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New to Fly Fishing? Part 1: The Essentials

Fishing season has been delayed for many and as we navigate these challenging times, we are incredibly fortunate to have technology at our fingertips to socialize virtually. Throughout these past months, many of us are getting creative with our use of social media to host fly tying parties and planning sessions for when fishing season opens up in our region.

With the limited physical social interaction, it’s a breath of fresh air to chat with fellow anglers and those interested in getting into fly fishing for the first time. Many beginners have recently reached out with some fantastic questions, questions that all of us asked when we first began.

This blog article will be the first of a short series devoted to answering some of your most commonly asked questions. I hope that by unpacking my suitcase of tips and tricks gathered over the past five years, you will feel better equipped to venture out yourself this season.

Photo Credit: Tim Myers

Questions: What gear is essential to a successful fishing trip? And what rod, reel and line set up is best suited for the novice angler?

My first piece of advice here is to keep it simple when starting out. You don’t need to break the bank to get into fly fishing. You might even be able to find second hand items online or borrow a few essentials from a friend. 

Selecting the right gear can be overwhelming in the beginning. I initially thought it was going to be costly to get outfitted as I had in mind this vision of an angler decked out to the nines in fancy waders, boots, packs and a ton of gadgets in tow. You DO NOT need all of that to start fly fishing. Ultimately you need a rod, reel, line, tippet and one fly. However, I have included in the following summary, a few additional items that will serve you well as you embark on your fly fishing journey. Of course, as you progress, you may add further items that are best suited to you, the water you fish and the species you target. 

First things first – Rod, Reel and Line Set Up – With limitless options available it can be tough to choose, so let’s learn some of the basics. You will hear a lot about the action and the weight of a fly rod. Simply stated a fast action rod is stiffer than a slow action rod. Fast action rods unload fly line quicker and require more precise timing and technique. Because everything happens fast, good timing is required to property cast a fast action rod and this makes it more difficult for beginners.  Medium and slow action rods unload line slower, and can be more forgiving for a novice caster because the timing of your cast is more forgiving.  

The weight of the rod indicates what size fly line you can cast and this will vary depending on what you are fishing for. Generally the greater the weight, the more power the rod has. For trout fishing, usually a 4 to 6 weight is used. A 9 foot, 5 weight fly rod is what I use most for trout. For Atlantic Salmon fishing, generally 7 to 9 weights are most common for single handed rods.  I most often fish 9-10 foot, 7-8 weight rods for Atlantic Salmon here in Nova Scotia. 

Reels are what hold your line and they produce drag when fighting a fish. They balance your fly rod and will help you land that big fish. Like rods, reels are rated by weight. You want to pair your reel weight to your rod weight and both to your fly line weight.                                                 

When fly fishing you are casting at times small, almost weightless flies, so you use the weight of your fly line to deliver your fly to the fish. The weight of the line, combined with water tension, loads the rod and allows you to deliver your fly to where the fish might be. 

Again there are plenty of fly line options to discover. I started with a weight forward, floating line on my first 5 weight rod. A great place to start for your first set up are the combo kits available on the market that include your fly rod, reel and line.

Photo Credit: Tim Myers

Leader and Tippet – These materials are what connect your thick, coloured fly line to your fly. They are made of strong, durable, transparent material and are essential for catching fish. They complete the transfer of energy built up in your fly line during casting and this allows your fly to turn over smoothly as it reaches the water. The leader is the clear, tapered material that you connect first to the end of your fly line.

The tippet is the lighter weight material attached to the end of your leader. You tie your fly onto the tippet. Your goal is to choose the lightest, yet strongest, tippet possible to deliver your fly and successfully hook, play and land the fish quickly that you are targeting. The quicker you can play and land your fish, the better the outcome for that fish when you release it.

Chest Waders – Although you can wet wade comfortably on warm summer days or wear rubber boots fishing from shore or a from a boat, there’s plenty of great fishing that you will miss out on without a pair of waders to keep you warm and dry. Waders range in price so you’ll have to do some research to find a pair that fits your budget. When I first started, I borrowed an oversized pair for my first season. They weren’t fancy but they served their purpose. Later on, I found a great pair of gently used women’s waders online and then eventually I purchased a new pair as I began spending more time on the water. 

For the ladies reading, in the beginning I always wanted my waders to fit neatly so I didn’t look bulky but you NEED room for moving and for layering. In the Spring and Fall especially you must have room to accommodate multiple base layers, extra sweaters and extra socks. At times I wear 2-3 layers on the bottom and 3-4 layers on top. If your waders are too snug or too bulky, you will be uncomfortable and the seams may become compromised which will result in you getting wet and cold. Remember, you look best when you’re comfortable and enjoying your time on the river!

Photo Credit: Ray Plourde

Wading Boots – When spending a day searching for fish, you will be walking a lot. Some of the terrain along the river bank and river bed can be treacherous. Because of this a comfortable boot with good ankle support is important. Wading boots are unique in that they allow water to move freely in and out and stay lightweight. The stocking foot of your waders is what keeps your feet warm and dry. 

You’ll most often see two options of wading boots, those with felt and rubber soles. Felt soled boots are great for gripping wet, slippery, slimy rocks. Rubber or hiking soles are great when you have longer treks through the woods. And you can always add metal studs or cleats to your soles when you need serious grip and traction. 

When it comes to sizing, go up a size or a size and a half from your regular hiking boots. This allows room for your wader stocking foot and an extra pair of wool socks for those cooler days. Bear in mind that felt soles are more likely to transfer invasive species so rinsing between fishing destinations is a terrific practice to get into. 

Hemostats – I never leave home without these. They are invaluable for safely and quickly removing the fly from a fish. You can also use them to de-barb your hooks which is a regulation in many areas and also makes it easier to safely practice catch and release. 

Photo Credit: Tim Myers

Nippers or Snips – These are an inexpensive must have item. I have a pair attached to my waders, pack and jacket. I most often keep mine on a retractable lanyard or a zinger which allows for quick and easy access. You use these to cut your leader and tippet and you will use them whenever you change leader, tippet or flies. Some people even use a pair of finger nail clippers. If you choose to buy a true pair of nippers from your local fly shop, the best ones in my opinion have a little point on them that can be used for getting fly tying head cement or glue out from the eye of your hook. 

Polarized Sunglasses – Game changer. Period. I did not have a pair when I started fishing and anyone that did could always spot the fish showing before me. Where I fish, amber or copper coloured lenses offer the best visibility. A polarized lens cuts down on glare and allows you to peer into the water. With polarized lenses, I can see the river bed and structures within it, making for safer and easier wading. I can also more easily see fish stacked up and showing in the watery depths. 

Photo Credit: Tim Myers

Net – A quick catch and release with wet hands without a net is safe but it can be tricky to try to land an excited fish with your hands only. When we think about landing a fish it’s important to consider a few of their basic requirements for survival. They live in the water horizontally and instead of lungs they have gills. They beat their gills to move water through and pull oxygen from the water. The longer a fish is out of the water, the longer they are going without breathing. Needless to say, fish have a higher survival rate when we keep them in the water as long and as much as possible. Fish also have a protective layer of slime that keeps them healthy. If the fish comes into contact with a dry surface (hand, net, clothing, boat, etc.) their slime is compromised and therefore their health is compromised. So, when you use your hands or a rubber landing net, be sure both are wet before you touch the fish. 

It’s also important to note that fish have something called a swim bladder or air bladder. This is an internal gas-filled organ that contributes to fish controlling their buoyancy. If you squeeze a fish too hard by hand, you can rupture this organ. Using a rubber landing net that is kept submerged in the water will provide the best environment to safely land and release a fish. And it’s far easier to snap a quick photo of a fish while using a net especially when fishing alone. 

Thermometer – Checking the water temperature is important, both to ensure it is safe for the fish to be practicing catch and release but also for your fly and technique selection. For instance, in the early season fishing for brook trout, the water is cold and the fish are down deep and moving more slowly. In this scenario an angler is wise to think ‘low and slow’. You will typically want to use a wet fly and get your fly down to the level of the fish. You also want to move your fly more slowly in the water by slowing down your swing and your retrieve. 

Thermometers are also handy for record-keeping. I often briefly journal about the conditions, weather and water temperatures after a successful or even an unsuccessful day on the water for future reference. 

Pack or Vest – I have a few different packs that I alternate between depending upon the fishing trip.  If I am headed out for the entire day, a waterproof backpack works well for holding all of my gear, beverages and lunch. For shorter excursions, a smaller cross body sling pack or a hip pack is great. But when first starting out, an everyday back pack is more than enough to house your essentials. 

Personally, I have never found vests with large pockets in the front comfortable or easy to cast with on, but this all comes down to your preference.  When packing up for a long day of fishing, I take a selection of flies, head lamp or flashlight, waterproof container for electronics, a ziploc bag with toilet paper, lip balm and bug repellant. It’s also useful to carry an extra layer, toque/hat, buff and/or rain jacket. 

Photo Credit: Tim Myers

Fly Box or Fly Patch – A simple box to keep a few flies in is all that’s needed.  Look for them to be lightweight, waterproof and floating. A velcro fly patch that sticks to the interior of your pack or on your jacket is useful for drying wet flies before you return them to your fly box. It’s important to dry flies out after use because it prevents your hooks from rusting out. So if you are out on a rainy day fishing, be sure to open up your fly box and your pack to ensure everything dries fully.

And there you have it, that’s a wrap on essential gear for anyone looking to venture out on the water.  I hope you found a few useful tips to add to your arsenal this year. 

In Nova Scotia our season was delayed by one month. It opened on May 1st for brook trout and other fresh water species and will soon be open for Atlantic Salmon. Stay tuned for my next blog surrounding reading the water and fly selection. Until then… happy wading fisher folks!



  1. This is great, after being a rookie last year this the perfect intro to fly fishing. I’ve “bugged” so many fly fishers with questions and find myself so grateful for people like you willing to pass on the foundations of fly fishing without any hesitation!

    Thank you ?

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