Fly Fishing 101: The Beginner’s Guide (Updated for 2021)

Has the thought of fly fishing recently piqued your curiosity, but you currently have no idea where to start?

If so, you are certainly not alone. To the casual observer, fly fishing looks much more difficult than it really is. In fact, fly fishing is immensely enjoyable, and far easier to learn than one might think.

The bottom line? Anyone can learn to fly fish, with the help of a little guidance. This exact notion is the reason that I decided to write the following guide.

If you are ready to dive headlong into the tranquil, yet extremely exciting world of fly fishing, then read on to learn everything that you need to know, prior to wetting your first fly.

What Is Fly Fishing?

Fly fishing is a method of angling that is used to draw strikes from fish that instinctively feed on varying types of insects, as well as other prey of minute proportions. Fly fishing provides anglers with the most practical approach toward replicating prey of this nature, as traditional fishing gear is generally ill-suited to presenting ultra-lightweight lures.

The History OF Fly Fishing

The history of fly fishing dates back centuries, having evolved from primitive angling tactics of several individual cultures. The practice of fly fishing is generally thought to have first originated in England around the 4th century. 

Additional reports suggest that similar practices were employed in Rome, around the same time period. An early Japanese fly fishing technique, known as Tenkara, was also well documented, and said to have come into existence 400-500 years ago. Fly fishing, as we know it today, stems from an overlap of multiple regional fly fishing tactics, which eventually gave way to modern practices.

Fly Fishing Today

Today, fly fishing is characterized as the use of specialty tackle to cast miniaturized lures, in a bid to catch fish that feed heavily just below the water’s surface. In this method of angling, a weighted line is used, in order to facilitate casting, as traditional flies are too lightweight in nature to be cast with standard fishing equipment.

What Is The Point Of Fly Fishing?

The practice of fly fishing seeks to capitalize on the natural predatory instinct of game fish. As a matter of survival, fish must seize upon a meal when it is provided. While most species of fish feed on a wide variety of food sources from day to day, virtually all feed heavily upon insects and other small invertebrates at different times throughout the year.

What Value Does Fly Fishing Offer?

Insect larva, nymphs, and flies provide an easy to obtain meal for fish throughout the year, with many species, such as trout, relying upon this form of food as a staple of their diet. Fish typically wait just below the water’s surface, especially in flowing bodies of water, waiting to feed as such prey floats by.

While it is not impossible to catch fish, such as trout with the use of standard tackle, one is quite limited in their ability to present small, insect-like lures. On the other hand, the use of fly fishing gear allows an angler to accurately replicate the exact scenario which is needed to draw strikes when the use of standard equipment proves to be ineffective.

Does Fly Fishing Catch More Fish?

In many ways, fly fishing does provide an angler with the means to catch more fish, than when fishing with conventional equipment. As most anglers are well aware, fish do not always feed on the same types of prey from day-to-day. 

While fish might largely ignore the topwater insect bite, and key in on schooling baitfish on one given day, they are just as likely to ignore other food sources in a bid to feed on insects the next. When the latter of these two situations presents itself, there is nothing as effective as fly fishing. However, on days like these, those who do not fly fish often find themselves in a much more difficult spot.

In essence, fly fishing allows an angler to more aggressively target fish that are holding tight to a particular feeding pattern, or species of fish that favor an insect rich diet, such as trout. Either of these situations tend to prove troublesome for anglers who fish solely with traditional tackle.

Is Fly Fishing Hard To Learn?

In the majority of cases, fly fishing is no more difficult to learn than any other type of fishing. There is certainly a learning curve involved when first getting started, but one can typically get the hang of their equipment and begin catching fish after only a few days on the water. As with anything in life, practice makes perfect.

What Is The Difference Between Fly Fishing And Regular Fishing?

The main difference between fly fishing and regular fishing relates to the exact selection of tackle which is used. Fly fishing is typically conducted with a lengthy, specialty fly rod, and a purpose specific fly reel. This reel is fitted with a weighted fly line, which allows an angler to cast insect-sized flies that are largely absent of enough weight to cast with conventional equipment.

Conversely, “regular” fishing is generally conducted with a standard length rod, a baitcasting or spinning reel, and mono, fluorocarbon, or braided line. When fishing in this manner, an angler either casts out a baited hook and waits, or casts out a lure that is then retrieved to mimic a swimming action.

Fly fishing also primarily takes place on moving bodies of water, such as cool running creeks and streams, while regular fishing is generally associated with lakes and ponds. However, each of these two methods of fishing can be used interchangeably and universally across virtually any body of water.

But because of the fishing locations, some anglers have combined biking and fly fishing (#bikefishing) to access more fishing spots. And with so many available apps for cyclists, you can easily record your fishing location for future fly fishing.

Pro Tip: Fly fishing in moving water allows an angler’s fly to cover more ground, thereby being presented to additional fish with each cast. This can bolster success rates, and ultimately make for a better day of fishing.

Essential Equipment For Fly Fishing

Like with any form of fishing, a fly fisherman must have a certain amount of essential gear at their disposal in order to find success. The following are a number of such items, followed by a basic introduction to each.

Must-Have Gear

  • Fly Rod
  • Fly Reel
  • Fly Line/Backing
  • Leader/Tippet
  • Flies
  • Waders

Fly Rods

Along with its reel, a fly rod is the backbone of any fly fishing rig. Fly fishing rods differ from standard rods used when fishing in a conventional manner. These rods vary in length. However, 9-foot is the standard, and most commonly used fly rod length. Rods of this nature also come in various weights. The weight selection of a fly rod must match that of an anglers reel, as well as their line.

Fly Reels

Much like fly rods, fly reels come in many different sizes and configurations. Choosing the correct fly reel is of immense importance, as it directly transfers an angler’s input of manual force into a robust degree of fish fighting power. A fly reel must also be matched to the weight of the particular rod that is to be used, as well as the weight of the line that one will be fishing with.

Fly Line/Backing

Fly lines are typically 90-foot in length, and come in a significant range of weights. These weights are generally graded numerically, with 1 being the smallest diameter, and 12 being the largest. Each line features three individual sections; the head, taper, and running line. 

The head is the heaviest part of a fly line, to which an angler’s flies are tied. The taper is the segment which connects the head and running line.  The running line is simply that which is spooled out when casting, or when fighting a fish.

Additionally, a backing of monofilament or fluorocarbon line is used on virtually all fly fishing reels. This backing provides extended line length, should an extensive fight unfold, while also protecting your fly line while on the reel.

Leader/Tippet

A fluorocarbon or monofilament leader is used to attach the end of an angler’s fly line to their tippet. This tippet then ties off to a fly at its opposite end. Leaders can be purchased in a wealth of sizes and lengths, providing a viable option for virtually any circumstance imaginable.

Tippet can be purchased by the spool, and is available in an array of strengths. These strength ratings range from 0X-8X, with 0X being the strongest available. Like leaders, tippet is offered in both monofilament and fluorocarbon forms.

Flies

Today, flies can be purchased in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and configurations. The most common types of flies are dry flies, nymphs, and streamers. Dry flies look like actual insects, and are designed to float atop the water. Nymphes are miniature in size, look like a minuscule invertebrate, and flow through the water column. Streamers give of the appearance of native baitfish, such as minnows.

Waders

While one will not always find themselves wading a body of water, the layout of many creeks and streams make such actions necessary. Waders are available in virtually every size, and are offered in both insulated and non-insulated forms. This provides an angler with multiple options to select from, in a bid to find a set of waders that perfectly suits their needs.

Pro Tip: When purchasing your first fly rod and reel, it can be helpful to locate a quality rod/reel combo. Doing so eliminates any misgivings toward matching rod/reel/line weights, thereby saving you time and hassle.

How Do You Cast A Fly Rod?

At first glance, casting a fly rod might appear difficult. However, doing so is far simpler than most would think. The following is a step-by-step guide to casting a fly rod.

  1. Hold the rod outstretched in front of you, while holding the fly line between the rod and your index finger to prevent inadvertent line feed.
  1. Pull approximately 20-30 feet of fly line out in a loop in front of you, letting it fall forward onto the ground.
  1. Raise your rod arm straight up, while maintaining the same wrist position. Continue raising your arm until your line begins to take on a slight degree of tension.
  1. Rapidly whip your rod rearward, bringing the end of your line with you. Then quickly return to forward rod motion.
  1. Pause your forward movement just before your rod has fully returned to the upright position, thereby whipping your excess line into a loop behind you.
  1. Now proceed forward with your cast, until your rod reaches the 9-10 o’clock position. Your line will begin feeding outward.
  1. As your line falls toward the water, gradually lower your rod arm into a comfortable position.

Pro Tip: It is absolutely crucial to pause during the forward swing of your cast. Without doing so, maximum casting distance will never be achieved.

Hitting The Water

With all essential gear procured, and a basic understanding of how to cast, one can begin venturing out in search of fly fishing success. However, this too requires a sound game plan. An angler must select where, and how they intend to fish, preparing for all which they expect to encounter along the way.

Choosing A Body Of Water

Before striking out for an angling excursion, one must have an idea of a suitable location to fish. Ideally, it is best to locate a slow, but steady moving creek or stream, that is known to provide ample opportunity. It is also of value to consider the depth of such a creek or stream. It can be dangerous to traverse a creek while wading, when its depth is unknown.

When in doubt, have a friendly chat with other fly fishermen in your area. While these individuals might not furnish you with the exact location of their honey hole, most fellow fly fishermen will be more than willing to point you in the right direction.

Boat Or Bank?

The next consideration that one must make, is whether they intend to fish from a boat, or from the bank. This is a determination that typically hinges on the type of water that you will be fishing. When fishing lakes or even rivers, fishing from a boat is an angler’s best option, especially in regards to accessibility. However, shallow streams and creeks are typically waded as a matter of convenience.

Pro Tip: When fishing a new body of water, observe how fish appear to be feeding. If fish repeatedly strike at the water’s surface, the use of a dry fly is likely to pay dividends. However, if few top water strikes are apparent, fish are likely feeding below the water’s surface. In this case, the use of a nymph or streamer should be your go-to.