When folks think of fishing, they likely envision sitting in the boat with dad or grandpa, probably shivering in the cold, waiting for fish to swim by and eat a baited hook. That is, by far, the most popular form of fishing, at least in America. Throwing bait, spinners, or lures for trout and bass is the king of the fishing world.
Fly fishing conjures up another image entirely. Usually, people assume that fly fishermen are a bit snobby, rich, and tend to look down on anyone who’s not casting a fly rod. While that was maybe true years ago, fly fishing is a lot different these days. But the average angler who hasn’t every really touched a conventional or fly fishing rod a lot, probably wonders what the real difference is between fly fishing and spin fishing.
For our full how to cast a fly rod see our post here.
It’s all about casting
The biggest difference between fly fishing and spin fishing is the most obvious one – casting. A fly cast is fundamentally different than a cast on spinning rods.
For our full best spinning rod see our post here.
In spin fishing, heavy lures are used to entice fish to bite. While these lures sometimes mimic smaller fish, they often serve to trigger a predatory instinct, or to irritate fish until they eat it. The nature of spinning lures requires them to weigh a substantial amount – certainly more compared to a dry fly. Check out our full post on what are the common types of fishing lures here.
So, when casting a lure, the lure itself provides the weight for the cast. Thin fishing line trails the lure, instead of carrying it to the destination. Or, to put it another way, all the energy generated in a spinning cast is done so by the weight of the lure. Without a lure on the end of it, a spinning rod doesn’t have the innate flexibility to cast fishing line.
Contrast that with fly rods. These are long, thin rods built to bend, store energy, and then release that energy through a long section of fly line. In fly fishing, the energy for a cast is generated in the fly line itself. That’s why fly lines are covered with a thick coating – this adds mass to the fly line, thereby adding weight to the rod assembly, and creating energy that’s used to propel a long leader and small fly to great distances.
Fly Fishing vs Spin Fishing: Which is better?
Fly fishing isn’t inherently better than spin fishing, and vice versa. Rather, it depends on your particular tastes and motivations for fishing. Most fly anglers prefer the solitude, the mindlessness of casting fly line, and the beauty of fooling trout to eat a bug that looks like part of their normal diet. See also our post on What Do Trout Eat here.
Spin anglers love solitude as well, but tend to like the need for constant movement and action on their lures. While both forms of fishing are a waiting game, fly fishing demands perhaps a bit more patience than spin fishing. We have a complete breakdown of the 25 best fishing games here.
Flies vs lures
While I alluded to this above, we can go into more detail here. In spin fishing, the lures used are generally built to entice a bite from a fish due to aggression or predatory instincts. The idea really is to bother a fish badly enough that they swipe at your lure, hooking themselves in the process.
In fly fishing, anglers take a pretty different approach. Here, flies are tied to mimic the aquatic insects that make up a trout’s diet. The goal is to fool trout into thinking the fly on the end of the leader is real. It’s more a game of trickery and deceit than spin fishing.
Again, that doesn’t mean fly fishing is somehow innately better than spin fishing. That’s just the truth of the nature of the two sports.
Another huge difference between these two styles of fishing is how anglers fight and land their catch. Spinning rods are stiff, with fairly light tips that help protect the fishing line from breaking. The stiffness of the rod is used to horse the fish in, along with the power of the reel. The reel is, in fact, key to your spinning outfit. A good reel can make up for a rod that’s less-than-helpful.
A stiff rod and rock-solid reel allows anglers to take control of the fight, forcing their will on the fish, instead of the other way around. On all but the biggest fish, this tactic of brute force is actually a really good one. Fish don’t tire themselves out during a fight, and if they can be returned quickly to the water, this can help ensure higher fish survival rates.
Fly fishing – surprise, surprise – takes a different tack to fighting fish. The reel is rarely used, and fly anglers instead depend largely on applying pressure with the long rod. The length of the rod gives the angler an upper hand in fighting fish that you don’t get with shorter, more stout spinning rods. However, it’s challenging to learn how to “feel” a fish during a fight.
Fly fishing also places a huge emphasis on keeping fish wet at all times. There’s even an official movement within the sport that’s focused on keeping fish wet. This ensures that the fish caught on a fly rod survive, even if they do end up fighting you longer than if you were using spinning gear.
Generally speaking, there’s less of a learning curve to spin fishing than to fly fishing. That’s not to say that spin fishing isn’t technical, or doesn’t demand a good skill set, because it certainly does. However, it’s easier to pick up a spinning rod and get into fish than it is to do that with a fly rod. This is due to the ease of casting you get with a spinning rod as compared to a fly rod.
Spin fishing starts to get pretty technical when you move into the different rigs, especially for bass. Texas and Carolina rigs are common on the bass fishing scene, but those phrases don’t mean anything to the angler who just knows how to tie on a swivel, hook up a spinner, and toss to likely trout hidey-holes.
Spin fishing gets even more demanding when you throw jigging into the equation. I actually spent a few years doing this almost exclusively. Armed with my trusty old Ugly Stik, a bunch of jig heads, and packages upon packages of plastics, I jigged my way through the lakes and streams of the Rockies with pretty good success. In fact, up until last year, my personal best brook trout was landed on a jig, and not on a fly rod.
The learning curve is definitely bigger with fly fishing. Fly casting can be tricky to master, but once you pick it up, it’s a skill that sticks with you fairly well. And, fly casting is a fairly intuitive motion. Even though it looks like a lot of work to cast that much line in long, gracious loops, it’s a simple process that doesn’t require you to overextend yourself physically.
In fact, fly casting is so effortless that it’s often the favorite part of fly fishing for many anglers. The art of casting that much line, so gently, across rolling rivers and big waters, is entrancing.
Getting started with spin fishing
Starting out with spin fishing is pretty easy. You can pick up a pretty decent spin fishing outfit from Wal Mart, for example, for around $50. Of course, you can spend tons more than that at a fishing store, but getting started doesn’t cost too much up front.
You also don’t need waders, boots, or a boat to get into fish with your spinning rod. Since you can cast across most rivers and creeks with a spinning rod, you can easily cover all the fishy water while standing on the bank. And, if you’ve never fished before, or you only ever fished with your dad or grandfather on a rickety old fishing boat, spin fishing is a bit more familiar.
Getting started with fly fishing
Fly fishing does cost a bit more upfront. There’s no getting around that. And since most fly fishing takes place in rivers, you need waders, boots, a vest, and all sorts of other accouterments. Walk into any fly shop, and you’ll quickly see how easy it is to spend far more money than you ought to on fishing.
On top of the cost, there’s the learning curve. Unless you’re willing to dedicate some serious time to casting in your backyard while tuned into YouTube University, you’ll need a friend to teach you to fly cast, or to hire a guide. Guides are one of the bet investments you can make as a fly angler, as they’re among the best teachers in the outdoors world.
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At the end of the day, the differences between fly and spin fishing are pretty big. But when you get right down to it, you’re accomplishing the same thing – catching fish. Whichever style of fishing you choose to use depends largely on the experience you’re looking for on the water, your budget, and the water around your house. Some places are just more spin-fishing friendly than others, and vice versa for fly fishing.
The best way to find out which method you like best is to get out on the river and spend time with both a fly and spinning rod. Even though I spend the vast majority of my time these days with a fly rod, I still use my spinning rod regularly enough that it doesn’t collect dust. Deciding to do one or the other doesn’t mean you’ll pigeonhole yourself there forever. On the contrary, learning to effectively fish with both rigs makes you a better angler.