So, you want to learn how to Fly Fish! Maybe you watched “A River Runs Through It”, or like me, saw someone catching trout on a dry fly and thought I want to do that! Either way, if you are thinking about getting into fly fishing, I think you are making a great decision. However, getting into fly fishing can be a confusing, and sometimes expensive journey if you go into it blindly. My goal in this article is to give you the information you need to make your fly fishing journey cost effective and enjoyable.
Basic overview on fly fishing
First let’s cover some basic principles of fly fishing to remove any confusion that might exist. The key difference between fly fishing and gear fishing comes in how the power of the cast is generated. This has to do with fundamental differences in the equipment you are using. Gear fishing equipment is designed to accommodate many bait options, such as spinners, bait and even flies. And gear fishing typically involves trolling or casting and reeling. Fly fishing, on the other hand focuses on the use of flies to attract the fish and is all about the cast. In gear fishing, the power comes from the weight at the end of your line which loads up the rod. This can be understood by the fact that when gear fishing if you have a heavy spinner on your line then you cast further than if you have a light spinner at the end of your line. In fly fishing, the power comes from the weight of the fly line loading the fly rod which in turn puts energy into the fly line when you make a cast. This energy in the line carries your flies when you make a cast. This is an important distinction because fly casting is all about getting the fly line to load your fly rod. Other than how the power is generated, there are a lot of similarities between gear fishing and fly fishing. This is good because most people have gear fished at some point. So, if you know how to gear fish you won’t have to relearn everything! But, let’s start with a basic casting lesson.
There are two fly casts that you need to know to start fly fishing. The first is the backhand cast which throws the line behind you, and then loads the rod so that when you move the rod forward the line will shoot forward. This is the most common type of fly cast and one that you have probably seen before. The second type of cast you need to know is the roll cast. The roll cast uses water tension to load the rod and is commonly used when there are objects behind you so that you do not have the luxury of making a back cast. These two casts are important to understand because depending on your fishing scenario you may choose to purchase a rod that is more focused on one cast vs the other.
Now let’s move on to the fly rod. This is where it gets fun! There are two main classifications of fly rods you need to know. The first is the single hand rod which has the widest range of applications and is most common for every type of fly fishing with the exception of fishing for Steelhead on big rivers. The single hand rod is the best option when you are using a backhand cast and is likely the fly rod you will want to start with unless you are fishing for steelhead. While you can complete a roll cast with a single hand rod, it is more difficult because traditional single hand fly lines are lighter and designed for backhand casting. This creates limitations on how heavy of a fly you can roll cast while using a single hand rod. The second type of fly rod is a two handed fly rod which is also called a Spey rod. A Spey rod is designed to roll cast very powerfully and allow the angler to cast a heavy fly a long distance. This is accomplished with longer rod length, a heavier fly line, and the ability to use two hands by pushing with your upper hand and pulling with your bottom hand to put power on the long fly rod. This method of fishing has become the go to method for steelhead fly fishing on larger rivers where back casting room is minimal. Later in this article I will provide you with my recommendation for a go to rod for both styles of fishing.
Next let’s talk about the common ways of presenting a fly to a fish.
Dry Fly: The traditional method that you’re probably familiar with is dry fly fishing. This is where your fly floats on top of the water in a dead drift down river. With this method, you are hoping that you can fool a fish to rise to the surface and take your fly. When you do fool a fish into eating your dry fly as it floats on the top of the water, it is a thrill unlike anything you can experience with a gear rod. Pro Tip: figure out what the fish are eating and use a fly that looks like the food they are eating!
Indicator: Indicator fishing is a fancy way of saying bobber fishing with a fly rod. While this method is not for the purist, it has become quite popular and is very productive. You simply tie a couple of weighted flies on your leader and place the indicator on your leader a few feet above the weighted flies. Cast upstream and manage your fly line to allow the indicator to dead drift. If the indicator hesitates or goes under, lift the rod upwards toward you and set the hook!
Swinging: Swinging a fly is a presentation strategy that involves casting your fly across the river and using the current to pull your fly through the river. Swinging flies for fish is popular as it allows you to effectively cover a lot of water and the excitement of feeling a fish grab your fly when your line is under tension is a thrill! This presentation can be used to imitate many underwater critters and can be used to target many species. The most common way to swing a fly includes casting your fly at a 45 – 90 degree angle to the river and letting the current pull your fly across the river until it is directly below you, take two steps down stream, and repeat. To change the depth of your fly you have a few options. The easiest way to get some depth to your fly is to add a weighted fly to the end of you line. A weighted fly simply has metal added to the fly to give it some weight and sink in the water. The second option is to use a sinking leader which is simply fishing line that sinks. These two options allow you to fish deeper without having to change your fly line. If you need your fly to sink further, you can use sinking line to get down. Sinking line is a type of fly line that sinks very fast and can either be integrated directly into your fly line or can be attached to the end of your fly line as a sinking tip. If you use a sinking tip or a sinking fly line you may have to dedicate a setup specific to swinging flies which may or may not be appealing to you. I think swinging flies for trout is an excellent presentation strategy for a beginner. You can use a 9’ 5 weight rod with a floating line and a small assortment of flies to get the job done and swinging flies for trout can be more forgiving than other fishing methods since there is less line handling and mending involved. My first trout on a fly rod was caught swinging a bead head hares ear nymph through a riffle on the Deschutes river with a 9’ 5 weight rod, and a floating line.
Essential gear to start Fly Fishing
Now that you have an overview of fly fishing, let’s talk about the gear you will need to get into the sport. The first purchase you will need to make is a quality fly rod. A common mistake people make, including myself in my journey, is they buy a fly rod that is not ideal for their target fish. It is crucial that you pick the rod that is most applicable to your common fishing scenarios. For example, if you plan to Trout fish, I recommend a 9’ 5 weight rod. A 9’ 5 weight rod is light enough to throw a dry fly but still has enough backbone that you can fish a streamer or a nymph rig which makes it very versatile. While you will most likely expand your arsenal in the future to cover more specific fishing situations, I would urge you to use the below references as a starting point for your fly rod purchase.
Trout: When fly fishing for trout the 9’ 5 weight is considered the best all-purpose trout fly rod. When you are first starting out it is important you choose a fly rod that is applicable to your target fish and allows you to fish multiple techniques. When it comes to trout a 9’5 weight will allow you to try all the different fishing methods with one rod. A 9’ 5 weight is the go to rod for a beginner looking to fish for trout.
Bass: Fly fishing for Bass typically involves throwing larger attractor flies and therefore requires a rod with some backbone to handle the flies. Depending on the size of Bass in your area and the types of patterns you plan to throw I would recommend a 7 or 8 weight fly rod in a length of either 8’ or 9’.
Saltwater Flats Fishing: If you plan to fish the salt flats and want an all-purpose entry rod, I recommend purchasing an 8 or 9 weight 9’ fly rod. These two rod options will cover most fish you will encounter in the flats with exception of tarpon. If you plan to target tarpon you may need a tarpon specific setup which ranges from 10-12 weight 9’ rods depending on the size of tarpon you plan to target. Do some research on the area you plan to fish and what species are likely and choose your rod weight accordingly. The photo below shows a bonefish I caught in the flats at Bimini Bahamas.
Steelhead: When purchasing a fly rod for steelhead fishing the first decision you need to make is If you want to purchase a single hand or two hand fly rod. Generally a single hand rod would be recommended on smaller rivers and a two hand rod would be recommended on larger rivers. Furthermore, If you plan to predominantly swing flies for steelhead, I would lean towards a two hand rod and if you plan to indicator nymph for steelhead, I would go with a single hand rod. If you choose to go the single hand route, I recommend an 8 weight fly rod in either 9’ or 10’ feet of length. If you decide a two hand rod is for you, I recommend a 6 or 7 weight fly rod in lengths ranging from 11’6” to 13’3” depending on the length of cast required and the weight of sink tip and fly you plan to cast. The most common setup for two hand steelhead fishing is a 13’ 7 weight. If you know when and where you want to target steelhead do some research on that specific area and choose your setup accordingly.
Salmon: Gear recommendations for salmon fishing are tougher since there are many different fish within the salmon family that range greatly in size. Salmon can also be fished in many different types of water based off location, type of salmon, and time of year. Like mentioned above you can use a single hand or two-handed fly rod for salmon fishing as well. Because salmon fishing scenarios can be so different, I would strongly recommend you do research specific to your salmon fishing location and the type of salmon you plan to target. Single hand rod recommendations are 8 – 10 weight fly rod 9’-10’ in length. Two handed rod recommendations are 7-9 weight fly rod in 12’ – 13’3” in length.
For specific brand recommendations, see the Gear List for Fly Fishing on the Eaglecapoutdoors.com website. In that list I provide specific recommendations that will set you up for success!
Now that you have an idea of rod length and weight, you need to pair the rod with a reel. It is always important that your reel size matches your fly rod. The first thing to evaluate is your need for a good drag system. Like reels on a gear rod fly reels also have drag systems to assist in fighting the fish. If you are fishing for smaller trout, the drag system may be less important but if you plan to hook into larger fish that are going to rip line off your reel it is very important! Furthermore, if you plan to fish in the salt keep in mind that you need to utilize a reel that has a sealed drag system to prevent saltwater from getting into your reel and corroding the drag system. Pro tip: If you are buying a reel for a two-handed fly rod be sure to purchase a reel that is 2 sizes larger than the two-hand rod weight. Because two hand rods are longer you need a larger reel to counterbalance the weight of the rod and you need the extra reel space to fit the larger heavier fly line in your reel.
Backing is a small but strong Dacron or Nylon line that increases the amount of overall line present on your fly reel. Backing serves two purposes. The first purpose is if you hook into a hot fish and it pulls all the fly line off your reel, you can still fight that fish with the backing that is connected to the reel. The second purpose backing serves is increasing the effective arbor size of the fly reel which allows you to reel your line in faster. In general, the goal with backing is to have strong enough backing for the fish you are fighting and to have as much backing as possible while still leaving room for your fly line on the reel. Reference your reel’s backing capacity information as a starting point for the strength backing you should use and the amount of backing that you should put on your reel.
Remember above when we talked about how in fly fishing it is the fly line weight that generates the energy needed to cast? This makes picking the right fly line very important. Fly lines are made to pair with rod weights to ensure the fly line appropriately flexes the fly rod when in use. Picking fly lines can become very confusing very quickly because there are many different fly line options with tapers and features that cater to more specific fishing situations. To eliminate this confusion as you are beginning to fly fish, I recommend starting with a weight forward floating fly line that is designed to be a half weight heavier than the rod weight you are using. For example, traditionally a 5 weight fly line would be 140 grains of weight in the first 30‘ of the head and a 6 weight fly line would be 160 grains in the first 30’ of the head. Overlining a 5 weight fly rod with a line a half size heavy would mean putting a fly line on the 5 weight that has roughly 150 grains of weight in the first 30’. When learning how to fly fish, the goal is to learn how to use the fly line weight to load the rod. If your line is slightly heavier than your rod weight it will make it easier to begin feeling the line as it loads the rod since the feeling will be more pronounced. This method of slightly overlining the fly rod has become very popular and most fly lines on the market are slightly heavier than the traditional rod weight recommendations. A great starter fly line for someone just getting into fly fishing is the Scientific anglers MPX line either in the Mastery series or the Amplitude series. The Amplitude series offers a slick coting on the fly line that increases longevity of the line and makes the line slicker. The taper is the same on both. Scientific Angler Amplitude MPX.
Tapered Leader and Tippet
Your leader is what fly fishers call the fishing line from your fly line to the fly. Tapered leaders start out with a higher pound test and gradually get thinner to a smaller pound test. A Tapered leader helps turn your fly over, so your fly is casted further than the end of your fly line. Buying an assortment of tapered leaders is a great way to start. If you buy tapered leaders, I still recommend carrying a few different pound tests of fishing line or in fly fishing terms Tippet with you. You can purchase tippet spools that are small spools of fishing line that you can carry in different weights and keep on you while fishing. Carrying extra tippet while on the water is important because the leader gets shorter over time as line is removed from rigging and unrigging flies and you will need to add more line to the leader. If you want to save money, you can easily build your own tapered leaders by purchasing some different tippet weights and tying them together starting with a heavier pound test and tying sections of lighter pound test each time finishing with the pound test you plan on fishing with. Leader length varies based on numerous factors but generally leaders will be in 6’-12’ range and a 9’ leader is a great all-around option. For all your basic rigging you will need to learn the double surgeons knot which is used to connect two fishing lines together.
Nippers are used to cut your leader when building different rigs. Nippers are relatively inexpensive and highly recommended. One trick for the cost-effective angler is to grab an extra pair of fingernail clippers from the house, they work well as nippers! But, if you want actual nippers, pick up a pair of Loon Nippers.
Having a pair of Plyers is handy on the river in order to crimp barbs on your hooks and if necessary, get a fly out of a fish’s mouth. I highly recommend you fish barbless even if your river does not require you to. Fishing barbless helps ensure you can release a fish quickly and have no issues getting your fly out of the fish’s mouth. Furthermore, if a fish breaks you off, a barbless fly is more likely to come out of a fish’s mouth on its own than a barbed fly. If you plan to fish for larger fish that require a larger hook, I recommend a heavier duty pair of fishing pliers. If you plan to fish for trout a smaller pair of forceps will do the job. Again, a relatively inexpensive item that is highly recommended.
Fly Box + Flies
It is important to always have a fly box with an assortment of flies for your target fish. I recommend doing some research about your local river and buying an assortment of flies in various sizes to cover most fishing situations. One thing you will find is that while you can easily fill dozens of fly boxes, you typically don’t need more than what you can fit in one small fly box. I would recommend keeping some good attractor patterns that have a broad use case and a few hatch specific flies for your local river. Until you get more experience, most local fly shops can provide guidance on a few good flies. While flies are important, I would argue that how you present that fly to the fish is even more important. When you first start fly fishing, I would urge you to not get fly anxiety. Instead, focus more on the presentation of the fly to fish and rely on your local fishing shop to guide you on fly selection for nearby bodies of water.
A net is a great fishing tool for a few key reasons. The first reason is rather obvious… a net will drastically improve your chances of landing a fish. There are some reasons for carrying a net that you may not have thought of though. If you plan to catch and release your fish, a net provides a few key advantages to keeping the fish healthy. First a net allows an angler to successfully land the fish faster which puts less stress on the fish, and secondly a net allows you to keep the fish in the water before releasing the fish. Both of these increase the odds of your fish swimming away healthy. However, a net is not only good for the fish, but it also keeps you safe as well. It does this by removing the temptation to wade into dangerous areas by giving you a few extra feet of reach to land the fish while keeping your feet in shallow water. For all of these reasons, I highly recommend carrying a net while fishing. A great trout net is Fishpond Nomad Native. Weather you decide to fish with a net or not I recommend purchasing the Teeny landing hand which helps you grip the fish and will increase the odds of keeping your fish safe. Pro tip: if you decide to catch and release, whether you have a net or not, once you catch your fish, if you want to take a photo hold the fish by placing your dominant hand over the back portion of the fish near the tail and hold the front under the body of the fish. Avoid squeezing the gill area and try to keep the fish in the water for your picture. Take a quick photo while keeping the fish either in the water for the photo or only taking the fish out of the water for a couple seconds to snap your photo. Once you have your photo return the fish to its habitat by holding it under water until it begins to flop like it wants to swim away!
Depending on where you live and where you plan to fish you may need to purchase waders. If you plan to fish from a boat or wet wade you may not need waders, but I would still recommend getting wading boots or good boat shoes for traction. If you’re not ready to invest in a good pair of waders, wet wading is a great alternative. During most of the summer months in the Pacific northwest wet wading is a great option even if you own waders. Since most waders do not come with any sort of warranty, I recommend buying a good quality pair of waders that will last you multiple years. From my experience, cheap waders do not last very long, and you will most likely spend more money over time versus buying a higher quality wader up front. It is also important to note that with wading comes increased risk of drowning due to waders filling up with water if you fall in. This risk is easily mitigated by always wearing a wading belt and keeping that belt tight to your body. The wading belt helps prevent the water from filling up in your waders which gives you more time to recover from falling in the water. If you will be wading in rivers with smooth rocks and current, you should consider a wading jacket. When effectively used, a wading jacket helps prevent water from filling your waders and acts as a flotation device utilizing the air you are trapped in your jacket and waders. In order to trap the air, your wading jacket should be worn over your waders and synched tight at the waist and wrist and zipped up to your neck. Regardless of the wading equipment you use, always be careful on the river and think through your wading approach before you find yourself in a dangerous situation.
Hopefully, this article has helped you better understand how to start your fly-fishing journey and what gear to start with. Enjoy the process and best of luck on the water! You can check back to find recommendations for all of the above noted gear at Eagle Cap Outdoors. If you have questions, feel free to comment below or send an email our way!