The 20 Essentials for Every Fly Fisher

Fly fishing Expert Rylyn S. details all the gear you'll need before hitting the river for some fly fishing, plus some extras that are nice to have but not necessary!

A man casting a fly fishing rod.

Photo by Glen Rushton

As a Fly Fishing Expert here at Curated, the situation I hear most often from visitors is, “I am a beginner to fly fishing and I am overwhelmed by all the equipment out there. Where do I even start?”

To most, fly fishing is quite intimidating. To some, it might even look a little ridiculous. From the fancy bobbers that we call “indicators' ' to all of the numerical attributes for tippet, leader, fly sizes, rod weight, length…it’s a lot. It can make you feel like you need a Ph.D. in calculus to figure all of this out!

Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the odd names like the wooly bugger, bunny leech, muddler minnow, and the zonker given to the piece of feather or material tied onto a hook with thread!

With all the innovation and technical options, fly fishing can seem quite confusing. In this guide, I will break down the 20 essentials every beginner fly fisherman needs.

Wants vs. Needs

Refer to the checklist below to figure out which gear is an absolute must-have and which gear can be accumulated over time.

Fly fishing gear checklist that differentiates between the needs (Fly Rod, Fly Line, Fly Reel, Backing, Tapered Leaders, Tippet, Flies, Fly Box, Nippers, Pliers or Forceps, Strike Indicators, and Split Shot) and the wants (Floatant, Tippet Holder, Retractor, Net, Net Release, Pack or Vest, Polarized Sunglasses, and Waders and Wading Boots)

Needs

1. Fly Rod

Before selecting a rod we must discuss what you are fishing for and where you are fishing. Are you fishing small creeks? Are you fishing large rivers? Are you fishing fresh or saltwater?

A fly rod is categorized in weight (WT) which ranges from 0 to 16, with the 0 weight as the weakest and the 16 weight as the strongest. Fly rods also vary in length which really has to do with what and where you are fishing. Check out this chart for helpful tips for selecting your first fly rod.

A chart showing what type and size of rod should be used for different water types and fish.

My recommendation is choosing a 5wt, 9ft fly rod if you’re starting out. This is a great starting point as it can cover a range of species and the majority of freshwater applications.

As far as the “best bang for your buck,” choosing a fly rod outfit is the best bet as it comes completely set up and ready to fish with the rod, reel, backing, fly line, and leader (sometimes even a case). Check this one out!

2. Fly Line

A man holds a fly attached to a line.

The leader or tippet is the thin, clear line that attaches to the fly. Photo by Josh Frenette

Fly lines are categorized in weight just like the fly rod. When choosing your fly line, a general rule is to match the weight of the rod with the weight of the fly line. So, if you have a 5wt 9ft fly rod, you’ll need a 5wt line.

Because most flies weigh just about nothing, it is actually the fly line that you are cast to launch the fly toward the fish. Your fly and leader go where the fly line goes.

There are numerous types of fly lines out there, from floating, sinking, intermediate, indicator, streamer, bass, and saltwater…But the good news is that 95% of anglers, including myself, use a weight-forward (WF) floating (F) fly line. Being weight-forward means that the taper of the fly line consolidates the weight toward the end of the fly line where the leader is attached. So when a fly line is labeled WF5F it means that it is weight forward, 5 weight, and a floating fly line.

3. Fly Reel

A green fly reel attached to a rod.

Photo by Tim Foster

Some may be thinking, “why in the world would you say the fly reel is the third most important aspect of beginning fly fishing?” Well, let me break the news to you. The reel (in most cases) is just a tool to hold your backing and fly line. If you are going to spend your money, spend it on a good fly rod and a good fly line. The reel is just there to hold the rest.

When selecting your fly reel, match the fly reel weight (WT) with the weight (WT) of the fly rod. For instance, if your fly rod is a 5WT 9’0” fly rod, you will need a 5-6WT reel. Depending on the company, these are labeled differently. For example, Lamson Waterworks label their reels -3+, -5+, -7+, etc. This means that the fly reel in the -5+ range is compatible with a 4WT-6WT fly rod. It can be a little confusing, but a Curated Fly Fishing Expert can help!

The drag system on fly reels will help you reel in larger fish, but when landing a fish, it is mostly done by stripping the line back through the fly rod guides and letting the line float downstream. Notice in the picture below how the fly line is simply floating. Once you are finished fishing a location, you can reel the fly line back up with your fly reel

4. Backing

A fly reel is unwound with yellow line and red backing coming off of it.

The red line shown in this photo is called backing. Photo by Rylyn Small

Backing is basically string. Well, it may be just a little fancier than that! It is actually a braided dacron, like this. The backing is loaded onto your fly rod before the fly line for two purposes:

  1. Takes up space on your fly rod because most fly lines are not very long (90-100 yds). This extra material also allows the arbor (the diameter of the reel) to be larger so that each turn of the reel brings in more line.
  2. Your insurance policy. If you get lucky and hook into a massive fish that takes you for the ride of your life, you will have plenty of backing to “back you up.” Generally, you will have anywhere from 150 to 200 yds of backing behind the fly line. This is also determined by reel specs which are mentioned in their description.

5. Tapered Leaders

A diagram showing the leader with the taper section and butt section labeled.

The tapered leader is what connects your fly to your fly line. This is a clear piece of nylon, monofilament, or fluorocarbon. Generally, most fly fishermen use nylon leaders as they are more versatile. Nylon and monofilament float, which is great for those dry flies (flies that float on the surface of the water) while fluorocarbon is great for nymphs (below the surface), but we will get to flies later.

  • 40% of the leader is the “butt section” - the thicker section
  • 20% of the leader is the “tapered section” - tapers from a thicker diameter to a smaller diameter
  • 40% of the leader is the “tippet section” - this is the thinnest section of your leader.

The leader is tapered for two reasons:

  1. To transfer the energy efficiently back to the rod. If you had just the thinnest section tied throughout the total 9’ leader length, chances are you will break off. With the transfer of that energy being mostly in the butt section, you are able to land and fight fish easier without worrying about breaking off or losing that fish.
  2. Fish can be easily spooked. The leader allows for the tippet section to be virtually invisible to the fish.

The general recommendation is to match the length of your leader to the length of your fly rod. So, a 9 ft leader is great for a 9 ft rod.

6. Tippet

Tippet is the thinnest section of the leader system, as explained above. When you get your leader straight out of the package, it is ready to fish! As you change flies and/or break flies off, your leader will get shorter as the day goes on. To make up the needed length, tie on more tippet material. Remember, a good ruler is your rod! If the leader is not the same length as your rod, you probably need more tippet material added.

A diagram showing the leader and tippet system.

When picking out your tippet, you'll primarily be choosing between nylon or fluorocarbon.

Nylon

  • Pros: Floats, holds knots really well, and is less expensive
  • Cons: Because it floats, it’s not the best for some setups like strictly nymphing

Fluorocarbon

  • Pros: Sinks, very strong, super abrasive-resistant
  • Cons: Harder material which makes knots harder, expensive

7. Flies

Several types of flies in different boxes.

Photo by Michael Aleo

There are five main types of flies which I will explain in-depth below.

Dry Flies

Of the five types, this has to be my all-time favorite. Dry flies imitate anything and everything that lives on top of the water's surface. They are generally designed to float on the water (and when they don’t, it is super annoying, but that’s where floatant comes in handy, as we’ll discuss later!).

To fish dry flies, cast out your fly on a floating line. If you’ve done it right, it should sit on the surface of the water. Aggressive predatory species, such as trout, spend a great deal of time looking up for (real) flies landing on the surface. When they spot one, they swim up and sip the fly out of the surface.

Dry fly fishing is super visually stimulating and exciting. There’s nothing that gets your heart racing faster than watching your little dry fly drifting along before a trout rises up and smashes it!

Confused about what counts as a dry fly? Don’t be. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if your fly is designed to be fished on the surface, it is a dry fly.

Wet Flies

Wet flies are designed to be fished sub-surface. They can be made to replicate a host of different species. You’ll be able to tell what some are designed to look like, but others can be a little more obscure!

Here’s the good news. To fish wet flies, you don’t have to have a sinking line. 90% of flies can be fished on a floating line.

Here are some things that you’ll find represented in a wet fly:

  • Small baitfish and fry
  • Tadpoles
  • Larvae
  • Grubs
  • Drowned insects
  • Crayfish

Nymphs

Nymphs deserve their own category. Why? Oftentimes they are grouped with wet flies, but nymphs make up the bulk of a trout’s diet. A nymph is a fly representing an insect in its larval stage of life. Nearly all flying insects start as a nymph before transforming into their adult stage.

Here are a few that lay their eggs in water:

  • Mayflies
  • Stoneflies
  • Salmon Flies
  • Dragonflies
  • Daddy Longlegs
  • Mosquitoes and midges

Streamers

Streamers are another “wet fly” but have a few features that allow them to be in their own group:

  1. Streamers tend to be tied on larger hooks.
  2. They have a substantial tail that is mobile.
  3. Often have a weighted bead head.

Streamers often imitate baitfish which are great for targeting those larger fish. Remember this…all fish eat other fish. If the above three fly types do not work, throw on a streamer!

Attractors

Attractor flies are a hybrid of sorts. They are basically a mashup of different fish-like elements, all tied into one, easy-to-eat package. Attractors, as the name suggests, are designed to get the fish’s interest. Here are some key features that tend to do exactly that:

  1. Moving wiggly legs
  2. Bright colors
  3. Bushy tails and bodies
  4. Large eyes
  5. Even cupped head to make a “popping” sound on the water when stripping back.

When getting started, I recommend getting a fly assortment specifically for your target species that has a range of flies in the categories mentioned above. A small fly box with 10-20 flies is a great starting point for any beginner.

8. Fly Box

Flies lie in a fly box.

Photo by Brendan Hollis

Fly boxes come in many shapes and sizes depending on the number and size of your flies. These are used to protect your flies and provides a place for when not in use.

For more on organizing your fly box, read this article and to make your own streamer box, follow this guide.

9. Nippers

A man using nippers, a device similar to nail clippers, to cut a line off a fly.

A man using nippers, a device similar to nail clippers, to cut a line off a fly. Photo by Josh Frenette

These are used to easily cut tippet, leaders, and line. Some even have an eye-clearing needle to clean the eyes of your hooks from glue, adhesives, or those pesky little knots that you can’t seem to clip off.

10. Pliers or Forceps

A pair of forceps hold a fly while leaning on a piece of driftwood next to a reel.

Photo by Rylyn Small

Forceps and pliers are used to easily remove hooks from your fish without causing too much stress on the fish. They can also be used to mash down the barbs of hooks and for smashing down split shots to your leader for added weight.

11. Strike Indicators

The Strike Indicator Float Type, one type of strike indicator.

The Strike Indicator Float Type, one type of strike indicator

Remember those nymphs we talked about? Some of those tiny little fellas are going to make it hard for you to see or feel a strike from the fish. You can ease the challenge by adding an indicator (a glorified bobber) to indicate your strike (see where the name came from?).

They come in a variety of options. For instance, the wool indicators below are made for more delicate presentations. Rather than having the splash from a round bobber, you have a delicate presentation like that of a dry fly.

The shapes are really your preference. If I am fishing spring creeks, I prefer to use a wool indicator as I primarily use smaller nymphs. The round bobber is great for big rivers and for throwing larger nymphs like stoneflies and jigged flies.

12. Split Shot

The Orvis Split Shot.

The Orvis Split Shot

These little boogers can make the difference between catching fish and not! Trout and other stream or river fish tend to live towards the bottom. By adding split shots, you can get your flies down into what we call the “strike zone.” It is extremely important to bring your flies to where the fish are feeding in order to catch fish. I personally recommend carrying a variety pack of split shots with a range of weight sizes.

Wants

13. Floatant

The High N Dry Liquid Floatant.

The High N Dry Liquid Floatant

Although flies are made from materials that float, they usually are unable to float for an extended period of time. When fishing with dry flies, you will need to apply floatant. This causes the fly to expel water much faster and will keep your dry fly floating longer in the water which allows the fly to float downstream naturally. Think about this—if it doesn’t float like what it’s supposed to imitate, the fish are less likely to eat it. Floatant can come in many different forms like powder, a spray, and a silicone gel; but I personally prefer the gel.

14. Tippet Holder

The The FishPond Headgate Tippet Holder.

The FishPond Headgate Tippet Holder

The tippet holder is a great addition as it keeps your tippet spools organized and from getting all tangled in your pack or vest. This also allows for efficiency when selecting the right tippet material for your given fishing situation.

15. Retractor

The Orvis Gear Keeper Retractor.

The Orvis Gear Keeper Retractor

Retractors/Zingers can be applied to your tools to keep them accessible yet out of the way when casting and/or netting fish. You may attach nippers, pliers, scissors, floatant, and even your net to these for a safe attachment to make sure tools do not end up as shiny objects beyond reach at the bottom of the river!

16. Net

A man holds a fish out of a net.

Photo by Jack Murrey

Technically you can land a fish without a net, but I consider it to be a great addition to any quiver. My suggestion would be to buy a net with silicone netting. This is much easier on the fish and keeps hooks from getting tangled.

Looking for a net of your own? Read more in this buying guide.

17. Net Release

The FishPond Confluence Net Release.

The FishPond Confluence Net Release

A net release is a magnetic mechanism that allows you to easily stow away your net on any wader, pack, sling, or belt.

18. Pack or Vest

A man with a fishing pack squats above the water in shorts and holds out his net.

Photo courtesy of Rylyn Small

While having a pack or vest makes it easy to stow away all your gear, it is not necessary. Get a pack or vest if you plan on spending most of your day on the water. You can easier stow away fly boxes, tippet, extra leaders, indicators, tools, and extra spools in your day pack.

19. Polarized Sunglasses

A man with fishing gear and wearing sunglasses stands in a river holding his fly rod.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon

These are often forgotten by beginning fly fishermen. Polarized sunglasses reduce surface glare on the water making it easier to spot fish and obstacles in the water. Also, keep in mind that these will protect your eyes from hooks and from the sun while out on the water.

20. Waders and Wading Boots

A man with fishing boots and waders stands at the edge of a river.

Photo by Taylor Grote

If you are new to fly fishing, I recommend you wait to purchase a new pair of waders and wading boots. Go try wet wading first (unless it’s winter) to see if this is for you! If you decide to stick with it, grab yourself a good pair of waders and wading boots.

Some may ask, why are the boots separate from the waders? Will my feet get wet?

The answer to this question is no! The waders themselves are completely sealed. As a matter of fact, the wader stocking feet are neoprene which makes for a comfortable sock to slip into those wading boots. Wading boots provide needed support while out on the water, unlike boot-foot waders. Think of them as a good pair of hiking boots vs. having on-water (mud) boots.

Well, congratulations! You made it to the end of “The 20 Essentials for Every Fly Fisher.”

The needs are the “bare necessities,” which are needed to get you on fish and having the time of your life.

The wants make having the time of your life just a little easier. They keep you dry, make your gear accessible, and make your fly fishing experience even more enjoyable.

Are you looking to get into fly fishing, but still aren’t sure where to start? Come talk to one of our Fly Fishing Experts. We would be glad to help you. Here at Curated, we are guides, teachers, instructors, and everyday fly enthusiasts. We live and breathe this thing we call fly fishing.

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Written By
Hey There! My name is Rylyn Small. I am a High School Agriculture and FFA/Outdoor Teacher that teaches fly-fishing, angler education, hunter education, veterinary science, agricultural welding, and woodworking. I am also thankful to be the Coach for the EPHS Bass Fishing Team where we compete in the...

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