One of the many advantages of fly fishing is its potential for minimalism. While some fisheries require more gear than others, most anglers can get by with limited accessories and gadgets. The content of this next installment of Fly Fishing 101 may seem obvious to many anglers, but its purpose is to act as a packing list for those who are new to the sport.
I certainly could have used such a list on one of my first outings. I was salmon fishing and had forgotten to pack leader material. Out of necessity, I climbed over rocks and picked through root balls hoping to find some discarded line. All I found were weakened bits of monofilament, so I ended up having to completely bag the trip.
A lot of aspiring fly anglers are intimidated by guide’s fly boxes and fly shop pegboard walls. They assume they’ll need dozens of patterns and just as many gizmos to be successful on the water. Truthfully, most fisheries can be approached confidently with only one or two patterns, and all the dangling doohickeys mostly just get in the way. Every angler has their own thoughts about what works best for them, but here are some items you will need out on the water.
Often called nippers or line cutters, these handy tools range from .99 cents to $99 and beyond. Personally, I can think of $98-worth of other things I’d rather buy with that money, so I’m a dollar-store nail-clipper kind of gal. That said, there are countless clippers on the market, each of them with unique selling features.
If you’re fishing in saltwater, metal accessories corrode in no time, so it can be advantageous to purchase quality clippers. There are also clippers with rubber grips to avoid slippage, a built-in needle to clear dried glue out of fly eyes (note, these can bring a tear to the eye when you accidentally prick yourself), and clippers that have a handy, built-in nail knot tool. Some anglers bypass clippers altogether, instead using the wire cutters on their pliers. Apart from clipping, the most important thing about a pair of clippers is its durability. So, if you’re one of those anglers who loses items without trying, it might not be worth investing in an expensive pair. Most fly shops keep a jar of clippers for under $5 next to the register.
Pliers are a necessity for many anglers—especially those of us who live in places where barbed hooks are illegal. When I’m steelhead fishing in BC, not having the ability to pinch barbs is enough to send me home. In fact, I’ve been in that exact situation—seriously considering using my teeth to try and crunch down a 1/0 barb (FYI, it doesn’t work).
Plus, pliers can come in handy for countless tasks. I’ve used mine to repair reels, aid in hook removal, cinch wire leaders, even to make kindling. They’re my go-to for cutting leaders of all diameters and materials. Again, you can purchase cheap pliers, but they’ll mostly just result in frustration when using them in the salt or over a long time. I personally prefer to have a pair of quality pliers on my hip. They can be purchased in a sheath with a belt loop for convenience, then affixed so they aren’t lost at sea.
Fishing hemostats, or forceps, are lighter versions of pliers. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but their role is the same—to help pinch barbs and remove small hooks from fish mouths. Again, these come with various built-in features, at a cost. They are more lightweight and precise than pliers, yet don’t necessarily have the same pinching power. Long, slender working ends are great for taking out a swallowed or deeply embedded hook, and they won’t tear up a fly in the same way as heavy-duty pliers.
Many hemostats and forceps will lock clamped shut, making them easy to pinch onto shirts and bags for easy access.
Whether you use tapered leaders or prefer to build your own, you’ll still need to carry some sort of tippet to attach your fly. Some anglers prefer to carry an assortment of spools in their packs or around their necks, while others prefer the more travel-friendly approach of pre-tied leaders and only one or two spools of tippet. Spools of line can quickly become tangled or bulky, so it pays to be organized before leaving the house. There’s nothing quite as annoying as having unnecessary gear in your way while hurrying to rig up. There are additional accessories available to help with this. More on those later.
Shades protect your eyes from the sun, hooks and wind. Polarized glasses help cut through glare on the water, which makes wading and sight fishing infinitely easier. Lenses are available in an assortment of colours for certain scenarios, but any fishing-specific glass will get you rolling. When it comes to safety, however, any lens will suffice. I have friends who wear clear safety goggles just to ensure they have some sort of eye protection from flying hooks.
The flies you need obviously depend on your fishery. They come as small as midge fly larvae to as large as squirrels and baby ducks. Some flies are tied directly onto hooks, whereas others are tied onto tubes which can then be fitted to a bare hook. Many anglers make the mistake of spending more time changing flies than actually fishing them, so having too many options can prove distracting.
If you’re fishing for trout, it’s nice to have a variety of flies to match certain hatches. The experience will teach you which insects are likely to be hatching at certain times of the year, making it easier to organize a single fly box before heading out. Anadromous fisheries for steelhead and salmon tend to not be quite as specific. Truthfully, I usually just grab a handful of tube flies in various colours and throw them into a ziplock bag with a pack of stinger hooks. Read this article on tube flies for more information on this method. Saltwater and stillwater fishing is usually done from a boat, so storage typically isn’t as much of an issue.
The fly box you choose makes a substantial difference in the amount of bulk you’re carrying. As I mentioned above, I like to stow larger flies in a ziplock bag that can be easily stored in my wader pocket. Occasionally I’ll even reuse plastic straws by stuffing them with fluffy marabou flies. This is a great way to stow large flies without any tangles or lost feathers. There are countless slender fly boxes on the market today that will fit in your front pocket.
Slings, Hip Packs and Vests
Gone are the days of tan vests with more pockets than a crooked accountant. Fishing manufacturers sell an assortment of slings and hip packs that are convenient and comfortable. Some anglers require more storage than others, so some packs have built-in water bottle holders and deep pouches for a sandwich and snacks.
But not everyone needs the space. Hell, I just stuff my flies, pliers, flask and leader into the pocket on my waders and cinch my wading belt tight. You’ll figure out what works best for you.
Even though fishing licenses can be purchased online, many permits aren’t considered legal until they’re signed. Depending on your local fishery and the mood of the officer who checks you, you’ll want to have your license printed and signed. Be sure to pack it in a waterproof pouch in the event of rain or unplanned dips.
The Bells and Whistles
Retractors are a great way to make your accessories accessible, and an even better way to lessen your chances of losing them—namely to the bottom of the lake. They can be attached to packs, belt loops, wader straps or wherever you fancy.
Nothing says trout fisherman like a loaded lanyard. A lanyard allows you to hang tools from your neck, providing quick and easy access. Some anglers swear by them, others find them about as annoying as costume jewelry on a morning jog. My suggestion is to try one out but have a backup handy in the event you feel like throwing your lanyard into the water.
Flies are broadly divided into two categories: wet and dry. Obviously, all of them get should get a little wet at some point, but the distinction is that wet flies are designed to fish under the water surface, while dry flies float on top of it. But, it’s inevitable that dry flies will get bogged down with water, which can make them sink when they’re not supposed to. There are various ways to dry out your flies, but floatant helps to prevent waterlogging in the first place and solve it when it does happen. They come in gel, liquid and powder forms.
While somewhat outdated, the fly patch lets anglers dry out their flies before putting them back into their designated boxes, where they might rust. These patches can go on your shirt, pack, or even your hat. I use my truck visor as an alternative. When fishing, patches allow you to leave a selection of flies out and easily accessible.
Tromping around the woods with a net is anything but fun. However, a net is one of those tools you’ll want to kiss when it helps land you that fish of a lifetime. It’s important to note that nets also help land fish faster and with less harmful, human handling. Trout and bass nets are undoubtedly easier to carry than steelhead nets and some are built with magnets and other mechanisms that help make transport easier.
There are some anglers who feel this should be at the top of every serious fishing pack list. Flies get wet then rust, or snag on rocks, all of which dull the hook point, making it hard to make it stick in a fish’s mouth. Many of the hooks on the market today are chemically sharpened, which may be one of the reasons fewer anglers are carrying sharpeners with them to the river. But any hook can be rejuvenated up with a little touch up from a cheap hook file to make it much more effective.
It’s easy to get lost in the oversized pegboard of fly fishing “necessities.” Factor in the recent boom of beautifully anodized tools and you could get lost in a wave of SKUs and shiny new toys. My advice is to start as simply as possible with only the bare essentials. Add on gadgets as necessary. Part of the beauty of fly fishing is that it’s supposed to let you feel closer to the fish, which can be difficult when you’re battling through the clutter that doesn’t need to be there.
Feature image via Bryan Gregson.