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Advice on Buying Fly Fishing Tackle
This page covers the following frequently asked questions (FAQs)
  1. What equipment do I need for Westcountry fly fishing?
  2. What should I look for when buying a fly rod?
  3. What weight of fly line should I buy?
  4. Should I 'overline' my fly rod
  5. What diameter / breaking strain of tippet should I buy?
  6. What flies do you recommend?
  7. Can you recommend a book suitable for a beginner?
  8. What type of waders do you recommend ?
We are often asked for advice on buying fly fishing equipment. The best piece of advice we can offer beginners is to see – and use - our equipment before making your purchase. Time after time we see well-meaning parents, or keen beginners, come to a lesson with totally unsuitable - and often very expensive - tackle.

As fly fishing instructors we probably subject tackle to more use in a month than the average angler does in a year. We have experience of good and bad tackle: accessories that simply fall apart; poorly constructed reels that can trap expensive fly lines between cage and spool; waders and jackets with design problems that will send you home shivering and wet, and rods that qualify for the description "carpet beaters" as well as others that merit the accolade "world beaters".

We would be happy to recommend complete outfits as well as single pieces of equipment that in our experience are robust, backed up by good after-sales service, and offer genuine value for money.

fly fishing tackle
Equipment for Westcountry fly fishing
When you purchase a set of suitable equipment please ask the dealer to bear the following suggestions in mind:
  • If you intend to fish mainly on small Westcountry rivers for wild brown trout we recommend a rod between 7 and 8 feet, AFTM rated 3, 4 or 5. If you intend to fish mainly on small stocked stillwaters or reservoirs, a 9 foot rod rated AFTM 5, 6 or 7 would be more suitable. 
  • You will also need a suitable reel, weight forward (WF) or double taper (DT) floating fly line, backing, braided loop and tapered leader(s). Ask the dealer to load the reel with the backing and fly line, and join the braided loop to the end of the fly line. 
  • You will also need some tippet material (e.g. about 3lb (or 7X) breaking strain for river work and at least 6lb b.s. for small stillwaters), scissors or snips, a priest and net (if you do not intend to ‘catch and release’), fly floatant, a fly box and a few flies suitable for wild brown trout and stocked rainbows. 
  • A pair of forceps is useful if you intend to 'catch and release'.
  • You may want to buy a fly vest to keep all this stuff in.
  • We recommend you buy chest waders if you intend to fish on a river
  • Finally, and most importantly, wear some form of eye protection

Some thoughts on buying a fly rod

If you are a beginner:
  • don't buy a rod without trying it first
  • try several rods before making your first purchase
  • don't be tempted by low-budget beginners outfits; learning to cast a fly is difficult enough without having to cope with poor tackle
  • beginners deserve the best rods; more experienced casters can often adapt their casting to cope with poor rods
  • when testing a rod, don't just find out how far it will throw the fly line
  • just because a rod can cast a fly line 'a country mile' that doesn't mean it will be a useful fishing rod
  • most of the fishing on small west country rivers requires casts of 20 to 30 feet, therefore you should test how the rod performs with less than 30 feet of fly line beyond the tip
This paragraph - from the American rod maker Tom Morgan - sums up what we look for in a fly fishing rod:

"What makes a great trout rod? Most importantly, it has to become what I call a "thought rod." When you are fishing with it, you almost forget that you have a rod in your hand. It becomes an extension of your physical body, and, almost always, you think where you want the fly to go, and, as if by magic, the fly appears there. This fluid action comes because the rod is wonderfully smooth, bends sufficiently to communicate with the angler how it's working, and has an inherent delicacy. And, it does this at the normal distances that you fish for trout." Tom Morgan (2002)

How to select an appropriate weight (i.e. AFTM number) of fly line

Fly rods are designed to cast a particular weight of fly line. The weight of a fly line is described by an AFTM number. This number is printed on the rod just above the handle. The AFTM number is based on the weight of the first 30 feet of the fly line. These numbers range from #0 (the lightest line) to #13 the heaviest line.

  • lighter lines (AFTM#2-5)are used to cast flies tied on small hooks (sizes 14 to 23 - a tiny hook)
  • heavier lines (AFTM#6-7 or 8) are used to cast larger or heavier flies
  • On Westcountry rivers we use AFTM#4 or #5 weight fly lines to cast flies tied on size 15 to 19 hooks
  • On local reservoirs /still waters we use AFTM#6-7 weight lines to cast flies tied on larger hooks
Should I 'overline' my fly rod?
Overlining means using a flyline that is heavier (has a greater AFTM# rating) than that recommended by the manufacturer. Do not use a flyline greater than one size above the manufacturer's recommended line rating. It may damage the rod.

Fly rods are designed to cast a particular weight of fly line. The rod loads or bends most effectively when used with this weight of  line. With experience you will 'feel' a 'sweet spot' when you are casting with an appropriate length of fly line outside the rod tip.

The weight of a fly line is described by an AFTM number. The AFTM number is based on the weight (in grains ) of the first 30 feet of the fly line.

Consequently, if you know that you will be consistently making short casts with less than 30 feet of fly line outside the rod then it can help to overline the rod. The shorter length of a heavier fly line compensates for the loss of weight in the lighter fly line.

AFTMA Standards Now for the "geeky" bit.

This table shows that there is not a precise relationship between weight and a particular AFTM number. For example, a line can be described as AFTM#5 if the the first 30 feet weighs between 134 and 146 grains (There are approximately 475 grains to the ounce).

Incidentally, this is probably the source for the constant debate between anglers on what brand of line works best on a particular model of fly rod.

When I am buying a fly line I check the lengths of the front taper and line belly. The relative lengths of these parts of the line can affect their casting characteristics especially when making short casts. Here is the profile of a Snowbee XS Weight Forward Floating line.
Profile of Snowbee XS fly line
Line # Wt (grains) Range (grains)
1 60 54-66
2 80 74-86
3 100 94-106
4 120 114-126
5 140 134-146
6 160 152-168
7 185 177-193
8 210 202-218
9 240 230-250
10 280 270-290
11 330 318-342
12 380 368-392

What diameter / breaking strain of tippet should I buy?

This depends on the size, weight and bulkiness of the fly tied on the end of your leader - the tippet section.

  • Small flies are tied onto thin tippets
  • Large, heavy or bulky flies need thicker tippets
If you tie a big or heavy fly onto a thin tippet, it may break off during casting.
A thin tippet may not 'turn over' a bushy fly leading to poor presentation - the fly lands in the middle of a heap of tippet
It is difficult to pass a thick tippet through the eye of a small fly, and a thick tippet may interfere with the behaviour of a small fly.

This is about to get very "geeky" so I might as well  give you the bottom line before your eyes begin to glaze over!
  • For everyday river work I would use nylon monofilament with a breaking strain of 3 to 4lb
  • For day-to-day stillwater fishing I would use nylon monofilament with a breaking strain of 6 to 7lb

Now for another "geeky" bit - you really don't need to know this stuff unless you intend to subject yourself to cross-examination as part of a game angling instructors examination !

Tippet diameter is often described  by using the X rating system. The X scale runs from 008X abbreviated to 8X (a very small diameter tippet) to 000X abbreviated to 0X a much thicker tippet. Matching tippet diameter to fly size is important for proper presentation of the fly.

How to calculate the size of tippet to use with a fly - the "Rule of 3"
  • Divide the hook size by 3 to determine the appropriate tippet diameter on the X scale
  • For example, use 6X tippet with a size 18 fly (18/3=6)
(Unfortunately there is no standard way of representing hook size. Sizes vary between hook manufacturers. )

Sometimes the X value is not printed on a spool of tippet material. In that case the diameter of the material will be printed on the spool.
Here is a way to convert X to diameter in inches - the "Rule of 11":
  • Subtract the X (000X) value from .011 inches. 
  • For example, 006X subtracted from .011 gives a diameter of .005 inches
  • For example, 005X subtracted from .011 gives a diameter of .006 inches 
  • Remember that 006X is normally abbreviated to 6X, and 005X is abbreviated to 5X
  • A 3X (003X) leader  has a diameter of .008 inches (i.e. 011-003=008)
Here is how to convert tippet diameter in inches into an X value:
  • Subtract tippet diameter in inches from 0.011
  • Thus tippet with diameter of .004 inches is 7X (i.e. 0.011-0.004= 0.007 or 7X)
How to calculate breaking strain of X rated tippet - the "Rule of 9":
  • Subtract the X number from 9 to get the strength of nylon monofilament tippet. 
  • For example, a 5X leader has a breaking strain of 4 pounds (9-5=4)  
  • 2X tippet has a breaking strain of 7 pounds (9-2=7)
Bear in mind that putting a knot into nylon monofilament reduces the breaking strain of the line. Therefore do not expect 3lb test line to break at exactly 3lb.

This table summarizes the relationship between hook size, tippet size (X), tippet diameter, breaking strain and appropriate line weight (AFTM#)

Example of hook sizes:
Tiemco TMC103BL hooks sizes 11,13,15,17,19 and 21
(from the Tiemco catalog, available online)
Hook sizes Appropriate tippet size
(Rule of 3)
Tippet Diameter
(Rule of 11)
Breaking strain
of nylon monofilament
in pounds (Rule of 9)
Recommended fly line size AFTM#
(by Ally Gowans)

21-23 7X .004" 2 #2


.005" 3 #3
15-17 5X .006" 4 #4
12-14 4X .007" 5 #5
9-11 3X .008" 6 #6
6-8 2X .009" 7 #7

Some suggestions for suitable flies

We are often asked for advice on what flies to use on local rivers. This is a perfectly understandable request. Even as instructors we suffer agonies of uncertainty about what flies to take when we go on holiday to unfamiliar rivers.

If you tie your own flies, you may find it useful to get hold of a copy of Peter Gathercole's book "The Fly Tying Bible".
Here is a list of flies from Gathercole's book that we find useful on our local rivers:
  • Elk Hair Emerger 
  • Polywinged Midge 
  • Elk Hair Caddis 
  • Adams 
  • Balloon Caddis 
  • Sparkle Dun 
  • Hare's Ear Nymph 
  • Flashback Pheasant Tail Nymph 
  • Goldhead Bug 
  • Sparkle Pupa 
  • Soft Hackle -  use pheasant tail or hare's ear for the body 

Another useful book is Max Fielding's "The Complete Fisherman's Fly".

Here is a list of flies from Fielding's book that we use on local rivers:
  • Bead Sawyer Bug 
  • Endrick Spider (add a thorax to convert it to a Cruncher) 
  • Balloon Caddis 
  • Sparkle Dun 
  • Hawthorn Fly 
  • Adams 
  • Elk Hair Sedge 
  • Sedgehog (used for sea trout as a wake lure) 
  • Black and Peacock Spider 

Can you recommend a book suitable for a beginner?

This is one of the most difficult questions we get asked.

I guess it's because we will read anything about fly fishing that we can get our hands on, and find some merit in nearly all of them.

But here are three books that cover river fishing, fishing on small stillwaters, and entomology (insects). Hopefully they will serve as firm foundation for your exploration of the rich literature which is a particular feature of fly fishing.

You can browse through more of this literature in our bookshop

What type of wader do you recommend?
The answers to this perennial question deserve a separate page, see here

Copyright Paul Kenyon 2014
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