In this fly fishing beginner guide we cover everything from how to get started to essential equipment you need. You’ll also learn important rules and regulations, ideal clothing to wear and the best locations! Continue reading below…
Interested in fly fishing but not sure where to start? Many people have misconceptions about fly fishing, often assuming (incorrectly!) that it’s very difficult and technical or that it needs to be super expensive.
Luckily, this isn’t the case. With some basic equipment and a little practice, you’ll soon be successfully fly fishing. This sport is a wonderful way to get outside, away from life’s stresses and distractions.
What Is Fly Fishing?
What makes fly fishing different from any other kind of fishing? The key distinction lies in the fly, the particular kind of lightweight lure that’s used to catch fish.
A fly lure (or artificial fly) can be constructed in a variety of ways to mimic the appearance and behavior of common fish prey such as insects, worms, or baitfish. Flies generally have a thin hook with some fibers or feathers attached.
Some flies are designed to sink down, while others float atop the water’s surface.
There are specific methods and techniques used in fly fishing. Since the fly is so lightweight, it doesn’t propel or pull your line out when you cast (as happens when you’re using normal bait in other kinds of fishing).
You can go fly fishing in either saltwater or freshwater and catch multiple fish species, from trout and salmon to bass.
Why Try Fly Fishing?
There are so many reasons to give fishing a go, and fly fishing in particular is a favorite pastime of mine. Here’s why:
- Fly fishing is fun and relaxing; it can even be a sort of meditation.
- It makes for an awesome social activity.
- You’ll enjoy the challenge of learning and honing new skills.
- Fishing gets you outside and gives you a whole new appreciation for the great outdoors and the incredible amount of life teeming underwater.
State fish and game departments maintain websites with useful information for anglers. These sites are a fantastic resource for finding out about fishing locations and even getting some maps.
If you live in Pennsylvania, for instance, you can check out this page on the state’s best fishing waters for a variety of species.
There are excellent fly fishing spots all over the United States (and the world). Whether you’re looking for fishing hotspots close to home or scouting out potential vacation locations, a simple search will show you the possibilities.
Important Rules and Regulations
Don’t forget to acquire a fishing license. It’s usually pretty easy to find out the process for getting a license in your area if you just search for “[your state]” + “fishing license” or check out this handy website. In many places, you can purchase a license online, at an outdoors store, or over the phone.
It’s also important to know the relevant rules and regulations for your local area. For example, are you fishing in a catch-and-release area, or can you keep your catches? Which species are you allowed to target, and how many can you take home?
Again, the state fish and game site comes in handy here.
You don’t need tons of heavy or expensive gear to go fly fishing. Just a few simple items will suffice:
- Fly rod and reel
- Fly line system
- Outdoor clothing
In the sections below, I’ll help you make sense of all the options out there. When in doubt, a visit to your local fly shop is always a good idea! The staff at specialized fly shops are typically very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the sport and can make specific recommendations tailored to your interests.
You of course need a fly rod—a good rod will make casting your line easy. But what kinds of qualities should you look for when buying a rod? You’ll want to consider factors such as length, weight, and action.
- Length: Versatile, multi-purpose rods are around 5 to 9 feet in length. This is simply a very common length and works great for the vast majority of people in most situations. So, keep it simple with the rod length and go for 9-foot rod that will give you good balance, leverage, and reach. Companies of course make rods that are shorter and longer than this range, but those are meant for specialized circumstances.
- Weight: A medium rod weight is typically best for beginners. “Weight” here indicates the overall strength of the rod. Weights go from 1 or 2 (good for smaller fish) up to around 16 (capable of catching enormous fish). Most likely, a rod of about weight 5 will be your best bet. Make sure to pair your rod with a line of corresponding weight. This is very easy, just match the numbers on the rod and line (i.e. 2 weight rod goes with 2 weight line).
- 1, 2, or 3 weight: very light.
- 4, 5, or 6 weight: versatile, all-purpose capability.
- 7, 8, or 9 weight: Good for bigger fish like salmon or pike.
- 10+ weight: very heavy.
- Action: Rod action can range from fast to medium to slow. What is action? It basically denotes how bendy a rod is.
- Slow action: When the rod is flexed, it bends all the way down to the handle.
- Medium action: The rod bends about halfway down.
- Fast action: The rod mostly stays stiff and just bends a bit at the tip.
What kind of action is best for you? That depends on your preferences and the precise situations you plan to be in. There’s no one-size-fits-all action. Overall, I’d recommend a medium or medium-fast rod for a beginner. This kind of rod will suit most people with a variety of casting styles and angling situations.
Now what about the reel? A fly reel fulfills some basic functions for you (storing your line and keeping it untangled, reeling your line back in once you’ve caught a fish, etc.), but you don’t need anything fancy. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a reel:
- Cast vs. machined reel: Reels can be made in a couple different ways.
- Cast reel: A cast reel is made by pouring metal (often aluminum) into a mold. Cast reels tend to be less expensive.
- Machined reel: A machined reel is cut by machine out of a solid block of aluminum. Machined reels are typically more durable. They can handle more heat and pressure and hold up well when you’re fighting with a big fish. But they are more expensive! Either kind of reel will work just fine, so I’d suggest making your choice based on your budget.
- Large-arbor vs. standard-arbor reel: Put simply, your reel is essentially a spool with a hole in the middle. The arbor is this central core.
- Large-arbor reel: The central core has a wide diameter. A large-arbor reel is quicker and more efficient at bringing in the line. Each time you crank a large-arbor reel, you bring in significantly more of your line than you would with a standard-arbor reel. So personally, I have a slight preference for large-arbor, but ultimately I don’t think it makes a huge difference.
- Standard-arbor reel: The central core is much smaller.
- Drag system: “Drag” is the resistance that the reel provides. You can often adjust the amount of drag depending on how much resistance you need. For instance, if you’ve got a big fish that is swimming quickly, heavy resistance from the reel will help you slow the fish down and get it under your control. Drag systems come in a couple basic types:
- Click drag: Simple system, doesn’t provide much drag but some people prefer this and it works great for many!
- Disc drag: As the name suggests, padded discs within the reel provide the drag. This is a common kind of drag system and is often adjustable. Pads might be made out of some form of plastic, cork, or carbon fiber.
So now you’ve got an idea of the basic options—ultimately, I’ve had luck with a variety of reels, and just about any fly reel will get you started. Look for something in your budget and get out there!
Fly Line System
Fly line is obviously another essential item. In fact you’ll need three distinct things for your fly line system:
- Fly line backing
- Fly line
Backing is a sort of braided string that stays strong and compact even when wet. Typically, you’ll have about 125 to 225 yards of backing on your reel depending on whether you’re fishing freshwater or saltwater.
The fly line is crucial—remember that the flies themselves are extremely lightweight, so when you’re casting, you’re casting the line itself based on its own weight.
Remember to choose a line that is appropriate for your rod weight. Lower numbers (1 weight or 2 weight, for example) correspond to lighter, thinner, more delicate lines. Higher numbers (14 weight or 15 weight, for example) translate to thicker, stronger lines.
So if you’ve decided on a 5 weight rod, go with a 5 weight fly line to match.
Look for weight forward (WF) fly line, which has extra weight and is thicker for the first several yards. Weight forward taper helps you cast the line more easily.
I suggest getting a floating fly line, which, quite simply, floats atop the water. These are suitable in a wide variety of circumstances.
You may also see sinking fly lines, intermediate fly lines, and even floating lines with a sinking tip—all these different options can be exciting (or overwhelming), but stick with a floating line when you’re just starting out.
Finally, the leader connects the fly line to the fly. This is a crucial component to your fly line system. The tapered butt section of the leader attaches to your fly line. The tippet section of the leader attaches to your fly.
Your leader should overall be about the same length as your fly rod—so about 9 feet long. Of those 9 feet, the tapered butt section should be around 7 feet and the tippet around 2 feet.
Then there’s leader size, the diameter of the tippet (e.g. 3x, 4x, 5x). Larger numbers translate into thinner tippet diameters. So 3x is thicker than 5x, for example.
What size should you buy? That depends on the nature of the fly you plan to cast (size, weight, and so on). It may also vary based on the species and size of fish you’re hoping to catch. So a 3x leader is a good idea for bigger flies and bigger fish, while smaller flies/fish would call for a thinner (e.g. 6x) leader.
How can you calculate this? Experienced fly fisher Brian Flechsig suggests the following: First, determine the size of the fly you’re using. Then, divide the fly size by 3 or 4. If you’re using a size-12 fly, then you need a 3x or 4x leader.
If the size-12 fly is on the heavier side, opt for the thicker 3x leader. If the size-12 fly is lighter-weight, choose the thinner 4x leader.
To get started, I suggest purchasing a handful of flies. There are different types of flies, such as dry flies (float on the water’s surface, meant to mimic adult winged insects), nymph/wet flies (sink down through the water, meant to mimic juvenile aquatic insects), and streamers (meant to mimic baitfish).
As always, you’ll encounter tons of options, so ask around at your local fly shop for recommendations based on your goals. The best fly will depend on where you’re fishing and what you want to catch. It’s very important to have a good fly if you want to catch anything, so this is one area that rewards careful research and consideration!
Dress for the weather and be prepared! I typically wear light quick-dry layers, wading boots, and a lightweight rain jacket. Gloves are sometimes necessary in cooler weather. I also like to wear a good fishing vest—all those pockets are amazing for storing my gear conveniently. Finally, make sure to protect yourself from the sun with a hat, polarized sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Finally, there are a few useful accessories that you’ll need for fly fishing. These include:
- Line clippers: for cutting your fishing line
- Forceps: also called hemostats, used for a variety of purposes such as holding things and making your hooks barbless
- Split-shot: metal weights used with nymphs and wet flies
- Strike indicators: basically bobbers; these come in different shapes and materials, but they all work to tell you when you’ve got a bite
- Floatant: to help your dry flies stay buoyant
Fly fishing is a lot of fun, and it’s not as complicated as you might think. I learned the ropes thanks to more experienced friends and some very helpful fly shop staff.
Thanks to the internet, there’s also a wealth of information out there. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not lucky enough to have experienced friends who can show you the ropes. There are some really awesome video tutorials that will give you visual demos of the skills you need to learn.
So, get your basic equipment and get outside—let us know how it goes!