How to Fly Fish for Trout

Fly fishing expert Danny Mooers deep dives into how to target this beautiful fish with an aggressive nature and a picky appetite.

A man stands in a river in waders as he fly fishes.

Photo by Danny Mooers

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Fly fishing for trout has been an obsession and heralded pastime since the mid-1800s. Trout are beautiful fish found in some of the most pristine landscapes on earth. Combine this with their aggressive nature and picky appetites and you gain a strong understanding of what makes them so special.

Anglers have never mastered these fish, and yet, continue to target them on a consistent basis. While fly fishing for trout is not easy, over a century of study has provided anglers with ample opportunities to find out what works to land these fish.

Trout Species

Trout are a freshwater species of fish that are primarily found in cold water temperatures due to the higher oxygen levels.

Rainbow Trout

These fish get their name from the myriad of colors they have on the sides of their body. They’re often found to have a silver body with deep pinks and purples along their sides. These fish can grow upwards of 10 or 15lbs!

Brown Trout

These are some of the most hearty trout you’ll find. Brown trout have a tan/brown body often accompanied by red and deep brown spots.

Brook Trout

Brook trout are a fan favorite for many anglers! They need extremely cold water that is filled with oxygen. As a result, you find these in high mountain streams or spring-fed streams. These fish are usually green with orange and brown spots! It’s hard to misidentify one of these fish.

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat trout have deep red coloring near their gills. It almost looks as if they’re bleeding. Depending on the strain of cutthroat, their bodies may look different, but all have the deep red near their gills

Someone holds a trout in their wet hand in front of a dark natural background.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Gear Needed to Fish for Trout

The gear you’ll need to fly fish for trout depends on the size of trout you’re targeting, as well as the type of water that you’re fishing. However, there are a few standard pieces of gear that you should bring no matter where you go.

Fly Rod

When fly fishing for trout, you’ll need anywhere between a 2-weight to a 6-weight fly fishing rod. The 2 through 4-weight fly rods are perfect for your small streams, rivers, and lakes. They are more finesse rigs, so stick to dries, nymphs, and small streamers!

Your 5 or 6-weight fly rods are ideal for those float trips on large rivers and lakes. These can cast through the wind, handle double-digit fish, and throw almost any size of fly you’ll need when targeting trout. These take some getting used to, but once you do, you’ll appreciate the power they provide.

Reel

The most important thing to do when choosing a reel for trout fishing is make sure it matches with your rod. Most reels are able to fit on two sizes of rods. For example, if you fish with a 6-weight rod, you can purchase a 5/6 reel and it will work just fine. Also, the 6/7 reel would work.

It is important to use a large arbor reel. These large arbor reels are going to retrieve your line at a faster rate and hold more line in case you hook into a fish that wants to take you for a long run!

Line

When choosing a fly fishing line to attach to your reel, there are a few things to consider. If you know you’ll be fishing streamers in deep water, you’re going to want a sinking line to ensure you reach those necessary depths.

If you know you’re fishing rivers and streams that vary in depth, you’ll want floating fly line because it’s going to allow you to fish dries on the surface of the water, as well as nymphs and streamers below the surface.

Leader and Tippet

Leader and tippet are both extremely important parts of your fly fishing setup. Your leader should be strong enough to handle any of the fish you land. If you’re targeting big trout with streamers, go ahead and use a 0x or 1x leader.

If you’re fishing all types of flies for decent sized fish, 3x or 4x leaders will do the trick. Leader length will depend on the conditions, for example, the depth of water you're fishing.

For your tippet, make sure to use it when you’re fishing with dry flies and some smaller nymphs. Trout can be extremely picky with these flies and if they see any sort of line near your fly, they’ll spook. Anglers often use 4x to 6x tippet when targeting trout in clear water with dry flies.

A yellow and green trout sits in a net above a water source.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Best Flies for Trout

There are several universal flies that are going to work for trout! They’re tried and true and have been catching fish for years.

Pheasant Tail

The Pheasant Tail nymph is a classic pattern that represents a Blue Winged Olive. If you’re fishing in the spring or late fall, take some of these along. You can find them in size 12-20. It's not a bad idea to use a strike indicator with this fly!

Elk Hair Caddis

Elk Hair Caddis flies are classic dry fly fishing patterns that seem to work wherever you fly fish. Attach these to some 4x or 5x tippet and see what happens. There are few better things than a dry fly in a hatch!

Woolly Bugger

The Woolly Bugger is a wet fly pattern that every angler needs in their box. Fish this through pools and deeper seams and see what happens. Trout have a hard time resisting!

Fly fishing for Trout in a Lake

When you’re targeting trout in a lake, look for two things: rises and structure. If you see trout rising, go ahead and tie on a fly that matches the hatch and cast wherever you see fish surfacing. It won’t take long for a trout to smack your fly.

If you aren’t seeing rises, make sure you look for structure. Structure can be anything from a fallen tree near shore, a rock pile, or anything in between. Fish love to hang out near structure because it provides safety from other predators in the water and predators from above the surface. They can dart out from the structure, snatch their food, and get back to safety as soon as possible.

Strip your flies past structure and fish are going to strike. Make sure you have an understanding of the food within the lake before you choose your fly!

Fly Fishing for Trout in a River

When you're chasing fish in a river or trout stream, there are few places they’ll hide. First, make sure you fish any sort of structure or pools in a river. The structure creates pools and so do extremely deep portions of the river. Fish will hide in these to stay in cooler water and hunt for food. The next area to fish are eddies. Eddies are bends in the river! These are often deep and filled with structure. They’re perfect hiding places for trout!

Seams and riffles are other common hiding places for fish. They’re often a bit more shallow and fish will typically be in these as soon as the sun rises in the morning. They have easy access to the hatches and can sun themselves a bit before the heat of the day.

A view of a river with a cloudy sky above.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Best Time to Fly Fish for Trout

Trout are going to be the most active in the spring after the runoff. They’ve come off a long, hard winter and are looking to fatten themselves up before temperatures drop again. Also, you’ll find that the bite may slow down a bit through the heat of the summer, but pick back up again in the fall.

Fish are most active in feeding in the mornings and evenings so time your trip to the water accordingly.

Tips & Tricks for Fly Fishing for Trout

Trout can be a temperamental fish and quite a bit of your success is going to come from trial and error.

Give Your Fly Time

Make sure you cast your fly far enough above your target water to ensure you can perfect the drift by the time it reaches the ideal location. Too many anglers are busy mending and adjusting throughout the prime water and lose out on fish!

Be Flexible

Don’t live or die by one technique or one fly. Fish are going to change their preferences by the hour and you have to keep up if you want to land fish. Do your research before you hit the water and have a variety of techniques in mind before you begin fishing.

Start with the Close Water

When you make it to your spot, don’t start by casting all the way across the stream or river. Start with the water that is 5 or 10ft in front of you and work your way to the longer casts. Keep your rod tip high in close water!

A man stands on the bank of a river and fly fishes. The banks are rocky and green and a rainbow from the lens curves over the scene.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Conclusion

Fly anglers from all over the world have a love for trout fishing. These fish are everything anglers love about fly fishing. They’re never going to make it easy for you, but as soon as you think you’re skunked, you’ll hook into that trophy you’ve been waiting for all day. If you need any help finding the right gear for your next adventure fly fishing for trout or would just like to chat about everything trout, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow fly fishing experts.

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Written By
Danny Mooers
Danny Mooers
Fly Fishing Expert
I'm a high school English teacher with a love for fly fishing. Most of my free time is spent out on the water in pursuit of almost anything that swims! I write for several fly fishing websites including Into Fly Fishing as well as Guide Recommended. I have been fly fishing for almost ten years and f...
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