How to Set Up Your Fly Fishing Rod, Reel, and Line

Published on 05/27/2023 · 9 min readIf you've ever been stumped by a fly rod, look no further! Fly Fishing Expert Danny Mooers gives you all the tips you need to know for setting up your fly rod.
Danny Mooers, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Danny Mooers

Photo by Danny Mooers

The anticipation fly fishermen feel on their way to the river is second to none. Thinking through a plan regarding fly choice, line, rod weight, reel, and different holes you’re going to hit takes time and quite a bit of energy. The fly rod and reel are going to play a big role in making or breaking the fishing experience! It’s imperative that you’ve selected the proper rig and that the fly rod setup is put together properly.

Selecting a Fly Fishing Rod

Choosing the proper fly rod takes patience and a willingness to ask questions. There are a few things to consider while making decisions on your gear setup. First, know the water that you’re fishing. If it’s a wider river with quite a few seams and a stronger current, you will need somewhere between a 5 and 8-weight rod. These rods are also powerful enough to fight through windier weather you might encounter in these open areas.

If you find yourself on medium-sized rivers and some stream fishing, then a lighter fly rod weight will work just fine. Try a 4 or 5-weight. These allow you to make finesse casts, but still have power to fight larger fish and make some casts through the wind. The 5-weight fly rod is the most versatile rod choice for fly fishers. You can fish nymphs, dries, or a small streamer but still find that touch you need on small streams.

Rods between size 1 and 3-weight are perfect for small streams, trout fishing, and pure finesse freshwater fishing. You won’t achieve accurate long casts with these rods or be very successful if hooking into a salmon or steelhead, but can still tire out fish and offer a delicate presentation while dry fly fishing in those gin-clear streams. The sensitivity of these rods takes the most getting used to but is an absolute blast to fish.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Selecting a Fly Reel

Choosing a fly reel weight should not be difficult! Your weight should either match or be one size smaller or larger than your rod. This is necessary to ensure that you have the right amount of balance while you cast. For example, if you have a 5-weight rod, make sure your reel is either a 4/5 or a 5/6 reel.

The majority of higher-performance reels are going to be made out of aluminum bar stock and have a fully-sealed drag system. This fully-sealed drag system allows anglers to fish on saltwater and not have to worry as much about corrosion.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Fly Backing

When choosing your fly backing line, make sure you don’t overspool your reel. You need enough room for your fly line! If you’re using a 1/2 weight reel, don’t have any more than 25yds of backing. If you’re using a 3 to 5-weight reel, use somewhere between 25-50yds of backing.

If you have a 5 to 7-weight reel, you can go ahead and use 50 to 100yds of backing. A 7 to 9-weight rod will require 100 to 200yds of backing. You need to attach this backing to the spool with a nail knot. You want to make sure it’s distributed evenly.

Fly Fishing Line

Fly line is one of the most confusing aspects of fly fishing and is especially hard to understand for beginners. One of your first decisions should be the type of fly line; whether or not you need floating or sinking line. Floating line will be used in the majority of fly fishing situations due to how high it will drift on the surface.

Your next choice should be the taper of the fly line. Weight-forward lines taper so that the majority of the weight is towards the front of the line and is great for longer forward casts. A double-taper line is a smart choice for more finesse situations and shorter casts.

It’s not uncommon to “overline.” This means the weight of the fly line you put line on your reel is one weighted line heavier than your rod. It allows for some extra power when you’re casting! You can easily feel it load.

Photo by Danny Mooers

Putting A Fly Rod Together

Fly fishing setup can be a cumbersome process at first, but once you get the hang of it, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get yourself out onto the water. Be patient and pay close attention to the small details. Too many anglers lose fish by setting it up improperly.

1. Assembling the Fly Rod - Reel Setup

When you’re ready to set up your fly rod, pay close attention to where you do it. The rod length can make it easy to get caught in a fan or a door. The risk of this is increased with longer rods like euro-nymphing set-ups. This is especially true for graphite rods; less so for fiberglass. Too often anglers will break the rod tip or split the reel seat by being too aggressive in the set-up process.

Most rods will come in two or four pieces. Also, some of the higher-end rods will have alignment dots to help you get on the water faster. Make sure the guides are all properly aligned and facing the proper direction. You need to be able to run the fly line directly up from the fly reel through all of the guides.

It’s not a bad idea to put some wax on the male components of the rod ferrules. This will allow for easier assembly and breakdown. While it’s not necessary, it can ensure the rod is going to stay in good shape.

Photo by Danny Mooers

2. Attaching the Fly Reel to the Fly Rod

A reel is secured to the butt of the rod. You should ensure that you have selected the right rod for the reel size and that this rod reel combo is appropriate for the species of fish you're after. Once the reel is attached, with the knob on the correct side for reeling (left if you cast right), you can move on to attaching line to the reel. Today's fly reel components are sealed and do not require any adjustment to start. You will, however, need to engage a release or button to open expose the reel’s spool.

When you attach the reel to your rod, make sure you have a solid understanding of your casting hand. This will help you know which hand is your “retrieve hand.” Most right-handed anglers cast with their right hand and have a left-hand retrieve.

Put the male end of the reel into the upper cutout under the cork handle. Angle it into this portion and lay the reel down flat. Screw the moving hood up and over the rear reel foot and make sure it stays tight. Many rods will come with two screws to ensure that it stays secure while you’re out on the water.

If it’s attached properly, the spool should spin counterclockwise. If you need to switch the retrieve on your reel, it isn’t challenging at all. Most companies have directions they send along with the reel or offer some tips on their website.

3. Setting Up Line & Leader

As you get ready to set up your line and leader, make sure you take the line out of the top of your reel. You want the retrieval process to be as seamless as possible. Pull enough fly line out so you don’t have to try and thread your leader through your guides.

Pull out the line and double it over and you can quickly string it. Plus, you’ll end up with a few feet of extra fly line. Double-check that you make it through all of your guides. If it isn’t, you’ll find that you cannot cast as well and the line could get stuck as you are trying to retrieve a fish.

Odds are you’ll use a 7.5 or 9ft tapered leader. A standard, starting leader strength is 5x for trout. Go to 4x or even 3x for bass to start. The butt section of your leader attaches to the end of the fly line. Depending on your fly line, you can do a loop-to-loop connection or attach the leader to the end of the line with an arbor knot. Either way, make sure this connection is secure!

4. Attaching Tippet to Your Leader

Depending on what you’re fishing, you may not need tippet. It’s going to be quite useful if you’re fishing smaller nymphs, wet flies, or dry flies. The best way to attach the tippet to the end of the leader is through a double surgeon’s knot. It’ll stay secure no matter how thin the tippet is that you’re using. Since monofilament line floats on the surface of the water, look to fluorocarbon for your nymphing applications.

5. Attaching a Fly to Your Leader or Tippet

At this point, your line should already be threaded through the guides, your leader should be attached, and you’ve thrown on some tippet if needed. When you’ve observed the bugs around you, searched your fly box, and made your fly choices, there are a few knots you can choose from for attaching it to the tippet. I like the surgeon's knot for simplicity.

If you’re only attaching one fly, the easiest knot is going to be the clinch knot. Slide about 6 or 7in of tippet through the eye of the hook, wrap the tag end around the line five or six times, slip it through the hole near the eye of the hook, trim any excess, and you’re good to go. Nymphing may require some split shot to achieve the depth you want.

If you’re using a multi-fly rig, a double surgeon’s knot is going to be the easiest way to attach your other flies. However, you can still use the cinch knot if you’re using a dry-dropper setup.


Setting up your first fly rod combo can be a challenge, but over time it becomes more comfortable and you’ll find a simple routine. Be okay with making a few mistakes at first, but the more you pay close attention to the details, the better off you’ll be in the long run. Fly fishing is all about doing the little things well! If you need any help, please reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.

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