It's easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of gearing up. The excitement, array of equipment and expense can be daunting. Unchecked, fly fishing can be as gadget intensive as golf and as expensive as a Hollywood divorce. Where do you put your energy, time and cash?
Remember Rule #1: Don't buy anything yet. Get some instruction where you can try out a few rods to learn what you find most agreeable. Among the rods that seem best suited for the job, which ones will work with your abilities and purposes? In an introductory class, you should expect to learn a bit about essential equipment. Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and take notes. The trick is to get something that will help you learn, but that you will not quickly outgrow. By outgrow, I mean having your abilities outstrip those of the rod. If you never set foot in a fly shop again, go this time. You nearly always get great advice and ultimately save money.
Pick up a good book designed for beginners. We found Card & Rutters' Fly Fishing Made Easy to be a great resource. Our current favorite is Cathy Beck's Fly Fishing Handbook. Good basic information with wide margins to make your notations. Use your book. Write questions in it, underline, highlight, draw pictures. You won't regret it.
Rods - This should be your greatest investment. Generally the most appropriate rods to learn to cast and to fish with are 8 1/2 or 9 foot rods, carrying a line weight designation of 5 or 6 (the rod will be marked as such). Super fast or slow rods make learning more difficult and have more limited fishing applications. The rod should come with a protective case. Four piece rods are much easier to travel with, stow and pack. All of the rods we use, except for our few cane rods, are four piece.
Fly Lines - This is your next priority; don't be cheap here. There are far too many lines to detail here. The four we teach with, and recommend for beginners, are Scientific Anglers "Headstart," and"GPX," and Rio's "Rio Grande" and Mainstream. They are easy for beginners to feel through the casting stroke, resist dirt and abrasion, and float well. No line is "the best" for every rod and every situation; nor are these four. However, they will make learning with most rods easier and fish well. Some anglers never change to anything else.
Reels - A lower priority than the former two, but much more than "just a place to store line." After having the proper line capacity, reliability is the priority. Fishing time is too precious to be lost because a cheap reel broke or fell apart. Large arbor reels have been all the rage for some time now for good reason. You don't want to be frantically cranking the reel at 5,000 rpm's while watching loose line wrap around everything in site. There are some great used old smaller arbor reels out there. Generally used by loners who love tinkering with old cars, strong drink, and wooden boats. "Automatic" spring loaded reels have almost every negative attribute possible in a reel. Avoid them.
Leaders & Tippets - These are the transitional connections between your fly line and the fly. Modern packaged tapered leaders are great. Use them. Go with 7.5 feet until you can comfortably cast them, before trying 9, 12 or 15 foot leaders, plus tippet on the end.
Flies - It is fly fishing right? Considering all the species you can fish for, and all the ways you can fish for them, there is no way to cover all the flies here. Remember the helpful guys at the fly shop? Talk to them about what you'll be fishing for, when and where. Everyone agrees there are (insert your number here) _____ essential flies. They just don't agree on which ones they are. This is the time for consultation. The fly shop, the internet, books, even advice gained by plying local fishy-looking bar patrons with drink. If all else fails, look in the trees and you'll find out what the less talented casters have tried.
Other eventual/essential stuff
About essential stuff. Face it, you don't NEED any fly fishing equipment. You get it because you like it -- a lot. One of those things is a beautiful net. Though I now try to release most of my fish without netting them, sometimes it's necessary to contain them. The silicon nets help minimize damage to the fish, are not as subject to hooks snagging, and don't retain odors. Sizes vary from cute-but-useless to the too-big-to-carry. Guides lean toward the Optimist model, suitably beat-up, which suggests frequent catches of large fish. Whatever you select, add a good magnetic device to tether it to your vest or pack.
(Note the smooth transition to carrying your stuff.) The traditional vest allows you to carry everything you need, and much, much more. Many have enough room to stow a light rain jacket, water bottle and foot long submarine sandwich in the back. In addition there are many smaller pockets for fly boxes, leaders & tippet, floatant, indicators, more fly boxes, granola bars, back up forceps, insect repellent, more fly boxes...some vests require a computerized index to locate all the stuff. They also tend to weigh heavily on the shoulders. Advantages to vests include being able to pick them up on the way out the door and have all you need.
Packs - (chest, hip or sling) come in a wide range of sizes. If you know just what you'll need, the minimalist chest packs are great. Not so sure? Go for the slightly larger one. Beyond that, chest packs tend to be in the way unless you sling them behind you like...a sling pack. As chic as a street market knockoff fashion purse, sling packs hold plenty and fit the contours of your back. Usually designed for either right or left shoulder, if overloaded, they only make one shoulder hurt. Hip packs come in many sizes and can conveniently be spun behind you to stay clear of your line, brush, etc. Since they ride lower, the waterproof models can be beneficial. Some manufactures make pack systems that integrate chest or hip packs with actual backpacks. Great for adding or subtracting clothing, lunches, water, cameras, flasks, lights. Between rain, salt spray, and optimistic wading, waterproof packs have been my mainstay for years. Sometimes my gear is in a very small chest pack and fishing shirt pockets. A monster hip pack has worked out better for guiding. I spin/sling both behind me to have them out of the way. A new sling pack is already loaded. Field testing you know.
One final thought on bags. The waterproof zippers on waterproof bags & packs are often more difficult to operate. Still, they are less of a pain than draining the bag, laying everything out and trying to dry it -- especially if it used to be electronic. It's great to not worry about rain, water in the bottom of a boat, wading too deep or doing an unplanned river bottom inspection. Bear in mind, most waterproof bags are not rated as submersible, but will minimize the consequences of a quick dip.
Fly Boxes - These serve two purposes. One, to contain your flies. Two, to protect them in an orderly fashion for easy selection. Many boxes can easily defeat both purposes. A box divided into bare open compartments is cheap. Replacing all the flies you've accidentally dumped into the stream is not. Creating an artificial hatch, while a classic, may be regarded in the same light as chumming. Two-sided compartment boxes are ejection seats for flies. Make sure yours only open one way. Cramming too many flies randomly into small a box crushes the flies and, as A. Lincoln said, they "shall all become one thing."
Most anglers carry at least two boxes. Many buy more than they can hide (see spouse, etc). The dry fly box should have enough vertical space for the wings of your largest flies. The wet fly box should accommodate streamers, larger nymphs & wet flies. Both should have some means of holding various sized flies individually. Two-sided boxes with unequal-sized lids do this well. If you fish trout you will soon need a box to manage much smaller flies as well. There are some wonderfully thin boxes with see thru lids that hold tiny flies in foam slots. Nice to fit in a (fastened) shirt pocket. If you're fishing species that demand much larger flies, you're going to need a much larger box. Some of our favorites: Umpqua's "Weekender" & "Day Tripper" and CF Design's wonderful boxes. We generally fish species like pike from a boat. The monster flies we use are in Umpqua's "Ultimate Boat Box."
Questions? Click on "Contact Tom" in the header above.