We want to encourage anglers of all skill levels to participate in the one thing we love most: fly fishing. In an effort to motivate our novice members to get out there and fish, we’ve created this guide as a quick reference tool to help introductory fly anglers navigate the complex and misleadingly intimidating learning curve associated with the sport.
As with any fishing style, fly fishing is full of fun and exciting gear to try out. It can be easy to walk into a fly shop, or peruse a fly fishing web-store and quickly feel like you jumped in way over your head. But don’t panic, below you will discover the minimum required gear to start your fly fishing journey.
Rod & Reel
The most important gear you need to fly fish is a fly fishing rod and reel. Fly rod and reel setups can range in price from $150 to well over $1000 for the top of the line equipment. For someone just beginning to dip their toes in the water, we recommend not breaking the bank without making sure you like it first. Rods are typically sold based on a “weight” scale, the “weight” of a rod is based on the heaviness of the line it is capable of casting. The scale starts as low as double-zero and goes all the way up to 16 for big game saltwater fishing.
For anglers starting out fishing on trout streams or bass ponds, we recommend picking up a 9 ft. 5-weight rod and reel combo, it has enough power to cast heavier flies and rigs but is light enough to make any fish fight fun.
For those new fly anglers looking to explore the coast in search of saltwater game species, we recommend looking at 9′ ft. 8-weight rod. These rods are on the heavier side and are capable of casting large flies and heavier lines, as well as hold up to the power of a saltwater fish.
Selecting a fly line is a relatively simple process when you’re just starting out. We’d recommend buying a weight forward floating line for your first line, regardless of whether you’re fishing in freshwater or salt. If there is one piece of your first fly fishing set-up that you splurge a little bit on, it should be your line. A good fly line can turn even the worst fly fishing rod into an accurate casting stick, so it’s worth it to spend a little extra.
Depending on where you live, you may want to invest in wading equipment like waders and wading boots. If you live somewhere on the sunny coast, you may be lucky enough to fish barefoot, but more than likely you’re going to want the added traction and protection of a pair of wading boots.
Casting a fly rod can certainly look overly complicated at first, but if you master these basic casts, you’ll be prepared to chase just about any fish species out there! We’ve found the best way to practice casting is to find an open field or a pond and spend some time feeling out your cast and how your rod’s action feels with a fly line and leader on it.
The Roll Cast is the simplest cast in a fly anglers arsenal. This cast allows you to get your line out on the water when you don’t have the area behind you to do an overhand cast. First, picture a clock face, your feet are the 6 o’clock position and straight above your head is the 12 o’clock position, this will help us better explain how to move the rod during your cast.
In order to make a Roll Cast, first, you need to create a D-shaped loop of fly line by lifting your rod tip to the 1 o’clock position, once the loop is there, bring the rod swiftly to the 10 o’clock and stop with a flick. When done correctly, the rod will pull the line through the water, loading (read: bending) your rod, and then propel the loop of line, along with your leader and flies out onto the water’s surface.
Standard Fly Cast
Other than the roll cast, the basic fly fishing cast takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it it will feel natural. The casting stroke with this cast is a simple 10 o’clock-to-2 o’clock motion with a hard stop at either end. With line on the water in front of you, pull your rod back to the 2 o’clock position. Once the line straightens out behind you, bring the rod to the 10 o’clock position and give the rod a hard stop. The line will form a loop as it comes forward and propel your flies forward. You can repeat this process and let more line out on each cast, but while you’re learning, it’s best to practice with a fixed amount of line. Every rod has a slightly different action and may require the casting to be sped up or slowed down, depending on your rod and line weight, so play around with that as you practice casting.
Where to Go Fly Fishing
Ponds & Lakes
Ponds and lakes are where many of us all caught out first fish on the fly. Bluegill and bass will happily take flies most of the year and tend to not be as challenging to cast as a picky trout. If you’re looking for a way to catch a few fish and practice casting, ponds and other still waters are where you should head!
Rivers, Streams & Creeks
Historically, flowing water is where modern fly fishing truly began. Depending on the temperature and type of flowing water you are fishing you will find countless species who are eager to eat a fly drifting past in the water. Trout, salmon, bass, and panfish are all on the menu in many North American streams, and they make for some of the most fun you can have with a fly rod in your hands.
If you’re lucky enough to live on or near the coast, odds are you’ve got an amazing fishery at your doorstep. Many saltwater game fish are more than happy to take a swipe at a properly presented fly pattern, and most of the time, they fight harder than many fish you’ll find in freshwater.
How to Catch Fish
So, now that you have your fly fishing gear, and you know where you’re headed to catch fish, its time to master how to hook, fight and land a fish on the fly rod. Firstly, you need to make sure the fly you have tied to the end of your line is going to work for the fish you’re after. Next, is actually setting the hook and hooking a fish and lastly, actually landing the fish you have at the end of your line.
Choosing Your Fly
Your first thought when choosing a fly pattern should be the species of fish you are after and what they like to eat. First let’s break down the 3 basic categories of fly patterns out there: dry flies, nymphs and streamers.
Dry flies are flies that float on the surface of the water. They are designed to mimic insects in various stages of their life cycle that trout and other species of fish love to sip off the surface of the water. Some of these flies can be minute in size, or even mimic massive flying insects like cicadas, depending on what flies are active at the time.
Fish to target with dry flies: Trout, Panfish.
Nymphs are flies that are designed to sink below the surface of the water and mimic insects in the larval or nymph stages of their lifecycle. While most nymphs are designed to fool trout in cold streams, nymphs can also be incredibly effective on warm water species as well!
Fish to target with nymphs: Trout, panfish, carp.
Streamers are patterns designed to mimic baitfish and other large creepy-crawlies that live in the water. If the species of fish you are after likes to eat other fish, these are the patterns for you, regardless of whether you are fishing in salt or freshwater. When fishing streamers, typically you move the fly through the water by stripping in fly line. Retrieve speed will vary depending on the fish you are trying to get to eat your fly.
Fish to target with streamers: Trout, Bass, Pike/Muskie, Saltwater Species.
Setting the hook is the second to last step in catching your first fish on the fly, and arguably the second most important behind accurate casting. Depending on the species you are targeting and what fly you are using.
When you are fishing with dry flies or nymphs, you’re going to want to utilize what we fly anglers call a “trout set.” Trout sets are easy, simply raise your rod tip while holding the line, and the rod will put enough pressure on the hook to drive it into the fish’s mouth.
If you’re throwing streamers, its best to use a “strip-set.” When you feel a fish hit your fly, keep stripping the streamer until you feel the weight of the fish at the end of the line, then lift your rod tip. Strip sets are important, especially in saltwater and on fish with harder, bony mouths like bass.
Fighting a Fish on a Fly Rod
Now for the fun part, you’ve got a fish hooked at the end of your line, and now you need to bring it to hand. When you have a fish hooked, it is paramount that you maintain tension in your fly line. In a typical fish fight, this can be accomplished with a few different methods, the most important being keeping your rod bent with the tip up in the air, this will allow your rod to act as a shock absorber and achieve leverage over the fish.
Bringing your fish to hand is accomplished by one of two ways, either reeling in the line or stripping the line between the rod grip and your casting hand’s fingers. For smaller fish, or ones that don’t pull to hard, the stripping method is the simplest and won’t require you to strip more line out before you recast. For larger, powerful fish, it’s best to allow the fish to pull any slack line out of your hands and fight it on the reel. This will allow you to put the reel’s drag system to use and slow down a running fish without the risk of snapping your line.
Check out these other amazing resources to help your fly fishing journey kick-off right:
Dan Zazworsky’s passion is sharing his love of fly fishing with anyone that will listen, read or watch. You can find him exploring new waters every day while chasing any fish that will eat a fly!