A Guide to Urban Fly Fishing
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Why urban fly fishing and how do you go about it? For many urban dwellers, access to the outdoors, wilderness, and nature are not easy or quick to get to. Even if you can get to those "better" rivers and lakes how often are you really going out there, a weekend here or there? Meanwhile, there are blue places on our cities' maps that are close by offering you a chance to catch multiple fish species, they provide a new way to explore your urban area, and can be one of the cheapest ways to get into and regularly enjoy fly fishing. Sometimes you just want to go fish for an hour or so, and these urban waters are worthy options. On top of all of that, if you spend time traveling to other cities for work, to visit family, or just for vacation then bringing your fly rod opens up even more fishing opportunities.
Below I will run through some tips and insights that I use when fly fishing my city and other urban areas I travel to. I will also cover equipment, gear, flies, and clothing useful for the urban scene along with a few urban fly fishing tactics.
And one quick note before we dive in, please consider bringing a small bag (like a plastic grocery bag) and filling it up with some trash at the end of your fishing day. These urban watersheds definitely need more stewards and we can all do something to help out.
Where to Fly Fish in Your City
Urban Rivers, Streams and Creeks
An internet tab that always remains open on my computer is Google Maps. Periodically throughout the day I will scan over the map and trace blue lines on the screen, I have found some of my favorite fishing spots this way.
If you are looking to fish rivers, and you are planning on wading, then look for smaller rivers. Anything that looks like it is less than 100ft across could be wadable, and if you find a river that is just too wide then trace it around the map looking for any tributaries, like streams and creeks. Once you locate a spot, click on the satellite view. First things first, is the river actually there or is it dried up or an empty drainage canal? Next, are the banks heavily vegetated? That could make fly fishing from the bank difficult. Are riffles visible in the river? It could mean that it runs shallow at times and thus that section of river is wadable.
Other things I look for in rivers, streams and creeks (using the satellite view) are gravel bars and sandy/rocky banks since these things make casting easier. Also, check the satellite image to make sure the river banks are not marshy which makes fishing those areas on foot a living nightmare. Finally, I will check for any islands/gravel bars, constrictions in the river (formed by rocks, woody debris, or manmade stuff), and river bends. All of these things add up to more "fishy" places.
To double check my initial aerial scouting, I will try to find a bridge or nearby road that could provide a street view. Street view (or any photos showing the river) could give even more insight on what to expect. More than once, I saw in street view a person fishing the river which boosts my confidence in the location.
You will also need to find a way to access the river or stream. Things to look for are parks, walking paths, and bridges which can all provide river access. Walking paths are perhaps my favorite because they allow me to fish up or downstream and then hop back onto the path and walk back rather than having to wade the river more.
A final note about urban rivers and streams is that they are heavily affected by rainfall. The surrounding area is urban and thus water rushes off the concrete roads and parking lots and swells the rivers. I will use the USGS National Water Dashboard to zoom in on a river, see if there is a nearby water level gauge, and then check the current levels. If you look at the current levels and they are spiked way high (using the previous 30-days and year as comparisons) then it is a good idea to wait a few days to let the river levels come back down.
Urban Ponds, Lakes and Saltwater
Ponds can be very reliable places to fly fish and catch anything from hand-sized panfish to hefty carp and largemouth bass. It is hard to find a pond that does not at least have panfish in it. Ponds that easier to fly fish are those in parks that maintain the area and make casting a fly line from the bank doable. I also like irregularly shaped ponds (rather than perfect ovals or circles) since it will create more inlets and shallow areas that fish like to move into to feed. Check the satellite view as well, ponds can be overgrown will lily pads or algae later on in the summer and the satellite view might show this (try to fish these ponds earlier in the summer or in fall/winter/spring).
When it comes to fly fishing lakes and saltwater I tend to look for similar features. Harbors, piers, shorelines and beaches, canals, and jetties are all pretty easy to spot on the map. Beside an obvious park, the tough thing is finding public access as some of these places are restricted. Street view can help with this but at times you might need to explore on foot.
These public areas can also be very crowded which makes casting a fly line interesting. Going earlier or later in the day, or venturing a bit more off the path could help you to avoid any incidents. If the city you live in mainly has lakes or is on the coast then purchasing a kayak or paddle board is another way to get out and explore these waters.
Fly and Tackle Shops, Fishing Clubs, Forums, and More
Besides scouting the map for fishable rivers, lakes, ponds, or shoreline there are a few more very helpful resources. The first to check out are local fly or tackle shops which are chock full of information and might even provide guided trips within the city. Fishing clubs and fly fishing communities have also been popping up throughout the country over the last few years. These clubs and communities are a fun way to meet other anglers and to gain local fishing knowledge. A quick internet search could show you if there are any in your urban area or nearby. There are always forums and Reddit to browse through. Sometimes the forums will be statewide but they are still worth digging through or posting a question about your local urban waters.
Lastly, an internet search could result in newspaper or magazine articles that cover your city and its fishing potential. I would also call up the city park staff and see what they recommend, and these parks might also have websites that detail fishing opportunities with further information.
Urban Fly Fishing Equipment, Flies, and Clothing
Fly Rods, Reels, Fly Lines, and Flies
Every city has its own particular urban waters which dictate the type of fly fishing equipment you should buy. If you have not bought a fly rod yet then my best recommendation is to ask the local fly shop or fly fishing club members. If your city does not have a fly shop or fishing club that is alright. In almost every major U.S. city you will run into familiar fish species so I will list them out below along with the fly fishing equipment and useful flies that could be used to catch them:
Panfish (such as bluegill, crappie, sunfish, rock bass, etc.)
A 3 or 4-weight fly rod is perfect for fighting and catching these smaller fish. Get a floating line and an inexpensive reel (like a click and pawl reel) and you are ready to go. For panfish, I like to use 7-9 foot leaders that taper down to 3-5x tippet. A tenkara rod is also a great option and packs down to the smallest, lightest and most portable rod to carry around.
Useful flies include: Poppers in sizes 10-12 (any color), wooly buggers in sizes 10-12 (any color), any weighted or un-weighted nymphs in sizes 10-14, clouser minnows in size 10 (any color), elk hair caddis in sizes 12-14, and foam beetles in sizes 12-14. Using wet flies in sizes 12-16 is also very effective (for more on wet flies check out this guide on wet fly fishing).
A 5 to 7-weight fly rods can be used for smallmouth bass (a tenkara rod is also another great option here). It really depends on what type of water you are fishing for smallmouth. For small streams I like using a 5-weight fly rod, and for larger streams, rivers, and lakes I will use a 6 or 7-weight. Most times I will pair the rod with a floating line and an inexpensive standard disc-drag or click and pawl reel. A sink tip or intermediate fly line could be more effective when rivers run higher in the winter and spring.
Useful flies include: Clouser minnows in sizes 2-6 (pink, chartreuse, and olive are great colors), crayfish patterns in sizes 4-6, poppers in sizes 1/0 to 6 (white, chartreuse, black, and yellow), weighted and un-weighted wooly buggers in sizes 6-8 (black, white, rusty brown, pink, and chartreuse), and chubby chernobyls in sizes 10-12 (green, black, yellow, brown).
Fly fishing for urban smallmouth bass is incredibly fun, and if you fish for them into the fall be sure to read up on tactics for smallmouth bass in the fall.
Most often, largemouth bass fly fishing takes place in lakes and ponds, but in some of the larger and slower eddies in rivers you can catch them. For ponds, a 5 or 6-weight fly rod works. The 5-weight might be under-gunned for some of the largemouth, but I like using this rod because I will also be going after panfish and it makes catching them more enjoyable. A floating line is all I will take with me to the ponds.
For lakes, a 7 or 8-weight is needed because the fly patterns are just larger and way more air resistant so a heavier rod is needed in order to cast them. There is a lot that goes into fly fishing for largemouth on lakes so it cannot all be covered here. Floating lines, intermediate lines, full sinking lines all have their place.
Useful flies include: Clouser minnows in sizes 1/0 to 4 (chartreuse, pink, black, white, yellow), game changers, bang tails, crawfish flies in sizes 4-6, swimmin jimmy, dalhberg divers in size 2, sneaky Pete in sizes 2-4 (chartreuse, yellow, black, red, white), and a variety of deer hair poppers in sizes 1/0 to 4.
Ever since I caught my first carp in the LA River it has been my favorite species to target in urban waters. I really like a 7-weight for rivers and if I find a good pond or lake that has some oversized common or grass carp then an 8-weight has a bit more power to wrangle these lunkers in. A standard disc-drag reel with a floating line and you are set. Also, my leaders are typically 9-10ft tapered down to 0-3x fluorocarbon.
Useful flies include: carp bitters in size 6 (brown, black, olive, rusty orange), hybrid carp worm in sizes 6-8, backstabber in size 6 (brown, black, olive, rusty orange), near nuff crayfish in size 6-8, Clouser swimming nymph in size 8-10 (weighted and unweighted), and headstand in size 8. If I find carp that look to be feeding mid-column then I will use a slightly weighted wet fly and gently retrieve it until it is in front of the carp.
Beyond the species listed above, cities could also have unique fish that can be caught on the fly. For example, around Seattle there are sea-run cutthroat and salmon, Cleveland has steelhead runs, and in Boston you could hook into a stripped bass. The point being, there are other fly fishing rods, reels, and lines that might be better options to pursue these fish or other species that are special to your urban area.
Clothing for the Urban Angler
It is pretty straight forward with clothing, but there are a couple things that I prefer to wear while fly fishing urban waters. The first is a pair of wet wading boots, I will wear these while wading in any urban watershed. There can be broken glass and other sharp objects in the water so it is a good idea to have some closed toe shoes.
Waders are nice to have when the water temperature is cooler in the fall, winter and spring or if you just do not want to wet wade your urban waters. A sun hoody (with UV protection) is also a clutch piece of clothing and something I wear all the time while in the sun. Finally, a pair of polarized sun glasses are great to have since they cut down through the glare on the water and helps you to spot fish below (really important for carp fly fishing).
Urban Fly Fishing Tactics
Have quantities of flies rather than quality. I consider my urban flies as canon fodder, nothing against the fly patterns but there can be so much woody debris, concrete, and other things hidden underwater that I lose a number of flies each outing. I really fish my flies hard and will expect to lose them, but fishing this way has cut my urban learning curve down significantly. Buy them cheap, tie them cheap, whatever you need to do.
With dirty, muddy, or off-color water use high contrasting fly patterns with flash and maybe rattles. Urban waters can run off-color and fish will struggle to see your fly presentations. Any color that contrasts with the water color helps along with some flash. I am undecided about rattles and their effectiveness but they are worth the shot (usually for predatory fish like smallmouth, largemouth, pike, etc.).
Experiment with a range of nymphing techniques. If the fishing gets tough try mixing things up by using tightline techniques, attaching an indicator, or use a dry-dropper. Something else I like doing is a popper-dropper where I will take a foam or deer hair popper and suspend a weighted nymph beneath. There is no hard and fast rule with fishing this set-up, just experiment with twitching, popping, and then letting the popper sit still in the water, if nothing hits the popper then usually the nymph gets attacked. Also, I will occasionally use a nymph or two and swing them through the current and slowly retrieve them back. This also works in ponds where I will just cast them out and then gently strip them back to the shore.
Other urban areas to definitely check out and fish are below dams (and low-head dams), bridges, riprap, and yes even the outflows from wastewater treatment plants. Fish will school up in big numbers beneath these treatment outflows, especially in the winter. Sounds gross but the water is treated...and there can be a ton of large fish congregated there. Riprap is basically concrete blocks or rocks/boulders piled up on the bank to protect it from erosion. There are so many nooks and crannies in riprap that provide great habitat for crayfish, baitfish, and aquatic insects, they are like the coral reefs of urban waters. Predatory fish like smallmouth and largemouth will gravitate to these areas to hunt and ambush any prey that passes by. If you find some riprap then take your time and fish it well.
Overall, although this is a general guide to fly fishing any urban area, I hope it provides some reasons, tips, and motivation to get you out onto your own urban waters (for an example of how I go about fly fishing my own urban waters you can check out fly fishing in Columbus and carp fishing on the Olentangy River). Fly fishing does not have to be an activity only worth pursuing on splendid trout streams or Caribbean waters filled with bonefish. There are rivers, streams, lakes and ponds filled with plenty of fish to catch on the fly around our urban spaces. Exploring urban waters with a fly rod is just one more way to bring nature and the outdoors closer to home.