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The Minimalist Approach to Fly Fishing

The Minimalist Approach to Fly Fishing
No vest here; all the stuff I need is in my shirt and wader pockets. Photo by Chuck Robbins.

So you're sitting in the easy chair, the kids romping about the floor, watching, say, "Fly Fishing the World." Suddenly it strikes you how much fun you've been missing all these years drowning worms, when instead you could have been chucking flies. But, damn -- from all you know and hear, fly-fishing is for rich guys. You know, fat cats who think nothing of plunking down a thousand bucks for the latest whiz-bang, yee-haw rod, and a reel costing at least half as much. And they don't even blink that a fly these days costs more than a -- a Bud Light, for cripes sake! Say it ain't so.

Okay, but first a couple disclaimers: My one and only claim in all of this is experience (50-plus years and counting). Thus, the ideas expressed are, of course, nothing more or less than personal opinion. In other words, no expert testimony; just a simple discourse on what works for simple-minded me. I should also point out I am not on any pro staff, e.g. I derive not one red-cent from the sale of rods, flies or whatever. I, too, detest the evil practice of outsourcing but. ...


Talking graphite rods now, as a guide I've tried, if only for a few show-me casts, rods of every sort -- $1000 rods, fire-sale rods, fast rods, slow rods, long rods, short rods, powerful rods and wimpy rods. I also field a lot of questions: Best make, best length and line weight, fast-action, slow and in-between and, of course, cost. Like, pray tell the difference between, say, an $800 Sage and a $100 Redington? (By the way, Sage owns Redington).

Obviously, 700 bucks gets you fancier nickel-silver furnishings as opposed to stamped aluminum; you also get a flawless finish and highest-grade cork grip, exotic wood reel seat and so forth. And, from a technical standpoint, the pricier rod gives you the latest breakthroughs in the ever-evolving development of graphite. Doubtless, you get a state-of-the-art tool (at the moment anyway, as I say graphite rods are ever-evolving) and doubtless, too, in the hands of an expert, it's well worth the extra cash. To be blunt, though, if you needed to ask, it's doubtful the extra cash would do much.

For the budget-conscious, or perhaps those who think they might like to give fly-fishing a go but would rather not take out a second mortgage in the bargain, I've got good news: Rod makers, unlike politicians, have not forgotten middle America. Truth be known, us average Joe's have never had it so good. It's hard to believe, but there are many really good, affordable, rods and rod/reel combos out there. So many, actually, that choosing can be the biggest hurdle. Albright, Cabela's, Cortland, L.L. Bean, Orvis and Redington all offer decent, very affordable rod/reel combos for under $200.

For example, one of my favorites, the Redington Pursuit, retails for the princely sum of $99.95, while $169 will get you a well-made large arbor reel and a padded rod/reel case to boot. Available in 2- or 4-piece (a personal choice; both handle and cast equally well; the 4-piece travels better, a real plus if airline travel is part of the plan.

Gone are the days when cheap rods had much the look and feel of your basic tricked-out broom handle. All the above are nicely finished with decent cork grips and traditional snake guides. Of utmost importance, all cast well on the mark at close range -- 10-15 feet -- with enough stuff to zing one effortlessly and accurately out to around 60-70 feet. Contrary to what you might see and hear, few trout fishing situations call for long casts. While this is not a how-to-fish piece, the better idea is to forget distance casting. Instead, work on stalking close and making accurate casts and drag-free drifts, achieving good hook-sets and using good landing technique.

How Much Rod Do You Need?

Day in, day out, big western rivers -- the Madison is one -- call for rods with enough stuff to handle big flies and big wind. A 9-foot 5- or 6-weight will handle all but the worst of it. For creek fishing you might want to consider an 8-foot or 8 ½-foot rod; same 5- or 6-weight line.


Like good affordable rods, good affordable reels are the rule rather than the exception. For example, an Orvis Clearwater (large-arbor) retails for about $80. Ross, Redington and Cabela's all market reels under $100. And all the above-mentioned rod/reel combos sport decent reels; more than adequate, especially considering how few trout pull hard enough to require the services of a sophisticated drag to haul them in. (A dirty little secret is that for most of us it never happens -- honest.)


Beyond the rod, reel, line, boots, landing net, wide-brimmed hat, polarized glasses, forceps, nipper and leader material, you need a basic fly selection; the keyword being "basic."

Trout eat all manner of bugs -- aquatic bugs and land-born bugs -- of which there are at least tens of thousands of possibilities. Trust me; even the most fanatic fly-hoarder will come up short attempting to match them all. And so would you or I. Trout also eat other fish and critters such as crayfish, frogs, mice and, well, just about anything and everything that fits in their maw.

Strive to accumulate a sufficient collection but still allow your fishing vest to be a comfortable addition rather than a painful burden. Again, trust me; it takes ruthless resolve to keep your fly collection from becoming literally a pain in the neck.

I started fly-fishing with a handful of dries and even fewer wets. Twenty years later, my overstuffed-with-fly-boxes vest threatened to burst its seams, most of the zippers having already given up. Naturally, with a quarter century or so under my belt I caught more fish but, in all honesty, once I got up to speed, not all that many more; certainly nowhere near enough to justify all those flies. An idea struck home one cold winter night as I was cleaning out the vest, reorganizing the many boxes.

In all those boxes a relative handful of bins were empty, or nearly so. Way more were missing few, if any. Though notoriously slow on the uptake, even I could see things had gotten out of hand. Truth was, most of the bunch had yet to be knotted to a leader. Downsizing was the obvious answer but, much like weeding out pro draft picks, choosing one over another takes some doing. Tip: Like empty fly box bins, empty fly shop bins are desperately trying to tell us something.

My paring down didn't happen overnight and, okay, I still tend to bring too many flies anytime I travel to unfamiliar waters. Otherwise, at least more often than not, I shove a box of dries in one pocket, a box of wets (nymphs, soft hackles and a couple of streamers, just in case) in another. I add tippet material, nipper and forceps, grab the rod and go for it. That's about as basic as it gets, and not only is it a good way to begin, but it also offers something for all us to bear in mind next time we sit down at the vise and realize there's yet another box all but overflowing.

As a rule of thumb, you lose about four times as many wets as dries to rocks, snags and such. Since hot flies tend to vary somewhat from creek to creek, leave the specific pattern choices to the pros in the local fly shops. But bear in mind also, much of a fly shop's bottom line depends on peddling flies. In other words, do not allow an over-zealous clerk to load you up unnecessarily.

A few mayfly (Para Adams) and caddis (Elk-hair), perhaps a couple attractors (Wulffs, Stimulators and such), a hopper or two, and maybe a couple ants are all you'll often need. You can always re-tool should you find the initial selection wanting. For nymphs, start with a few PTs, Hare's Ears, Prince and Copper John, and maybe a big ugly stonefly or two. Mix and match in a range of sizes, say sizes 10-20, with perhaps a couple 6-8 size stonefly nymphs. As I say, the hot flies tend to reside in the emptiest bins.

So there you have it. No need to mortgage the ol' shanty or sell off the family jewels. For about half the price of that wide-screen TV, you can be rigged up, standing in a neighborhood crick, waving a stick. Sweet, eh?

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