A completely ridiculous glossary of fly fishing: Part 1

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If you, like me, are new to fly fishing, there are a few words that are crucial to your understanding of the sport. In fact, there appear to be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand of these words. And that’s simply for trout fishing in fresh-water rivers. These words don’t simply fall under the subject matter of “fishing.” No, we have words dealing with gear, hydrology, ichthyology, and with insect life both real and fake. Yes, we have a whole etymology of entomology.  

I work in digital media and marketing for a living, a field that loves to invent new words, bastardize old words, verb nouns, and visit a host of other sins on the language. But most of the words are as meaningless as the field. Misunderstanding a digital marketing word won’t get you killed. Hell, it won’t even get you laughed at because if you misuse one, chances are other people in the room either didn’t know what it meant in the first place or just assume the meaning has changed in the last half hour.  

But even if fly fishing seems overly complicated and ludicrous at times, the words fly fishers use actually mean something. You can find glossaries and text books and websites elsewhere, from the basic to the not-so-basic. I’ll leave it to the experts to give you the latin name of the Caddis fly, what its larval stage is called, and the approximately six million fly patterns based on it. I’m not even going to delve into the differences between the trout species. 

I’m new to all of this, so I can’t very well make you an expert if I’m still an idiot bumbling around in waders with the tags still on them. So I’ll give you a few key vocabulary words defined by my own experience and designed to give you just enough knowledge to start looking elsewhere before getting yourself seriously hurt.

River trout: The smartest animal to grace planet earth. This fish is wily, suspicious, fearsome, finicky. The fish will only eat very specific insects at very specific times — or a thing that has only a remote resemblance to any biological lifeform ever seen on this planet. You just never know with a fish. Always on the lookout for predators, it possesses extra-sensory perception that allows it to know where you are at all times so that it can avoid you — or hide in your shadow half a foot from your waders, which happened to me at Cheesman Canyon in 20-degree weather.  

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The fight was epic

The fly fisher (you): Subspecies of human. Not very bright. Will spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars and brave weather and rivers that could literally kill to catch a fish that … will then be released. Will look at a real life mayfly and then gather an assortment of pieces from six other animals, including elk, duck, pheasant, and possibly horny toad, to assemble something that looks like it was produced by an overly imaginative six-year-old who has access to all the colors but a shaky grasp of facts. Will also buy extravagantly expensive gear that seems purposely designed to make his task harder. 

River: This is where the fish live. Supposedly. The river is a body of fresh water that’s either rushing fast enough to kill you, frozen over, or about to dry up. There’s no in-between. The river may not be full of fish but it is full of technical terms like riffles, undercuts, backeddies, flats, seams, tails, heads, pools, holes, and other places where the fish theoretically live. (This is a good place to start if you actually want to learn about reading the water.)

Rod: A flexible pole typically made of bamboo, graphite, fiberglass, or discarded pieces from the closest Tesla factory. Those made from space-age materials are typically cheaper (hundreds of dollars) than those made from the species of grass known to grow over an inch a day (thousands of dollars). The most common length is 9 feet, 5 inches, which is optimal for getting caught in trees and breaking the tip off in your garage or car door. Also makes it much more challenging to reel in a fish — which is okay, because real fly fishers don’t use the reel anyway!

Reel: A piece of high-tech equipment that will run you anywhere from $150 to $500, but that you will never really use. You pull line out with your hand; you pull line in with your hand. During an eight-hour day of fishing on the river, the reel isn’t used to catch fish but rather to bring in enough line to secure your fly to the rod before moving to another spot. Apparently, the point of spending all this money on all this equipment is to then pretend that you’re fishing with a string tied to the end of a stick. And if that seems more your game, you can spend a lot of money on that, too! (I’ll probably end up with one of these sooner or later.)

Fishing string: We don’t use fishing string in fly fishing. We use, at minimum, the following four string-adjacent materials.

Backing: This is what goes onto the reel first and ties to the arbor (part of the reel). For freshwater fly fishers, it’s typically about 50 yards long and made out of 20-pound test Dacron. And you’ll probably never use it unless you’ve hooked onto a passing kayaker. (It will come in handy if you completely lose your mind and join the ranks of tarpon fly fishers.)

Line: This is the next bit of string in your fishing armament. The back end of the line is tied to the free end of the backing. Typically coming in at around 100 feet in length, the line is made out of magic and bright fluorescent coloring. The line is very important because it’s typically the weight that drives your fly through the air. Remember, only cavemen use lead weight or steel shot. But in the right hands, with the right casting technique, the line can carry that little unweighted dry fly 30 to 60 feet and drop it within centimeters of an unsuspecting fish. (You don’t have the right hands, but keep trying. You’ll be casting 10 feet in no time!) The line achieves this through, again, magic. But there are different types of magic. There is tapered and non-tapered magic. Double-tapered and weight-forward tapered-magic. Smooth and textured magic. Floating magic, sinking magic, and even sinking-tip magic. 

Word of warning, though. If you’re buying a beginner’s rod and reel set-up, they’re likely to include some fairly non-magical beginner’s line to your reel and it will feel like casting that yellow nylon rope your dad used to use to tie the trunk shut after the latch broke. (If you actually want to learn about line, here’s a good place to start.)

Leader: For beginning fly fishers, this is likely the first bit of string you’ll really have to deal with. Most retailers will load your reel with the backing and line. So you have to buy leader, which at least looks like the type of fishing string you’ve dealt with in the past. But it’s not! It’s totally different. For reasons. The leader you tie to the line — or, if you ain’t got time for that, you make sure you have loop-ended line and a loop-ended leader. Leaders come in multiple lengths, with 9 feet seeming to be the average. They come in multiple “weights,” with 5x being the number most beginners start with. Like the line, there’s all kinds of magic that goes into leaders. It makes my head hurt and, to be honest, all this typing is making my arthritis act up. Besides, we still have MORE string to tie. (Here’s an explainer that actually helps.)

Tippet: Finally! The end of the line. A pun that doesn’t quite work because the line is not the end. Never mind. The tippet is the thinnest piece of line in this entire assembly. You might have pieced together by now that you’re going from heavy to lightest and tapering to near invisibility so that the fish can’t see that the fly is a lie. Tippet comes in various weights (sizes) and is made of angel hair. This makes tying on a really tiny fly lots of fun in low-light, high-wind situations (while standing on a slippery rock in moving water).  

Lure: We don’t use lures in fly fishing. Go sling monofilament at a bass, you Neanderthal!

Barbless hook: A hook designed to reduce the amount of stress placed on fish in catch-and-release fisheries. Because the absence of a barb will make all the difference to a fish after it tried to get some lunch then found itself being dragged by the face through the water, then scooped up by a net, forced by someone into posing for a photo while it practically suffocates, then placed back into the water. Barbless hooks do work, though. If you doubt the efficacy of a barbless hook, just get it within an inch of a bush, a tree, clothes, or human skin. (But seriously, barbless hooks are much better for the fish and won’t stay in their faces forever if they snap your tippet during a fight). 

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Actual footage of me practicing knots on a size 20 RSII

Fly: An artificial attractant (lure) designed to tempt (lure) fish. The term fly initially applied to dry flies created to mimic mayflies, caddis flies, and other flies that trout feed on. Fly is now a catch-all phrase for any — man, what’s another word for lure?!? — LURE designed to mimic some part of a fly’s life stage and, indeed, many non-fly things that a fish might be attracted to. So “fly” can refer to flies, midges, nymphs, scuds, eggs, worms, ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and more. In the spin-fishing world, scientific advances are leading to lures so realistic and lifelike that you — a human with a big brain and two eyes — would be hard pressed to differentiate between the fake and the real. In fly fishing, however, they’re still wrapping feathers, thread, and foam around a hook. Flies range in size from half an inch to microscopic and are measured by the size of their hook. The bigger the number, the smaller the fly. Naturally. The older you are and the worse your eyes are, the more likely it is the fish will only be attracted to the microscopic flies. 

Fun: What we’re having.

See you on the river! 

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