Fly Fishing For Beginners

David PenningtonJune 11, 2018

Fly Fishing For Beginners

Consider this the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fly Fishing.

The quickest way to get started with fly fishing is first to embrace the idiocy of it all. You are, after all, a fully developed human being capable of embracing consciousness and solving all of the world’s weightiest problems. And here you are, trying to fool a fish into eating a synthetic bug on a string.

There are no smart people in fly fishing. Instead, there are intelligent people who put on ridiculous pants and a vest and stand in the path of running water waving a stick around. Fly fishing is not how a smart person procures a trout dinner or spends an afternoon on a river. Yet the promise of a bucolic morning on the river drives even the wisest of us to a state of idiocy.

Starting down this path is the easiest part. As you stare at the wall of fiberglass rods or the table of pre-tied flies, repeat to yourself: “Only an idiot would do this.” Repeat it five times. Now you are ready to begin.

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Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Even the wisest and most accomplished of fly fishermen are best to admit they know nothing. When starting any day of fishing, it is best to keep a zen mind, a beginners mind, an empty mind. Keep it utterly blank and vapid and you will find yourself fitting right in with everyone else on the river.

You may learn something before the day is over, and it is best to keep it to yourself. The moment you become the know-it-all, the population of people accepting your invitations to go fishing dwindles to the brother-in-law you speak to once a year. Those who admit they are “the best” at fly fishing are usually lonely and standing in a bad stretch of water.

Find the Fly Shop

They may be tucked into a shopping center, adjacent to a remote gas station, or the extra room off the back of a local’s house. In most cases, they are two taps away from being a full-blown public house.

Just about every mountain town has at least one of them and they are usually open in the mornings and staffed by people who would rather be anywhere else. Yet, they are happy enough to help you find the fly that is currently being fed on and sell you a dozen of them when three will do just fine. They will share with you places to access the water (but they will never share where they go).

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Get Knotty With It

It is best to practice the knots on a string you can see—typically nothing smaller than a shoelace—indoors, under good light with the air conditioner set to low. Be comfortable with it.

Practice the blood knot and the fisherman’s knot and anything else you can find off a Google search or can remember your grandfather trying to teach you as a child. Work on those knots until you know them backward and forward. Then do them on progressively smaller gauges of string until you’re working with the tippet (the lightweight portion of material you attach on one end to the end of the leader and on the other end to the fly) and the leader (the main clear material that is connected to the end of your fly line).

Once these knots become second nature, cover your hands with sunscreen and bug spray and let them dry. Blindfold yourself and stand in a lukewarm shower to simulate the environment you will likely be tying these in.

For added practice, give your line to a small child who has just been woken too early from their nap. Now, pick up the child in one arm and untangle the mess they have just made in your line while imagining a beautiful, six-pound trout swimming past.


No one will admit this—you will not admit this—but half of the enthusiasm behind modern fly fishing is the gear. While it may not be necessary to have a fancy sling-style pack to hold all of your equipment, it is respectable to have a proper fishing vest. Something with a dozen and four pockets to lose everything in. Within the pockets are your extra leader and tippet, buckshot (for weight, in case the day turns breezy), strike indicators, a pair of hemostats, pliers and snips. One pocket should be used for some sort of refreshment, another for a sandwich. Even with the odds and ends in your pockets, you will inevitably forget to bring the sunscreen.

Get the License

Without the local fishing license, the local game warden has reason to confiscate your gear and resell it at the annual garage sale. Pay for the permit and adhere to the rules, both written and otherwise, to keep the morale high and your gear on hand. For as impractical as fly fishing is, standing in a river without attempting to snare a fish is a question of sanity.

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Parting Thoughts

The well-known secret to the art of fly fishing is how most of us are to catch fish. We are not here to catch anything. Rather, fishing is about letting something go.

Perhaps it is the hours of sitting in traffic or the fussy children or the endless department meetings or the frustration of the significant other. The fish is the lark, the distraction. If the goal was to eat a fish, there are a hundred other more practical means. The fish is the ruse behind the ever-growing collection of gear and processes that get easier and more complicated with each season. The ploy is what tends to keep the rivers empty.

Pro Tips

While anyone can recommend a few prime fly fishing spots, it’s always best to go on down to your local fly shop and talk to the guy behind the counter. That said, here are just a few of our favorite fly fishing locales:

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Arkansas River

After a massive renovation effort, the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colorado is running cleaner and colder than it has in decades. Word hasn’t quite gotten out about this just yet, so book a spot on the water now. The river flows through the high country through all sorts of little towns that already know your story: Buena Vista, Salida, and Cotopaxi, to name a few.

Glenwood Canyon

Further north and west of the Arkansas River area, on the other side of the mountains, Glenwood Springs, Colorado is an outdoor lover’s hub offering access to fantastic mountain streams. The town itself is situated on the Colorado River, but a quick drive gets you knee deep in the Eagle River and the Frying Pan.

Bozeman, Montana

Big Sky doesn’t necessarily have to mean big flies. Camping out in Bozeman, Montana sets you up near access to the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Henry’s Fork, and Gallatin rivers—all within a day’s drive of one another.

Mio and Grayling, Michigan

To little surprise, a state surrounded on three sides by freshwater makes for some exceptional fishing. The Au Sable River near Mio, Michigan is the stuff of legends and flows through Grayling, making for a stop at the Mio Dam Pond (it is a big pond), this stretch of water has numerous access points and is home to some consistently stellar fishing.

Bend, Oregon

The Deschutes is unmistakable and offers a great mix of trout and salmon. The Pacific Northwest provides the mood, and the town of Bend, Oregon offers a stellar collection of craft beer that may or may not help you catch more fish.

Russian River

If trout, somehow, gets boring for you, try getting some steelhead. At the very least it will put you in the misty mountains north of Santa Rosa, California where the Russian River winds about.

What are you waiting for? If you’re ready to drop the sport of fly fishing a line, you can find your perfect RV camping companion on Outdoorsy.

David Pennington, Outdoorsy Author

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