The fine art of fly-fishing photography

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Imagine a stream winding through a grassy meadow in Montana on a July morning where there is mist rising into the sky and a fly angler is trying to cast to a rising fish. The fly line moves back and forth in a graceful manner almost to the beat of a Mozart symphony. My first thought would be, “Where’s my camera?” Capturing a fly line in motion is easy, but making a spectacular photo is hard. While a fly line is significantly thicker than typical monofilament fishing line, sometimes it is still so thin it substantially visible.

Yet you can capture it and create a beautiful and exciting image if you follow a few of these tips.

Size up. Fly tackle come in different sizes called weights. The rod, reel and fly line must be the same weight designation for it to be a balanced fishing tool. Each weight is aimed at a particular species or size of fish. For instance a 6-weight outfit would be great for rainbow trout or bass. A 4-weight outfit would easily subdue panfish or smaller trout. A larger sized 8-weight would be great for saltwater fish like red drum. The bigger the weight number, the bigger the line. In any case jump up one or two sizes. This makes the fly line more visible to the camera.

Think about fly line color. Most fly line companies make products in a variety of colors. Some are colored to fool the fish and some are colored to help the angler cast. Anticipating your background might be hard, so I suggest taking a light colored and a dark colored fly line to contrast with the background. 

Find a contrasting background. Sometimes you might not have the option of different colored fly lines available so in that case, move around and try to capture the fly line against a contrasting background.

Cut the fly off. A telltale sign of a good fly caster is the loop they create in the air as the fly line goes back and forth. However, a good fly angler will adapt to the water conditions and may add tiny split shot on the leader or use a heavy fly. This extra weight on the leader will make the angler compensate to get the fly out there which means the pretty loop will not be so pretty any more. For photo purposes, have the angler cut off the fly and remove the split shot so that the fly line moves back and forth with ease. From any distance the missing fly will not be noticeable.

Use flash. In low light or no light situations use a flash. For better results use a remotely triggered flash that is some distance away from the camera but aimed at the fly line path.

Downsize the fly tackle. We talked about sizing up your tackle, but if you downsize, a hooked fish will put more bend on a rod giving the illusion of a bigger fish and a tougher fight. This really increases the drama in a photo, but take care that you do not prolong the fight and exhaust the fish beyond recovery.

Use low angle. I consider shooting horizontally at my height, 5’8”, very boring. Try bending your knees and angle up. This will create a very different perspective. At the extreme, lay on the ground or boat deck and shoot straight up.

Strip it out. I hate photos of fish on the bank but sometimes there is no one around to pose with it, so strip out some line on the ground and then place the fish on top of it. This changes the photo from boring to abstract.

Slow the shutter speed. Slowing the shutter speed will blur the fly line and make it look thicker.

Silhouette against the sun. Early morning or late evening light from the sun is perfect for creating contrast with a fly line.

Anything goes. I once captured what appeared to be a fly reel that over ran and line was tangled all over the place. The amusing thing is that this is very easy to do with a baitcasting reel, often called a “birdnest,” but very hard to do with a fly reel. The key is to be on the lookout for anything unusual being done with a fly line. The angler might have coils of extra fly line in their teeth or the reel might be spinning at a high speed and the fly line is spitting out water in a circle. ♦

Lefty Ray Chapa is a San Antonio, Texas, based freelance outdoor photographer and writer who specializes in fly-fishing and wing shooting topics. He lectures on Texas fly-fishing destinations to various clubs across the country. He is also president of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association.

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