The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing

Fly fishing has managed to capture the minds of poets and artists more so than any other form of fishing. The English writer Izaak Walton even once said: “O, sir, doubt not that Angling is an art; is it not an art to deceive a trout with an artificial fly?”. Diehard fly fishermen will tell you it is an art, a meditative practice, something that transcends the act itself. To some ends, this may be true. Fly fishing is undoubtedly unique in its attention to form and craft and because of this, it attracts the more engaged fisherman. Even if you know nothing about the sport you can picture the average fly fisherman to appreciate the dedication. This is the person you see wading chest-deep in frigid river waters throwing cast after cast., the person painstakingly making an intricate fly with their hands, it is something that approaches an act of love.    

What is Fly Fishing?

If you regularly go fishing yet you have never tried fly fishing then the things which will surprise you the most are the lures, the fishing line, and the casting technique. Fly fishing sets itself apart with the use of a special fly rod and reel and the use of a weighted fishing line. The lures, on the other hand, better know as fly lures or just “flies”, are very lightweight. This creates the opposite effect of traditional casting techniques which rely on the weight of the lure to propel the line and pull it off the reel. With fly fishing, you are casting the line itself and manipulating the placement of the fly by the technique you use. 

Fly fishing is a versatile art and can be done in freshwater or saltwater. The many varieties of habitats available to the fly fisherman demand different techniques in casting as well as fly type. This is where the art comes in. 

What Gear is Needed to Go Fly Fishing?

For the absolute beginner fly fisherman, the amount and variety of gear needed to begin can seem overwhelming. Thankfully it is simpler than it looks. Of course, the best route for any new fly fisherman is to learn with someone who has plenty of experience and can show you the ropes. If this isn’t an option however it isn’t a problem and you can absolutely get started on your own. 

Before you get out on the water and start casting you will need the right gear. This gear can generally be divided between your rod, reel, line and fly (the basics to catch the fish) and your other standard gear like clothing and tools. Everyone starts in different places with their fly fishing gear and you won’t necessarily have all the best equipment to begin with. That’s totally ok. What’s most important is that you have the basics and put in the time to practice with them. More gear, and better gear, can come with time. 

Choosing your Gear

To get started you are going to need a fly rod, a fly reel, fly fishing line, and of course some flies! Let’s start with the fly rod. Fly rods are available in many sizes and weights and each one is appropriate for catching different sizes of fish. The most common lengths are around 8-9 feet but they can certainly be longer. The weights are an important detail to pay attention to. These are denoted by a #(pound) sign and commonly range from #3 to #7 although higher weights are available. As you might have guessed the higher the weight of the rod the bigger the fish you can properly catch. A #7 weight rod would be for something large like a salmon while a #3 is better for smaller fish like brook trout. 

When looking at and discussing fly rods you will also hear people reference something called the action of the rod. This basically refers to how much the rod can bend underweight and it is described in terms such as slow, medium, or fast. Fast action rods will only bend a little and this gives them a lot of power. These are more difficult if you’re just starting out and the line speeds will be very fast. A medium action rod might be a better rod to start with while slow action rods are the easiest to control. 

Slow, medium and fast action is not just a matter of difficulty though. Each rod comes with its own set of pros and cons under different sets of fishing conditions. When buying a rod it is best to speak with a knowledgeable sales rep about the fishing you are going to do. They can point you in the right direction. Still, as a general rule, medium action rods are perfect for beginners in most conditions. Fast action rods work best for the big fish and for windy environments and the slow action rods are best for delicate casts using small flies.  

Picking a fly reel to go with your fly rod is very important. You cannot mix and match here. Certain fly reels work best with certain fly rods. Ideally, you should buy them together as a combo. The fly reel holds all of your fishing line while also creating weight and balance in the rod. The fly reel also creates drag on the line and this really matters when you’re fighting a big fish. With both the fly rod and the fly reel, since you should be buying them together, go for quality. You don’t have to break the bank but spending a little extra on the right construction and materials will save you tons of headaches and time down the line.         

The quality of a rod and reel can make or break a fishing trip. 

Fly Fishing Line, Flies, and Bringing it all Together

If you buy a rod and reel combo with nothing else then there are a few more components you need. The fly fishing line is your next item but there is more to this than you might think. Between the reel and the fish you actually have six distinct pieces. In order, from reel to fish, these are the backing, fly line, butt section, leader, tippet and fly. 

The backing is a larger heavy strength material, around 20 lbs test,  which connects directly to the reel and serves to take up extra space while also acting as an insurance policy in case a big fish starts running off with most of your line. This is where fishing knots start to become very important so you will want to look these up and practice them. The backing itself should be attached to the reel with an arbor knot and then rolled on until there is about a quarter-inch of space left for the fishing line. 

The backing will take up anywhere from 100 to 200 yards of your line while the fly line might only take a 100 feet. This will vary with different lines and reels and you can usually follow instructions that come with the components or ask someone for help at a local bait and tackle shop.

Choosing a Fly Line 

The backing then connects to the fly line with an Albright knot. A simple Google or YouTube search should help in learning these knots. The fly line itself will be thicker and heavier than a typical fishing line. Choosing a fly line is an art unto itself and whole articles have been written on the subject, here are the basics. 

Fly line is categorized by line weight which ranges from 1-15, 1 is lightest and 15 is heaviest. To make things easy you can simply match the line weight to the rod and reel weights. So, a 5 weight rod and reel deserve a 5 weight line. Weight for all fly fishing components goes up as the size of the fish you’re after increases. A safe bet for beginners though is to start with 5 weight. 

Fly line also comes with varying line tapers, densities, and colors. Line taper refers to the way the line changes in weight and thickness over its length. There are a few variations of this but the best to start with is a weight-forward taper. This will be abbreviated as WF when you go to buy it. 

Line density determines if the line floats or sinks after you cast it. The main categories for this are Floating (F), Intermediate (I), Sinking (S), and Floating/Sinking (F/S). These each performs as you might expect with Intermediate lines slowly sinking and Floating/Sinking lines sinking at the tip but floating further back. A beginner should go with a Floating line which will be much easier to keep track of and recover after each cast. 

The line color is widely varied. Starting out you should go for something bright so you can easily find your line. As you progress to Sinking lines or Floating/Sinking then you will want more natural colors so the fish can’t see the line.    

The Butt Section, Leader, and Tippet 

Alright, so you have a rod with the right reel which is connected to some backing which in turn is tied to your fly line. Now you can attach a butt section to your main fly line. The butt section is just a piece of thicker fly line, maybe one to two feet long, and it is optional. It serves as an easily connected/disconnected bridge between the fly line and the leader. This is important because the leader is attached with a somewhat difficult knot called the Nail knot. This knot is easier on both ends when tied with the thicker fly line. 

The leader is just a piece of tapered monofilament, maybe 40# test at the heaviest, to help with the aerodynamics and final landing of the fly at the end of the line. After the leader, you will then use a double surgeon’s knot to connect the tippet. The tippet will be the lightest, weakest, and thinnest part of the whole assembly. It is tied at the end so the fly does not splash when it hits the water and scare away the fish. The tippet is also meant to break under too much pressure so the leader, and the rest of your line, remain safe. Once that is all in place you can finally attach your fly.

Fishing Flies: The Heart of Fly Fishing 

Fishing flies are a cornerstone of the art of fly fishing. They are a constructed bait with a hook made to look like anything a fish might be eating at the time. Insects, baitfish, crustaceans and more. Some people make these by hand (known as “fly tying”) using fur, feathers, hair, thread, and other elements and they are beautiful. Flies can also be purchased premade. 

The fly is attached to the tippet using the improved clinch knot. That holds true for any fly. The type of fly you will want varies based on what you are fishing for and where. You basically want the fly to imitate the food of the fish you hope to catch. You might use dry flies that are fished on the surface of the water to imitate insects or wet flies which are fished below the surface to imitate aquatic insects, worms, shrimp and other small creatures. 

You can also use streamers, a type of large wet fly, which imitates baitfish, crayfish, and other similarly sized animals. Then there are poppers which sort of jump and twitch on the surface the way a wounded prey like a frog or mouse might. There are many other options to choose from and the potential is only limited by people’s creativity and innovation. Choosing the right fly for your situation is a matter of experience and research, don’t be afraid to ask for help.      

Other Standard Gear 

Getting set up with the right rod, reel, line, and flies is the hard part. The next most important set of gear would be your waders and wading boots. The waders are waterproof pants to keep you dry in the water and while the boots do the same they are also important to help secure your footing in fast-moving waters. In addition to this, you will also want a good fishing vest to carry all your flies and other gear. That other gear can include small hand tools like knives, forceps, pliers, etc. If you’re fishing with dry flies you will also need to bring fly floatant which you apply to the fly to keep it dry and above water.  

When gear and technique come together you’ll start hooking fish. 

Learning the Art of Fly Fishing

This ultimate guide to fly fishing has mostly been about gear with very little focus on technique and there is a reason for that. Understanding the basics of the equipment is a major barrier for many people but once that is explained the next best thing to do is get the stuff and start practicing in the real world. 

Buy your rod, reel, backing, line, leader, tippet, and flies and hop into your waders and boots and go test the waters. Even better you should find a local class now that you have all the equipment you need or, at the very least, watch some videos on technique and location scouting. You might also consider hiring a private instructor or guide to show you the ropes. There are plenty of people with knowledge to share but showing up with the gear to learn by doing is half the battle. 

Still, if you are a determined self-learner there are some things you can do. Step number one, after getting all your gear, is practicing your knots. From the Arbor knot to the improved clinch knot and every step in between you should take as much time as possible to become familiar with these. It is better to practice this at home so you don’t have to fumble around with attaching a fly on the fly. 

Step number two is to practice your casting. Fly fishing often occurs in running rivers but you can easily cast in a lake for practice. This makes visualizing the fly easier which will be very important. The most common cast is the forward cast which occurs in two major parts. This is difficult to describe or even show but essentially you are using the rod to cast the fly line forward and land the fly on the water in a way that looks natural for the prey it imitates. This often means with little splashing or noise. To do this you start the first part with the line in the water and your rod pointing down. Bring your arm up straight so your knuckles are pointing up, your forearm is vertical and the tip of the rod is behind you. This will send the line out behind you and you should let it go until it is taught and loaded. 

Next, in part two, you will flick this forward, moving your hand about a foot or so while the rod points forward sending the line out to the water. As the line begins to land you should bring the tip of the rod down with it so it ends pointing back at the water. Once more, you bring the rod back with a flick sending the line behind you and then quickly forward sending the fly out to the water. Watch videos if you need and get instruction when you can. 

This is just one of many casting techniques and you will slowly build your skill and repertoire as you practice. Step number three for self-education involves studying the fish and the locations you want to fish. You should know what species are there, what their behavior is like, what they feed on and when, plus much more. The better you understand the area the better your fishing experience will be. 

The final step for self-education requires learning how to actually fly fish by just going out and doing it. First, you should find ways to get the fish to pursue your fly. Then, you will have to learn how to set the hook when they bite. Follow that up with reeling it in and you’re on your way.    

Final Verdict:

Fly fishing is an art form and a challenging sport but armed with a little knowledge and a willingness to try anyone can dive into it. Books could be written on technique, style, and philosophy but sometimes experience is the best teacher. Hopefully, this guide points you in the right direction and prepares you to equip yourself with the tools you need to get started. With enough practice and determination, you’ll be a skilled fly fisherman well on your way to tackling the biggest fish. 

Bonus tip: Watch as this fly fisherman demonstrates the basic forward cast!

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