American author and fly master John Gierach once said, “The solution to any problem — work, love, money, whatever — is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
For many people, fly fishing is only seen through the pages of L.L.Bean catalogues or High Country welcome brochures. This “hobby” is perceived as an elitist sport reserved for wealthy retired men in Tilley Hats and tweed jackets, or for visiting tourists ready to empty their pockets.
The 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” helped fly fishing gain a national audience and bolstered the industry in Montana. Since then, the fly fishing industry has enjoyed steady growth of popularity and apart from the blue blood states like Montana and Colorado, the popularity gained by the North Carolina High Country is rivaled by few.
Beginning to learn the sport of fly fishing can feel like rocket science. However, with the right understanding of resources, gear and approach, presenting delicate pieces of feather to even the smallest trout can become a lifelong obsession.
1. What you need for fly fishing
Fly fishing beginners have to know where their resources are. The most helpful place for beginners in Watauga County to look is Appalachian State University.
The university offers several different opportunities for aspiring anglers – even classes for college credit. Appalachian State students can enjoy the luxury of a fly fishing instructional course as a physical education credit. The university also offers a Trout Unlimited certified fly fishing club sponsored by Shea Tuberty, an App State biology professor.
“I made no secrets about the fact that I loved fly fishing,” Tuberty said. “Our club is actually recognized by Trout Unlimited.”
Club member Nick Featherston can attest to the how the fly fishing club helps new members get hooked on the sport.
“We’ve actually gotten quite a few people to start fly fishing while hooking them up with good prices on gear and putting them on fish,” sophomore recreation management major Featherston said.
Related: Film tour benefits ASU Fly Fishing Club
Aside from university-aided resources, there are seven different outfitters in Boone and several more in neighboring counties. Foscoe Fly Fishing Outfitters and Watauga River Anglers Fly Shop offer full fly shops as well as guiding services, while the outfitting services also provide casting lessons.
Due South Outfitters is a new outfitting service founded by App State alumnus Patrick Sessoms. Growing up fly fishing in the area, Sessoms is familiar with the area’s resources and encourages novice anglers to seek guidance.
“The number one thing I could say is don’t be too proud to ask for help,” Sessoms said. “Looking back, I could have closed the learning curve if I asked for help.”
Using these resources can be an indispensable tool to cut the learning curve in half and catch more fish.
After fledgling anglers have armed themselves with resources, the daunting task of finding the right gear is next. Any experienced angler can verify that walking into a fly shop for the first time can be an eye-opening ordeal. There are a 100 different lines, flies, rods and reels to choose from and different weights, types and actions to consider.
Rods and reels are the initial necessities. For beginners, a number of companies like Courtland, Orvis and Redington offer combo outfits. A combo outfit consists of the rod, reel, fly line and leader – some even include a small selection of flies.
However, most anglers prefer to assemble these parts separately, so it’s helpful to break them down into categories.
The first part to consider is the fly line. With conventional tackle – the official way of referring to spinning rods, bait casters and push rods – the weight of the lure carries the line to the target. With fly fishing, the weight of the fly line, a colorful line coated in heavy plastic, carries the virtually weightless fly to the destination using a fly casting stroke.
There are different types of fly lines but for beginners, selecting a weight-forward floating line is the best bet.
Reels, rods and lines all come in the same weight classification. Weight, in this context, can be a deceiving term because the weight doesn’t refer to how many pounds or ounces a fly rod or reel is. Instead this is a system used to match the size of the reel and rod with the size of the species being targeted and the size of the water being fished. The important factor to know is that, in most instances, the reel and rod should match the line. For example, a 5-weight rod should be paired with a 5-weight reel and subsequent fly line. The most versatile rod, reel, and line combo is a 5-weight.
Sessoms said he recommends 8-foot-6-inch long rods that are 5-weights.
“You can use it on big water or a small stream and it’s a pretty forgiving rod, so I would recommend that to beginners,” Sessoms said.
The last part of the initial outfit is the tapered leader. The tapered leader is a thin clear line that becomes increasingly thin until it reaches the thinnest point called the tippet (where the fly is tied on).
3. You and your flies
There are hundreds of different types of flies to use that are capable of catching different types of fish. For the sake of simplicity and relevance to the High Country, it is most helpful to understand the three types of trout flies and two ways they are fished.
The three types of flies trout feed on are mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies. Since mayflies and caddis are most productive in this area, those are what are the most important to focus on. These two different types of flies can be fished as dries or nymphs.
Dry flies are lures that mimic the adult stage of an aquatic insect. It is what often comes to mind when thinking about fly fishing. The dry fly rides on top of the water and a fish rises to the surface to eat it. This is the most exciting type of fishing because it is visible when the fish eats the fly. Some common types of dry flies are Elk Haired Caddis’s, Parachute Adams and Royal Whulffs.
In terms of the amount of fish caught, the most productive flies are nymphs. A nymph represents the early stages of an aquatic insect’s life. These bugs cling to the underside of rocks or are washed away by the current underneath the water. Since most of a trout’s diet is underwater, this is the most effective fly to use. Usually a strike indicator is tied or attached to the line to act as a bobber. This allows the angler to see when the fish has taken his fly and set the hook. Some common types of nymphs are Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs and Hares Ears.
4. Where and when
With the setup complete and a basic knowledge of flies obtained, the question is where and when to fish. The easier answer is where. Anywhere on a map with a blue line and some gradient can be fished. Be aware of private property signs and be careful not to trespass. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission has an interactive map where it is possible to find any stream or river in the state.
Tackling the question of when is a little different. The most productive time to fish is during the spring when water temperatures are cool and bug activity is heavy. Trout are active during this time and more willing to eat a fly. However, it is possible to fish year round by changing up strategies. Winter fishing can be rewarding because less anglers will be on the water. Trout will be less active, but catching one or two fish on a vacant river can be just as rewarding as catching 50 on a spring day.
Armed with the basic knowledge, it is now feasible to start fly fishing and a lifelong passion can begin. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t come together at first because like the well-worn cliché, a bad day fishing is better than a good day working. Good luck and tight lines.
Story & photos by: Ben Cogsdale, Sports Reporter