Fly Fishing Basics (2021)
Are you thinking about getting into fly fishing or have you already bought the gear and are looking to learn the basics? Regardless of which position you are in, this blog will lay out all the starting basics that you will need to know in order to rig up a fly rod and have the experience of a lifetime.
Normally, anglers do not start with fly fishing. They usually start with bait or spinner fishing, then they look for something often referred to as greater and more challenging. That of course is fly fishing. The reason people seem to like fly fishing more than other types of fishing is the play that a fly rod gives and bringing in a fish while you’re holding onto the fly line. Many anglers also like the challenge of having to find the specific fly that the fish are biting and presenting it to the fish to make it look natural enough that they will strike it.
I have been fishing since I was 3-years old, but unfortunately I didn’t start fly fishing until I was in my 20’s. It’s never too late to get into the sport of fly fishing and if you are on the fence of whether you want to try it or not, I would highly suggest you doing so. If you want the ultimate experience of fishing, look no further than fly fishing. Let’s dive right into all of the basics there are when you are beginning your fly fishing journey.
Where can you fly fish
Believe it or not, you can fly fish anywhere you can spinner or bait fish. Streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, oceans, anywhere there is water that holds fish, you can cast a fly in!
There are different rods and equipment that will be required for the type of fish you are targeting and in which water body. The same goes for the flies that you will be using. Some fish strike certain flies over others.
Regardless of where you live, there is probably a large number of streams, lakes, and rivers near you that hold a variety of different fish species. You will need a fishing license and make sure you check the fishing regulations for your area to see what the rules are. Some places allow you to keep certain fish of a certain size, or what time of the year the river is open, or how many flies you can use at one time, etc.
Is fly fishing expensive?
Fly fishing is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Like anything else, you get what you pay for. If you buy your flies from Amazon and they are poorly made, chances are they will fall apart, and they won’t imitate the natural insects meaning you probably won’t catch a lot of fish.
You can purchase a variety of different equipment for fly fishing that makes the experience better and usually the nicer equipment will help your chances of landing fish. There is some equipment that is far too pricy for what you get, so you will have to learn the brands and the quality. Ultimately, it is your money, so you will have to decide on what is best for you.
What fly fishing gear will you need
There are a few key pieces of gear that you will have to buy, but lots of the other gear will be optional. To get started, you will need the following:
- Fly Rod
- Fly Reel
- Fly Line Backing
- Fly Line
If you want to improve your chances of catching fish and the overall experience of fly fishing, then this is the equipment you will want to buy:
- Split Shots/Weights
- Landing Net
- Pliers and Clippers
- Fly Vest or Pack
- Fly Cases
- Fly Fishing Hat
- Polarized Sunglasses
- Fly Fishing Gloves
Fly fishing rods, reels, and line go by weight, normally 0-12. The higher the number, the stronger and bigger the rod, reel, and fly line will be.
When it comes to leaders and tippet, there will be a number followed by an x, normally 0x-6x. The higher the number, the thinner and weaker the line.
For most average fly fishing anglers that are targeting trout and other fish species, a 5 or 6 weight setup is perfect. As a beginner, I would highly suggest buying a 6-weight, 9-foot rod and 6-weight reel.
What to look for with a fly rod and reel
There are many different brands on the market when it comes to fly fishing gear. Mainly, you will want a graphite rod and a reel with a disc drag system and large arbor. The arbor is the spool that you reel your line into. If you have a mid to large size arbor, you will be able to have plenty of fly line and backing, just in case you hook a large fish that likes to run.
How to set up a fly rod and reel
The fly rod will likely be a 2-4 piece rod. Place all the pieces together.
With the reel, tie a knot from the fly line backing to the bottom of the spool. Then reel in all of the fly backing, ideally there will be 100 yards of it. Tie a knot connecting your fly line backing to your fly line, then reel in the fly line. Next, you will want to tie the thick end of the leader to your fly line. The length of your leader will depend on what type of fly fishing you plan on doing that day.
Normally, 9-foot leaders are used for streamer and nymph fishing. 15-foot leaders are for when you are using dry flies.
How to tie your flies on the line
For different fishing knots, there are plenty of YouTube videos and mobile apps you can download to learn what knots and how to tie the specific knots. You do not want to use standard knots when tying on your hooks as they will break and you will lose your hooks and the fish.
- If you plan on dry fly fishing, I normally tie on 2 dry flies.
- If nymphing and there isn’t strong wind present, I normally use 1 wet fly and 2 nymphs.
- If streamer fishing, I normally use 1 large streamer or 2 mid-sized streamers.
- If using hoppers, I normally use a hopper as my first hook, and a nymph under it.
Tie your first fly to your leader. The first fly should always be the largest fly that you plan on using. Then take 18-24 inches of tippet and tie a knot to the round steel part of your first hook. Then tie on your second hook to the other part of the tippet. Do this again if you are using 3 hooks.
The more hooks that you use, the greater chances of getting your line tangled. Tangled line takes time away from fishing. If you find that you are spending lots of time untangling your hooks, try using less hooks until you get better at casting.
Choosing the right fly
There are thousands of different flies you can choose from. Talking to a local or a fly shop before going fishing can help your chances as they may be able to inform you on what the fish are currently biting. There are tried and true common flies that most anglers try first if there is no hatch on, but then if they don’t work, it’s time to get creative and start trying random colors and patterns.
How do hook sizes work
As far as hook sizes go, if you are targeting standard trout, you will want to use size 10 to 18 hooks normally. Hook size 14 for dries is standard.
Hook sizes normally go from 1-20. The smaller the number, the larger the hook.
Matching the hatch
Zinger Fishing has a great blog post on matching the hatch. I highly suggest that you learn to match the hatch as soon as you start fly fishing. It will drastically increase your chances of catching fish and having the best experience possible. Many fly fishing anglers are too lazy to match the hatch, but then they get frustrated when they don’t catch any fish.
On rivers and lakes, there are fly hatches that happen regularly. Insects start from the floor of the water body, then they start to rise and change form, then they will hit the surface and eventually fly away. Many of them will return to the water surface to die. When a natural insect hatch is happening, the fish will be feeding on the insects. If you try using a hook that doesn’t match the natural insects, the chances of you getting a fish to strike is very slim. You want to match your fly pattern the best you can to the natural insect in the water or on the surface.
If the fish are rising to the surface, then you know you should be using emerger or dry fly patterns. If you don’t see any fish rising, you will want to use midge or nymph patterns as the fish are feeding subsurface. Study the water for 5 minutes, look at what is happening, what color the insects are, how large the insects are, and try to match your fly the best you can.
Having a solid variety of flies when you head out fly fishing is the key to having the best chance at catching fish. Zinger Fishing created fly kits that have many different fly patterns that work great for all the common fish species. The more fly patterns that you have, the better.
How to cast your fly rod
Almost every fly fishing angler that I know started out with spinner or bait fishing. Casting a spinner rod is completely different than casting a fly rod. Don’t worry though, after a few hours of casting a fly rod, you should be able to get it down! There are countless different ways to cast a fly rod and many of them come in handy depending on your situation.
The first cast you need to learn is a simple back to front cast over your shoulder. When you cast, you will want to make sure to do a nice slow motion once you’re extended back all the way and then start to bring your rod forward. If you do this motion too quickly, your hooks will often get tangled.
When you cast, you will be using the hand that isn’t holding the fly rod to pull more line from the reel. A traditional spinner reel lets the line out of the reel during the cast from the weight of the hook and energy from the cast, pulling the line out. Your fly hook will not be heavy enough to pull the line from your fly reel. You will need to pull line from your fly reel with your hand, then during the cast, the weight of the fly and the energy from the cast will take the spare line that you pulled out and send your fly further using up all the excess line. There are plenty of YouTube videos on casting but try and learn a very basic technique first.
How to present your fly to the fish
Presenting your fly to the fish is one of the most important aspects of fly fishing. If your fly does not look natural, the fish won’t bite it.
- Using Streamers – Streamers are meant to look like bait fish, so you will want to strip the streamer towards yourself in 6-24 inch motions, making your streamer look natural.
- Using Dry Flies – The reason you want a long leader, normally 15-feet in length, is so that your dry fly will land very lightly on the water, mimicking a natural fly hitting the water. You also don’t want the fish to see any leader line or fly line. When using dries, it is usually best to cast your fly then let it drift effortlessly. It can even sit in one spot if the water isn’t moving.
- Using Nymphs or Midges – Often you will be using a strike indicator so you will be able to see if your strike indicator is moving faster or slower than the water current. You want your indicator moving at the exact speed of the water current so that your nymphs are moving through the water like the naturals. More on this below.
- Using Chironomids – Often these are only used in lakes and are usually sunk into the water and they will sit still, or you can slowly retrieve them towards the surface.
How to mend your line
Mending your line is most common when using nymphs. To get the perfect drift, you may need to flop your fly line above the strike indicator or to the side of the indicator. This will all depend on how fast the water current is moving or if you are fishing in the seam of the river. There will be times you will have to constantly mend your line and other times you may only need to once or twice. If you get lazy and don’t mend your line, the fish will think your nymphs are not natural and they won’t bite them.
How to set your hook when a fish strikes
When a fish strikes your fly, regardless if you are using a dry fly, nymph, or anything else, you will need to set your hook. Setting your hook means you are placing the hook deeper into the mouth of the fish so that it hooks it better. If you don’t set the hook, the fish will often wiggle the hook out of it’s mouth resulting in you losing the fish.
When the fish strikes, pull up or sideways on the rod in a fast and hard motion. You don’t want to be too soft or too hard, you will learn the right amount of motion to use. If you are nymphing, when the strike indicator drops below the surface of the water, set your hook! Often when nymphing, your bottom hook will hit the floor of the river causing the strike indicator to drop. You will still want to set your hook as you won’t know if it is a fish striking or you are hitting bottom.
If you keep hitting bottom, lower the strike indicator 6-inches at a time. You only want your hooks hitting bottom maybe once every 5-10 casts.
How to use a landing net
Landing nets are used for 2 reasons. Both are very important so I hope you use a landing net when you go out fly fishing.
- The first reason is to keep the fish in the water, instead of lifting it out. Holding the fish takes the coating off of the fish which isn’t good for them.
- The next reason is if you have a large fish on. If you try grabbing the fish out of the water with your hand, you will need to bend over and that will lower your fly rod, causing the line to loosen and the hook will often pop out of the fish’s mouth, resulting in you losing it. The net is used so you can keep the fly line tight.
When using a landing net, you will want to scoop from underneath of the fish. If it is a large fish, it’s often best to get a buddy to handle the net while you focus on the fly rod. Once you have the fish in the net, it’s best to keep the net slightly emerged in the water if you are fishing catch and release waters.
Where are the fish in the river, stream, and lake
Knowing where the fish like to hang out is another important part of fishing. If you spend your day casting in places where the fish aren’t likely to be, your chances will go down of you landing anything.
- Lakes – Fish like to hang out under docks, fallen trees, in weeds and lily pads, or in deep waters. They are often found where the floor shelves are, meaning where the water levels change. You can measure the depths of the lake by dropping your line with some weights on it. When your line goes loose, you hit bottom!
- Streams – Fish are very skittish in streams, meaning you will have to be quiet and sneak up on the fishing holes. Fish love shade and deeper pockets of water in streams. They will be found near beaver dams, under fallen trees, or near larger rocks.
- Rivers – Rivers are massive and fish will be everywhere. If you find a good hole, it might change as fish might head upstream or downstream to lay their eggs. So, don’t be surprised if a good hole turns to nothing at a later date. Fish like to hang out in the seams of the water, where the faster current meets slower currents or still water. They like back eddies, deep water pockets, large rocks, and fallen trees.
Protecting yourself from the elements
A day on the water can be long and tiring. The suns UV rays can be damaging to your eyes and skin. Wearing face shield masks, sunscreen, and polarized sunglasses will be key to protecting yourself. Long sleeved light colored shirts are ideal as they will help to keep you cool.
Stripping fly line all day can cut up your hands, so wearing fly fishing gloves will prevent this. You can also dip your rod and reel into the water to get your fly line wet, this will make it smoother running through your fingers and hands.
Fly fishing hats are very common as they keep the sun off of your face and they keep you cool. Zinger Fishing has a blog on some of the greatest fly fishing hats on the market right now if you’d like to check it out. I would suggest getting one with mesh vents in it.
Proper fly fishing etiquette
Fly fishing is a gentleman’s sport. This means that everyone is to be respectful of fellow anglers, the river, fish, and everything else.
If someone is fly fishing in one area, stay away from their area unless you ask if they mind that you fish beside them. If you are in a drift boat, and someone is fishing from shore, reel in your line or fish from the other side of the boat, making sure you don’t interrupt the fellow anglers hole. Also, try to steer your drift boat away from their hole so you don’t scare away the fish.
Barbless hooks are becoming more and more popular as they don’t hurt the fish near as bad as barbed hooks do. If you catch and release, you could start using more barbless hooks to be more respectful.
Don’t litter, take your garbage out with you, especially old fishing line. Fishing line can be lethal if animals eat it.
Do not trespass on people’s property. Every province and state will have different laws for how far from the river you are allowed to walk. Try and stay tight to the river or stream bank and be mindful of other peoples property.
Overall fly fishing as a new hobby
Fly fishing is a great way to bond with friends and family, or even to get out by yourself is a great time. Fly fishing is both challenging and rewarding. The first few trips out will be a little difficult, but once you get the casting and mending of your line figured out, you will start to catch more fish, making it that much better. If you are just starting out, I would recommend sticking to the rivers or lakes until you get a little more experienced. Streams can be tricky because of all the trees and brush that are always surrounding streams. Good luck out there!
If you like reading about fly fishing, our Zinger Fishing blog has a wide variety of different articles. We cover places to fish, what patterns to use, techniques, gear, and everything else to help fellow anglers land more fish in their nets.