Fly rod fishing


A fly rod is the deadliest rod there is with which to play a fish. Many fishermen think it is harder to land a fish on a fly rod than on a shorter and stiffer bait casting rod.

If you will analyze this a moment you will see that just the opposite is true.

The thing that tires a fish the most, and the quickest, is the steady pressure that never lets up and never allows the fish to get a slack line, to throw out the hook, or a solid purchase to break the line or leader or pull the hook out of his mouth.

After you have set the hook by a firm but not jerky pressure of the rod tip, get the slack line onto the reel and bring the rod back enough to put a bend in it—and keep it there.

If you are right handed, you transfer the rod to your left hand after hooking a fish and reel in the line with the right hand. If you have any line in your left hand, hold it taut under your left forefinger until you have reeled the slack line onto your reel.

Some fishermen prefer to train themselves to reel with the, left hand. In this case the reel is mounted on the rod with the reel below and the handle to the left, instead of below with the handle to the right in the usual way.

In playing a fish, I like to keep the rod so that it is about 22/ degrees in front of the vertical position. This puts a good bend in the rod, yet gives you a chance to bring the rod back farther if the fish makes a quick run towards you.

Handling jumping fish

If a fish jumps clear of the surface of the water, I still try to keep a light but steady rod bend on him. I lower the rod tip only in two cases of leaping fish. One is if the line is deep in the water and the length of the jump may put a breaking strain on the line or leader because of the water resistance against the line.

This happens chiefly with salmon or Steelhead. The other is when the fish jumps so the line is clear of the water and the fish is headed away from you, so he may fall on the line as he goes back into the water. Lower the rod tip in these instances. These cases will be the exception rather than the rule.

Netting a fish

Unless you have to do so to avoid dangerous brush, rocks, logs, weeds or other obstructions in the water, never “horse in” a fish. Keep the bend of the rod on him until you tire him out enough so you can lead him quietly over the net. Don’t make a dive at the fish with the net.

With the handle of the net in your right hand and the net under water, stretch out your right arm so the landing net is well out towards the fish. Then with the rod in your left hand, bring your left arm well back, up and over your left shoulder until the tiring fish is over the net. Then just raise up the net—and you have your fish. If more natural to you, it is equally effective to net a fish with your left hand, holding the rod in your right hand.

If you are wading, it is better to kill a trout by bending back its head to break the neck, before taking it off the hook. If you do this over the net you run less chance of losing your fish. If it’s a big one, better take him ashore before taking him off the hook.

In salmon fishing you will probably gaff your larger fish, or your guide or companion will. If possible this is best done by the angler beaching his fish. His companion slips the gaff quietly under the fish, and brings it up with the point just back of the gills. Lift the fish out with one clear stroke of the gaff, if possible. Don’t strike at the fish with a gaff any more than you would with a net.

Fly rods

In spite of all the care and thought and painstaking craftsmanship that goes into the making of a good fly rod, it is really just a spring. In fly casting we put a bend in this spring with the weight of the fly line. We put just the right amount of bend—at the right spot—so that, as the rod springs back, it shoots the fly line out forward to the place where we want the fly to light. That’s really all there is to it.

This explanation shows plainly the fact that the action of a fly rod is the important thing about it. Action is the fundamental principle of any fly rod—not length, not weight, not fancy finish or guides or windings—just action.

Where the chief action or bending of a fly rod takes place in casting a fly line is important, because this determines whether the rod throws a narrow loop or a wide loop. For accurate casting you want a narrow loop. For that you need to have the chief action of the rod greater towards the tip in a rapidly increasing degree. This means, in fishermen’s language, a rod that is fairly soft at the upper end of the tip and has a strong middle joint with a good stout butt. The action, however, must blend smoothly.

It extends throughout the rod, but the bend made in a fly rod by suspending a weight—a Ya oz. plug for instance—on the tip top must increase rather slowly through the length of the butt and middle joint, and increase fast but smoothly in the tip, especially towards the tip-top end of the tip.

Rod makers call this “putting the action well up into the tip.” Old style fly rods were made to take a sort of circle bend under stress. They were soft in the middle joint and comparatively stiff in the upper end of the tip joint. This kind of rod casts a wide loop that gives very little accuracy, no distance, little control of false casts and no ability to handle positive curve or other advanced fishing casts.

Such a rod will get by for wet fly casting, but is almost hopeless for dry fly casting. A good “dry fly action” rod will cast a wet fly more accurately and farther than a soft middle joint, so-called “wet fly” action rod; but the reverse is not true at all. There really is no such thing as wet fly and dry fly action; one action, the kind that casts a narrow loop, is best for dry fly, wet fly, bass bug, salmon fly and spinner fly fishing.

I do not mean that one rod will be ideal for all these methods of fishing—just that the kind or type of action will be alike. A lighter rod can be used for wet fly fishing because you don’t need to do any false casting.

A bass bug rod must be more powerful than a trout rod because the greater air resistance of a bass bug requires more power to drive it through the air, and because you need a heavier line to carry the bass bug out.

A Steelhead or Salmon rod should be more powerful than a trout rod because the fish caught are larger, the flies and line used are heavier. BUT, the type of action of all these rods is fundamentally the same because they all need to throw a narrow loop in the fly line they use.

The length of a fly rod is not an important factor except where you want to use the rod in brushy small streams. In that case you want a short rod.

A fly rod should be selected chiefly on the basis of the fly casting you intend to do with it—rather than the size of the fish you expect to catch. There are very few instances where you can’t play a fish with the rod that is suitable for fly casting to that fish.

For fly fishing for Panfish or small trout in fairly small streams, I like an 8 ft. rod that usually weighs about 3 1/2 to 4 oz. and will handle an HDH double tapered fly line. The weight will vary with the handle hardware. Nearly half of the weight of most fly rods is in the handle. The weight of the rod will also vary with the density and power of the particular Tonkin cane, or bamboo, put into it. As I have told you, be sure the action is well up into the tip.

You want snake guides with an agate or tungsten steel first guide and tip top. I prefer one guide on the butt joint, three on the middle joint and four guides on the tip joint. I like a fairly long cork handle. The longer the handle the easier and less top heavy the rod feels in casting. Of course, don’t overdo this, or you’ll lose too much of the power of the rod. A handle 9 1/2 to 10 3/4 inches from the rod butt to the top of the handle is about right for most fly rods.

You can do a fine job of casting with this type of rod with either a dry fly, wet fly or small bluegill bug, as well as a small, trout size spinner-fly. Finally, by changing your casting style, as I have told you in the chapter on fly casting, you can also cast worms or other live bait with this rod.

I am thoroughly familiar with the 2 and 2 1/2 oz. fly rods, made in 7 1/2 and 8 ft. lengths, that are sold to fishermen who want the lightest thing made. I have owned one for years— a sixty dollar rod by a fine maker. It will play a small trout or small Panfish perfectly, and I can get out enough line with it for ordinary purposes; but it just hasn’t enough backbone in the middle joint to do a real fly casting job. It casts a big, sloppy loop with which you can’t do accurate work. In any wind it is hopeless. So I do not recommend this type of rod.

In fairness to this little rod, however, I ought to tell you a story about it. One summer I was using this 2 oz. toy for small Brook trout in a feeder stream in Nova Scotia. I had worked down to the mouth of the creek and out to the little bar over which it entered the main river. The place looked inviting, so I cast out about fifty feet into the current. I got a heavy strike—and found myself tied into a fifteen pound Atlantic salmon.

Landing this fish took about half an hour, but was done without serious difficulty by keeping the rod pointed almost straight towards the salmon. This experience illustrates my point that you should pick a rod that will do the fly casting job you need, rather than choosing the lightest rod with which you can land the size of fish you catch.

For use on larger trout streams, or anywhere you need to cast a long line for trout, I like an 8 1/2 ft. to 9 ft. fly rod with the necessary power and action to cast an HCH line with a narrow loop. This rod will probably weigh 4 1/2 oz. to 5 1/2 oz., depending upon the weight of handle. It is, by the way, an ideal tournament dry fly rod, for the requirements are identical. The Thomas rod with which I made the 100% world’s record in the Dry Fly Event falls in this classification.

I use the same type of rod, except with more power, for casting a bass bug. As a matter of fact, I like my bass bug rod (which is a nine foot hollow built Thomas weighing 5% oz.) better than any I have ever used for both Steelhead and Atlantic salmon fishing. It has lots of power, casts a narrow loop and has a long enough handle so that it is easy to cast. This is also my Bass Bug Tournament rod.

Many good bass bug, Steelhead or Atlantic salmon rods run from 9 ft. to 9 1/2 ft. and weigh from 5 3/4 oz. up to 6 1/2 oz. Length and weight are not especially important—power, balance and action are all-important.

You can, by proper selection, find fairly good action even in a rather inexpensive fly rod. The price governs the quality and workmanship of the rod. The high priced ones last longer and are a better buy in the long run; but you must have good action—and can get it—in either a medium priced or expensive fly rod. With the three rods I recommend you can do a fine job of fly fishing for everything from Panfish to salmon. The type of reel seat and handle you use is largely a matter of personal preference.

The reel seat may be of metal, hard rubber, plastic, wood or cork. It should hold the reel firmly and be so made that it is easy to put the reel on and take it off. The grip should fit your hand comfortably. If the handle fulfills these simple qualifications, I have no quarrel with it.

Personally, for arm action fly casting, I like a cork grip with an indentation for my thumb on the upper side of the grip towards the top end of the handle. This gives you a firmer grasp of the rod, keeps it from turning in your hand, and steadies your cast. You can put this indentation in yourself with sandpaper if the rod has rather full-sized cork on the upper part of the grip. For a wrist action grip, I do not like a thumb indentation.

Fly lines

The weight of the average length of fly line cast must balance the power in the fly rod with which it is to be used. Naturally the longer the line cast, the greater the weight of that line the rod is handling. Actually a rod can be perfectly balanced for only one length of a given fly line.

For example, a longer length of a lighter line might balance a certain fly rod; a shorter length of a heavier line would balance the same rod. Obviously you can’t change your rod every time you change-the length of your cast, so all you can do is to use a line which balances your rod on the average length of cast you expect to use.

A double tapered silk or nylon line, oil dressed under a vacuum, is the best fly line. The smaller diameter towards the fly end of the line makes the fly come down on the water more lightly. It also causes less commotion in the water on the pick-up. The smaller size of line on the fly end also makes it less visible to the fish.

If you want to save money, you can get by with a level line for wet fly or bass bug fishing; but for dry fly work a tapered line is essential. A tapered line is better for all fly casting purposes.

I like a double tapered fly line for three reasons. First, you can change ends, when one end gets worn. Second, you can trim one end to be heavier than the other if you want it for different conditions. Third, if you need to make long casts— 60 ft. to 90 ft.—the reverse taper at the back end is just what you need to approximate a good line for distance casting.

Fly reels

For fly casting, the reel is only a convenient holder for the line. It should be a simple single action type, large enough to hold whatever line you need (including backing line in a Steelhead or Atlantic salmon reel). A spool that is large in diameter will not kink the line so badly. An agate or tungsten-steel guide on the reel prevents undue wear on the line in stripping it from the reel. Most of my fly reels are Hardys, but there are plenty of other good makes. The more you pay for a reel the longer it will probably wear. However, it is more important to put your money into a fine rod and line than into an expensive fly reel.

Fly leaders

Leaders are a vitally important part of your fishing outfit. The leader keeps the fish from so clearly seeing the connection between your fly (or bait) and your line. It also helps bring your fly down upon the surface of the water gently.

I like medium length, 6 ft. to 9 ft., leaders for fast or murky water and fish that are not too easily scared. For quiet, clear water and fish that are easily scared, I have much better success with long leaders—those from 12 ft to 20 ft. . I think a tapered leader casts better and is in all ways a more efficient leader than a level one.

In making my own leaders, I usually start with nylon from .015 inches in diameter to .020 inches in diameter, depending on the size of the smaller end of the tapered line on which the leader will be used. For trout I taper the size of the leader down to 1 x (.009), 2 x (.008), 3 x (.007) or 4 x (.006) according to the size of fly to be used, the stage and conditions of water to be fished, and the size of the fish expected.

The smaller the fly, the finer the leader tippet needed. The clearer the water, the finer and longer the leader. Naturally you cannot safely use so fine a leader with heavy fish or in waters where there are a lot of weeds, logs, rocks or other obstructions. As the leader requirements vary with individual stream conditions and tactics, I have given detailed instructions in connection with the stream conditions.

For bass leaders, I taper from .020 inches in diameter down to .012, .013 and .014 in lengths from six to twenty feet, as I have mentioned under water tactics.

I prefer nylon to gut or gut substitute for leader material. Nylon does not have to be soaked and can be tied dry. It is strong and almost invisible. You can easily tie your own leaders. The best knot for tying nylon or gut together is the barrel, or blood, knot as illustrated. The knot I like best for the loop at the line end of the leader is also shown. For attaching the leader to the fly, the simplest and most satisfactory knot is the one shown. I also show there the knot I use for attaching the line to the leader loop.

Fly fishing flies

There are as many preferences in individual fly patterns as there are fishermen. Hundreds are good. By and large, you can safely take your choice if you know what types of flies to use for different fish and water conditions. Type of fly is important in catching fish—individual pattern seldom is.

It makes a lot of difference whether you use a wet or a dry fly, a nymph or a buck tail. Often the size of fly will determine whether you get strikes or not. Sometimes the general color— light or dark—will make a difference.

Whether you use an exact imitation or a fancy type fly is important, because one imitates an aquatic insect and the other a minnow.

Certainly the kind of action, or lack of it, and the sort of retrieve used is vital. I have covered all of these things under water and stream tactics.

The various types of flies are as follows:

Dry flies

  • Upright Wing. Imitate adult aquatic insects.
  • Fan-Wing. Tied like the upright wing patterns except with curved feather wings pointing outward.
  • Spent-Wing. Like the upright wing dry flies except that the wings extend at right angles to the body of the fly and in a plane at right angles to the plane of the hook.
  • Hackle and Palmer. These are dressed entirely with hackles. No wings are used. Palmers are made with the hackles extending the length of the body.
  • Bivisibles. Hackle flies tied with contrasting colored hackles at the eye of the hook.
  • Spiders. Hackle flies tied very sparsely, using hackles with very long barbules, on small, light hooks.
  • Variants. Tied like Spiders, but with two short wings among the hackles.

Wet flies

  • Fancy Type. Tied in all colors and shapes. Trout probably think they are small minnows.
  • Nymphs. Imitate larvae and pupae of aquatic insects. Tied without wings. Usually flat bodied and dark colored. They should be exact imitations of aquatic insects.
  • Bucktails. Tied with deer hair. No wings. Imitate minnows. Used for large fish, with action retrieve.
  • Streamers. Made without wings and dressed with long feathers, to imitate small minnows.

Bass bugs

  • Hair Bugs. Tied with hair wings and hair bodies. Imitate aquatic insects.
  • Cork Bodied. Tied with cork or balsa-wood bodies, with hair or feathered wings.
  • Hair Frogs. Like Hair Bugs but imitating frog shape and color.
  • Hair Crawfish. Imitate small crawfish in shape and color. Popping Bugs. Tied with concave cork or balsa-wood face to make a commotion in the water when retrieved.

Fly sizes

You will need at least two—a light and a dark one—of each type of fly in sizes generally from No. 10 to No. 16 for trout. You may need some No. 8 flies for Canada.

A few midges down to No. 18 and No. 22 will occasionally be useful.

  • For Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon, fly sizes run from 2/0 down to No. 12.
  • Bass fly and bass bug sizes run from No. 1 down to No. 10.
  • Panfish flies and bugs run from No. 8 down to No. 18.


In plain hooks (without flies, bugs, etc.) you will need turned-down or turned-up eyed hooks in Nos. 8 and 10, and ringed eye hooks Nos. 6 and 8 for trout, For Steelhead or Atlantic salmon turned-down or turned-up eyed hooks Nos. 1 to 6 and ringed eye hooks Nos. 2/0 to 4.

For bass turned-down or turned-up eyed hooks Nos. 1 to 4 and ringed eye hooks Nos. 1/0 to 2.

Other fly fishing equipment

You will want some aluminum or plastic boxes with compartments for holding your flies and bugs. I find it convenient to carry a stock box for flies.

This I leave at camp. I take a smaller compartment box or boxes to the stream or lake with me, replenishing flies as needed from the stock box.

You will need a landing net for wading (one with a small mesh), made to carry with you on the stream. For lake use, a long handled net is useful. For salmon or Steelhead, a gaff hook.

For wading, either waders with boot feet, or waders with independent wading shoes, are good.

A long creel, about 20 inches long by 7 inches wide and 7 inches deep, is useful for stream fishing.

You will need dry fly oil and line dressing, also scissors for cutting ends of leaders.

A tackle box is necessary for lake use. Again I like a stock box for storage at camp and a smaller boat box for daily use. You will want some assorted small spinners and spoons, from tiny spinner flies with 1/4 in. blades to 3 in. blade spoons for Steelhead trolling. Some assorted sizes of snap, barrel and cross-line swivels will be useful for trolling and bait fishing. BB and No. 7 split shot and some assorted Dipsey swiveled sinkers—1/4 oz. and 3/8 oz. will come in handy.

Take a flash light. A folding rule for measuring fish and a spring scales are useful; also a water-proof match box and matches, the wooden kind, and a compass. A fisherman’s barometer helps.

The most important thing in locating game fish is your stream thermometer. Whatever else you do, don’t forget your thermometer.

And now, good fishing! May all your flies take fish!