iFishFar: Fly Fishing for Trail Runners

iFishFarOver the past few years, I’ve increasingly taken up fly fishing. I’m not catching trophy fish up here in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, but I do love fishing for trout… and I especially love to do so while out on runs. Yup, I combine trail running and fly fishing and I’m far from the first to have done so. In fact, my very first fly-fishing outing was as part of long trail run in Utah’s Uinta Mountains with Altra’s Brian Beckstead.

In this oh-so-odd year, I’ve found myself fly fishing on the run more than ever and it’s been a welcome source of inspiration. I’ve tried and tried and tried again at the Troutman (or Troutwoman) challenge–a standing challenge that requires running at least a marathon, climbing at least 3,000 feet, catching the Colorado grand slam of trout (a brook, a brown, a cutthroat, and a rainbow trout), and drinking a 12% beer all within 12 hours–with other outings to scout possible fishing locations along those Troutman routes. This past week, I tied together a Troutman attempt with a 100-mile run as the pinnacle event of my year’s running as the Troutman 100. All in all, adding fly fishing to my running has literally pointed my running in new directions, while tuning me into to a whole new ecosystem and its inhabitants. There’s also the beauty of engaged learning of a new pursuit, and there are more than a dozen lifetimes worth of those to be had with fly fishing. Finally, I just plain enjoy the fishing: the being out there in nature, the success and the failure, and the peace I find in all of it.

Bryon Powell - Wright's Lake

Me fly fishing Wright’s Lake during my Troutman 100 attempt. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Since you’re here on iRunFar, I’ll assume that you’re at least an occasional runner and that you’d potentially add fly fishing to your running rather than the other way around. However, there are folks who may have or might come into trail running by way of fly fishing. If that’s you, check out our Trail Running 101 or Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running columns for the basics about trail running, our Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks column for more on ultramarathon-distance running, and iRunFar’s trail running gear reviews for ideas on new running gear.

Please keep in mind that I consider myself a novice fly fisher. The advice below is meant to help bring someone from no knowledge of to the very basics of fly fishing… or at least point that person in the direction of where to start looking for more info. Likewise, many species of fish can be caught fly fishing–be it trout, salmon, bass, pike, or even saltwater fish–with this article skewing toward the small- and moderate-size trout I usually catch.

This article walks you through the basic gear you’ll need to get started with fly fishing, the basic steps of how to go about fly fishing, and how to fly fish responsibly. I also share my personal gear setup (both the running and fishing sides), what I’ve learned along the way, and some of the side benefits I find the fishing offers me.

Fundraising, Fun, and Flyathlons

Here’s a quick call for action and connection before I jump into the article. Whether I help connect your running with fly fishing or you simply want to do some good, please consider making a donation via the linked page to Running Rivers, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems, which are critical parts of the ecosystems through which we trail runners travel. They’ve been critical to keeping me inspired and motivated to run this year. They also do amazing, on-the-ground work in restoring native trout fisheries. In short, Running Rivers lives up to their motto, Conservation through Recreation! Lastly, Running Rivers has also created a community of folks who love to pair trail running and fly fishing (and a little craft beer) in irreverent annual events that are called Flyathlons. Check out their website or the Rocky Mountain Flyathlon’s Facebook page for more.

Cutthroat Trout - Sawatch Lake

A beautiful native cutthroat trout in the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

What You’ll Need to Fly Fish While Trail Running

Fishing Gear

Fly Rod and Reel

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll want a fly-fishing rod to go fly fishing. There are so many variations of fly rods and so many fishing conditions for them that it’s impossible to say what fishing rod you should get, but here are the basic descriptors you’ll hear about for various rods.

  1. Weight – This doesn’t refer to the physical weight of the rod, but rather the weight of the fly line (we’ll get there) the manufacturer recommends for pairing with the rod. In general, the smaller the number, the smaller the fish, and, conversely, the larger the number, the larger the fish.
  2. Length – This actually refers to the length of the fully assembled rod. Easy enough, right?
  3. Pieces – Most fly rods break down into multiple pieces for ease of transport. For example, both of my traditional fly rods break down into four pieces. A key related consideration for combining running and fly fishing is the length of each piece. If the individual segments are too long, the rod will become more difficult to run with, especially if you’ll be traveling under or through branches or thick cover.

A fly rod is paired with a reel with its spool to hold line and a crank with which to reel in the line. Reels are also rated with “weights,” and once again they have nothing to do with weight of the actual item. Like rod weights, larger reel weights are for heftier situations. Usually, the weights of the rod and reel are matched up, so that you might use a 2/3 (meaning 2 or 3)-weight reel with a 3-weight rod or a 5-weight reel with a 5-weight rod.

[Note that a few times in this article I refer to the above rod-and-reel setup as a “Western” fly rod as shorthand to distinguish it from the tenkara-style rods used in the Japanese tradition of fly fishing, which I describe further below.]

My advice, if possible, is to go fly fishing with an experienced fly fisher in the type of setting you’d imagine fishing most often. Hopefully, they will let you use an appropriate rod or rods to help you get started. If and when you feel ready to make a commitment to exploring fly fishing, take that fisher’s advice for the rod and go pick one up.

Here are some other ideas for getting the right rod to start with:

  1. Simply talk to local fly fishers.
  2. Online forums, especially ones targeted toward the location you’d most often fish.
  3. A local fly-fishing shop.
  4. An authoritative website, like Orvis, as they have useful articles as well as product descriptions of what type of rod works well in various situations.

Running Rivers founder Andrew Todd notes that “a 5-weight, 4-piece rod is a good place to start across a diversity of waters. Such a rod can easily manage smaller fish, but can also handle bigger fish. If you are going to own a single-weight rod, this is the most versatile across the range.” A more experienced fly fisher might move to a 3-weight, 4-piece rod for a high-mountain-stream setting that’s generally limited to small- to medium-sized trout, but this rod would be a bit harder for a novice to cast.

There’s no need to start out with the most expensive rods and reels on the shelf of your local fly shop. Four years ago, my first rod and reel combination was less than $200 and it still works well enough for me.

Fly Line

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds here, as I don’t want to get snagged on anything, but when fly fishing with a rod and reel, there are typically four different types of line used in a given setup.

To start, there’s the backing, a simple line tied directly to the reel’s spool. Essentially, it just adds extra length to your line in case a big or sporty fish makes a run for it. I’ve never had a fish take me in to my backing… but I wish I’d have!

Next up is the fly line, which seemingly comes in as many varieties as fly rods themselves. As with rod and reels, you’ll want to match up the “weight” of the fly line with your reel. The fly line has the heft that allows you to cast your fly. As with choosing a first rod, I’d highly recommend having a local fly fisher or your local fly shop make a recommendation here. Whether it’s by purchasing a combo/kit or getting help from a friend or a shop, I’d recommend initially having your reel and line assembled for you up to at least this point.

Then, there’s the leader, a thinner, approximately 10′ length (with plenty of variation) of tapered line (i.e., they get thinner as you move from the fly line to the tippet, described below) that resembles what folks think of as fishing line. Once again, you’ll often pair the “weight” of the leader with that of the reel, but that’s not always the case.

Finally, there’s the tippet, a shorter length of even finer line to which you’ll tie the fly. Tippet is rated with a number and an X, so, for example, I often fish with 5X tippet. Smaller numbers (like 4X) mean thicker, stronger line, while larger numbers (like 6X) mean thinner, more delicate line. As thicker line can tip off fish that something’s amiss, you’ll want to fish with the thinnest tippet that doesn’t routinely break when you’ve hooked a fish.

Fly fishing Weminuche Wilderness

Fly fishing in the Weminuche Wilderness with a friend. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Tenkara Rod: A Simple Alternative

The vast majority of fly fishing in the West is done with a fly rod and reel. However, the Japanese style of “tenkara” fishing eliminates the reel entirely with a fixed line tied directly to the end of the rod. These days, many of these rods are telescoping, meaning these multi-section rods can collapse into themselves and, then, extend for use.

I think that tenkara is amazing as a way to start dabbling with fly fishing, as it greatly simplifies the fly-fishing process. Also, I think tenkara is great style for trail running as some rods collapse into very short lengths, they’re much quicker to deploy (especially for a novice), and they eliminate the weight and bulk of a reel.

The one universal metric for tenkara rods is rod length. Generally, I’ve heard to fish the longest tenkara rod that conditions (often the tree canopy and shrub coverage) will allow. Until recently, I had only one make of tenkara rod–one of moderate extended length (10′ 10″), but highly compact (only 15 inches) when collapsed, that I used for all sorts of fly fishing.

Unlike the four lines used in a Western fly-fishing setup, a tenkara setup has only two, the fly line (often 12 to 15 feet) and tippet (often 3 to 6 feet). As such, a complete novice can initially assemble a full tenkara setup for the first time in just a couple minutes.

[Author’s Note: If you’re interested in trying out tenkara, Tenkara USA is offering all iRunFar readers a one-time 15% discount good until November 9. Just click through this link or use the code “irunfar” at checkout!]

Winter fly fishing - Cunningham Gulch

Me winter fishing with my Tenkara USA Hane rod. Photo: Andy Jones-Wilkins

Flies

Where to start?!

I guess we start with the three most common types of flies used for fly fishing. First off, there are dry flies, which are meant to float on top of the water. Next, there are wet flies, which are meant to be fished under the surface. Finally, there are nymphs, another underwater fly meant to imitate immature insects.

Aside from silly names, flies will also have a number attached to them. Here, smaller numbers mean bigger hooks. The same type of fly might come in three or more hook sizes, with the scale of the fly’s body scaled to match the size of the hook.

Some folks are experts in “matching the hatch,” that is matching up the fly they’ll fish with to the insect-life stages that are present in or on that stretch of stream at the moment. They might even pump the stomach of a fish to pinpoint its most recent meals. Personally, I don’t match the hatch except in the broadest seasonal strokes. For example, only the tiniest “midges” are flying around Silverton, Colorado in the winter, so I’ll fish with midges rather than a huge dry fly. Likewise, I fish “hoppers ” (i.e., grasshopper imitations) during the summer when they’re present here, but wouldn’t do so during winter or early spring, when they’re nowhere to be found.

Whether it’s talking to a local fly fisher or fly shop, you should be able to get started (and fish quite a while) with only four or five varieties of flies. For example, I’d be happy fishing the San Juans for a lifetime with nothing more than a hopper, a parachute Adams (another dry fly), and a copper John (a common nymph pattern). Add in an ant (self-explanatory) and a royal humpy (a dry fly that floats well and is quite visible in turbulent water), and I’m a very happy camper for life.

Over time, as I’ve come to lose fewer flies in my fishing, I’ve come to value higher quality flies. (For me, that’s usually Fulling Mill flies.) They seem to do better at attracting fish, but, more importantly, they last a lot longer in use. That said, it can be frustrating losing a bunch of $3 flies to early fishing adventures. Even today, I “snap off” a bunch of flies when casting with a fly rod and reel, such that I prefer using decent, but less expensive flies when I’m very likely to lose a bunch. (Here, the Half Buck Fly Shop comes in handy.)

Fishing Accessories to Carry

  • Extra Flies – You’ll want to carry some extra flies both as replacements for any that might break off (due to a hooked fish, underwater snag, or tangle in a streamside tree) or to swap out if the fish are looking but not striking.
  • Extra Tippet – As described above, this is the finest fishing line that’s the last piece in chain of various lines you fish with. You’ll go through this with some regularity. In general, I carry at least two and sometimes three weights of tippet on my runs, one at what I suspect is the proper weight, one at the next thinnest weight (in case the fish are being fickle), and, if I’m planning a long outing with possible bigger fish, one weight heavier tippet.
  • Nippers – Basically, these are nail clippers. In fact, you can use nail clippers while you try out fly fishing. You’ll use the nippers to cut various fly lines, including, very importantly, cutting off the “tag” (i.e., loose/free) end of various knots. Some folks cut off these ends as close as 1/16 of an inch to the knot, but, not trusting my knots, I give myself a bit more space of up ¼ of an inch.
  • Hemostats – Small pliers used to remove hooks from the mouth of any fish you land. Although heavier, you can try a pair of needle-nose pliers when you’re starting out.
  • Floatant and/or Drying Powder – A common way to fly fish is with “dry flies” intended to sit on top of the water’s surface. These flies aren’t always as effective when submerged, as they’re not intended to resemble insects or insect life stages more commonly found underwater. That’s why you might treat a dry fly with floatant, a liquid that helps the fly float, or use a powder to dry an already dampened dry fly. (I do use floatant, but usually dry already damp flies by pinching them in my shirt and/or either a couple quick “false casts” in the air or blowing on them.)
  • Extra Leader – This is the second-to-last line in the chain of lines used while fly fishing and is what you tie tippet onto. It’d be very uncommon to break or otherwise lose a leader, but as you tie on fresh tippet, you’ll lose leader inch by inch to the tag end of your knots. An extra leader weighs next to nothing and takes up no appreciable space. Still, I only doublecheck that I have one when I’ll be out for longer outings, especially deep in the backcountry.
  • Net – Usually, the fish I’m catching aren’t large enough to warrant a net, so I rarely carry one. If there’s a decent chance I’ll hook trout 14 inches or larger, I’ll bring a net to help land the fish more quickly and respectfully. While I’ve carried fixed-shape nets, they’re heavy and bulky to run with. Getting a collapsible net that fits into a pocket with belt loops recently was a huge upgrade!

A Pack (or Two)

I’ve never bought a pack specifically to run with fly fishing, but, rather, have always used running packs that I already own. I do like a pack with a couple pockets up front to store some fishing gear. Before heading out for your outing, do put your fly rod in the pack and try jogging around a bit to make sure that the rod doesn’t annoyingly bounce around, bang into your head, or otherwise annoy you. Trust me, this is no fun!

Using a waist belt in addition to a running pack can provide you with some additional easy-access storage. I often turn mine around when fishing so the main pocket is up front.

What to Wear?

The standard image of a fly fisher has the person in waders (think waterproof overalls), wading boots, a many-pocketed vest, and a bucket hat. There’s no need to look this part when combining trail running and fly fishing. More or less, you can dress for comfort on your run to wherever you’ll fish, while packing additional clothes for standing next to or in the water for however long you plan to fish.

A strong majority of my fly fishing involves “wet wading,” which is simply walking into the water body in normal, non-waterproof running clothes… so I get wet. Whether it’s warm enough to be wet wading in shorts and a tee shirt or right on the edge of what’s tolerably cold, it’s nice to wear clothes that dry quickly as well as shoes that drain and dry quickly. In warmish water, I’ll often wear thinner socks that hold less water, while the extra insulation/barrier of thicker socks is worth it in cold water. If I’ve got a long enough run out after fishing in which I can keep my feet dry, I’ll often run a mile or two to let my shoes drain off some water and, then, change into a dry pair of socks I’ve carried.

Do try to wear drab colors and, if you’ve got options, colors that blend into the background from the fish’s perspective. In general, that means bright yellows, oranges (unless it is hunting season), and reds are disfavored, while solid blacks can often too greatly contrast with the background. Instead, think dull greens, tans, or maybe a gray if you’ll be fishing where there’s tree cover or terrestrial background such as shrubs or rock walls behind you. If you’ll be fishing from in the water or from a bank with no cover, a light blue shirt can work well to simulate sky. No need to overthink this or to buy new clothes, but, rather, let this help you choose between options you have on hand.

Whatever the conditions, a pair of polarized glasses can be a huge help in spotting fish. It should go without saying that a pair of sunglasses might be helpful on sunny days.

Speaking of sunny days, you’ll want to avoid sunburn by covering exposed skin with clothing or sunscreen. Aside from the usual places like your ears and back of your neck, watch out for burning the back of your hands (especially the backs of your thumb and pointer finger on your rod-holding hand) and places like the back of your knees and upper arms that could get a big dose of reflected sunlight.

Elk Park - Animas River

Looking down at the Animas River on my way to fish it. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

How You’ll Fly Fish While Trail Running

As I’m only a couple years into my journey with fly fishing, I have no business teaching anyone how to fly fish! However, I can lay out some of the basics and point you toward resources that I’ve found useful in learning how to fly fish. That said, the two best ways to learn how to fly fish are to fish with experienced fly fishers and to simply spend time fishing, both to practice what you know and to learn what you don’t know.

The upside of fishing while running is that you can go way back where the fish don’t typically see a lot of fishing pressure, giving you the opportunity to make mistakes that these more naïve fish will forgive. That upside, the ability to access less fished waters, remains a constant bonus for the trail runner who fly fishes.

Knots

You can get away with only knowing two knots in the field as you start fly fishing, the double surgeon’s knot and the improved clinch knot. You’ll use the double surgeon’s knot for attaching tippet to your leader and the improved clinch knot for attaching flies to your tippet.

Eventually, you might want to learn the nail knot and the perfection loop, either of which would be used for attaching the leader to fly line. I’ve never had to tie either in the field. Many leaders come with an attachment loop already tied in them, which makes attaching a new leader easier.

Casting with a Rod and Reel

If at all possible, get your initial casting lesson(s) in person. This can be from a friend, at a fly shop’s instructional session, or with a guide. This first lesson(s) should get you enough of the basics that you can later practice on your own. Check out Orvis’s casting videos for refreshers to keep you pointed in the right direction. You’ll likely be able to fish plenty after learning just the overhead cast and roll cast. For those fishing highly vegetated mountain streams, learning the bow-and-arrow cast is also a must.

My biggest error with an overhead cast has been not pausing at the end of my backcast (the backward motion of a cast) such that I whip the line forward… which snaps flies off the end of the line. The key to a successful overhead cast is to be patient and cast between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock (with 12 o’clock being the rod straight up and down), letting the line fully extend behind you before bringing it forward.

Tenkara-Style Casting

Casting with a tenkara rod is pretty darn intuitive and simple. Here’s a quick how-to video from Tenkara USA.

Where Are the Fish?

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?! Aside from a lifetime of practice, the Google machine is pretty good at letting you know in what sort of a body of water and where in it you might find the species you’re trying to catch. Since trout are a common target of fly fishing, check out Orvis’s video series Reading the Water on where to find trout. Orvis also has video lessons for fly fishing for bass, pike and muskie, steelhead and salmon, and saltwater fish.  When all else fails, ingratiate yourself to someone who has been fishing for a while, buy them breakfast or a few beers, and get them to take you out to show you where they find fish. Alternately, just bust out a map, pick a route that runs along a creek or to a lake, and stuff your fishing gear in your bag. The worst that can happen is there aren’t any fish, in which case you still get to practice casting in a new set of conditions.

Don’t Spook the Fish!

You’ll want to do what you can to avoid spooking fish (i.e., scaring them off) which will likely result in that fish and, possibly, all the others in its pool to stop feeding for some time.

Yes, fish can see out of the water. They’re particularly sensitive to movement and shadows. So, if you’re walking quickly at full height on the sun-bearing side of a barren creek bank, the fish will see you and your shadow flick across the water. Both you and your shadow will give you away. Positioning yourself such that your shadow (and that of your rod!) doesn’t move across the water you plan to fish is important and will be part of your strategy of where to position yourself. You’ll also want to move slowly. Think of the heron walking very slowly while it’s fishing. Be the heron… with slow, deliberate movements.

In general, use any objects, like boulders or shrubs, as cover to hide behind. If you can’t conceal yourself, make yourself small by keeping a low profile, whether stooping, kneeling, or even laying down.

If you’re in or next to the body of water, you’ll want to avoid banging rocks around or otherwise creating loud sounds or large disturbances in the water.

This article is a nice overview on how to avoid spooking trout, in particular.

Fly Presentation

While some hungry, high-altitude trout might take a bite at nearly anything that resembles food, there are plenty of picky eaters out there, too! When you’re fly fishing, you’re trying to get a fish to think it’s about to eat a tasty treat. However, if the fly doesn’t look or act like fish food, the fish aren’t likely to strike. That’s why “presentation” is important.

The most common presentation problem is drag. This occurs when a fly moves at a different rate or in a different direction than the water it’s on. With a dry fly, you’d see this as a little “v” of wake on the surface (and drag also occurs underwater with wet flies and nymphs) and you want to do what you can to avoid this. Straight upstream or downstream casts can reduce this drag, but they have their own problems. Many times, you’ll be casting at least partly across the current (if you’re on a river or a stream), and the speeds of the various currents you line crosses can create drag. In this case, you’ll want to “mend” your line with a Western fly rod or keep much of your line off the water with a tenkara rod.

Aside from avoiding drag, there are plenty of techniques for improving your fly presentation, but that’d be going down a rabbit hole. But, for example, if you’re fishing with a hopper, you might give an occasional slight tug to cause the hopper to twitch, as if it’s struggling on the surface of the water. Here are a couple presentation techniques for tenkara.

Setting the Hook, Fighting the Fish, and Landing the Fish

You should be at the ready for the moment a fish hits your fly, as you’ll want to set the hook right away before it can reject the fly. There are two ways to set a hook when you sense the strike.

First, whether you’re using a rod and reel or a tenkara rod, a lift set, where you simply raise the tip of your rod, is an effective method for setting the hook.

Second, if you’re using a fly rod and reel, you can strip set the hook. “Stripping” means pulling line in from the water with your hand. Stripping is often used to attract fish when fly fishing with a streamer, which is an underwater fly meant to imitate a small fish or leech. The strip set is just a continuation of that.

You can watch some basics of setting the hook and fighting a fish with a Western rod in this Orvis lesson or this one on hooking, fighting, and landing from Tactical Fly Fisher. The linked videos from Tenkara USA show how to set a hook and land a fish with a tenkara rod.

Other Resources

Autumn aspens - Purgatory Flats Trail

Heading up the Purgatory Flats Trail en route to a Troutman finish. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Be Respectful

  • Have a license and know the local fishing regulations, which can vary from water body to water body and even in different stretches of the same water body.
  • Consider primarily catch-and-release fishing, especially when and where you’re catching resident, wild (i.e., not stocked by your local game department) fish. This helps keep fish populations and size up for you and other future fishers. If you do catch and release, then please research best practices, such as these for trout. In general, that means using barbless hooks (or crushing the barb on barbed hooks), touching fish only with wet hands, keeping the fish in the water until you are ready to take a photo, and giving them time to get their bearings before releasing them into the current.
  • If, after researching local fishing regulations as well as making sure you’re not eating native fish, you plan on keeping your fish, please dispatch it swiftly after landing it, such as with a swift blow to the back of the head.
  • As with any outdoor outing, practice Leave No Trace principles.
  • Respect private property.
  • Respect other fishers. Give them space, particularly those who aren’t part of your group. If a stream or river is being heavily fished, consider trending your travel upstream as most folks do, so you’re not crossing paths and spooking about-to-be-fished fish in the process. At the same time, don’t “high hole” by starting at a great pool just upstream of the person you are giving space to, as they are likely fishing in an upstream direction and looking forward to that spot.
Autumn brook trout - Chalk Creek

An brook trout in autumn colors caught the Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

My Fly Fishing/Trail Running Gear Setup

Fishing Gear

  • Tenkara USA Hane – This is my everyday rod that I probably do 98% of my fishing with. In fact, I have two, as on rare occasions I break a section hooking into an oversized fish (thank you, warranty!) and I always want to have one on hand. This 12-segment rod is 10′ 10″ and collapses down to 15 inches. It weighs a scant 3.5 ounces (100 grams). I can’t recommend this rod enough! (In REALLY tight quarters, I use the 4′ 6″ in Tiny Ten rod from Tiny Tenkara. It makes 8-inch fish feel like whales!)
  • Redington Path Combo 4-piece, 5-weight – My first fly rod, bought as a combo set. Works fine enough for me! (I also have a hand-built 9′ 6″ 4-piece 3-weight with a Ross Colorado LT 2/3 reel.)
  • Diawa Damo Folding Net – I don’t need it often, but this was the fly-fishing purchase of the year. I can easily slip this collapsible net in my pack when I’m running and, then, slip it onto webbing of my waist belt when it’s time to fish. There it sits out of the way, ready to be easily pulled out of its pocket and shaken open when need be.
  • Accessories – I use Gink floatant and have a set of Tenkara USA nippers and hemostats. Here’s the floatant holder/caddy I use when the floatant’s not in a shorts pocket.

Running Gear

  • Ultimate Direction Hardrock Vest or Raidlight Responsiv 20 – My two most frequent running packs that are also my most frequent fishing packs. If I need to carry more than my fishing gear and a light jacket, I use the Raidlight pack for extra volume.
  • Nathan 10k Elite Belt – A 13-year-old simple waistbelt I use to carry my two most likely to be used spools of tippet and my primary fly box.
  • Naked Belt – On occasion, I’ll head out for a fly-fishing run with only the Naked Belt. It can carry my phone, all my small fishing accessories, and my Hane tenkara rod in its trekking pole loops (as long as the rod is in its “rod sock”) behind me with my shirt draped over the rod to help keep it in place.
  • Patagonia Strider Pro Running Shorts 5″ (there’s also a 7″ version) – I love the four small stash pockets on the sides. I keep my nippers and my floatant in the two right side pockets. (I often use one of the left side pockets for trash.) You know I’m serious about my fishing if I’m wearing my gray pair of Strider Pros. Bonus: These dry really well when wet wading.
  • Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt – It’s a great technical shirt, but it’s my favorite because the dullish green comes the closest to matching the stream-lining willows and grasses where I most frequently fish.
  • Hat with fly patch – Last year, I added a 2″x4″ stickie foam patch to my age-old Headsweats Race Hat for easy access to my favorite flies.
  • New Balance 1400v6 with Vibram MegaGrip outsole – A frankenstein pair thanks to Vibram. The key factors here are a shoe that drains water relatively well and an outsole that does well enough on wet rock, as I’m usually wet wading in streams and rivers.
  • Smith Pinpoint sunglasses – Polarized sunglasses make fly fishing more fun and these are some great lenses! This more casual style of frame works plenty well enough when trail running, too.
San Juan Mtns Lake Fishing - Cutthroat

A cuttthrout trout caught high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

What I Wish I’d Known

  • Rod Transport – Many rods come with hard cases. I no longer use a hard case when running with fly rods. Until recently, I did carry my Tenkara USA Hane in the rod sock it came with, but I recently ditched that to save weight. For my multi-piece fly rods, I simply use a rod sock rather than a hard case. This requires a bit of care, especially when wading through trees and shrubs, so as not to catch the end of the rod and snap it. If I were headed out for a many day adventure in a densely vegetated area, I’d consider using a cardboard or plastic tube for a smidge of extra protection.
  • Reel Transport – If I’m carrying a reel, I use a simple, ultralight cloth bag (mostly to keep the line from tangling) rather than a heavier foam case.
  • Pockets are Your Friend – Fly fishing does involve more small pieces of gear than trail running, so lots of small pockets are nice. I’d recommend setting up a personal system of where you store stuff every run/fish outing, so you know where things are when you need them. Oh, wherever you store your phone, make sure it won’t easily fall out when you bend over the water, as you do very often while fishing. Even knowing this… my phone gets a stream bath often enough.
  • Other Tips for Not Losing Stuff – I really like keeping my hemostats on a retractable cord. It keeps them handy, but they’re not going to fall and get lost. I now keep floatant on a small leash if I’m not storing it in a shorts pocket. (I’ve lost a few of these small bottles by tipping them out of a chest pocket.) I’ve painted my nippers fluorescent orange for a bit better visibility for the uncountable number of times I misplace them.

Fringe Benefits of Fly Fishing While Trail Running

  • Being in the Moment – I don’t know about you, but I often tune out when I’m running. Fly fishing doesn’t allow that. You need to be minding your fly so you can set the hook in case you get the slightest strike from a fish. The same applies when you’re casting. Fail to pay attention and your fly’s in a tree… or your ear.
  • Increased Range of Motion – Goodness, I find myself moving in the oddest positions. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent moving over boulders while crouched this summer, but it’s a lot. My Achilles, ankles, knees, and hips all routinely have their ranges of motion put to the test.
  • Patience – I’m not talking about patience in waiting for fish to bite, but, rather, for undoing the umpteenth line tangle on a windy afternoon. It’s been good practice!
  • Cold Baths – Spending hours wet wading in mountain streams sure have targeted my troublesome Achilles attachments.
  • Unqualified “Me” Time – At times, running can feel like a means to an end, such as when training for a particular focus race or challenging adventure. It is “me” time, but that can sometimes be lost on us. However, with no ultimate purpose beyond enjoyment, fly fishing nearly always feels luxuriously indulgent to me.
Bryon Powell crouching - St Elmo

Me crouching 55 miles into the Troutman 100. Photo: Meghan Hicks

Call for Comments

  • Are you a runner who already incorporates fishing into your runs?
  • Are you already a trail runner and a fly fisher? If so, have or would you consider combining the two?
  • Do you have any questions on fly fishing or how to combine trail running and fly fishing?

There are 16 comments

    1. Bryon Powell

      John, my fishing is almost entirely catch and release. Once each of the past few years, in what felt like responsible circumstances, I’ve kept a couple fish as a treat for Meghan and I.

  1. Todd+Salzer

    Love it. Only started combining the two this year. Maybe an outing should be planned during Camp Hardrock? (PS Link to double surgeon is 404).

    1. Bryon Powell

      Todd, Thanks for the heads up on the 404. Looks like that website took down all its knot videos after I drafted that part of the article.

      As for Camp Hardrock, I almost organized an unofficial flyathlon during Camp Hardork 2019, but it got overruled in the scheduling. Would be fun to mix in the next time the tribe gets together. I know there are more than a few fly fishers in the group!

      So cool to hear that you’re out there combining the two!

  2. John McBreen

    Great article Bryon, as a mountain runner here in the Shenandoah Valley there’s a lot of possibilities to do a trout man. I’m close to Shenandoah NP and the George Washington NF here in Strasburg. We have quite a few wild brook trout streams close to the house. I currently use the Tenkara style. My heeler Sid, both runs trials and fishes with me. I use several different Tenkara Rods of various length; 8’ White Cloud and Teton Zoom 10.5-12’ are my go to rods from Tenkara Rod Co. They work great from small Appalachian streams with tight canopies to large creeks. I was recently in the Sawatch Range backpacking and fly fishing headwater streams and alpine lakes for 10 days. Both rods worked great on Cutty’s and Brook trout. Happy Trails!

  3. Steve

    Cool article and fun to learn other people who do this! I’m a fly fisher first, trailrunner second. I love being in shape so I can run to places very few others can roundtrip in a day. It’s so rewarding making that first cast in waters where trout that rarely see a fly! Incidentally I was in Durango last month and did a nice trail run with my flyrod. Was short a cutthroat of a GS! Wish I had more time to explore the San Juan Mountains.

  4. Evan

    Cheers Bryon and heres to tight lines. Like trail running it’s an opportunity to be in the moment and appreciate time outdoors. There’s no better way to get to remote sections of the river!

  5. Jeremy Schwab

    I bought a mini tenkara rod last year (MaxCatch Mini 12ft) and have taken it out a few times with the kids. We haven’t caught anything yet, just some nibbles here and there. But the ultimate goal is to be able to run with it and catch fish in alpine streams. Hopefully by getting the kids involved, they can come with me one day! My rod is 4oz. with the line and a few flies. It folds to about 10 inches and fits in my back pocket or running pack. Now if I can catch a few fish on an overnight hike or long run and cook it up, wouldn’t that be the best thing ever?

  6. John Harrison Pockler

    It’s fun I’ve done it with my travel spinning rod before. Love it because you can always find new lakes and track and you’re exploring all the time with a different goal.

  7. Blake Wood

    Great article, Bryon! Like you, I am lucky to have good trout fishing water within my usual running area, although not out of my front door.

    It is worth noting that having a fishing license is not just a matter of respect for the rules. The fee funds much conservation work by your state Fish & Game Dept. Also, in many places if you are caught fishing without a license, they will not only fine you, they will confiscate your gear!

  8. Doug K

    fishing was always a kind of meditation for me, much like running. After taking up hunting in recent years I realized both hunting and fishing also provide new ways to look at the world and a much deeper engagement with it..
    I seldom go into the high country without a fishing rod. Not so much “have rod will travel” as, “why would you want to travel without a rod ?”
    Mostly I catch one or two fish, admire and return them, then sit and watch the water for some time..

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