Starting Out in Fly Fishing

Did you know that probably 75-80% of people who take up fly fishing started out as folks who fished with conventional gear? Switching over to fly fishing means switching some gears. There’s lot to learn and some new skills to master, not to mention the equipment that you have to understand and acquire.  We’re going to go over some of that information for you, focusing on the wading angler.

What’s involved in starting to fly fish fits into two different categories, 1.) What you need to know to fish with a fly rod, and, 2.) What you need to have to fish with a fly rod; in other words, knowledge & skill, as well as gear and equipment.  

What you need to know

Keep in mind that you certainly won’t know everything you need to know about fly fishing within the first few months after you start fishing with a fly rod.  Don’t worry, your casts don’t have to be perfect for you to catch fish. Besides, that there’s always something new to learn in fly fishing. Nevertheless, you do need the following fundamental information. 

 Starting to fly fish requires that you have rudimentary knowledge of:

  • the basic differences between different fly rods, fly reels, and fly lines;
  • how to rig up the fly rod with the correct line and leader for different kinds of fish and for different fishing locations such as lakes or rivers;
  • how to cast a fly rod and how to cast both lighter rods for smaller fish and heavier rods for bigger fish, depending on the species of fish you’re after;
  • the four different types of flies, and how to select the right fly for the fish you’re after and the type of water you are fishing;
  • how to put that fly in the right place on the water and make it drift or move in the right way to interest your target fish;
  • how to set the hook and play a large or small fish on a fly rod (because it’s different from either a spinning rod or a bait/casting rod); and
  • how to release a fish correctly.

What you need to have

Just as your knowledge of fly fishing grows over time so, probably, will the amount of your fly fishing gear. Most people find that until they decide they want to fly fish for king salmon or saltwater fish they can do just fine with one or two fly rods.

Starting to fly fish requires that you have

  • someone who knows what they’re doing to teach you the basics;
  • a valid fishing license and/or other permits where required;
  • a fly rod, a fly reel, and a fly line that enable you to catch the fish you’re after;
  • various flies that are known to be successful with the type of fish that you’re targeting and a box to put them in;
  • neoprene or breathable chest-high waders, wading boots (not with felt soles as of 1/1/12), a wading belt, and a good rain coat to help you move around in the water and keep you dry, plus good wool socks to keep your feet warm;
  • Polarized sun glasses, made specifically for fishing (I recommend Habervision glasses in the copper-rose tint.) They protect your eyes and help you to see fish in the water. A baseball hat with a good brim and a warm, fleece or wool hat and gloves to put on when the weather turns nasty are other necessities;
  • A collapsible wading stick for safety and mobility in moving water. Some list this as optional equipment, but I believe it is absolutely essential, especially since felt-soled boots will soon be outlawed. (Folstaf is the best collapsible staff on the market. Be sure to order/buy the ¾ diameter staff combined with the best length for your height for Alaska waters. Go to and see the video. )  Once you drown, it will be a little late to say that you wish you had one.
  • A fishing vest or gear-pack in which you can carry your fly boxes, water bottle, extra leader, gloves, map, compass, flashlight, whistle, etc..

What do you need to know to fish with a fly rod?

Now that you’ve got the outline, let’s return to the aspects of what you need to know when starting to fly fish and discuss each part in a bit more depth.

1.    Fly Rods, Fly Lines, and Fly Reels The basic differences between one fly rod and another boils down to the combination of three things, its weight, its length, and its flex or action. The weight of the rod is determined by the diameter and strength of the fly line it will cast. We match the rod weight with the weight & size of the fish that you aim to catch. Lower weight rods (3-wt, 4-wt, 5-wt 6-wt) cast smaller & lighter lines and generally catch smaller fish such as trout, bass, grayling, bluegill, etc. Rod weights 7-wt, 8-wt and 9-wt are the larger rods and lines that can catch larger fish such as steelhead, pike, redfish, stripers, salmon (except for kings), etc. When it comes to fishing for king salmon, and saltwater fish, then the rod weight needs to be  10-wt or higher. The larger the fish the larger the line-weight of the rod needed to fish for it.

Fly rods come in different lengths just as they come in different weights. Shorter rods are typically used to fish in small, brushy streams. If you’re going to be fishing such a place, and fishing for larger fish, you’ll need a rod that is probably 7 ½ feet to 8 ½ feet long, that casts a  #7 or even a #8-wt line. For smaller fish, it will be a #5 or #6 line. For most other fly fishing, a 9-ft long rod is preferred because the length helps to make longer casts. So you should be buying a 9-ft 8-wt rod if you’re going to fish for salmon or steelhead. But, you’ll buy a 9-ft 5 or 6-wt rod to fish for trout or grayling.

Flex, or action, is the third important factor in a rod. That simply describes how the rod will bend when it has a fish on. A rod that will be fighting larger fish has to have plenty of stiffness in the butt of the rod to land such a fish, while a rod that is used for trout requires less stiffness in the butt. A rod that combines a stiff butt section with a more delicate tip so that the rod casts easily is usually referred to as a medium-fast action rod. Rods used for smaller fish are generally referred to as medium action or medium flex rods as they have less stiffness in the butt. Put simply, if a rod bends more than one-fourth to one-third of the way down from the tip, it will have a difficult time landing large fish.

Fly Lines  As you can see from the above discussion, fly rods and fly lines need to be matched up for the whole rig to cast properly eg. 7-wt rod = #7 line. Most people buy a weight-forward floating fly line to start with since it is the type of line that you will use on most rivers and streams. If you fish large, deep rivers, or lakes, then you will probably need a sinking-tip fly line. The store will help you select the best one for where you will be fishing.

Fly reels  must also match-up with the rod and the line because they have to be the correct size to hold the line that the rod is casting. They also must be a certain size in order to balance the rod when you are casting. Reel manufacturers tell you on the box which size of rod & line that particular reel works best with. Less expensive reels usually have less drag (the function of the reel that helps slow down the revolutions of the spool when you have a fish on). So, since we have large, feisty fish in Alaska, I recommend buying a reel with a good drag. The salesperson at the store will demonstrate the strength and power of different reels for you. I also recommend that you buy a reel that has what is called an “exposed rim.” Those are reels designed to enable you to put pressure underneath the spool to help slow it down to keep your fish under control. Be absolutely sure that you know how to take the spool on and off the reel-base before leavingt he store. O.K. that’s your basic set-up. Now, let’s get to rigging up.

2.    Rigging the fly rod and reel When you buy your rod, reel, and fly line, the store will put the line on the reel for you. All you need to do is decide whether you want to wind it with your left or your right hand. If you don’t know at first, the store will set you up with a left-hand wind, which can be switched over to right-hand later, if you change your mind. (Be sure to buy a reel that can be used with either hand so you can do this.)

Now, you’re going to need to have a length of monofilament on the end of your fly line to tie your fly to. That’s called your “leader.” Leaders come pre-made, or you can learn to tie your own. Unless you are taking a class that teaches you how to tie leaders, you’ll have to buy them. The store (or your instructor) will explain what length and strength of leader (pound-test) you will need for different sizes of fish and different fishing situations. They  will show you how to attach the leader to the little loop pre-made on the end of your fly line. You can use the knot that you always use to tie on a lure to also tie on a fly. If you don’t know any knot like that, then have the store or your instructor show you one.

3.    Casting the fly rod is the heart and soul of fly fishing.  In fly fishing the caster needs to get the line out on the water because there is no heavy metal lure or chunk of bait on the end of the line to pull it out.  A novice fly angler needs to know three basic casts to get on the water. The beautiful, back and forth cast so familiar to everyone who has seen “A River Runs Through It” is called the basic, overhead cast. There, the caster learns to grip the rod with the thumb up on the handle and then to move the rod back and forth between two distinct stopping places (one at the end of the brim on a baseball cap, and the other behind the caster’s ear) with a certain rhythm in order to help the tip of the rod fling the line out. (Some people refer to it as moving the rod tip back & forth between 11:00 and 1:00 o’clock to make the cast.) It’s the cast most-used in fly fishing.

The other two basic casts are the roll cast and the side-arm cast. Roll casting is done where there is no room for a back cast or where some obstruction behind the caster prevents the line from going out in the back. When roll casting, the caster lays twelve or fifteen feet of line on the water and then slowly pulls their thumb and the rod up to his shoulder and tips the rod slightly out to the side. After a brief pause to let the line settle, the thumb and the rod are poked about six inches straight up, followed quickly by a flick of the wrist. That enables the rod tip to send line out in the front and escape the perils of a back-cast.

The side arm cast is used when the cast must be made into the wind or underneath a branch or other obstruction. It simply involves doing the basic overhead cast turned on its side. Instead of the stops of the rod being made beside the caster’s head, they are made perpendicular to the ground. The caster is looking down at the flat face of the fly reel as the rod moves back and forth.

4.    Selecting the fly  The flies for fly fishing fall into four different categories and selecting the right one for where you are fishing means selecting from these categories.

Four Categories of Flies for Fly Fishing

Categories of FliesWhere fly is typically usedType/species of fish these flies are used for
Dry flies – small (usually) wispy bits of fur & feathers that imitate bugs floating on the surface of the water. Fish’s favorite bugs are caddis flies, mayflies, and stoneflies


Used in moving fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects.  Only caddis flies and mayflies are found in still water.All types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike in various sizes
Nymphs –small flies that imitate immature bugs and other small creatures living beneath the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”


Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects under the surface of the waterAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike
Streamers – larger flies (also referred to as “attractors”) that imitate things like leeches and small bait fish, living under the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”


Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish are feeding under the surface of the water. Also used in salt water in larger sizes and/or for larger fishAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, steelhead, and grayling in various sizes. Also used for pike and musky in fresh water in larger sizes and for most saltwater species usually also in larger sizes
Salmon flesh & egg imitation flies – flies that imitate chunks of rotting salmon flesh and salmon eggs under the surface of the water Used mostly in moving fresh water where salmon are present. Sometimes used in still fresh water.All types of trout, char, grayling, whitefish, steelhead

Now, here are the names of three of the most commonly used flies in each category and the typical size or sizes and color(s) to buy. (Just so you know, flies are sized according to the following formula: “the larger the number, the smaller the hook.” A #8 fly is larger than a #12 fly.

Most Commonly Used Flies

CategoriesNamesSizes & color(s)
 Dry fliesElk-hair caddis

Parachute Adams

Royal Wulff

12-14   tan -olive

   “        gray

   “        standard

NymphsGold-ribbed hare’s ear

Pheasant tail

Prince Nymph

12-16    tan or olive

   “        standard

   “        standard

StreamersWoolly Bugger

Muddler Minnow

Egg-Sucking Leech

2-10      black, olive, brown,


2-10      standard gold or silver

2-6        purple/ hot pink


Salmon fleshGinger bunny

Bunny fly

Egg-sucking bunny

2-8        ginger

2-8        grayish/off-white

2-8        ginger or off- white with

             pink or orange egg


Iliamna pinkie

plastic bead

6-10      salmon-pink/pale orange

8-10      salmon pink/pale orange

6-8        various colors to match


5.    Presenting and drifting the fly -How the angler presents the fly to the fish and then controls the action of fly once it is in/on the water are the two most important aspects of catching fish. The fly must land just up-river of a spot where the angler actually sees a fish or expects fish to be. That skill involves learning where different types of fish hold. Trout, for instance prefer well-oxygenated water along the edges of currents, and salmon are typically in slower water near the banks. Bass and other warm water fish like slow water with lots of cover.

Dry flies must light gently on the water, much as a real bug would, and then drift down with the current “drag-free”. That means that the angler must not just slap the line and fly on the water, and that both the line and leader must land and drift behind the fly for it to look natural to the fish. Nymphs must be fished along the bottom of the river, where the bugs live, and the line and leader must not just drag the fly along but rather help it to bounce and tumble along naturally. Streamers are usually cast a little downstream and across the river from the angler. Then they are moved either across the current or along the bottom and made to act like a small bait fish or a swimming leech.

6. Playing and landing a fish are, of course, the highlight of the fly fishing experience. Setting the hook with a fly rod involves tightening your fingers over the line and the rod handle and lifting the rod tip quickly. Then, rather than just dragging the fish in, the angler eases up a bit on the tight line to let the fish “play” while slowly bring it closer and closer. The most important difference in playing a fish on a fly rod is that the angler must not hold tightly to the wind-knob on the reel but must learn to only wind when the fish is not pulling.

7.    Releasing a fish correctly involves holding it gently in the water with its nose turned into the current until is re-gains enough strength to thrust itself out of your hand. Do not move the fish back and forth. Remember, it’s the fish that decides when it is ready & able to swim away, not the angler.  (See my article on catch & release in the October, 2008 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine.) 

What do you need to have? A couple more tips

As part of the discussion of what you need to know to fish with a fly rod, we’ve pretty much covered the fly rod, reel & line and the basic flies that you must understand and acquire. So, now let’s quickly add a few words to the discussion of the gear you need to have.

Buying your fishing license each year until you qualify for the State of Alaska Lifetime license for senior citizens is a must, and finding someone who knows what they are doing to teach you how to fly fish isn’t really hard.

The Alaska Fly Fishers club in Anchorage offers an inexpensive beginner’s seminar each spring right after the Great Alaska Sportsman Show in April. You can get the exact dates at It includes equipment, casting, knot tying, and finding places to fish along with a great introductory book produced by the club. 

The fly fishing shops in Anchorage and around the state can also be a good place to locate beginning fly casting lessons, and several guides advertise that they include some instruction in their guided fishing days.

The well-known Kenai River Fishing Academy also does one of its two annual sessions on fly fishing.

 The remainder of the items to have that are listed above are pretty self-explanatory. Now then, with a good book (try my “River Girls: Fly Fishing for Young Women”) or two, you should be on your way to becoming a reel “flyfisher.” 


(Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine