Fly Fishing for Beginners – A Complete Guide


So you want to learn to fly fish?  Wonderful!  Fly fishing is a fun and amazing sport and hobby.  It gets you up close and personal with the serenity and peace of nature, yet provides the sporting challenge of out smarting the fish.

Fly fishing seems quite overwhelming at first, but don't worry, this Fly Fishing for Beginners guide is intended to teach you all the basics, and give you the basic knowledge and tools to get out there are start fly fishing!

This guide is intended to be a high level guide for new fly fishers.  Be sure and check out our How To Fly Fish article as well, that goes into a little more depth on a few of the topics discussed at high level in this guide.

Let's jump in!  Please use the table to contents below to navigate through the article.

Fly Fishing for Beginners

Learning about fly fishing can be a little overwhelming at first, as there are lots of new terms, the gear is real different than traditional fishing, and casting ... well it's not difficult, but getting it right takes lots of practice.

Unfortunately, many beginners get overwhelmed by the fly fishing basics, and decide to just not start at all, which is really unfortunate.  Fly Fishing is certainly not a sport you can just jump into one day, and you're coming home with loads of Rainbow Trout that evening.  You'll spend a few trips getting to know your gear, and learning how to cast properly, along with learning how  to find the right spots.

Of course, heading out with an experienced fly fisher or using a professional fly fishing guide is the fastest way to learn, and if you have the money, a really great investment.

The bottom line is that fly fishing is all about enjoying the experience and becoming one with nature.   Take your time, don't pressure yourself, and enjoy the journey of learning.   Fly fishing for beginners can be an experience of a lifetime if you just give it a chance.

Basic Fly Fishing Equipment

The first thing you'll need to take care of is getting all the necessary basic fly fishing equipment.   When we say basic, we mean the gear that you absolutely need to get out there and start fishing.  The various fly fishing vendors carry lots of fly fishing gear, and while many of these items are really nice, they aren't needed.

What basic gear do you need?  You'll need:

  • A fly rod
  • A fly reel
  • Fly fishing line, which consists of: backing, fly line, a leader, and a tippet.  Don't worry, we'll explain all of this in a bit.
  • A few flies of course, hard to fly fish without flies!

That's it.  Many of the popular fly gear companies offer packages, that come with everything you need.  

I want to touch a bit on each piece of equipment, and how to go about selecting decent gear.  Far too many fly fishing beginners don't want to put much money into the hobby at first, which we understand.  The problem is when people buy cheap fly fishing gear, they get frustrated because it breaks or doesn't perform well.  Gear can be the deciding factor on whether someone continues fly fishing or quits.

Fortunately, there are lots of manufacturers making really good quality gear at reasonable prices.

Fly Rod and Fly Reel

These two fly fishing gear items are the most important.  They are the basis for all your other gear.  Fly rods range in price from around $50 to well over $1000.  The prices vary based on the material the rod is made from, and the quality of it's construction.

Fly rod's also come in different weights and lengths.  The rod you need, depends on the type of fishing you'll be doing.   We recommend a graphite fly rod, in the medium price range.

As with fly rods, fly reel prices vary as well.  On the low end are plastic reels.  While inexpensive, we recommend you stay away from these.  They don't perform well, break easily, and don't last.   You want a metal fly reel.

One important thing when purchasing a rod and reel, is they must be matched.  Meaning the Rod's weight must be matched to the reel in order to perform properly.

Tip: Fly rods and reels are available as combinations from most manufacturers.  If you buy them together, they are matched already AND you get a discount.  Definitely the best way to to buy.

Our Starter Kit Recommendations:

Our Best Recommended Option: Orvis Clearwater (Graphite and Aluminum)

Recommended Inexpensive Option: Orvis Encounter (Composite Plastic)

Fly Backing, Fly Line, Tippet and Leader

In a standard fishing set-up, there is only one line, and that line goes all the way from the rod to the hook.  Flying fishing is a bit different for a couple of reasons:

  • There is no weight on the end of the line.  In fact, there is only a fly, which is incredibly light weight.  Without weight, it's impossible to make a distance cast.  In fly fishing, the weight comes from the line itself, which is why fly line is so much thicker.
  • Flying fishing is all about presenting the bait (the fly) on the water, without the fish recognizing that it's attached to anything.  This is where the leader and tippet come in.

Fly Backing is used to fill up the reel (called the Arbor).  Backing is primarily used to provide extra length for a longer fish run.  Backing is often thick, and brightly colored to make it easy to see on the water.  The backing is the longest portion of the line.

Fly Line provides the weight when fly fishing.  The line is heavy and and generally brightly colored.

The Leader is used to transition from the thick fly line to the thin Tippet.  The leader starts thick, to match the fly line, but then tapers down to a much smaller size.  The leader's purpose is to keep the heavier fly line from "slapping" onto the water, and scaring the fish.  It also serves to as a nearly invisible transition to the tippet and fly.  This keeps the overall fly line from being seen by the fish.  Leaders are generally about 9 - 10 feet.

 The Tippet attaches the fly to the leader.  The tippet attaches to the fly at one end, to the leader on the other and is nearly invisible in the water.  This allows the fly to be presented without any line at all being seen by the fish.  The trick is finding the strongest, yet hardest to see tippet.

As you shop around for these items, you'll notice that they all come in many different sizes.  The "right" size depends on your rod, and the type of fishing you will be doing.  Assuming you purchase the general use Rod/Reel combination we recommended, you don't have to worry about all this, as it comes ready to fish.


Now that we know the basics of the whole fly line, let's talk a little about the fly, the real bait in a fly fishing set-up.  There are three primary types of flies:

Dry Flies are the most common, and are designed to look like flying insects that land and float on top of the water.

Nymphs resemble aquatic creatures, often larvae, and generally float at or just below the surface.

Streamers are designed to mimc aquatic life as well, but larger than nymphs, typically leeches.  Streamers are also referred to as lures.

To determine the best type of fly to use, consult with a local fishing shop or fishing expert.  They'll know what works best in your area, and for the type of fish you're after.  Flies can be purchased with either barbed or barbless hooks.  We prefer barbless, but both have their sets of pros and cons.

Other miscellaneous fly fishing accessories

In addition to your rod and reel set-up, there are a few other accessories we highly recommend, that will make your fly fishing adventures far more enjoyable:

  • [easyazon_link identifier="B00H6IQP9O" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]Fly Fishing Net[/easyazon_link] - This will not only make it easier to grab the fish, it will help protect the fish as well.
  • Polarizing sun glasses - These will not only protect your eyes from the sun, but cut the glare from the water so you can see better AND see the fish below the water line.  These make a huge difference when fly fishing.  We like these from Fishoholic, but any pair you like will work fine.
  • [easyazon_link identifier="B000E22886" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]Fly Fishing Vest[/easyazon_link] - Vests are great for holding your gear, and keeping it all close-by when you need it.  Certainly not critical, but just makes things easier.
  • [easyazon_link identifier="B000LX7O82" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]Waders[/easyazon_link] - These allow you to get out in the water, anywhere you want.  Without them, you'll either have to get wet, fish from the bank, or rock hop.

Fly Fishing Setup - Putting it all together

At this point, we've discussed fly rods, reels, backing, fly line, leaders, tippets and flies.   This all leads to the one of the most common questions from fly fishing beginners: How do you put it all together?

From Scientific Anglers

Fortunately, it's not that hard, and just requires a bit of practice and some basic knot tying skills.

Remember, if you purchased our recommended general use Rod/Reel combination, all this has already been done for you.

Here's how to put everything together, rod, reel, backing and line together:

  1. Attach your reel to the rod, following the manufacturers instructions.  Generally, the reel, slides onto the rod, and locks in place.
  2. Retrieve your [easyazon_link identifier="B000BS05JM" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]backing[/easyazon_link], and pull off about 20-30 years (100 feet or so).  The amount will vary depending on your spool size and reel weight.  The reel manufacturer will suggest the amount of backing to use.  The trick is you want to spool enough backing, so that the backing and line fill the arbor.
  3. Pull off about 2-3 feet of [easyazon_link identifier="B013XRVJ0Q" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]your fly line[/easyazon_link] and tie the fly line to the backing using an albright knot.
  4. Then pull off another 30 yards of fly line and clip it.
  5. To get the right amount of backing, spool the fly line and backing onto the reel, but do it in reverse initially.  Start with the fly line first.   You want about 30 yards of fly line, if using the general use Rod/Reel combination we recommended.
  6. Keep the line taunt as you spool it, and make the line/backing go evenly across the spool/arbor.  The line spools from the bottom of the reel.
  7. Keep spooling the line until it gets close but not touching the outer rim.   Once it's close, trim off the extra backing.  Remove the backing and fly line.
  8. Tie the backing to the arbor using an Arbor Knot.  Again, keep the line taunt, spool it evening spreading the line across the reel.  Remember, spool from the bottom.
  9. Make a loop at the end of the fly line using a braid knot.  This loop will allow you to attach the leader loop to the fly line easily, so you can quickly change out leaders.
  10. Attach [easyazon_link identifier="B005WYLVTS" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]the leader[/easyazon_link] using a loop to loop knot.
  11. To attach [easyazon_link identifier="B00CX21ACA" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]the tippet[/easyazon_link] to the leader, use a double or triple surgeon's knot.
  12. Finally, use an improved clinch knot to attach [easyazon_link identifier="B00TO02KZ0" locale="US" tag="blueridgemountainlife-20"]a fly[/easyazon_link] to the tippet.

That's it, you're all set-up!  Seems like a lot to go through, but you won't have to do this often.  In fact, as long as you don't change line weights, you'll only need to change out your leader to replace your flies.  If you find yourself fishing for different fish often, and require different fly line, we suggest getting a few extra rods and reels.

The Basic Fly Fishing Cast

With our fly fishing gear all set-up and ready to go, it's time to move on to casting.  There are a number of different types of casts, all offering their own sets of pros and cons.  Your choice of cast to use is generally driven by four things:

  1. Location
  2. Type of fish you're after
  3. Cast distance your looking to achieve
  4. Personal preference

Since this is a beginners article, we'll only be touching on the most basic cast in this article, the overhead cast.

The overhead cast is not only the most basic cast, but also a foundation cast for many other fly fishing casts.  Once you've mastered the over head cast, learning additional casting techniques is much easier.

The Overhead Cast

The basic concept behind the overhead cast is to bring the fly line overhead and behind you, then cast it in front of you to the desired target area.  Here are step by step instructions to the overhead cast:

  1. Hold the rod like you are shaking hands with someone, with your thumb on top and pointed towards the end of the rod.  Your hand should be in the middle of the rod's grip.  Hold the fly line between your index finger and the rod, to keep any additional line from coming out.
  2. With the rod pointing a little downward from about waist level, pull out about 10 yards of fly line, wiggle your rod up and down.  This will feed the fly line out and down onto the ground/water in front of you.
  3. Step back a little, so that the line extends out in front of you, rather than falling straight to the ground.
  4. Keep your wrist where it's at (don't bend it), lift your arm up slowly until the line is tight.
  5. Quickly rotate your arm backwards to bring the line behind you.  This will cause the rod to bend, referred to as "loading the rod".  Bring to rod to about a 1 or 2 o'clock position.  Then pause, waiting for the line to form a loop behind you.  This pause is very important.
  6. Once the line is behind, quickly bring the rod forward to about the 10 o'clock position.  The line will cast forward and out in front of you.  The direction you point the rod during this movement will determine where the line ends up.  The harder the movement the more distance your line will go.
  7. As the line extends out into the water, slowly lower your arm to gentle lay the line out on the water.  This avoids slapping the water against the water, scaring the fish.  The line should be tight.

The best way to learn the overhead cast is to watch it in action.  This video shows you the overhead cast, however in this video he uses a more sideways motion, which is fine.  Just an example of the many different variations of the basic overhead cast.  The concepts are the same.

The best place to practice is either in open water or in a cut field of grass.  We definitely recommend practicing for a while before heading out to actually begin fishing.

A few common problems:

  • Not stopping quickly enough
  • Not starting quickly enough - remember you want load on the road, and the quick starts and stops do this.
  • Problems with timing - You need to pause until the line comes behind you.  Many beginners don't wait long enough.
  • To must wrist motion - While you can use your wrist some, too much wrist motion will cause the line to not remain horizontal and avoid the tight loops that put power into the cast.

Find the perfect spot

You've got your gear, you've practiced your cast and have the basics down pat.  Now it's time to find the perfect spot and head out on your first fly fishing adventure.

The perfect spot is often personal preference, and most fisherman aren't going to share their favorite spot anyway, as they don't want lots of other fly fishers to show up.   Chances are, you'll have to find your own over time.

With that said though, one of the best ways to find the great spots to fly fish at in your area is to head over to a local fishing shop and ask them.  There will often be other fly fishers there that will share their favorite spots too.   You can also join local clubs, and Facebook has a number of fly fishing groups where you can learn about great fishing spots in various areas.

The perfect spot for you is:

  1. Fairly close to your home, so you can quickly can get there after work, on the weekends early, etc.
  2. Many different fishing areas, so you don't have to compete with other fishers for space or fish.
  3. Enough open area where you can cast without fear of getting your line caught up in trees and brush
  4. Has scenery that you enjoy looking at, and being in.

Everyone has their own personal favorite spot, and part of the fly fishing journey is finding yours.

Final Tips

I think we've about covered all the basics.  Of course there is far more to learn: many different casts, how to catch the many different fish, saltwater fly fishing, and much more.  We'll of course cover those topics in future articles.   But you have the basics. Here are a few final tips we'll share to make you fly fishing adventure more enjoyable:

  • Carve out a good chunk of time to go fly fishing.   Nothing ruins your experience more than feeling rushed.  Allocate enough time so you can arrive and spend your time fishing without having to stress about finishing up quickly.
  • Bring a buddy - While fishing alone can be enjoyable, doing it with a friend is also really great fun.  Not only can you help each other out, but being able to have someone to talk to and laugh with makes the whole experience more fun.
  • Fly fishing takes time to master, assuming you ever really master it.  Don't get frustrated, don't rush yourself, just enjoy the whole experience of being outdoors and learning how to fly fish.   There is no destination, it's the journey that matters.
  • Avoid taking out a second mortgage to fund all your fly fishing gear.  If you are budget constrained, just buy a decent quality graphite rod and reel, the necessary line, and some flies.  That's all you really need to start off.  You can buy additional accessories later down the road.

Have fun and catch some fish!

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.


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