Fly-fishing is intimidating. There’s the costly gear, piled high and pinned thickly onto expensive vests and hats. There’s the convoluted terminology, the increasingly difficult techniques, the shrinking access to public rivers.
As an outsider, it looks like a sport that belongs to the rich and early retired, like polo (on real horses!) and country club golf.
Then you meet Will Watters, and suddenly fly-fishing seems, well, like something you actually want to try. Something you’d maybe even be good at.
“There’s a cocky attitude you’ll occasionally run into,” admits the Colorado fly-fisherman who, along with his wife, Kelly, launched the fly-fishing and outdoor apparel company Western Rise, where quick-dry shirts and waterproof outerwear meant for the river are the main fare.
“But fly-fishing is about having a good time outdoors, waving a stick around with some feathers tied to the end of it. There’s no room for cocky.”
For Watters and legions of other fly-fishing lovers, the sport is the everyman’s pursuit, a nostalgic pastime and a way to enjoy nature without spending a fortune or maxing out your lung capacity.
“Growing up, we would fish Montana in the ice and snow, driving around the state fishing old holes and spots my grandfather knew from growing up, staying in dingy hotels and eating at roadside diners,” Watters says. Then, one summer, he made the transition to fly-fishing and “was hooked.”
“I was terrible!” he laughs. “The first fish I caught on a fly rod happened because I got frustrated with casting, hiked up to a bridge and lowered my fly down.”
Ready to cast your line (or, you know, lower it)? Then heed these tips from Watters and go find your river.
The amount of gear you see hooked onto brimmed hats and bulky fishing vests can be completely bonkers — but Watters says all you really need to get started is a rod, reel, floating fly line, leader, tippet and a couple of flies. (Confused? Just ask an employee at any good fly-fishing shop to help you find what you’re looking for).
“Another option is tenkara,” Watters says of the age-old Japanese method of fly-fishing favored by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. “It’s basically a collapsible rod with a line attached at the tip, which eliminates the need for a reel.
“It simplifies the learning process and is a wonderful tool for starting the sport.”
Learn the lingo
Mend: “The word all guides yell at their clients all day,” laughs Watters. And for good reason: It’s the most important thing you can do. Mending is the process of flipping your fishing line above the fly so that the fly can drift in the water without too much drag. Master the mend and the number of fish you catch will double.
Set: Another word yelled non-stop by fly-fishing guides, says Watters. “Set” means to set your hook into the fish’s mouth; once you feel a bite, yank the tip of your rod up quickly before the fish can spit it out or swim away.
Leader: The small section of monofilament of a fluorocarbon line between the line and the fly (you’ll know it when you see it).
Tippet: The small section of line added to the end of the leader where you’ll attach your fly.
Beer: An alcoholic drink flavored with hops that turns even your worst fishing day into a good one. “The most important tool of a fly-fisherman’s arsenal,” says Watters.
All together now
The fastest way to set up your gear? Watch someone else do it. But here’s the three-step primer: Put the pieces of the rod together, attach the reel and pass the fishing line through the guides on the rod. Done!
Watters says deciding on which fly to use is pretty simple if you stop and watch what’s around you. There are three main types of “bugs” you can use to lure in fish: caddis flies, stoneflies and mayflies. Each has a pretty distinct body type, size and color.
“As a beginner, don’t let this overwhelm you,” says Watters. “Fly presentation is far more important than which one you choose.” In the end, most fish won’t turn down a San Juan worm, says Watters.
Play it safe
Casting a line in the water may look peaceful, but you’re still standing in a river, so there’s some inherent danger. “If you’re wading, be cautious and know your footing is solid,” Watters says.
“Never cross your feet. If you’re floating, make sure the people you are with are experienced in rowing whitewater and [in] whitewater safety.”
Slow and steady
Watters says the main mistake newbie fly-fishers make is jumping right in the water, missing or spooking the fish that are right in front of them. Taking his time is something that took Watters a long while to appreciate.
“Just a minute of watching can tell you tons,” he says. “You will see what is hatching, how the fish are feeding, where they are holding and how you should fish.”