best to try several pairs before you buy.
Tight waders restrict your movement and are uncomfortable. Loose waders with a baggy crotch and "elephant knees" will chafe and leak prematurely. You'll find that waders with a precise and comfortable fit will keep you dry much longer.
More important than the waders is what you wear under them. Even with breathable waders you'll feel clammy and uncomfortable if you wear jeans or anything cotton underneath.
For cold weather get a thick pair of synthetic fleece pants, for hot weather wear thin synthetic long underwear to wick moisture away from your skin and prevent chafing. Redington's SonicDry Fly Waders have a special lining on the inside called 37.5 that works with your synthetic layers to draw moisture away from your body and toward the exterior of the breathable membrane.
Buying tackle is a subjective topic. For example, there is no "best" fly rod that everyone agrees on, or there would only be one rod company. Here are some consumer tips to help you avoid common pitfalls, and get you started looking in the right directions.
– Nippers. Your dentist tells you never to bite your fishing line, but most nippers are worthless, and you constantly lose them. Abel Nippers are machined aluminum with sharp replaceable blades. Get the lanyard that goes with it and you'll never misplace your nippers again.
– Wading staff. If you fish in rivers, you need a staff. The problem with most retractable staffs is that they are a nuisance to set up and take down. The Black Diamond Z-Pole wading staff deploys quickly with an internal silicone cord, and is easy to pack away.
– Tippet. Don't mix and match brands. Get spools of everything you need in the same brand from 0X to 6X so the spools stack together into one easy-to-use canister. If you are a beginner, don't let a store clerk talk you into buying fluorocarbon. It's three times more expensive than what you need right now, and knots are easier to tie with nylon monofilament.
– Sunglasses. Those of us with faulty eyesight don't have the option of buying good polarized fishing sunglasses from a fly shop, and your local eye doctor doesn't have good fishing glasses with the right vented frames, coatings, and tints for fishing. SportRX carries all the top brands of fishing glasses (Smith Optics, Oakley, Maui Jim, Hobie) and can put your prescription and the right frames together for you. Amber or copper tints are best for fresh water. Gray lenses are the worst color for almost any fishing situation.
– Net. For the sake of the trout, get a net with a soft rubber mesh pocket. Old-school cotton or nylon nets scour protective slime from fish, and may harm or kill the trout you are trying to release.
– Sun protection. I work with many fishing guides, and the over-50 guides sometimes look like they are over 70. Don't end up like those guys. Skin cancer is a very real possibility, and a best-case scenario long-term is blotches, spots, and premature wrinkles. Use a pull-up neck tube and a hat to cover your neck, ears, and as much of your face as possible. UV Buffs eliminate 95% of UV rays and come in dozens of cool designs.
– Vests. There was a time when everyone wore a vest. Now you'll see about 50 percent of fly fishers wearing vests, and everyone else with alternatives like chest, sling, or lumbar packs. If you are considering a vest, there's a modern version from L.L. Bean called the Kennebec Boundary Chest Pack that has vacuum-molded pockets for your boxes, Boa-adjustable straps for exacting comfort, and a built-in tippet management system.
– Jackets. You'll soon discover that bluebird, warm summer days are a great time to go fishing, but not the best days to catch fish. Good outerwear keeps you fishing in cool, rainy weather when trout and steelhead fishing is often best. A specialized wading jacket has deep pockets for fly boxes, watertight cuffs, and a hood you can wear over a baseball cap.