How to Fly Fish

If you’re interested in getting into fly fishing, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about what types of waterways you want to fish on, and what types of fish you want to catch. Knowing these two things will guide your decisions as you build a fly fishing rig and choose flies. By the end of this article, you’ll at least be on your way to knowing all you need to start fly fishing.

Basic Fly Fishing Equipment

The first step to fly fishing is to build a kit of equipment. There are a lot of fly fishing “bells and whistles” available in fishing shops, but focus on getting the basics first. And in order to build a great fly fishing rig, you’re going to want to buy quality gear. Saving a little money by purchasing cheap gear is going to come back and bite you (and not in the good “now reel that sucker in” kind of way) when it breaks or malfunctions. Plenty of anglers have given up on fly fishing after one too many equipment failures, so don’t let it happen to you!

Here we’re going to go over the essential fly fishing gear: a fly rod and reel; the fly backing, fly line, tippet and leader; and, of course, the flies.

A fly rod and reel

These form the core of your fly fishing rig, so it’s important to not cut corners here and do your homework.

A decent fly rod will run you $50 to over $1000, based on material and construction. Fly rods are available in a range of lengths and weights, and which one you need will be determined by the kind of fishing you’ll be using it for. But a medium-priced graphite fly rod is a good choice for a beginner. As you develop your skills, you can invest in a more specialized rod.

Fly reels also have a wide price range. The most inexpensive will be made of plastic, but definitely don’t buy one of these—they are notoriously prone to bad performance, breaking, and short lifespans. Get yourself a sturdy metal fly reel instead.

One of the more affordable ways to get a quality rod and reel is to purchase them as a combination. Most manufacturers offer matched sets of rods and reels for discounted prices, and you can often get good equipment at an even better price this way.

Fly backing, fly line, tippet and leader

If you’ve already fished with a standard rig, you know that there is a single line that runs from the reel to the hook. In fly fishing, things are a bit different, because the end of the line is not weighted. The fly itself is very light and carries almost no weight. Instead, fly line is thicker and heavier than standard line, and provides the heft needed to make a cast.

The goal of fly fishing is to fool the fish by presenting to fly on the water as though it were not attached to anything. To do this requires a special kind of line combination, made up of four parts:

  • Fly Backing is the thickest, longest part of the line and fills the reel (also known as the arbor in fly fishing). Its extra length is useful for longer fish runs, and it is usually a bright color that makes it visible against the water.
  • Fly Line connects the backing to the leader and tippet, and is weighted in order to make casting possible. It is also a bright, highly visible hue.
  • The Leader is a 9-10 foot portion of line between the weighted fly line and the super-light tippet. Where it meets the fly line it is a matching thickness, but it tapers down its length until it is very thin and almost invisible. This enables it to land lightly on the water and go unseen by the fish.
  • The Tippet needs to be very strong but very hard to see, since it rests on the water, connecting the fly to the leader. Remember, the fish needs to be convinced that the fly is just a fly, not bait. So your tippet must be as close to invisible as possible.

All four of these line parts come in various sizes, and choosing the correct one is based on the type of rod you have as well as what kind of fishing you’ll be using it for. Another advantage to purchasing a rod-and-reel combination is that the backing, line, leader, and tippet are all preloaded and ready to go when you are.


The three main types of flies are dry flies, nymphs, and streamers.

  • Dry Flies look just like flying insects floating on the water’s surface. They are the most common, and probably what most people imagine when they think of a fly fishing bait.
  • Nymphs are made to mimic aquatic insects, often at the larvae stage. They float on the surface or immediately below it.
  • Streamers are also designed to look like aquatic creatures, but usually larger ones like leeches. Streamers are sometimes called lures.

Flies can be either barbed or barbless. When you’re trying to choose the best type of fly to use, it’s best to ask a local guide or fishing shop. These experts will know which type of fly is most effective for the fish you’re targeting, and for the area you’re fishing.

When it comes to fly fishing, your presentation is as important as your choice of flies. The are several specialized fly fishing rigs that can used in combination with specific fly fishing techniques to target specific fish species and improve your catch rate.

Additional Gear and Equipment

Those are all the items of gear necessary for a basic fly fishing rig, and you can easily get started with just that. But now for some of those bells and whistles that might make your life easier:

  • Fly Fishing Net – Very handy for securing the fish more easily and without damage (to you or the fish).
  • Polarized sunglasses – These types of sunglasses are treated to cut glare from the sun, but they can also help you see beneath the surface of the water to the fish that might be there.
  • Fly Fishing Vest – These have many useful pockets in which you can keep much of your gear close at hand.
  • Waders – Without a pair of waders, you’ll have to rock hop, fish off the bank, or just get wet. But with them, you’ll be able to go wherever you want in the water without getting wet.

Setting Up Your Fly Fishing Equipment

This step isn’t difficult if you already know how to tie some basic fly fishing knots, and after a little practice it’s even easier. A rod-and-reel combination will, again, have all of this done already.

Fly Fishing Line Diagram

  1. Connect the reel to the rod. Usually the reel will slide onto the rod and lock securely into place, but make sure to follow the instructions from the manufacturer.
  2. Next you will pull off enough backing to spool onto your reel. This is generally about 100 feet, or 20-30 yards, but check the manufacturer’s specs on your reel as this will depend on the reel weight and spool size. The goal is to have the reel arbor filled by the backing and the line.
  3. Using an albright knot, tie about 2-3 feet of fly line to the backing.
  4. Pull off 30 more yards of fly line and cut it.
  5. To get the correct length of backing onto the reel, you need to start by spooling the fly line and backing in reverse. Begin with the fly line—about 30 yards of it, if you’re using our recommendation of rod and reel.
  6. Focus on keeping the line stretched taut, and make sure it goes evenly across the spool/arbor as you wind it on. The line should spool from the bottom of the reel.
  7. Continue to spool your line until it almost reaches the outside rim, but before it touches it. When it is close, trim off any extra backing, and remove the backing and the fly line.
  8. Use an arbor knot to anchor the backing to the arbor. Don’t forget to keep the line as taut as you can, to spool it evenly across the reel, and to make sure it spools from the bottom.
  9. Now, use a braid knot to create a loop at the end of the fly line. This loop makes it easy to join a leader loop to the fly line, so that you can swap leaders as swiftly as possible.
  10. Secure the leader to the fly line with a loop-to-loop knot.
  11. Connect the tippet to the leader with a double or triple surgeon’s knot.
  12. With an improved clinch knot, tie your fly to the tippet.

The Basic Fly Fishing Cast

Now that your fly fishing gear is prepped and ready, you’re ready to learn how to cast. There are a lot of different ways to cast, and each one has its own advantages and drawbacks. So when choosing a cast, consider these four things:

  • Location
  • Target fish species
  • Target casting distance
  • Your personal preference

When you’re just starting out, the best thing you can do is master the overhead cast, which is foundational to many other fly fishing casts. Getting the knack the overhead cast will make it easier for you to eventually learn other types of casts.

Overhead Cast Steps

In an overhead cast, you are bringing the fly line over your head and behind your body, then casting it back out in front to your target area. Let’s go over it step by step:

  1. Hold the rod with a handshake position, with your hand in the middle of the grip and your thumb pointing towards the end of the rod. Trap the fly line against the rod with your pointer finger to prevent any extra line from escaping.
  2. Position the rod near your waist and point its end downwards. While wiggling your rod up and down to feed out the fly line, draw out about 10 yards and let it settle on the surface in front of you.
  3. Take a step back to put tension on the line, making it stretch out instead of drooping right to the ground or water.
  4. Without bending your wrist, slowly raise your arm. The line should stay tight.
  5. Bring your arm backwards with in a snappy, circular motion. This should make the rod bend, a.k.a “loading the rod.” Pause the rod in a 1 or 2 o’clock position, and hold there as the line forms a loop behind you. Don’t hurry! This pause is crucial to a successful cast.
  6. With the line now behind you, swing your arm back forward to bring the rod to a 10 o’clock position. This will cast the line forward and to your front, and a harder movement here will cast the line a greater distance. Point your rod in the direction you want the line to go.
  7. As the line reaches out across the water, slowly and gently bring your arm down in order to softly lay the line on the water. The line should still be tight. If you come down too hard, the line will slap onto the water and startle the fish.

Practice this movement in a large space like a grassy field or open water before you try to use it live in a fishing situation.

A few common problems:

  • Not stopping fast enough after loading the rod
  • Not starting fast enough and failing to load the rod – Snappy starts and stops are the key to properly loading the rod, getting it to bend and bear the line’s weight correctly.
  • Timing issues – A lot of beginners get excited and forget to pause until the line comes behind them, but this is a very important moment in which to do nothing.
  • Too much wrist action – Keeping your wrist as still as possible will keep the line horizontal and let it form the smooth arcs that create a powerful cast.