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What is Fly Fishing? Your 101 Guide!

What is fly fishing? Learn about this technique to catch fish using a rod, reel, line, and fly. Get the basics for this sport here.

Man fly fishing on a river

A casting fly fisher’s silhouette is one of the most iconic images in fishing and outdoor sports and has been romanticized by famous films such as A River Runs Through It. Still, this specialized fishing style is quite different from the deep-water fishing that many people know. 

Knowing the basics of fly fishing includes learning what equipment you need, such as licenses, tackle, and bait. It’s also important to understand how to use gear like fly rods and reels. Fly fishers have to take etiquette, safety, and conservation into account while fishing.

Fly fishing may seem complicated or ritualistic compared to traditional casting, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Read on to learn all about the basics of fly fishing and how to do it successfully.

What Is Fly Fishing?

Fly fishing is a type of fishing that uses lightweight lures and specialty weighted fishing lines to lure fish to the surface. Fly fishing is an especially popular fishing style against migratory feeding schools of fish such as salmon and trout. 

While most people are familiar with fly fishing in creeks and rivers as a freshwater recreation, it is also conducted in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. Many saltwater trophy fish, such as striped bass and tarpons, are aggressive movement-based feeders suitable for fly fishing.

How Is Fly Fishing Different from Regular Fishing?

The main difference between fly fishing and traditional fishing is that in fly fishing, the lure is cast through the fishing line’s weight. In fly fishing, lures and fishing lines are designed to rest on the top of the water in shallow waterways. 

A sinker or weighted lure is used in traditional fishing to cast tackle or bait into deep water. But this technique isn’t useful in the shallow creeks and rivers where fly fishing tackle is used. Instead, fly fishing involves fishing with a lure or bait on or near the surface of the water where fish mistake it for a fallen insect or other food sources. 

Equipment for Fly Fishing

The tackle used in fly fishing is very different from the tackle used in other types of fishing. Here’s a brief overview of the gear you’ll need to get started:

Tackle for Fly Fishing

The tackle in fly fishing includes the equipment you use directly in catching fish, such as rods, reels, and lines. This tackle is designed to be lightweight and for casting over moving currents of water. 

  • Fishing license: No matter where your fish, you’re likely to need a fishing license to do it legally. Check with your local fish and game department to determine what sort of licensing is needed and what the local catch and release laws are.  
  • Fly fishing rod and reel: Fly fishing rods can be sold separately from a fly reel or sold as a rod-and-reel combo. The fly rod weight you select depends on what you are trying to catch.
  • Fly fishing net: Fly fishing nets make it easier for fishers to haul their catch out of the water while causing the fish as little stress and damage as possible. Nets are especially important for catch and release fishing.
  • Artificial flies and hooks: Fly fishing is known for the use of artificial flies. The creation of these lures is known as fly tying and is a popular hobby in and of itself. There are many commercially produced flies available too.
  • Leaders and fishing line: The leaders and fishing line used are different than the line used in traditional fishing. When you’re shopping for supplies, look for a weighted line designed specifically for fly fishing.
  • Live bait: While many anglers don’t use live bait while using artificial flies in fly fishing since they add weight, the scent and movement of live bait can help draw fish in. Common bait includes waxworms and crickets. 
  • Fly and fly line dressing: Fly dressing and fly line dressing are both designed for the same purpose: to keep fly fishing flies and lines from taking on water by making them more buoyant.
  • Forceps: Forceps are a useful tool to have for working with lures or for removing the hook from a fish’s mouth during capture.
  • Clippers: Clippers are a useful tool for cutting lines and can also be used to trim up flies and lures. 

Fly Fishing Gear and Accessories

Along with tackle used in fly fishing, there are also other types of clothing and accessories that anglers can find useful. While fly fishing can be performed without some of these, they make the hobby a lot easier and more enjoyable.

  • Fishing vest: A fishing vest is useful for a fly fisher to keep them from having to wade back to shore in order to set up new lures or lines. The vest has plenty of storage so that anglers can keep all their supplies close at hand.
  • Fishing hat: While fly fishing, a fishing hat can help prevent anglers from getting a sunburn on their face and neck from long hours out on the water. The brim of a fishing hat is also a useful place to store extra flies within easy reach.
  • Wading boots: Wading boots are one of the most important pieces of equipment for a fly fisherman to have since they help prevent anglers from slipping and falling while they wade. The rocks in streams, creeks, and rivers are often slimy with algae. Falling on rocks in running water can be dangerous without traction.
  • Waders: Unlike wading boots, waders are typically rubberized overalls that come up past an angler’s waist. Waders are a good option for wading in deeper water or for fly fishing during times of the year when the water is very cold.
  • Polarized sunglasses: Polarized sunglasses help cut glare from the sun that sits on the top of the water, making it difficult to see the movement of fish. Sunglasses can also help prevent eye strain over long fishing sessions. 
  • Sunscreen: Even if you go on a cloudy day, you’ll be surprised at how much sun exposure you get over time while fly fishing. Reflections of the sun back off the surface of the water can increase UV exposure for anglers. Use sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and painful sunburns.
  • Day pack: A day pack is useful for all of the miscellaneous things you’ll need to bring along such as your fishing license, fly fishing books to read, or a packed lunch. Day packs should be waterproof or at least water-resistant to prevent damaged goods.
  • Flashlights: It’s always good to have at least two flashlights with you while fishing, especially if you fish around dawn or dusk like many anglers. While fly fishers usually fish in water too shallow to worry about watercraft, they still have to worry about wading around in dark water and in strong currents. 

Having the right equipment can go a long way towards seeing that your fishing session is successful. Investing in a pair of good waders might be somewhat pricey, but you won’t regret the investment when you’re snug and dry while hip-deep in frigid waters. Don’t forget to check out our tips for gear care.

Bait for Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is famous for its artificial lures, but many fishers also use live or cut bait to add more appeal to their lures. This is especially useful during off-season fishing when fish may be more reluctant to strike. 

Here are some of the most popular types of bait used in fly fishing (Source: Game and Fish Magazine): 

  • Worms: Worms are a perennial favorite with many types of anglers, and fly fishers are no exception. A major benefit of worms is that they can be easily cultivated at home for a constant and easy source of live fishing bait.
  • Crickets: Crickets add a lot of movement to an artificial lure and can be kept easily. Cricket size should be matched to the size of the tackle.
  • Minnows: Minnows such as flatheads are a popular live bait for larger trophy trout and salmon. Using an aerated live well can help keep minnows alive longer during the day so that no bait is lost due to suffocation.
  • Waxworms: Waxworms are a type of moth larvae that can be purchased either online in bulk, in bait shops, or in pet stores since they are commonly used to feed small reptiles and amphibians.
  • Crayfish: Crayfish are a type of live bait that has to be procured on-site most of the time, but they can be a great option for trying to nab larger fish. Crayfish are also sometimes available in bait shops or convenience stores near fly fishing areas, but they tend to be expensive compared to other types of purchased bait.
  • Nymphs: Like crayfish, nymphs like mayfly nymphs and dragonfly nymphs usually have to be collected right where you’re fly fishing, but these natural live baits can be some of the most sought-after since they are familiar to the fish in the area. 

Live bait may seem like a hassle when you’re fly fishing, but it can make all the difference if you’re fishing in an area where the fish seem hesitant to strike. 

Types of Fish to Target

Fly fishing is most popularly used for catching migratory fish such as trout, salmon, and grayling, but this technique can also be used for larger freshwater species such as pike and carp. While saltwater fly fishing isn’t as renowned as freshwater, anglers who go in saltwater habitats can go after large trophy fish such as tarpon and striped bass. 

Fly fishing works best on fish species that are used to catching their food from the surface of the water. During certain times of the year, mass reproduction of insects like mayflies produces swarms of insects over waterways that migrating fish depend on as a food source. Fly fishing uses artificial lures to imitate these fallen flies and draw fish into striking the top of the water. (Source: Rusty Angler)

How to Cast in Fly Fishing

When you’re learning to cast, there’s one important concept to keep in mind: in traditional fishing, the lure is cast and the line follows. In fly fishing, the line is cast and the lure follows the line. With practice, a fly fisherman can learn how to lay down a lure precisely to draw a strike from a waiting fish. 

The cast in involves two separate movements: the backcast (also known as loading the rod) and the forward cast. If the backcast is faulty, this will show in the trajectory of the forward cast and release. Here’s a video on how to cast a fly fishing rod from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Casting involves a series of movements that are more nuanced than casting a traditional sinking lure. For more one-on-one instruction in the gestures necessary to successfully cast, check with your local fly fishing shops or clubs to partake in some lessons from an experienced fly fishing instructor (check out my Orvis fly fishing school review!).  

How to Catch a Fish While Fly Fishing

Casting a rod is only half the battle. To set a hook once a fish has taken your lure while fly fishing, hold the rod directly at the fish and give the line a strong tug with your free hand to set the hook. 

Anglers should keep the rod bent to reduce tension while reeling in a caught fish. Otherwise, the tension may cause the line to snap or the hook to be pulled out of the fish’s mouth. With larger fish, it may take several minutes for the fish to wear itself down enough to be drawn in for capture with a fishing net. 

After Catching a Fish

Once the fish is in the net, the fly fisherman has two choices: they can keep the fish, or they can release it. Some species of fish may be strictly categorized as catch and release depending on their ecological vulnerability and what time of year it is. Others may need to be released based on their size or lack of size. 

Fish that are being kept for food or as a trophy can be stored in a creel or cooler. It’s a good idea to clean any fish that you’re planning to later use for food. Otherwise, the fish should be gently released back into the water. Forceps can be used to help carefully remove the hook from a fish without causing additional damage to them. 

For catch and release, moving quickly to return the fish back to the water with as little stress as possible is crucial to help reduce throwback losses resulting from suffocation or stress. 

Here are a few other tips for successfully releasing a caught fish (Source: Hatch Magazine): 

  • Use barbless hooks. Barbed hooks cause added injury to fish that decreases their chances of survival post-release, and barbs don’t actually increase the likelihood of a successful catch.
  • Wet your hands before handling. Handling a fish with dry hands can remove protective slime from the fish’s skin that helps guard it against infection and parasites.
  • Don’t drag fish onto the shore or over rocks. This obviously increases the chance that the fish will suffer life-threatening injuries while being reeled in, and will also disrupt the fish’s slime coat.
  • Protect the head. Head injuries are a leading cause of death in fish that have been released after capture, and fish don’t have the same protection for their head, eyes, and brain as other animals. Be gentle with the fish’s head to keep it alive.

Catch and release can be a great way to enjoy fishing if you don’t necessarily enjoy eating fish, but learning how to do it properly will help prevent you from accidentally killing fish in the process of catching them.    

Best Times to Go Fly Fishing

As with other types of fishing, the best types of day to go fly fishing are usually the few hours right before daybreak and the hour or two right before evening falls. These low-light conditions and reduced temperatures usually include an increase in insect activity, which in turn helps drive up the appetite of baitfish and game fish. 

The most popular time of the year to go is summer. This is because the warmer temperatures allow anglers to wade out into the river without having to suffer frigid temperatures due to snowmelt. Anglers without proper protection can suffer from hypothermia if they’re exposed to low temperatures over a long period, so fly fishing in warm weather is safer too. 

Best Places to Go Fly Fishing

Some of the best fly fishing regions in the United States are located in the northwestern part of the country in states like Montana and Wyoming. These regions offer many varied waterways and also the cooler temperatures necessary for trout and salmon to successfully reproduce. 

New England is also a popular region for fly fishers. Maine especially is well known for its brook trout fishing as well as landlocked freshwater salmon. To the Southwest, Colorado is a popular mecca. And in Europe, the mountains of the Alps and the Spanish Pyrenees offer the best creeks and streams for fly fishing. (Source: Alps Fly Fish)

No matter where in the world you go fly fishing, you’ll be able to find good fishing in areas that have a lot of fast-running waterways and coldwater streams or rivers. 

Tips for Fly Fishing

Fly fishing can feel difficult for beginners since it involves some pretty complex skill joined with intuition about where the fish are most likely to hit in the water, but knowing these tips will help you get the most out of your next trip (Source: Field and Stream):

  • Keep your lures small. If you’re having problems getting fish to strike on the lure you’re using, try setting up a fly that is a size smaller. When fishing, it’s always better to go with a smaller lure over a large one since many fish will not even attempt a lure that they think is too big for them.
  • Be sure to keep an arc in your rod during the pull-in. Many anglers can become panicked if a larger catch begins flailing or fighting to run, but as long as you focus on keeping your rod arced, you can sit back and let the fish wear itself out without having to worry about losing your tackle.
  • Watch the water. Foam or lines of bubbles on the surface can often be an indicator of feeding trout under the surface. On any fly fishing trip, sitting back and watching the water for a period of time can key you into the places where fish are gathering.
  • Don’t charge into the stream. Many enthusiastic anglers barge into the water without taking the time to watch where they’re preparing to walk. You could accidentally end up wading straight into a school of fish, scaring them all off. Assess the situation carefully before you get ready to enter the river.
  • Use bigger flies in murky waters. Fish are more likely to strike at larger lures in muddy high waters that they can’t see as well in.  

Learning how fish behave and how to exploit that behavior is a big part of learning how to reel them in. But it’s just as important to learn how to use your fly fishing tools correctly and to use the right tools for the job. 

Etiquette While Fly Fishing

If you’re fly fishing in an area where there are lots of anglers, you’ll need to take some largely unspoken rules of the river into consideration. Practicing proper etiquette while fly fishing can ensure that everybody has a good time. 

Here are some rules of fly fishing etiquette to keep in mind (Source: Roots Rated): 

  • Give everyone room. By far, the most important rule of etiquette while fly fishing is making sure that everyone has plenty of room to fish. Don’t be afraid to communicate with other anglers on the river to make sure you end up stationed far enough away from where they plan to set up shop.
  • Watch where you’re casting. Never forget that you’re whipping a sharp hook around on the end of a line, and be sure to watch while you’re backcasting as well as where you’re casting when you’re casting forward. Don’t sling your rod dramatically around like a lasso close to where other people are trying to fish.
  • Keep it to a dull roar. It’s fine to celebrate a catch, but try not to do a lot of loud yelling or splashing that will scare away the fish and reduce the chances of a catch for other anglers. Anglers should also keep in mind that many people go fishing to get in touch with the serenity of nature, so try not to be too disruptive to the mellow vibe. 

Some famous spots can get pretty crowded during certain times of year, so being respectful of every angler present is important for reducing any potential conflict between fishers on the river. 

Safety While Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is generally a safe sport, but there are still a few safety risks you should take into consideration. Since it involves wading into strong currents and maneuvering over slippery rocks, drowning is a very real possibility for anglers who lose their footing and fall in. This is one of the reasons why fly fishing with a friend is always recommended. 

Here are a few other safety threats you may run into on your trips: 

  • Hook impalement: One of the biggest risks while fishing is having a hook thrown into someone’s eye or skin during a cast. This risk is increased by using especially sharp gear such as barbed tackles or treble hooks. Hook injuries can be avoided by taking care during casting and always looking back before backcasting.
  • Hypothermia: Fly fishers who submerge themselves in icy waters over long periods of time without rubber waders or other thermal protection are at risk from hypothermia (a dangerously low body temperature). Hypothermia can be avoided by fishing in warmer weather and wearing proper wading gear for cold weather fishing.
  • Fin cuts: Fish fins can be used by fish defensively during the capture process and their sharp puncture wounds can cause pain and infection. Gloves can be used to prevent a fish’s fins from cutting or piercing the skin of your hands while you remove the hook with forceps, especially if you have a hook that is difficult to remove.

Along with using waders to prevent hypothermia, using other gear such as wading belts and wading staffs can help prevent anglers from being overtaken by water even if they do manage to fall down. It’s also a good idea for fly fishers to have a basic first aid kit to help nurse any potential illness or injury. 

Lastly, one of the biggest safety tools a fly fisherman can bring with them is a cell phone. This can provide access to emergency services in the case of sudden sickness or an accident. When you’re out in the backcountry, every minute counts between an accident and rescue. 

Fly Fishing Is a Great Hobby

For people who are just starting out and see the wide range of equipment available for purchase, fly fishing might seem like an intimidating sport to get into. But once you have the right gear and you know what to expect on the water, it can be one of the most satisfying forms of fishing in the world.

Have you tried fly fishing yet? If you’re just getting started, leave your questions or comments!