How to Start Fly Fishing

Entering the world of fly fishing can be intimidating, so Fly Fishing expert Danny Mooers breaks down the basics you need to know in order to get started.

Photo by Danny Mooers
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Entering the world of fly fishing can be intimidating for quite a few anglers. The thousands of gear options and beautiful waters all over the world can make it difficult to know where to start. Despite the overwhelming feeling at the beginning, a bit of research along with some trial and error are going to help you make sense of all that you need. It’s a lifelong activity that is an absolute blast to do!

Decide Where to Go

The best thing to do is start in your area. Having goals of driving two hours every weekend to better water is great, but it’s often unrealistic. Focus on the water around you and work out from there. Almost anywhere you live will have water within driving distance.

While all water isn’t pristine fly fishing water, it will likely hold fish. These fish can be everything from carp to largemouth bass. Don’t count these areas out! All fish are a blast to target on the fly. Plus, you’ll find yourself becoming a more well-rounded fly angler with the more water you try. Spend all the time you can on the water.

You’ll learn the tendencies of the fish and pick up on skills that will set you up for success no matter where you fish.

Select Your Gear

When purchasing gear for the first time, make sure you choose something that you’re going to be able to use on a variety of water. If you’re just getting into the sport, a very specific rig for certain waters may not be the best choice. These types of setups are nice to buy if you are more experienced and know you need that equipment to land more fish.

A man stands in a river while flyfishing. He extends his arm, holding out the rod.
Photo by Danny Mooers

Fly Rod

Some of the more versatile rods are going to be 4 through 6-weight. These aren’t overly sensitive or too powerful.

The 4-weight rod is great for smaller rivers and a variety of streams that you’ll fish. While it’s not a massive rod, you can still fight a decent size trout, bass, and carp with it! It’ll give you enough power to fight through the wind as well.

The 5-weight is the most versatile rod available on the market. You can hit some of those larger western rivers, but also take it to those tight mountain streams. For a beginner fly fisherman, this is perhaps the best option. You won’t feel like you’re undermatched in many situations. However, pike, steelhead, and salmon are going to be a bit much for this rod. It’s even going to be sensitive enough for those smaller streams.

A 6-weight is another great option for most anglers. If you know you’ll be spending time on stillwater as well as some larger rivers, it’s smart to purchase this rod. While it can do well on streams, that’s not where it’s most at home. You’d have to be very comfortable with this rig in order to make it work on the skinny water.

Anything smaller than a 4-weight is ideal for small rivers and streams. You’ll have the sensitivity to detect those smaller strikes and lay down your flies in precise locations. Rods in the 1 to 3-weight range are great. They’re a blast to use, but give yourself some time to get used to using them. These will handle panfish and trout with no problem.

A landscape of a blue-gray lake under a cloudy sky. A snowy mountain rises in the distance, masked by clouds.
Photo by Danny Mooers

Rods larger than a 6-weight are good options for large lakes, rivers, and saltwater. Again, it’s important for you to know your water and what type of fish you’re targeting. The heavier weights are going to land pike, bass, and perform well for saltwater fly fishing.

Reel

The biggest thing to remember with your reel is that it must be within one weight of your rod. For example, if you’re using a 5-weight rod your reel should be a large arbor 4/5 weight or a 5/6 weight. This will allow you to properly balance your rod and provide yourself with the best casting experience possible.

Also, a fully-sealed drag system will give you the chance to fish in salt and freshwater. It will help your reel last quite a bit longer. These drag systems will provide plenty of torque on the fish you’re fighting.

Backing

Anglers should always be sure to put backing on their fly line. The backing is there in case you run into a fish that stretches you beyond the length of your fly line. It gives you peace of mind that you’ll be properly equipped to fight the fish!

If you’re using a 1/2-weight reel, then you’ll need around 25yds of backing. A 3/4-weight reel could use 50yds of backing. A 5/6 reel will be fine with 75 to 100yds of backing. Anything larger than those reels should have 150 to 200yds of backing! Be sure to read the instructions that come with your reel.

A landscape of a light turquoise river that curves along sandy banks. A snow-capped peak stands in the distance and the sky above is bright blue with white clouds.
Photo by Danny Mooers

Line

The next step is to choose the line that’s going to fit with your rod, reel, and fishing conditions. Many anglers will “overline” to get a better feel as they’re casting. This won’t make it any more difficult and will really allow you to feel it as it loads. It’s not a requirement, but many anglers choose to do it.

You’ll also need to choose the float rate of your fly line. The majority of fly angling can be done with floating line. You can fish dry flies, nymphs, and streamers on this line. Depending on where you need to get in the water column will determine the length of your leader.

Sinking line is smart to use if you’re fishing faster water and you need to get to the lower parts of the water column. It’s a good option if you know exactly where you need to get and it must be done in a short amount of time.

The next option you’ll have is to choose whether or not you’re going to fish with a weight-forward or double-taper fly line. Weight forward line will allow you to cast further distances, but it isn’t going to present your flies as delicately. Double taper line is more evenly distributed and should be used on your finesse setups.

Leader/Tippet

Leader and tippet choices are vital for a successful day on the water. The most common lengths are 7.5 or 9ft. Also, you’ll have to choose the size that best fits the area you’re fishing. If you are targeting bass, then a 0X leader will be a smart choice. If you’re after trout in a clear stream, then a 3X or 4X leader will work along with some 4X or 5X tippet. Pay close attention to the water conditions and size to determine what you need to have a productive day.

Accessories

There are a few accessories you'll need for fly fishing. Make sure you have a pair of forceps, waders, wading boots, a pack or vest, and a landing net. These will all help you spend some extended time on the water.

Learn to Cast

Once you have your gear purchased, the next step is to learn how to cast. This is best done off the water in your yard or a local park. Place a target on the ground and see if you can hit it. First, work on a roll cast and then start adding some backcasts and forward casts!

Fly casting takes patience. Give yourself some grace if you struggle to gain timing and feel for the process. As you gain more confidence, go ahead and take it to the water. You’ll likely be slapping the water quite a bit as you begin, but eventually, you’ll learn to lay your flies down softly.

Pay close attention to your thumb, grip, and elbow action. You want to keep your thumb pointed at your target and not grip the rod too hard. Also, be sure to stay a bit bent at your elbow.

Flies

When you're ready to hit the water, the final step is purchasing a variety of flies. If you're targeting trout, pheasant tail nymphs, Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and Woolly Buggers are some great flies to use. They're fairly universal.

Feeling Ready?

Purchasing the gear, learning to cast, and getting prepped takes quite a bit of time on your first excursion. There is, however, a very steep learning curve in fly fishing! Each time you go, you learn something new. Stay patient and be willing to ask quite a few questions! It’s one of the most fun activities in the world. You can do it for your entire life and still feel like you have plenty to learn. If you have any questions on finding the right gear to get started, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing experts here on Curated. We're happy to be a source of free advice and recommendations.

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Written By
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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