Learning How To Fly Fish
Waist deep immersion into mirror-like waters of a high alpine lake. The only disturbances to the mirror are that of the trout kissing the surface and myself, quivering in anticipation of a strike. My head rises to observe the pale blue skies, highlighted with soft yellows and purples of a southwest sunset. The lake, encapsulated by a wall of evergreen trees is a quiet hiding place for wild and voracious trout. I stand here, hoping to fool one onto the end of my fly rod.
If this kind of image invokes a deep sense of contentedness and romanticism for you, then fly fishing just might be for you. Fly fishing has taken me to many an idyllic setting and given me many a worry free evening. It is something I will continue to practice, likely for the remainder of my life.
So you are thinking about learning how to start fly fishing? Maybe you’re a little bit daunted by learning a whole new lingo and equipment set. Fear not, as fly fishing equipment is fairly simplified compared to other realms. It is a beginner friendly sport and can be picked up quickly when proper technique and foundations are learned initially. This sport is full of enjoyment and destinations waiting to be had. Listen up to get the rundown basics on this fast growing facet of fishing. Fly fishing might just be for you.
Fly Fishing Basics
First, lets take a quick look at what fly fishing is and how fly fishing works.
Fly fishing is a form of angling that is very different from conventional spin-fishing. The focus of fly fishing is the ability to cast very small and light flies (think lures) to replicate small insect prey items. Instead of relying on the weight of the lure to cast, a fly rod relies on the weight of the line being propelled back and forth to carry the artificial fly to its intended target.
This can be considered as a very active form of angling. Contrary to bait fishing, in which the angler sits and waits for extended periods of time. Fly-fishing requires the angler to be constantly paying attention and in a state of motion. This could be a motion of casting, stripping in line, or mending line on a downstream drift. If you like fishing but can’t sit still, fly fishing might be a good hobby for you.
Within the sport of fly fishing, quite a bit of variation exists. With the opportunity to chase a large variety of fish, from freshwater to saltwater, there is a lot of different gear and techniques that exist.
For simplicity’s purpose, in this article we’re going to cover only the basic methods of fly fishing for a beginner. Once you get into the sport, just know that the limits are endless. You can chase fish all over the world or all over your backyard. Fish can be tricky and interesting critters to pursue. I can guarantee you this, you will always be learning something new once you start fly fishing.
Fly fishing began as an angling method more geared toward trout fishing. Now days it’s a method of angling for just about any species of fish out there. Because the diet of trout often relies heavily on small insects, fly fishing has been generally geared toward trout and is often the fish that comes to mind when beginners think of fly fishing. If you’re wondering how to start fly fishing yourself, keep reading below as we introduce you to some of the basic fly fishing equipment.
Fly Fishing Gear For Beginners
The basic fly fishing gear required for this type of fishing is quite different than gear required for spin fishing. The poles tend to be longer and more flexible, the reels are simple and lack many features, and the line is big and thick. These are all special designs that have been hammered out over the years as an effective way to cast flies.
For a beginner, learning new gear and lingo can be a daunting aspect. Fear not, as fly fishing equipment basics is fairly simple and easy to wrap your mind around. If you’re interested in what you need to start fly fishing, check out the information we have laid out for you below.
Fly fishing rods come in a vast array of shapes and sizes. It is easy to be overwhelmed by selecting any single one fly rod to purchase. Fear not, as there are only a few things you really need to consider when buying a fly rod. You need to consider the length of the rod, rated weight of the rod, and to a lesser degree, the action of the rod. Other than that, details are fairly superfluous for the needs of a beginner.
-Fly Rod Weight-
Fly rods come in a range of rated weights from 0 to about 14. With a 0 weight rod being very small and primarily for tiny creek fishing. On the other hand, a 14 weight rod would be reserved for only the largest of saltwater game fish, such as marlin and tuna.
The weight you choose for your rod depends on your intended target species of fish and the types of flies you will be using. A large heavy rod, such as an 8 weight, would have a tough time casting a small light dry fly very well. Conversely, trying to cast a big heavy fly with a 2 weight rod is going to be very difficult. Below is a general recommendation of fly rod weight ranges that I’ve found to work best for different game fish species.
Fly Rod Weight For Species Of Fish
Fly Rod Weight:
Small Trout In Creeks
Pike And Muskie
As you can see, there tends to be a good overlap in versatility somewhere between that 4 to 6 weight mark. Personally, for my very own general do-it-all fly rod, I run a 5 weight.
-Fly Rod Length-
Another important factor to consider is the length of your fly rod. Fly rods are produced most commonly in lengths from 6 to 10 feet. Target fish species do come into play in this decision as well. However, the more important factor in choosing fly rod length is the environment in which you’ll be fishing in.
While long fly rods cast easier, farther, and can be more forgiving, longer fly rods are not suitable for all scenarios. If you’re fishing wide open shorelines or casting from a boat and need to cast far, and maybe even into the wind; a long fly rod will be your friend. 9-11 feet ideally. Remember, a long rod may cause you difficulties if you will be fishing near any trees or obstacles. Basically, casting anywhere other than in the wide open.
Shorter fly rods are quicker, more accurate, and easier to cast in brushier scenarios. However, shorter rods lack the power of longer rods. They may struggle casting very large flies and cast far. The shortest rods are generally reserved for tight quarters fishing in creeks.
So what size fly rod should you get? Somewhere right in the middle should be a good starting point for beginners. A balance between power, ease, and usability. Generally speaking, you can break down rod lengths into three categories of needs.
- 9 feet long or more – making long casts in wide open, casting in wind, or using a heavy weight rod
- 8-8.5 feet long – generalist use, good for fly fishing in a wide variety of conditions.
- 8 feet or under- fishing in tight quarters, require precision at relatively close distance, or fishing with lightweight rods.
-Fly Rod Action-
Another variable to consider in fly rods is the rated action of the rod. This essentially refers to how flexible the rod is. The action of a fly rod is rated on a scale of slow to fast, the same as all fishing rods.
Fast action rods are overall fairly stiff, with most of the bending, or “action”, happening near the tip end of the rod.
Conversely, slow action fly rods are very bendy and do so over nearly the entire rod length of the rod. There are a number of different combinations of actions in the middle of that range as well.
A fast action rod is going to be a powerful rod best used for long casts and into the wind. This power is going to make the rod a little less forgiving however, particularly for beginners. A fast action rod would generally be bought in a longer length, heavier weight, and be used for making long casts of heavier flies.
Slower action rods are more forgiving for the casting fly angler. What these rods lack in power, they make up for in cast-ability and are extremely fun in catching fish.
A true slow action rod is generally reserved for fishing smaller fish in little creeks or fishing for panfish. The increased rod flexibility makes casting them with precision easier and fighting a fish much more fun.
Split the difference, and you have a medium action rod. True to its middle ground, it’s a good all around choice for a beginner fly angler. They’re forgiving and easy to cast while still retaining a solid amount of power and other characteristics from slower and faster action rods. Due to a medium action fly rods versatility, this would be my recommended choice for a beginning fly angler.
Fly Fishing Reels
Thankfully, once you have your rod weight selected, everything else becomes much simpler. When selecting a fly reel, you simply want your fly reel to match the weight of your rod and line. Just remember:
Rod Weight = Line Weight = Reel weight
Fly reels are sold in ranges of intended fly line size. And that is the most important consideration to take when purchasing a fly fishing reel. Other than that, other variables could be considered simply as an option. And remember, your fly line weight is going to be the same as your rod weight!
The reel on a fly rod tends to serve the sole purpose of holding fly line and providing you with some degree of drag to slow a fish when hooked. Therefore, if you’re looking to save money on your fly fishing setup, this is one piece of fly fishing gear I would consider saving money on.
Your fly line is about equal in importance as your fly rod. The two work in sync with one another. And fine tuning their relationship will lead you to a much easier and better casting experience.
-Fly Line Weight-
First off, the most important thing is to match your fly line weight to your fly rod weight. Fly lines are usually sold in one specific weight, but may also encompass a few weight ranges. Once you know what weight you need to buy, there are a few more factors to consider.
-Floating v. Sinking Fly Line-
Decide whether you want a fly fishing line that floats or sinks. Generally speaking, sinking fly lines are best reserved for fishing deeper in lakes, rivers and other specialized circumstances. Floating fly lines are a good option for most creek fishing and shallower water lake fishing.
-Fly Line Taper-
Next, you will need to decide on the taper design of your line. The taper is the distribution of line thickness over the entire length of the line. The type of taper you have is key to casting performance depending on what kind of fly fishing environment you’ll be casting in.
A fly fishing line that’s uniform across its entire length will feel dead and will be difficult to cast. While a “weight forward” line, or one that is thicker on the leading end than the back end, will have more power to cast farther.
A double taper line is symmetrical on the front and back end of the line, with most of the mass occurring in the middle. This would be considered a good all around general fly fishing line and therefore a good choice for learning how to fly fish. Save the weight forward line for heavy casting in high winds.
-Color Of Fly Line-
The color of your fly line does not matter all that much. If you’re fishing in still water and stealthy scenarios, consider a more subdued color as opposed to a bright color, as long as you can see the line. With that said, however, a brighter line may be significantly easier for you to see, potentially improving your own fishing ability and awareness.
Fly Line Leaders
Now you can’t just go and tie a fly on the end of your fly line. You’ll need a
Leaders are most commonly sold as a tapered leader. The butt end of you leader that attaches to your fly line is much thicker than leading edge. The line tapers down to the tip of the leader. The bare minimum strength of your fishing line comes from the rating of the tip of your leader.
Fly fishing leaders are categorized by their pound test as read in a range of 0x on the heavy end to about 8x on the small end. The larger the number, the lighter pound test.
Most leaders display the rated line pound test on the package as well. Selecting your leader size will be dependent on the size of fish you are targeting, along with how large of flies you will be casting.
Here is a chart to better help you make that determination:
Fly Fishing Tippet Chart
Avg. Breaking Strength (lb)
Fly Fishing Accessories
Along with a fair selection of flies (which we’ll touch on below) this is really the basic fly fishing gear you need to get yourself out there and start fly fishing. Compared to many sports, this is hardly any gear at all! The simplicity of the sport begins to define itself from the complexity once you gain a little bit of background knowledge. Although this is all you really need to go out and catch a fish on a fly rod, there are a lot of optional equipment that you may find useful.
-Fishing Vest or Fishing Pack-
One thing you ought to think about is a way to help organize your collection of fishing flies, line cutters, and other miscellaneous tools. This level of organization can be best achieved through a fly fishing vest or pack.
These fishing vests are designed specifically with fly fishing in mind. Whether you want a vest, front mounted pack or fanny pack is really up to personal preference. I would recommend going to a store and checking some out first hand. All of the fly fishing vests will contain pockets to fit a wide variety of items.
One of the other organizational items you will want are fly boxes. Fly boxes help categorize your groups of flies and keep them further organized within your vest or pack.
Fishing from shore may not always lend itself well to fly fishing. This is due to limited casting distance and the requirement for a clear area to backcast. Because of this, waders are a common tool for fly fishing anglers.
Waders allow you to walk further out into the water to cast, which in turn allows you both to cast further and ensure a clear area behind you.
Fly fishing waders come in a variety of styles. You can choose a boot foot or a stocking foot (requires separate boots). You can choose neoprene waders for cold, or breathable waders for warmer weather situations.
If you do choose to buy waders, be sure to consider the type of fishing you’ll be doing and do some additional research.
An additional tool you may find incredibly handy, is a fishing net. Carrying a fishing net with you allows for much easier landing of the fish. A fishing net places less stress on the fish as it can limit the time the fish is on the line. In some situations, this could mean life or death for that fish during the post-release exhaustion phase.
Another tip for you, be sure to get a rubber coated net as these are much less damaging to a the skin and mucous layer of fish.
Fly Fishing Flies
Fly fishing flies were traditionally made solely out of animal hair and bird feathers which were then tied in an artistic and replicating manner onto the shaft of a hook. Modern day flies still follow suit to this, but some of today’s flies may incorporate modern day materials in addition to the feathers.
Fly fishing flies are tied by hand and in my opinion are an absolute form of artwork. A nearly infinite variety of different patterns exist to replicate all sorts of bugs and critters. However, with all those hundreds of different kinds of flies that can be made, you can essentially break fly fishing flies down into these three primary groupings; dry flies, nymphs, and streamers.
A dry fly might be what a person with little experience in this sport might think of when you bring up fly fishing . These are flies that are small and designed to float on the surface. They are usually meant to mimic a flying insect of some variety. Dry flies are tied with feathers wrapped around the hook to form a “hackle” and aid in the flies floating ability.
Dry flies are best used in more still water applications and small creek fishing. If there’s some sort of insect hatch occuring, which can often be the case at dawn and dusk, selecting a dry fly that most resembles the hatching bugs are a good bet for trout fishing.
A good range of size 12-18 hooks would be solid start. Dry flies can also be large and made out of foam to resemble grasshoppers and large terrestrial insects.
Here is a good variety of dry flies to choose from when filling your fly box.
- Parachute Adams
- Blue-winged Olive
- Pale Morning Dun
- Royal Wulff
- Foam Grasshoppers
Unlike dry flies, nymphs are a sinking fly that are fished below the surface. These are flies that replicate the larval stages of most aquatic and flying insects. They can represent anything from a dragonfly larvae to a mosquito larvae.
Small nymphs are a favorite food for many trout and make an excellent addition to your fly box. Nymphs are a little harder to fish than other flies. And because they are below the surface, it can be somewhat more difficult to recognize a fish strike.
One way of fishing nymphs is to set them up as a “dropper” below a large dry fly. By attaching a segment of tippet line from the large floating fly to the nymph, you essentially have a bobber. Best yet, you are fishing two flies at once!
Here are a few nymph patterns you should start off with in your fly box:
- Hare’s Ear
- Prince Nymph
- Copper John
My personal go to when fly fishing are streamer patterns. Streamers are large flies designed to be fished subsurface. They’re generally larger flies and replicate large prey such as leeches, minnows, crayfish and even trout.
Unlike a nymph which you generally fish very still, streamers are designed to be fished actively. Since you’re replicating a larger-bodied moving prey, actively “stripping” the line to simulate movement is necessary.
Because streamers are larger types of flies, it makes sense to have a larger weight rod for fishing with them. However, there are still streamers in sizes that can be cast quite well with 4 weight rods. You just want to take into account the size of flies you’ll be purchasing to cater to your specific fly rod.
There are once again, a large variety of streamer patterns. There are patterns to replicate all sorts of fish species and much much more. Predatory fish tend to specialize on prey in their specific region. Therefore, I would recommend asking your local fly shop for advice to determine what fish in your area generally prey upon.
With that said, here are a few patterns and critters you should plan on being able to replicate.
- Zonker Minnow
- Crayfish Patterns
- Leech Patterns
Fly Fishing Setup
How To Set Up A Fly Rod And reel
Now that you have a fly rod, fly reel, line, and a leader; a proper fly fishing setup is nearly yours. However, putting line on the reel is not as intuitive as it is with a conventional spin fishing setup.
In addition to your fly line and fly leader, there’s a section of line called “backing” that is the actual connection between the reel and your fly line.
The backing serves as an additional length of fishing line in case you have a far running fish on the end of your hook. With most fly lines only running 100 feet or so; another 100 feet or so of backing is attached between the reel and line. To this backing, you then attach your fly line with a special knot called an Albright Knot. Finally, you then tie your leader to the end of the fly line.
Though setting this up yourself is fully possible and only requires knowledge of a few knots, when you buy your fly line from a fly shop, they will generally spool your line for you, at no additional cost! Even if you purchase your fly fishing equipment elsewhere, the cost to spool your line is minimal, and in my opinion, very much worth the cost, the added convenience and ultimately the assurance that it is done right.
Don’t forget that you can also buy extra spools for your reel! This will allow you to have different line setups and be able to quickly interchange them on your fly rod and reel.
Fly Casting For Beginners
While equipment selection may be daunting to beginners at times, I think that the actual casting of the fly rod is the largest deterrent to most people.
Casting a fly rod, when done by a professional, looks flawless, easy and beautiful. However, most beginners to fly fishing quickly find quite the opposite to be true.
By learning proper fly casting technique the first time and learning to let the rod do the work, you can quickly develop the skill that will soon feel flawless and easy to you as well. When learning how to cast a fly rod, always start with good habits. It is very hard to unlearn bad habits.
How To Cast a Fly Rod: Casting Basics
If you’re new to fly fishing, then be sure to practice casting before actually taking your rod out fishing. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to learn a skill when you’re just trying to have fun fishing. It’s simply a recipe for quickly developing bad habits!
To cast a fly rod, you need to really understand how the fly rod works at casting your line. When you “load” your fly rod, that is the line pulling on the rod storing energy into the rod. With proper timing, you are then able to transfer that load to the opposite direction, shooting the line back.
When learning to cast, try not to move your arm or wrist stiffly like a windshield-wiper blade. Instead, your forward cast should be a similar motion to hammering a nail. The rod grip is your hammer. It’s a short, curved stroke that accelerates quickly to the target and then stops suddenly. The acceleration loads (bends) the rod, and the rod “unloads” after the sudden stop, propelling the line forward.
Most beginners are taught to move their casting arm and stop at a 10 o clock and 2 o clock position. While this gives a good frame of referenced to learn on, it should not be relied on. You really want to gauge how and when to move your casting arm by watching and feeling the line bend the rod.
It is very helpful to turn your head around on your backcast to watch the line. Once the end of your line is about halfway between the rod tip and the back of the cast, you want to propel your line forward. It’s on this forward propelling motion that I will usually release line through my left hand to get my cast to the proper distance.
Speaking of handling the line. It’s usually best for beginners to pull out a fair amount of line from the fly reel and pile it, tangle free, at your feet. Your non-casting hand, left for most folks, will be used to control fly line output.
When I cast, I release line on the forward cast, and hold onto it to gain power on the back cast. You don’t want to release too much line at once because letting more line out will rob power from that cast.
Casting a fly rod can be a complex concept for beginners to wrap their minds around. However, it’s quite simple in reality and is relatively easy to pick up if learned properly. I recommend meeting a fly fishing mentor or spending lots of time reading or watching videos on the concept to get a full understanding before developing bad habits.
How Far Can You Cast a Fly Rod?
While obtaining long distance casts on a fly rod are not nearly as easily accomplished as with a spinning rod, well seasoned fly anglers may be able to cast over 200 feet. However, long casting setups are specialized and not great for other scenarios.
For a general use fly rod, like a 9 foot 5 weight rod,, an average angler should be able to cast around 100 feet in an ideal situation. For just starting out fly fishing, I would be fully content with going fishing with a casting ability of 30-50 feet. In my experience, that’s all that is usually necessary in most circumstances.
You’ll quickly learn to gauge how far you can cast. With practice, you’ll learn to easily judge distances and cast a fly accurately out to 100 feet or more!
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as dropping a fly within inches of its intended target and then seeing and feeling the strike of a fish that was waiting below the surface.
Alternative Fly Casting Techniques
Not all fly fishing situations call for a classic fly cast. This could be due to physical obstructions or the need for fishing shorter distances on smaller waters. Honestly, most of my fly fishing doesn’t require me to cast, per se.
Fly Line Flicking
In my home mountains, much of the trout creeks I fish are small and brushy. Most of my “casting” comes in the form of flicking the line back upstream. Sometimes on really small holes, I just set my fly down gently onto the water. There isn’t necessarily a whole lot of technique to flicking fly line other than learning the power of your rod and how to tell it what to do. This is a technique that is often necessary to perform in close quarters, as the surroundings may render classic casting to be impossible.
Another technique commonly used is what’s referred to as a roll cast. A roll cast is a single motion cast that can be used to re-cast line that is already out in the water.
With your line already out in the water in front of you, bring your rod slowly back and at a point somewhere around 12 or 2 o clock, when your falls back behind your rod, flip it forward forcefully (maybe with two hands) almost all the way to the ground in front of you. This should send a big “roll” though the line and cast it further out in front of you.
Once you get down the fly casting casting basics, don’t be afraid to get even a little more creative with your fly fishing techniques.
Fly Fishing Tips For Beginners
- Be sure to assemble a proper fly fishing setup of rod, reel, line, and leader
- Practice casting in a field before going fishing
- Learn and few knots and fly fishing lingo
- Talk to local fly shops for advice on local fishing conditions and fly pattern selection
- Panfish, Bass, and Trout are all excellent species of fish to start out on.
- Best case scenario? Find a mentor to help guide the learning process.
- Online social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook are excellent ways to connect with local anglers and learn basic fly fishing techniques.
If you’re looking to get into fly fishing, have read through this article and are ready to go out and get started, I highly recommend that you do.
With the knowledge that you’ve gained in this article, you should be able to confidently pick yourself up a basic fly fishing set up.
My personal recommendation for a beginner fly fishing setup would be an inexpensive 5 weight fly rod. This can be purchased in either a complete fly rod and reel combo, or by purchasing each individual component separately. With a small selection of dry flies, nymphs, and streamers, all you need is just need a little practice before hitting the water.
For a fly fishing beginner getting into the sport, my first, and most important recommendation is to practice before play. This is essential before taking your fly rod and reel out to the water to actually go fishing. Set aside some dedicated practice time to learn proper skills. Learn these skills from either a mentor or dig deep into the interwebs to fill your head with knowledge of the techniques involved.
And most importantly…have fun!