A Bike (Fly) Fishing Primer
Let me just preface this by saying that I am by no means a salty haired veteran angler. I read Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” and saw more religious imagery than fishing tips. However, I have been doing a fair amount of fishing the last few months and have been experimenting with equipment while on tour. So fellow potential bike-fishers here is what I’ve found works for me and why I’m using the things I use.
Why Fly Fishing?
The first question has to be why fly fishing over traditional spinner rod and bait fishing. One obvious advantage is that when you’re fly fishing you’re using imitation bait (fake flies, worms, bait fish). This means you don’t have to worry about carrying a Styrofoam container of worms, crickets or other critters with you on your bike. Instead, you can carry all the REUSABLE bait and lures you need in a reasonably small tackle box.
Another reason why I chose fly fishing is that it’s still fun to practice even if there isn’t a fish or a drop of water around. Fly fishing is one of those activities (like cycling) that is simplistic but has a multitude of nuances. On non-fishing days, I’ll assemble the rod and tie on a fly (without a hook) and practice casting distance and accuracy. I’ll aim for my helmet at 25 feet and progressively increase the distance. It makes for a great camp game. I’ve recently taken on learning how to cast with my non dominant left hand in the event I encounter some windy days that threaten to blow a hook in my face – plus its just great fun.
Another reason to fly fish is that fly fishing tackle is extremely versatile. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “shouldn’t you be in Colorado fishing for trout” in the short time I’ve been fly fishing – well, I’d have enough money to be in Colorado fishing for trout. Perhaps it was The River Runs Through It that has permanently associated fly fishing with bucolic mountain streams, but fly fishing on lakes, ponds and less than pristine bodies of water is still great fun. I’ve managed to catch a variety of panfish, bass and even a catfish – fish that aren’t normally associated with fly fishing. I have even found people online that catch carp on the fly in the Los Angeles River!
A Good Starter Kit
When we were in Fortworth, TX, we went to a Backwoods store (a sort of high end REI) and I met Stephen – the fly shop manager of that Backwoods. Stephen is from England and through a turn of events now finds himself in Texas. He LOVES fly fishing. In our travels, I have met very few people that actually like what they do. His enthusiasm for the sport rubbed off on me, a complete novice, and within a few minutes of talking he had me handling a practice fly rod swinging it back and forth in the store.
We went over the gear options and we boiled down what would be practical for our bike tour. I essentially needed a good all-rounder fly rod that could handle multiple types of fish (panfish, small bass and trout) and water (streams, creeks, lakes). Most of the fish I would be trying to catch would be from small to medium in size (no 40lb behemoths).
With those parameters, he suggested the Temple Fork Outfitters NXT 5/6wt rod kit – a split weight rod that could take a 5wt or 6wt line. Fly rods and line come in various weights (to put it simplistically a 1wt is for tiny fish in tiny water – 12wt for big saltwater fish) and the 5/6wt was right in the middle. The rod would be plenty big for your average panfish, a good match for medium size bass and trout.
The TFO NXT kit comes complete with the case, rod, reel and line (backing, floating line, leader and tippet) for about $200. If you tried to purchase the individual parts separately, you’d be hard pressed to put together a comparable package for the same price.
Other Things You’ll Need
Outside of the reel, rod and line, there are a few more items that you’ll need to fly fish, flies being chief among them. If you thought rods and reels were overwhelming, there are a staggering amount of fly patterns out there. I’m not going to go into the minutiae of “matching the hatch” here (flyspeak for looking at the bugs around you and picking an imitation that matches). I will tell you this, there is one fly pattern that I have used that I have caught nearly all my fish on and that is the Woolly Bugger. The woolly bugger doesn’t really look exactly like a particular thing, but it does look close enough to many things that fish eat. Depending on size, it could imitate a small insect, a leech or even small bait fish. It is so versatile that it is suggested that if you have no idea what fly to use or what you’re doing exactly, you should use the WB. Going on this terse and simple advice, I’ve caught a varying amount of fish with it. My woolly bugger of choice is one that is tied on a size 10 hook (sort of medium-small), that is olive and has some flash on it (sparkly material that improves visibility in murky water). Buy them by the handful, because if you’re like me, you’ll lose a fair number to treefish and rockfish on your first attempts.
Other bits of gear I’d recommend are a pair of forceps to help in separating flies from fish. Using forceps will let you get into small mouths of certain fish without manhandling a fish’s internals more than you have to. A nail clipper is another good thing to have around to help cut off the tag ends of your fishing line. A hat is essential in keeping the sun off you. I prefer wide brim hats since they keep more sun off but also because they may save your ears from a foul hook (more flyspeak for hooking yourself in the ear). When I fish, I also wear a lightweight longsleeve shirt for the same reasons. Extra tippet and leader material is a must. Every time you tie a fly you lose an inch or two of your tippet (the really thin monofilmaent that you tie to your fly).
Take A Class!
I was fortunate that Stephen, the fly shop manager, also happened to be teaching a class the next morning. Without the class, I don’t think I’d still be fishing today having given up in frustration many weeks ago. The class I took was $75 and was five hours long, covering casting, where fish live and fly tying – well worth the investment if you’re serious.
The mechanics of casting aren’t that hard, but it does take a lot of practice to execute it smoothly. Getting some formal instruction on how to do it will go a long way in your future enjoyment of the sport, trust me.
Next to decent fly shops, information on where/how to get a non-resident fishing license is difficult to locate. I’ve found that in some states, local bait shops no longer sell licenses and you HAVE to go to a Walmart to get one which becomes a logistical problem if you’re on bike. Some states like Louisiana and Mississippi have a wonderful system where you can call a phone number to add fishing days to your license.
Regarding my equipment, I’m supremely happy with everything I’ve purchased from Backwoods and Stephen. I think a 5/6 weight rod is a versatile rod for the varied types of water and fish you’ll encounter on an around the US bike tour. The only thing I would change, in fact, would be to probably get a travel specific rod. My current one breaks down to 4 pieces, something like the Orvis Frequent Flyer or Cabela’s 7 piece rod would fit better on the bike. I haven’t tried those specifically, so I can’t speak to how they are for fishing, but their small compact size are definitely more desirable for touring.
Thoughts After a Few Months of Bike (Fly) Fishing
I’m completely aware that carrying a fly rod on a bike tour does seem like quite a decadent and eccentric thing to do, but I love it. Before, when we would camp next to a river or lake I would only interact with the water by taking pictures of it (I’m not a swimmer at all). Now, by the act of fishing, I enjoy our surroundings on a whole different level. I look at the depth and speed of the water, I look if any fish are breaching the surface, what bugs are floating around in the air, I look for logs, weed beds or other structures that fish may hide.
As with any new skill or bit of knowledge that you acquire in life, it enriches and colors the way you relate to the world at large. I’ve also enjoyed how it opens conversations with locals. When I pull out the fly rod on lakes in the The South its different and people come and talk to me about it.
Is it for everyone? Probably not. If you’re pounding out 100 miles a day you’re not going to have enough time to fish. If you’re a gram counter and find a few recreational pounds too heavy, you probably won’t be into it either. But, if you’re like us and like to explore, take your time and aren’t in the rush to get anywhere – you’ll love it!
Bass on the fly.
Cat on the fly.
Russ June 8, 2010 at 3:30 pm
Chris – awesome. LL has some pretty nice stuff, judging by the website. Heard good things about their travel rod too.
Ethan June 8, 2010 at 4:54 pm
We will definitely have to go fishing when you return to P-town.
Shawn Bichsel June 8, 2010 at 8:34 pm
Great article and excellent advice on fly fishing and cycling! I’ve always that I enjoy fly fishing adventures way more when I ride my bke to the river or lake… May your fishing be fruitful (even when it’s just practice casting) and your cycling travels be safe!
Dean Burris June 8, 2010 at 9:11 pm
Great overview for fly fishing beginners. I’m an avid fly fisher and a beginning cyclist so when someone retweeted a link to this post, I was intrigued. Good luck on your journey and would love to fish with you if you make it back to Austin, TX.
Bill Gibson June 8, 2010 at 9:40 pm
Ah, the joy of obsession! What follows is a deeper connection with life on earth and the commitment to defend all habitats!
Richard Porter June 8, 2010 at 10:17 pm
I love the way you make casting into a game. Have fun and improve you casting. The thing to do is to take you time then you will have the most fun. Never be in a rush if you don’t have the time. Wait till you do and happy fly fishing.
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RICH LOBROVICH June 9, 2010 at 9:24 am
Hi Russ, that was a great over view from a begginers point of view.
I have been fly fishing for 33 years and it is my life. My last job was as a Fly Fishing manager of an Orvis Fly Fishin shop. Very cool. If you get a chance check out my photos on facebook.
Rooster Comb Ranch was a great weekend 4X4 and Fly Rodding for Bass.
Light lines my friend.
Thanks Rich Lob
Mikael June 9, 2010 at 1:12 pm
I love both fly fishing and bike touring. I have not been able to combine them successfully yet and prefer to alternate between them: When I tour I like to ride all day and when I fish I like to bring a water craft–for me that means a trailer behind the bike for a small pontoon boat or alternatively bringing very little else when I go in to mountain lakes with my float tube plus waders etc. in panniers on my mountain bike.
Daniel W Galhardo June 10, 2010 at 7:36 pm
Just saw this post as I browsed Twitter and couldn’t help to write, even if I do it from my phone. But, have you ever heard of tenkara fly fishing? My company, Tenkara USA, is the first to introduce tenkara to the US, so my apologies for the plug here. But the rods are telescopic, closing down to 20″. You do not need a reel, only rod, line, and fly. It’s a method originally from Japan, but just like it’s becoming widely adopted by backpackers, I think it may be suitable to most bikers too. Hope you don’t mind my post, and that it adds some value to the discussion.
Frank Jones March 12, 2016 at 8:35 pm
I’m exploring two new hobbies right now and this post was perfect. I’ve just started riding a road bike with the simple goal to take short trips to the library in town (5 miles each way). At the same time, I’m surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains which are ideal for fly fishing. Your article has helped me decide to get the 7-piece starter rod rather than the 4-piece fly rod. This way I can also take my road bike for trips to nearby rivers for fly fishing trips. Thanks!
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Great job on the primer! Makes me want to buy an outfit even more than I already do! I work part time at L.L. Bean, so I’ll put my discount to good use soon.