Salt Fly
Salt Fly

Anyone can flyfish: A beginner's guide

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Mike Davis
28 August 2014

Many people, when first considering the possibility of taking up flyfishing, naturally see it as a tranquil, poetic sport that is done in beautiful surroundings. There’s one hiccup though - most newcomers perceive flyfishing to be a difficult sport that is hard to learn.

Often they only try it once or twice and then consequently give it away to pursue easier recreational activities because they either struggle to cast or don’t catch any fish. In reality flyfishing is not a difficult sport and you can start at any age in life. It is not that difficult to get to a competent level in which you have the skills to be able to catch a fish or two in a session.  

The biggest difference between anglers who have little or no luck and those who are competent is the understanding of where fish are most likely to be and why they are there at any given time. The difference between the competent and those who are in the top five per cent is huge but to get to a fish-catching stage is not that far away.  

From there, as long as you can get a cast at the fish with the right presentation, you are in with a shot.

The art of casting

Many people struggle with the idea of casting a fly and trying to understand that instead of a sinker loading the rod tip when it is being cast, as it is done when softbaiting or surfcasting, it is the flyline that sends the fly on its way.  

Once learnt, the art of casting a fly rod is quite simple and the skills needed to cast a fly well can then be taken across and used in many other different forms of fishing.

These skills will help any angler to improve basic casting, whether it be for distance or for accuracy.

Practice makes perfect

The greatest aid in helping people to fish successfully is to practice your casting on the grass well before you first go fishing so all you have to do is concentrate on the fish. You won’t have to cast a long way, just make sure that you load the rod when casting and turn the flyline and leader over before getting on the water.

Finding the fish

Once out on the water, if on a river and fishing upstream as you do when nymphing, study and learn where best to find fish. Their needs for survival are simple. Basic needs are adequate food supply, protection from fast currents and protection from predators.  

This is why pools on the corners of rivers become natural areas where both fish and anglers head to.

These corner pools have all the basic requirements with sufficient depth for cover, a constant supply of food and areas of soft water out of the main river flow for the fish to dart in and out of so they are not always fighting the strong river currents.

While pools are natural areas that always harbour trout, many anglers only ever move from pool to pool on their journey upstream and in doing so miss out on some of the best fishing.

Riffles and runs

If pools are a natural sanctuary for fish then riffles and runs are the food factories and when fish are found in these types of water they are always feeding, making them extremely important to the angler.  

Riffles and runs are shallower in nature than pools. Depth depends on the size of the river or stream but is generally between knee to waist depth, which means more sunlight can penetrate through to the rocks on the bottom. In turn this promotes more insect activity and therefore more hatches.

Riffles and runs are full of life and this is where all the hatches on rivers start. Trout get refuge from the fast currents where the water hits the rocks and boulders. This creates a pocket of calm water in front of and behind the rocks where the fish can sit in relative comfort, just darting out to take food.  

The best thing about fishing in areas of faster, bubbly water is the fish has very little time to decide if it wants the artificial fly or not.

They generally feed willingly in this type of water.

Look out for subtle changes in water depth. Often you may only see the bottom or the water change colour as fish will often sit in them. If a run is fairly straight and the water deepens towards the other side, in particular if the far side with the deeper water has vegetation lining the bank, the run will be a honey pot and must be fished. Keep and eye out for sunken logs and large boulders as fish love to sit in these areas also.

Choosing your flies

Don’t worry so much about the fly pattern as most waterways in New Zealand do not have large concentrated hatches and often mayflies, stoneflies and caddis can all be seen hatching at similar times, the exception being the Mataura and Tuki Tuki rivers.

As a general rule, to be consistently successful on most New Zealand rivers, practice hard and work on your presentation skills, especially if you are fishing upstream. Work really hard to obtain a drag free drift so your flies drift as naturally as possible in the currents and your hookup rates will go up instantly.

Take it to the lake

If you decide that lakes are where you want to start your flyfishing, as with rivers, you must work out where the fish are and why they are there as 95 per cent of the water will be barren. With this in mind, look for natural feed areas that the trout are naturally attracted to, or find their major food source such as baitfish or koura and the trout will not be far behind.

The most obvious place to start looking is to fish the feeder streams and rivers at the mouths where they either flow into the lake or are an outlet that drains the lake. These are natural areas that provide a constant supply of food that flows out to the waiting trout.  

They are also natural areas where both smelt spawn and trout congregate before they run the rivers to spawn over the autumn and winter months. Tributaries flowing into the lake also provide clean, cold water to the lake, which is invaluable to the trout when the lakes warm up too much over the hot summer months.  

Where the rivers spill out into the lakes they often form a shallow lip made up from sediment deposited from the river currents on the lakebed, which then falls away into the depths providing security for the trout. If you intend to fish a stream mouth after dark it often pays to walk the area during the day so you know exactly where the drop off is and how deep it falls away to.  

You will also then know how compact the lakebed is around the sandy lip. I will often drive a stake or a stick into the bottom so you then know where your safe wading limits are as an unexpected night time swim is not good. Usually, the larger the feeder stream, the deeper the drop off and the more trout that the particular area will hold.

When to fish

Apart from when the trout are chasing smelt in the shallows, the best times to fish the stream mouths are in the period of change of light, both in the morning dawn and from dusk, and into the darkness. Trout will come in much closer during these times and will be in casting range for all anglers.  

Try not to wade too far out as the fish will continue to feed right up in the shallows during the hours of darkness when the disturbance is minimal. Weed banks are another area worth exploring and casting along, especially when fishing on insect-based lakes such as Otamangakau and Lake Kuratau.  

Insects live in the banks of weed and hatch from here also, so trout will be cruising these areas all the time, particularly when damselflies and dragonflies are in the air. Weeds that fall away into deep water give fish both security and food so will be a real hot spot.

Presenting the fly

When retrieving your flies make sure that you keep varying your speed and count down before you bring them back in so you are covering different depths with every cast. Once you have worked out what depth the fish are at and what speed they prefer, you will find your success rates improving.

Budget flyfishing

​Flyfishing doesn’t have to be an expensive sport and nowadays companies like Manic Tackle Project have designed a range of entry-level sets under the Airflo brand, which are just amazing. Their entry level set starts at only $150 for the entire package, which includes the rod, reel, flyline, backing, rod tube and a free casting DVD.  

Only five years ago a comparable set like this would have cost the consumer around $500 so flyfishing has never been cheaper. Airflo also do a specific set for the kids to learn on which is called the Brookie. It only comes in a 6# and has a shorter, slimmer rod blank with a thinner handle that children from five-years-old can quite comfortably learn to cast with.  

My son started fishing with this outfit at five-years-old and is still using it now at nine. Airflo also have a range of different sets up to $500 in price. As you go up in price you get a lighter, quicker action fly rod, a better quality reel with a better drag system that comes with a top quality flyline that will cast further, float higher and last longer than an entry-level line.

Choosing your first rod

To keep things real simple when trying to decide what rod weight to buy, look at where you intend to fish the most and buy the best set for that purpose.  

If wanting to fish smaller streams or up in the back country buy a 5# or a 6# set and then if you intend to fish lakes or begin to chase fish over the winter period in the Taupo or Rotorua regions look at buying an 8# set up. The basic difference between the two sets is the 6# fly rod will flex further down the rod blank when cast.  

This means that the rod will load up closer helping the angler to cast short really well.

They are great presentation rods and perfect when fishing up in the hills in small to medium-sized rivers or in fairly tight confined spaces. They are also perfect for smaller lakes.  

An 8# fly rod does not want to cast short but will cast long distances with ease. The rod blank in the 8# is generally stiffer than the 6# and the rod tip recovers faster then the 6# so more flyline needs to be aerialised out through the rod tip when cast. Most 8# rods can handle very heavy flies and very heavy lines which make them perfect for the Tongariro or winter fishing in the Rotorua Lakes area.

When it comes to deciding on how many pieces the rod should come in, nowadays 99 per cent of the rods that we sell all break down into four pieces.  

Very rarely do we ever sell two-piece rods. The advantage that a four-piece rod has is that it can fit in the boot of the car so it can’t be seen by passers-by and it is easy to transport from point A to B. They are superb for packing up and tramping up into the mountains.

Where to fish

There tends to be two types of fisheries out there. Some fisheries will have large numbers of smaller fish and these places are great to learn your skills on.  

These include rivers like:

Waihou and Waimakariri in the Waikato and Lake Rotorua.  

Otamangakau, Rotoiti and Okataina

These places are really important as you fine tune your skills.

You will need to be prepared to put some long hours in to catch your fish. When you start exploring streams and rivers with low fish populations, you may only get one or two chances for your day’s fishing.

The big difference is the fish caught will be large and may even be that trophy that every fisho aims to catch. For the best results practice, practice and more practice and nothing beats time spent on the water.

The learning curve

In your quest to become a better fisherman there are a few things worth remembering. Serving your apprenticeship is never easy and when you look back at it you will swear that you are doing nothing different but now you catch more fish.  

You will go through stages of wanting to catch as many fish as possible, which will then lead into wanting to catch the biggest fish possible.

Enjoy the journey!

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