Commonly regarded as an intimidating technique reserved for experienced anglers, learning to fly fish is less complicated than you might think. A highly rewarding and exciting experience, fly fishing can lead to thrilling up-close encounters with fish, unlike anything you’ll experience using other angling techniques. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about what fly fishing is, and how you can get started with this rewarding sport and hobby.
Before diving in, if you are already familiar with what fly fishing is, you should check out our beginner’s guide to fly fishing, which tells new anglers everything they need to know to get started.
What Is Fly Fishing?
Fly fishing is a method of fishing that utilizes a fly rod, fly line, fly reel, and artificial flies (lures) to fish in either freshwater or saltwater. These flies and line are often light-weight, and are meant to mimic semi-aquatic insects, insects landing on water, or other aquatic creatures.
Flies are presented to fish in ways that are meant to mimic the natural feeding of fish species.
Fly fishing often utilizes an extremely light-weight line (leader and tippet) and lure (fly) comparative to other angling techniques. Artificial flies are intricately tied to resemble insects in various stages of their life cycle, and occasionally may be designed to resemble other invertebrates, baitfish, and even injured rodents or amphibians.
Anglers have various casting techniques, fishing techniques, flies to utilize, and locations to fish, making the sport of fly fishing more diverse than most non-fly fisherman would realize.
Fly fishing is a highly technical type of fishing and requires the angler to be highly observant and knowledgeable of the areas they choose to fish. Specific flies are selected for different varieties of fish, the different seasons, and for various weather conditions, so knowing how to ‘read the waters’ so to speak is an important part of fly fishing. Most commonly used to fish freshwater rivers and streams, some fly anglers also target saltwater fish varieties.
Fly anglers often break freshwater fly fishing into two categories, warm-water species (bass, crappy, carp, and others), and cold-water species (trout, salmon, steelhead, and others).
Fly casting is an eye-catching technique that sets fly fishing apart from more traditional methods of fishing. Fly casting methods rely on the weight of the fly fishing line to carry the fly to the target, requiring the angler to cast the line forward at a precise angle for the energy to transfer down the line and towards the fly. The finesse required to properly cast a fly line can take years to perfect, but even less-than-perfect casts can still catch plenty of fish.
This a fly fishing cast differs from other casting techniques with spin rods. Spin rods are cast by utilizing the weight of the lure to shoot out the line, while fly fishing relies on the weight of the line to present lightweight flies.
Fly Fishing vs. Spin Fishing
When the average person imagines the act of fishing, they probably think first of spin fishing. Spin fishing is an angling technique that utilizes artificial bait or lures and a repetitive casting method to catch fish. The name ‘spin fishing’ comes from the spinning reel used for this technique, which allows the angler to quickly cast and real their line back in. You can read our guide on casting spinning reel and rod here.
Spin fishing may be done from shore, a dock, kayak, or a boat, and is used to catch both fresh and saltwater fish. The most ‘common’ type of fishing with the most readily available gear, spin fishing is also widely regarded as one of the easiest techniques to learn.
Here are some of the key differences between fly fishing and spin fishing in an easy-reference chart:
|Fly Fishing||Spin Fishing|
|Rod Type||Lightweight, flexible||Heavier, more rigid|
|Bait Type||Flies (artificial only)||Lures, live and dead bait|
|Line Type||Fly line plus a leader & tippet||Monofilament, fluorocarbon or braided line|
|Water Type||All water types||All water types|
|Casting||False casting, tight lining, swinging, and others||Single cast|
|Presentation||Often more delicate||Often doesn’t need to be as delicate|
If you are looking for even more information about the differences, you can read our article, fly fishing vs spin fishing.
History of Fly Fishing
Tracing the exact roots of modern fly fishing is virtually impossible since many of the tools and techniques we use today are a combination of various methods used around the world. The earliest written mention of fly fishing is attributed to the Roman author Claudius Aelianus in the 2nd century, though it is likely that indigenous people used similar techniques for centuries prior.
Most similar to today’s fly fishing is a traditional Japanese fishing technique called Tenkara, which was developed as a means of catching trout and char in small mountain streams. Japanese fishermen are also thought to be the original creators of the first flies. This method of fishing is growing very rapidly across the world.
After the English Civil War in the 17th century, fly fishing began to appear more frequently in published literature and descriptions of life in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Over the next century and leading up to the Industrial Revolution, fly fishing would become a popular fishing technique among low-income and rural people.
Fly fishing wouldn’t become a hobby-sport until the 19th century when more opportunities opened up to the middle class, and widespread industrialization made consistently produced rods available to the public. In the mid 20th century, with the development of fiberglass and alternative materials, hobby fly fishing truly began to take off, becoming the worldwide pastime it is today.
Key Fly Fishing Terminology
As you learn about fly fishing, you are going to come across a few key terms that you might not already know. These words are going to appear again and again, so let’s get some definitions under your belt to make the reading a little more comfortable.
- Dry fly: a fly that is designed to sit on the surface of the water (see our dry vs wet flies article)
- False cast: casting a fly line backward and forwards without touching the water or ground to dry a fly, change direction, or narrow in on a target
- Leader: a tapered section of monofilament or fluorocarbon line used to connect the fly to the fly line. The leader is tapered to deliver the fly away from the fly line, producing a more natural-looking landing and minimizing water disturbance
- Presentation: the action of presenting a fly to the fish. A good presentation mimics natural behaviors.
- Rise: the action of a fish coming to the surface to feed
- Rod: in fly fishing, the “pole” is called a rod
- Tippet: the smallest section of a leader; located at the end of the leader where the fly is tied
- Wet fly: a fly that is designed to sit right below the surface of the water, or designed to sink; a fly that gets wet
Fly Fishing Equipment
Now that you know what fly fishing is and can identify some of the key terminology used by professional fly anglers, let’s discuss fly fishing equipment. While many of the components of a fly fishing rig will be familiar to you if you have been fishing before, some of this gear may be entirely unfamiliar to you. Here are the most common and frequently used pieces of fly fishing equipment:
Flies vs. Lures vs. Live Bait
Flies are the bait of choice among fly fishermen and come in a wide range of colors, sizes, and patterns. Designed to resemble semi-aquatic insects during various stages of their growth cycle, flies may be made to sit under or on top of the water. Small, lightweight, and made from thread, natural and synthetic fibers, feathers, fur, beads, and more, flies may be purchased pre-tied or tied by hand.
Lures are a type of artificial bait, sometimes made to resemble small fish, and sometimes simply designed to catch the light and move appealingly. Common types of lures include jigs, spinners, spoons, crankbaits and soft plastic worms. Lures are typically used for spin fishing and similar fishing techniques. Lures are not used for fly fishing.
Live bait (i.e. large nightcrawlers, small fish) is a popular choice when fishing for larger varieties and game fish. Attractive to more active and predatory fish species, live bait is typically fairly successful but can be a hassle to prepare. Live bait is not used for fly fishing.
Fly Fishing Line
Though lighter weight than most common types of fishing line, fly fishing line is the weighted component of a fly fishing rig. Used to direct the trajectory of a cast and to guide flies to their target, a fly line is used in combination with a leader and a tippet to deliver flies stealthily to the surface of the water. Made from lightweight but durable nylon, fly line is tapered and becomes thinner towards the end near the fly.
There are various types of fly lines. Watch this video to learn more:
Fly Rods & Reels
Fly rods are longer, lighter, and more flexible than traditional spin fishing rods. Typically made from graphite, composite materials, or which supplies superior strength while remaining lightweight, fly rods are designed to flex and change direction with false casting techniques. On average around 9 feet in length, some fly rods are as long as 14 feet.
The reels used in fly fishing are also unique, designed with an open body that sits behind the main hand positioned on the rod. Traditional fishing rods have reels that sit above the hands, but the bottom-weighted design of a fly rod and reel helps to assist with casting accuracy.
We recommend viewing our article listing the best beginner fly fishing rod and reel combos.
What Makes Fly Fishing Unique?
What sets fly fishing apart from traditional types of fishing isn’t just the gear or the technique – it’s all in the experience. Fly fishing often requires anglers to navigate into the water, carefully read water conditions, and focus on the presentation of flies. This added difficulty and immersiveness into nature makes the experience more rewarding for some.
Fly fishing streams are some of the most beautiful waters you will ever fish and provide some of the most peaceful and serene views. A quiet, meditative activity, fly fishing is for determined anglers only, since the process takes plenty of patience – especially when learning. Once you get the hang of it, and can confidently cast while surveying the water for feeding fish, you’ll find that fly fishing is an extremely rewarding sport.
How to Start Fly Fishing
So, we’ve convinced you that you need to start fly fishing. Amazing! Welcome to the exciting, sometimes frustrating, often thrilling sport. To help you learn more about your newfound hobby and to get you prepared for fishing season, we have many more guides with details on everything from gear and equipment to tips for finding the best places to fish and tutorials on setting up your rod. While it may take some time for you to develop your technique, it will take no time at all for you to fall in love with this sport.
Here are some great resources:
- The complete beginner’s guide to fly fishing
- The best beginner fly rod and reel combos
- Wet flies vs. Dry Flies
- Best 5 Weight Fly Rods
- Fly Fishing And Wading Safety
- Guide To Choosing Your Fly Fishing Reel
- Winter Fly Fishing Tips
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and sharing experiences with others. Max is a published author for various outdoor websites and digital marketing websites. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about