Fly fishing is a challenging sport that adds an element of connectivity between the angler, the setting, and the fish. It is a fun and energetic way to fish, and one where you are going to really be active. It allows you to be close to nature and to use your brains and skill to outwit those fish. Before you get intimated by the gear, don’t. Beginner fly fishing gear doesn’t need to be that complicated.
As with any new hobby, getting the gear can be an expensive proposition. You don’t need to break the bank to start, though.
Overview of the beginner gear needed for fly fishing
Your fly rod and reel are the most important tools for your success. Fly rods come in different lengths and different weights. You can spend a lot of money on a fly rod — expect to pay anywhere from $50 to more than $1000 dollars for this equipment. There is actually a thriving cottage industry of rod makers who will hand-craft the exact rod to the specifications you desire and the type of fish you catch, but perhaps you can save that for when you are highly-proficient.
So what should you look for in a fly rod, especially when you’re getting started?
Rod length is important. You choose the length of the rod according to the type of fly fishing you intend to do and the type of water you intend to fish in.
Fly rods are typically longer than most other fishing rods. The following tips will help you choose a rod of appropriate length.
Rods that measure between 6’ and 8’ are the best choice when you are going to be fishing in narrow bodies of water like small creeks, or when you are going to be fishing in an area that has a lot of obstacles for you to cast around. This length is excellent for learning to fly fish. It should be noted that a 6 foot rod if very much on the shorter end of the range for a fly rod, however.
A 9 foot fly rod just might be the most universal fly rod length, capable of being versatile in different types of conditions. Site-unseen, we would probably go with an 8 or 9 foot rod for most situations.
Rods that are 10’ and longer are better suited if you are going to be fishing in larger bodies of water, for much larger fish, or with lots of line out. Anytime you are going to need to make casts that are longer, you want the longer rods. Longer rods are also superior if you are fishing in high winds, such as on an ocean coastline where a steady ocean breeze can make casting a challenge.
When you buy a rod you will have a choice in many different materials, and you will have a choice in the flex and action. The materials the rod are crafted from will play an important part in the flex and action of the equipment.
Graphite rods are the most popular rods. The graphite rods are light, durable, flexible, and affordable. Some of the best fly fishing rods on the market are made from graphite. Boron and graphite are often combined to create a rod that is stronger yet lighter in weight.
Fiberglass rods are a wonderful choice if you are going to be fishing smaller streams of water. They are durable and affordable. They are also well suited to the slower casting strokes that most beginners have.
Bamboo rods are heavier than rods made from graphite or fiberglass, but the bamboo rods cast beautifully.
Flex and Action
When you are selecting a rod you have to consider the amount of flex and action you want the item to produce. The rod will bend more during a cast if it has a higher amount of flex action. For fly fishing you need only concern yourself with:
A tip flex rod that only allows the very tip of the rod to flex when you are casting your line.
A mid flex rod that will flex to about the middle of the rod when you cast. These are great for beginners as they work well in almost all casting situations and with almost all casting strokes.
A full flex rod that will flex from the tip to the grip when you cast.
The action that the rod produces is determined by how quickly the rod flexes and then returns back to proper positioning. All fly fishing rods are rated as having a certain action classification, say a five weight action. That action is the action that rod has when it is used with the weighted line the manufacturer suggests. If you use a heavier weighted line or a lighter line then you will change the amount of action the rod has.
To choose the best action remember that the slower amounts of action are best when you are going to be casting deliberately into one spot. Slower action gives you a little more control over where your fly lands. If you are fishing in a tricky area, or fishing for fish that are “skittish,” the slower action rod will produce better results. Faster actions are best suited for powerful strokes that are going to send that fly a farther distance.
The weighting associated with fly rods can get really intricate, and is actually pretty complicated if you try to truly master it. Fortunately, rod makers have made it easy. They assign “weights” to the rods, ranging from 1 to as high as 13 or 14. Most regular anglers will want something in the 4 to 8 range.
Rod weights by type of fishing (very generally speaking):
- 2 to 3 weight: Panfish
- 4 to 6 weight: Trout, some bass
- 7 to 8 weight: Larger bass and steelhead
- 9 and above: Salt water fishing, larger fish like Salmon
Note that the line you use should correspond to the rod. So, a 6-weight rod should use 6-weight line.
Optional: Rod Reel Combination or Starter Kit
It is probably best as a beginner to choose a rod reel combination, which is often sold as a starter kit. This will assure that you have a rod and a reel that are the right weight for use with each other. One combo we like is the entry-level White River combo (find here), or if you want a slight upgrade you can go with White River’s Hobbs Creek model (here).
After a couple years of fishing with a starter kit, you might want to upgrade but at least you will have a better idea of what you want. Then, keep the starter kit because it is always nice to have a second rig on hand, in case you have company or just want to have a rod ready to go with a totally different setup.
Fly Fishing Line and Leader
You will need weighted line to fish with. The bait you are using basically has no weight, so in order for you to cast with accuracy the line has to have enough weight to carry the fly to its destination. This delicate weight conundrum is part of what makes casting a fly fishing such an art.
You will need a leader and tippet to secure your weighted line to the fly backing. The fly backing is thicker than the line and it is often brightly colored so you can see where your line is. The leader and tippet secure your weighted line to the fly backing so the fly floats effortlessly on top of the water like a natural insect. The fish do not see the trap you are setting for them.
Your leader will usually be between 9’ and 10’ in length. Where it attaches to the backing it will be thicker and then it will gradually reduce in thickness as it gets closer to the fly. The leader will stop the heavier backing from making a splash or slap noise when it strikes the water.
The tippet is used to secure the fly you are using to the leader. Tippets come in different sizes. As a beginner, if you purchase a rod reel combination setup then you will have the right tippet for the rod you are using. The tippet line can be absolutely tiny — and sometimes you will want to use a very small leader if you are using small flies, such as tiny nymphs. The bottom line is that you probably want to have an assortment of leaders on hand. Switching them out on your line only takes a few minutes.
Because the tippet line can be so fine, it is one area where you may want to use readers or glasses to help you see better, especially when tying a new fly on.
This whole line/leader/tippet combination is one of the many ways that fly fishing gear is so different than angling or other types of fishing. The transition from the fishing line to the fly or lure is such a delicate balance, and is a big part of why fly fishing is such a great hobby for gear junkies or people who enjoy sweating the details.
Fly Fishing Flies
Now you need to choose the right fly to fish with. Here is where you literally have thousands of choices, and, of course, can tie your own.
We should note that understanding which fly to use in which conditions literally takes years. You aren’t going learn everything you need to know about flies from a day of reading, but you gotta start somewhere.
Some of the more popular fly types include:
Dry flies that look like insects afloat on top of the water. These are the most popular of flies.
Nymphs are made to look like larvae and instead of floating on the top of the water they are designed to sit just below the top of the water.
Streamers or lures float beneath the surface of the water and mimic things like leeches.
Talk to local fisherman and see what flies are working best in your area for different species. Color variations in your flies make a big difference to the fish so experiment with colors and variations to find out what you have the most luck with.
You Can Always Try a Starter Kit
Everything listed above — from the rod to the flies and lures — are fun to learn about in their own right. However, if you just want to get started with fly fishing, one option is to buy a starter kit. A typical starter kit will include an entry-level rod, a reel with line already spooled on it, a small selection of lures and flies, and a hard case for the whole package. None of the items will be particularly high-end, but for a beginner it can most certainly be enough to get you outside and casting. This starter kit can always become your backup once you are more proficient and know exactly which kind of gear you need to upgrade to.
We like a starter kit by Wild Water, which gives you a 9 foot rod and everything you need to begin casting for trout — or casting for practice. You can find it here on Amazon.
Don’t forget to have a net with you to help you get your catch to bank. The best kind of fly fishing net is quite small — ideally something you can easily keep on your body without it intruding on your motion.
Fly fishing clothing is an entirely separate animal, and we will do a separate piece on that soon. However, you will also find a vest handy for holding your extra flies and supplies, and a good pair of fly waders will keep your feet dry and give you more freedom of movement.
You could outfit yourself with expensive threads from makers like Orvis and Filson, but you sure don’t have to. Some waders are nice for fishing in rivers and streams, and you definitely want to be sure you have some sun protection. We like to have a good pair of hiking books for walking to the fishing spot, because the traction and support in your waders is not ideal if the walk is rugged or rocky.
There are countless accessories you could get for fly fishing, but don’t feel pressured to spend a ton of money on things. Do consider items like good quality sunglasses, as the sun can be surprisingly strong while standing knee-deep in a stream on a sunny day. If you plan to keep your catch, you will need a good fillet knife that you can carry along. It is usually best to clean fish while they are still relatively fresh, and then put them on ice or at least in refrigeration.
Don’t forget about safety. Having some form of communication with you in case anything goes wrong is important. If you will be in grizzly country (common in some of the Northern Rockies fly fishing spots), remember to bring bear spray. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray — for for mosquitoes and black flies, but also remember a tick repellent if you are fishing in the Northeast or Midwest. They are critical to avoid damage from the sun, or a bite from the wrong mosquito or deer tick.