How to Fly Fish: The Ultimate Guide

The art of fly fishing seems to attract a specific type of fishermen. Many people know and enjoy fishing using a spin type reel, and yet few of those know how to fly fish. So what is so different about the sport of fly fishing? How is the equipment different and why is it such an underrated branch of sport fishing? In this article, I will discuss how to go about fly fishing for the beginner fisherman. What equipment is needed, how to cast the line (it is different), and how to go about tying flies and which flies are used for which fish species. The information is vast, and yet I will try to condense it down into this ultimate guide.

Equipment

Rods

To begin with, you will need to purchase a fly rod, reel and line. You may already have a typical ‘fishing’ or spin cast rod, but if you wish to fly fish, you will need a separate outfit. If you are just starting out, it may be worth purchasing an inexpensive setup to start: just in case you end up breaking the rod because of inexperience. A fly rod is generally made of graphite, fiberglass, or bamboo, and as with everything else, you will get what you pay for. If you plan on fly fishing for a long time, it might be worth spending some money up front and purchasing a middle of the road outfit, so that it will last over time. The better rods will cast smoother and farther, and will help to make you become a better fisherman in the long run. For more information on the general type of rod or reel you will want to purchase, check out: https://www.redington.com/experience/new-to-fly-fishing.

The length of the rod is important when it comes to fly fishing, and the length will be dependent on where and what you will be catching. If you are fishing for smaller fish in brush lined streams: a six to eight foot rod would be preferred. However, if you are fishing for larger fish, around big rivers where you have room to cast, a nine foot rod would be ideal. In general, the longer the rod the easier it is to control your line. A fly rod will generally break down into 2-4 pieces, to make travelling with the rod much easier. If you plan on flying on a plane or travelling long distances with your fly rod, you might be interested in buying one that breaks down into more pieces, so you can fit it into a smaller space.

The rod weight is also important and something to factor into your choice. Again, if you are fishing for smaller fish, you will want a lighter rod. If you are fishing for larger fish, a heavier rod would be preferred. This is a direct result from the weight or size of the fly. The larger the fish you are trying to catch, generally the larger the fly. This means the line needs to be heavier to project the fly out into the water, which means the rod needs to be heavier in direct proportion to the line weight. For a trout or panfish, you would be fishing with small flies, so a 5-6 lb fly rod would be perfect. For trout, a 1-8 lb rod would work, while bass would require a 6-10 lb rod and larger flies.

You want to make sure your entire outfit (rod, reel and line) are balanced. The rod and the line need to go together, or else one or both might end up breaking or strained. If you purchase a 6 lb rod, then you need to accompany it with 6 lb line. The same would be true of a 3 lb rod, you would need to purchase 3 lb line, and etc. You can look on the cap at the end of the rod, or above the cork grip, and it should state what the size of the rod is, so you will know which test pound of line to purchase. If you are unsure, or just a beginner, it would be ideal to purchase a combo kit, which comes with the rod, reel and line that are all matched, such as the Crystal River fly fishing combo kit .

Reels

A fly reel is different from a typical spin reel in many ways. For one, when you use the reel, you take the line off the reel with your hand, wrap it around your fingers, and then cast with the other hand. It definitely takes some coordination and practice, and it is a motion you will be repeating over and over if you fly fish for any period of time. The reels generally just spool the line on them, they don’t do anything special, or have any special features to them. When you use the reel, you will be holding the fly rod in one hand, and pulling out the line in intervals with the other hand. At the same time, you will be making a back and forth motion with the rod, so the line will be whipped forward and backwards, gaining speed as the motion of the rod propels the line out into the water. Newer fly reels do have a disc type drag with an adjustment on the reel and are resistant to high temperatures. The reels can be reversible (used with either left or right hand), although the majority are right handed reels. If you are left handed, make sure the reel can be switched before you purchase it. There are some automatic fly reels available as well, although they have never gained popularity. They have a coiled spring mechanism in the reel that recoils the line back into the reel with the push of a lever. Even though this is convenient, the reels are typically heavier, and have limited line capability. Part of learning to fly fish is dealing with the movement of the line, and these reels take away that aspect.

Lines

Once you have purchased the rod and reel, you will need to purchase a special fly line. Typical fishing, or monofilament line, cannot be used with fly rods, as it is hard to see, and doesn’t move the same way (or have the weight on the line or the flotation required). The weight of the line is dependent on what type of fish you will be fishing for, as well as how you will be presenting the fly to the fish. Depending on where in the water column your target fish species is swimming, determines what type of line you should purchase. There are several characteristics of line you should consider before you make your final purchase.

  • Shape and Construction: You will need to get the fly to the location of where the fish expect their food to be located, so the shape and what the fly is made of will be directly determined by the species and location they will be found feeding in the water column.
  • Length and weight: Fly line weight is distributed throughout the entire line length, 90-110 ft or more, but line weight designation (1-15 lb), is determined by the weight of the initial 30 ft of the line.
  • Tapers (outside dimension): this is the varying outside thickness or coating of the line. Fly lines can be broken into 5 different tapering categories: seldom-used level (L), highly popular weight-forward (WF), double-taper (DT), shooting-taper (ST), and specialty tapers. Which taper you choose determines the overall casting performance of the line.
  • Color: many fishermen choose brightly colored line, as it is easier to see the line during the casting process. Others tend to choose line that blends in with the area they are fishing. Fish do tend to see colors, so choosing a brightly colored line might not be the best course of action.
  • Coating: generally, fly line is coated and designed with tiny air bubbles in the line surface, which allows the line to float on top of the water. For fly line that sinks, tungsten or lead has been added to the surface coating. Line is generally constructed of a core, with a taper design, surrounded by a coating (which is usually polyvinylchloride). As most fish that are feeding are well below the surface of the water, you may want your line to be able to sink: sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly. In still waters, if the line sinks unevenly, with some line sinking and some floating, it is that much harder to feel when the fish strikes, and you will end up losing the majority of fish that you would have caught. If you plan on using sinking line, only 8-15 feet of line should be sinking line, the rest should be floating line.

If any of these factors are changed or adjusted, how the line performs and how it is cast can be affected.

There are multiple tips that might be helpful when trying to purchase the correct type of line, here are a few:

  • If you buy your gear at a fishing or outdoor shop, ask for advice on how to pair the line with the rod and reel you have.
  • The larger the fly, the larger the line and rod that is necessary to propel the fly out into the water.
  • As the water depth and flow increases, you will need heavier sinking lines.
  • Make sure and match the fly line to the type of conditions you will be fishing in.
  • Some line is marked for specific fish species (bass, trout, etc.) on the package.
  • Learn the nomenclature that will be present on the rod or the packaging: WF8F translates to weight-forward, 8 wt., floating line, while Wet tip V 13 means it has a very fast sinking tip with a 13 foot tip. The length of the line on the reel is given next: 90 ft. /30 yd. / 27.4 m (as an example).

Once you have the line, you will need to pay special attention to keep it in good condition after use. Make sure and wash the line in a mild soap and water mixture and dry after each use. Floating line tends to pick up algae and scum on the surface of the water, which will end up making a floating line sink from the weight. Make sure and dry the line in the shade, as UV rays tends to destroy the chemicals present in the line. Some newer type lines do require less care, as there is a type of lubricant in the coating on the line, so less cleaning is required. When you are not using the rod/reel/line, remove the line from the rod, and wind it back onto the reel. This will keep the line from creating reel coils in the line, which decrease its’ effectiveness when cast. If you spend the time and take care of your line, it should last 3-5 years.

Assembly of your fly rod

Now that you have purchased all the separate pieces, it’s time to put them all together! To assemble the fly rod itself, it is fairly self-explanatory. Connect the rod pieces together by the ferrules (joints), which should be in 2-6 pieces. Start at the handle (butt end), and continue to the tip end. Line up the guides on the rod, and then slightly tighten the ferrules. But don’t tighten them too tight, or you could wind up breaking them. Putting the reel on the rod is even easier. Make sure not to drop the reel during assembly, as they damage easily and tend to break when dropped. Position the reel correctly, with the handle on the proper side, and tighten the hardware down on the reel foot. Never tighten the reel down with excess force or pliers, as you might break the rod or the reel hardware.

When you put the line on the rod, find the end of the line on the reel and pull out about 10-15 feet of line. Pull the line out with one hand, and hold onto the rod with the other hand. Never lay the rod down to pull out the line, as you will end up damaging the reel and dirt will get on the line (which will require you to clean the line). Double the line over about 2 feet from the leader (last section of the line), and pass the doubled line through each guide, pulling the line and leader after it.

The Leader and tippet

The leader is a 3 section portion of line consisting of the butt, midsection, and the tippet. The leader is the part of the line that ends in the hook/fly, so it has a special purpose for being at the end of the line. The butt of the leader is generally thick and heavy, which changes down to a thin narrow tippet to help the fly turn over when casting. The leader is generally hand tied, and knotted in between the segments. Depending on the size of the fly changes how the leader is made. Small flies that are used on flat waters typically have a small diameter fly leader. The smaller the fly, the smaller the fly leader at the tippet (end), and the opposite is also true. When you connect the leader to your floating fly line, you can use a tube or nail knot, although a needle nail knot it the most secure, but it takes extra time to tie. The leader line is generally about 9 feet, although when it is windy out, it can be difficult to cast, so a shorter leader is advantageous.

Straightening the leader and line

If your line has been stored on the reel for a long period of time with no use, you will need to straighten the line back out. If not, when you cast, it will have permanent kinks in the line, which will make casting difficult. The process is fairly straightforward:

  • Hold the line above the leader junction knot.
  • Grip the fly leader at the junction with both hands and pull the line out of the reel. Do this action using sliding strokes, working slowly to the leader tippet. This action heats and stretches the leader back out.
  • Pull as much line out as you would normally cast through the fly rod guides. Pull on and stretch out short sections.
  • Repeat as many times as necessary.
  • Rewind the line back onto the fly reel. You are now ready to head out and go fishing.

Casting

Now that you have your rod, reel and line assembled together, it’s time to learn how to cast. This is something you will want to practice before heading out onto the water, preferably in a large grassy area with nothing to get your line tangled on as you whip it around too much and snag the surrounding vegetation. If you have a local fly fishing shop, or even a friend who already knows how to cast, it might be worth having a professional help you with the basic tips. Check out this video, which shows you in detail how to cast a fly rod for beginners: .

For a basic type of casting, you will want to practice roll casting. You will use this technique when you have no room behind you to move the line, such as when you are fishing on rivers and streams. Or if you happen to have wind at your back you can use this technique; or if you need to reset your fly quickly.

  • Hold the rod out in front of you, and make sure there are no tangles in the line.
  • Bring the rod tip back so a small part of the line is hanging loosely behind your casting shoulder.
  • Move the fly rod forward gradually, and then speed up your movement.
  • Stop when the rod tip is pointing up and watch the loop unroll.
  • The line will cast out in front of you, without ever having to whip the entire part of the line back and forth (possibly getting caught on trees or plants behind you).

If you are fishing in shallow water, it is fairly simple. You will want to cast ahead of the fish, let the fly sink a bit, and then jerk the line to make the fly seem alive. Make sure and keep the rod tip down, so there is a straight line from the line to the fly. That way, you can feel the hook when the fish strikes on it. For more information on how to properly cast a fly line, check out this comprehensive source for beginner fly fishermen: http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/.

Mending

Mending the line after casting is the repositioning of the line on the water to a new position which will extend the drift of the fly. This requires a simple flick of the wrist to move the fly back where you want it to be, without reeling the line all the way back in to reposition the fly. The goal of mending the line is to keep the line, leader and fly in a straight line, so you will be able to feel if a fish strikes the fly.

Location

Where to go fishing? This all depends on what you want to fish for, and perhaps what type of environment is near where you live. If you have a specific location you want to visit, you will need to know where to find the fish at that location, and what they will be eating at the moment. You will then need to be able to imitate that food source with your own type of fly, and then be able to present the fly to the fish in the most natural way. Be sure and check out this book for some of the best locations to go fly fishing: Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die . But first: location is key!

Panfish

If you want to try and catch some panfish, you will need to fish in warm-water lakes and ponds, rivers, or shallow bays. They will usually be present along shallow weedy areas. In the spring, they spawn along shorelines, and they generally prefer structures such as docks, shallow reefs, and anywhere else they can hide in the water.

Trout

Trout prefer cold water year round. They can be found in rivers, where they face upstream (as their food will be headed towards them). They tend to hide under currents, banks, logs, holes, and are generally feeding in the early morning or late evening. Trout often cruise the surface of the water and gulp hatching aquatic insects, so watch along the surface for movement, and you will be able to spot where the trout are feeding.

Bass

Bass tend to be present in lakes, where they are ambush eaters. They eat panfish, as well as minnows, frogs or crayfish. They seem to prefer hiding around things, as well as in rivers where they can find a break in the water flow to rest.

Saltwater fish

Saltwater fish tend to move with the tides, so you will need to be aware of the tidal charts for your area. They prefer to eat small baitfish, and are often present around various structures: docks, oil rigs, and underwater reefs. Keep an eye out for diving gulls or birds, as that often indicates where larger fish are pushing bait balls up to the surface. Look for various surface disturbances out on the water, as well as looking for the tell-tale movement of the backs of fish on the surface of the water.

The fly itself

There are many different types of flies, with an endless variety of options for feathers, hair, colors, and size. But here are the basic types of flies, and what they are geared for:

  • Dry flies: these are made to imitate adult aquatic insects as they emerge from the water. This could also be made to imitate land bugs that happen to fall into the water, such as grasshoppers or even mice. Dry flies can be used to catch trout, panfish, or bass.
  • Nymphs: these imitate young insects as they are in their larval form, on or near the bottom of lakes. These could be geared towards trout, panfish, salmon or even steelhead.
  • Streamers: these can be used throughout the water column, and are made to imitate baitfish, leeches and crayfish. They can catch almost any type of fish species.
  • Wet flies: these tend to imitate aquatic insects as they swim to the surface. They catch trout, panfish, bass, salmon and steelhead.
  • Salmon flies: These are geared towards Pacific and Atlantic salmon and steelhead. They don’t imitate a specific fish species, but are meant to trigger an aggressive response.
  • Saltwater flies: These are geared towards many different fish species in the ocean, and can be made to look like baitfish, crab, or even shrimp. They can catch anything from bonefish to the mighty tarpon.

Now that you have read about the type of flies that can be made, let’s discuss the specific flies that are imitating certain bugs in the wild. You want to make sure when you pick your fly, that you are matching the hatch (or what is hatching at the moment). You will want to choose the right fly at the right time, or else nothing will strike on your fly.

  • Mayflies: These flies have two large, upright wings with two or three tails, and two very small hind wings. They look like little sailboats in the current and are the only stream type insects with upright wings. They go through four different life stages: egg, nymph, dun, and spinner.
  • Caddis fly: These flies have 4 wings of equal length, and are covered in tiny hairs. At rest, they have an inverted V along their back. They are medium to small and have no tails, although there are more than 1000 species of caddis fly, so make sure and see which species are found in the locations you wish to go fishing.
  • Midges: These flies have two short wings, which lie flat along the top of the body, and have no tails. They are small, and go through four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. During hatching time, the pupa ascends to the surface, drifts for some time, and then a winged insect emerges and flies away.
  • Stone flies: These are a small but important species of fly. They are found in turbulent, rocky streams, and are one of the largest of the flies. They can be small to large, and have 4 large wings that are hard, veined, and held flat against their back when at rest.
  • Others: There are many other type of flies that can be constructed, made up to look like: dragonflies, damselflies, grasshoppers, crickets, leafhopper bugs, spongilla flies, Dobson flies, fish flies, alderflies, aquatic moths, beetles, true flies, and aquatic wasps.

Specific Flies to make You might get overwhelmed with the assortment and variety of flies that you could add to your collection, and yet try not to get stressed. You can purchase whole kits that come with hundreds of flies here: FishingSir Trout Fly Fishing Flies . But if you prefer to make your own, here are some basic ones you should construct:

  • Adams dry fly: This is one of the best flies you can have in your fly arsenal. The gray muskrat body color can be switched to imitate other species such as mayfly or caddis fly. To watch someone tie an Adams dry fly, check out this video: .
  • Pheasant tail nymph: These are useful for catching trout, and are one of the best mayfly nymph imitators. The nymphs live in fast turbulent water or in slow or still water environments.
  • Wooly bugger: This is a streamer, and is used to imitate a baitfish, leech, or a larva type creature. They can have a flash tail, but are generally very simple flies, and are easy to tie and make for the beginner.
  • Royal coachman: These are used to catch trout, as brook trout find them irresistible. They can be tied as a dry fly, and have a classic pattern for using when the fish are not feeding on any specific species during a hatch.
  • Elk hair caddis: These imitate an adult caddis fly, and are used to catch trout. They are incredibly simple to produce, and yet very effective. Elk hair is used to make the wings.
  • Gold-ribbed hare’s ear: This is a general purpose nymph that is made using turkey feathers, hare’s hair, and gold bead for the head. They imitate many different types of nymphs that can be present at any time of the year and in most conditions. To use this fly, you would cast the fly and allow it to drift with the currents.

If you are still unsure about what type of fly to use, think of seasonal color patterns. In early spring, late fall, and in the winter, flies tend to be darker to match the color of their environment. When the weather turns warmer, flies tend to be lighter. For more information on the type of fly to use, check out https://www.takemefishing.org/fly-fishing/, which is comprehensive source of all things related to fly fishing.

Fly Fishing Knots

There are a variety of knots used when constructing flies, as well as when attaching the flies to the leader, or the leader to the fly fishing line. We will go over the basic type of knots, but be sure to check out this video, which also instructs you how to tie basic knots: .

  • Double surgeons knot: This knot connects monofilament line to other size lines.
  • Double turle knot: This ties flies with up or down turned eyes to the shank of a hook. This helps keep the fly in line when you cast.
  • Needle knot: This ties monofilament line to fly line.
  • Emergency nail knot: this is like a tube or nail knot but when you have no tubing or nail handy.
  • Duncan loop: this attaches the fly to the tippet. You leave the loop open to allow the fly to swing freely, or you can close the loop for a tight hold.
  • Nail knot: this attached the leader line to your fly line. You line up the fly line and leader line with a small nail or needle. Wrap the backline around the fly line and nail five to eight times. Then bring the end over, push it between the loops, remove the nail, and tighten the knot.

To read up on fly fishing knots, check out this book: Guide to Fly Fishing Knots for more information and instructions. Once you have completed a few flies, make sure and store them in an open area, so they can dry after using them. This is why many fly fishermen store their flies on their hat band, or attached to their fishing vest. You can find a very useful fishing vest here: Maxcatch Fly Fishing Vest Pack , that will be able to hold some of your homemade flies.

Fly Tying Kit Tools

When you are just starting out, you will want to collect some tools so you can build your own flies. None of these items are difficult to find, but you will want to assemble them together so fly making is a breeze.

  • Vise: This will be useful to hold the hook while you tie the fly. Standard and traditional vises will work just fine for this purpose.
  • Bobbin: This is a spool that holds the fly tying thread while you tie the fly. It has two wire ‘legs’ which hold the spool in place and keep the tension in place while feeding the thread through a narrow tube.
  • Bobbin threader: this is a narrow wire loop on the end of a handle that pulls the fly tying thread through the narrow tube of the bobbin.
  • Scissors: these can be used to cut fly thread, trim feathers, hair or tinsel.
  • Bodkin: this is a small metal rod with a thin pointed tip that is used to apply cement to a fly.
  • Hackle pliers: these are used to wrap hackle feathers around your fly hook.

In addition to these tools, you will need various materials to create your fly creations.

  • Thread: it is useful to have several different colors on hand. Nylon or polyester thread is preferred for tying flies, as the threads are thinner and stronger than silk or cotton.
  • Tinsel: these can be used for various minnow patterns to add shine and sparkle.
  • Hooks: the hook used will depend on the fish species to be caught, they come in various sizes.
  • Feathers: these are very popular when it comes to tying flies: there are lots of choices. <
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  • Hair: this could be made from deer, elk, or even hare.
  • Eyes: to make the eyes on the flies, metal beads, holographic decals, or pre-painted fly eyes can be used.

As you can see, there might be an initial investment to build up your fly making kit, but once you have all the right equipment, you can make an endless amount of flies out of a small amount of supplies.

Random Tips while Fly Fishing

  • While fly fishing, safety is paramount!
  • Make sure to wear sunglasses at all times, to keep the hook from catching you in the eye. Polarized sunglasses will take away the glare on the water, allowing you to see the fish right below the surface.
  • Make sure and go with a buddy if you can: just in case you have any type of emergency, it is always better to have someone else to help.
  • Wear a life jacket, especially if you are wading into any water that is swift or more than a foot deep, it is strong enough to knock you off your feet and carry you downriver.
  • Use the proper waders, stay away from dangerous areas in the river, and stay away from dams.
  • Make sure and check out the local fishing laws for your area, and which fishing license you will need to purchase. You might need to carry a handy fish identification guide along with you, until you learn the different fish species.

Summary

So as you can see, fly fishing is vastly different from the typical type of spin reel fishing. And yet it is a sport enjoyed by many, because it comes with a whole new set of challenges to be overcome. Try it for yourself, after you have purchased the gear and practiced a bit, head out onto your local lake and try your hand at fly fishing: you might even enjoy it more than spin reel fishing!

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