Fly Fishing Beginners Guide

What is fly fishing?

Fly fishing is a type of fishing that uses a light weight artificial lure (shaped like a fly) to catch fish. The equipment used for fly fishing is different from the ones used for spin a lure or bait fishing. Fly fishing can happen on pretty much every body of water – stream, lake, ocean, and everything in between. 

Fly Fishing Gear for Beginners

This guide is designed to help you know the basics of fly fishing, so that the first time you step into the river you’ll be ready to go. You will not find advanced casting techniques or hyper expensive reels in here. Our goal is to get you the basics, expose you to the thrill of fishing, and then give you resources to learn more. Honestly, we just want to get you hooked.

Types of fly fishing rods

The fly rod is the essential part of your fly fishing gear. Fly rods come in a variety of lengths, weights, materials, and action. We’ll breakdown which each of those mean and what you should look for in your first fly rod. 

Weight: A rod weight can range anywhere from 0 to 14. A zero weight fly rod is used for small fish (pan fish or really small trout). A heavy weight fly rod (weight 8-14) is used for large fish. These can include anything from steelhead trout to marlins. Most beginning fly fishermen/women will want to go with a 4 or 5 weight rod. This will be strong enough that you can handle most any trout that you come up against.

Length: Most rods will range in size between 6 ft and 10 ft. There are some rods (called spey rods) that are over 10 ft but are usually used for salmon fishing and use different casting techniques than regular fly fishing. The length of your fly rod will depend on what areas you’ll be fishing in. If you’re fishing in rivers with over hanging branches and not a lot of room for your backcast, then you’ll want a shorter rod so you don’t get snagged as often. However, if you’re going to be casting across a large river, then a longer rod will help you with your longer casts and reach the fish. My personal favorite is an 8ft or 9ft (4 piece collapsible rod). A rod like this helps allow for those long distance casts, but is still short enough to work with.

Materials: Fly rods are made of different materials. Originally fly fishing rods were made out of greenheart and later bamboo, but with advances in technology that has changed. The main rod types are graphite, fiberglass, bamboo.

  • Graphite – This is the most common type of fly fishing rod. Graphite rods are known for being lightweight, strong, and great for getting a fly in a hard to reach spot.
  • Fiberglass – These rods have been around since the 1940’s. Fiberglass rods are usually less expensive than graphite rods too. These rods are great for smaller flies and nymphs since these rods usually have more “action” associated with them.
  • Bamboo – Bamboo rods are where the fly rod can trace its origin. These rods can be extremely expensive and have a unique feel to them. Bamboo rods are great for the more advanced fly fisher, but a beginner should probably steer clear of them.

Action

  • Fast Action Rods – Fast action rods are stiff rods where only the tip of the rod bends when casting. This type of rod is great for casting long distances or in difficult weather conditions. This type of rod isn’t recommended for beginners as it requires good technique to get the line out there and not to splash the water.
  • Medium Action Rods – Medium action rods are the “goldilocks” of the rod family. They’re not super stiff, but they’re also not as flexible as the slow action rods. This rod is the most versatile type of rod for beginners. If you’re looking for a rod that will work great in big rivers, lakes, or even small streams, then this type will be able to handle most outings.
  • Slow Action Rods – Slow action rods are rods that are very flexible. They have a lot of give when casting and are great for those learning or refining their casting technique. Because of the forgiving nature of the rod it’s easier to get the fly out into the river even with poor technique. It is more difficult to cast these types of rods in windy or poor weather conditions though.

Important parts of fly fishing reels

  • Weight/Size – Just like the fly rod, the reel has different weights and sizes. You’ll want to match up your reel size with your rod size. So, if you have a 4 weight rod, then you’ll want to have a reel weighted between 3-5.
  • Drag – There are two main drag systems for fly reels: Spring & Pawl and Disc Drag. 
    • Spring and Pawl Drag – These reels use gears inside the reel to limit the speed at which line can come out of the reel. These types of reels are much harder to find today since Disc Drag reels are more common. These reels are usually good for small streams and creeks or for smaller fish.
    • Disc Drag – These reels are the most common type of drag system in fly reels. This uses a braking type system where a pad is adjusted in the reel to apply more (or less) pressure. That makes it harder to pull the line out, while keeping it easy to reel in.
  • Arbor – There are three types of arbors: Standard Arbor, Mid Arbor, and Large Arbor reels. The size of the arbor determines how fast line can be retrieved and how much “memory” is in the line. Memory means that the line develops curls or kinks in it from sitting on the reel.
    • Standard Arbor – These reels are mainly used for small streams and fishes. The arbor is usually very small and makes it so the line can be wound tight which does increase line “memory”. These reels are usually less expensive than other arbor types.
    • Mid Arbor – Mid arbor type reels are the next step up in arbor size. These reels provide a slightly larger diameter of arbor so there’s less line memory than a standard arbor reel. The larger arbor allows for a faster line retrieval rate and these reels are usually more lightweight compared to standard arbor reels. 
    • Large Arbor –  These reels have a diameter. They allow for less line memory because of the reel not being wound as tightly as the other types of arbors. These reels do look larger than a “normal” fly reel, but function the same. Even with the larger size these reels are usually lightweight because of open design and much of the metal being machined out.
  • Cost – Last thing to consider when buying a new reel is cost. If you’re just starting out and not sure if you’re ready or even want to invest hundreds of dollars in a reel, then it makes sense to buy a good, reasonably priced reel to get familiar with before upgrading.

Fly fishing lines

There are two main aspects of your fly line: tapered and the type of line. How a line is tapered is basically where the line is thickest. Where the line is thick will determine how easy or hard it is to cast and the effects it has on the water. The type of line describes what action it performs while it’s on the water.We’ll cover each aspect here.

Tapered

  • Weight Forward: These types of lines are where the line starts to get thicker towards the end of the line. This is to help with casting and getting the fly out there. It is the most common type of line in use and is great for most beginners. There are different classes within weight forward tapered lines, but for beginners you should be fine with a moderate weight forward tapered line. 
  • Double Tapered: This line is similar to the weight forward taper, but it is more in the middle than at the end of the line. This allows for the fly to be gently placed on the water because the weight is in the middle of the line and not at the end. This type of line is excellent for precision casting and placing the fly in difficult to reach places. You want to avoid this type of line if you’re going to be doing long casting or aren’t super experienced.
  • Level Tapered: This type of taper isn’t very common. It’s usually the least expensive type of taper, but for good reason. Level tapered line is sort of a misnomer. There isn’t really any taper to the line actually – it’s the same thickness from backing to leader. Steer clear of this one as much as possible

Line types

  • Sinking Tip Line: This type of line usually has about the last 10 feet or so that will sink down into the water. The advantage for sinking tip lines is that the recast is much easier compared to the regular sinking line. This type of line is primarily good for fishing wet flies, nymphs, or streamers. If you’re fish are feeding under the surface of the water or you’re fishing large bodies of water then this is a good line for you.
  • Sinking Line: Like the sinking tip line this does the exact same thing, but it’s the whole line that sinks not just the last 10 feet. This line is good for large bodies of water or if your fish are feeding deeper than you can reach with a dry fly and a dropper.
  • Floating Line: This is the most common type of fly line and for good reason. When casting dry flies, you want them to sit on top of the water so the fish will strike them. Floating line will help them, while the sinking lines are better suited for nymph fishing. If you’re a beginner, this is the fly line you should be using.

Different Flies

There are several different types of flies you can use when fishing. Flies are tied in a pattern to mimic a certain type of insect. The correct fly is all dependent on the environment, the fish you’re going after, season, and weather. 

  • Dry Fly – This is the most common type of fly you’ll see. This fly sits on top of the water and imitates adult flies. Dry fly fishing does take certain elements to come together for it to be a successful day. It is sometimes considered the most exciting form of fly fishing though because of the visual of the fish striking the fly.
  • Wet Fly – A wet fly or a “nymph” is a fly that sits below the water. This type of fly is great for when fish are feeding under the surface of the water. These types of flies mimic flies when they’re in their pupal stages. You can fish these with a “dry fly and a dropper” setup, a sinking line, or a floating line with an indicator and a weight.
  • Streamers –  These are larger flies that sit underneath the water. They usually imitate smaller bait fish, leeches, or larger underwater fish foods. Because the bait is so large and the stripping method used this fly usually attracts larger fish who attack aggressively. 
  • Terrestrials – This type of fly is one that mimics large land based bugs. This includes grasshoppers, ants, or beetles. These are great for fishing rivers/streams with tall grass. Because of the size of the insect, you’ll sometimes get larger fish attacking these flies.

Fly fishing waders

Waders are protective pants or boots that keep you dry while fishing in the river. Waders are usually made out of two types of materials: Neoprene or Breathable. 

  • Neoprene – Neoprene waders are great for fishing in cold water or cold weather. They don’t “breathe” so it doesn’t allow the fisherman/woman’s body heat to escape. While these waders are great for cold weather fishing, they can be miserable for warm weather fly fishing. 
  • Breathable – Breathable waders are made primarily of Gore-Tex. These waders allow for the sweat and condensation of the angler to be pulled away and keep them cool. Breathable waders are usually more expensive than Neoprene but if you’re going to be fishing a lot or even during the summer then these are a great option for you.

There are three different types of waders that you can choose from.

  • Bootfoot Waders – These waders usually go from the foot all the way up to the chest. These waders have the boot permanently attached to them. This saves the angler an extra expense of having to buy separate fishing boots. If you’re just starting out or only going a couple of times a year, then this is a great starter option.
  • Stockingfoot Waders – Stockingfoot waders are ones that do not have a boot permanently attached, but have a stocking or sock attached to the end of it. Because it doesn’t have a boot permanently attached to it you’ll need to buy a pair of wading boots for these. This can be both a benefit and plus though. If there’s something wrong with a boot in the bootfoot waders, then you’ll have to replace the whole wader. If there’s something wrong with one of your boots with your stockingfoot waders, then you’ll only need to worry about the boot
  • Hip/Wading Pants – Hip or wading pants are waders that only go up to the hip, unlike bootfoot and stockingfoot waders which go up to the chest. These are primarily used for shallow waters where the water won’t go above your waist.

If you’re looking to get started with fly fishing these are some great options for you. It doesn’t take a lot to get started, but price can start climbing as you get into the higher end gear.