As a dog provides a great reason to go for a walk, a fly rod creates the world's best excuse to get out into nature. The main difference between fly fishing and conventional fishing is how you cast; or better put, what you cast. In conventional fishing, the weight of the heavier bait or lure is cast from the rod, pulling the monofilament fishing line behind it. In fly fishing, the line itself is the heavier item, and you cast a loop that pulls a lighter fly (not bait) after it.
Most articles about how to start fly fishing have some boilerplate instructions on what to buy and where to go, but they're rarely useful in the long term. In a lot of cases, they're geared towards selling a beginner's outfit, not a specific rod that you'll use for years. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn't take into account your specific application of gear, and you might wind up buying something that's inadequate for the type of fly fishing you actually want to do.
So before you buy a fly rod, you have to ask yourself some questions: What do you want to fish for? What environment do you truly see yourself in? Will you be in small mountain streams fishing for brook trout? Or in large western trout rivers like Montana's Snake River? Maybe you're more interested in pursuing bass on local warm-water ponds and lakes, or saltwater gamefish. Each of these environments requires a different rod, reel, and line.
What Are the Types of Fly Fishing?
Dry Fly Fishing
In dry fly fishing, the fly floats on top of the water and the angler lets the fly drift along on the surface to mimic an insect floating in the current. This is a fun and easy technique to learn when you are just starting because the angler can see the fly and the moment the fish takes it.
Wet Fly Fishing
Fish aren't always feeding at the top of the water column, so we have to present our flies accordingly. In wet fly fishing, the angler uses a slightly heavier fly that sinks into the water, or uses a small weight like a split shot or putty to pull the fly down. In wet fly fishing, the angler attempts to let the fly drift along with the current below the surface of the water.
Streamer Fly Fishing
Streamer fly fishing is where the angler continually moves and maneuvers the fly—in this case, a streamer, which is a bigger fly that mimics baitfish or other aquatic life—through the water. After casting the fly, the angler retrieves it to make it seem like it's fleeing. This is a very common tactic for pursuing bass and other aggressive saltwater gamefish, but it's also effective for large trout.
Fly Fishing Gear Guide
There are three main components of a fly fishing outfit: a rod, a line, and a reel. After the basics of terminal tackle—a term that refers to what you tie to the end of your fishing line—are sorted out, you'll need to have a few basic and essential pieces of equipment if you plan on a day out fly fishing. These are items that make your time fishing more enjoyable; they'll keep you more organized, more prepared, and more comfortable on the water.
Rod selection is one of the most carefully considered elements of fly fishing. Rods are organized by 0-12 weights, with 0 being the smallest and lightest and 12 being the largest and heaviest.
0 to 2 Weight Rods: Suitable for panfish and small trout. These are typically 8' and under and their shortened length makes them well-suited for casting in tight areas with lots of trees and branches.
3 to 5 Weight Rods: Ideal for larger trout and bass and are usually 9-10' in length.
6 or 7 Weight Rods: Better choices for handling larger fish, casting longer distances, and turning over larger flies.
8 to 10 Weight Rods: Ideal for bass, pike, steelhead, and salmon. These rods are also good choices for saltwater gamefish like striped bass, bonefish, and tarpon.
Fly line weights must match a fly rod's weight. This is as simple as it sounds—a 5 weight line matches a 5 weight rod. Tapers, small changes in weight and gauge in an individual line, and density are the only variations here.
Floating Lines: The most commonly used freshwater fly lines. These lines cast easily, float on the surface, and are commonly used on rivers and lakes when fish are feeding near the surface. Floating lines come in various tapers which optimize presentation, mending, and casting heavier fliers.
Intermediate Lines: These lines are denser and slowly sink in the water. These lines are especially useful when you're fishing just below the surface of the water or when casting into a stiff breeze.
Full Sinking Lines: Used when you are fishing well beneath the surface of the water for fish that are feeding deep in the water column. These lines still cast like floating fly lines, but when they land on the water they begin to sink at a defined rate; lighter sinking lines can sink at three inches per second, and heavier sinking lines can sink faster, 8-10 inches per second.
As much as your fly rod should match your line, your fly reel should balance your fly rod and adequately hold your fly line and backing (a section of strong line that you don't cast but keep in reserve for bringing in large, strong fish). Fly reels come in classic click-pawl versions you might be familiar with to more modern versions with disc drags designed to stop hard-fighting fish. Along with different drag systems, there are different widths, or arbor sizes. Larger-sized arbors are good for reeling up line faster and require fewer turns of the reel than standard, or mid-sized arbors.
There are many flies that imitate the aquatic life fish eat every day.
Dry Flies: Dry flies float on the surface and are meant to represent the various forms of mayflies and other flying insects that hatch on lakes and trout streams.
Hoppers: Hoppers and other terrestrial patterns like crickets and beetles are often tied with foam and other natural materials. These are typically larger than most dry flies and are commonly fished in the summertime.
Nymphs: These flies imitate the aquatic life stage of these insects. These aquatic insects live in the water before hatching as adults and make up a large portion of a trout's diet at all times of the year.
Streamers: Streamers are meant to represent larger meals like baitfish, minnows, crayfish, sculpins, and larger aquatic insects.
Poppers: Commonly made out of cork or foam and are often designed more to entice a strike than mimic something.
How Much Should You Spend on a Fly Fishing Rod?
Fly rods can cost from under $100 to over $1,000. Like everything from cars to electronics, there's a range in price and quality. The best starting point is to focus on a setup that suits your immediate needs and that matches the type of water and type of fish you plan on targeting. The end investment is entirely up to you, but don't automatically assume a more expensive rod is better.
Brands and aesthetics play a huge role here, too. Do you need high-modulus graphite or maple-burled reel seats to catch your first fish? Absolutely not. If you're a no-nonsense type of person that just wants to get out and fish, then don't waste too much time or money on an expensive setup. But if you enjoy well-made fishing tackle and obsessing over high-end details there's rods to fit that bill (and fly fishing will definitely suit you).
The good news here is that regardless of the cost, all major rod manufacturers mostly have great customer service and warranties to help repair or replace any rod that's damaged on or off the water.
Essential Fly Fishing Gear
4 Best Fly Rods for All Types of Fishing
Best Vests and Packs for Fly Fishing
It's important to stay mobile and organized when fly fishing, and nothing does this better than the ubiquitous fly fishing vest, or more modern hip or sling packs. Having a vest or pack dedicated to holding flies, leader and tippet material, strike indicators, and nippers will make getting out the door and on the water much easier than trying to pack for every individual trip. The numerous pockets and retractable tool holders keep everything organized and accessible for when you need it. It's also a good idea to pack warm clothes and a rain jacket when the weather calls for rain.
The Best Fly Fishing Waders & Boots for Men & Women
Waders keep you dry when you are wading into the water or moving around in it. They are especially handy if you plan on fly fishing in cold water as you can layer warm clothes under your waders for added insulation. Waders generally come in two styles: bootfoot waders and stockingfoot waders. Bootfoot waders have a boot built into the wader. Stockingfoot waders have a neoprene stocking instead of a boot. Both have their benefits, but stocking foot waders paired with wading boots tend to give you a more customized fit.
If you plan on wading into the water (which you more than likely will), you need protection for your feet. Wading boots protect your feet and give you traction and stability while you are in the water. It's essential to have good traction while you're moving around in the water, but you also need boots that will give you good grip while reading the water and casting. Felt soles and even studded boots help maintain traction and keep you vertical.
Patagonia Men's Swiftcurrent Expedition Zip-Front Waders - The additional cost of the zipper front will pay you back in time saved on the river.
The Best Hats & Sunglasses for Fly Fishing
Sunglasses protect your eyes from stray flies if your cast goes wrong. More than that, polarized sunglasses protect your eyes from the glare of the sun on the water and make it easier to see fish and follow your fly. A good hat also helps to protect you from hooks while shielding you from the sun.