Updated: Jun 14
By Erin Flaherty
"You Can Be Terrible at Fly Fishing, and Still Catch Fish!"
If you've been led to believe, by social media content, and the pervasive presentation of fly fishing perfection, that you can only be successful after decades of experience, read on! Get Started in fly fishing with these easy pieces of advice that will point you in the right direction.
I’m not saying you will always be successful, but you should toss away the idea that you need to be skilled and knowledgeable to succeed or to feel like you belong on the river. After one year of fly fishing, I may occasionally look like I know what I’m doing based on a photograph where I’m wearing the right gear and landing a nice fish, but the truth is, I’m a bit of a disaster. I spend as much time untangling my line from sloppy back casts and pulling hooks out of various trees, log jams, and parts of my body as I do landing fish.
It still feels like a win. I know it won’t always be this way, and I refuse to let the journey to moderate skill be filled with frustration and imposter syndrome. You don’t need a lot of skill to have fun or to feel like you belong; the fish don’t give a shit, and neither should you. You can also be a total disaster and still catch a lot of fish, which is always an added bonus.
Arctic Grayling were my gateway fish. That is, they taught me to focus more energy on getting out than being good. They are voracious eaters that are not overly picky, and they are abundant in several of the river systems of west central and northern Alberta. You don’t need a perfect cast, a drag-free drift, or a complicated setup to land one. If I’m being honest, half the time I catch them by accident while preparing to cast or reel in my line. “Got one!” I yell with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old while trying to hide my surprise. Suffice to say, they are a great confidence booster for new fly fishers. They are, however, a protected species in Alberta, so targeting them here comes with some ethical deliberations–at least for me.
If catching lots of fish is key to your enjoyment on the river, I get it. But don’t focus on this when you’re getting started or you are going to miss out on a whole lot of adventures. If faced with the choice to revisit a location or strategy that has brought you success in the past or to explore a new, unknown area or strategy–you’re going to choose the former. And that’s fine. But it might be a slower road to improvement, and you just won’t be as much fun at parties. Sorry.
Of course, as you develop more skills, you will inevitably catch more fish and build your confidence (or so I’m told). But when you’re just getting started, I’ve learned that there are only a few things that you actually need to be good at in order to be successful.
Here are my top six skills to get started fly fishing:
1. Reading - (i.e., the regulations). Available in print and online. Not hard, but not a step to skip. Know what fish are in the body of water you are fishing, how to identify them, and what the regulations are. Easy.
2. Basic river etiquette - Be respectful (of land ownership, ecosystems and other users). I shouldn’t have to say this, but you’d be surprised. If there are other folks fishing on a stream when you arrive, say hello. Ask them what their plan is, then stay out of their way. Fish the areas they have already explored, or move on. Don’t get in their way, offer critique or ask for tips (unless they offer). Just let them have their moment and go find yours.
3. A couple of knots - Don’t go overboard here. You only need to be able to securely tie on a hook, leader, and some tippet. No need to get fancy. You can learn as few as three basic knots and be on your way. Or you can bring a cheat sheet. No shame in having to look it up streamside (been there!).
4. Remember to pinch the barbs - Get rid of the barbs on all of your hooks. If you forget once and learn the hard way, you can take comfort in knowing you will only do this once. Just learn and move on (and maybe wear eye protection, just in case).
5. Fish Handling 101 - Fairly intuitive, but it’s important to be familiar with a few key principles. You will get better and faster at this. Know the basics and do your best. Keep fish wet, be gentle, use your bare hands, and minimize their time out of water. If you are planning to harvest any fish, you will also need to know how to dispatch them effectively and humanely. Best to ask someone to show you. Catch and release if you are unsure.
6. Humility - You might look hardcore in all your new gear, but be humble, swallow your ego, laugh at yourself, and ask lots of questions. Do this, and you will never have a bad day on the river. You’ll also always have people who want to fish with you, which is never a bad thing.
Bonus Tip - Take a class! There are plenty of places where you can take a casting lesson or a full-fledged course.
The rest, my friends, is optional, and it’s nothing you won’t acquire along the way. Now get out there and embrace the adventure (disasters included).