First things first: You’ll need a rod. Most modern fly rods are made from either graphite or fiberglass. These materials create a strong, lightweight and durable tool for casting. Some outfitters still offer traditional rods crafted of bamboo, but bamboo fly rods are handmade and quite an investment. There are fly rods sized to handle virtually any kind of fish species, from small river trout to powerful Chinook salmon. Fly rods are manufactured and sold by length, line weight and action. Most range from 7 to 10 feet in length.
Fly Rod Length
Short rods (about seven feet in length or shorter) are best for fishing in areas with thick cover, such as overhanging tree limbs. Long rods (longer than eight feet) are excellent for making long, powerful casts in areas without a lot of cover, such as open riverbanks and beaches. Longer rods are also ideal for casting from a float tube. To get the most versatility, a medium-length rod (about 7.5 feet or 8 feet) is usually a great starting point for most beginners.
Fly Rod Weight
The rod weight you choose will determine what flies and tippets can be used. Lightweight fly rods need to be matched to light flies, tippets and line. Light rods are ideal for landing smaller freshwater fish. Heavyweight fly rods, on the other hand, can be used for saltwater fishing, windy conditions, heavy flies and larger fish. The chart below is a great reference for choosing fly rod weight.
Rod Weight Selection Chart:
Rod Weight Description Flies Tippets Best Use 2wt Ultra, Ultra Light Under size #16 Under 2 lbs. or 7X Specialized for fishing tiny flies and very light tippets. Great for spooky fish where delicate presentation is the most important factor. 3wt Ultra Light Up to size #14 Under 3 lbs. or 6X Delicate presentation, but longer casts than #2 4wt Light #12 to #20 2 - 6 lbs. or 5X Popular size for spring creeks and mountain streams. Casts comfortably to ranges of 45 feet. 5wt Medium Light
Dries up to #6
Tiny emergers down to #20
3 -10 lbs. or 4X Casts comfortably to ranges of 60 feet with a size #12 fly. Comfortably handles fish 9" or 5 pounds. Considered the most versatile weight. 6wt Medium
#20 Weighted nymphs Flies to #18
3 -10 lbs. or 3X Has enough line mass to deliver large weighted nymphs to 60 feet and #10 unweighted flies. 7wt Medium Heavy #2 - #14, bass and saltwater 6 -12 lbs. or 2X Useful for: Windy conditions, fish average over 5 lbs., casting exceptionally large flies 8wt Heavy Largest trout and salmon flies, bass and saltwater Over 12 lbs. or 1X Useful for: Windy conditions, 6-15 lb. trout, heavy tippets
Fly Rod Action
A rod’s “action” affects how the rod flexes and handles. Fast-action fly rods focus most of the flex near the tip for greater sensitivity and powerful hook setting. Just keep in mind that fast-action rods take practice and require good technique to use effectively. Medium-action fly rods focus most of the flex between the halfway point and tip. Medium-action rods offer excellent versatility and are more forgiving than fast-action rods. Slow-action fly rods distribute flex evenly across the full length of the shaft. This type of action is usually best for making short, gentle casts without lots of power. In general, beginners should consider choosing a medium-action rod. The chart below shows how fishing rods with different actions might flex under load:
Overwhelmed? Don't worry. If you're a beginner who wants to target small- to medium-sized freshwater fish, consider choosing a 5wt rod between 8’ and 9’ feet in length. This is a versatile starting rod that will work for a variety of popular species.
Fly reels were originally designed to perform two basic functions: 1) provide a place to store your fly line and 2) supply resistance (i.e. “drag”) against the pull of a fish so that it could be landed efficiently. New lightweight materials and innovations have added smoothness, convenience and aesthetics to what was once just glorified storage unit for your fly line. Most of today's reels are made from lightweight aluminum that is machined from a solid block for maximum strength and durability. Follow these three steps to choose a fly reel:
- First, make sure you’ll have enough line capacity. Reels usually hold a range of line weights. For instance, if you’ll be using a 3wt rod, choose a reel that is compatible with 2-4wt line. If you’re using a 5wt rod, choose a reel rated for 4-6wt. These ranges may vary slightly, depending on the manufacturer. Just be sure your rod and reel are both compatible with the line weight you plan to use.
- Next, consider the drag system and arbor. Higher-end drag systems generally provide smoother operation and better longevity compared to lower-end drag systems. Of course, better drag usually equates to a higher price tag. The same goes for larger arbor sizes. If you’ll be putting in a lot of hours on the water, consider investing in a better drag system and also a large arbor. If you only plan to go fishing a few times a year, a less expensive reel from a reputable brand should be adequate.
- Ultimately, budget is the most important factor when buying tackle. If you don’t want to spend more than $60 on a new fly reel, stick with that price point. As long as you buy from a reputable outfitter, you should be happy with the results. If there’s a little more flexibility in your budget, investing in a more advanced reel may be worth it. Of course, most beginners won’t notice a significant difference between a $250 reel and a $120 reel, so buying a top-end reel isn’t always necessary.
Fly Reel Tips
- For the beginner, a reel with cork disc drag and aluminum body is a great starting point.
- A reel with a large arbor will achieve the same amount of line retrieval with fewer rotations than a reel with a smaller arbor.
- Some reels allow for instant spool changes, so you can quickly change from floating line to sinking line.
- Disk drag systems provide greater stopping power than the more common and lighter spring and pawl designs.
- If fishing in saltwater, choose a reel made of corrosion-resistant materials (and always rinse and/or soak your reel and rod with fresh water after each use).
With the hardware out of the way, it's time to get down to the fun stuff: the bait. You don't have to worry about digging up night crawlers, but you do need to stock up on a variety of flies. The well-prepared angler carries an array of flies that match the conditions he or she intends to fish, including different styles and sizes that can be used at all water levels, from the bottom of the stream to the surface. Fish feed mostly on aquatic insects and smaller fish. A well-stocked fly box will give you the variety you need match your fly with what fish are eating. Flies are designed to attract (by arousing the fish's curiosity) or imitate (masquerading as the insects on which fish like to feed). Most fly fishing flies will fall into one of the following categories:
Nymph Flies and Wet Flies
Excellent for trout fishing, nymph flies are wet flies created to resemble insects in their underwater nymph stage. Trout consume underwater nymphs as 90% of their food.
Streamers mimic injured baitfish or crustaceans, swimming erratically under water.
Steelhead and Salmon Flies
As the name implies, these flies are ideal for catching steelhead and salmon. (In Western waters, the Stone Fly is also called the Salmon Fly, not to be confused with flies used specifically for river run salmon.)
These flies are tied on stainless steel or tinned hooks to prevent corrosion. Saltwater flies are typically larger and stronger than freshwater flies in order to target heavier, stronger saltwater species.
These tricky flies look like insects that have just touched down on the water or are emerging from a nymphal stage to an adult stage. Many terrestrial insects are also fished as dry flies on the surface. Many fish find dry flies impossible to resist.
Just like real flies, fishing flies are essentially weightless, which means you'll need the weight of a fly line to carry them to your intended target. Fly lines come in a range of weights from 000 to 15. Your choice of line weight should be based primarily on the weight of the rod you are using. Fly fishing lines come in floating and sinking styles.
- Floating lines are more versatile and allow you to use a dry fly, which stays on top of the water.
- Sinking lines and sink tips are for fishing underwater from just below the surface to dredging the bottom of deep water.
There are also two basic shapes, or tapers, for fly lines: double taper and weight-forward.
- Double taper (DT) lines work well in more delicate and close-up presentations like small to medium-sized rivers. DT lines are characterized by a heavier mid-section (appropriately named the "belly") that tapers back to smaller diameters at each end. They are reversible.
- Weight-forward (WF) taper lines are better for longer casts with heavy flies. They start with a belly of the line in the first half, then taper to a thin, low friction running line. The heavier portion of the line literally carries the thinner, running line to the end of a shooting cast.
Fly Line Tips
- As a general rule, most recreational fly fishers will use a mid-range, weight forward line weight (between 5 and 8) because those weights provide great versatility.
- A clean fly line in good condition is essential to good line handling and performance. Use a line cleaner to remove the dirt and water film from your line.
- Use colored line to follow the progress of your cast.
Fly Fishing Leader
Some fish are pretty savvy. If they can see your fly line, they may get spooked and you’ll miss out on a potential strike. For targeting finicky fish, the right leader can create a virtually invisible connection between your fly line and fly. The leader attaches to your fly line at the "butt" end, then tapers down to the end where your fly is attached, allowing the fly to be presented to fish in the most natural manner (and hopefully keeping the colored fly line at a distance and out of sight). Leaders come in different lengths for different fishing scenarios. A good rule when choosing leader length is to use a leader about the length of your rod. You can use a shorter leader when it's windy, when you're in a narrow stream, or when you're casting shorter distances. However, the longer your leader is, the less likely a fish will notice your line. Of course, longer leaders are harder to cast and manage. It’s all about finding the right balance.
Fly Fishing Tippet
Fly fishing tippet is the most delicate part of the leader that attaches to the fly. The midsection of the leader tapers down to the tippet. Some leaders are pre-tapered and come in only one section. Others use two or more sections, knotted together, to narrow down to the tippet. Tippets come in many sizes and lengths to match fishing conditions, flies and the fishing equipment itself. Check out the chart in the fly rod section to choose a tippet size based on your rod weight and the fly sizes you’ll be using.
Waders come in two primary styles: bootfoot and stockingfoot.
- Bootfoot waders are the easiest to use if you're only going to fish occasionally or for a short amount of time. Boot foot waders simply slip on over your clothes. The uppers on these waders are most often made of waterproof, breathable fabric or neoprene attached directly to a calf-high rubber boot, providing the best option for quickly getting in the water and staying dry.
- Stockingfoot waders are used in combination with wading boots and are used most frequently by anglers who need the extra comfort and support this style provides during a long day on the stream. Although your wading boots will get wet, you will stay dry because the stockings on this style of wader are completely waterproof. If you plan on hiking while fishing, opt for a stockingfoot setup.
Wading boots are designed to be used with stockingfoot waders and are usually available with one of three soles: rubber, felt or studded (which can be made of either rubber or felt with metal studs). Rubber soles are ideal for muddy river and lake bottoms. Felt soles offer excellent traction on mossy rocks. Studs provide additional traction on slick surfaces. If you plan on fishing from a drift boat or dory, don’t use studded wading shoes, as they could damage the hull.
Check out our Wader Guide for detailed information on types of waders, wader features, sizing charts and more.
Fly fishing often involves wading through fast-moving water and hiking along the shore or riverbank. While a tackle box may be handy when you're fishing on the dock or from the boat, it simply won't do when you're on the move. You need a vest or pack: a secure on-stream carryall that can store fly boxes, leaders, extra clothing, food, and an assortment of other accessories within reach. If you're planning on wading past your waist level, consider a chest pack. Chest packs ride higher on your body and give you that extra 4-5 inches of wading depth before your pack gets wet.
Ideally, your fishing shirt should have plenty of pockets so it can double as a fishing vest for quick trips. Fishing shirts from brands like Columbia Sportswear and Simms are crafted of lightweight, breathable and quick-drying fabrics for enhanced comfort on and around the water. Some also feature built-in UPF sun protection.
Pants with legs that zip off to create shorts-make the perfect fishing garment because you can hike through shoreline bramble in long pants and wade through the river in shorts. Look for those made from quick-drying, breathable materials like nylon or poly-blends.
Sunglasses with polarized lenses are an essential piece of gear that provide protection from harmful UV rays and eliminate the glare off the water, allowing you to better see all the action.
A wide brimmed hat will keep your head cool and out of the sun. Caps with a neck flap will do all that and protect your neck from the sun reflecting off the water.