Join me as I go through all the fly fishing basics you need to know and share some of the tips I’ve learned in the last 30 years or so of being addicted to this hobby.
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What Is Fly Fishing?
The most basic description of fly fishing is using a weighted line to cast a fly out into the water and trick a fish into thinking it’s something they would naturally eat.
Fly fishing started centuries ago when fishermen adapted their techniques from using hooks with bait to putting a feather on a hook and dancing across the water’s surface to imitate insects. They did this to trick a fish that otherwise, would have refused their original method.
Today, it’s regarded as more of an art form and it’s by far the toughest and most sporting way to catch a fish than any other technique. As a learning fly fisher, you might think that trout are the main target in this type of fishing, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that, but you can pretty much fly fish for every species of fish on the planet.
Basic Fly Fishing Equipment
We’ll no run through all the basic gear you’ll need to get started fly fishing with. It’s a good idea to make your first purchases at a local fly shop where someone can help guide you or if feeling confident, shop online instead.
Fly Rod and Reel
A rod and reel are the most important parts of basic fly fishing equipment, as, without them, fly anglers would be left sitting on the bank with just a line in their hands.
Fly rods come in many different weights (wt) from a 1-16 weight and there is always a reel size to match. The weight of your fly rod dictates how light and delicate or strong and heavy it is, a 1 weight being the lightest and 16 weight being the heaviest.
The wt of your fly rod also dictates the size of the fish you can catch, based on its strength, and what weight fly line and size reel you can use with it, as you have to balance your rod, reel, and line for you to be able to cast effectively.
An all-around rod for beginners to start with, especially when targeting trout, is a 5wt. If you want an in-depth guide in selecting the perfect fly rod, see our post on Guide to The Best Fly Rods here.
For a more selection of fly rod weights, you can visit our reviews below:
- 3 Weight Fly Rod
- 4 Weight Fly Rod
- 5 Weight Fly Rod
- 6 Weight Fly Rod
- 7 Weight Fly Rod
- 8 Weight Fly Rod
Fly line comes in different weights from 1-16 to match all the different weight rods out there. Most fly lines are around 90-100 feet long and they consist of three main parts: the head, the taper, and the running line.
The head is a heavier, thicker section of fly line at the front that helps with loading the rod when fly casting and turning over your fly, leader, and tippet. The taper is the section that connects the thicker head to the running line by smoothly decreasing in diameter between them.
The running line is the thinnest and longest section of the fly line. When fly casting, you won’t use this bit of the fly line and it only comes into play as it shoots out the tip of your fly rod on a cast.
The fly line is key to fly casting as it is what loads the rod and provides the setup with enough energy to cast your fly into the water.
Fly lines come in a range of styles too with different tapers and sinking rates. Weight forward is the most common taper and you have the choice of using floating, intermediate or sinking lines depending on where and what you fly fish for.
Fly Line Backing
The backing is a braided line that goes on to your reel before the fly line. You can usually fit up to 175-250 yards of backing onto a reel. and it’s there to fill the reel and to use when a fish runs greater than the length of your fly line. This is unlikely to happen with a species like trout, but it’s guaranteed to happen with saltwater species like bonefish.
Leaders & Tippet
The leader is a clear piece of line that connects your fly line to your fly that fish can’t see. Leaders are made of either monofilament or fluorocarbon and can be anywhere in length between 9-12 feet long, 10 feet being the average.
Leaders are also tapered, starting thick at the rod end and getting thinner and thinner towards the fly to help with fly presentation when casting.
Your tippet is the section of line that connects your leader to your fly via a knot. Tippet is thinner than the leader, to make sure fish don’t see it and is almost always made from fluorocarbon, which is more invisible to fish than monofilament.
The diameter of both the tippet and leader is described using the X scale and rated from 1-8x, 1 being the thickest, and 8 the thinnest. Your leader will usually be made up of 1-4x line, and your tippet will be 5-8x.
What you first start fly fishing, it might be a little early to invest in wading equipment but it’s a bit of basic gear you will need to get once you fall in love with fly fishing and want to get started fishing your local river.
Wading gear usually consists of breathable waterproof chest waders with neoprene foot socks and some wading boots to go with them. This basic equipment is fully waterproof and the boots are grippy, which allows you to wade inside a river or lake safely without getting wet or cold.
This gear also lets you access different stretches of water and helps you position yourself better so you can make easier casts and catch fish.
You can also visit our post on the Best Fly Fishing Waders for a more selection of fly fishing waders.
There are of course, as with any sport, some extra gear you’re going to need. There are hundreds of accessories to choose from but the gear you really for catching fish is quite minimal and includes;
- Nippers for cutting line quickly and easily
- A net for landing your catch in
- A fly box to hold your flies
- A fishing bag or vest to carry all your fly fishing gear in
The final piece of the basics gear puzzle is having some flies. There are hundreds of different variations of flies in the world, but each one is designed to imitate an aquatic creature that fish like to eat. They can generally be put into 3 categories: dry flies, nymphs, and streamers, all of which should feature in your new fly box.
Dry flies imitate bugs that fly around above the water and land on the water’s surface which fish rise to and eat off the top. You have probably seen videos of dry fly fishing or if you have seen the Brad Pitt movie A River Runs Through It you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Fishing dries is one of the most exciting ways to catch fish as you get to see them eat the fly on the surface.
Nymph flies imitate nymphs which are small invertebrates that live under rocks in rivers and lakes. They live in the water column and are the main part of a trout’s diet, as they do 80% or more of their feeding beneath the surface. Thus, every fly anglers box should have a wide selection of nymphs in different sizes and colors.
Streamers are larger flies designed to mimic baitfish that your target species likes to feed on. They are the fly version of lures like Rapalas, which provoke a strike from predatory fish in the water.
When buying flies, it pays to go to your local fly shop for advice as they will be most in the loop of what works in your area and will give you good advice.
There are quite a few different casting techniques from a Spey to a snake roll and loads in between which can take years to learn. To get started fly fishing, there are just two basic casts to learn and practice; the overhead cast and the roll cast.
The overhead cast is the foundation technique of casting. It’s a simple cast that involves timing and moving your rod from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock to load your rod with line forward and behind you, to shoot your fly out into the water. Here is a video explaining it..
A roll cast is one of the most useful casting techniques out there and a cast you’ll use more than any other on a river. The reason it’s so useful is that no line has to go behind you, and thus you can use it when you’re in a tight spot with things like trees behind you that make an overhead shot impossible.
It works by using the surface tension of the water combine with the line and flexibility of your rod to shoot your line and fly forward in a tight loop.
If you practice both of these casting techniques often, then there won’t be many pieces of water you can’t fly fish successfully on.
When you first learn fly casting, shooting any kind of distance will be quite tricky, which is why one of the best and most obvious tips is to do a load of practice, but it helps to have a casting distance to aim for when having a practice session.
If you’re fly fishing for trout, almost every cast you make is going to be in the 30-40 foot range. If you start fly fishing in saltwater, you’ll want to be able to hit 60 feet comfortably.
In your practice sessions, mark a point in the garden at 40 and 60 feet and try to hit these distances with your line.
If you want a complete guide on fly casting, see our How To Cast A Fly Rod post here.
Types Of Fly Fishing
Fly fishing has evolved greatly in its years and there are three main types of fly fishing to choose from; Spey, Freshwater, and Saltwater.
Spey fly fishing involves using a long two-handed rod that can reach up to 15 feet in length. These are made for Spey casting which is an evolution of the roll which helps you cast across huge rivers and is used mainly when targeting salmon and steelhead.
Freshwater fly fishing includes fly fishing for everything freshwater species from trout to bass with a single-handed rod. This is the most common form of fly fishing and it includes the use of all the fly types we discussed above.
Saltwater fly fishing is relatively new in the history of fly fishing and it is essentially streamer fishing. You’re casting streamer flies to large salty species in the form of baitfish, shrimps, and crabs. Fishing in the salt gives you access to a huge range of species from bonefish to permit, and to the biggest fish you can target when fly fishing such as sailfish, giant trevally, and tarpon.
Thanks a lot for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it and found a tip or two that’ll make starting your fly fishing career a little easier and less daunting. It truly is one of the best hobbies in the world in my eyes. It brings peace to my world and if you love to travel, it will take you from the rivers of Montana and the jungles of Bolivia, all the way to the uninhabited atolls of the Indian Ocean.