How Does Fly Fishing Work: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

by Thavius | Last Updated:   October 8th, 2022
How Does Fly Fishing Work: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

If you are like most people out there, then the chances are high that you’ll enjoy a pleasurable fishing experience. But there are different types of fishing for anyone to try out. Apart from traditional fishing, there’s also ice fishing and fly fishing. The purpose of this piece is to give a detailed description of how fly fishing works.

When you have a good idea of how fly fishing works, trying out this leisure activity becomes easier. It’s a unique form of fishing and is not meant for everyone. It’s also referred to as an artistic style of fishing for outdoor enthusiasts. If you’re interested in engaging in fly fishing, testing out the limits of your skills, and learning everything you can about this method of catching fish, this piece is for you.

Let’s begin!

What Is Fly Fishing?

Simply put, this type of fishing involves attaching a lightweight artificial fly to your fly rod as bait. These artificial flies may range from mayflies to baitfish and so on. The casting technique applied when fly fishing is different from traditional fishing. Here, anglers will use the weight of the fly line to project the fly. The artificial fly is meant to sit at the surface of the water or partially submerged—but never fully immersed.

Fly fishing is considered by many to be an art because it takes some time to grasp everything about it fully. However, when you understand the fly fishing basics, you’ll enjoy a thrilling experience. The interesting thing about this type of fishing is that it allows you to try out other activities.

Contrary to popular opinion, fly fishing is not an impossible fishing technique. In fact, fly fishing techniques are easy to learn and practice. With some time and practice, you’ll be able to learn something new and become good at it. You’ll also gain all the lifetime rewards that come with fly fishing.

Many anglers start by learning fly fishing before going on to other activities, such as creating their own flies. This will be a way to add creativity to your angling experience. Your flies must be lightweight and delicate enough to attract stealthy prey to your fly line.

By casting your line on the water’s surface, you’re inviting fish to bite at these bugs. The fish will think these bugs are lying on the water’s surface. It’s the responsibility of the fly fisherman to hold the bait at the appropriate height to ensure that it remains visible to most fish in the vicinity. With the right amount of practice, you’ll get many fish to bite at your fly line and enjoy a reasonable amount of success.

What Is The Origin Of Fly Fishing?

So, when exactly did we start fly fishing? It’s easy to think that fly fishing started in the 21st century, but that’s far from the truth.

You’ll be surprised to find out that people have been using fly fishing techniques to catch fish for a very long time. This style of fishing started in ancient Rome when fly anglers used red thread to trick their prey and catch them. Also, there’s a Japanese tradition known as Tenkara that’s still practiced to this day. This tradition is also a form of fly fishing. Yes, it uses a weighted line, but there won’t be a fly reel to capture your prey.

Towards the end of the 15th century, the first book on fly fishing was published for public use. This book was titled The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle (1496). By the beginning of the 19th century, there were numerous fly fishing clubs, and numerous books on fly tying and the art of fly fishing were released.

In the US, fly fishing started to gain popularity in the late 19th century. During this period, fly anglers would visit the Beaverkill in the Catskills outside New York City and try their hands at trout fishing. The popularity of this type of fishing grew to new heights when fiberglass rods and different types of fishing lines were introduced in 1950.

However, it has become a popular recreational activity. In fact, it’s fun to try out for many individuals of different ages. The release of the movie, A River Runs Through It further helped to increase the popularity of this recreational activity.

How To Start Fly Fishing

If you’ve made up your mind to try your hand at fly fishing, then it’s important that you do it correctly. Whether saltwater fly fishing or dry fly fishing, you need to ensure you get every step of the process correctly, including the choice of your fishing line, fly rod, fly reel, casting techniques, and fly bait. All these factors contribute to the success of your fly fishing experience.

Before we start on how to properly practice fly fishing, let’s look at all the factors you need to put in place from the onset:

Fly Rod

You need to note that the way you’ll set up your fly rod is different from other types of fishing. To start with, you need to pick a rod that’s suitable for the type of fish that you intend to hunt for. Yes, there are different types of fly rods depending on the weight of the fly line rod. The weight of the rod will determine the type of fish that you hunt for. Low-weight fly rods are designed to be compatible with lightweight lines and catch small fish.

If you intend to catch rainbow trout or sunfish in a small stream, then you’ll need to opt for a fly rod that is between 1 and 4 wt. For bigger prey, such as smallmouth bass, you could opt for something between 4 and 6 wt.

Fly rods are also designed to offer different types of action. This information is usually labeled on them as slow, medium, or fast action. A fast action rod is a type that is mostly stiff and flexes only at the tip. However, a medium-action rod flexes in the middle, while a slow-action rod flexes towards the angler’s grip.

For effective results when fly fishing, it’s recommended that you use a medium or fast action rod that’s between 4-6 wt. This way, you can be sure that you have the right gear to take almost any prey you come across.

Fly Reel

A fly reel is described as a cylindrical device that’s used to draw in or release the fishing line during angling. The fly reel is often attached to the rod’s handle. Today, you’ll find that most fly reels are designed to fit a particular rod size. Each reel is labeled with two numbers representing the lower and upper limits of the weight it can handle.

The smallest fly rods on the market are designed to function without reels because they allow you to pull your prey in with your hands easily. When fishing for larger prey, you need to use the right gear size to ensure that you are efficient. You should consider the size of your rod and reel before making a final choice. It’s also a good idea to look for sealed drag reels or anodized coatings because they are guaranteed to give you a longer lifespan than other product types.

When using fly rods that are between 4 and 6 wt, you’ll need to use a backing line of about 50 yards. However, rods with weights of more than 8 wt need a backing of between 150 and 300 yards. But it would help if you based your backing line choice on recommendations from the manufacturer. Please make sure you check for recommended specs before you load your reel with the backing line and start using it.

It’s essential that your reel is loaded correctly to reduce strain on your wrist during casting and when capturing prey. Most modern fly rods come with in-built reels. However, it may be a good idea to If you patronize a good fly shop, they will load the reel with the right weight and with appropriate backing. They will ensure you have little or nothing to worry about.

Every fly rod comes with a reel seat to attach any fly reel of your choice. The reel should be attached by considering the arm you use to fly fish.

Fly Fishing Line

The fly line is another essential factor to look for when trying to create this angling experience. The fly line will determine the amount of weight that is used to cast your bait. Fly lines are usually measured according to their weight. Most manufacturers measure the first 30 feet of the line in grains. These lines vary depending on their weight. As a result, a 5 wt line will work best with a 5 wt fly rod.

There are different types of fly lines, including weighted forward paper, level, smooth, and double taper heads. Each type of line is also designed to have different weights to suit several purposes, such as still water and stream fly fishing. They also have different cross-sectional properties to suit various casting techniques and shooting styles.

Every fly line has different buoyancy properties to determine how they behave on the surface of the water body. It could either be a floating line, a sinking line, or a sink tip. Most fly lines are designed with a perfect loop towards the back that anglers will use to form a connection with the backing. If there’s no ideal loop, you would need to come up with a nail knot at the end of the line. When you are done attaching the backing to the fly line, wind it onto the pool until it’s fully loaded.

Selection of Fly Bait

The next important part of your fly fishing experience to consider is the artificial fly that you use. You’ll need to consider a few things to choose a suitable fly for yourself. They include the type of fish you wish to catch, the type of water where you’re fishing, and your preferred style of fly fishing.

Every fish species you try to catch in its natural habitat has a favorite hunting ground for food. You must ensure that you adapt your fly bait to the fish species in your hunting ground.

When selecting suitable flies for your next hunting trip, ensure that you create a system where your flies match what your preferred prey eats each day of the week. If you want to catch trout all year round, it’s possible as long as you get the right type of bait.

Variety of Casting Techniques

Unlike traditional fishing, fly fishing has a unique casting technique. When you fly fish, the angler is expected to use the weight of the line to carry the leader and bait to the required destination. The fly will follow the direction of the casted fly line.

Because the fly rod and fly line are tapered, they have the right weight to push their bait at high speeds and create loops in motion.

If you don’t have previous fly casting experience, you can check out this video to learn more about it:

When fly casting, the line’s weight carries the speed built up by the angler and uses it to push the bait. This movement and acceleration of the fly will allow the bait to balance on the surface of the water.

What Are The Tips To Start Fly Fishing?

How to Fly Fish

So, how does fly fishing work? After learning all the important aspects of fly fishing, the next thing to do is to try it out. Take a look at the following tips to get started;

Find a suitable location

If you are interested in fly fishing, the first thing to do is find a suitable location to get started. You can’t just fish anywhere you like. It’s essential that you comply with local regulations. The location of your fly fishing will determine many things about the success of your expedition.

While you may think you can easily stand in a stream of water, it’s not the only location where you can get suitable fish species for this type of angling. Yes, you can practice fly fishing in any body of water. However, it’s important to ensure you can get your desired prey in that location.

The most important thing to consider when choosing a suitable location is the fish activity in that body of water. The more fish in a particular body of water, the likelier you are to catch prey at any time. You may also want to consider other factors such as spawning activity, migration, and food sources. It’s a good idea to check with local fly shops or fishing guides to help you narrow your choice of alternatives.

Choose Your Gear and Equipment

In the earlier parts of this piece, we have discussed several types of fly fishing gear and equipment that anglers need to catch fish effectively. Yes, you need to get the right type of gear and clothing before embarking on your fly fishing expedition. Attempting to fly fish with the wrong equipment usually ends up in a disaster. The most important gear to consider and take along with you includes: fly rod, fly line, and artificial fly.

Remember that the choice of gear and equipment you settle for should be based on the nature of the species you are hunting. You’ll undoubtedly require a different set of equipment to catch large or small fish.

Set a schedule and routine

If you have limited fly fishing experience, you would need a fair amount of practice to get it right. In this regard, you would need to set up a fishing schedule that would give you enough time to catch the prey you’re interested in. Without enough practice, it’s near-impossible to succeed at fly fishing. You may need to set aside a particular day for going to the stream and try your hands at catching some brown trout.

As part of your routine, spend some time preparing your flies and getting familiar with them. It would also make sense for you to service your gear during this period. Also, if you prefer to fish with a laid-down strategy, you may come up with one before your next expedition. A routine will help you plan better for future trips. Last-minute fishing trips may cause you to omit a few important preparation steps and affect your final results.

Learn how to fly cast

The truth is that fly casting differs from traditional casting techniques. There are two major fly casting techniques for fly fishers: basic fly casting and roll casting.

Basic fly casting is the foundation for all types of fly fishing. To carry out this type of casting technique, make sure that the rod tip is in front of you with the line lying on top of the water. Now, swing your rod back till its tip is just behind you. Make sure to let the line unfurl behind you. Then, swing it forward.

Another casting technique to try out is the roll cast. This technique is only appropriate when you do not have enough room to try basic casting strategies. In this type of scenario, the body of water you’ve opted for may be surrounded by tall trees. If you try a basic fly cast in this sort of environment, your fly line may get stuck among the trees.

When roll casting, raise the tip of your rod up and let the line drop. Now, the shape of your body and the gear should form a capital D. As soon as you are able to form this shape, cast your line forward. You may need to practice it a few times before getting it right.

For more information on these two fly casting techniques, have a look at the following videos:

What Are The Fish Species To Target When Fly Fishing?


Several anglers target freshwater as an ideal location for fly fishing. This type of angling usually focuses on rivers and streams. Often, you’ll find these anglers hunting for trout and other small fish. However, there has been a recent change in the trend. Now, you’ll find fly anglers hunting for pike or bass in lakes or ponds.

Apart from trout fishing, you’ll find anglers hunting for salmon with big rods in the Atlantic. You’ll find this type of fly angler in Scandinavia, the West Coast of the US, and Eastern Canada.


Saltwater fly fishing involves targeting an entirely different species than what you’ll find in freshwater. Here, the fish species are usually stronger and have a lot of room to move around and fight. Popular species hunted by fly fish in saltwater include bonefish, giant trevally, and permit. These species can be found in the Caribbean and Indian ocean.

What Is The Difference Between Fly Fishing and Traditional Fishing?

Now that you know how fishing works, it’s time to compare the differences between fly fishing and traditional fishing.

Casting Setup

Traditional fishing features a rod with a line attached to a heavy lure or bait. Due to this setup, anglers can use the line to guide the bait to the water. The weight of the bait will push it into the water and ensure that it drops to the appropriate depth, regardless of the casting distance.

However, fly fishing uses a different type of bait. The artificial lure used by fly fishers is lighter and easier to cast. You’ll also have to buy specialized gear for this type of angling, such as fly rods. Here, anglers rely on the weight of the fishing line to propel their lure.

Method of Attraction

Another notable difference between traditional fishing and fly fishing is how fish are attracted to the bait. When carrying out traditional fishing techniques, the angler aims to attract prey using live bait. Using minnows or any other type of live bait will attract fish and tempt them to bite more than once.

On the other hand, fly fishing uses an artificial lure designed to look like a fish’s natural food source. These lures may resemble bugs that are commonly found in the fish’s habitat. By using this bait, you are only trying to outsmart the fish, which can be a real challenge. Fish species are unlikely to bite at artificial bait more than once. As a result, you may need to use different materials to draw the attention of your prey.

The materials that you can use to draw the attention of fish species include;

  • animal hair
  • synthetic hair-like materials
  • Bird feathers
  • Glass or tungsten beads
  • Ribbons and wires

Casting strategies

The casting technique applied for traditional fishing and fly fishing differ greatly. For traditional fishing, all you have to do is hold your rod, pull it back and swing it as far as you can. However, fly fishing requires different types of casting strategies.

The most important aspect of a fly fishing casting strategy is to get the fly to rest on the water surface. Your fishing line has to be of a good length too. The fly should land naturally without sinking when it lands on the water. If you can cast correctly, you’ll be able to trick your prey. They won’t be able to tell the difference between the fly and their natural food source.

Angling Position

When fishing, whether traditional or fly fishing, you’ll need to become one with the environment. However, both of them will demand different positioning from the angler.

A traditional fisher can simply sit on the river bank or in a boat waiting for prey to pass and bite at the hook. But fly fishers must usually stand in a river or stream to hunt properly.

Fly fishing requires that the angler get closer to the prey. It’s a great idea for anyone who enjoys fishing actively and getting up close with their prey.

Watch this video to learn the differences between fly fishing and traditional fishing.

Key Insights & Takeaways

Finally, we’ve come to the end of this piece. We’ve reviewed all the essential details about fly fishing, including its meaning, origin, and used equipment. From the information in this piece, it’s quite clear that fly fishing is more technical than traditional fishing. You’ll also need a different set of equipment to achieve a fair amount of success.

Anglers who are interested in fly fishing are advised to take some time to practice and learn the art before getting started. If your fly fishing technique is flawed, you will find it difficult to catch any prey.

– Happy Fly Fishing –

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the point of fly fishing?

Fly fishing is suitable for catching prey that easily gets startled or in heavily fished water. When fly fishing, the angler aims to drop the lure on top of the water and naturally attract fish to bite at it.

Does fly fishing actually work?

Yes, fly fishing is an effective way to catch different fish species. This form of angling works in different water bodies. All you have to do is learn how to cast properly and wait patiently for results.

How is fly fishing different from regular fishing?

When you look critically, you’ll discover notable differences between fly fishing and conventional fishing techniques. These differences are significant in the casting technique employed, the angling position, and the equipment used to carry it out.

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I've been a fisherman for over 35 years. From catching small bullheads with my grandfather at his pond to catching strippers on the backwaters of the Chattahoochee, I love to get out in the wild and have a marvelous day on the water.