Fly Fishing - How to Get Started

There is a widespread conception out there that fly fishing is more exclusive than other methods of fishing -- a sport for the wealthy. While it is true that you could spend several fortunes on equipment and travel (honestly though, that just describes any fishing these days-- have you bought a Rapala lately?), that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give fly fishing a try if you don’t own a vacation home on a blue ribbon trout river. If you can afford the gas to get to your fishing spot, you can afford to fly fish.

Seth Ewing Golden Trout on the Fly

A high mountain golden trout caught by the author, Seth Ewing

The real exclusivity of fly fishing has nothing to do with socioeconomics, it has to do with the additional skills needed and the limitations that fly tackle imposes on the angler. Fly fishing is a little bit like choosing to use a muzzle loader instead of a rifle to hunt elk. The fly angler often has to work a bit harder, get closer to the target, and pay even closer attention to the environment than anglers using other tackle. In most, but not all, situations fly fishing isn’t the most effective method to catch fish. It isn’t an accident that tournament anglers aren’t primarily pursuing bass and walleye with flies. Even in the small rivers and streams that are tailor-made for fly anglers, fly fishing isn’t as user friendly as throwing a spinner because the presentation of a fly is easily ruined by the currents. So, if you are looking for the easiest method to catch fish, if you are looking to catch the most and biggest fish in the widest variety of environments; then fly fishing probably isn’t for you.

But perhaps you are after something other than pure efficiency and effectiveness. There is an unmatched satisfaction to be found in the simplicity of standing knee deep in cold, clear free flowing water, feeling the rhythm and poetry of fly casting. There is magic when you read the water to determine exactly where the most aggressive trout is going to be, perfectly drift your fly to it working with the current, and then the fish you knew would be there takes your fly and the fight is on! I’m not a fly fishing snob. I personally use baitcasting, spinning, and fly fishing equipment depending on what makes the most sense on the day; but if I got to only fish one day a year, you’d find me deep in the mountains wading a river pursuing trout with my fly rod. There’s truly nothing like it. If you are interested in fly fishing, you are in for a treat. It takes some extra work, but the experiences are definitely worth the investment! 

Seth Ewing with a nice Idaho trout fly fishing

Seth Ewing with an Idaho Rainbow Trout

Prospective fly anglers are often advised to start by hiring a guide. That’s great if you have hundreds or thousands of dollars to burn, but for many of us that isn’t possible or responsible. It’s also a fair assumption that if you are reading this blog post you don’t have a fly fishing friend willing to lend you gear and teach you how to use it. So how can you become a self-taught fly angler?  

The first step to your journey into fly fishing is to think about what kind of fish you want to pursue and what kind of initial investment you are willing to make in buying gear. If your dream is to catch a northern pike on a fly (and if it isn’t, why not? you will want a very different setup from what you would use to target trout in alpine lakes. Your target species may impact how much you need to spend to acquire adequate gear. If you are wanting to catch bluegill at your local pond you will be able to get away with budget gear that would fail if confronted with a monster pike. 

As a beginner, consider buying a fly rod-reel combo pre-spooled with backing, weight forward floating fly line matching the weight of the rod, and a tapered leader. If you intend to backpack with your flyrod or take it along on hunting trips, get a 3 or 4 piece rod with a carrying case. Most outdoor retailers will carry at least a couple of combo options, but they are easily obtainable online if your local store doesn’t stock what you need. You can also choose to mix and match by purchasing the components separately, but until you begin to master the basics of fly fishing you will likely be overwhelmed by the choices. Combos generally have beginners in mind. If you do choose to customize your set up, it may be worth talking to a fly shop. Go into this conversation with your hard-capped budget or risk overspending on gear that you won’t be able to appreciate. There’s a good chance you won’t be able to tell the difference between a $50 rod and one costing three times that much until you have mastered your cast and spent a season or two actually fishing, at which point you can evaluate whether better gear is necessary for you as an angler.

In general:

If you are going to target panfish or trout in streams and small rivers, buy a 5 or 6 weight rod.

If your primary target will be bass or large trout, consider a 7 weight.

If you are targeting pike or other big game buy an 8 weight or heavier.

You will also want to purchase a couple spare tapered leaders with line strength matched to your target species. One or two leaders should be plenty for starting. You should buy a spool of tippet. Tippet is the line that gets tied onto the monofilament leader when it gets too short. You can buy fly fishing specific tippet that is relatively expensive, or you can buy a small spool of Trilene which tends to be tougher and tie better knots than any fly fishing specific product I have ever used. The tippet should have close to the same break strain rating as your tapered leader. I like to keep things simple, and find that I can happily get away with 4 pound test tippet for everything from panfish to 18 inch class trout in strong current.

Fish hit a fly on the top during a fly fishing trip

Brookie Trout from Camp Lake Colorado

You will also need a selection of flies and something to put them in. The flies you choose will depend on the fishing you intend to do, and every fly angler has their own go-to flies. Once again a local fly shop will be able to give you more specific guidance for your area, but if you are intending to target trout in mountain streams and lakes my top 6 flies are: 

Black or olive Wooly Buggers  (size 8 -10) 

Elk Hair Caddis (size 14 -16)

Stimulator  (size 8- 10)

Mosquito  (size 14- 18)

Bead-head Prince Nymph (size 14-16)

Weighted Stone Fly (size 8 -10) 

Fly Box

Pictured: The six flies from the list above

Other gear worth considering if you have any budget left

  • Polarized sunglasses allow you see your flies or line on the surface, have more success sight fishing, and protect your eyes from being impaled by errant flies as you learn to cast.
  • Needle nose pliers or hemostats for hook removal  
  • Fly dressing such as Gink to keep dry flies floating high
  • Fly vest or packs can make life much easier by keeping gear organized and accessible. 
  • Waders are definitely a luxury item for summer fishing but critical if you want to wade in winter conditions. 
  • Net 

Once you have obtained your gear the next step is to hit the lawn. You will be tempted to just go to the nearest pond or stream and immediately start fishing, but resist! Unless you are one of those obnoxious individuals who is good at everything they do immediately, fly casting takes time to build competence and can be frustrating. Taking time to learn basic casting skills before you hit the water will greatly increase your chances of enjoying your time and catching fish.

There are a lot of good videos on YouTube that will demonstrate the basic mechanics of casting. If you can, load one (such as that you like on your phone and head to the back yard. If you have tied a fly onto your leader/tippet remove it. Unlike spinning or baitcasting gear where the weight of the lure is what pulls the line when you cast; in fly fishing, it is the weight of the fly line that casts the fly. This means that all the fly adds to your practice casting is the possibility of hooking something that shouldn’t be hooked. To keep yourself entertained as you practice it is a good idea to give yourself a target like a loop of garden hose to cast to, better yet, tie on a piece of yarn to your tippet and “fish” for your cat.

Before you hit the water, get comfortable with both a standard cast and a roll cast.   

After a practice session or two the next step is to fish for some bluegill. The exact species is actually not important—what you are looking for is a situation that combines the key factors of abundant, aggressively feeding fish that aren’t picky about what they eat; reachable by a relatively short cast; living in an environment that lacks tricky currents that will ruin the fly’s presentation. Another excellent beginner option would be fishing a beaver pond full of brook trout. Becoming a good fly angler is challenging. You want to stack the deck in your favor for having success catching to reward yourself for the work you are putting into developing your skills.

Brown trout on the fly

Brown trout from the Provo River near Heber Utah

Following these two steps of practicing off the water and finding an easy situation to catch fish will have you well on your way to becoming a competent fly angler. The final step is to keep learning, both from your personal experiences on the water and by taking advantage of the wealth of educational media available. Reading Tom Rosenbaur’s Prospecting for Trout as a boy completely shaped me as a fly angler, and it can do the same for you. If reading a book don’t fit your learning style, you can find a host of teachers willing to impart their expertise on YouTube. 

Fly fishing can seem like an intimidating, complicated sport to get into; but if you keep things simple and put in a little time to practice basic skills, you may just fall in love.

Article Written by: Seth Ewing and posted by Patrick Edwards

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.