The Beginner’s Guide To Fly Fishing: How To Get Started

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If you’re interested in angling but know little about the subject, you may not understand the difference between bait fishing and fly fishing. Although both involve use of a fishing rod, reel, and line, many of the techniques involved are completely different.

The key difference is found during casting. In bait fishing, the weight of the hook, bait, and lure is much more than that of the fishing line used.

When casting, it is the weight attached to the hook that provides momentum. In fly fishing, the fishing line is heavier than the hook and fly, and it is the weight of the special fly fishing line that pulls the hook through the air.

The Two Kinds of Fly Fishing

Another difference between bait fishing and fly fishing is where the hook is positioned while fishing. In bait fishing, the hook and bait are a little below the surface of the water, held up by the bobber but pulled down by the weight of the lure.

In fly fishing, the fly and hook are found somewhere different. However, there are two kinds of fly fishing depending on where the fly is found.

With dry fly fishing, the fly and line are designed to float atop the water. A special 10-foot length of fine fishing line, called the leader, connects the rest of the fishing line to the fly.

The leader is designed to be invisible to the target fish. When they swim beneath, the fly appears to be an insect or other prey creature stranded on the surface of the water.

However, trout hunt at least 90% of their prey deep underwater. That’s why some anglers have more success using a nymph fly. With nymph fly fishing, the nymph fly, or the leader, is weighted so it sinks deep underwater and attracts hungry trout.

Fly Fishing Equipment

Because fly fishing uses techniques so different from bait fishing, the equipment used and typical clothing worn by anglers are also quite different.

The fly

The most obvious difference is that the bait used in fly fishing is the fly. Flies are made using feathers, hair, and fur—natural or synthetic—to imitate insects or other prey.

Flies come in many shapes and colors depending upon the target fish and location. And, as mentioned earlier, they can be designed to float on the water surface or to sit deep in the water for nymph fly fishing.

The fly fishing line

Because of its role in casting and keeping the fly in position, the line used for fly fishing is crucial. Fly fishing lines can be sinking or floating. These come in a variety of densities, and increasing density means increasing sink rate.

Fly fishing rods have their weight inscribed near the butt, and the fly line used must match that weight. The most popular fly lines are weight forward lines. These concentrate more of their weight toward the end of the line for easier casting.

The fly fishing reel

Fly fishing reels are relatively simple consisting of a spool, its frame, a drag system to place tension on the spool, a handle, and a seat to attach it to the fishing rod. Popular fly fishing reels can cost anywhere between around $30 and $300.

The reel you choose depends upon the kind of fish you want to catch. For trout or other relatively small fish, the drag system isn’t as important so you can get away with an inexpensive reel. But for larger fish, you’ll need something with a superior drag system and heavy-duty construction.

Balance is an important concept in fly fishing. The reel you use must match the weight of the rod and of the fly fishing line you use. All these will be determined by the kind of fish you hope to catch.

The Fly Fishing Rod

Your choice of fly fishing rod will depend on what species you’re hoping to catch and where you’ll be when fishing. If you’ll need to travel long distances or hike while fishing, you’ll need a multi-section rod that may be easily disassembled and reassembled for transport.

Fly fishing rods are designed to match a specific line weight and purpose. Most modern fly rods are made using graphite, which is lightweight and strong allowing casting accuracy and distance. The higher quality the graphite, the more the price.

Fly rod handles are manufactured using cork. These are designed as half wells on smaller rods and full wells on longer, heavier rods. Larger rods also feature a fighting butt, which is a cork or rubber extension behind the reel seat that can be placed against your body while struggling to land a heavy fish.

Fly Fishing Clothing

Because of the methods used in freshwater fly fishing, anglers wade out into rivers or shallow lakes to get closer to their target fish. This means you’ll need to wear a good pair of waders to reach the right spot. Some waders have integrated boots, but others are designed to be worn over wading boots.

Standing out in the middle of the river, you won’t be able to find shade from the midday sun. A pair of fishing sunglasses will help protect your eyes from the glare so you can continue to watch your line and not miss that trout bobbing up to bite your fly. And a wide-brimmed fishing hat will protect your neck from sunburn.

But one of the biggest challenges to anglers wading out into the river is how they can carry all their important and expensive equipment with them. Leaving equipment on the riverbank may lead to loss through theft. Also, it’s inconvenient to wade to the side of the river every time you wish to replace a fly.

The simple answer is to carry your angling equipment with you by wearing a fly fishing vest or waist pack. These handy items of clothing contain all the pockets you need to keep your most essential fly fishing equipment close to hand even when you’re in the middle of a fast-flowing stream.

How to Start Out

Once you’ve gathered all the right equipment, you need to know what to do with it. The best way to learn is by listening to experienced fly fishing anglers. You can watch them offer advice on YouTube, read books they’ve written, or join a fly fishing club and get the information first hand from experienced anglers.

The Best Spots and Flies

Interacting with local anglers will save time and money as they can direct you to good fishing spots and help you to learn where the best places are to stand in the stream or river to catch your target fish. You may be able to hire a fly fishing guide to take you to the best location and talk you through your initial steps.

An experienced angler will also be able to teach you which flies are best for catching your favorite target fish. Some lifelong anglers even make their own flies, which is a useful skill to develop.


Knots are especially important in fly fishing, where you must attach your fly fishing line to the leader and the leader to the fly. There are many kinds of knots used for these purposes, and you can learn about them in books about fishing knots or through watching informative YouTube videos.

Your knots must be strong, otherwise they’ll fail when a large fish is hooked. Wet the fishing line with saliva before tightening the knot, and then trim off any excess line.

Understanding The Current

In flowing water, predatory fish tend to point themselves upstream to take advantage of prey pulled toward them by their current. This means their attention is focused upstream. Anglers can take advantage of this by approaching them from behind, wading upstream.

When entering the water, you must be quiet and keep to the shade if possible to avoid casting a shadow. Wade slowly and with smooth motions to minimize ripples.

Fly fishing alongside more experienced anglers allows you to quickly learn tricks like this and the kind of hiding places where predatory fish are likely to await their prey. They can offer you advice and answer your questions.


When fly fishing, you cast the fishing line rather than the fly. The lighter fly simply follows the heavier line.

The most popular kind of cast is the forward cast. The fishing line is whipped into the air, back over the angler’s shoulder, then shot forward by action from the forearm.

Before you do this, it’s important to ensure you have enough room to complete the cast. Watch out for overhanging branches or obstacles on the riverbank if it’s close.

Release around 3 rod-lengths of fly fishing line. Extend the rod in your dominant hand, whip the rod tip up and then back in one smooth motion. If the fishing rod tip is loaded with enough impulse energy, the fishing line will shoot forward the required distance to place the fly where you intend.

Much like with any other sport, you can’t expect to get your cast right on your first try. It’s a matter of observing experienced anglers, copying their technique, experiencing it for yourself, and then practicing until you can do it well.


Keep the line taut so you can feel when you get a bite and the tip low for ease of hooking. When the fish bites, keep the rod steady and yank the fishing line with your spare hand to set the hook.

Once the hook is set, wait for the fish to tire itself out before attempting to reel it in. Never lift your rod up because the pressure could break it.

Landing Your First Fish

If your aim is to catch and release, leave the fish in the water for as long as possible. In some areas, especially in the wilderness and national parks, catch and release may be mandatory.

Position your landing net in front of the fish and guide it head-first into the net. Once the fish is inside the net, flick the rim up to send the fish to the bottom of the net and prevent escape.

Be careful not to hurt the fish while unhooking its jaw. A pair of needle-nose pliers is helpful for this job. When handling the fish, don’t keep it out of the water for longer than you can hold your breath. Avoid squeezing its stomach or touching its gills.

Be a Good Neighbor

Try not to wade too close to another angler’s fishing spot. Fly fishing is a solitary sport. Most importantly, don’t put yourself in a position where you’re directly upstream of another angler. Otherwise, you’ll ruin their chances of catching any fish!

To preserve fish stocks, don’t keep fish that are too small or take more than you need to eat. Check with local authorities you are actually allowed to keep the fish as many areas are catch and release only.

While you’re angling and also when you finish for the day, ensure you leave nothing behind and cause no damage to the local environment. You’ll want to keep fishing there for many years to come.

Get a license!

Check that your fishing license is valid in the state and still in date. The fees you pay for your license help pay for river and lake conservation projects in most states. You can get your license online from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or fishing shops.

Regular anglers will find that annual licenses work out cheaper. Day licenses often cost around $20 but annual licenses are between $30 and $150 depending on the state and your residency.

What’s Next?

The only way to improve and get the most out of fly fishing is to practice. The more fly fishing you do, the more you will come to understand your target fish and their place in the local environment.

Fly fishing is a sport that changes as you travel from place to place. The best shape, color, and size of the flies you use depend upon local conditions and the natural prey of your target fish.

It’s a great way to get to know people in other countries as you wade into foreign rivers and exchange ideas with anglers from other nations with unique perspectives and ideas. I hope that fly fishing opens your horizons.

Have fun!

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Robert Baker

Robert is a content writer and editor at Outside Pursuits where he shares his love for the great outdoors. He also writes in-depth travel blogs for other websites around the world. Robert is passionate about the environment and uses his writing to educate people about the advantages and importance of sustainable living. Robert enjoys creative writing. In 2009, his children’s novel Sally Hemings & the Good Associates won the Children’s Fiction section of the You Write On Book of the Year Award.

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