Fly Fishing: A Beginner's Guide
Sep 21, 2021 | 11 minute read
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Fly fishing has captured the imagination of many an angler since, well, the beginning of time. It’s one of the oldest forms of fishing, and a sense of wonder and mystique still surrounds it today. Many anglers describe it as the perfect way to feel at one with nature – something that can be hard to come by in these modern times.

A man fly fishes at sunset after wading into a waterway

That’s not to say it’s easy. For many fly anglers, the magic of the sport comes from constantly challenging themselves with new techniques. But that doesn’t mean it’s off-limits for beginners. After all, every expert fly fisher was once a novice.

If you’re looking to get to grips with this special way of fishing, read on. We’ll cover everything a newbie needs to know, including common targets, how to set up your gear, and making that unforgettable first cast. Let’s dive in…

What species can I target?

You can fly fish in a whole host of fresh and saltwater locations, from the open ocean to winding mountain streams. Because of this, the species you’ll be able to target are vast. It would take a doorstep-sized book to cover them all, but we’ve listed some of our favorites below.

Freshwater

A man in sunglasses and a hat holding a Brown Trout with water and autumn woods in the background

Perhaps the most common target around is Trout, as they love to feast on bugs. Presenting them with different types of flies mimicking these insects can prove very effective! From Rainbows to Browns, you can test your skills against every member of this family depending on where you live.

If you’re a brand-new fly angler looking for the perfect starter fish, there’s Salmon to consider. They’ll attack pretty much anything due to their voracious appetites, and you can target them in a wide variety of locations. As is the case with Trout, you can target all members of this fishy family on the fly.

There’s one word that describes fly fishing for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass species: intense! These fish are the perfect targets for anglers looking to diversify their target species list. This is due to their hyper-aggressive nature and power at the end of a line.

Finally, we have Panfish. These tasty fish are often overlooked for other more aggressive species, but they’re a great fly fishing target for newbies. Bluegill in particular are a common “first timer” catch, and can be pursued in many places year-round.

Saltwater

A male angler holding a large Redfish caught in Georgia's saltwater marshes.

If we had to guess the most popular coastal fly fishing target, we’d go for Redfish every time. When water temperatures drop and their usual bait fish of choice move to deeper waters, they can be found feeding in murky waters, focusing their attention on mullet, shrimp, and crab.

You can mimmick ythese with various streamers and flies to tempt these hungry Redfish. And when they spot your fly, they’ll strike hard! Add to this that Reds are easily accessible and provide plenty of fun on the end of a line, and you’ve got a winner.

Then, you can complete the Floridian Inshore Grand Slam trio by targeting Spotted Seatrout and Snook alongside your Redfish. These fish hang out in shallow waters, meaning there’s a whole host of ways you can present your flies to them. Tarpon are also found in these same waters, and are real fighting machines at the end of your line. In fact, they’re so much fun to target on the fly that, along with Bonefish and Permit, they make up the Caribbean’s Fly Fishing Grand Slam.

A popular fly fishing target on the East Coast of the US is the Striper. If you find yourself wanting to try out a bigger fish that fights hard, this is a great “next step” option. Then, once you’ve really gotten to grips with this technique, the saltwater fly fishing opportunities are pretty endless. You can even test your skills against hard-fighting Billfish and Tuna offshore.

What fly fishing gear do I need?

A man stands in a river surrounded by greenery as he makes a cast on the fly

Now, let’s get down to the technical stuff. Fly fishing in its broadest definition essentially refers to using fly-casting tackle, most commonly casting lightweight objects (i.e. “flies”) with a heavy line. Fly fishing also gives you the advantage of making repetitive casts without having to retrieve your line.

Many fly anglers come to love the skill and knowledge involved in fly fishing. This can involve anything from knowing which fly to select for optimal results, to even making their own artificial flies. This comes with time, of course. Let’s jump back to the basics and delve into how you can cast your first fly.

A complete set of fly fishing tackle is the following: a fly rod, reel, line, leader, and flies. Fly fishing gear is constantly evolving, and can get pretty specific depending on location, salt v freshwater, and your specific target fish. Choosing your gear can seem complicated, but we’re here to make sure you don’t feel like giving up!

A man casts a line in a clear river on the fly

The rod, line, and reel you’ll need will differ greatly depending on what you’ll be fishing for – and where you’ll be fishing. We’d always recommend doing your own research to find out what will work for your specific chosen fishery and target species, but below we’ve outlined some good general guidelines you can follow.

Rods

The two aspects you’ll want to consider when selecting your rod are length and weight. You also have other variants, such as single-handed vs. double-handed vs. spey rods. We recommend getting your hands on the rods themselves and seeing what’s most comfortable, but single-handed rods are most common among beginners.

The weight (also written as “wt”) of your fly rod matches the weight of the fly line that suits it. Basically, the bigger the fish you’ll be targeting, the higher the weight of your rod. For Panfish in small streams, you can get away with a 1–4 wt rod. Targeting Chinook Salmon, or saltwater species? Go for an 8–10 wt rod. In general, a 5–6 wt rod is a great starter option and can cover a variety of species.

When it comes to the length of your rod, this plays a major role in your casting abilities. The longer the rod, the easier it is to cast longer distances. They also allow anglers to easily “mend” their line (which is basically just adjusting how your line and fly are floating on top of the water). The downside to long rods? Maneuverability. A 9′ rod is a good starter option that will allow you to make strong casts and fish a variety of waterways.

Reels

A close-up of a fly fisherman's hands as he pulls line on his reel

When it comes to fly fishing reels, the options are seemingly endless. However, the two most important factors are matching the reel to your rod, and making sure it has a good drag system. You’ll find reels suitable for all kinds of rods. Making sure you match your reel correctly will ensure your setup has just the right balance.

A good reel with a reliable drag system is important. Basically, the “drag” is a pair of friction plates inside the reel. If your fish pulls on the line hard enough, the reel rotates backwards, letting line out and preventing it from breaking. The two most common types of reels in fly fishing are disc and click-and-pawl. Disc drags are by far the most common variant. They’re more modern and offer better “fish-stopping” power than click-and-pawls.

Lines

Modern fishing lines are split into two categories: “Spey” lines and shooting-head lines. This refers to the length and shape of the line. Shooting heads tend to be more compact, making them preferable for presenting large flies and in windy weather. Spey lines have a longer belly, so you’ll need to strip less. Stripping is when you manually pull your line back towards you to set the hook. For beginners, shooting heads are generally easier to cast and can reach longer distances.

An image of a fly fisherman from the neck down standing waist-deep in water and pulling line towards him

When it comes to the density of your line, you’ll generally start off with a floating line. This works for surface or near-surface fishing and is easier to cast. Sinking lines, in contrast, are used for below-surface fishing. Again, you’ll want to match your line weight to your rod weight, with a mixture of 4–7 wt lines being a good selection to have in your tackle box.

Finally, there’s the “backing,” a thin but strong section of line that is secured directly to your reel and the back end of your fly line. That way, if a fish takes your fly and runs with it, you’ll have some back-up!

Leaders and Tippets

Although viewed as expendable by some anglers, leaders and tippets can help with accuracy and quieter presentation. There’s also less risk of your fish breaking your line. You tie your leader to the end of your main line. It starts out thick and strong and tapers at the end, where your tippet and fly are tied. A selection of leaders with anywhere between 5–20 pounds of breaking strain will do the job.

Flies

It goes without saying that we could write a whole book about selecting the perfect fly for your fly fishing experience. The type of fly you’ll want depends on the species of fish you’re targeting, of course, but other factors such as the type of waterway, time of year, and depth of water also have an impact. 

A man casts a large fishing fly towards the camera on a sunny day while standing in water

Here’s a quick rundown of the most common types of flies available:

  • Dry flies. Dry flies imitate insects that land on the top of the water, which fish like to feed on. They function much in the same way that real insects do, by drifting on the surface of the water. Because of this, you’ll usually use them when you’re targeting fish that hold in shallow waters.
  • Wet flies. In contrast to dry flies, wet flies imitate insects that grow and live below the water before hatching and floating to the surface. They’re designed to be fished below the surface of the water, and are less susceptible to wind and weather currents than dry flies.
  • Nymphs. Nymphs imitate insects that live below the surface of the water and are in their larval stage. This occurs just after they hatch, and is especially attractive to freshwater fish such as Trout. There’s even a specific fly fishing technique known as “nymphing.”
  • Streamers. These basically look like big flies, or even bait fish such as sculpin and minnows. Because of this, streamers attract bigger fish that are eager to feed. They’re usually fished more attentively than normal flies or nymphs, using an active retrieve. This basically means you’ll be stripping your line back towards you.

💡A note on fly patterns. When you’re reading up on fly fishing or picking out your perfect gear setup, you’ll likely come across the term “fly pattern.” This simply refers to the different variations of flies available, Dry flies are one type of fly pattern, wet are another type, etc.

How should I set my gear up?

An infographic showing a generic fly fishing gear setup with the rod, fly line, reel, leader, tippet, and fly

Although choosing your fly fishing gear can seem pretty daunting, once you have it all to hand, the general setup itself isn’t too tricky. Take a look out our general fly fishing diagram above, and then read on for a step-by-step guide.

Step One: Filling Your Reel

Your reel needs to be filled with backing, then the fly line, then your leader. It should be filled to the point where the “business end” of your fly line is just below full spool level. As this involves some level of guesswork, many anglers suggest approaching the task backwards.

Wrap the business end of the fly line around the center (or “arbor”) of your spool so that it bites, then reel it fully onto the reel, leveling it carefully as you go. Firmly attach the backing to the visible end of the fly line, wind it on until the reel is nearly at a full level, then cut the backing from the filler spool and tie it to a solid object.

Walk away with the reel until the entire line is stretched out, return to where your backing is tied, and attach it to the arbor. Wind all of the backing and then the fly line onto the reel, and you’re done.

Step Two: Attaching Your Leader, Tippet, and Fly

An angler preparing a fishing fly on a boat

Most modern fly lines come with a loop at the end for attaching your leader, but you can also simply tie your own knot using a variety of techniques. If you’re not used to tying your own knots, ask your local bait and tackle shop staff to show you their favorites, or check out an online tutorial.

Finally, there’s the all-important fly. You can simply pass your tippet through the eye of the hook attached to your fly, loop it around the section of the tippet just below the leader knot, and then pull it back through on itself.

Step Three: Rigging the Rod for Casting

Firstly, secure the foot of your reel into your rod’s reel seat, so that your line guide is facing forward. Then, strip off your leader and a few feet of your fly line. Double the first foot of your fly line, and pass the doubled line through the stripping on your rod, pulling your leader out once the doubled line has passed through. That’s it! Now you’re ready to cast.

What does casting look like?

Although casting on the fly has a reputation for being finicky and difficult, it doesn’t have to be. There are many ways to cast using this method of fishing, which means there are beginner-friendly options. The most common beginner’s technique is overhead casting. This is the most basic fly fishing cast and forms the basis of many other fly fishing techniques. It involves forwards and backwards movements with a brief pause in between, and starts with picking the line up from the water, known as a back cast. Here’s how you can achieve it.

A fly fisherman standing waist-deep in a river, casting a fly
  1. Extend the fly line and leader in front of you at a “three o’clock” position.
  2. Lift the rod up confidently to a “twelve o’clock” position.
  3. Flick your wrist sharply so it’s no further back than an “eleven o’clock” position. Your fly line and leader should be off the water and behind you
  4. Pause to let the line straighten out, then bring it back to a “one o’clock” position, where a tight loop should unfurl.
  5. Practice! Overhead casting is not a “one-shot” fishing technique, and often involves adjusting your line and making a series of “false casts,” which is when you make casting motions without letting the fly hit the water, before you find the sweet spot.

What should I wear when fly fishing?

The answer to this question depends where you’re fishing from. If you’re fishing from a boat, anything you’d wear on a normal charter works. However, the majority of fly fishing opportunities take place either from shore or in the water itself, so we’ve covered the specifics for this type of fishing below.

An infographic showing what to wear when fly fishing, including a baselayer t shirt, hat, waders, waterproof jacket, hat, and vest
  • Waders. You can opt for either chest and waist waders. Chest waders are perfect for deep rivers which require long casts. If you’re staying closer to shore, then waist waders will do the trick.
  • Wader boots. While a lot of waders come equipped with wader boots, this isn’t always the case. Take your pick between long boots that go up to your hips, knee-length wading boots, or even wading booties if you’re staying in shallow waters.
  • Fly fishing vest. These vests are warm and functional, sporting a variety of often-waterproof pockets and handy lanyards where you can keep your tackle, small tools, and even your phone, wallet, and fishing license.
  • Rain gear. One thing we all know about fishing is that the weather can change in an instant! A light raincoat is enough to keep you dry during the warmer months. In early spring and fall, you’ll want a warm jacket to protect you from the rain and the cold.

Fly Fishing: Time to Make That Magical First Cast

A man fly fishes for Salmon in a freshwater river with his back to the camera and his line out

Don’t be put off by the stereotype that fly fishing is too challenging for newbies. Yes, it’s different to traditional spin casting, but as long as you come equipped with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn, the opportunities are endless. Part of the magic of fly fishing is that it doesn’t need to involve anyone else – just you and your rod, surrounded by nature. It’s unlike anything else! Now you’re ready to take the first step into this whole new world!

Are you a keen fly angler, or planning to learn? What was your first ever fly fishing catch? Let us know in the comments below!

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