Fish Tales


A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing-by Joe Panfalone

What is it?

Some would say that it is a religion others would have you believe that it is a philosophy of life. In reality, it is just another way to fish! Admittedly, as you become more involved in fly fishing, you will experience a transformation in the way you view yourself with  your environment.

This most likely can be attributed to the fact to be successful at fly fishing, you will  need to take a more in depth look at the ecosystem of your “denizen of the deep”. As a student of nature, you soon come to recognize “the natural order of things” and for some of us, a spiritual awakening. Thus, fly fishing has become synonymous to a religion/philosophy.

Another element contributing to the ritualistic nature of fly fishing is the art of the “cast”. The rhythmic pendulous and the required disciplined timing, effect the same meditative energies purported by many of the Eastern doctrines. The seductiveness of the cast is so overwhelming that fly fishers will execute false cast after false cast, oblivious that the objective is to fish.

Despite its being addictive, I as many others, find fly fishing a rewarding and relaxing form of recreation. Fly fishers seem to share a supportive bond of brotherhood that transcends above all else. They are eager and willing to assist their fraternal brothers even though they may be complete strangers.

Once, when fishing in northern Michigan, I was frustrated at not being able to connect with any rises. A fly fisherman happened by and exchanged friendly nuances. I explained my situation and he informed me that they were taking #18 Blue Winged Olives, of which I had none. He opened his fly box, gave me several of his, and went on his way.

To site one more example, on one of our club’s trips a member became gravely ill. A doctor at the local hospital was on his way to vacation. When finding out Jerry was a fly fisherman, he put his vacation on hold, treated Jerry and stayed around to talk fly fishing. He also shared with the group his secret holes.

What is it not:

  • For trout only. Fly fishing has become synonymous to trout fishing and unjustifiably so. Fly fishers pursue just about ever species of fish, salt and freshwater, with a fly rod.

  • Difficult to learn. Casting a fly rod requires no more coordination that swinging a golf club, baseball bat, or tennis racquet. Watching many of us struggle with our casts only makes it appear that way.

  • Necessarily expensive. Like any other sport though, it can be. With discipline and prudence, one can get outfitted with a modest investment. The danger is succumbing to the temptation of all the gizmos, do-dads, and what’s-its, available to entice the fly fisher.

How to Get Started:

  • Read Read Read! There have been more books written  on fly fishing than all the other types of fishing combined. A wealth of knowledge resides on the shelves of your local library.

  • Search out other fly fishers. Find out if there is a fly fishing club in your area. These guys and gals will be more than eager to help you get started.

  • Visit a Fly Shop. They are staffed with people who are knowledgeable in the sport.  Department stores or a national sporting goods chains may not be able to provide that fly shops can. You are likely to be confronted with a clerk that doesn’t know a ferrule from a locking ring. Although, there is this cute…ahem, back to our subject at hand. Before we go on though, I would like to make a point about fly shops. These guys are small businessmen who may not always have the competitive price advantage the national chains have. You can be assured though, that they generally carry only first line quality products and that included in their price, is their expertise and personal assistance. This is an invaluable service that can only be sustained if you support them with your business.

How to select your equipment:

Fly Rods

Construction: In the beginning fly rods were made of bamboo strips glued together in the shape of a hexagon. Production was labor intensive and quality variable upon the craftsman and materials available . There is only one area of the world that produces the grade of bamboo suitable for rod building, China’s Guangdong Province. Understandably political conditions play an important role of  its availability for export.

The introduction of fiberglass quickly replaced bamboo. Production methods were more predictable, quality more uniform, and prices more affordable. Today though, only the very low end rods embody full fiberglass construction. Space age technology has enabled us to produce stronger and lighter rods by introducing graphite to their construction.

The quality of today’s graphite fly rod is unparalleled. Manufacturers have been able to produce just about any action imaginable. Prices range from $80 to several hundred dollars. It all depends on your tastes. The more discriminate you are, the deeper you will have to dig into your pockets.

Specifications: In fly fishing you cast the line not the lure. Fly lines come in sizes ranging from 1 to 15 with the smaller numbered lines being very small/lighter and the larger numbered lines being bigger/heavier. The heavier the line the bigger the fly it will cast. Therefore, fly rods are made to match a particular line weight.

  • Nine weights and above are for salt water and open water fishing where heavier lines are needed to make longer casts into the wind. They are also used for the “chuck & duck” style of fishing used by Michigan steel head and salmon fishers.

  • A 7/8 weight rod is best suited for larger wind resistant bass bugs.

  • A six weight is a good all around rod and the recommended choice for the beginner. It is capable of casting dry flies as well as weighted nymphs.

  • 4/5 weights  are considered  dry fly rods where gentle presentations and light tippets are the order of the day.

  • 3 weights and under are noodle rods for those up to the challenge. These are definitely not on the novices list of needed items.

Fly Line

  • The fly line must match the weight of the rod. Somewhere near the rod butt will be inscribed its weight.

  • Next you will decide which taper is best for your fishing conditions. Because of the manufacturers propensity to satisfy the fly fisherman’s every desire, there are an almost infinite selection of tapers and variations of the same taper. Do not be overwhelmed, just be aware that fly lines basically come in level, double, weight forward, and shooting tapers.These are described as follows.

Level lines are useless for fly fishing. Without any taper they cannot  transfer the energy  in a gradual succession. Don’t waste your money on a level line. Double taper lines typically have a tapering section 6 to 10 feet long on each end of the line with a level section (the belly) in between them. The long taper keeps the fly farther away from the heavier belly section and thus allows a delicate presentation. They are also the easiest to cast long roll casts. This would be the taper of choice for restrictive conditions requiring rolls casts and delicate presentations. A double tapered line can also be the most economical line because it has two usable ends. It is recommended that they be reversed on the reel several times a season to prevent the coiled end from taking a set and becoming unusable. The disadvantage to double tapered lines are that they are more difficult  to cast long distances and do not cast well against the wind. This taper would not be a choice for open water or wind resistant flies. Weight forward lines are by far the most popular lines and with good reason. The weight of a fly line is measured in the first 30 feet. Unlike the double tapers that gradually distribute this weight, the weight forward concentrate the weight more towards the end of the line. It then tapers down to a thin running line that allows easier long distance casts. The more forward the weight is placed, the more “shooting” power it has but at the expense of a delicate presentation.

Getting a distant roll cast with a weight forward line is difficult. Once the running line gets past the tip-top of the rod, there is not enough energy in the thin running line to turn over the fat belly section.. Shooting taper lines (also known as a shooting head) are short sections of fly line that are attached to a separate running line. They are specifically used for long distance casting and are anything but delicate. They are most often used when fishing for steelhead, salmon, and some saltwater species. Because they are so short, a number of different types and densities can be kept in a wallet or pocket and interchanged easily, as the particular fishing conditions require. Fly lines are either Floating or Sinking. which come in various densities. The more dense the line the faster its sink rate. This is important when fishing deeper waters.

Fly lines also come in a combination float/sink lines known as sinking-tips. The body of the line floats whereas the tip sinks. An alternative is to buy a floating line then attach a section of sinking tip. These lines require more skill to cast.


Other than it being awfully difficult getting the thick fly line through the small eye of the fly, you will need a terminal piece of line called a leader. This is a tapered piece of monofilament that gradually dissipates the energy from the fly line before it reaches the fly. Lengths and tippet size (last few inches of the leader) will vary depending on fly size and fishing conditions.

Lengths– common lengths are 7 1/2, 9, and 12 feet and taper down to a few thousandths of an inch. A general guideline is to select a leader at least the length of the rod. If the water is clear and the fish spooky add length. If it is windy or you are having casting problems, shorten it.

Tippet sizes are referred to by “X” designations ranging from 0X (largest) to 8X (smallest) and are expressed in units of .001 inches.  An easy way to calculate their correlation is to subtract the X number from 11 and multiply by .001″.

Example: find the diameter of 4X Solution:  (11-4)*.001 = .007″

Matching the tippet to the fly  A rule of thumb is to divide the fly size by three and four.

Example: What tippet size should you use for a #18 fly?

Solution: 18/4 = 4.5 (There is no 4.5X use next larger size which is 5X.)

18/3 = 6a

Therefore 5X or 6X tippet is recommended for a # 18 fly.

Knotted Leaders Whether for pleasure or if you have a propensity for perfection, you can tie up your own leaders. There are many tables with all sorts of formulas or you can develop one that meets your specific needs,


Reels are sold by the size of line and rod weight they are designed for. Are you beginning to notice the key word in fly fishing is balance? The rod , the line, and the reel all have to match. Any given model will state a weight range that it is suitable for (example: 2/3wt, 4/5 wt, or 7/8 wt).

Unlike other types of fishing, we don’t cast line off the fly reel and rarely, except for unusually strong fish or regular fish on extremely light tackle, will you play it from the reel. For the most part, the reel is used only to store the fly line while not fishing.

Line is “stripped out” from the reel and let to lie by your feet. Within several false casts it is taken up and becomes air borne. The line is then retrieved by holding it loosely against the handle of your rod with the fingers of the rod-hand while pulling the line back in through these fingers with your other hand.

To play a fish, line is allowed to slip through the fingers of the rod hand while maintaining a mentally calibrated grip with the other hand. The amount of grip you apply with the control hand serves as a “manual drag”.

If you catch a particularly large or strong fish, you may end up releasing all the loose line to where you are back “on the reel”. Then you will use the reel and its internal drag to fight the fish while reeling in the line.

When fishing for salmon, steelhead, or saltwater fish, the reel becomes an important entity. It is not unusual for any of these “freight trains” to strip off  all your fly line and couple hundred feet or more of  backing in just a few seconds!

Standard duty reels will literally fly apart or seize-up when subjected to such high rpm’s. Needless to say, a smooth, strong, disc drag is an imperative. Consider only a high quality reel designed for this type of heavy duty performance. Along with demanding precision drags, landing larger, more powerful fish requires more backing capacity in the reels. Generally they should hold at least 150 to 200+ yards of backing behind the fly line.

Tactile feedback is a big part of the enjoyment of fly fishing. Our choice of equipment weighs heavily on the way it feels. Much to the manufacture’s delight, aesthetics will usually overshadow utility. As long as you realize the difference between “want” and “need” you should be able to pick out a reel you like in the price range you’re comfortable with.

Wading Gear

Waders come in two lengths, hip-high or chest-high and you have a choice of boot foot or stocking foot. A wide selection of materials are also available ranging from the old style rubberized canvas, lightweight nylon, insulative Neoprene, and the new “breathable” Gore-Tex.

Both hippers and chest high come in boot foot and stocking foot style with either lug or felt bottom soles. Lug soles are OK for sand and mud bottoms. Moss covered and rocky bottoms though, require felt soles for safe negotiation. For additional traction, cleats can be added to the felt soles or corkers strapped to the bottom of the boot. These are removable cleated soles/chains that provide positive footing over snow, slippery stream beds, and ice.

Hip vs. Chest High

  • Hippers are fine for low water use. During normal flows though,   you will inevitably find yourself in water over your boot.

  • Hippers are less expensive and more compact for travel and storage. Although the lightweight nylon stocking foot chest-highs can be rolled up and stuffed into the shoe.

  • Hippers are a little easier to put on and take off and are cooler for summer wear. .

  • Chest- highs provide more protection from the wet as well as the cold elements. For cool weather fishing, they should be your only choice. The risk of hypothermia is real as most cases occur at temperatures well above freezing! During the summer months they can be rolled down to be worn as waist-highs

  • Neoprene chest-highs rolled to the waist can actually be cooler during the summer if kept wet.

Boot-foot vs. Stocking- foot

  • Boot-foot- the shoe is attached to the uppers

    • Easier to get on and off than the stocking foot

    • Less expensive than the stocking foot plus the cost of the shoe

    • Do not fit as well as a laced boot. Some will come with felt liners others will require you wear extra pairs of socks to fill out the boot.

    • The loose fitting boot does not provide ankle support and can cause blisters walking any significant distance.

    • Generally available only in men’s sizes. Only a few manufacturers   offer women’s and children’s’ sizes.

  • Stocking-foot

    • Shoe is separate and do not come with the waders. This makes the total cost a little higher.

    • They’re available in man-made simulated leather or Cordura Nylon. Cordura is lighter to wear and carry but takes longer to dry.

    • Better selection of sizes and styles.

    • Better fit provides better support, comfort, and safety.

    • When packing up from the river, the shoes which contain all the dirt can be packed separately in a plastic bag until you get back home or to the next stop. This helps in keeping your gear and vehicle clean.

    • Can wear just the shoes with shorts in warm weather to wade wet and still have the support and safety of felt soles.

    • Gravel and sand can work its way into the shoe causing wear to the foot of the wader. A set of gravel cuffs will minimize the problem.

Wading Staff –whether you make one out of a mop handle or buy a pricey collapsible model, it makes good sense to carry one with you.

  • The collapsible types are kept in a holster by your side until needed.

    • Fairly expensive – $60 – $90

    • Sometimes when you sense that you are loosing your footing, there is not time to un-holster and unfold.

    • If you wade with it unfolded, except for compact storage, it has little advantage over a one piece staff

  • On piece staffs are attached to the back of your vest on a zinger ready for immediate use.

    • Less expensive $0 to $30

    • One piece construction provides a little better weight to strength ratio.

    • My favorite is a bamboo cross country ski pole.

Fishing Vest – the boon and bane of every fly fisherman.

It’s your tackle box on your back and the tendency is to carry with you everything under the sun. After several hours your shoulders ache under the burden of all the weight. I weighed my vest…9 lbs. 2oz! So I decided to remove all the unnecessary junk. Final weight…8lbs! Hey, I need that stuff!

  • The most important feature to look for in a vest is the collar. Look for one that distributes the weight to the shoulders and is padded to prevent chaffing.

  • Vests are offered in two lengths – standard and the “shorty” which sets higher above the waist line to keep it out and above the water level.

  • They all have pockets in number and configurations. Which manufacture to go with is a mater of personal choice.

Floatation Devices – that are CO2 cartridge activated. Not a bad idea for additional safety. These are available as:

  1. Wader suspenders. In the case of an emergency you simply pull the rip cord and they inflate.

  2. Harness. Some can be worn with a vest and others have a couple of pockets of their own in lieu of a vest.

  3. There are a few fishing vests with CO2 floatation devices built in them.

Wading Belts this is a belt worn over chest high waders to prevent water from getting in should you take a spill.

Miscellaneous Equipment

  • Forceps – these are very handy for extracting hooks.

  • Fly Boxes – select one that is compact and fits well into a pocket of your vest. The ones with coil clips or ripple foam hold the fly upright and prevents crushing the feathers.

  • Hat – one with a broad bill all around its circumference will provide the most protection. It will help prevent your ears and neck from getting sunburnt. It will shed off rain and most imprtantly it will protect you from the hooks of misguided flies.

  • Rain Gear – again you have and endless selection to choose from. If go with a pant/jacket outfit, select one that is ventilated. Without ventilation you may be dry from the rain but you will be wet with perpireation. I carry an inexpensive poncho in my vest for those unexpected downpours.

  • Leader Wallet – to carry extra leaders.

  • Spools of tippet material – as you change flies the tippet section of your leader gets shorter. Eventually it has to be replaced. Also if conditions require you use a smaller fly, you can add a smaller section of tippet.

  • Spare set of keys – if you should accidentally lose your keys or lock yourself out of your car, you will be glad you had a spare!

One thought on “Fish Tales

  1. Might I add…try several different fly shops in the areas you fish. Find the ones that are willing to offer help and advice. Not all are so forthcoming.

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