I have been asked this question so many times I decided to put it into writing to help answer it.
Here's the question: What do you really need to start fly fishing?
Let me start by saying this, fly fishing is often misrepresented as being an elite sport only the rich and snobby can participate in. This may have been true in days gone by, but in 2018 it's open to all! The equipment used to fly fish is widely available and affordable, there are plenty of people willing to teach you, and lots of water to explore!
This list is created for the complete beginner. The person who has nothing, but wants to dabble in this wonderful "mystical" activity.
Keep in mind, this is my own personal list. As well, I will exclude how much you should pay for items. Some may choose to spend a few hundred bucks to get a good fly rod to start; others have to spend much less. When it all comes down to it - it's really all about what you want, and what you can afford.
Here's all you need to begin:
1 - Fly Rod
I typically recommend the complete beginner to find a complete kit that includes a fly rod, reel, and line. This is the best way to start because it eliminates much of the guesswork. You can find different packages available from Redington, Orvis, Echo, Cortland, Pflueger, and a host of other brands. Just remember - you get what you pay for. I recommend a kit because there are hundreds of different fly rods, fly lines, and reels. They all vary according to what they are made of, how long they are, what "weight" they are, and what style of fishing you will be doing with it, etc.. Therefore, if your trying to piece it all together yourself it's easy to make a mistake, for example, accidentally mismatching a line weight with a rod weight could make casting difficult (did that), accidentally getting a sinking line when you want one that floats (also did that), and putting on your fly line backwards (which I also did ). A packaged kit will ensure you get everything you need and that it's all correct!
If you are just wanting a fly rod, one of the most commonly recommended rods is a 9ft. 5 weight. This is the "jack-of-all-trades" for most freshwater fishing. My recommendation is a little different: I think you should figure out where you will be fishing most of the time and get a rod to match where you want to fish. If you are only going to be fly fishing for largemouth bass you will want a larger rod to start. If you only want to fish for small stream trout you will want a smaller rod than a 9 ft. 5 weight. So bottom line is, figure out what you want to fish for, where you want to fish for them and get a rod to match that fishing environment.
All fly rods are not created equal. There is not a rod that you use for small stream trout that you would also want to fish for carp or largemouth bass with. So, figure out what you want to fish for, where you want to fish for them and get a rod to match that fishing environment.
I will go further into selecting rods at a later time.
For now, you can email me if you have questions!
2 - Fly Reel
You have grandpa's old fly rod and your trying to find a reel? Well, one of the interesting things about fly fishing is, for most trout and smaller fish, the reel is often minimally used other than holding the line. Regarding that old reel, as long as it holds line, rotates easily without any glitches, and fits on your rod, it should work.
If you are looking to purchase a reel, there are many different models and kinds. If all you ever fish for is native brook trout or cutthroat trout that only grow about 10 inches, you will not need a massive, strong, expensive reel. On the other hand, if you want to try carp or steelhead fishing with a fly rod, I would spend more to get a reel that has a solid drag system that can slow down these beasts.
Reels typically are classified by weight just like rods and fly lines. You can match your fly reel with the weight of the rod and the line, but it is not a necessity. To be honest, I use a 5-6 weight fly reel on my 4 weight so that my fly line has a little less memory, it balances the rod a way I like, and I can reel in line a little quicker when needed.
If you plan on fishing saltwater you will want to purchase a reel designed for saltwater species (these are typically larger, won't rust, and have a large drag system to stop big fish).
3 - Fly Line
Fly line is not like traditional fishing line. The fly line is what everything is dependent on. Without it, casting a tiny little hook with some fuzz on it will not be possible, especially throwing it 70 feet! For this reason, fly line is very important. If there was a place you could skimp, I would not do it here. Most fly lines of good quality will range from $45 to $100 (though I know some would scoff at the idea of paying $100 for a fly line).
Fly lines are made for different purposes. Some float, some sink a little, some sink a lot. If you are just beginning, a floating line is what you will probably want to have.
Fly lines are named by weight. You will want to match your fly line weight with the weight of your fly rod. For example, if you have a 4 weight rod you will want to find a 4 weight line, an 8 weight rod an 8 weight line, so on and so forth.
If you have an old fly line you want to use check it over to ensure it has no cracks, bulges, or other visible wear on it. If none of those things are seen your fly line should be all right to use! If you don't know what weight the line is try casting it on several different rods to see which one it best casts on. Most fly shops or good fishing friends would allow you to do this.
A good fly line, that is properly maintained, should last you approximately 400 hours of use according to the Rio rep I heard speak. If you fish a whole lot, the fly line may only last a year. If you only fish once or twice a year it could last you the rest of your life (depending on your age)!
Buy a nice line and keep good care of it.
4 - Leader
This is a transitional piece of monofilament (fishing line) that goes from your fly line to the fly. Typically, it is thicker and stronger towards the fly line, it then tapers down to being thin on the other end. A leader is a necessity. It keeps distance between your fly and the fly line, and helps remove excess power so your flies don't slap the surface of the water with great force every cast spooking fish. For trout and smaller fish, a generic leader is a 9ft. 4x leader. If you want to fish for bass I would get a 9ft. 12 lb. leader.
Connect your leader to the fly line either by using a nail knot or by using the loop on the end of the leader and the end of the fly line (this will depend on where you got your fly line from). Here is one of the best videos I have found to show you how to do this. Once you connect the leader to the fly line you can attach the fly using a simple knot and begin fishing!
5 - Nippers
This is a fancy word used simply to say that you need something to cut the leader with when you tie on a fly. This can be an old pair of scissors, nail clippers, a knife, or what most people get to eventually - a pair of nippers.
6 - Hemostats
Another big fancy word for pliers. Pliers are incredibly helpful for several reasons 1) when a fish takes a fly and it goes down in his gullet a bit to far, 2) pinching barbs down, 3) crimping split shot (if you ever wind up needing that), 4) getting a fly unstuck from your hat, etc... Typically, the best ones are very thin and when closed grip well. My favorite are the ones in the link here - they are strong, grip the fly well, and also have a section that serves as scissors so I don't need nippers. On the day the fish inhales the fly you will be glad you brought them with you!
7 - Flies
Just a few simple flies will do the trick. I am hesitant to share exact patterns because the best patterns for my area may not be the best in your area. What you need to keep in mind is, you don't need thousands of flies to start. A handful of a local recommendation will do. You don't even really need to know the names of the fly patterns, you just need something to put on your leader to cast to fish.
If you would like to have a basic fly box - feel free to send me an email. Let me know what you wish to fish for, where and when you want to fish for them, and what type of gear you have (if any). I can do some research to recommend several flies for you. If you want me to tie the flies for you, I can even provide you with a filled fly box (prices vary).
8 - Fish
Practicing in an open field is good, but eventually you will want to catch some fish - I mean isn't that what fly fishing is all about? If you are just beginning I would recommend trying to find easy species of fish to target. Trout are fun to catch, but they can be difficult to begin on. I originally started fly fishing by fishing with poppers for panfish in a local pond. There's plenty of places to fish around us if we are willing to drive a few minutes and cast to different species other than just trout.
Once you get all your gear together get out there and find some fish!