How to Fly Fish

Fly fishing expert Boone Tullett offers some advice to help you be a better angler, a more educated angler, and most importantly, catch more fish.

Photo by Gavin Van Wagoner
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It is very difficult to teach someone how to fly fish in person, let alone in print. There is no substitute for a good and patient mentor when first starting out and lots of practice to follow it up. However, there are some aspects of this fascinating pastime that can be represented through written words.

This article will provide practical information about fly fishing. This is not a step-by-step casting manual nor a textbook, but rather a collection of ideas about the fly fishing basics and how to improve your time spent on the water whether you are a seasoned angler or just looking for your first rod. To be a successful angler for trout there are a few hills that can seem daunting at first with hundreds of self-proclaimed experts throwing around so much information that it is easy to feel intimidated the first time you go to a fly shop. This guide is meant to help you be a better angler, a more educated angler, and most importantly, catch more fish.

That's enough foreword. Let's get into it.

What You'll Need

Rod and Reel

So you're going fishing. The first thing you need is your rod.

When you're just starting I would not go directly to my local fly shop, because I don't believe there is a single fly angler who still has their first rod in one piece. This is a bit easier to swallow when it's a $100 cabelas rod and not that shiny $600 Scott. Second-hand fly rods or old antiques you find in your attic will be more than adequate for learning fundamentals. There are also many budget-friendly options at local sporting good stores and local fly shops.

When selecting a rod, never grab the handle and start shaking it back and forth. You will or already have seen someone do this in a shop. That individual has no idea what they're looking for. Shaking the rod creates a harmonic motion and flexes completely differently than during your cast or when fighting a fish. So what are you learning by shaking the thing? Instead, hold the rod as you would cast it and slowly move through your cast, stopping at the end to evaluate the rod's actual action.

However you choose to get your hands on a fly rod, the action and load speed vs line speed all have their place but you don't necessarily need to understand any of this as long as your setup feels good to you. This is the same for reels. As long as it holds and dispenses line tangle-free it's a good reel, and reels these days are all such top-quality that there is really no wrong reel to get as long as it fits onto your rod.

A woman in a hat, a blue jacket, and waders casts a fly fishing rod
Curated expert Jesi Scott fishing in the Deschutes River. Photo by Adam Shick

Line and Flies

The fly line that you choose will depend on what kind of fishing you will be doing. Take the time to learn about the fish you want to catch and what it will most likely be feeding on when you are trying to catch it.

When fishing dry flies, a good floating line is essential for presentation as well as a slightly longer leader which is the clear line attached to the floating fly line. I prefer fluorocarbon over monofilament because it reflects less light on the surface of the water, while allowing the dry fly to stay on the surface. Floating fly lines can also be used for nymphing in shallow water (nymphing refers to subsurface fishing for trout). The average leader length is between 9 and 14 feet depending on the depth of the water and your personal casting preference.

For water deeper than this or for fishing wet flies, a sinking line is recommended. For fishing streamers (fishing with a lure that represents a baitfish that larger fish like to consume), a full sinking line is required for optimal presentation as you are mimicking a baitfish. A floating line can fish streamers and be effective, but if you're serious about your streamers go with full sink. The weight of the line should match the reel and rod size to ensure optimal performance, but some different techniques may suggest oversizing or undersizing the line depending on the angler’s preferences.

Casting

On to casting. If you've dabbled in outdoor magazines or other similar online publications, you have undoubtedly seen that glorious image of a fly fisherman making a gorgeous loop of line preparing for that 100ft hero cast. As picturesque as it might seem, this is not how most fly fishing looks. In reality, the angler rarely makes casts more than 40ft, and more often than not is only casting around 20ft tops.

Beyond that, different currents in the stream can make line management and maintaining a proper drift nearly impossible. Accuracy will always triumph over distance when it comes to producing fish. This is a good reason to start with short casts. When I teach someone how to cast, there is no standing in a field waving the stick though the air. We go straight to the water. After all, you want to practice how you play. The first step in learning to cast is understanding how to make the rod work for you. Understanding the tool is the first step to using it.

Practice Makes Perfect

So you’re on the bank of a river, and you've threaded your rod and tied some feathers on. The next thing I teach is to just lay a little more than a rod’s length of line in the current and let the current start to flex the rod. Then it’s as easy as lifting the tip of the rod and pointing it up stream. The speed of this motion will vary but it is generally the speed at which you would wave an oversized flag. This water load, or roll cast, is an easy way to start getting your fly where it needs to be, in front of fish, and on average, I probably do about three waterload casts to every one overhead cast. This not only minimizes false casts that can scare fish but also minimizes tangles, especially when fishing multiple flies with multiple sizes and weights.

Once you've gotten used to feeling your rod do the work of slinging the line upstream, you might want to give the overhand cast a try. You've probably already heard of the 10 and 2 method of the basic cast, and you've also probably struggled at casting at some point. When I teach, the most common mistake I encounter is when someone stops at 2 o'clock on the back swing, but their wrist flops back like a Major League pitcher driving the tip of the rod into the dirt with a small cloud of dust. Some people call this breaking the wrist, and yes, there is an easy fix. First stop thinking 10 and 2, and start thinking 10 and 1. This sounds simple enough, but as any outfielder will tell you, it's a lot easier to go forward than backward. This is also true when casting and most folks have a tendency to really drive that backcast.

Another helpful way of thinking about this is to imagine that you are holding a hammer and standing in a hallway facing one of the walls. With the imaginary hammer, imagine hammering a nail into the wall in front of you at about eye level. Next, imagine a nail at the same height over your shoulder. Trying to hit each nail flat with the head of your double sided hammer is basically the motion of the overhead cast with proper wrist placement throughout.

For a practical exercise when you're out on the water, if you're wearing a long sleeved shirt tuck the butt end of your rod in and you will instantly feel a difference. This can also be accomplished by using a large rubber band.

A man in shorts and a t shirt casts a fly fishing rod while standing on some rocks
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan

Accuracy

Now that you've got the motions down, we can move on to accuracy. There is no difference between a good cast or a bad cast. There are simply casts that catch fish and casts that do not. If you make a “bad” cast, live with it. You’ll have a better chance to catch that fish on the second cast if you let your line leave the fish feeding area before attempting another cast. Slapping the water is not fishing.

If you have wondered how to make your casts count more often, then here are some tips that might help. First, check your grip. Are you in control while holding your rod? An easy way to find out is to place your thumb on the back of your grip. This is a simple way to improve your casting form as well as accuracy. From this grip, make your cast and look through your thumbnail like it is a little window with your target on the other side. Congratulations, you just put a sight on a fishing rod. Lee Wulff used to fish with his index finger on the back of the rod and used it to a similar effect. Like with most things in fly fishing, it's about what feels good to you.

Setting a Hook

As an angler I can assure you there is nothing that feels better than hooking into a fish. So let's talk about hooksets.

Before we can really talk about how to set the hook, we have to think about what the fish will be doing when it takes your fly. The first thing to understand is that fish will always be facing into the current. Not upstream, facing the current. Fish face the current no matter where they are in the river; sometimes water swirls in rivers and a fish can be facing downstream but still have his nose in the current. There are always exceptions to rule, but in most cases, the fish will be allowing the current to deliver food to it without expending much energy.

So when the fish takes your fly, it is important to set the hook downstream of the fish. No matter what kind of water you are fishing, aiming your set can help you connect with more fish. As for the motion of your hookset, I like to tell people that it's the same motion as answering the phone with about the same speed. It is important to control your hookset, because if you miss a strike and the fish turns into Apollo 11 and goes tearing through the water at Mach 3, that will definitely turn fish off of their feeding habits. Whereas a controlled set is less likely to spook fish and in long runs could leave you in position for another fish.

Where to Fish

Ok, so we’ve covered casting. Now that you can move the line around with some degree of accuracy, let's talk about where you are aiming. We already know that fish face into the current, but they also want to conserve energy. Where are locations in the river that fish want to be? In other words, think like a fish. Your life now revolves around eating, not being eaten, and making little fish. This third goal is seasonal, so we will mostly focus on the first two.

Most fishermen already know that fish can often be found in the “seams” of a river - the areas where faster water is side by side with slower water. Oftentimes there are bubbles floating in these lines. This is also where insects in the river will be carried and fish know this. Casting to these feeding fish is most easily accomplished from a downstream position, casting upstream to allow for a drag-free drift. These seams are often found in bends in the river as well as on the edges of rocks. Beware of water traveling in circles or back upstream.

The ideal seam has both fast and slow water traveling together in one direction. Not only can fish be found behind rocks, but they can also be found in front of rocks and other obstructions in the river. The water traveling over these objects creates a hydraulic pillow that fish can easily ride like a surfer on a continuous wave. There are dozens of different habitats that hold trout, but spending some time understanding your target will help improve your fishing no matter what species you're targeting.

Once you have identified an ideal location for a fish to be feeding, look for that fish. If the water parameters allow for your polarized glasses to see the bottom, don't look for a whole fish. Most fish have camouflage that helps them not to be seen by predators and fishermen, but there are a few telltale signs that a fish might be feeding in that spot even if they aren’t rising. We will get to that in a minute. One thing to look for is a little white flash every once in a while. This could be a fish opening its mouth to take in aquatic nymphs. Fish are rarely stationary while feeding, so often this movement betrays them. An angler might also see the occasional fish tail or fin as the fish drifts in and out of the faster water.

If you see fish rising, there is a good chance that you can determine what's hatching based on what the fish is doing. Subtle nose pokes above the surface means that the fish are feeding on a small fly on the surface of the water. A tail, humpback breaching the surface, or a small boil in the water can indicate that the fish is feeding on emerging insects or midges.

If the fish don't tell you what is hatching, you can always turn over a few rocks on the shore. In nearly every healthy fishery there is a wealth of aquatic insects and other aquatic invertebrates on the shore. Some things to look for are small black and dark green cones on the underside of rocks; these are mayfly nymphs. You might also see small stoneflies swimming around like tiny dinosaurs. You might also find crayfish; these are an important food source for bigger trout, and even the little crayfish patterns can produce sizeable fish. Personally, I carry two nets when I go fishing, one for fish, and one for any bugs flying or resting near the banks of the stream.

Even if you don't have an exact match to whatever you've found in or around the water, don’t sweat it. You just have to be close. Similar size and similar color can go a long way, and as Kelly Galloup would say, “a fly in the right place will catch a fish more than the right fly in the wrong place.”

So what is he talking about when he says “the right place”? That is the place where the fish is feeding. Fish have what is referred to as a cone of vision, which is what the fish can see on the surface of the water and the banks of the river. Yes, fish can see you walking along the banks, remember that. But more importantly, a fish will only eat insects that float through the circle of water above it that it can see. This circle gets larger or smaller depending on how close the fish is to the surface of the water, but once you understand this principle, you will see improvement in your dry fly fishing.

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in learning more about trout fishing, fly casting, or anything about the sport of fly fishing from the mouth of experienced anglers, I would recommend The Reasonable Art of Fly Fishing by Terry Mort and The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing by Kirk Deeter and Charlie Meyers. Doc Knolls and Kelly Galloup have numerous publications that are great resources full of information.

And if you're planning on doing some additional searching online, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing experts here on Curated. We're happy to share free advice and recommendations on the type of gear you will want before heading out to the river.

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Written By
Boone Tullett
Fly Fishing Expert
Montana native who lives outside for most of the year as a snowboard instructor and river guide, clients still keep suprising me so I try to learn one new thing everytime I'm on the water. I'm going to school to be a teacher so I love educating people on gear and helping them have the best time of t...
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