Your rod, reel, and line are important, but putting it all together and making it work effectively is a major obstacle to many new fly fishers.
If you want to get started quickly, consider purchasing one of the many complete starter kits available at local fly shops such as a Cortland 444+ Outfit, Scientific Anglers Trout Fly Fishing Kit, Orvis Fly Fishing Outfit, or similar. This is an easy way to get started, but a packaged outfit won't help you learn to do it yourself the next time around or to replace one of the components in your system.
The best way to get started is to do it yourself using the instructions here. In addition to your rod, reel, and fly line, you will need fly line backing, a knotless tapered leader, spools of tippet material and, of course, your flies.
Backing. Most fly lines are 90 to 110 feet long. What happens if you hook a very large fish that runs, unstopped, 150 feet downstream? If your system is set up correctly, the rear of the fly line exits the rod tip but is attached to the fly line backing, which is a thin thread of Dacron or gel-spun polyethylene.
Backing keeps you connected to long-running fish, but more importantly, it fills the bottom of the reel arbor. Your reel is designed to hold a fly line plus a certain amount of backing. (Usually 100 to 150 yards of 20- or 30-pound-test Dacron for most trout reels, and more than 250 yards of backing on large saltwater reels used for tarpon, billfish, or other large fish.)
Even if you don't plan on catching anything larger than panfish, you must fill the reel arbor with the appropriate amount of backing. Otherwise your fly line will be coiled too tightly around the narrow spindle, and will be difficult to straighten and use effectively.
Many reels have a mark on the inside of the spool frame to indicate how far to fill your reel with backing. If not, fill it to about one-third to one-half full.
It's a good idea to buy your backing and fly line at a specialty fly shop, not only because the employees there can advise you on the best line for your local conditions, but because they have a line winder that spools exactly the right amount of line onto your reel effectively and quickly.
Winding backing onto a reel is time-consuming (150 yards at one inch per crank), and the backing must be wound tightly and evenly, i.e. back and forth across the width of the reel arbor. If you wind loose coils of backing near the base of the arbor, then wind tighter layers on top (such as when you land a large fish, or merely when you complete the job of winding the backing onto the reel) then the tight coils bury themselves under the loose coils, creating a snarl that jams your reel. Wind your backing onto the reel properly to avoid problems later.
If you can't have a fly shop put backing on your reel, you can do it yourself with a little time and patience. First, it's easiest to wind the backing if the reel is attached to the rod butt, so attach your empty reel to the rod in the position you intend to crank. If you cast with your right hand, you should crank counterclockwise with your left hand, so lock your reel onto the reel seat with the reel handle facing to the left.
[Some saltwater experts recommend switching hands after a fish is hooked, and cranking the reel with the dominant hand. This may be important for large saltwater fish because your "weak" hand can tire from reeling quicker than your strong hand. However, for most trout, this is not an issue. Whatever you choose — left- or right-hand retrieve — do what feels most comfortable. There is no wrong way here. The Editor.]
Take the end of the fly line backing from the product spool, thread it through the rod's stripping guide, through the reel line guard, around the spool arbor, and back out through the line guard. Use the tag end to tie a Duncan loop knot around the standing portion of the backing and then slide the knot tightly against the reel arbor.
To ensure that you wind the backing under tension, have someone run a pencil through the backing product spool and hold the ends of the pencil so the spool turns freely. Between the product spool and the reel, the backing should pass between the pages of a phone book or other object to create tension.
We recommend running the backing through a folded towel. Then you can step on the towel to create the tension you need to wind the backing tightly. As you crank the reel to wind the backing, move the backing back and forth across the width of the spool so it winds evenly and does not pile up on one side of the spool or the other.
Attaching the fly line. Most fly lines today come with a welded loop at the front and back. To attach the fly line to your backing, tie a double or triple overhand loop knot in the end of the backing. Make sure the loop is large enough to pass the fly-line product spool through it.
To connect the two loops, pass the large backing loop through the small loop in the fly line end and then pass the whole fly line spool through the backing loop to create a loop-to-loop connection. Make sure your loop-to-loop connection is seated correctly. The loops should lock together like a reef knot (square knot); otherwise the connection is bulky and won't easily pass through the rod guides.
If you have an older or value-priced fly line, you may not have a welded loop at the end and you'll need to tie a tube nail knot (see illustration, page 25) to connect the fly line to the backing. The nail knot is strong enough to hold most freshwater fish, but you may want to coat the knot with Dave's Flexament or Softex to keep the junction smooth.
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Attaching the leader. Once your line-to-backing connection is complete, the next step is attaching the tip of your fly line to the leader — typically 7 to 12 feet of tapered monofilament, which eventually joins your tippet and fly.
Premium fly lines have a loop on the end, and most knotless tapered leaders also have a loop, making it easy to connect the two. Pass the loop in the leader butt through the fly line tip loop, then pass the leader tip through the leader loop. It's also important here to seat the loops correctly so they form a compact square knot.
If your line has no loops, there are options. You can use thread and bobbin to whip your own permanent loop onto the fly line end. This way, you'll have a loop every time you want to attach a new leader. For details on whipping a loop into your fly line, search for Ed Russell's article "Lots of Loops" at flyfisherman.com. You can also buy braided nylon slip-on loops at your local fly shop that are strong, easy to attach, and come with complete instructions.
Other options to attach the leader to your fly line include Dave Whitlock's Zap-A-Gap connection (also on flyfisherman.com) or a needle knot. The simplest, fastest method, however, is a tube nail knot. You can do this easily onstream, and we've never lost a fish with a properly tied nail knot. With a speed nail knot, you don't even need a tube. The downside of a nail knot is that you must tie a new knot every time you change your leader.
Attaching the tippet. The tippet is the last piece of monofilament you attach to your fly line. Unlike a monofilament leader, which is tapered, tippet material has a uniform diameter. Monofilament means literally a "single filament." This filament is commonly extruded from two types of material nylon or fluorocarbon. Of course, each brand has slightly different manufacturing processes and additives, which leads to slightly different qualities from brand to brand. Nylon monofilament is generally more limp, which means it is easier to knot, and supple material allows your fly to move more freely in the water and achieve a better dead-drift. Fluorocarbon is stiffer, and more resistant to abrasion. It is also much more expensive. Its main selling point is that its light refraction index is close to that of water, which means light passes through it at much the same angle, making it less visible than nylon monofilament. This "invisible line" is seen as an advantage by many anglers, especially in situations where the water is clear and the fish have sharp eyesight.
Your tippet should be the same diameter or a thinner diameter than the terminal end of your knotless leader. The tippet serves two purposes Every time you change your fly you lose a bit of monofilament in the process. If you tie your fly directly to the leader, you will have to frequently replace your leader because as you switch flies, it becomes too short. By attaching a 2-foot tippet section, you are constantly decreasing only the length of the addition, not the leader itself. Second, a level-diameter tippet section — especially a fine, thin 4X, 5X, or 6X tippet — is extremely limp and doesn't turn over and land straight like your leader. It therefore adds slack into your system, allowing you to make drag-free presentations to picky trout. (See page 52 for more details on drag-free drifts and other presentations.)
Use a blood knot or double surgeon's knot to connect two pieces of monofilament. There's no need to learn both since they both serve the same purpose and both are strong. Some people find the double surgeon's knot a little easier to tie. The blood knot is more streamlined and may be less likely to pick up stream weeds and other debris.
A leader is the tapered monofilament that connects the fly line to the fly. All good leaders are tapered thick near the butt that connects to the fly line, and thin near the tip where it connects to the tippet or the fly itself.
Knotless tapered leaders are extruded from a machine as a single piece of monofilament. They are available at your local fly shop and most often come in lengths from 7 to 12 feet.
Hand-tied knotted leaders are constructed from several pieces of monofilament, each piece a different diameter and tied to the next piece with a blood knot. When all the pieces are tied together, you still get a tapered leader with a thick butt section and thin tip — but the "steps" are not as gradual.
The advantage of a knotted leader is that you can build your own to meet specific situations. If you are competent enough, you can also modify your leader onstream to meet changing conditions.
In addition to modifying the diameter, you can also use different materials to create leaders with hard butts and soft tippets and with a variety of stiffness, diameter/strength, and abrasion characteristics to fit every need.
If you are just getting started trout fishing, you probably need a few 9-foot knotless tapered leaders to suit your local conditions. When you are fishing small flies on flat water for trout or panfish, the leader tip must be relatively thin for soft presentation of the fly, and to allow drag-free drifts, so get leaders tapered down to 4X or 5X. If you are casting a weighted Woolly Bugger in the riffles you need a shorter (7-foot or less) stouter leader that can turn over a large fly and stand up to the pressure of striking an unseen charging fish.
The general rules are The smaller the fly, the smaller the leader diameter (tippet end). The larger the fly, the larger the leader diameter. Also, smaller flies, flat water, and spookier fish require longer and thinner leaders. Some spring-creek trout are so finicky that you may have to go as light as 7X or even 8X.