Complete Beginners’ Guide to Fly Fishing – Everything You’ll Need to Know to Get Started


Are you looking to try something exciting and new? Fly fishing is about as challenging as it gets, yet it is one of the purest fishing forms.

One rod, one fly… It’s you versus nature in a battle to see who’s the smartest.

Fly fishing is a little different from other disciplines, which is why I’ve assembled this handy fly fishing beginners guide. I’ll give you a simple rundown of everything you’ll need to know to get started.

Let’s jump right in!

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fly fisherman fishing at river

What is Fly Fishing?

Fly fishing is a method used to catch predatory species of fish. It is achieved by casting synthetic, man-made imitations of things that the fish would normally naturally eat. We call these imitations’ flies’.

So, it’s just winged insects, right?

Nope.

A ‘fly’ can refer to anything that imitates prey likely to be consumed by a fish. This can include things like:

  • Grubs
  • Baitfish
  • Frogs
  • Larvae
  • Spiders
  • And much more!

Fly fishing is also pretty unique for several reasons.

Such as?

Well:

  • How you cast is very different from other more conventional forms of fishing.
  • The line itself is used as the ‘weight’ to cast.
  • The way you retrieve the line is completely different from what you’d consider ‘normal’.
  • You are much more mobile than with other forms of fishing.
  • Fly fishing gear is lighter than traditional ‘tackle’.
  • You have lots of options when it comes to deciding how you fly fish.

If that sounds a little outlandish, don’t worry.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have a really good overview, and understanding of what fly fishing is all about.

fly fisherman release large salmon

What Do You Need to Get Started in Fly Fishing?

Listen.

I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that you will need some specialist fly fishing equipment, it’s a discipline all of its own, and your usual spinning rod just isn’t going to cut it.

The good news?

Look…

Who doesn’t like looking and buying brand new fishing gear?

Let’s describe a barebones setup to get you started in fly fishing…

Basic Fly Fishing Equipment

This is a quick and simple guide to getting starting in fly fishing. If you want a detailed list of what the experienced guys take, be sure to take a peek at my ultimate fly fishing gear list.

You will need…

Fly Fishing Rods

Any good fishing setup starts with a decent fly rod. This is your main ‘tool’ that you’ll use for fly fishing.

Why is choosing a good fly fishing rod important?

This is the ‘work horse’ of your entire setup. It will be used not just for retrieving fish but for casting too. Casting is one of the more challenging aspects when learning to fly fish.

Here’s a general rule of thumb…

The better the rod, the easier it will be to cast.

A fly fishing rod can be anything from 7′ through to 14′. They normally have a short cork grip and are designed to be used with only one hand.

All fly fishing rods will be given a weight rating. This isn’t a measure of how heavy the rod is.

And you need to know this, so pay attention…

The ‘rating’ of a fly fishing rod measures what kind of line you need to pair it with.

A 6wt rod needs to be paired with a 6wt line. A 7wt rod needs a 7wt line?

Simple, right?

I guess that if you are a fly fishing beginner, you are probably wondering where to start when it comes to choosing the correct rod weight.

Here’s a handy table to set you on the right path…

Rod Weight Rod Type Fly Used Best For
1 – 3 Light Small dries and nymphs Trout, Panfish
4 – 6 All-round Dry flies, Wet Flies Trout, Bass
7 – 9 Heavy duty Streamers and large flies Large trout, Large bass, Salmon, Steelhead, Pike
10 – 12 Big Game Large streamers Bonefish, Large salmon
13 – 16 Trophy Saltwater Large streamers Tarpon, Saltwater species

Fly Fishing Reels

Fly fishing reels (as with most fly fishing gear) are a little different than what you will be used to.

Why?

Generally, they are used to hold the line, and they are pretty basic.

But…

90% of the time, you won’t be using the reel to battle the fish.

Wait, what?

That’s right, normally in fly fishing, you use your hands to haul in the line. The reason for this is that you get precision and near-perfect feedback by pinching the line between your hand and the rod handle!

Fly fishing reels can go from very cheap to extremely expensive. But they all perform the same basic function. When you move around, they hold the line and make it easy to ‘strip’ the line off as you cast.

The current trend is for a fly fishing reel to have a large spool (also called an arbor). This ensures a smooth payout of the line when casting and also prevents kinks, loops, and memory from developing.

You can see plenty of affordable fly fishing reels in my dedicated article here.

fly fishing rod and reel with different types of fishing flies

Line

Choosing a line for fly fishing can sound a little complicated.

Why?

Well, you will definitely need at least three types of line, or possibly even four!

Here’s why…

If we pulled off all of the line from our fly reel, it would look like this. In order:

  • Backing
  • Mainline
  • Leader

We line our reel with backing. This is a fine braid that allows us to pad out our reel. It also gives you a good buffer if you catch the fish of a lifetime that strips all of your mainline off the reel.

Speaking of which…

You are also going to need something called the main line. In fly fishing, these tend to be brightly colored and really thick. The line, along with the reel and rod, is the backbone of the setup. The weight of the line is used to cast the fly to where it needs to be.

Fly fishing main line isn’t a uniform thickness either. It will vary and get thicker and thinner. Here are the two types you’ll normally see:

  • Weight forward line. This is where the end of the line is really thick. It gradually gets thinner. This line is great when you need to cast over distance. Most beginners start with a weight-forward line.
  • Double taper or ‘belly’ taper. This is where the line is fat in the middle and narrows out, going towards either end. These lines aren’t all that common and are more suited for fishing tiny streams with tiny flies.

But you said I’d need three lines?

Yes, that’s right. Like I just said, the fly line is generally brightly colored and really thick. Fish tend to avoid brightly colored and thick lines.

And for that reason…

You are going to need to add a section of finer, more discrete line. In fly fishing, you add a shorter section of a finer line called a leader. This line should be practically invisible in the water. Here are the types of leaders you’ll normally encounter:

  • Monofilament leader
  • Fluorocarbon leader

Both have different properties, and there is a huge debate as to which is best. For someone new to fly fishing, I’d suggest going for a 6lb monofilament leader.

The leader is actually really important; check out my guide to the best leaders for fly fishing.

And the fourth line?

In fly fishing, you can fish on the top of the water or down in the depths. Most anglers’ normal main line will be a floating line, also called a ‘dry’ line. This will allow you to fish on top and down to a moderate depth under the surface.

But…

If you need to go deeper, you may also need a sinking main line for fly fishing.

My recommendation is to start off with just a floating line.

fly fishing rod with a reel and orange fly line

Flies

Flies are your ‘bait’ when fishing… But remember, they are entirely man-made and synthetic.

And here’s the thing…

There are literally thousands of flies to choose from. If there’s a creature that floats, swims, lands, breeds, or is generally found in or near water, there’s a chance that there is a fly to represent it.

I couldn’t possibly name every fly. But here’s a quick guide to what they are about:

Dry Flies

These are flies designed to float on top of the water. They are fished with a floating line.

Wet Flies

These are flies created to be fished under the surface. They can be fished with a floating line or a sinking line.

Nymphs

These flies are designed to imitate aquatic life in its larval stage. They can be fished on top or under the surface.

The above only scratches the surface. If you want to know more, be sure to swing by my ultimate fly guide.

Landing Net

If you’ve picked the right rod, line, leader, and flies, there is a good chance you might just catch a fish. If you hook one, then you are going to need a landing net.

Fly fishing landing nets are designed to be lightweight and easy to use and carry. You’ll generally find they look a little like a tennis racket. You’ll use them one-handed while maneuvering the fish with your rod hand.

There are some super nets out there that are perfect for beginners; here are some great examples.

fisherman holding net and fly fishing in river

Advanced Equipment

If you bought nothing but the above, you’d be able to start fly fishing. However, once you get into fly fishing, you’ll probably find that you need additional gear to make life easier.

Here are some other, less-essential things that you’ll find you’ll need on your fly-fishing journey.

Fly Fishing Vest

Fly fishing is all about being mobile. When fly fishing, you’ll also want to travel light.

A great fly fishing vest is the answer.

Most fishing vests are designed to be lightweight with plenty of storage. They allow you to keep the vast majority of your fly fishing tools and gear on your person while also allowing you to keep your hands free.

Fly Fishing Packs

While fly fishing vests are great, they aren’t all that useful for storing larger bulkier items.

A fly fishing pack is a great investment. These lightweight bags for fishing are ideal for storing a drink, food, a lightweight jacket, and anything else that won’t fit in a vest pocket.

Tools

There are a few tools that you are probably going to need at some point.

Ever tried to bite through a 10lb leader?

I have… My dentist used to love it whenever I said I was going fishing.

Nowadays, I carry a set of fly fishing nippers, along with other tools.

Such as?

Here’s what you’ll find in my vest and what they are used for:

  • Fishing Pliers. These are great for all sorts of things. If you’ve got a deeply hooked fish, they allow you to play dentist and get those hard-to-reach hooks. They are also good for flattening barbs, straightening hooks, and performing DIY on the go!
  • Marrow spoon. This is a long thin scoop that you can use to see what trout have been eating. Once you’ve caught a fish, you can use this scoop to help ‘match the hatch’.
  • Fly fishing priest. This is a weighted baton used to humanely dispatch fish that you intend to eat. It is simple to use. A sharp rap on the head is the kindest way to kill the fish. Do this before unhooking.
  • Scissors. Scissors are super useful for all sorts of things. Trimming line, making leaders, and even giving your flies a little haircut on the go!
  • Zingers. Zingers are small spring-loaded spools that you pin to your vest. They allow you to mount tools and have them ready to hand. When you are done with the tool, you just let it go, and it whizzes back to your body.
  • Floatant/Sinker. I normally keep a couple of tiny bottles of gel in my vest. You can apply a tiny blob of either to make the fly behave in the desired way.

Fly Fishing Clothing

As with most sports, you will want to be kitted out properly if you are going a lot. Dress inappropriately, and you are probably going to get cold and wet.

Here’s a quick list of what you need and why it is important.

  • Fly Fishing Hat. That sun can get pretty strong. Headaches because of squinting all day aren’t fun. At the bare minimum, go for a peaked cap.
  • Fly Fishing Jacket. A good fly fishing jacket is really lightweight and forms the outer shell of your ‘layers’. They are essential to ensure that rain doesn’t spoil your day.
  • Waders allow you to access areas of the water that you normally couldn’t reach. These are fully waterproof trousers that are combined with boots. If you’ve never seen them before, check these out.
  • Wading Boots. Wading boots go over your waders. They are normally rubber or felt-soled and give excellent grip on the bottom of the lake or river.
  • Fly Fishing Boots. If you are staying on dry land, it is still important to wear sturdy footwear. Fishing boots will keep your feet protected and comfortable. You’ll be standing all day when fly fishing, so these are essential.

How to Fly Fish – Basic Skills

Fly fishing can be complicated, but you just want it to be simple when you are a beginner.

Here’s a quick overview of what happens.

fly fishing angler makes cast while standing in water

1. The Cast

This is how you propel your fly out to where it needs to be. Unlike in regular fishing, you have to pay out a few yards of line at a time. This is achieved by whipping the rod backward and forwards.

You actually hold the line in your hands and release it at a given point in the cast. The inertia of the weighted line ensures it flows out smoothly.

Check below for some excellent videos and instructions on how to cast.

2. The Retrieve

Unlike conventional methods, where you’ reel in’ to recover the line, retrieving the line is different when fly fishing.

How?

You do it by hand. Once the line is cast out, pinch it in a gap between your rod hand and the butt of the rod. Using your other hand, you pull the line between this gap.

There are a few styles of retrieve:

  • ‘Stripping’ the line. This is where you pull the line quickly by anything up to a foot at a time.
  • ‘Figure of eight’. This is where you rock your hand backward and forwards, pulling in tiny loops of line.
  • ‘Twitching’. This is where you leave the fly still and give it a little ‘yank’ every so often.

3. Bite Detection

There are a few ways you can tell that you’ve got a bite when fly fishing.

Dry fly fishing. This is my favorite. You just watch your fly on the surface. When a fish takes the fly, it will explode underneath it. It’s pretty hard to miss and is really exciting! Here’s a video so you can see what it looks like.

Wet fly fishing. Again, this one is pretty hard to miss. You’ll be retrieving the line, and all of a sudden, you will feel a hard jerk or pull. This is rarely subtle.

Bite indicators. When fishing with nymphs, trout can be a little tentative. They will dart in, take your fly and spit it out again. A bite indicator is a brightly colored float that will dip or bob when a fish takes.

4. The Strike

When you get a bite, you will want to do something about it! Fly fishing is all about being delicate and subtle. There’s no need to take two steps back and heave the rod skyward. All you need to do is gently lift the rod, then the fish tend to hook themselves.

5. Playing the Fish

Here’s where it gets interesting. When fly fishing, it is rare to use the reel to play the fish. Instead, we pull the line in by hand.

How?

Because the fly line is very thick, you can pinch it against the butt of the rod. This gives you great control and allows you to hold the fish or let it run simply by varying your grip pressure. You pull the line in with your other hand until the fish is close to you.

Here’s a great video demonstrating this technique.

6. Landing the Fish

This is an exercise in coordination. You have to maneuver the fish (one-handed) to a position a few feet ahead of you. From there, you’ll need to have your landing net ready in your non-rod hand.

Because you use your non-rod hand to retrieve the line, it can be a little tricky, especially if there is some fight left in the fish! Here’s an expert fly fisherman doing it for real.

Mastering Casting for Fly Fishing

Without a doubt, the hardest thing about fly fishing and the area that most beginners struggle with is casting. It is different from practically every other form of fishing. There are a few ways and techniques to cast:

  • The basic overhead fly-fishing cast
  • The rolls cast
  • The double haul

Let us go through a step-by-step guide to the basic overhead fly fishing cast to keep it simple.

The Overhead Cast for Beginners

Before You Begin…

  • Stand with your feet pointing towards your intended target
  • Pull off 10-20 yards of line from the spool
  • Pull around 1-2 yards of line out of the rod, so it hangs at a 90° angle beneath the rod tip
  • Ensure the area behind you is clear of any bushes and trees
  • Hold the rod in your dominant hand. Your thumb should be along the top of the cork grip with your fingers wrapped underneath. You want your hand to feel comfortable. Not too loose, not too tight, about the same pressure as you’d use when shaking hands with someone. Reach forward and loosely grab the line with your non-dominant hand.
  • Start with the rod parallel to the water in front of you. It should lie at a similar angle to your forearm. The aim of the game is to keep this angle when casting. Lift your forearm back until it is pointing straight up. Try not to use your wrist at all (you’ll notice that your wrist may ‘cock’ slightly at the top, that’s ok but try and limit it.
  • You’ll notice that the line will be pulled off the water in front of you and will travel towards and then past you to form a loop, which will begin to straighten behind you. This is the crucial moment. As soon as that line begins to straighten, it is time to move the rod forward.
  • You don’t want to return the rod to its position parallel to the water. The easiest way I can describe moving the rod forward is to imagine it is a hammer and you are banging in a tack on a wall in front of you. Don’t use your wrist, and move the rod to just past vertical (or a 10 o’clock position when viewed from the side).
  • The line will travel forward and past you to one side. As soon as the main loop of the line passes your shoulder, you will need to release the line held in your other hand. You should find that a couple of yards of line slides through your fingers if you have done it right.
  • From there, you can either allow the line to rest on the water or, alternatively, start the process again to cast out further.

Fly Fishing Casting Tips for Beginners

Are you firing outline over the horizon? Or is it ending up as spaghetti at your feet?

Look, it has happened to the best of us.

Here are some great tips to keep at the front of your mind as you start learning how to cast a fly rod.

  • Start with a really short leader of around a couple of feet. The longer the leader, the harder it is to cast.
  • Real hooks are sharp and can catch the area behind you (and often hook you when you are learning). While you are getting to grips with casting, tie a piece of yarn onto the end of your leader instead.
  • Try and avoid using your wrist too much.
  • If you are struggling with making it all flow, work on one thing at once. I find a really useful drill is to ignore my non-rod hand completely. I just work on flicking about 15 yards of line backward and forwards repeatedly until I get a good feel for what works.
  • If there is still too much going on, allow the line to fall in front and behind you. By keeping it simple, you’ll be able to get a really good feel of what it feels like to ‘load the rod’.
  • You aren’t limited to practicing fly fishing casting on water. A football field, park, or any large grassy area is the perfect venue. You can even place small pegs, hoops, or flags in different areas to improve your accuracy.
  • Be patient. Like all skills, casting is something that has to be learned and mastered over time. As long as you improve a little with each visit, you’ll be casting like a fly fishing pro in no time!
  • If you really struggle, consider consulting a professional casting coach. Some guys are really reasonably priced, and when you consider that you’ll be up and fly fishing that much quicker, it is really worth it.

Here’s a great video by a fly fishing pro to show you the kind of thing you need to look for and allow you to fully visualize the correct fly casting technique…

Where to Fish?

Oh man, are you guys in for a treat. The truth is you can fly fish practically anywhere! There are few species that haven’t fallen to a well-cast fly. This even includes sea fish!

If you are near any body of water, be that a lake, a river, a stream, or even the coast, you can give fly fishing a go. However, to ensure success, it pays to do your homework.

There are a few solutions when deciding where to fly fish. The first is to go for a walk or trip out and check potential venues. Keep your eyes out for fish jumping or attacking fly life on the surface.

Another alternative could be to ask around. Most local tackle stores will be able to give you a great idea as to where to fish.

If you are more progressive, here’s a great idea…

There are plenty of great fishing apps out there that are updated by real anglers. Some of them even come with maps and all the information you’ll need. Once you know that the fish are definitely there, it is just a case of catching them!

If you are really stuck for inspiration, check out some of my favorite fly fishing destinations right here.

fly fisherman in brown jacket standing on river with fly rod

New to Fly Fishing? Frequently Asked Questions

As with any sport, when you are new, it can be a little overwhelming.

Here are the things I get asked all the time.

Is fly fishing hard to learn?

Fly fishing isn’t hard to learn. It is just a little different when compared to other angling disciplines. The main sticking point of most beginners is mastering the cast. However, with a couple of hours of practice, you will be able to get a fly out onto the water.

Oh, and don’t worry if you can’t cast 50 yards. It really isn’t necessary. I’d say that about 75% of the fish I catch have been hooked within a rod length of where I was stood.

Provided you’ve got the right gear and a little patience, absolutely anyone can master fly fishing.

What is the best fly fishing combo for beginners?

The best fly fishing combo for beginners is one that will allow them to cast easily, fight and land their chosen species of fish effectively while keeping within a budget to suit.

While I’m all about great value, I wouldn’t always argue that beginners go for the cheapest fly fishing rod and reel combo. A little investment in quality will enable you to keep fishing with the same gear as you progress.

I’ve got a dedicated guide to rod and reel combos right here.

Is fly fishing an expensive hobby?

The true answer is that it depends. You can spend thousands of dollars on fly fishing (ask me how I know). However, would I say that spending more money catches more fish?

Absolutely not.

If you have enough gear to get a fly to the right place on the water in the right way with something cheap, then you have just as much chance as someone with a designer setup.

Why can’t I catch fish fly fishing?

If you are struggling, relax.

Like with most sports, you can’t expect to be an expert right away. And if you caught every single time without a challenge, it wouldn’t be fun, right?

Here is a list of things to consider if you haven’t caught yet.

  • Go lighter on your terminal tackle. There’s only one place you find two-inch flies… The jungle. If you aren’t having much luck, try fishing with smaller flies and a slightly lighter leader. If the fish are being finicky, this can often be enough to tip the balance.
  • Fish closer in. Look, I get it. You have mastered casting and want to show off. But you might be casting over the fish and spooking them. Try fishing closer in and getting your fly presentation A1. I’ve caught fish by my feet literally.
  • Try different times. Certain venues fish well at certain times. I find the best times are during the early morning and late evening. Most predators love low-light conditions. Use this fact to your advantage.
  • Try a different venue. So you’ve heard that such-and-such a place is red hot for fishing action? Here’s the thing, so has everyone else! Areas subject to significant angling pressure tend to be harder. Try switching or discovering lesser-known spots for a better chance of success.
  • Try a different fly. The beauty of fly fishing is that there is always something else you can do to catch fish. If the fish aren’t going for your fly, change it!
  • Be patient. Look, fly fishing isn’t all about hauling huge bags out day in, day out. It can take a little time to get it right. While you are waiting, enjoy the experience of being out in nature, it’s part of the fun.

Conclusion

I’ll have to admit if you are a fly fishing beginner, I am slightly jealous. You are just embarking on a journey that is so much fun.

It is impossible to be bored when fly fishing, but you’ll never forget the sense of achievement you’ll get from that very first fish caught on a fly.

From there, a whole new world awaits. Saltwater fly fishing, float tubing, and even making your own flies. You are never going to be bored again!

Why not tell me how you got on in the comments? I love hearing from you guys. Welcome to the fly fishing club!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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