Starting out we don’t have much. Over time we figure out what we need and what we want to live our stories. What we need, and what we want. In fly fishing, if you are not careful, thinking you need things you don’t could keep you from enjoying some great days on the river and ultimately a nice fish here and there. Here’s what I learned starting out and why I believe, when it comes to becoming a fly fisherman or woman, you don’t need much.
When I turned eighteen, my mother cried, and I walked onto an airplane bound for Colorado Springs, Colorado, the United States Air Force Academy, and a great adventure. I traded my love of writing and art for science, and the pursuit of my dream to fly fighter jets. All I brought with me was a small high school gym bag with my toiletries and one pair of clothes.
Even if I had brought all I owned though, it would not have mattered. I had no fly fishing gear to speak of at home. It was the beginning, back then.
But I had bigger obstacles between me and a trout stream.
1. I had very little money and no car.
2. I was not allowed to leave the Academy.
How much is very little? $165/month was the income of a fourth class (freshman) cadet in 1998. $165 is not nothing though. I was happy to have it. The other more direct problem was that we were not allowed to leave the property without a pass.
Over the Fence
Thus, the term “over the fence” becomes relevant. The phrase and its meaning were introduced to me in this environment as the solution to all my problems.
Simply stated, going “over the fence” meant that in order to accomplish what was required, you would sneak off base, execute your business, and then return. There are all sorts of motivators that drive a eighteen-year-old USAF Academy cadet to go “over the fence.” While this story is about fly fishing, girls and alcohol were also highly motivating. It did not take long to discover the benefits of going over the fence in pursuit of all three.
A trip “over the fence” seems harmless, but the consequences of being caught were harsh. Confinements and marching tours, two things that sound as painful as they are, were common disciplinary measures meant to enforce rigidity and obedience. A sad state of affairs.
Fortunately, sixty years of Air Force tradition and discipline was not enough to keep my friend and I from a trout stream.
My comrade and I borrowed an upperclassman’s car keys, smuggled our only pair of civilian clothes into our government issued backpacks, and slipped out of the dorms in uniform while no one was looking. We followed the least traveled path, which was also outlawed and appropriately dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, nearly a mile to the junior parking lot, and over the fence we went.
Where Do Two Broke Kids Go to Buy Fly Fishing Gear?
I don’t recommend heading to Walmart to buy your first fly fishing rig, but I am not opposed to it either.
We bumbled through the necessities in the aisles of Wally World. Our combined knowledge resulted in successfully grabbing all we needed.
It wasn’t much, because it couldn’t be. The bag of fly fishing kit we carried out was low quality for sure, but to us it was gold.
The Bare Essentials.
Here is my list of essential equipment to begin fly fishing. Proven out of necessity and scarcity of resources, combined with an unwavering dedication to fling flies to trout while trapped in a Catch-22 of my own making. Surrounded by the beautiful trout waters of Colorado with little opportunity to reach them and no money regardless, these items was all I could muster twenty years ago.
- Rod and reel. Mine was a $40 fly rod, 9-foot 5/6 weight. Bread and butter starter rig in my book. The rod came with a reel and fly line.
- Tapered leader. Three pack 9-foot 5 X. Had I known what a leader killer I would develop into, I would have bought three packs and skipped the fly box.
- Tippet. I grabbed only 5X, because you don’t really “need” 4X and 6X tippet. Am I right?
- Some split shot and strike indicators. These were for nymphing, which was new to me then, but I am so thankful I was introduced to it on the streams in Colorado. As a beginner I think it is important to fish wet flies and dries.
- Nippers for cutting line.
- Gink to keep my dry flies floating.
- Forceps. I balked at these, but my friend assured me it would save a lot of stress on fish while removing hooks. He was right.
- Vest. At the time I thought I needed this. It did come in handy and it was shockingly cheap. I used it for fourteen years until I started using a necklace and shirt pockets.
- Fly box. Just one. Half for nymphs. Half for dries. About as cheap as you could get.
- Flies. A package set that I soon learned were of little value. I found better flies later.
If you would like some more advice or want to visualize these essentials watch this YouTube video from Mad River Outfitters. These guys are an amazing resource for the basics of fly fishing. Check out their YouTube series on beginners if you are truly fresh.
It’s Okay to Cheat.
I cheated. A little.
One of my business teachers was also the OIC Officer in Charge of the Fly Fishing Club. One thing about USAFA, if there is an activity you are into, they’ve got a club for that. The first time he looked at my bleak rig, he cringed and handed me a Ross reel which I still fish today. He also gave me flies to use when we went, and my friends and I would pool our resources in the fly department. At the time you could buy a fly at Dicks Sporting Goods for seventy-five cents.
Which Way the Stick Floats.
There is some knowledge required starting out, but not much. You need to know how to tie two knots. That’s it. I say the rest can be learned on the river. Here are some videos from Mad River Outfitters on tying these basic knots:
Surgeons Knot for tying leader to tippet.
Clinch Knot for tying tippet to flies.
Tying on droppers is not required knowledge but I think it helps you catch more fish most of the time.
Check out my article on fishing droppers:
Okay, so maybe there is one other thing that is good to know besides the clinch and surgeon’s knots. Where do these slippery critters hang out!?! One huge advantage I had starting out is that I knew about rivers and where trout lived in them. My time in the mountains and rivers of Montana, combined with a father who taught me early on about the woods and the rivers that flowed through them made searching for trout the easy part. Thanks for teaching me which way the stick floats Pop.
If you have absolutely no idea where to cast to trout there is always the internet. You can learn a lot from YouTube. Orvis is a great resource. Here is one of the better videos they have about where trout live in the river:
Also, there are some great fly fishing blogs out there.
Troutbitten | https://troutbitten.com/
Gink and Gasoline | https://www.ginkandgasoline.com/
The Wade | https://postflybox.com/blog/category/blog/
Moldy Chum | http://www.moldychum.com/
The Fiberglass Manifesto| http://thefiberglassmanifesto.blogspot.com/
They all live on my phone and are all great resources and well written.
Finally, if you can afford it, a day with a good guide can be helpful. Just be clear that your goal is to learn, and then prove it.
The Most Important Thing.
The thing that I needed more than any of the things we bought, was the need to go. The feeling of the river pulling me back was strong. You probably know this feeling. It is what makes us fly fisherman even though we may not wet a fly line as often as we’d like.
If it all seems overwhelming at first, chances are you are looking at it wrong.
Four years in Colorado chasing trout and girls and sometimes both on the same trip taught me that it’s a journey. You don’t need all the gear or all the answers.
Somehow, we made it out of there. Over the fence with a Walmart rod, hand-me-down reel, and enough gas to get us to the river and back.
I can remember the beginning vividly. Most folks can. If you are at the beginning now, then remember this: everyone started somewhere. And everyone’s starting out story is different. Have fun making yours. You don’t need much. Wadeoutthere.
Here I am. Over the fence twenty years ago.