5 Basic Fly Fishing Tips for Beginners

Image of a man fly fishing

If you are reading this article I assume you are looking to begin a frustrating, addictive, and beautiful adventure in fly fishing.

I’m not going to lie to you, starting out in fly fishing can be extremely frustrating. It can be maddening even for those of us who have been at it for years!

Don’t let that turn you away. In fact, it should make you want to learn even more.

The truth is, fly fishing is an art and to become proficient at any form of art takes time. The best part is that, even with all the frustrations early on, it’s still really fun and one of the most fulfilling sports to undertake.

I don’t want to bog you down with fishing tactics or the minutiae of fly fishing gear. There are thousands of articles out there to cover that and send you into mental overload.

Your first few trips with a fly rod are critical, and the goal for this article is to provide 5 basic tips to help you ease into fly fishing and lessen some of the more frustrating aspects of starting out in the fly fishing world.

Here’s a rundown of all the tips. If you want the more detailed guide you can find it below the infographic.

– Carl

infographic showing tips for fly fishing

Tip 1: Choose your equipment carefully^

This is the make-or-break period for beginner fly fisherman.

It’s going to be tempting to purchase a cheap rod and reel. Believe me, I know how expensive some of the equipment can be, but your decision on these two pieces of equipment will be the biggest factor on your initial success.

One of the first lessons I try to teach people with casting is that the rod does all the work. You are simply guiding it.

    • The Rod

      A cheap rod is going to fight against your guidance. It will have horrible loading and be stiff throughout the rod. It will seem to resist any efforts you make to gain distance and accuracy and will make casting a constant struggle. You will stand there in the river wondering why you didn’t bring your open face rod and reel.

      We don’t want that, and you will end up missing out on a lifetime pursuit.

      When looking for a rod you need to be aware of the rod length, weight, and action. How you go about deciding on these variables depends on what type of fishing you plan on doing.

      In general a 5 weight, 8-9 foot rod is a pretty good all-purpose fly rod. Medium action fly rods are also the best bet for a beginner caster as they are pretty forgiving and easier to learn on.

      If your just wanting to hook some small brookies in mountain streams a smaller weight and shorter rod will be easier to use. The same goes for catching marlin or tarpon. Your going to need a heavier and longer rod to gain handle the heavier line.

Image of a fly fishing rod and a trout

  • The Reel

    Your choice of a reel is also important. Higher quality material gives you better drag control, which can be instrumental in landing a trophy fish.

    Increased arbor can also prevent line memory giving you a better float. The higher end reels are more durable and not as heavy which can give your overall rod and reel combination better balance.

  • The Fly Line

    Fly line is the last piece we will spend much time on. The weight of your fly line is going to depend on the weight of the rod you have chosen. I like to abide by the +/- 1 rule.

    If you have a 5-weight rod, I would only feel comfortable using 4, 5, or 6 fly line. This rule will keep balance in your setup and make casting easier.

    There are different types of fly line that are available. For a beginner, tapered weight-forward lines are a must. This will make casting much easier and more forgiving of bad technique.

    You will also be best served buying floating line. Floating line gives you the versatility of fishing dry flies, nymphs, or streamers.

Of course, there is more equipment to think about. Eventually you might want to look into a good pair of waders and boots so that you can fish year round. A good wading pack to store all your flies, leaders, and tippet is also a valuable investment.

No matter how well you practice the next 4 tips, if you have bad gear your chances of catching fish declines exponentially.

Tip 2: Stay out of the water for a little while^

Once you have your gear you are going to be itching to get out on the water and land some fish, but that would be one of the worst things you could attempt to do at this moment.
Image showing a 2-step process to learn casting techniques
Learning to cast on the water is going to result in a lot of empty and frustrating trips as you send fish hiding from your line smacking the water right above them.

The rest of the time will be spent working out tangles in your line.

This is good advice for all levels of fly anglers. I sometimes get out on the river and decide to try out a cast I have not practiced and end up with a pile of tangled line floating past me and over the heads of trophy fish.

A few hours in the backyard can alleviate that horrible sight and feeling in the water.

The two major casts you need to practice in the yard are the standard back cast/forward cast and the roll cast. If you become proficient at these two casts you will be able to catch fish on your first outing and can add to your repertoire later.

Tip 3: Check out the local fly shops^

Local fly shops are an invaluable source of information for the fly fisherman.

Make these people your friends. They will be able to give you an idea of where the fishing is hot, when and what hatches are occurring, and a myriad of other tips.

Another thing is that they will also be helpful with deciding on some basic fly fishing gear. They have first hand experience in using the various equipment and will be able to give you the pros and cons of each.

Most importantly, these guys can put you in the right direction as to what flies are working.
Quote from the text about the value of local fly fishing shops

A lot of beginner fly fishers will buy a pack of generic flies. There is nothing wrong with this and thousands of fish have been caught with them, but the fly shop will help you pick out flies that are hot and specific to the water you are wanting to fish. I can’t stress how much this helps!

As a beginner fly angler we want you to hook a few fish early to build your confidence and the men and women running the shops can accelerate that success and help you improve on all the tips we will cover in this article.

Tip 4: Take your time and be aware^

Okay, you have your gear, got some basic casts down, and the guys at the fly shop have put you on some fish. It’s time to get out on the water!

If the local rivers are tail-waters you need to be aware of the generation schedule that the dams are on. Getting caught in the river when the water begins to rise is incredibly dangerous and this water rises fast! The state you are in will have the schedule available and keep it updated hourly.

Free-flowing streams can be treacherous at times as well due to increased rain or spring runoff making wading dangerous.

Local fly shops will also have this information in more detail and can give you information such as when the water will begin to rise at certain parts of the river.

Even on a normal day river currents can be deceivably strong and rock bottoms unbelievably slick. When you get in the river move slowly and never pick your foot up unless you know where you are going to put it down.

Trying to fish while adjusting your position is also a bad habit to pick up. There is a good chance you will lose your footing and your cast is more likely to scare fish off than catch them.

Finally, be aware of what is around you when casting. When you see a spot on the river you know has to be holding trout and start your forward cast to only have it hang up on a limb 20 feet behind you is devastating.

Be sure you have clear casting lanes. The reason the roll cast should be one of the first casts you master is for this scenario where you might have some heavy back brush.

Tip 5: Catch some fish^

I assume this is the tip that you came for. Well it’s finally time to catch some fish. Of course, that’s easier said than done. This is such a vast subject we are going to break it down into a couple sub-tips.

Keep in mind that the tips covered in this section each have hundreds of books, articles, and instructional videos made for it. You have much to learn!

Tip 5(a): What are the fish eating^

Once you get into the water take a look at how the fish are feeding.
Image of some cutlery
Do you see any fish rising making rings on the water? Then you might want to go with a dry fly. If you don’t see any surface feeding you can be more confident in a nymph or midge pattern.

If you have an idea how they are feeding next look at some bugs floating down the river or that are under rocks. Look at their color and size and try to match it as best you can with flies in your box.

It takes some time and experience before you can get a feel for the types of insects you are looking at, but this is why making frequent trips to the fly shop can be so valuable.

Tip 5(b): How to work a stream^

Image of water streaming through the woods
When working a river or stream always fish “out and up”. Even in a small section of a river there are going to be multiple currents and feeding lanes between you and the opposite bank.

It’s easy to whip out some line, tie on a fly that looks good, and start throwing it to every part of the water. You might catch something, but you are going to spook a lot of fish in the process.

By working the feeding lanes nearest to you before moving out you don’t risk putting fish down casting over lanes to work a spot you see 20 yards out in front of you. It also makes it easier to keep a good, drag-free float on your fly.

Until you have more experience mending your line trying to deal with multiple currents between you and your fly will be difficult.

Fish in rivers are most often facing upstream where they can watch for food drifting down with the current. By approaching these holes from downriver you keep a lower profile and are not kicking silt up into their faces as you approach.

Like the fishing out example, you should work from the back of a feeding lane up. If you start from the front your fly line smacking overhead fish near the back can put them down.

Fish out and up, that’s great but it doesn’t help you if you don’t know where fish like to hang out.

Tip 5(c): Where are the fish^

The following list is not the only places in a river where you have a chance at catching a fish, but there are hot spots that are usually holding.

    • Seams in the current

      Fish do not want to expend all their energy fighting the current. Because of this, they like to hold in areas that give them a break from the current, but allow them to monitor the water flowing by for food.

      When looking at the water you will see seams where slow water is beside faster moving water. If you can drift you fly on the edge of these seams you have a good shot at fooling a hungry fish.

Image of a caught trout

  • Boulders and obstructions

    Boulders and other obstructions provide shelter from the current for fish by providing pockets of calm water. When you are fishing riffles or fast runs these obstructions are havens for trout.

    The biggest mistake beginners make is trying to cast directly to the pocket. Slapping a fly and line down right on top of the calm water is going to put the fish down. Cast several yards upriver and float the fly right by the obstruction hitting the seam.

  • Riffles to runs

    I love working areas where the water type changes in a river. Riffles are shallow sections of the river with extremely fast current. Fish can be caught within riffles by using the above methods, but the best place to search for fish is where the riffle turns into a run of deeper, slower water.

    I like to think of it as a buffet line for the fish. The fast shallow water turns up a lot of insects that drift down to hungry fish holding in the calmer runs. Casting up into the riffles and letting your fly drift into the run is an effective strategy.

  • Runs to pools

    Similar to the above tip, this can be an excellent place to catch fish. Runs eventually turn into deeper areas of slow moving water.

    Pools can be tricky to fish. The slow moving water makes having a drag free fly critical to fooling fish.

    You might also have to adjust weight accordingly to put your fly at the correct feeding level of the fish. While anecdotal, some of the bigger trout I have caught have been in this situation.

  • Banks

    Runs moving up along the bank provide one of the best opportunities for catching a monster fish.

    There are usually cut outs up along the bank that provide excellent cover and breaks from the current. Fish are able to sit in this cover and wait for appetizing food to pass by their hideout.

Tip 5(d): Landing fish^

Image of fly fisherman releasing a fish
In terms of trout, there can be vicious strikes that are unmistakable or it can be gentle sip of the fly. Because of this it is important to practice good line management.

What I mean by this is you do not need excess line out, as it will hinder your ability to feel the more gentle takes of your fly.

Once you have a fish on it is critical to keep tension between the tip of your rod and the fish. This might mean elevating the rod to increase tension or stripping line in quickly if the fish is closing the gap between its hit and your position.

As fly fisherman, the health of the fish should always be a major concern.

When fighting the fish you should be attempting to get it in as quickly as possible. Leaving the fish on to feel a little more fight is frowned upon by the fly fishing community.

Get it in and start looking for the next one.

When you have the fish within distance to land it a net can make the process a lot easier than trying to wrangle a fish with one hand while working the rod.

If you are not planning on keeping the fish it should be handled with wet hands to cut back on abrasions and possible infections for the fish. The time out of water should be minimal unless you are planning to keep and clean them.

Final Thoughts^

If you follow these tips you’re going to land fish more quickly and consistently during your first few outings with fewer frustrating hang-ups that a lot of us had to endure.

We covered a lot of information and have not even started to scratch the surface of these topics.

That’s okay though. It’s a life long obsession for a lot of people and really understanding these topics takes time and experience in the water.

One of my fishing buddies has a saying that I have adopted. It goes, “Time spent on the trout stream does not detract from a man’s total life.” While not completely accurate it does illustrate the feelings a lot of fly fisherman have for their sport.

Even when the fishing isn’t great, time is never wasted on the water.

We all get frustrated on the water and might even tell ourselves we are never coming back, but in the end, there are few places we would rather spend our time than in the water with a fly rod in our hands. I hope that eventually, you will come to feel this way too.

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