Want to find fly fishing solitude? Go backpacking

Like a bee is to a flower, a mushroom to a tree, peanut butter and jelly—backpacking and fly fishing go together like tequila and lime. They both benefit immensely when combined.  For backpacking, a fly rod provides a source of fun, a great way to pass the time while at camp, and the best way to put food in your belly.  The most productive fishing holes are always far off the beaten path, so a backpack full of camping gear provides the fisher with all the tools needed to reach those untouched waters, where the fish have never seen a fly before. To me, it seems like the majority of people who go fishing rarely venture more than a mile away from their car. Can of worms, lawn chair, cooler full of beers, you get the picture. They’re not making it very far.  A big hike into the backcountry with an extended stay can reap rewards many of those roadside fishermen will never see. Like a lot things in life, the extra effort goes a long way.

If you’re new to either activity, there are a few key pieces of gear you’ll need to get started. You can take it as far as you’d like in terms of gear, but realistically you can get by with a pretty basic kit. Backpacking is a very simple pursuit. All you really need is a backpack, sleeping bag, some warm clothes (depending on the area), rain jacket, some food and water. Everything else is just a bonus! Fly fishing can be super technical when it comes to equipment, but for most backcountry fishing trips, I like to keep my setup minimal. A fly rod and reel, box of barbless flies selected for the area, extra leader and tippet, along with a set of snippers and forceps get the job done in most cases. You can always bring more stuff, but the weight adds up quickly when you’re carrying it in on your back, so proper selection is crucial. 

A hard case for your fly rod to strap to your pack is a good idea, especially if you’re traveling through rough terrain or bushwhacking through thick cover. A broken rod in the middle of a trip is a real bummer. Bring a little bit of duck tape, because you never know when it will come in handy. Most rods these days come with a case, but if you’re looking to save cash, a shipping tube for posters does the trick. All of the other things like a reel, fly box and lines can fit into a small stuff sack and hide away in your backpack. I sometimes like to bring lightweight sandals and a small hip-pack if I’m fishing a creek or river.  I usually cover more ground on a river versus a typical high mountain lake, so it’s nice to have some snacks to bring along if you’re gone away from camp all day. Also, don’t forget to throw in some seasoning, lemon and a small piece of tinfoil to cook up your trout on the fire for dinner. In total, a backcountry fly fishing kit shouldn’t add more than a pound or two to your backpack.

It was fly fishing and an appetite to see more fish and more wild country—and fewer people—that drove me into the mountains to go camping with a backpack. Since then, it has opened up so many doors for me to not only catch more fish, but also to see and do things that would be impossible without loading up a pack and taking a long hike. I appreciate and enjoy the backpacking just as much as i do fly fishing—they’re one in the same to me now.  Anytime a backpacking trip gets planned, and there is water, you better believe I’m bringing along a rod!

Here’s my personal fly fishing gear list for backpacking in the west:

Fly rod/reel

9ft 5wt for lakes, 8ft-6in 3wt for small streams

A good assortment of dry flies, nymphs, terrestrials and streamers. My favorite patterns include Adams Parachute size 16-18,  Royal Wulff size 16-18, Grasshoppers big and small, wooly buggers big and small, Parachute Madam X size 14-16, Pheasant Tail Nymph size 16-18,  Zebra midge size 16-20.  Do the fish a friendly favor and always use barbless hooks. 

Depending on the type of water, I typically use a 9ft 3X-5X leader. One on the reel, with one spare packed up.

An assortment of 3X-5X, used to lengthen and taper the leader in case of a fish breaking off, or a lost fly in a tree!
Snippers and forceps
A set of nail clippers works great, and the forceps in the old first aid kit does the trick, though it’s best to have a set primarily for fishing.
Dry fly floatant

Applied to dry flies, to keep them floating on the top of the water.
Good sun hat and set of polarized fishing glasses

Keeping the sun out of your eyes plays a huge part in catching fish. You need to have a good idea of where the fish are hanging out, and if you’re squinting all day, it’s tough to track them down!