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5 Steps for Beginning Fly Fishing

July 31, 2023

By Jackie Badenhorst

This is a guest article originally written by Nelson Oxley, Flylords. Images of Topo Designs co-founder Jedd Rose (and son, Finn) by Preston Hoffman, Flylords.

The hype is real once you see your fly gets eaten or your dry fly taken down by a fish of any size. Fly fishing is one of the most popular outdoor activities people take on, and the best part about it is you can do it anywhere–whether you live in a city, in a rural area, or in another country. In South Africa itself, you will find plenty of fantastic fly fishing destinations.

Fly fishing is the sport of choice for those that love combining the beauty of the outdoors with the excitement of reeling in an impressive catch. Are you ready to get immersed in the fly fishing world? Then continue reading Nelson Oxley’s basic guide explaining 5 steps any beginner should approach before getting on the water.

Step 1: Hold the Fly Rod just like you shake someone’s hand

As simple as this sounds, fly fishing is something that everyone is skeptical and afraid of when first trying. I get it. I see it every day.

While approaching this first step, hold the cork of your fly rod with your dominant hand. When you hold the cork, hold it as you are shaking someone’s hand, with your thumb on top of the cork. There are a few different reasons why we do this, but I will get into this further in my steps.

When you’re holding the fly rod with your dominant hand, you have your trigger finger that can always be locked down on the fly line that comes out of your reel. I believe that this is one of the most important steps in fly fishing. Your trigger finger should be locked on the fly line at all times when your flies are in the water. As there are exceptions to when you cast to allow more line to flow out of the rod tip, always keep your trigger finger locked on the line. This simply allows you to have tension in the line if a fish eats your fly through your drift. If you were to ask my clients a few of my favorite words when I’m guiding, I always say, “trigger, trigger, trigger,” this helps when a fish eats; you can set the hook properly with good tension.

Step 2: Casting

The fun part. Don’t be afraid. Go to the park, somewhere that has nice green grass that won’t mess your fly line up, something I do before I take my clients to the river. There’s a variety of different casts you can make; however, while fishing for trout, you only need two different casts to accomplish catching trout.

  • The Roll Cast: The roll cast is easy. Take this step by step. Most likely, I use the roll cast primarily when fishing in a small stream or wade fishing in a river. Let’s say you are at the end of your drift, still on the river’s right-hand side. You will know when your strike indicator or point dry fly is ready for a cast once it is parallel with your right hip. Trust me, be patient; fish still eat down there… From this point, strip your line in, not too far, just enough. Raise your rod tip up with your fly line out of the water, angle your rod tip back towards the bank, and roll your wrist where you want your flies to go. I always look where I want to cast before I make the movement. Another way to think of this is when you’re ready to cast at the end of your drift, your wrist will be open, raise the rod tip, and close the wrist through the movement of your cast.
  • The False Cast: When trying to get distance, streamer fishing, dry-dropper, or nymphing, strip your line in and bring your rod tip back behind you in the air. While doing this, if you don’t have a lot of the line out, your movement will be quicker back and forth. Don’t go fast; move fluidly, stopping the rod tip behind you to let the line straighten out, and push your thumb down when releasing your flies into the water. Most people use the false cast when fishing dry flies (flies that sit buoyant on top of the water surface) to dry the water off the hackle or foam. This allows for a cleaner, better presentation for those dry flies. With streamers, be more patient. Allow the line to straighten out fully behind yourself, then push the thumb down where you want your fly to go.

Step 3: The Strip

The strip is something we like to do for a few different reasons:

  • Line Management: When our flies are dead drifting in the river, I always like to explain that we are casting our flies into a dead drift on a clock system. If we are wade fishing, naturally, you would cast your flies upstream. If you are standing on the river’s right-hand side, your drift would be clockwise. Meaning if you were to cast towards 10 or 11 o’clock, you would naturally have a line that accumulates and bunches up through your drift once you reach 12 o’clock. At this point, since we have a lot of slack in our line after we cast, and a fish eats our fly, it can be very challenging to try and get a solid hookset with a lot of slack. To minimize this, we can slowly strip our line in with our non-dominant hand below our trigger finger. When we do this, take your left hand if you’re right-hand dominant, and strip below your trigger finger down to your waist.
    *dead drift – also known as when you’re trying to get your flies drifting naturally down the water column
  • Strip the line as opposed to going for the reel when a fish eats your fly most times. For example, a lot of people struggle with keeping their trigger finger on when a fish eats a fly. Instead of going for the reel, revolution after revolution, try to strip the line in as opposed to going for the reel. In some scenarios, you’ll have a large trout who want to pull a line, which is always exhilarating. Find the happy medium of allowing the line to slide through your trigger when the fish wants to run either upstream or downstream. If you have a lot of extra line below your trigger finger and the fish wants to run, let it go through, and then get on the reel. I always like to mention enjoying the fight. Be patient. Let the rod do the work, and keep the rod tip up when you’re hooked up on a nice fish. Always keep that trigger locked and loaded…
  • Before re-casting, always strip your line in. Trust me; you’ll understand if you don’t strip your line in if you have a lot pulled out on the surface of the water. Do yourself a favor, take your non-dominant hand, and pull the line below your trigger finger down to your waist before re-casting. Always try and keep the colored fly line out of the rod tip. This allows for a much more accurate cast and less of a fandangle while trying to manage the line once you get back into a dead drift.
  • We can also use a strip set when streamer fishing, something explained in my third step.

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Step 4: Set, Set, Set!

The most important to some. If fishing a dry fly, a fly that sits buoyant on top of the water surface, you might have an eager trout that noses up to eat your fly. You physically will see the trout hit the fly on a water surface. Be patient as the fish eats; set your fly rod. This can be achieved by lifting your arm up in the air.

The best way to explain this step, since your thumb is on top of the cork (and hopefully your trigger finger is on the fly line), is to simply raise your thumb up in the air above your head… If you get to this step when fly fishing, don’t hesitate, and don’t drop the fly rod down. You want to keep your fly rod elevated or with a good bend in it. Don’t crank it in right away if it’s pulling hard. Simply create tension with the rod by pointing your thumb up in the air and keeping the rod tip up. In most scenarios, if you dip the rod tip down, most likely it’s game over. Be patient. Keep the rod up, and strip that line in.

A lot of people don’t give fly fishing patience–something I’m still trying to embrace, but anyone will tell you fly fishing isn’t just about catching fish; it’s the journey of where it takes you, the people you meet, and the things you learn while being on the water.

Step 5: Go explore!

When starting fly fishing, it can be frustrating trying to come up with good spots. The best advice is to do more research on your local area or give a local fly shop a call. This will allow you to better your awareness of local water and give you public access points to explore. Don’t forget to get a fishing permit and buy a dozen flies from your local shop.

Walking into a fly shop as a beginner can be intimidating. Any fly shop employee or guide wants to give you the knowledge and share their expertise on their local water to help you get into the sport we all love.

Anyone who chases different species of fish on the fly will tell you new exploration of different bodies of water is the most fun part about fly fishing. Fly fishing isn’t all about catching different species of fish. It’s about learning about your surroundings, adapting to what fish are eating, as well as putting your mind into a happy place. Go explore!

This article was first published on Topo Designs website. The author is a passionate fly fisherman with a lifetime of experience handed down through generations. From being a curious kid in the back of his family’s backpack during weekend fly-fishing trips to exploring Colorado Rivers as a teenager, his love for the sport has grown exponentially and, eventually, made him turn his passion into the profession of a fly-fishing guide and content manager of Fly Lords magazine.

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