Fishing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing

By Diana Rupp

Just like most people, I started fishing with a spinning rod. I still like to use spinning tackle in some situations, but the majority of my fishing is now done with a fly rod. I will be the first to admit that fishing with a spinning rod is a lot simpler, usually cheaper, and often more successful. So why fly fish?

The answer to that question is different for everyone. But there’s something about fishing with flies that seems to provide a more intimate connection to the fish and to the water you are fishing. Delicately landing an imitation fly above a feeding fish and enticing it to eat it is one of the most rewarding feelings an angler can have. In addition, fighting and landing a fish on a fly rod is more challenging and exciting, partly because the fish is hooked on a small, single hook, and it takes some finesse to bring it in. During the fight, you’ll feel every surge, leap, and turn of the fish as the movement is transmitted through the flexible rod to your hands. It’s a great rush!

An angler with a trout caught on a fly
Fly fishing can sometimes be a more successful tactic than spin fishing, especially when trout are keying on aquatic insects.

On a more practical note, fly fishing can be a very successful tactic in certain situations. Notably, when trout or other fish are keying on aquatic insects, either underwater or on the surface, fly fishing is the way to go. Fish in these situations  are likely to ignore a plug or spinner, but if you land a fly on the water that looks like what’s hatching, the fish will pay attention.

It’s worth noting that while trout are the classic quarry for a fly angler, trout aren’t the only fish you can catch on a fly rod. I’ve had great fun catching panfish, bass, Arctic grayling, and even pike on fly fishing tackle.

Learning to Fly Fish

Fly fishing is not something you can become an expert in overnight. The skills involved take time to learn, but they are wonderfully rewarding to master. 

The best thing you can do as a beginning fly fisherman is to take a lesson. I recommend that you visit a fly shop in your area and book a couple of hours with an instructor. A lesson is an excellent investment, as you’ll learn the basics of casting, become familiar with the equipment, and learn how to pick a few flies to get you started.

An angler on a river
Fly fishing helps an angler achieve an intimate connection with the water and the fish. Image credit: Trail’s End Media

There are many good online videos that can show you the basics of fly casting and fly fishing as well. Watch some of these before and after you take the lesson, and you’ll begin to understand the technique. 

The next step is to practice. As is true with so many skills, the more you practice, the quicker you will improve. It may seem silly, but one of the best ways to practice your fly casting is not on the water, but on grass in a backyard or park. Place a target, such as a plastic disc, some distance away, tie a piece of yarn to the end of your fly line, and practice casting until you can land the yarn on the target consistently. 

As you become more comfortable with your casting, it’s time to start fishing. Build your confidence by starting with small ponds full of panfish, or small streams where you don’t have to contend with many other anglers. You’ll want to start with places where you have room to cast without getting your line tangled in brush or trees. Catching your fly on riverside brush is just part of fly fishing, but when you start, it’s nice to have plenty of room around you. This is also one reason fly fishermen often wade into the water, since this often helps you get to a spot where you have plenty of room to cast.

Two anglers on a river
Fly fishing with a friend makes it even more fun. Image credit: Trail’s End Media

A great next step is to book a guided flyfishing trip. It doesn’t have to be an exotic destination—a half-day outing with a guide on your local stream or river will provide a great boost to your skills. A good guide will give you tips for reading the water, show you what flies work best, and will probably provide some constructive criticism on your casting techniques. 

Learning to “read the water” is a crucial element of flyfishing. Reading the water involves identifying the most likely places that fish will be. If you’ve fished with spinning tackle, you have likely already developed some skills in this area. But it’s even more important when casting a fly, as you’ll want to place the fly so it drifts naturally through a trout’s feeding lane. 

What You’ll Need

Flyfishing gear may look complicated (and it can be), but there are really only a few basic things you need to get started: a fly rod, a reel, a line, and a few basic flies. It’s very important that the reel, rod, and line are of matching weights. The “weight” of a fly rod denotes the overall strength or size of the rod. Smaller-weight rods are better for smaller fish, so a 3-weight, for example, is a great choice for small trout and panfish, while an 8-weight rod is used for large trout, bass, or salmon. A 5-weight rod (which is a good all-round choice for most fishing) should be matched with a 5-weight reel and line.

One good way to simplify things is to purchase a starter kit that includes rod, reel, and line. The Orvis company makes good quality, inexpensive starter kits, which are a great way to enter the sport.

You’ll also need a leader, which is the long piece of monofilament that attaches to the end of your fly line, usually with a simple loop connector. Tie your fly to the leader with a simple clinch knot, and you are ready to fish. 

A few other items of gear that you don’t need right away, but you will likely end up with eventually, include a landing net, a vest or sling pack to hold your gear, polarized glasses to help you see into the water, and a set of waders and boots.

Your local fly shop can recommend some basic flies to get you started. The four basic types of flies are dry flies, which imitate insects floating on the surface; nymphs, which drift near the bottom; wet flies, which imitate a hatching insect rising to the surface; and streamers, which imitate a small swimming minnow or leech. 

Many fly anglers become obsessed with “matching the hatch,” which means choosing a fly that exactly matches the flies that are active in the water where they are fishing. This is great for experts, but it’s very possible to catch fish with just a few basic flies. One of the most common dry flies is the Adams, a versatile fly that looks like a lot of different insects and often catches a trout’s attention. The hare’s ear and pheasant tail are common nymph patterns, and the woolly bugger is a great do-it-all streamer pattern.  The more you fish, the more flies you will find to fill your fly box, but just a few basic patterns are all you need to hook your first fish.

Fly fishing is a lifelong journey of learning and improving your skills. Whether you fish close to home or travel to exotic locales, it’s a journey that will take you to some of the most beautiful waters in the world, providing you with wonderful experiences along the way.

Leave a Reply