Fly Fishing Getting Started – Excellent Advice for Beginners

Graeme Smith being assisted by West Coast guide Zane Murfin.

Fly Fishing – Getting Started – Why quality advice really makes a huge difference

By Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith being assisted by West Coast guide Zane Murfin. Fly Fishing Getting Started
Graeme Smith being assisted by West Coast guide Zane Murfin – Fly Fishing Getting Started. 

Fly Fishing Getting Started. A lot of mystique surrounds fly fishing. Some of this is perpetuated by fly fishermen themselves but mostly it stems from non-fly fishermen looking at what was for me at first, a confusing array of fluffy hooks, strange gear and complicated fishing techniques. Let’s take a look at getting started, what’s involved, and some good short-cuts to success.

I couldn’t understand why a bloke would get all togged up in waders, hat, Polaroids, topped off with a vest bulging with a dozen pockets stuffed full of enough accessories to spend a week camping complete with a net hanging down, then spend most of his time walking along the bank peering into the water without actually fishing!

Like a lot of fishermen, I preferred to tie a spinner onto a line and toss it into the water to retrieve, egg beater style, in the hope of catching something. This is what I’d learnt to do as a kid and it seemed to be a reasonably productive way to fish. I’d used this method on rivers, around lake edges and off the back of boats. It was also, cheap, quick and easy.

But there was a prevailing sense of mystery and intrigue attached to fly fishing that was never attributed to the thread line. I had a distinct impression that my preferred method was a little distasteful, common, or at least not particularly lofty. Why this is so I can’t really say, except that I kept noticing fly fishing and it’s accessories as part of the decor in fancy bars and clothing shops, in magazines and even TV advertising inevitably showed fly fishing rather than spinning.

Why was it that a framed tray of dry flies looked so important hanging in the foyer of a posh resort when a rack of Tasmanian Devils didn’t quite fit the bill? How come a tattered old black and white photo of a man holding a huge trout in one hand and a trusty cane fly rod in the other commanded such reverence?

Then there were the books and manuals on fly fishing that filled shelves down at the library. Lavish reference books, encyclopaedias really, with hundreds of classy colour photos of fishing, casting and close up shots of flies, the various stages of their construction and even pictures of the pesky insects that I only used to swat on the side of my neck in irritation.

Some of these books were written about our waters decades ago by English fishermen on expedition here in our colonies and some were even written before the turn of the century. And, until very recently any-
way, there were none on the humble thread line.

There was obviously something more to this fly fishing lark that still alluded me. Then one day I was out
with a mate fishing the middle section of Broken River. We’d gone in over Flock Hill Station ($10 road toll). As we drove past Winding Creek, he told me stories about taking several large trout on the fly rod along this excellent looking piece of water which was not fishable by spinning. My interest was aroused.

Leaving the vehicle at the top of a knoll, we dropped down into the river about five kilometres upstream from the old coal mine. Broken River is fordable all the way down to the Waimakariri River, although we did link up a couple of times for crossings as the snowmelt was still contributing to the flow.

It was early in the season and the typical Nor’wester had begun to freshen. This didn’t bother the thread liners as we began our downstream technique.

The idea in downstream spinning is to cast across the flow and let the lure sink as it sweeps across and clown, preferably dropping into a lie or hole through which the imitation is slowly retrieved. You do this a few times and then carry on downstream to the next likely looking place. Sweeping behind large rocks can be especially rewarding and soon Roland had his first fish of the day on. It was a good looking 3.5lb rainbow. A few pools further down he had another fish on but it lived to tell the tale.

3.5 pound rainbow trout from Broken River.
A 3.5-pound rainbow trout from Broken River. Click to enlarge.

Soon after, I struck a decent-sized fish in a large swirling pool but it too had strong instincts for survival and spat out the hook.

Then at a sharp bend in the river where the current ran square on into a cliff, Roland hooked into a beauty which immediately screamed off downstream. It was too fast for him and even though he set off in hot pursuit it broke off.

“I wonder if he’s left a mate in the pool,” Roland grinned as he came splashing back to the spot where the take had been.

“Only you could be so lucky,” I challenged.

Casting over and across he let the line sink and come around into the deeper part of the lie.

“Whack,” went the line and blow me down if there wasn’t another hungry fish in there. This one wasn’t quite so fortunate and the brown hen was soon bagged and weighed at 6.5 lbs.

“At the beginning of the season they are sometimes still pared up after the spawning”, Roland explained nonchalantly, “I wonder how big that jack was.”

We carried on like this and in three hours between us, we hooked eight trout, the biggest being the brown just landed.

I thought I must have died because I was in heaven. To be in a high country stream fishing “boots ‘n’ shorts” with a good mate was bliss.

At the old coal mine, really it’s just some evidence of a coal mine with rusted hulks of pipework and boilers and railway tracks, we sat and ate our lunch.

“Do you know there are three stages a bloke goes through with fishing?”

I looked up interested enough for Roland to continue, not knowing that what he was about to say would change my attitude towards fishing forever.

“First a guy wants to catch as many fish as he can,” “Yeap, that’s me,” I thought.

“Then he wants to catch the biggest trout, then he wants to catch the most difficult trout.” I still wasn’t very clear about what exactly he was trying to say and it must have shown.

In the hour of brisk walking it took to get back to the truck Roland told me that he consistently caught four times as many trout while fly fishing as to spin fishing, that fly fishing was more fulfilling and the big bonus was that you mostly spotted your fish before actually casting to it, therefore, increasing your chances immensely. That did it. If today wasn’t one out of the bag then what was? I decided to get into fly fishing.

Fly Fishing – Getting Started – But where to begin?

I figured the way to cut through the mystic and nonsense that I still felt surrounded the sport was with information. Knowledge dissolves most unknowns. And knowledge could be gleaned from lots of places including mates, books, tackle shop owners, videos and clubs to name a few. And I must say that this was the most difficult stage.

Unless you are fortunate to start as a kid and have a Dad or older brother to show you the way over the course of many fishing escapades, the learning curve is very steep. It’s difficult to assimilate all the information, to master the basics of casting, to get used to much smaller hooks, line and different knots, then put it all together and have an enjoyable day on the water. Everyone was most helpful in their own way, but I still nearly gave it away a few times. The books I found confusing, the videos I found too optimistic and, I think, I ran the patience of a few friends when they took me out.

Looking back the turning point was attending a fly fishing class held during the winter over eight evenings. For a modest fee, I sat in a class of about 15 aspiring students of all ages and had an excellent tutor of vast experience spend two hours telling us all we needed to know.

He started at the very beginning (“This is a fishing rod” was the opening statement) and took us right through all the stages. He said the aim of the course was to prepare us well enough that we could go out to a river and catch a trout on the first day. And he was right. His enthusiasm was admirable and he always stayed behind after to answer questions. Here was a man who worked all day in a tackle shop, spent his weekends fishing, his evenings fly tying and teaching classes, and in his spare time took fishing trips up north! What further proof of dedication could you want? Give Malcolm Bell at The Complete Angler, Christchurch, a call for more information or check the night classes being run at high schools.

That Basic Fly Fishing course really got me going. I could now confidently arrive at the river, select the appropriate fly from a basic selection I’d been told about then proceed upstream spotting for fish.

By now I was catching one or two every other day I went out. Even so, it was frustrating coming home empty-handed half the time. It was about this time that I had to start explaining to people (mostly my unconvinced wife and workmates) that fishing was about quality, not quantity! I would wax on about the worst day’s fishing being better than the best day at work. But after a while, this sounded a bit thin even to me, and I was anxious to up my score. I knew I was doing all the right things, I had all the right gear, but I was a long way from joining the minority group of 10% of the fishermen that catch 90% of the fish!

The next most significant thing I did was to shout myself a day out with a professional fly fishing guide on the West Coast.

Now I can hear the howls of derision and pain felt in the back pocket. New Zealand is a great “DIY” place where most blokes still prefer to learn by experience and tips gleaned from mates over years and years.

But think about this, how often can you spent 10 hours with a man who has probably averaged 100 days out per season, has spotted, stalked, and had his clients catch over 500 trout per year, is taking you to his favourite places, does not do any fishing himself, and is there wholly and solely to get you onto as many fish as he can?

How many mates will really drive you to a pristine pool, tie on exactly the right nymph, spot a 5 lbs aquatic beauty then talk you through casting, calling the strike and help you to bag and weigh it,

even take your photograph prior to release, then do that over and over again all day?

The experiences gained and sheer exhilaration of catching trout after trout was ten times more valuable than all the books I’d read or well-meaning tips I’d received up till then.

If fishing was my quality recreation, then this was the highest quality I could have expected and I was not disappointed.

So here I was, out with my guide, Zane, ready for a day to remember. I didn’t know what to expect. I was almost like a lad out on his first date. It had felt strange to even pick up the phone and call him. I felt nervous and self-conscious But he reassured me that we would have a great day, that we would get into some beautiful country and, although there were no guarantees, he would do his level best to put me onto some big trout.

In the first two hours, I had cast to nine trout had landed four and one was weighed at 5.25 lbs! I was spotting trout, placing the nymph near them, seeing them swing in to take, even seeing the ‘white wink’ as their mouths opened for the take, then playing them for all I was worth to have another in the net. All that I had seen and almost disbelieved on the videos was actually coming true. After lunch, the fishing seemed to go quiet for a time. Now accustomed to the procedure, I fell in 20 meters behind as my guide quietly moved through the grasses on a low bank above the waterline. He was peering ahead, 30 to 40 meters at times, watching” for a shape, a shadow or even a smudge that would indicate a fish ahead.

Around the next bend, Zane spotted a dark profile and signalled with the now-familiar low wave that I should prepare myself for a cast. Instead of my going up, he came back and said, “Fish ahead, feeding vigorously, but I’m not sure what on. The conditions have changed and I don’t think you’ll get a second crack at this guy. I’ll change your set up”.

With that, he snipped the double nymph off and expertly retied a black gnat as an indicator with a small hare and copper trailing.

“Cast well up under that hanging branch and we’ll see what he thinks of it.” Unlike this morning I had overcome my ‘buck fever’ with few duffed shots. However, this cast was too far out to the left, although it did have enough distance on.

“Damn”, I thought, knowing that I couldn’t recover it for another try.

“Leave it, he might see it”, called Zane.

Just then I saw the mighty swirl of his tail with enough power to stir up a cloud on the bottom as my fish accelerated towards the presentation. Preparing myself for a hit on the nymph, I was surprised to see the fish breakthrough like a surfacing submarine complete with bow wave and dorsal fin as a coning tower. Half it’s flank exposed and with the sound of a shovel full of water being tossed into a bucket, it took that gnat in one feeding frenzy moment. I didn’t wait for the strike, I was too spellbound to do anything having never experienced anything like this before. “Strike,” I heard far off in the distance, as Brian called me to my senses.

I was too late really, but luckily that trout was well hooked and I soon had another fish in the net to add to my tally.

“Well played”, said Zane, “I didn’t think it would go for the dry like that.”

The last fish of the day was taken on a big Royal Wulff as the sun had set and I was having trouble seeing in the fading light What a day I’d had. Nine trout landed, probably ten or twelve lost and up to thirty fish spotted for the day.

As we sat on his tailgate and peeled off our wet gear Zane asked me if I was going to be in the area for a few more days. I was heading home the next day but had enough time to put in a good morning.

“Well, in that case, I’ll put you onto a beautiful little spring creek that not too many people know about,” Zane said and commenced to tell me all about it complete with a little map drawn on some lunch wrapper. What more could a man ask for, I wondered as he dropped me off.

Zane Murfin, Strike Adventure.

Next morning I spotted four trout, had three on and landed one. Not as good as with the guide but I felt infinitely more capable. And not bad for a guy who in two seasons had come from complete novice to now spotting trout, selecting a fly, then casting and landing them about 50% of the time.

I knew now that Roland had been right when he said fly fishing was so much more fulfilling and productive than thread lining. Don’t get me wrong though, I still pack my spinning gear and use it on some of my trips away because there are plenty of occasions when it’s useful.

But the sportsman in me prefers to use the #5 weight Sage rod and 3 lb tippet when stalking a big wily brown in a seldom-visited stream. It seems to even up the odds somehow.

In the meantime, I’ve attended an Advanced Fly Fishing course given by Chappie Chapman and also a fly tying course taken by John Morton (John Morton has since passed away).

Both these courses are highly recommended, are excellent value for money and accelerate the learning by years. Also, the books now make more sense and the videos are very helpful. It’s probably fair to say that I can now absorb a lot more information by simply adding it to what has gone before.

The whole confusing process of getting started seems an age ago, but it was worth the effort.

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