The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing: Your Ultimate A to Z Guide to Being a Better Angler
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The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing: Your Ultimate A to Z Guide to Being a Better Angler

by Tom Rosenbauer

From rods to reels, fly lines to tippets, fishing hats to hip boots, this guide covers everything an angler will need before heading to the water.

If your favorite way to spend the day is stepping into a mountain stream—fly fishing gear in hand—to match wits with an elusive rainbow trout, The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing is the


From rods to reels, fly lines to tippets, fishing hats to hip boots, this guide covers everything an angler will need before heading to the water.

If your favorite way to spend the day is stepping into a mountain stream—fly fishing gear in hand—to match wits with an elusive rainbow trout, The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing is the perfect companion. Ideal for newcomers looking to get their feet wet, as well as for seasoned fisherman who need a reliable reference, this A to Z guide unlocks the mysteries of the sport, including answers to questions such as:

  • Where in Montana will I find the best fly fishing for mountain whitefish? (“Montana,” page 136)
  • What kind of fish bite at night? (“Night Fishing,” page 176)
  • Which European country has the best fly fishing? (“Scotland,” page 235)
  • Can I catch a shark on a fly rod? (“Sharks,” page 240)
  • What’s the difference between a Bucktail, a Featherwing Streamer, and a Woolly Bugger? (“Streamers,” page 251)

Written by Tom Rosenbauer, a top instructor at the Orvis Fly Fishing School, and loaded with stunning full-color photographs and clear illustrations of step-by-step techniques, The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing serves as a comprehensive course in the fundamentals of the sport.

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The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing

Your Ultimate A to Z Guide to Being a Better Angler

By Tom Rosenbauer

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2010 Tom Rosenbauer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4016-0071-6




In casting or presenting a fly, across-stream is used to describe a fly line angle that is directed toward the middle of the river at 90 degrees to the current. Downstream is the direction indicated when a fly line is cast parallel to the current, toward the direction the water is flowing, and upstream is parallel to the current toward where the water is flowing from. Quartering downstream is somewhere between across-stream and downstream, and quartering upstream is between across-stream and upstream. It's important to understand these directions when learning stream technique, as each direction makes the fly line and fly behave in a different manner and affects the sink rate of a sunken fly.


Few subjects in fly fishing are more confusing and subjective than fly rod action. "Action" is a way that anglers and manufacturers describe how a fly rod flexes when casting, but since there are many different casting styles, and casting style affects the way a rod flexes as much as anything, most descriptions of fly rod action are, at best, approximations. The way a rod flexes is important because to some degree it will determine how well a rod will perform on long casts, in the wind, for short, delicate fishing, or when playing a large fish.

Before discussing various actions it's useful to understand how different flex profiles are created. There are various grades of graphite with different stiffness ratings, but these are really negligible when determining the action of a rod—action is affected more by how the material is used than by what it is.(With bamboo rods, of course, material is irrelevant because bamboo is quite consistent.) Flex profiles can be lumped into two types—progressive and compound. A progressive taper is one where a rod starts at a given diameter at the butt and tapers at a constant rate to the tip. Compound tapers may decrease diameter at one rate for part of the rod, then change quickly into another taper. A rod with a compound taper could have as many as three different tapers over the length of a rod. Neither style is inherently better; whether a rod is progressive or compound just depends on what a rod designer has to do to get the rod to flex in the manner he or she wants.

Rod actions are usually categorized as fast, slow, or medium action. Of course this begs the question: "Fast as compared to what?" Orvis developed a flex index system that assigns a discrete number to a rod's action, so the similarity in action from one rod model to another can be determined by how close the flex index numbers are. Orvis uses the term tip-flex to describe what others would call fast action, mid-flex to define medium action, and full-flex to describe slow action. Some people associate slow action with a poor rod and fast action with a great one, but all action types actually have advantages and disadvantages.

Tip-flex (fast action)

These rods have fast tapers in the upper 25 percent or so (in other words, the diameter of the rod from the tip down decreases rapidly, so the tip bends more easily than the rest of the rod).The middle and the butt section remain relatively stiff compared to the tip of the rod. This action gives tip-flex rods a reserve of power for making long casts and for playing big fish, or for playing a strong fish in fast water. Tip-flex rods throw a tight casting loop, which drives the line better into the wind (and all other things being equal, throws the line farther), so they are the choice of tournament casters. Tip-flex rods are less forgiving of casting mistakes than other actions, though, so they can be difficult for beginners.

Scenarios where a tip-flex rod would be most useful include fishing on big, windy rivers and fishing in salt water. Both of these situations require long casts into the wind and the ability to play big fish quickly.

Mid-flex (medium action)

In this action, the rod flexes more down into the middle of its length than a tip-flex does. Mid-flex action is a great compromise between the strength of a tip-flex rod and the delicacy of a full-flex. It's the most common action sold today because it is easy to cast, yet relatively powerful. A mid-flex rod can move from one set of conditions to another without sacrificing the ability of the rod to present the fly properly.

Full-flex (slow action)

Full-flex action rods bend far into the butt of the rod, almost to the handle, under a moderate casting load. One of the reasons they are called slow action is because the casting stroke is longer than with other actions. (In other words, the angler has to wait longer in between the forward and back casts because the rod has to flex along a wider arc before maximum power is achieved.) Full-flex rods are terrific for small stream fishing, because these rods load well on the very short casts needed in small streams, and if a rod is not loaded fully, it won't present the line smoothly. A full-flex rod also acts as a shock absorber, so that very light tippets can be used without risking a fish breaking off. They are very accurate on short casts, generally poor on long casts, and don't do well in strong winds.

A term you may hear, especially when someone is discussing older bamboo rods, is parabolic action. Here, the rod is slightly stiffer in the middle than in the butt or tip, and is designed to throw the fly line like a catapult. This action throws a long line with the right casting style, but is not very efficient when throwing a short line.


The Adams (along with its many variations) is the most popular dry fly in the world. The original fly, developed in Michigan in the 1920s to imitate either a deerfly or a caddisfly, is now used during all kinds of insect hatches, from mayflies to midges. Its mixed gray and brown colors seem to suggest a generalized aquatic insect well (or the colors may just appeal to trout). The traditional Adams uses upright wings and bushy hackle, like a traditional mayfly, but today the parachute version, with hackle that lays parallel to the surface of the water and a highly visible white wing, is easier to see on the water and seems to be equally interesting to trout. The Adams is also tied with spent wings to imitate a mayfly spinner, and with a yellow egg sack to imitate an egg-laying caddisfly or mayfly. The Adams is used from a large size 10 all the way down to a minuscule size 26, depending on what size insects local trout are feeding upon.



Alaska is North America's most remote fly fishing frontier; it offers an abundance of fish that are eager to take a fly, along with scenery that almost makes the fishing insignificant. Along with these blessings come the minor curses of thick mosquito swarms, wild weather that can change in instant, and frequent encounters with grizzly bears. Because of the bears and because most of Alaska's fishing travel is done by floatplane in sometimes stormy weather, it's best to hire an experienced outfitter and check references before heading to this fisherman's paradise.

Because Alaska's fish are big, flies are larger than normal trout flies, and because sinking tips are often used, most fly fishers travel to Alaska with tackle that is too light. The 9-foot 5-weight rod that serves you well in Montana won't be adequate for anything but fishing for grayling and small rainbows. A wise choice is a 7-weight rod for rainbow and grayling fishing, plus a 9-weight for Pacific salmon and pike. When fishing specifically for king salmon, which may weigh 40 pounds, a 10-weight light tarpon rod (along with a strong reel with plenty of backing) is not out of line.

Although dry-fly fishing for rainbow trout and grayling is superb during the summer, most Alaskan fishing is done with flies that imitate salmon eggs, simulate pieces of flesh torn off dying salmon on their spawning runs, or just with large, colorful attractor streamers. Leaders may be short and stout, because the fish are not leader shy and should be landed and released quickly.

Perhaps the most critical piece of gear on an Alaskan fishing trip is a reliable rain jacket, as southern Alaska is very wet in the summer and the weather can change in a heartbeat.


Alaska's most famous fishery is the Bristol Bay/Lake Illiamna region, where the best fishing for large rainbow trout, Pacific salmon, grayling, pike, arctic char, and Dolly Varden is found. This fishing is almost entirely fly-in fishing, and may be done on long float trips where you camp overnight on the river, or fly out from a main lodge every day. Rivers like the Kvichak and Naknek are world famous for giant rainbow trout, but there are hundreds of smaller rivers and lakes in the Bristol Bay region that offer unparalleled fly fishing. Although chum, pink, sockeye, and king salmon can be taken on a fly rod, most fly fishers prefer the silver (coho) salmon, which takes a fly more aggressively than the other species. Top coho rivers are the Nushagak and Togiak, but as with the trout streams there are numerous excellent salmon rivers in this region.

Less remote and more crowded but still world-class fisheries can be found on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, where it is possible to drive to rivers like the Kenai for large king salmon and rainbows, or to the Anchor River, which offers some of the finest accessible steelhead fishing in Alaska. Kodiak Island also has good fly fishing for king and silver salmon, because the rivers are short and the fish can be caught close to salt water, when they are more aggressive and eager to take a fly.

Southeastern Alaska offers a myriad of smaller coastal rivers, where fly fishing for both steelhead and silver salmon is productive and uncrowded. Most of the rivers here are short and have small runs of salmon and steelhead, but you'll see far fewer fishermen than on the Kenai Peninsula. Perhaps even better is fishing in the estuaries where salmon and steelhead stage before entering the rivers, because they are still feeding heavily. It's also possible to catch sea-run cutthroats or even a small halibut on a fly in this remote area.


Much of Alaska's fishing season is determined more by the ability to access its remote rivers than by the willingness of the fish to take a fly. Most lodges in the Bristol Bay area don't open until June, even though king salmon begin their runs earlier and rainbows, grayling, and arctic char are willing to take a fly much earlier. In the same light, probably the best month for catching big rainbows in Alaska is in September and October, but nearly all lodges close in September. Not only does the weather get uncomfortable, travel by float plane once the weather turns wintry is dangerous and unreliable. Of course, the rivers on the Kenai Peninsula can be accessed by car, and fly fishing in May and October can be productive in this area, at times when lodges in the interior of Alaska are closed.

For rainbow trout, arctic char, Dolly Varden, and grayling, best months for big fish are June and September. For taking these fish on a dry fly, midsummer, during hatches of aquatic insects, is best. King salmon begin running freshwater rivers in April, with the peak of the run in June and early July. The kings are followed by sockeyes in June and July, and best times to find fresh runs of silver, chum, and pink salmon are in August (although the silvers, the best of the fly rod salmon, will continue to run through October).

ALBRIGHT, JIMMIE (1916–1998)

Captain Jimmie Albright was a pioneer of Florida Keys fishing, and today is revered by guides and anglers alike as one of the finest saltwater guides who ever lived. He was responsible for developing a code of ethics and etiquette for shallow water fishing in the Keys, where crowded conditions and spooky fish would sometimes create pandemonium before his voluntary system where each boat respects the rights of others. Albright first came to Islamorada in the Keys in the 1940s, when the sport fishing industry there was in its infancy. He soon became a favorite guide of baseball great Ted Williams, and together they caught the first tarpon over 100 pounds on a fly. He is most remembered today for his Albright Knot, used for joining lines of greatly different diameters.


The Albright Knot is one of the best knots to join lines of widely different diameter or material. Developed by Captain Jimmie Albright in the 1940s, the knot is still widely used today. Common uses of the Albright Knot are joining heavy monofilament shock tippet to a class tippet, tying fly line to backing, or tying monofilament to single-strand wire. The Albright Knot is easy to tie and smooth when finished, but great care must be taken to tighten the knot carefully.

* Fold the end of heavier material over itself, forming an open-ended loop (in this case the knot is shown joining a piece of single-strand wire, the heavier material, to monofilament tippet material). Pass the monofilament through the folded-over section and then begin to wrap it back over itself and the loop, toward the closed end of the loop (figure 1).

* Take 10 to 12 closely spaced, tight turns over the loop, ensuring that no turns overlap. Pass the end of the monofilament through the end of the closed loop so that it exits the loop on the same side it entered (figure 2).

* Tighten the knot by holding both ends of the wire in one hand and pulling on the tag end (the end that will be trimmed off) until it tightens (figure 3). Then pull on the standing end of the monofilament (the end that goes to the rest of the leader) until it tightens. Repeat once more with the tag end and then the standing end. Then pull tightly on only the standing end of the wire and the tippet (figure 4). Trim both tag ends. If the knot is to be used to attach fly line to backing, coat the knot with a waterproof flexible cement or super glue so that it slips through the guides easily.


Founded in 1968 and located in the town of Manchester, Vermont, the American Museum of Fly Fishing is a unique repository of fly fishing's historical past. Items on exhibit and in the collection include rods, reels, flies, manuscripts, artwork, and photography. The goals of the AMFF are to gather and preserve these objects as well as allowing the public to view and appreciate them.


The Anglers of the Au Sable is a 600-member non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of Michigan's Au Sable and Manistee River watersheds. Formed in 1987 to defend a catch-and-release section on the Au Sable, the organization soon became the watchdog of coldwater resources in this area. They have protected their river systems from many threats, and have taken on organizations from the National Guard to mining companies, as well as sponsoring telemetry studies of trout movement, studying the effects of canoes on fishing, and improving habitat by constructing in-stream structures.


Ants are favorite foods of trout and other freshwater fish. Fish seem to relish the taste of ants and will go out of their way to eat ants that fall into the water. Ants constantly patrol the banks of rivers during the warm months, and everything from large black cap carpenter ants to tiny brown ants may be eaten. Besides ordinary wingless ants falling into the water, during the summer and fall months ant colonies grow wings and migrate, and when they do, they seem to be attracted to water, where they fall onto the surface, often in large quantities. At these times, trout feed with abandon and having a flying ant imitation is every bit as important as having the correct mayfly imitation during a hatch of aquatic insects.

Ants don't float very well, so imitations of these insects should float low in the water. Often tiny yarn or foam indicators are tied on top of ant flies so they can be seen by the angler. In addition, the slightest riffle can sink a floating natural ant, so sunken imitations of ants can be as deadly as those that float, but should be fished with a strike indicator so takes can be seen.


Excerpted from The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing by Tom Rosenbauer. Copyright © 2010 Tom Rosenbauer. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tom Rosenbauer has been a fly fisher for over 35 years and was a commercial fly tier by age 14. He has been with the Orvis Company for 25 years. Tom has fished extensively across North America and has eight fly fishing books in print. He has also been published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Fly Fisherman, and many others. Tom lectures on fly fishing from Maine to California and lives in southern Vermont on the banks of a small trout stream.

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