How to Set Up a Fly Rod (Complete Step by Step Guide)

By the end of this piece, you'll know how to set up a fly rod for a variety of fishing situations. Whether you're after trout in the Rocky Mountains, or bass in the Midwest, you'll be set to catch fish with this guide.
how to set up a fly rod

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Fly fishing is, if nothing else, an intimidating sport. From the vast array of fly rods, rod and reel combos, fly lines, knots, and various accoutrements, knowing where to start seems almost impossible.

That’s what this article is for.

The Basics

Setting Up a Fly Rod: The Basics

First off, know that a fly rod is completely different than any of your spin or baitcasting rods. That might seem like a simplistic thing to say, but it’s true. Conventional fishing gear uses a stiff rod and the weight of a lure to hurl line towards a fish.

Fly fishing is the exact opposite. A long, flexible rod pushes fly line back and forth in the air, and it’s the mass of the fly line that pushes line, leader, tippet, and fly forward towards a waiting fish.

Think of it like this: a fly rod gets all its power from the weight of the fly line. Flies themselves weigh a few ounces. Spinning and baitcasting rods get all their power from the stiff blank and heavy lures.

It’s important to know the differences between the two, because understanding what makes a certain rod behave in a certain way is critical to setting it up for the performance you want and need on the water.

Fly fishing does, however, use a lot of the same terminology, knots, and gear to set up a rod. It can be confusing at times, but, for example, just remember that an arbor knot is an arbor knot, no matter what context it’s discussed in. You can also check out our post on the basic fly fishing knots here.

Required Fly Fishing Gear

Required Fly Fishing Gear

To get your fly rod set up and ready to go, you’ll need:

  • Fly rod
  • Fly reel
  • Fly line
  • Fly line backing
  • Leader
  • Flies

Choosing the right fly rod is another task in and of itself – and worthy of an entire post on its own. Today, though, we’ll only briefly touch on what to look for in a rod and reel.

Choosing a Fly Rod

choosing a fly rod

The right fly rod for you likely won’t be the same rod that’s right for someone else. We all have our personal fishing preferences, and that’s largely why so many fly rods exist for sale.

I prefer slow to medium-fast action rods, and really enjoy fishing bamboo sticks. There’s a relaxed nature to fishing bamboo that you don’t get out of graphite.

But I digress. For most trout fishing – which is largely what gets people interested in fly fishing in the first place – a 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod is all you’ll need to start. You can spend as little as $80, and up to $1,400 on a graphite fly rod in this configuration.

For most beginners, an entry-level rod from a trusted brand is a good place to start.

Choosing a Fly Reel

choosing a fly reel

After you’ve picked out your fly rod, you’re in the market for a fly reel. Once again, the world of fly fishing and conventional fishing diverge here. In conventional fishing, the reel is your primary source of leverage and power over a fish.

In fly fishing, the rod and your free hand are used more than the reel, especially when going after trout.

A fly reel is available with two different types of drag systems: a disc drag, and the old reliable click-and-pawl. Disc-drag reels are adjustable, place an incredible amount of force and pressure on your fly line, and most of them do an outstanding job of stopping big fish dead in their tracks.

Click-and-pawl reels have just a single gear – the pawl – providing resistance against the spool as fly line exits or enters. This means that the angler has to do more of the fighting by palming the reel, stripping in the excess fly line, and changing rod angles to get the fish to the net.

As you can imagine, the cheapest fly reel is the click-and-pawl, though there are some great disc-drag options available for a reasonable price. The best thing to do when buying your first fly reel is to get the best you can afford, but don’t spend more than $150 or so. You’ll likely be able to use that one reel for all of your trout fishing for the rest of your life. A fly reel is, at its essence, usually just a glorified line holder. The amount of times I have to put a trout on my drag while using a fly rod is pretty minimal.

As an aside – you can usually find good deals on rod and reel combos from the big-name rod builders. These combos come with a rod, reel, backing, fly line, and leaders.

Choosing Backing

choosing backing

So, you have your rod and reel. Now you need to find some fly line backing and fly line.

Most of the backing used on fly reels is a 20-pound braid material, similar to what you’d find as backing on big-game conventional reels. Obviously, fly reels use quite a lot less of it, but it serves the same function. Fly line backing exists to help keep the fly line off the spool, increase the amount of line retrieved with each spool revolution, and to give you extra line should a big fish take more than the standard 90 feet of fly line.

Backing isn’t very expensive, and a 100-yard spool can easily rig up two reels’ worth of fly line.

After getting your rod, reel, and backing, you’re ready to pop on some fly line. Just like everything in fly fishing, you have more options here than you likely know what to do with. But luckily, we’re here to help distill it all for you.

Choosing a Fly Line

choosing a fly line

Fly line is made in two general types – weight forward and double taper. A weight forward line has almost all the weight of the line in the first 40 feet of the line. The rest of the line is thin, but still floats like the rest of your line.

A double-taper line has all the weight of the fly line evenly distributed throughout its 90-foot length. And remember, fly rods get their power from the weight of the fly line they cast. A 5-weight rod needs a 5-weight line to cast properly. There are very few instances when you’d want to fish a rod with a line that’s not the right weight.

Weight forward lines are the most popular, because they help load a fly rod quicker, and are more friendly to the fast-action of today’s graphite fly rods. Double taper lines are used primarily on older graphite, bamboo, and fiberglass rods. That is the rods with slower, softer action.

Check out our post here on the Best Fly Line here.

Choosing a Leader

choosing a leader

Leader is the next thing to buy on your list, and this is the one where all the differences really don’t matter. A good 9-foot 5x monofilament leader is all you need to start catching fish. Grab a spool of 5x tippet to go along with it, so you can restore the fine end of your leader after cutting off and retying multiple flies.

Now, you have all your gear, and you’re ready to rig up the fly rod. Just how exactly do you go about it?

Rigging Up

To get set up, you’ll want a pair of scissors, a trash can, and an empty table. First, get your fly reel out of the packaging, and pop the spool off of the frame.

Loading the Fly Reel with Backing

Loading the Reel with Backing

Then, you’ll want to take some fly line backing off the backing spool, and – while keeping the backing attached to its spool – tie the backing onto the fly reel spool. There are a variety of knots you can use here, but the arbor knot is one of the most common.

Once you have the backing tied onto the reel spool, carefully put the spool back on the reel so that the backing isn’t pinched between the spool and the reel frame.

The backing should then easily reel off its spool and onto the reel. You’ll need to apply some pressure to the first few turns of backing. Running it through a book, or sitting on it as it comes off the backing spool and onto the reel, is a good way to make sure it’s tight enough.

Once the backing is on firmly, you can reel on anywhere from 50 to 100 yards of it, depending on how deep your reel spool is, and how much backing you want. For most trout reels, 60 yards is a perfect amount of backing.

After the backing is on, take your scissors and cut it off close to the backing spool. Set that spool aside, and open your fly line.

Attaching the Backing to the Fly Line

Attaching Backing to Fly Line

All fly line comes with a tag on one end that says “attach this end to backing.” And almost all fly lines these days come with welded loops on both the front and back of the line, to make backing and leader attachment easy. If your fly line has a loop on the end that’s labeled “connect to backing” simply tie a clinch knot around the loop, pull it tight, and trim the excess backing.

If your fly line doesn’t have a loop, then you’ll want to use a nail knot. This firmly attaches backing to fly line, and you won’t have to worry about it coming loose while fighting a big fish.

Once you have the fly line hooked up, you can start to reel it onto your reel. Again, use the same method for applying tension as you did with the backing. This helps the fly line stack up neatly and evenly across the spool, avoiding line tangles and ensuring the line comes off the reel quickly when you need it.

Assembling the Fly Rod

Assembling Fly Rod

Once the reel has both fly line and backing, set it aside. Then, you’ll want to grab your fly rod. Pull it from its tube and assemble the sections – it will almost certainly have four of them. Some rods come with alignment dots on the ferrules, to make lining up the sections easy. If not, you can always look down the guides to ensure that you line up the sections straight.

Attaching the Fly Reel to the Fly Rod

Attaching Fly Reel to Fly Rod

Your reel screws onto the bottom of the rod, much the same way a reel does on a conventional fishing rod. At this point, you’re nearly ready to hit the water. All that’s left is attaching your leader to the line.

How to Tie the Leader onto the Fly Line

How to Tie Leader onto Fly Line

The leader is a long, tapered piece of fishing line that’s designed to carry your fly out to waiting fish. This thin, clear line is invisible to fish, and the taper ensures that the fly lays out softly on the water. Some leader does come in fluorocarbon, but this isn’t as ideal for dry fly fishing, since fluorocarbon sinks.

Every fly line you buy these days will have a welded loop on the front, and just about every leader comes with a perfection loop already tied. If this is the case for you, all you’ll need to do is attach the leader to the line with the loop-to-loop connection. It’s simple, secure, and slides through the guides on your fly rod with ease.

Hitting the Water

hitting the water

With your fly rod rigged up, you’re ready to hit the water. Good line, leader, and a trusty fly are the keys to making sure that you’re successful when fly fishing – not so much the rod or reel. However, you have to set up the entire rig correctly, or else your line, leader, and fly won’t make it to the fish.

At first, you’ll probably have some trouble with fly casting. That’s to be expected because fly casting is so different than conventional casting. Again, you’re trying to get the line to do all the work of carrying your leader and fly out to your target on the water. With a conventional fishing rod, the lure provides all of that weight.

A fly cast is done to build up momentum, eventually “shooting” the line on a final cast and landing it right in front of a hungry, and hopefully eager, fish. As with anything in fishing, getting the hang of fly casting just takes time. You’ll get used to the act of throwing line in big, graceful loops in no time.

That’s all there really is to setting up a fly rod. It’s a simple process but demands attention to detail. A good knot on your backing to your fly line is critical, just in case you hook into the big one and need all that backing to help land it. And, you’ll want to make sure your leader is connected securely as well. Anglers lose tons of big fish to leaders that aren’t on there tight, and you don’t want that to happen to you.

There’s little, if any, reason to be intimidated by setting up a fly rod or fly fishing in general. It’s a complex sport, but it’s easy enough to pick up that, so long as you stick with it, you’ll find success quickly.


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