Fly Fishing for Dummies

Fly Fishing for Dummies

4.0 1
by Peter Kaminsky

If you believe what you read, fly fishing requires the touch of a surgeon and the spirit of a Zen master. Forget about what you’ve heard about f ly fishing in the past, if you really want to learn how to fly fish all you need are the right tools, proper technique, and a positive attitude. With these essential elements you can begin to enjoy the sport of fly


If you believe what you read, fly fishing requires the touch of a surgeon and the spirit of a Zen master. Forget about what you’ve heard about f ly fishing in the past, if you really want to learn how to fly fish all you need are the right tools, proper technique, and a positive attitude. With these essential elements you can begin to enjoy the sport of fly fishing in no time.

For those of you who have never held a fly rod, you will find enough information here to get you started. You won’t be forced to discover everything all at once. If you’re already a fly rodder, you’ll find plenty of tips and techniques that you can turn to right away without going through the basics all over again. And if you’re a master angler, you will find this book a handy reference for all kinds of questions.

Fly Fishing For Dummies explores the fun and fundamentals of fly fishing—from tying flies to reeling in your catch. Whether you’re a novice or a veteran angler, here you? 8217;ll find all the tips and tricks for choosing the right kind of gear; how and where to catch freshwater and saltwater fish; visual examples of the art of casting; and how to read the water, wade, cast, and (finally) land yourself a whopper. You’ll also find out how to:

  • Identify the best fish to fly fish for—from rainbow trout to black marlin
  • Improve your catch and release techniques
  • Continue your education through recommended references and online resources
  • Choose the right rod, reel, and gear to land the fish you are after
  • Master all the casting styles you’ll ever need
  • Tie your own flies or choose pre-made ones proven to get results
With over 150 illustrations and proven advice, Fly Fishing For Dummies is a great primer on fly fishing’s essential elements.

Editorial Reviews

Jay Cassell
Peter Kaminsky is one of those rare writers who knows how to develop a genuine rapport with his readers. As you read Fly Fishing For Dummies, you find youself becoming friends with the author; and by the end of the book, you're not only Kaminsky's buddy, but you're also, suddenly, quite knowledgeable in the sport of fly fishing. It's all there, in easy-to-read, understandable terms: from choosing gear, to learning how to cast, to reading water, to catching fish. This is a keeper. -- Editor, Sports Afield magazine
Joe Healey
"Well-written and superbly organized, this book is a great primer on fly fishing's essential elements." -- Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine

Product Details

Publication date:
For Dummies Series
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7.24(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 15
Catching and (Often) Releasing

In This Chapter

  • When to strike a fish
  • How to fight a fish
  • Landing or boating a fish
  • Releasing a fish

You have spent a great deal of money on gear. You have stolen precious time to get a few hours (or a few days) to try and catch some fish. You have learned how to cast, tie knots, and tie flies, but none of this makes you an angler. Anglers catch fish. In order to do that, you need to know when to strike a fish, how to fight it, how to complete the fight and land it, and then how to kill it humanely or set it free.

When Should I Strike?

Different fish have different takes. By takes, I mean the ways in which the fish takes the bait into its mouth. A trout may slurp a dry fly or slam a streamer. A tarpon inhales a fly along with a bucketful of water. A bluegill takes a popper quickly off the surface. There is no one general rule for when to strike. To be an effective angler, you need to know your fish and its behavior.

A savage strike doesn't require a savage response from the angler. Usually, all this sort of response does is ensure that you pull your fly away from the fish before you have a chance to set the hook. You need to come tight to the fish: All the slack must be gone from your line, and you must feel the weight of the fish before you drive the hook home.

Some fish, like the tarpon, require a couple of good, slamming pulls on the rod to embed the hook in their tough mouths. The trout, on the other hand, needs just a slight jerk to set the hook. With bass and pike that slam and gnaw on a fly, you need to let them run with it for a second or two. To get a fish securely on your hook, follow these steps:

  1. Lift the rod tip to make sure you have taken up all the slack.

  2. Hold the line in your free hand and the rod in the other; pull back to set the hook.

    The gentlest motion will secure a trout, whereas a tarpon needs a couple of slams with all your might.

    If you have a stiff rod with a fast tip, your fish should be on (hooked) at this point.

  3. Come to think of it, if you've got a tarpon on your line, whack it again for good measure -- maybe twice.

Soft rods require even more forcefulness in the hook-setting motion. Some rods, although they are nice, safe casters, are too soft ever to set the hook. If you follow all of my recommendations and just can't seem to set a hook, you may need a rod with a faster tip.

Fish On! (Now What Do I Do?!)

Having a fish on the end of your line is like any other emergency situation: If you have never been through it before, you may lose your head. Remember this piece of advice: It's an emergency for the fish, not for you. If you maintain your cool, you can win this fight. Millions of anglers have done it before you, so it isn't magic. Still, you do need to know what you are doing. Fighting and beating fish is one art where, I promise you, you can learn from your mistakes because you will replay them a thousand times in your head. The better the fish, the more times you will tell yourself, "Gee, if only I'd...."

And then, after you finally learn how to fight your average fish, you will hook into a big one someday, and it's a whole new ball game (with a whole new set of mistakes to make and learn from).

Rod up

When many fly rodders first strike a fish and get it on, you may notice them holding the rod high. This technique accomplishes two things:

  • First, it reduces the amount of slack line right away.

  • Second, holding the rod high keeps the fish's head up, out of the weeds and away from the rocks. This technique is good to use when fishing with conventional tackle as well as fly tackle.

For you physicists, raising the rod increases the angle that the rod makes with the water. This, in turn, increases the mechanical advantage of the rod, which acts like a lever against the fish.

The Fight

Having a fish on and not knowing what to do can be a source of much anxiety. It shouldn't be. Having a fish on is the fun part of fishing. That tug. That pushing and head-shaking and throbbing. That wildness. These are the prime thrills of fishing. It's you against the fish, and the fish is in its element. That you will win is not a foregone conclusion (although the more fish you fight, the better your chances). Win or lose, the fight is always a thrill and the main thing in fly rodding. You will learn to savor it.

Your rod is your best weapon

A good fishing rod can be a great tool if you remember to let it help you fight the fish. Let the rod do some of the work. It was designed to do just that. Follow the advice of Izaak Walton and keep the fish under the bend of the rod. This advice means that you should be holding the rod at an angle that allows it to bend. It doesn't have to bend double, but it has to bend. This flexing of the rod, more than anything else, will tire (and eventually conquer) a fish. No matter how far the fish runs, no matter how much it jumps or shakes, the rod will flex, putting pressure on the hook, which is buried in the mouth of the fish.

Help from the reel

When fighting a fish, the drag mechanism on your reel is another potential ally. If you have set the drag properly, the drag acts as a brake mechanism that can further tire the fish. In most cases, the time to set the drag is before you cast. Adjusting the drag while you are fishing becomes just one more thing that you can mess up, and I don't recommend doing it.

The other thing about drag is that you don't need a whole lot. You need more for saltwater game fish, and saltwater fly reels offer the ability to add some serious pounds of resistance to the line. You'll need some of, but not all of, the drag a reel has to offer; too much drag can put too much stress on the leader and tippet. You should use just enough drag that the fish does not easily pull line off the reel, but not so that the fish can hardly budge the drag.

The line helps, too

When a large fish runs off a great deal of line, the resistance of the water against the line creates even more drag. This factor can work in your favor if you have a sense of how much added pressure your tackle can take. The added drag can also break your line if you don't take it into account. Only practice will teach you this lesson.

The reel thing

Many newcomers to fly fishing get a fish on and panic because they're stripping line -- they inevitably drop this line to start reeling and have just dumped a bunch of slack on the fish, a real gift. You can deal with this situation one of three ways:

  • With a smaller fish, you can strip him in, using your rod hand to hold the line between strips.

  • Or you may brace the line with your rod hand, quickly reel in the slack, and then fight from the reel, using the bend of the rod to fight the fish as you take up slack.

    Most times, if you have a lot of line out, you can strip, reel, strip to get rid of slack and get down to fighting the fish from the reel. But understand that you will not always fight the fish from the reel as you do in spincasting or baitcasting.

  • The third situation, with bigger, running fish, is to guide -- but don't grab -- the slack line with your hand as the big fish runs away with it. Ultimately he will take up all the slack, and then the fish will be running line off the reel. In this case, you have no choice but to fight from the reel.

Heads up!

Heads up means that the head of the fish points up. If you are able to keep the head of the fish up, you are directing the fight. With its head up, the fish is disoriented and bewildered and can't see where to go (that is, it can't see a rock to slip under or a weed bed to dive for). If the fish can get its head down, you are in the position of reacting while the fish picks where it will take the fight.

Keeping the head up doesn't mean rearing back at all costs. Sometimes a little pressure to the side or from side to side will do the trick. You are in contact with the fish, and you just have to feel your way through this one, responding to its twists and turns by pulling back, easing up, or changing direction -- whatever it takes.

Use the current

A fish is going to run away from the pressure of hook, line, and rod. If you have hooked your fish in moving water, try to position yourself downstream from the fish. That way, the fish is not only fighting you and your tackle, but it is also fighting the current. This move may not always be possible, but when it is, do it, even if you have to back out of the stream and walk downstream.

Running for cover

If the fish burrows into the weeds, you may well have lost it, but not always. True, if you rear back and bend the rod every which way trying to get the fish out of the weeds, you will probably break off sooner or later. However, if you point your rod tip straight at the fish, reel up tight, and start walking backwards, you may coax the fish out of the weeds. The best defense is to know where weed beds are, and when your fish moves toward one, hold the rod high and steer the fish away from going into cover. Yes, easier said than done.

"What a jump! Hey! What happened?"

If your tussle with a fish concludes on a jump, it can mean only one thing -- the fish has jumped free, and your fight is over. It may have broken the line or shaken the hook, but either way, it's off. When a fish goes airborne, I bow (drop my rod tip). When I bow to a fish, I mean literally bow -- I bend from the waist, drop my rod tip, and extend my arms like a waiter offering a tray full of appetizers. As soon as the fish falls back to the water, I come tight again. When a fish is airborne, it may reach a point in its trajectory when all of its weight and momentum snap against the line. Without the buoyancy of the water to act as a shock absorber, knots can break under the added force of gravity. A hard-mouthed fish, like a tarpon, may not be hooked very deeply to begin with. The force of a jump may be all that is needed to dislodge a hook. Bowing to a jumping fish neutralizes drag and momentarily pays out line to the fish so that as it jumps, it is not pulling hard against a taut line.

Rod up, reel down (pumping a fish)

Most newcomers get a fish on and reel for dear life. This technique will do you no good. It can even do you harm by causing bad line twist.

As indicated in Figure 15-1, pull up to try to bring the fish toward you. Then drop the rod tip and, as you do, reel up line. Sometimes the fish will still take line as you pull up. That's okay; you can do nothing about it but hang on. Remember: As you reel in, drop the rod tip so that you have someplace to go when you pull up again. When fighting a fish, the idea is to tire the fish and to recover line that the fish has taken off the reel so that you can eventually get the fish close enough to grasp or gaff. The reeling up is the longest and most tiring part of the fight, and it's one that doesn't come naturally.

Remember, too, that every pull up is not going to bring the fish in. Sometimes a fish will take a lot of line before you are able to recover any. Or you may have gained a great deal of line, and then the fish sees the boat and tears away on another run. Keep the pressure on -- it's the only way to land the fish.

Playing the fish

You should always try to get the fish in as soon as possible, especially if you are going to release it. The longer the fish fights, the more lactic acid it builds up in its muscles (lactic acid is the same stuff that makes you cramp and get stiff), and the harder it is to revive. Releasing (letting go of) a fish that you have fought to the point of exhaustion before you have spent the time to revive it often makes no sense because the fish may well die of exhaustion anyway.

In the ocean, ending the fight quickly is even more important (even if you are keeping the fish) because a long, splashy fight is a great way to attract a predator (like a shark) who will end the fight for you as he takes a meal. This happened to me in the Florida Keys with a tarpon that weighed well over 100 pounds. I fought hard, but I could have fought harder and followed my guide's advice and have gotten the tarpon into the boat within 10 minutes. Instead, I prolonged the fight, and my heart was broken as, 200 yards out, I saw a tremendous commotion and then felt my line grow slack as a huge shark devoured my tarpon.

Light tackle takes longer

While it is more sporty to subdue fish on lighter tackle, you need to use enough tackle to do the job. Using an outfit that doesn't let you bear down on the fish may still land you a fish after a long fight; but if the fish is totally exhausted when you land it, you probably have a style of fishing more suited to heavier gear that allows you to muscle the fish rather than finesse it.

Landing or Boating the Fish

After you have subdued a fish, your next task is to land it or boat it. This section gives you the lay of the land (or the water) for most fish that you can land by yourself. I am going to assume that if you are going for big game, you either already know what to do or will be fishing with a guide or someone with experience. Landing a big fish is not something to do on your own with only a book as your guide, unless you are a real dummy. (That's a word my publishers asked me to avoid in this book, but I can't think of another word to describe someone who tussles with a big and dangerous game fish without actual physical help and personal experience.) You will, however, be able to handle 99 percent of the fish you get on the line by yourself.

Should I use a net?

For trout and bass, "the experts" say that you definitely should have a net if you want to release fish back into the water in the hopes that they will live and reproduce. The theory behind this reasoning is that, if you use a net, the fish will be less exhausted when netted rather than landed by hand.

Having said that, I can tell you that I rarely use a net when trout fishing (or when bass fishing, for that matter). I find, at this stage of my angling career, that I can get most fish within my grasp when they still have some life in them. With trout, I reach under the belly and lift up until I am cradling the fish gently. Then I lift it out of the water. For bass, I grab the fish by the lower lip. If I have a really big fish, I use a net. You may want to use a net for all fish, and that's perfectly fine. A net does give you someplace to secure the fish momentarily while you tuck your rod under your arm or ready your camera. Just be quick about it and keep a netted fish in the water.

If you use a net, you should flip it over so that it is hanging in front of you as the fight concludes. Make sure the net is wet so that you do not damage the protective mucous-like slime that coats the fish. As shown in Figure 15-2, hold the rod tip high and slip the net under the fish. Remember to keep the fish in the water until you have the net around it. Lifting the fish out of the water and then trying to net it is a classic Three Stooges move.

Maybe a gaff?

Certain things in life are designed so well that you take one look at them and you know what they are for. A gaff is one of them. It's really nothing more than a humongous hook on a long shaft.

When you gaff a fish, most of the time you are going to keep it, but you don't necessarily have to. For example, a lip gaff is not quite the heavy artillery of a standard gaff, and it is often used by tarpon fishermen who want to release their catch. But for most other cases, you gaff and kill.

Surf fishermen have short hand-held gaffs that are great for bluefish, but most gaffs are long-handled and are designed to be used while leaning over the side of a boat. With smaller fish (in saltwater, anything up to 30 pounds), you can probably do your own gaffing. Try to gaff the fish somewhere in the head, gill, or shoulder region. With bigger fish, don't try it until an expert has shown you how.

Killing and Not Killing

Fishing, like hunting, is a blood sport. But it is also very different in significant ways. The pursuit in hunting ends with a dead animal. In fishing, it ends with a live fish in hand. After you shoot a deer or bird, it's a goner. You can't release it back into the wild. A caught fish is different: You can always return it. So the angler always has a choice: "Do I kill the fish, or do I let it go?" The quality of this killing is much different than killing in hunting. It is difficult to kill a deer or bird completely, instantaneously, with one shot. Most fish, however, can be dispatched quickly and cleanly.

The decision to keep fish is up to you. Don't let anybody tell you that you are immoral if you decide to kill fish. If you intend to eat them, killing them is okay with me. However, and this is a big however, if we all killed all the fish we caught, fishing (in the words of Beavis and Butt-head) would suck.

This is especially true of the glamour fish like trout. They are the top predator in their environment; and the way Nature has set things up, fewer numbers of top predators are out there relative to the prey animals lower down the food chain, which means that if you take a bunch of trout out of a stream, the fishing quality in that stream will definitely decline. The same holds for big game, like marlin and tuna. The world just doesn't have that much big game. If you thin out the "alpha predators" (the top dogs), that much less remains for the next time you hunt.

Words to fish by

"Of all the sports of capture, fishing is the most merciful. There is no need to kill unless you choose. The fish that gets away lives to be hooked another day. On the conscience of the fisherman, there are no wounded ducks, no paunch-shot deer. You catch your fish. If you don't want him, back he goes, none the worse for wear."

--Gifford Pinchot, Founder of the U.S. Forest Service and Lifelong Angler.

I like to eat trout. I like to catch them even more, so I pretty much return all my trout to the stream. The same goes for bass. I don't care for pike, so they go back, too. Fluke I keep. Stripers go back. Bluefish I keep some of the time. Tarpon, bonefish, and snook all go back.

That's how I do it. I have a standard and stick to it. As a responsible fly fisher you, too, will have to make up your own mind about what you want to do. Perhaps you have a special dinner planned and you set out purposefully to catch and keep some trout. That's fine, as long as you don't do this every week of the season. As the years go by, you may (as I have done) kill fewer and fewer fish even as you catch more and more.

Before you catch and release

If you intend to release a fish, you should follow these few general rules:

  • Make up your mind whether to catch or release when you set the hook.

  • Try to set the hook quickly so that the fish cannot swallow it too deeply.

  • Minimize the time of the fight because an exhausted fish is not a strong candidate for survival.

  • Consider using barbless hooks. (Some stretches of trout water require barbless hooks.)

Treating a fish properly

These tips increase a fish's chances of surviving:

  • Leave the fish in the water as much as possible.

  • Handle the fish as little as possible.

  • Use forceps or pliers to remove the hook.

  • Use a wet rag (if you have one handy) to hold the fish. (This technique causes less damage to its scales and protective coating.)

  • Wet your hands before handling the fish.

  • If the hook is very deep inside the fish's mouth, cut off the leader. In many cases, the hook will eventually rust out or work itself free. Most fish, particularly trout, do not have much time to swallow a fly before you set it.

Letting him go

Sometimes, releasing the fish is relatively easy. You simply remove the hook, and the fish wiggles vigorously, which lets you know that it is ready to take off for freedom. Sometimes, the fish won't wait for you to release it. Instead, it will wriggle free and hightail it.

Often, however, the fish is totally exhausted. If you simply released it right away, you would have a belly-up, soon-to-be-dead fish on your hands. Before you release you need to revive.

A good rule to follow in figuring out if a fish needs reviving is this: If the fish lets you hold it and doesn't struggle, revive it. After all, any self-respecting wild animal will take off like greased lightning to escape the clutches of a strange creature. To a fish, a human is a strange creature.

Follow these steps (illustrated in Figure 15-3) to help insure that a caught-and-released fish survives:

  1. Hold the fish gently and keep it under the surface of the water.

    Cradle it from below if you can. If you cannot, hold it gently by its sides. You may grasp some mid-size fish (salmon and stripers, for example) by the tail.

  2. If you are in heavy current, move to gentler current.

  3. Point the fish upstream.

    On lakes or in the ocean, however, current isn't a factor when reviving a fish.

  4. Move the fish backward and forward so that its gills are forced to open and close.

    When properly done, this technique delivers oxygen to a heavily oxygen-depleted fish. Bringing the fish back enough so that it can swim under its own steam may take a few minutes. It lets you know that it is ready to be released when it starts to wiggle.

  5. Release the fish.

    It should swim slowly away. If it rolls over on its back and lays there, this is not a good sign. Bring the fish back under your control and continue to revive it. The fish that gives you a real hard shrug and bolts has been revived just fine.

Catch, shoot, and release

The point of catch-and-release is that the fish survives. Shooting a photo gives you a tangible memento of your fish while still allowing you to release it. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to give your fish a fighting chance at surviving:

  • Since shooting a photo of a fish involves keeping it out of the water, you are adding stress to an already stressful situation. So speed helps -- both in landing and in shooting.

  • As long as you hold the fish in the water, facing upstream (if there is a current), the fish will survive a long, long time. When you want to snap a picture, lift the fish out of the water, supporting its body as you do so. (Remember that the fish's internal organs are normally supported by the buoyancy of water.)

  • If you have a friend helping you, let the friend hold the fish in the water until you are ready to snap a picture. Focus on your friend's hands (so you don't have to focus when the fish is in the air) and then have your friend lift the fish for your shot.

Remember, anybody can take a picture of a dead fish. Getting the shot and letting the fish go requires a little more finesse.

What People are saying about this

Paul Schullery
"With relentless wit, Peter Kaminsky has peeled away all the mysticism, social tone, and other impediments to learning about this sport." -- Author of American Fly Fishing

Meet the Author

Peter Kaminsky has written for Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Sports Afield, and the "Outdoors" column in the New York Times.

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Fly Fishing for Dummies 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being a full-time Ranger in a watershed and as a fly fisher myself and meeting Fishers each day the book give a good understanding of the Art. I see all types. You wouldn't believe how many new fishers put the line into the Hook Holder. This book is well done for the person who is just starting out.