What is fly fishing? With its recent surge in popularity, a lot of folks are asking this question.
While most any conventional angler likely knows someone who fly fishes, or has at least seen folks fly casting before, there’s not a lot of clear-cut discussion on just what exactly fly fishing is, or why it’s so beloved.
Today, we’ll look at what separates it from other forms of fishing, and go into a few reasons why I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life primarily fishing with this method.
What’s the difference?
Fly fishing differs from conventional (spin and baitcasting) angling in one major way. Where conventional angling uses the weight of the lure and a stiff rod to make a cast, fly fishing uses a weighted line and a flexible rod to deliver lures – collectively called flies – to fish.
That’s the major delineation between the two angling styles. Both conventional and fly fishing use lures that either imitate real food sources (the San Juan worm fly in fly fishing and Gulp Minnows for conventional fishing) or work to trigger a predatory response from fish (spinners in conventional and streamers in fly). Both methods require attention to detail, mastery of a unique skill set, and knowledge of fish, their behavior, and their environment.
The elephant in the room
Now, I want to address something else before we get much further. For years, fly fishing was trumpeted as some sort of superior angling method. Only the refined, sophisticated anglers were smart or accomplished enough to fly fish. It was a rich man’s sport that had little room for newbies.
Over the past decade, that attitude has made a major shift. Some folks still cling to the outdated ideas about fly fishing, but it’s much easier to get into fly fishing now than ever before.
Fly fishing isn’t inherently better than conventional fishing. Those who choose to use bait while fishing aren’t “uncultured” or “not good enough to fly fish.”
Rather, folks who want to use bait or troll lures have found a method of fishing that they thoroughly enjoy. As I mentioned above, each angling method requires a mastery of certain skills and attention to detail. Personally, I’m just glad to see so many people fishing, regardless of the tackle they use.
Is fly fishing really for me?
Fly fishing is for anyone who wants to try something new. Even though I primarily fly fish these days, I spend plenty of time using conventional gear, too. Whether I’m in Alaska chasing halibut, or trolling for big lake trout here in the Rockies, conventional gear has its place in my fishing life as much as fly gear.
What makes fly fishing so different — aside from how you cast with a fly rod compared to conventional spinning rods — is the emphasis fly anglers place on “matching the hatch.” Because the flies that we use in fly fishing are tied to imitate certain bugs at different points in their life, fly anglers often pick a fly based on what they see hatching on any given body of water.
For example, blue-winged olive mayflies are abundant during the spring. But a mayfly has a few different life stages. These flies begin life as eggs, hatch into nymphs, turn into emergers, then adults (often called duns) and die as spinners or spent-wings. The state of the hatch largely determines which flies you fish with. I wouldn’t expect fish to eat a dun if there aren’t any on the water; similarly, if there are duns on the water, I’d expect fish to key in on that food source instead of nymphs.
This might seem overwhelming at first, and it is. But after a while, picking flies based on the hatch is as intuitive as picking a lure that looks like the bass smolt in your local pond. It’s just another way to fish that takes a bit of time to understand.
Why I still fly fish
After almost 20 years of fly fishing, I still love it. Fly fishing is a cathartic experience for me, and I don’t see myself ever living without it.
With that said, I enjoy the act of fishing first and foremost. Setting out to lure fish into the net is a wonderful adventure, an excellent distraction, and the best form of therapy I’ve found for any and all of life’s ills. To that point, I still own and fish conventional gear when the occasion calls for it. I spend plenty of time on Flaming Gorge Reservoir, chasing big lake trout and kokanee salmon with big lures fished on downriggers. I still ice fish occasionally, and I make a few trips to southern Utah each year to fish for bass. While bass on the fly are tons of fun, I still toss my dependable old Ugly Stik because it’s something I enjoy.
What I love most, though, is the rhythm of fly casting. The simple motions of loading the rod with line and shooting tiny flies upstream are their own sort of peace-inducing activity. The way a small fish feels huge on a light fly rod, high in the Rockies, is a feeling I’ll never tire of. And there’s a magic in hooking big fish on dry flies that I personally haven’t experienced with any other style of fishing.
I still fly fish not because I think it’s inherently better than something else. And I certainly don’t do it because I think it makes me a better, or more complete, or smarter angler. Those attitudes about fly fishing never were true, but they took hold in fly fishing’s consciousness for years and thankfully are starting to disappear.
I still fly fish because it’s fun, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
If you like having fun, I’d encourage you to give fly fishing a try. I think you’ll enjoy it.