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Fly-Fishing Tackle Guide - Part 1

All fly-fishing gear is a system. A System that ensures each individual element of the tackle are properly matched.

It starts with a rod, added to this is a reel, onto the reel is first wound 100m of Dacron or Micron (‘backing’), the fly-line is then attached to this.

The fly-line is made of one of a multitude of polymers enclosing a Dacron core, the core having a breaking strain of around 10 to 15kg. To the end of the fly-line is attached a ‘leader’ or ‘trace’.

The butt of the leader, the section attached to the fly line is usually about 1.75m of say 8 - 10kg breaking strain mono line, then a section of 1.25m of around 3 to 4kg, then about .75m of 2 to 3kg ‘tippet’ which is tied to the fly. You will realise that this system breaks off nearest the fly if you get snagged.

If it did not you could well lose the fly-line and at more than NZ$90, and often much more, you don’t want that to happen.

The objective of this tapering down of the leader is to ensure that the fly keeps travelling forward (‘turns over’) when the fly-line slows down at the end of the cast.

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To make things easier, fly-fishing gear is matched to a size numbering system.

The numbers run from number 1 weight to 12. So a Number 6 weight rod will be matched with a number 6 weight line which will go on a number 6 reel.

The line weight is the key. Each of the line-weight numbers defines a weight in grains that the first thirty feet of the line must weigh. A number 1 line is the lightest, a number 12 the heaviest. Rods are developed to ‘load’ properly when casting that line weight.

A reel for the designated line weight, if fishing in New Zealand, should be designed to carry at least 100m of backing, Dacron or Micron, then the whole fly-line. Be careful with these last criteria – many reels from or designed for the USA market hold nowhere near 100 yards of backing. I routinely see USA fishermen down here fishing with reels that as a matter of course have little or no backing – they simply did not need to on many of the fish they catch at home. But it is no giant deal, if you like the reel but not the backing capacity, just get a reel up a number or two.

To digress briefly - you will notice that much of the information about fishing is not in metrics. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The tackle business was for a long time dominated by the Americans and English so metrics arrived late, and in the USA are still arriving.
  2. What would you rather catch, a 10 pound trout or a 4.4 kg one? No contest as to which sounds better!

Rod Selection

Rod ‘Weight’

For most practicable purposes in New Zealand freshwater fishing, line weight numbers between 5 and 8 are the most often used. For casting dry flies and lighter nymphs a line weight of 6 is a good all-rounder. For heavier work in big rivers, throwing (and ducking) big heavy nymphs, an 8 weight weight will do, and this rig can be used for tossing big wet flies on heavy shooting heads into the dark of night at the river mouths of lakes.

You can use a number 6 weight rod to toss fairly heavy nymphs but there is one big drawback, the walls of the hollow rod are much thinner on a 6 weight than a 9 weight. All rods throwing heavy nymphs are in line to get whacked by the nymph doing a couple of hundred kilometres an hour. Add a strong side-wind to flying heavy nymphs and you have a day you may want to forget in the making.

Rod Action

Rod actions

The other prime consideration is the rod’s ‘action’. Action is used to describe the way a rod bends. A 'fast' action rod is one where most of the bend under load is in the top third of the rod. A ‘medium’ action rod bends from about 2/3 down the rod, and a ‘slow’ action rod bends in a continuous arc from the handle.

It is very important to note that the action of the rod has nothing to do with the power of the rod.

You sometimes see slow action rods described as ‘soft’ action. True Soft action rods are not usually found in fly-rods. Soft action rods are usually made in two distinct tapers, the bottom 2/3 of the rod pretty much standard, but the top section made soft to allow fighting fish to be easier. Soft action rods are most often found in saltwater fishing.

Now, I am going to make some very wide, maybe wild, generalisations here, and am aiming these comments at beginning fly fishers.

A fast action rod can be good for short casts, say up to 10m (30'). They are perhaps best in line weights up to 6 weight.

A medium action rod can be good for line weights through to 7 or 8 weight, where more distance is required, or for casting heavy flies and nymphs.

A slow action rod can be useful through all line weights. At line weights below 6 weight a slow action rod will provide more control over the fly presentation. From 7 weight upward, slow action rods can be used to make very long casts, if your timing is good.

Rod selection should be governed by being very realistic about what sort of fishing you will be doing most of the time. For instance you might be doing a lot of fishing with dry flies and lightly weighted nymphs most of the year - but you go on an annual trip to fish the Taupo area during the winter runs for a week.

It would be foolish in this situation to by a 7 or 8 weight rod, to cover that one week, and be over-gunned the rest of the time. Bigger rods for that one week can be hired.

more information graphicFor much more on rod actions, what they mean, and what to buy [see this].

What fly line(s) should you get?

The number of different lines is really confusing at first. There seems to be lines for every conceivable situation, and some that are inconceivable. For the majority of fishing situations a floating fly-line is best. As its name indicates a floating line floats on the surface. It is therefore easier to see and control on the water.

Anatomy of a fly-line

My suggestion for the ‘shape’ of the line would be either a ‘double taper’ or a ‘weight forward’.

Fly-line tapers

A double taper line is a line that is shaped liked two cones with the wide ends butted up to each other. This is elongated over the first thirty feet of the line and the rest of the line ('running' line) is level, that is the same diameter over its length. If you plan to do dry-fly-fishing and use only unweighted or very lightly weighted nymphs a double taper line is the way to go, it allows for a much better presentation of the fly.

A weight forward line is my preference for a first line.

This line usually has a heavy head section of around 20m long, starting about 2 or 3m from the end. The rest of the line is level. This line is easier to cast, especially when learning, and better when faced with windy conditions which are not unknown in New Zealand you may have noticed. A weight forward line is easier to cast with heavier nymphs, and bigger flies, especially foam dry-flies but it is harder to ‘mend’.

The packaging of fly lines will tell you the contents e.g. WF-6-F, meaning the line is a weight forward, 6 weight, floating line - WF-7-S = weight forward, 7 weight, sinking line.

One of the key advantages of the fly-fishing system is its great adaptability. Spare spools are available for most fly-reels, so you can take, say, a sinking line on the spare spool and rig it up if and when you need it.

more information graphicFor more fly-line information see:

Scientific Anglers Fly Lines

Rio Fly Lines

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Buy the Best You Can Afford

In terms of cost breakdown, my advice would be to buy the very best rod you can afford, and then spend as much as you can on the fly-line, lastly spend what money you have left on the reel. When fly-fishing you are doing an awful lot of casting, if the rod does not contribute to making this as easy or as accurate as is needed, frustration will rear its ugly head.

Good quality fly-lines are easier to cast,  will have better characteristics in (or on) the water, and will last longer.

The reel comes into play the least, but whatever reel you buy make sure it has a good ‘drag’ - the clutch or brake system that allows the reel to let out line under a pre-set load.


A leader is the length of line that is used to connect the fly-line to the fly. As a very rough guide, for most nymph fishing the leader should be about the length of your rod. For dry fly fishing around a rod length and a third will cover off many situations. For swinging wet flies around on a sinking line or sink-tip line a third of a length of the rod will do.

For casting lightly weighted or unweighted nymphs and dry flies it is best to use a tapered leader - that is a leader that starts out about the thickness of the end of the fly-line (the ‘butt’), tapering down to thinner line (‘tippet’) attached to the fly.

Tapered leaders are used to assist in turning over the leader at the end of the forward cast. During the cast, the leader and the fly are travelling behind the end of the fly-line, so in order for the fly to keep travelling once the fly-line stops moving forward, the leader must unroll till it is straight.

For heavily weighted nymphs, big wet flies, streamers, or big dry flies a tapered leader is not really necessary.

There are a million (at a conservative estimate) ‘formulas’ for constructing tapered leaders. But a good all-round formula is 60:20:20 - 60% butt section length, and 20% for each of the leader and tippet.

You can buy knotless tapered leaders, but I only think about using them if there is a lot of weed about.

[Fly-fishing tackle - part 2]

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