IN 1992’s A River Runs Through It, there’s an especially memorable scene in which three men fish together on Montana’s Blackfoot River. After his brother catches a nice trout, Brad Pitt’s character, Paul, wades across the river, casting farther and farther in a beautiful 1-2-3-4 rhythm. In the late afternoon sun, the sparkles on the water are repeated in the graceful loops of the fly line, highlighted against the dark trees on the far bank. All the while, his father and brother watch and admire the beauty of the moment. In the years that followed, that Academy Award-winning moment sent untold would-be fishermen casting off into the waters.
Let’s say you never took the plunge. Maybe you never quite mustered the courage because you were afraid fly-fishing was too mysterious, or too difficult. Maybe you didn’t need another expensive hobby. Or you don’t really like trout. Or it was all a little elitist for your tastes. Take a breath. The reality is that you can get by without ever learning the difference between an Adams and a Zug Bug, a pheasant tail and a hare’s ear, a Griffith’s gnat and a Lefty’s deceiver, a roll cast and a double-haul, or your reel seat and a butt section.
But as many of my longtime fishermen friends are sure to attest, you don’t need a lot of gizmos and a pocket dictionary’s worth of jargon to get by. Many of them started fly-fishing as scruffy kids going after plump-but-willing bluegills from the bank, a dock or in a battered old flat-bottom boat. It was a good time then and still is today—fly-fishing at its simplest and, in some ways, purest. All it took was a sloppy 20-foot cast of a simple brim-killer fly using the most rudimentary rod and reel. Of course, as we got older, fished more and became more skilled, our luck increased. And we were hooked on fly-fishing.
Now back to those misgivings. Let’s start with the misconception that fly-fishing requires an almost impenetrable combination of knowledge, skill and mysterious talents that only rich or extraordinary anglers are privy to. In short: not so much. There is no need to be able to match casts with Brad Pitt’s character from A River Runs Through It. Elegant and enviable as that cast is, a few hours of lawn or city-park casting practice should have you casting well enough to hook a willing fish. After that, you can work on a cast that effortlessly reaches out 50 feet to hit a mark within a few inches of your target.
Once you’ve got casting in your quiver, the next step is presentation. Tricking a wily rainbow trout into believing that your fake morsel of mayfly floating on top of the water is the real deal does require some acquired skills, like picking just the right fly (that’s called “matching the hatch”), throwing a precise cast and drifting the fly by the fish in a way that looks completely natural. But it’s fairly easy to learn how to make a wooly bugger act enough like a minnow or a crawdad to fool a bass or a trout. Casts don’t need to be as precise, and minnows and crawdads move through the water on their own. Rather than striving for that perfect drift, the game is twitching the fly line back to you so the fly swims or crawls through the water. Casting any cricket-sized brownish fly toward a bluegill haunt and letting the fly sink as you wait for a tug? Even easier.
Now what about cost? There are rod-reel-fly-line combos out there for less than $200, and there are rods that by themselves will set you back more than $1,000. You’ll need to consider your budget and how serious you expect to remain about fly-fishing. I’ve fished for a couple of decades with two graphite rods that cost about $150 to $200 each. If you are inclined to skimp anywhere, I would skimp on the quality of the reel; in some ways, the adage that the reel is just a place to store your line when it’s off the water is accurate. No need, either, to dress like you just stepped out of the pages of some trendy fly-fishing magazine. You can start with the basics, although starting with a rusty Band-Aid box to carry your flies might be carrying things too far.
It is not necessary to travel to exotic destinations to have some quality fly-fishing experiences. Some of the best fly-fishing in the world is available right here in Arkansas. The White, Norfork and Little Red rivers are famous for their abundant populations of several species of trout and record-breaking brown trout. The northwestern half of Arkansas has streams and lakes teeming with smallmouth bass, but you don’t have to go far to find bluegill, largemouth bass or even catfish in Arkansas. Any stream, pond or lake big enough to hold fish will do. And you can find a suitable spot without leaving Fayetteville, Harrison, Paragould, Pine Bluff, Caddo Valley, Poyen or … well, you get the idea.
So if you truly are interested in giving fly-fishing a try, there is no reason not to venture into the water. It doesn’t have to be expensive, far-roving or elitist. You can do it on the cheap, close to home and without knowledge of all the four-syllable words. See you on the water. Tight lines!
A Guide to Learning on the Fly
Assuming you’ve made the decision that fly-fishing is for you, here’s the skinny on getting started. Build on this advice as you go, and you’ll be even better prepared to buy the equipment that’s right for you and get out on the water.
1. Do Your Homework
Learn what you can throughout the process by talking to friends, and fly-shop dealers, and searching the internet for videos and how-to articles. This will help with making informed decisions about how to get started, how much to spend, what to buy, what gear is essential and what gear is optional at first, and where to fish on your first outing. Shops that specialize solely in fly-fishing include the Ozark Angler in Little Rock and Heber Springs, Two Rivers Fly Shop in Norfork, Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher in Cotter, the Natural State Fly Shop in Cotter, McLellan’s Fly Shop in Fayetteville, and Mark’s Fly Shop south of Mammoth Spring.
Consider purchasing a $100 to $200 combo package from a reputable sporting-goods store. These packages typically include a rod, reel, line and leader/tippet (monofilament or fluorocarbon line connecting fly line and the fly). Another option is to consult and buy from a local fly shop; you’ll get personal advice and service tailored to your needs. A 5-weight rod is a good first choice for all-around fishing (suitable for trout, sunfish and smaller bass). You’ll also want line nippers (a tool for clipping leaders and tippets) and a pair of forceps (a plierslike tool for removing small hooks from fish). You’ll want something to carry your flies and other equipment; that can range from a fly box and a couple of shirt pockets to a fully stocked fly-fishing vest or fly-fishing pack.
If you’re OK with wading wet, you can get by with some grippy wading boots that will keep you right-side up while wading (you don’t want to fall and break your brand new rod). If you’d prefer to keep your feet dry, you’ll want to spring for a pair of waders, either stocking-foot or boot-foot (stocking-foot waders paired with wading shoes provide better ankle support, whereas boot-foot waders are more convenient). You’ll also need to decide if you want lightweight waders (for spring through fall wading) or neoprene waders (for winter wading). And if you don’t have a lucky hat, you’ll want one to keep the sun and that errant fly away from your eyes.
Practice casting BEFORE you head to the water. I recommend watching some instructional videos, then spending an hour or two casting on a lawn with an accomplished friend. If so inclined, you can make yourself a practice casting rod by attaching some heavy yarn to a cheap rod tip, then practice from the comfort of your easy chair while you watch TV. Your cat will love it. Your significant other might not. Mind the ceiling fan.
Decide what species of fish you want to target on your first several outings, then ask a buddy or consult a fly shop for advice. I would start fishing for bluegills and other sunfish or bass. Pick a few flies recommended as go-to flies for those species. Wooly buggers, popping bugs and hare’s ears are among my favorites.
6. Where to Go
Find a spot that is easy to fish for your first trip (particularly if you go by yourself). That means one that has easy access, is easy to wade and has spots where you can cast without worrying about those pesky fly-eating trees and bushes. If you’re already an angler, you probably know some of these spots. You’ll just need to look at them through another lens. Otherwise, you’ll need to “phone a friend” or do some scouting before you go.
Want to get a line on fly-fishing? Read our former editor’s account trying it for the first time at arkansaslife.com/afield-i-tried-it-fly-fishing