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 toward 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 bead-head flies and ‘jigs' that sink into the water, or by attaching split shot to their leader above an unweighted nymph fly. This type of fly fishing can be very productive, as trout consume some 90% of their food under the water’s surface.
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.
What’s the deal with fly tying?
After a new fly angler gets accustomed to the ins and outs of casting and catching fish, becoming interested in fly tying is all but a predictable path to follow. We won’t steal your attention away by discussing tying vises and tying tools, but you should know the satisfaction that comes from fooling a fish with a fly that you tied yourself is tremendously rewarding. Plus, it’s a fun activity to keep you busy at home in the depths of winter when fishable conditions are months into the future.
Essential Fly Fishing Gear
3 Budget Friendly Fly Fishing Combos
Any good fly shop (or general outdoor outfitter) will likely stock a selection of rod and reel combos (aka fly rod outfit), perfect for the new fly angler that doesn’t want to drop a senseless amount of cash testing the waters on their new hobby. The reels on these combos even come spooled up with fly line–all you need to do is tie on your fly!
Redington Trout Field Kit - Rod, reel, and line combos usually don’t include the best fly line, but this deluxe offering comes with premium Rio Gold fly line ($100) spooled up and a Rio tapered leader–a near-invisible piece of monofilament that connects your fly to your line. Also available in additional weights for targeting bass, salmon, and saltwater species.
Price: $390 SHOP NOW
3 Best Fly Rods for All Types of Fishing
Orvis Clearwater - New fly anglers willing to spend a little bit more will be able to access Orvis’ dependable 25-year guarantee for peace of mind and stellar product support the OG American fly fishing brand is known for. The Clearwater rod comes in a wide range of lengths and weights ranging from 2 to 12-weight to suit fishing for any kind of fish, in any kind of water.
Price: $249 SHOP NOW
Winston Pure - A personal favorite go-to rod comes from R.L. Winston Fly Rod Company, made by hand in Twin Bridges, Montana. The premium, medium speed action of the Pure lets anglers slow down casting to delicately present small and medium-sized bugs to hungry trout in 2 to 5-weights, with various lengths to choose from in the 3 and 4-weights. Brad Pitt’s floppy hat swagger not included, but highly recommended.
Price: $975 SHOP NOW
Specialty Fly Rods
Redington Trailblazer - Most fly rods break down into four pieces before stowing into their rod tubes, but this series of 3-weight 7’6” and 5-weight 9’ rods break into six pieces, making for an exceptionally compact carry when strapped to a backpack destined for some backcountry mountain streams.
Price: $250 SHOP NOW
Orvis Superfine Glass Fly Rod - Graphite is the default material for fly rods these days, but fiberglass offers a ton of fun to anglers that enjoy the slow, full-bending action and improved durability of these rods. The 2-weight 6’6” is the perfect tool for plucking native brook trout out of rhododendron-lined mountain streams.
Price: $498 SHOP NOW
Tenkara Rod Co Beartooth - This reel-free style of fly fishing can be polarizing to veteran fly anglers; but it provides a simplistic approach in a substantially compact package. The 10-foot rod grants decent short-line reach to small stream trout, then telescopes down to a stout 14” for stowing on your pack. Some of the diehard traditionalists may argue that tenkara is not fly fishing at all, but the truth is that the pioneers of yore, like Izaak Walton, fished in this exact fashion!
Price: $225 SHOP NOW
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 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.
Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Lumbar Pack - This bomber hip pack will pack everything you’ll need for a day on the water, along with your lunch and camera for documenting the day. Whether you take an unplanned swim or experience a summer rainstorm, the 900-denier TPU-coated nylon body and the submersible zipper will keep all your goods bone dry. A substantial array of lash points let anglers customize how and where they carry accessories like nippers, zingers, and spools of tippet.
Price: $250 SHOP NOW
Yakoda Supply Convertible Utility Pack - This made-in-USA pack can be worn as a chest pack, hip pack, or sling pack throughout the day on the water. Its front panel keeps essential tools and accessories within easy reach, with enough cargo space inside for a few fly boxes. Pick from nine colors and camos of X-PAC to suit your river style.
Price: $172 SHOP NOW
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 in 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.
Best Zip-Up Waders:
Patagonia Swiftcurrent Expedition Zip-Front Waders
Having to pull down your waders when nature calls can be an annoying frustration throughout the day. The addition of a beefy, waterproof zipper down the front of this wader will benefit the fellas primarily, but it also enables easier entry and exit from the wader for the ladies, too. Numerous features make this wader one of the most luxe options on the market; we’re especially fond of the flip-out waterproof pocket and removable foam knee pads for more comfortable stealth approaches.
Best All-Around Waders:
Orvis Pro Fishing Waders
A hard-wearing chest wader from one of the most trusted names in fly fishing–after all, Orvis has been at it since 1856! Amongst its list of features and specs, we think you’ll dig the warm, fleece-lined kangaroo pocket on chilly days and the flip-out pocket organizer for managing countless small tools and accessories. In addition to its five sizes, the full-featured wader comes in short, regular, long, and extra-long lengths to fit anglers of all shapes and sizes.
Best Value Waders:
Simms Freestone Stockingfoot Waders A dependable pair of waders will definitely set you back a bit of coin, but this mid-priced option from Simms’ refreshed Freestone collection brings some of the brand’s staple design features from its guide-approved waders to a more manageable price point. Built-in neoprene gravel guards keep your boots free from pebbles and debris through a day of wading, and an included Tippet Tender Pocket organizes a few small items, like tippet spools and small fly boxes.
Best Lightweight Waders: Patagonia Swiftcurrent Ultralight Waders
The warmth of late spring and early fall fishing seasons isn’t terribly well suited to heavier four-layer and three-layer waders. This ultralight option from Patagonia is perfectly suited for warmer weather or compact travel by foot and even carry-on baggage. Replacing heavier, bulkier neoprene material for the stocking feet, this design uses anatomically-fitted rubber booties that can be reinforced with warmer Yulex Wading Socks ($35) when water temps call for it.
Price: $499 SHOP NOW
Best All-Around Wading Boots:
Orvis PRO BOA Wading Boots
Breaking boot laces on the water isn’t awesome, but the quick and even adjustment of ratcheting BOA “laces” on this Orvis boot eliminates that threat. Once dialed in, these full-height wading boots provide ample support for wading anglers who like to cover water and use industry-first Michelin Outdoor Extreme outsoles to grip any slick surface you’ll encounter. Pre-molded cavities run along the sole’s length, ready to accept grip-enhancing screw-in studs. Quick-drying Clarino uppers resist abrasion, and extra durability comes in the form of rubber toe and heel caps to protect feet; go kick rocks!
Price: $229 SHOP NOW
Most Durable Wading Boots: Patagonia Foot Tractor Wading Boots
Patagonia tapped the Oregon bootmakers at Danner to craft their tough-as-nails, American-made Foot Tractor boots which can get a resole from Danner HQ. Classic Danner-styled uppers made from full-grain leather and 1,000-denier nylon yield a surprisingly lightweight boot with three sole options to choose from: felt, Vibram rubber, and a Vibram rubber + aluminum traction bar combination that provides tremendous traction over slippery riverbeds.
Price: $449 SHOP NOW
Best Lightweight Wading Boots:
Simms Flyweight Access Wading Boots
Bozeman, Montana brand developed the sole of these super lightweight wading boots with Vibram to cut out serious weight while providing an impressive level of traction over river and streambed surfaces. The Flyweight Boots shave grams from its upper material, made from reinforced mesh that resists absorbing water and the weight that comes with it. Planning on hiking in deep to find wild, unpressured trout? These are the boots for the job!
Price: $280 SHOP NOW
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.
Smith Barra ChromaPop Polarized Sunglasses - Fishing sunnies don’t have to give Terminator vibes, thanks to this frame design cooked up by the sports eyewear GOAT’s at Smith. Pick from several ChromaPop lens options to suit your lighting and color-enhancing needs, or just pick the color you like most! Visually impaired anglers can even get a pair with prescription lenses through Smith.
Price: $249 SHOP NOW
Simms Bugstopper Sungaiter - Even with a proper hat and sun shirt, the sun can scorch faces red by reflecting off the water like a mirror. This one also has the added benefit of an Insect Shield treatment to keep thirsty mosquitos from feasting on your cheeks. Mask up and be safe!
Price: $35 SHOP NOW
Fish Pond Eddy River Hat - A reasonably priced western-styled full-brim hat for men and women featuring a subtle brown trout pattern printed on its hat band. Yeehaw.
Price: $59 SHOP NOW
Best Fly Fishing Accessories
Initiated fly fishers will likely consider these items essentials rather than nice-to-haves, so view all of these items as such once you’ve sorted out the rest of your kit.
Fishpond Nomad Emerger Net - A moderately long-handle net that makes landing fish a lot easier and better for the fish than just plucking the fish out of the water by hand. For best catch-and-release practice, please keep wild trout in the water as much as possible, even while netted. For smaller catches and easier packing, go for their Nomad Native Net ($136).
Price: $160 SHOP NOW
Umpqua UPG HD Weekender Fly Box - Fly boxes hold your flies, and you’ll probably want a good spread of them on you! As its name suggests, this double-sided box holds all the flies you’ll need for a weekend outing, with a waterproof seal to keep your dry flies dry–just in case it takes a tumble into the stream.