Everything You Need for Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing Expert Josh H. guides you through everything you’ll need for a successful day (and years to come) on the water.
Table of Contents
Fly fishing continues to grow in popularity every day, and when the pandemic hit, the woods, streams, rivers, and lakes of our country were flooded with new visitors trying to distance themselves from not only thy neighbors but also their couches. Many found themselves in Idaho, and many of them who did, found me.
“What are you doing standing in the middle of a river?” they’d ask.
“Fly fishing,” I would reply. This would often lead to lengthy conversations about exactly what was involved, some practical exercises and demonstrations, gear inspections for good measure, but it would always end the same way…
“It sounds fun. I think I’ll give it a try.”
Taking on a new sport or hobby can be confusing, and as such, you may find yourself at a big box store, asking the wrong person about the wrong stuff.
Let’s try to help simplify this for you by describing what equipment you need to fly fish. In an accompanying article, I’ll outline the equipment that’s not essential but certainly makes fly fishing more enjoyable. Below you’ll find the bare necessities, of which there are many.
As you’re reading, keep in mind that the Fly Fishing Experts here at Curated can help you understand more about what you need to catch your targeted species and would be glad to do so. Reach out to us with your questions at any time!
The first thing you are going to need is a fly rod; not a “pole”, a fly ‘“rod”. Selecting a fly rod can be a dubious undertaking as there are about a bazillion to choose from. Don’t fret, selecting one isn’t as hard as some make it seem. Additionally, you can rest assured there isn’t some stone tablet somewhere with laws carved into it that binds you to any one point of view or popular opinion.
Fly rods vary greatly in quality, performance, and price. To get into this sport you don’t have to buy the most expensive rod you can find to be successful. The choice should be based on expectations, but most often prospective fly anglers base their decision on price.
There are substantial differences between a fly rod that costs $150 versus one that costs $1000, but those details are for another article. As with most sports, the same applies to fly fishing; you get what you pay for, although this too has a limit. The most important thing is to get a rod that works for you.
The rod builder generally produces a fly rod around specific “Line Weight,” which directly correlates to strength in the rod; the smaller the number of the rod, the more delicate it is.
For example, a 4-weight (wt) fly rod ‘most often’ will be fished with a 4wt line, with a 4wt considered the beginning of the mid-weight rod selections. Line weight/rod weight can be translated roughly to a “target species”. For instance, a 4wt rod generally corresponds to a smaller target species in regard to strength, like panfish or small to medium trout. This makes it pretty easy to select a rod without getting into the scientifically tested specifications of it. The last consideration when selecting a fly rod would be rod length. That decision generally revolves around the conditions and tactics in which you will be fishing, as well as preference, unless you are buying a specific rod for a specific fly-fishing technique, such as Euro nymphing or spey.
Types of Rod Weights
Here is my self-imposed general guide of rod weights correlated to target species:
- 00-2wt: I reserve these rod weights for small or tight conditions and/or applications for small fish. Generally, dry-fly creek fishing for small trout, juvenile trout in headwater/pocket water, or smaller stillwater type areas.
- 3wt: I use a 3wt to hunt small or medium trout, on dry flies, in smaller water.
- 4wt: A perfect rod weight for small- to medium-sized trout and panfish species.
- 5wt: Generally regarded in the industry as the “multipurpose” rod, this rod weight works well for most trout sizes. It can be used for panfish, although not typically, and small- to average-sized smallmouth bass can be taken using it.
- 6wt: All trout species, smallmouth bass, steelhead.
- 7-8wt: Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, steelhead, carp, small to medium northern pike, light salmon, inshore saltwater species.
- 9-10wt: Generally used for large salmon, permit, striped bass, baby tarpon, large northern pike, and muskellunge among others.
- 11-15wt: Big game, such as tarpon, sailfish, sharks, marlin, blue water, etc.
When I select fly rod options for a customer, I tend to base my recommendations on the customer’s targeted species, the water in which they will be fishing, their overall level of experience, and their budget. I then take personal knowledge from experience and research and apply that in order to come to a practical recommendation for them.
Some manufacturers make outfits, more commonly known as combos, to simplify the decision-making process for anglers new to the sport, or anglers who prefer to have a package deal. They often come with a fly rod, fly reel, fly line, a fly fishing specific leader, and in some instances even a bit of kit and flies. I often recommend these “combos” to customers on Curated and can do the same for you. (For those interested, here is one of Curated’s best-selling fly fishing outfits.)
The next need on your list is a fly reel. Like fly rods, there are an infinite amount of reel manufacturers out there. Don’t be alarmed. The No. 1 thing you are working toward in reel selection is balance with your rod. If you purchase a 4wt fly rod, you want to ensure that you have a similar-sized reel to complement it. Select a reel that doesn’t make the back of your rod feel like a dumbbell or make the art of casting feel like a gym session.
Think about which hand you reel with, and this comes with quite the debate in fly fishing. You may hear different things from different folks about left-hand this and right-hand that or outside versus inside. There are important considerations, like stripping-in a fish or conversely putting the fish on the reel, entanglement, and reel wrapping. The truth is, you should fish however you can do that most effectively. Most reels offered can be switched easily with just a few steps to ensure that reeling is comfortable for the angler. Keeping this in mind, make the choice for the way that best suits your needs, but choose wisely, haha.
Some fly-reel manufacturers have a two-weight rating system (e.g. 5wt/6wt), some have a three-weight rating system (e.g. 4/5/6), and some have both depending on the specific product line. This will allow you to move your reel from rod to rod if you choose to do so. The choice of reel compatibility comes when you want to use the same reel on a different weight rod.
For instance, my wife has a 5wt rod that she uses most often when fly fishing. She also has a 4wt rod that she uses when we predominantly fish dry flies in smaller water. The reel she uses for both of those rods is a Ross Reels Colorado Fly Reel in 4/5 weight. She simply changes out the spool with the appropriate weight fly line, moves the reel to the rod she wants to use, and violà; it really is that simple.
Disk Drag vs. Click-Pawl
Disk or click-pawl, that is the question. In Figure One of this section, you can see the two major differences in fly-reel construction.
Disk Drag Reels
The Sage Spectrum C reel has a disk drag system that allows you to select a certain amount of resistance that is placed on the fish once it is hooked. This added resistance will play out the fish as it peels out line from the reel. These reels are preferred when you are fighting larger target species found in both freshwater and saltwater.
Disk drag reels are often heavier than click-and-pawl reels due to the additional components present for the function of the drag system, although as new materials are introduced and machining processes evolve, the overall weight between the two is becoming ever closer.
The Orvis Battenkill is an example of the click-and-pawl style of fly reel. This style is often favored by those chasing trout and other smaller species in freshwater. The distinct clicking is a favorite of the purists in the sport and is truly satisfying to hear. There is a small amount of resistance provided by the mechanism to prevent the reel from over-spooling and also a small amount of drag inherent. When more drag resistance is needed, the fly fisher often ‘palms’ the reel to slow the release of line. This provides the opportunity to be as in touch with not only the sport but with the fish, as one can be.
Backing is the behind-the-scenes component that really doesn’t get noticed until you find yourself with a hookset that suddenly explodes into a torrent of line-peeling runs and acrobatics. Backing serves a couple of purposes; the first is to fill the space on the spool as most fly lines are around 100ft give or take. Secondly, backing serves as your safety line—should a sizable fish run the reel past the fly line, the backing keeps the fisherman connected to the fish.
Each reel/spool will have a suggested weight class and length of backing accepted. Most freshwater rigs do just fine with 20lb or 30lb Dacron backing, whereas saltwater backing can vary greatly all the way up to 80-100lb gel-spun braid variants.
Backing has become a way for some fly fishermen to add a personal touch to the look of their reels, as backing can come in a variety of colors. When colored variations of backing are paired with different colors of fly line, the result can be quite eye-catching. I suggest a color in contrast to the color of the fly line, as it will serve as a visual indicator that you are no longer on line, but in fact on backing. Spooling your backing onto your rod can be done easily at home with a jig or some clever innovation.
If you prefer, most retailers that supply fly fishing products offer reduced price or free backing with the purchase of a reel and/or line, and will spool the backing onto your reel using a line-winding machine and line guide. Either way, ensure that backing is spooled on under tension and is applied to the reel evenly to prevent hangups. Nothing would be more devastating than the backing overwrapped awkwardly, snapping or cutting through itself, resulting in the loss of an incredible fish.
Fly line is obviously a necessary component of fly fishing; without it you are just out there holding a rod and reel, counting fish. There are a similar amount of lines relative to the amount of different rod and reel weights, although this too is pretty simple. Again, referring to the 4wt fly rod and fly reel referenced previously, you should have a 4wt fly line to go on the reel in order to properly function the rod as the builder intended.
Types of Fly Lines
Lines can be categorized into three basic types:
- Floating: weight forward; the most popular; double taper/shooting taper/level
- Sinking: intermediate/varying/level
- Sink tip: floating line with or attached to a sinking tip section
The most common fly line is floating line, which can be found on most brand-supplied “line-included” reel packages and in manufacturer-supplied “combo” kits. As you might have guessed, floating lines float. From the leader to the backing, the entirety of the line is buoyant.
Floating line allows the line to be manipulated throughout the presentation process; it provides the best connection to you. It allows you to visually see the forces impacting the fly and what the fish sees. This is the best line for beginners to use as they can keep track of where their fly is at any given time and provides the ability to make changes instantly while the fly is in the water.
Sinking line is somewhat more confusing, obviously, it sinks, but there is a sink rate that needs to be considered. The sink rates are measured in inches per second (IPS). Intermediate sinking lines sink at about .5 to 1.5 IPS with “Full Sink” line descending at around 1.5 all the way to 10.5 IPS or more. Sink lines are used to get the fly to a particular feeding depth. This line is best suited to slower-moving deeper water, deep stillwater situations, short tightlining scenarios, or while streamer fishing.
Sink-tip line is a combination of a floating line and a sinking tip. Some manufacturers make a variant that you can switch the tips out on to vary the sink rate. This line is best suited to quickly moving water, slow-moving deep water, deep stillwater, or while streamer fishing.
Don’t feel overwhelmed. Remember, no matter what your fishing situation is, the Fly Fishing Experts at Curated will devise the right solution for your fishing conditions. Here are the current fly lines we have available.
Leaders are your next need, as connecting the fly directly to your fly line wouldn’t work out very well for your catch count. The leader is the near-invisible connection to your fly and inevitably the fish. Leader material comes in a multitude of different ‘materials’ and lengths, although the most commonly used types are monofilament (mono) and fluorocarbon (fluoro).
Both types of leaders are often offered tapered, starting out thick and getting thinner the farther they get from the fly line until eventually reaching a specified diameter. The most common mass-manufactured sizes range from 03X down in size to 8X—no you are not mistaken; the larger the number, the smaller the diameter. To give you an example, I usually use 4X, 5X, and 6X leaders for my normal trout endeavors.
Expert tip: You can tie your fly directly to the leader. You can also attach a portion of tippet material to your leader and tie your fly to the tippet. To each their own!
Tapered mono leaders are typically used in dry-fly situations as the taper assists your fly in turning over to sit on the water correctly and convincingly. Mono is less dense than fluoro so it is naturally more buoyant. It is important to note that many anglers use tapered mono leaders throughout a variety of different presentations, both on the surface and subsurface.
Fluoro leaders are more dense than mono and therefore are generally preferred for subsurface applications. You will hear local fly-shop personnel and their respective guides say that fluoro is virtually invisible underwater, but I think the difference between mono and fluoro underwater is negligible.
When fishing nymphing rigs and streamers, I prefer to use untapered fluoro leader material as there is less water resistance on a dense, uniform surface rather than a tapered mono leader that is thick, buoyant, and ridged closer to the fly line. This is a trick of the trade; it has consistently netted more fish for me.
Tippet is your best friend, especially since this friend constantly saves you money and time. Tippet material has many uses, but it is predominantly used to replenish your leader or save it by using tippet as the material depleted through the process of fishing.
Every fly you tie on and every fly that is lost—stuck in a dang-blasted tree or cut off—utilizes material. Eventually, with continued loss, your leader or tippet is shortened from its original length. Tippet allows you to tie on more material of the same diameter and strength as what has been utilized, and continue fishing with little time wasted.
Tippet also allows you to add lengths of material to make multiple-fly rigs. Often you may need to have a surface fly and a subsurface fly, or flies, working in the water simultaneously. This is done by tying a dry fly, like a Foam Grasshopper, onto the leader, or an attached portion of tippet, tying more tippet material onto the hook bend of the grasshopper, and subsequently tying on a Beadhead Nymph, or two, that will be submerged beneath; this is called a ‘Hopper -Dropper Rig’. By doing this, you extend the feeding area from the surface down to the nymph(s) likely doubling or tripling your chances for a take. It is not uncommon to land two fish at the same time using this technique.
Tippet is relatively inexpensive compared to a manufactured leader, and by using tippet instead of a new leader, you will save money over the course of time. There are different materials used for tippet just like leaders; the most common are monofilament and fluorocarbon. Each material has different brand-based manufacturing techniques that can vary the overall breaking strength. Although this can be an additional decision that one might have to make, it really just comes down to preference for your fishing technique and the target species.
Another Fly-Fishing Expert, Marshall McDougal provides a great breakdown in his ‘Tippet 101’ piece, An Expert Guide to Tippet Sizes. Curated carries many top brands of tippet; here is our full collection.
Flies, flies, and more flies. Aquatic insects, terrestrial insects, baitfish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, rodents, crustaceans—fish eat a lot of stuff, and imitations of that stuff at the end of your line are a necessity to catch fish on the fly. You can imagine how many different fly patterns there are, so let's focus on the most common types of flies.
Common Types of Flies
- Dry flies: Imitate aquatic insects that are emerging or have emerged from the water; they also imitate alternate food sources that have fallen into the water, such as terrestrial insects or rodents.
- Nymphs: Imitate insects that are in a larval stage still available to fish within the water.
- Streamers: Imitate baitfish, leeches, crustaceans, and other readily available food sources that are throughout the water column.
- Wet flies: Imitate aquatic insects and baitfish as they swim to or below the surface.
- Salmon flies: Imitate fish, for the most part. Frequently made with materials and colors just to trigger a response from the fish.
- Saltwater flies: Made to imitate crab, shrimp, baitfish, and pretty much everything else edible to fish within the ocean.
One of the best ways to start out acquiring flies is to talk to a Fly Fishing Expert or a local guide that have experience fishing for your target species in the area in which you intend to fish. They can tell you about the tried-and-true patterns that catch fish where you're going to be. This will save you time and moola in the long run, as you won’t purchase unnecessarily. Fly anglers have a dedication to the sport that often takes them around the world in search of different species, so don’t be afraid to ask. If they don’t know, they certainly know someone who does.
Fly anglers will tell you that it is most cost-effective to purchase fly assortments. These can be a lifesaver as you can effectively find assortments that are region or target species-specific. Having a specific fly pattern, when that insect is present in or on the water, is pretty much a guarantee of success.
Aquatic insects are very predictable when it comes to their life cycles. If a region is home to that bug, it is living in the water already, and when water conditions are ideal, it will make the journey to the surface into adulthood. This is referred to as a hatch. A hatch can be the most productive time on the water and make for an incredible experience.
An accessories kit is essential to the procedures and the execution of fly fishing. There are just some things you must have handy to ensure you are ‘doing it right’. This example from Orvis (pictured above) is fantastic. I will elaborate on the contents of the kit and explain the use for each of the items.
- A fly box (or multiple boxes): The only way to keep billions of tiny little hooks from being everywhere but where you need them.
- Indicators: Fly-fishing bobbers that attach to the leader, or the tippet, and give you a visual indication of fish activity in regard to your fly.
- Split-shot weights: Attach to the leader, or tippet, and help place the fly at the appropriate feeding depth.
- Hemostat: This tool has endless uses, from hook removal, barb pinching, and reshaping hooks to knot tying, scissors, and holding flies securely with its locking mechanism. It’s a must-have.
- Zinger: Fly-fishing terminology for retractable lanyard; a must-have if you want your stuff to stay out of the drink.
- Nippers: Not clippers; this is what you will use to cut your various lines with and this model includes a hook-eye punch, a necessity for removing excess glue from the eye of your hooks.
- Multiple floatant variations (pictured from left to right):
- Dressing paste: Used on leaders, tippet, and indicators to keep that stuff on top of the water, not in it. Some anglers use it on their fly line as well.
- Powder dust: For dry-fly applications, is a desiccant, but put on with a brush
- Gel floatant: Dab it on your dry fly and work it in to keep floating.
- Shake-N-Flote: Pop in a drenched fly, hold down the lid, give it a shake, and you're back in business.
There are several available accessory kits out there. You can also accumulate the individual items on your own based on your needs, but you can usually save a few bucks when you buy a bundle.
A C&R net is a must-have item since several fish species are incredibly delicate and these types of nets ensure that a fish’s protective slime is not removed. If removed, it has the potential to open the fish up to disease or increased parasitic infestation. The rubber is also friendly to the angler as hooks are not easily caught and it dries quickly comparatively to mesh nets that hold water. Most nets are conservationist approved, made with sustainable, non-toxic, and recycled materials.
Netting fish is imperative to the fish’s survival as fish can be played out to the point of death. This happens most often in oxygen-depleted ecosystems, such as late season, low water conditions, or excessive heat for long periods causing a rise in water temperature. Fly anglers tend to release every netted fish, as soon as possible, to ensure a healthy and productive fishery and continued long-term enjoyment for other fly-fishing enthusiasts.
There are custom net makers out there that can really bring a custom look, theme, or flair. I have seen some nets that have inlays, vibrant resin, medallions, and custom inscriptions. Nets are available in several sizes from personal-sized nets and guide-sized nets to different boat-sized ones. There is a net to meet the needs of all of us.
Hit the Water
So there you have it. These are the absolute necessities one must have to fly fish. To review, here are the items you need:
- Fly rod
- Fly reel
- Fly line
- Tippet spools
- Flies (dry, nymphs, streamers, etc.)
- Accessories (tools, fly-fishing necessities, fly box)
- Catch-and-release net
Our Fly-Fishing Experts are always standing by and happy to help answer any questions about the sport you may have. Be sure to message me or any of my colleagues to get the conversation going.
In the meantime, you may be wondering if there’s anything else you could possibly need. I wouldn’t be honest if I told you that nothing else on the market doesn’t make fly-fishing better, more enjoyable, or less aggravating. Check out my Fly Fishing Accessories You Shouldn’t Go Without article for more on those goodies!