Fly Fishing Versus Spin Fishing

large cutthroat trout
Wouldn’t you like to know what this trout bit? Bait? Spinner? Fly? Stay tuned for the answer…

When a lot of people think of fly fishing, they think of collared shirts and fancy vests, fancy rubber nets and fancy waders, fancy casting and catch-and-release fishing with barbless hooks. That’s how we used to think of it, anyway, until we learned that fly fishing is just a much more effective way to fish in some situations. And you don’t need anything fancy, just flies and a fly pole and a simple floating line setup.

If you learn to look at fly fishing this way, you’ll become a better angler overall. There is no doubt about it. There are times to use a fly rod and there are definitely times not use a fly rod – a lot of times we like to bring both.

Rainbow Trout Fish Stringer
A stringer full of wild Rainbow Trout caught fly fishing. This particular lake has a very large trout limit due to the lake’s very high productivity. The management idea is that by allowing anglers to harvest more fish, more food is available in the lake for remaining fish, allowing them to grow to a bigger size. Otherwise you end up with an over-populated population of small fish.
Strange Fly
This fly caught all of those fish. Everything else I tried didn’t work that day including spinners and other flies. I still don’t know what the name of this fly is.

When we first moved to Idaho we hadn’t done much fly fishing, but we had caught trout using spinners, spoons, bait, and even with flies with bobbers and weights. In Idaho, we really started fishing high alpine lakes religiously, and that’s where we first learned about the benefits and drawbacks of fly fishing. 

Let’s start with some drawbacks. At high mountain lakes, fly fishing can be really difficult. Sometimes you hike for miles into your chosen lake to find that there isn’t anywhere good to cast from the shore, and for a basic fly cast you need a lot of space behind you.

You can combat this disadvantage by packing waders or a small raft, and you can also learn how to do more advanced casts like a roll cast or even a bow and arrow cast. But even those methods can be difficult with thick vegetation surrounding a lake, and they may not get your fly very far from the shore.

Pack Raft
Pack rafts are a good tool for fly fishing high mountain lakes.

Another disadvantage to fly fishing is that you can’t cast as far. Some people might debate this, and maybe there are a few exceptions, but there is no way the average angler can cast from shore with a fly rod as far as they can with a spinning rod and a heavy lure like a spoon. It’s not often, but we have been to several high mountain lakes where the fish were only far from shore and deep.

But there are huge advantages to using fly fishing gear at high mountain lakes, and there are even times when fly fishing gear is absolutely essential if you want to catch fish. This might seem like an exaggeration but it’s not. Trout can be picky enough that they will only bite a small fly that lands VERY delicately and naturally on the surface, which is literally impossible to achieve with a spinning setup. Even when it’s not essential, having a more natural dry-fly presentation can definitely mean catching more and/or bigger fish. Next time you are at a lake and it is glassy and calm, imagine the difference between a big bobber slapping the surface and a delicate little bug landing quietly. Fish don’t expect a big splash and it can even scare them away.

By fishing a lot of high mountain lakes, we learned to treat every fishing trip individually and keep an open mind about fishing techniques. To this day, we usually pack fly rods and a spin rod just in case. Sometimes we might even bring a barbie rod -they are great compact rods for backpacking.

When we are targeting trout in rivers, we almost always fly fish. You want to get the most natural presentation and drift possible, and you just can’t match the ability of a fly rod to mend line and drift a fly downstream like a real bug. After all, that is really what fly fishing gear is made for.

For salmon and steelhead, we use conventional gear. For steelhead we fish with spinners or we “Bobber Dog”. For salmon, we fish with jigs and spinners. These methods have proven to be very effective and when we are salmon fishing we are fishing for meat. There is no doubt that fly fishing gear can be effective for anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead, but it takes patience, practice, and often-times requires less affordable fishing equipment.

In the open ocean, we almost never bring fly fishing gear. On the rare instance that you find rockfish shallow enough to catch on a fly rod, it is doable and tons of fun, but again, we fish for meat and there is no doubt that conventional gear wins in the ocean in the Northwest. Whether it is for salmon, steelhead, bottomfish, or halibut, we are almost always fishing deeper than 30 feet.

If you are considering adding fly fishing gear to your arsenal, keep in mind that you can get started fly fishing AFFORDABLY. You don’t need all the fancy stuff, and you don’t need an expensive rod and reel. After all, the goal is to catch more fish and expensive gear won’t help much with that.

fat cutthroat trout
As for this fish… this beautiful cutthroat bit a TINY red copper john fly. It wouldn’t bite anything else because in this lake, they were only eating tiny red copepods (small plankton related to shrimp).


1 thought on “Fly Fishing Versus Spin Fishing”

  • On a glassy lake when fish are surface feeding fly fishing has an advantage for realistic presentation. Casting a fly setup when there is tall brush can be a problem that is generally surmountable if you have waders or the water is warm enough for wading. In many situations, however, spin fishing can have advantages. Spin gear can be used to present a fly on the surface using the plastic bobber method, the big splash and wake being the main drawback. On windy days; the splash of the plastic bobber is not so obnoxious and you can cast upwind better. Advantages may include speed and cast distance. Sometimes fish are deep and sometimes they are eating food that is not well-simulated by a fly. If I need to eat fish I will bring a spin set-up, flies and bobbers, but fly fishing can certainly be more fun.

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