What is Fly Fishing?


Fly Fishing is a technique for catching fish where the bait (often looking like a fly) is presented on the top of the water for fish.  The technique is designed to appear to the fish as if a bug or invertebrate has landed on the top of the water or slightly below the waters surface.

Fly fishing is in sharp contrast to traditional fishing methods where the bait is cast out, and presented to the fish below the water. Comparing fly fishing to traditional bait fishing is the best way to understand the basic concepts and techniques involved with fly fishing.

What is Fly Fishing?
Fall Fly Fishing in White River, Arkansas

What is Fly Fishing?

Now that we understand at a high level what fly fishing is, let’s dive a little deeper into the actual mechanics.

Fly fishing is a real art, which is part of what makes it so much fun.  Not only are you outdoors, in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but you also have to focus on your technique, and adjust it based on the type of fish you are trying to catch, and the specific location you are in.  Sometimes even different gear is required as well.

Fly Fishing Gear

Let’s take a look at fly fishing set-up first.  With traditional fishing, the end of the line has hook, some weights, a float, and very thin and lightweight fishing line is used.  The bait on the hook, and attached weights allow you to make a cast that gets good distance.   The float then holds the bait at a particular depth in the water.  If all goes well, the fish smells or sees the bait, bites, gets caught on the hook and you have dinner.

Fly fishing works very differently.  When fly fishing, you are casting an extremely lightweight “fly” out on the top of the water or just below the surface of the water.  The fly really has no weight itself, and the presentation of the fly onto the water has to be very delicate to avoid scaring the fish.  To compensate for the lack of weight on the fly a combination of casting technique and fly line set-up is used.

Fly Fishing Line

[easyazon_image align=”right” height=”160″ identifier=”B009KUC2M0″ locale=”US” src=”https://blueridgemountainlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/51CtiRIb2BL.SL160.jpg” tag=”blueridgemountainlife-20″ width=”160″]With traditional fishing, the weights and bait serve as weight to get a good cast.  In fly fishing the line itself provides the weight.

From the fly rod to the water is: Backing, fly line, leader and tippet, and fly.

The Backing provides the extra length needed to allow a fish to run a little in a larger pool, lake or even in the ocean.

The Fly line is designed to have weight and provides the weight needed to make distance casts.  The leader and tippet are the key parts of presenting the fly in a “stealthy” way so the fish don’t see them.  The big difference between traditional fishing and fly fishing is where the weight comes from.  In fly fishing, the weight comes from the fly line itself.

Fly Rod and Reel

Also very different from traditional fishing poles is the fly rod and reel. Fly Rods are very flexible and often made of graphite.  They are also typically much longer than normal fishing poles.  An average fly rod is about 9 foot in length.  They are designed to bend when casting for extra distance and optimal fly presentation.

The Fly Reel is also very different.  Traditional fishing poles often have a closed reel.  Fly fishing reels are open.  The main hand position on the rod is front of the reel.  This is in contrast to traditional fishing poles where the main handhold is behind the reel.

Fly Reel


Casting technique is a another huge difference between traditional fishing and fly fishing.  In traditional fishing you basically push a button throw the rod back and then out.  Fly fishing is a bit more complicated, and much more of an art and skill.

There are many different casting strategies, but all of them involve letting out about a rod to a rod and half’s amount of fly line, then whipping the fly road back behind you, and then back out.  The manner in which you do this determines the cast type, and there are many different variations and techniques.   This video does a great job at showing what various fly fishing casts look like:


The bottom line on casting, the core of fly fishing, is that you are trying to place the fly on the top of the water so that the fish thinks the fly is a real bug landing on the water.   If done correctly, the fish will not notice the fly line, leader or tippet, only the fly itself.

The Fly

Dry FlyIn fly fishing, the fly is the bait.  There are thousands of different fly designs, but they are generally broken out into three different types: Dry flies, Nymphs, and Streamers.

  • Dry flies are the most common, and are designed to to present on top the water and mimic a fly or bug landing on the surface of the water.
  • Nymphs are intended to float just below the waters surface and mimic a water invertebrate.
  • Streamers are intended to mimic small fish or aquatic life, like leeches.

The type of “fly” to use is based on the water conditions, location and type of fish you are trying to catch.  Your local fishing store is generally the best place to get information on optimal flies to use.

The Experience

Finally, fly fishing is also about the experience.  With traditional fishing, you often sit on a bank or in a boat, and wait for the fish to bite.

Fly Fishing Experience
Fly fishing in the Yellowstone River

With fly fishing, you’re often standing in the middle of a rushing creek or stream, casting over and over trying to find where the fish are hiding.  Trying hard to cast that optimal case that places the fly in the exact right stop, in the exact right way so the fish come up and take it.

Fly fishing is a more active style of fishing, that often involves some of the most beautiful scenic locations on Earth.  Fly fishing puts you right in the middle of it all, and challenges you against the fish.

Photo Credits: Texas Tongs (feature), Curtis Fry (gear), Fred Dunn (experience)

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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