Photo by Ray Hyman

What is fly fishing and how does it differ from other fishing?

The main difference between fly fishing and other types of fishing is that in fly fishing, you rely on the weight of your fly fishing line and action of your rod to make your cast as opposed to using a lead weight to cast out your monofilament line. In most fishing, you use a lure, imitation bait, or real bait (like a worm) to attract fish. Your “bait” in fly fishing is an artificial imitation of a type of insect that fish may be eating common to the water where you are fishing. We call this a “fly.” Flies are usually named after the person who invented the pattern of how the fly is tied. Flies can be classified different ways but the two main categories to be aware of are:

Dry Flies: Float on top of the water. Some types include:

  • Terrestrials - imitate land-based insects like ants, grasshoppers, spiders, etc.

  • Poppers - imitate surface insects, amphibians, and other creatures that swim on the surface of the current.

  • Hackled – imitate a variety of insects. They are made with hackle (feathers) that are wound around a section of the hook. This allows the fly to float high on the surface of the water.

  • Parachute - imitate a variety of insects. Tied with hackle wound horizontally around an antron (synthetic fibers) or hair wing post that stands straight up in the air. This allows most of the flies body to hang and drift just below the top of the current while the hackle and parachute stick out of the water

  • Attractors - do not imitate any specific type of actual insect and are tied with colorful and shinny materials that instead, attract fish to strike. They are also tied with material that is very buoyant so that the fly will float.

Wet Flies: Floats below the surface of the water. Some types include:

  • Nymphs - flies that imitate immature insects, snails, scuds, worms, etc. that usually live on or near the bottom of the river or stream.

  • Emergers - meant to imitate hatching insects that are rising toward the surface to mature and leave the water.

  • Streamers - usually imitate swimming, injured or fleeing baitfish and work well in all types of weather. These flies can also be used to search for fish when no rises have been identified.

  • Wet winged flies (an older pattern) - imitate everything from insects transitioning into hatching position to drowned or crippled insects drifting in the water column.

  • Soft Hackle flies - sparsely tied with bodies of thread, floss, or peacock hurl and a soft hackle (feather) tied in at the head. The hackle suggest the legs or emergent wings of various insects that are tasty to fish. Other versions of this fly add a small thorax made of dubbed fur behind the hackle.

  • Flymphs usually represent the transitional hatching stage between nymph (or pupa) and dun or adult. They are usually tied with dubbed fur bodies and hackle wound up the front half of the fly.

  • Egg fly patterns are meant to imitate the spawn of other fish.


What Gear Do I Need to Purchase to Get Started?

There are a few critical components needed once you decide to learn to fly fish:

  1. A fly rod (see the section below about rods to help you determine what type of rod is right for you)

  2. A fly reel

  3. A fly line, leader and tippet (see the section below to learn more about the different types of fly lines and how to match your line to your rod weight).

  4. Waders (these come in a variety of types and prices)

  5. A net (you will want one compact enough to hang off your belt or fishing vest)

  6. Fishing plyers (to safely remove hooks from fish and to crush the barb on your hooks so it does less damage to fish if you are releasing them)

  7. Polarized sunglasses (this helps cut down on the glare off the water and enables you to see fish better below the surface)

  8. A small knife or nippers to trim leaders and tippet.

Check out the questions to ask yourself in the next section before you head out to buy any gear.

What Do I Need to Know Before I Fish?

A Balanced Fly Fishing Outfit

Your rod, reel and line are the 3 essential components of a balanced fly outfit. The terms “balanced outfit” means that the rod, reel and line are all matched to handle a specific weight line. For example, if you purchase a 5-weight rod, you should also purchase a 5-weight line and reel so that the entire outfit is balanced. A balanced outfit helps you deliver a fly to your target with accuracy.

Questions to consider before purchasing a balanced fly fishing outfit

How much do you have to spend?

Rods, reels, and lines vary in price and quality so it’s important to know how much you have to spend before you start doing your research and shopping around in order to get the best value for your dollars. If you have a limited but, put the greatest amount of your money into the purchase of your rod.

What type of fish do you want to catch?

A fly rod is manufactured to handle certain weight fish and fishing situations. Lighter rods are designed to handle lighter weight fish. It’s important to have an idea of the type of fish you plan to try and catch (trout, stripers, etc.) so that you purchase the right type of fly rod.

What size rivers or streams do you plan to fish?

Shorter and smaller rods are designed for smaller streams while longer and larger rods are manufactured for large rivers and salt water.

Parts of a Fly Rod

Parts of a Fly Rod (Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Fly Rod Weight & Lengths

Fly rods are made in a variety of weights and lengths that are designed to handle different types of fly fishing situations. The weight assigned to a rod by its manufacturer indicates the weight of the fly line it was designed to most effectively cast.

To select the right weight and length fly rod you need to know what size fish you plan to catch and what size rivers or stream you will fish. These two factors will help determine what weight and length rod you should purchase.

Fly Rod Action

The “action” of a fly rod refers to the stiffness and bend of the rod when it is cast or fighting a fish. There are 3 basic types of rod actions:

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Fly Lines

Your fly line is an important part of a balanced fly fishing outfit. The weight of your fly line should match the weight of your rod so it casts and performs efficiently. For example, a 5 weight rod is designed to cast a 5 weight line. Like everything else in sports, companies spend a good deal of money on research and development when it comes to fly lines. As a beginner, it's best to start with a floating line that matches the weight of the fly rod you purchase. Unless you purchase a complete fly rod outfit (one that comes with a rod, reel and line), you will need to purchase the rod, reel and line separately. This can be a costly endeavor but there is no reason that you need top of the line gear when you are starting out. Scientific anglers, Cabella's/Bass Pro Shop, Orvis, and Readington (to name a few companies) all sell complete fly outfits. Many of them also come with a case to protect your rod from damage.

If you live near a local fly fishing shop, I suggest stopping in and discussing your purchase and your budget. Most places will let you try out a rod (The place I go to has a grass area outback that they use for this purpose). If you are lucky enough to find and attend a fly fishing show, they usually have casting areas setup complete with water so you can try out rods and lines, etc. Each year in my state of New Jersey, "The Fly Fishing Show" is held at our convention center.

Keep in mind that there are many different types of fly fines. Some examples are listed below:

Floating line

A floating line is one of the most widely used and versatile types of fly lines. The entire line floats on the surface of the water making it an easy line to pickup off the surface, cast accurately, and land quietly in the water. A floating line can be used with most types of flies in most fishing situations.

Floating line with a Sink Tip

The front section of this type of line (the first 10-30 feet depending on which line you purchase) sinks while the rest of the line floats. This is also an fairly easy to pick-up off the surface of the water and cast. It is used a lot for streamer or nymph presentations.

You can also purchase a stand-alone sink tip that easily attaches to your floating line with a loop-to-loop connection (the loop of your fly line attaches to the loop of the sink tip without tying any knots). This provides you with additional flexibility because you can quickly remove the sink tip and return to a full floating line without switching to a different line on another reel spool.

Sinking Lines

There are also several types of sinking lines. Each type of sinking line sinks at a different rate of speed (from slow to fast). The sink rate for each line is usually listed on the box by the manufacturer.

Fish generally are not impacted by the color of a floating fly line. Floating lines are made in a variety of bright colors that make it easier to you see the line drifting on the water. A few manufacturers make two-tone floating lines. The brighter color at the front 30-40 feet of the line makes the line easy to see on the surface of the water while the more neutral color in the rear of the line helps you measure how much line you have stripped off your spool.

Floating line colors - I suggest selecting a color that is easy for you to spot drifting on the surface of the water. Fly fishers will watch the head of the fly line to detect strikes when you are fishing a wet fly beneath the surface of the water.

Photo by Ray Hyman

Fly Line Backing, Tippet and Leaders

Fly line backing, your leader and tippet are 3 other important components to learn about besides your fly line.

Backing - The purpose of backing is to provide extra line in case all of your fly line is used while you are trying to land a fish. Backing is the first type of line that is tied to your reel's arbor (the center part of your reel) and then your fly line is tied to the end of the backing. You will usually use about 100 feet of backing and a 20lb weight is usually sufficient. Backing comes in a variety of colors so choose a color that is easy to see and different from the color of your fly line so you know when it starts coming off your reel.

Leader - The purpose of your leader is to keep your fly line (which is heavier than your leader) from hitting or smacking the surface of the water and scaring any potential fish. Leaders are made out of thin monofilament and are pretty much invisible to fish. Leaders are tapered and are thicker at the part that connects to your fly line and thinnest at the end where you tie on your fly.

Tippet - Tippet us used as the thinner part of your leader is trimmed off as you tie on fly after fly. Tippet allows you to tie on additional thin line onto your leader. Tippet is also nearly invisible to fish.

(see illustration below)

Cleaning and Dressing Your Fly Line

Floating fly lines eventually get dirty and don't float as well as when they were new. Have no can use a variety of products to get your line clean and back to optimal working condition.

Cleaning your fly line

I usually clean my fly line after 2-3 uses. You can always clean your fly line with a mild dish detergent and water. Fill up a clean bucket or bowl with warm water and a few drops of liquid dish soap. Soak your line for a few minutes and then grab the end (the part where you would tie on your leader) and run your line through a clean, lint-free cloth to remove any debris. Fill a second bucket or bowl with clean warm water (no soap) and place your line into the water. Next, run your line through a second clean lint-free cloth to dry it. Your line is ready to be dressed.

Dressing your fly line

You need to dress your fly line after it has been cleaned. By dressing, I mean that I apply one of several fly line dressings available at any local fly shop. The purpose of dressing your line is to protect it and help it move through the guides of your rod with ease. I have used a product called Rio Agentx Fly Line Dressing or Loon Outdoor Line Speed. These types of products cost between $8-$10. Some fly line dressings also come with a pad. You apply the fly line dressing to the pad and run your line through the pad.

Fishing Vests vs Packs

Fishing vests and packs, like most gear, come in all different types and price ranges. You can buy a basic vest or pack (one that your wear on your chest or waist) at a large sporting goods chain store for around $29.00 or invest in a higher price model that meets both your needs and also your taste.

I personally like (and use) a vest from a company called Fish Pond. What do I like about this vest? It has a lot of pockets for my gear and is lightweight so I can wear it in the summer and winter. I bought it big enough to fit over heavier and more bulky clothing for those colder months. Besides the many storage pockets, it has an open pocket on the back for my net which keeps it out of the way yet easily reachable when I need it. If I am really going to be walking in far to fish, I also usually wear a backpack that has my wading jacket (in case of rain), lunch or a snack, water, a fist aid kit, and other things. You do not want to buy a vest that has too many pockets or you will spend more time looking for things than fishing (I speak from experience).

The most important consideration when making a choice of a vest or pack is usability. You do not want what you buy to get in the way of your cast or landing a fish. You want your choice to be comfortable and right for your style. Try on several types in the store and see how they feel. Pick up a rod and pretend to cast. Does the vest or pack get in your way?

Also remember that whatever you choose, you need to have a pocket or space for your fly box. Some people use double-sided fly boxes that tend to be wider and I have seen people have a tough time fitting their fly fox inside their vest.

Fly Fishing Nets

Nets come in all shapes, sizes and lengths and is not an item that you will need to replace often so make your first choice the right one.

One of the first things to consider is the size of the fish you plan to catch. The bigger the fish, the bigger the net.

Speaking of will also want to determine the length of the handle of the net you choose. If you are fishing from a boat, you may want to consider a net with a longer handle that makes it easier to land a fish without having to bend way over.

The weight of your net is also important. Most fly fishers carry their net attached to their backs and you do not want to carry around a heavy net on your back for several hours while you are fishing.

Your net usually attaches to your fishing vest or pack via an elastic cord and magnetic release. This is so you don't lose it if you drop it in the water and so the net can easily detach from your vest or pack to land a fish. You also want to check to see if the net floats in the event you do drop it in the water while it is detached, I actually dropped my net in the river one day and had to make the perfect cast to hook it and reel it in. I was prouder of that cast than the one that caught the largest fish that day).

The net material is also important. You want to make sure that this material is made to avoid doing any damage to the fish. If you catch and release., there is the potential that your fish will spend a little longer in the net as you remove the hook. More and more companies are selling nets made out of eco-friendly clear rubber.


Waders come in all shapes, sizes, and prices so it's important that you understand the basics before you make a selection for purchase.

Wading is a critical skill for fly fishing. Most of the times, depending on the width of the river, you will be wading (standing) in the water fishing.

One important thing to consider are the soles of your wading shoes. In the past, felt soles were popular because they were good at preventing you from slipping on wet and slimy rocks. Many states have now banned the use of felt soles because scientific research had proven that felt and other fibrous material have the ability to carry invasive species for extended periods of time. So, if you move from one body of water to another, you can carry these invasive species with you and release them into the water when you wade. Rubber soles dry fast and are not porous and they have become the more popular type of soles for wading shoes/boots. A list of states that have banned felt soles can be found on-line.

Waders also come is chest and hip/thigh versions. The chest versions are more popular and easier to find to buy. Chest waders resemble overalls and the chest portion can be folded down to your waist if you are fishing in low water or if the temperature gets warm.

In the summer months, there is usually no reason to wear waders. However, it is still important to protect yourself from slipping on rocks. There is a wide variety of wading sandals and water shoes that will serve this purpose. If you don't want to buy a separate pair of shoes for summer wading, use your wading boots instead. I often wear mine with shorts when fishing in warm water.

Stocking foot waders keep your body and feet dry. They are usually made of breathable material that is lighter weight than neoprene and are manufactured by many companies in a range of prices. Stocking foot waders require that you purchase a separate pair of wading boots. These can use used in the warmer months as mentioned above. This type of waders are easy to collapse and pack up in your fishing bag and do not take up a lot of room. You do need to be cautious not to catch them on sharp branches because they may tear and you will need to patch or replace them depending on the severity of the tear.

Boot foot waders are usually made of heavier neoprene and have a rubber boot connected to the bottom of the waders. Some people use this type of waders for cold weather fishing but with a heavier pair of pants (and thermal underwear) breathable waders will do the trick.

You will need to purchase a pair of wading boots if you purchase stocking foot waders. I would recommend buying a pair with interchangeable soles. They usually come equipped with a set of rubber and felt soles and then you can purchase other types of soles (e.g., cleated or studded soles for winter fishing).

Wading boots provide support for your feet and ankles and lace up to above your ankles for maximum support.

Make sure to wear a thicker pair of socks or ask to try on a pair of stocking foot waders so you purchase the right size of wading boot. You do not want your wading boot to be too big or it will not provide you with the support you need, and you do not want it to be too small because you will be standing for long periods of time fishing and your feet will hurt.


Photo by Ray Hyman

Choosing The Right Fly

Choosing the right fly to use is not always easy and is not an exact science and sometimes its easier than other times. There are several factors that can help you choose a fly that will give you the best chance at catching fish. The illustration below shows you some of the factors to consider.

What type of insects are present in the river and see if any insects are present? You can purchase a small seine net or glove that you can use for this purpose. What type of insects are native to the area where you are fishing? Is there a hatch chart available (refer to hatch charts in this book for more information)? If you are not able to see or find any insects then you can try using a search or exploring pattern of fly.

Size: What size insects are present? Try and match the size of the insects present to the size of the hook for the fly pattern you are selecting. You will want to have various sizes of most flies in your fly box so that you can match the size of the insects present. Most insects do not vary greatly in size so a few hook sizes up and down should suffice.

Color: What color are the insects that are present? Try and match their natural color to the type of fly pattern you choose. Try and carry a few different colors of the same fly pattern.

Rises: Can you see fish feeding in a specific way or pattern? Sometime you will get a hint of what fish are eating and what fly to use by the way fish are feeding (refer to rise forms in this book for more information).

Before you fish

· Try and become familiar with the different types of dry and wet imitation flies that match the insects and other food fish might be eating on the river or stream where you plan to fish. Concentrate on the size, shape, color and life stage of insects that might be present and the type of presentations and animations that you need to know about.

· Review the hatch chart for the river or stream where you plan to fish and see if any real-time information is available at a local fly shop of on-line.

While you fish

· When you arrive at the river or stream, observe the water and identify the flow of the main current, identify any potential lies where fish may be holding, and look for rises that can provide you with information about the depth where fish are feeding and what fish might be eating. Are there insects and other food in the water, under rocks, etc. Select a fly that closely matches what you find based on the information you have gathered.

· Decide on the type of presentation that is most appropriate based on the information you gathered.

After you fish

· Take some time to write down some notes about your experience. Include information about both successful and unsuccessful presentations. Use the blank journal pages at the rear of this guide.

(See the illustration below)

Hatch Charts

Hatch charts are specific to the water you are fishing. Over time, experts build these charts based on their experiences fishing on the river. They turn over rocks, sample gravel, observe what fish are eating at different times of the year, and fish the river different times of the year and day. They also consult scientific info to confirm what type of insects are native to that specific river. If you are fishing a river for the first time, my advice is to find a local fly shop and see what insects are present at that particular time of the year. Many fly fishing shops have hatch charts posted online or in the store and update it based on reports from their customers as they fish. I was in a fly shop last week and the question the clerk behind the counter asked me was have I been out fishing, where, what did I catch, and what flies did I use to catch the fish.

Important Insects: Mayflies

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Important Insects: Caddis Flies

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Important insects: Midges

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

10 Good Must Have "Starter" Flies

You will eventually build a collection of flies based on the insects that live in the waters where you fish. Below are some high performing flies that imitate a variety of insects common to many rivers.

  1. Pheasant Tail Nymph (wet fly) - Versatile mayfly imitator

  2. Wooly Bugger (wet fly) - A streamer that is a good fly to use to search for fish when they are not visible. It comes in many colors and often is tied with flash to attract fish.

  3. Elk Hair Caddis (dry fly) - Elk hair is buoyant and keeps this fly from sinking below the surface of the water. This fly imitates an emerging caddis fly. Popular colors are tan and black.

  4. Parachute Adams (dry fly) - Versatile fly that can be used on almost all rivers. Imitates a variety of small flies.

  5. San Juan Worm (wet fly) - Comes in a variety of colors and can be used in fast water.

  6. Beetle/Hopper (dry flies) - Often tied with foam, these flies imitate insects that often get blown into the water off of plants, trees or grass on the side of a river.

  7. Prince Nymph (wet fly) - Can be tied with a bead head or weighted with a wired body so the fly sinks quickly. This is a classic fly that imitates stone or mayflies.

  8. Stimulator (dry fly) - This fly is designed to imitate several different types of "buggy" looking insects. Brown and yellow are the more traditional colors.

  9. Bead Head Hairs Ear Nymph (wet fly) - the bead head allows the fly to sink quickly. Imitates a variety of insects in larval stage. The hare head fur imitates bug legs.

  10. Griffith's Gnat (wet fly) - A small fly that floats high on the surface of the water and imitates a variety of insect types.


Things To Consider Before You Cast

Consider these factors before you present your fly to a fish:

The speed of the currents in relation to your position and your target

  • Will you have to cast across multiple currents to reach your target?

  • What techniques will you need to use to avoid drag on your fly?

  • How far ahead of your target will you need to cast to give yourself time to get your fly into position?

  • Will you need to use any weight to sink your fly to the desired depth?

How closely your fly imitates and matches the food fish are eating or should be eating at the time you are fishing

  • How are insects/baitfish behaving in the current?

  • Is my imitation fly the right color, size, behavior, and/or life stage of what the fish are eating?

Am I being as stealthy as possible

  • Can I enter the river or stream downstream of my target to avoid frightening it with debris I will kick up when wading?

  • Can I make my presentation from land?

  • Does the distortion is the water provide the fish with a better or worse line of sight?

Presenting Your Fly

Questions to Consider Before You Present Your Fly

  1. How fast is the main current flowing and how will this impact your presentation?

  2. Where is the main current obstructed (slowed down) enough to offer fish protection from the current, shelter from predators, and/or a consistent delivery of food?

  3. Will you have to cast across multiple currents based on your position on the river and how will that impact your presentation?

  4. Are there any visible signs of fish present?

  5. If yes, can you determine the depth at which the fish are holding or feeding?

  6. Can you identify what the fish are eating or the insects that are available on the river or stream that day based on how the fish are rising or the insects you find in the water?

Trout Senses

Trout have senses just like you and it is important to understand these so you do not frighten them away while fishing.

Lateral Line - The lateral line is a trout’s sense organ that picks up low level vibrations and changes in water temperature.

Smell - A trout has a good sense of smell so use waders to mask your scent and avoid using sun block or insect repellent on your hands.

Taste - A trout also has a good sense of taste and will spit out your artificial fly quickly when it realizes it does not taste like its last meal. Always be ready to set your hook.

Hearing - A trout is able to hear certain sound waves generated underwater so be as stealthy as you can.

Sight - A trout can see objects below a 10-degree angle outside the water or above their heads in a “cone of vision” because of the way light rays enter the water. The diagram below suggests fishing positions to avoid a trout from seeing you.

(see illustration below)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Basic Casting

This is a good video from the people at Orvis on basic fly casting. You may not always have a river to practice your casting but grass works just as well. Never cast on hard surfaces like concrete because you will damage your fly line.

Controlling Drag

Drag is when your fly travels in the water unnaturally usually caused by the effects of the current on your line. Fish are used to seeing insects behave in the water and when your fly doesn't behave the same way (dragging), a fish will refuse to strike.

The current of a river is not all flowing at the same pace. The current on the surface travels faster than the current in the middle and at the bottom of the water. For example, if you are using a floating line with a wet fly, the current will potentially pull your line downstream faster than the slower current below the surface where your fly is drifting. The pull of the faster current on your line drifting on the surface causes a “belly” to form in your line downstream of your fly.

Fly fishers use a technique called "Mending" to control and eliminate drag. To mend, you lift the portion of your fly line closed to your rod tip off the water and toss that portion of your line in the opposite direction of the belly that formed in your line. If the belly in your line is to the right of your fly, you mend to the left to eliminate drag. Try not to life so much line off the water that you also move your fly. You only want to mend the portion of the line that forms the belly.

If you are not sure how your fly will travel in the water, practice a few times casting to the same spot to see what happens.

Does a belly form in your line?

If yes, how quickly?

Recast and mend. Did you mend fast enough to eliminate the drag in your line before your fly reached your target?

Do you need to mend sooner?

Do you need to make a bigger or smaller mend?

Mending is a skill you will use often and is a very important skill to master. I suggest going to different spots along a river and try mending in different currents.

(See illustration below)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)

Differences Between Wet and Dry Fly Mending

A DRY FLY mend alters the drift of the fly line and not the fly while a WET FLY mend is not only used to control drag on your fly but can also be used to adjust the action or depth in the water of your fly.

For example, dry flies imitate insects floating on the surface of the water. You usually do not want your wet fly submerged below the surface of the water. In this case, you use a mend to control any drag that forms in your line without moving your fly travels on the surface of the water.

In a wet fly mend, you may want to raise the depth your fly is traveling under the surface of the water because fish are feeding at that depth or you are searching for unseen fish at different depths in the water. Your mend can be used to raise the depth of your wet fly or be used to make your fly act differently and mimic the insects the fish are eating. For example, during a wet fly presentation, you can lift the tip of your rod and/or mend and raise your fly toward the surface of the water imitating a hatching insect.

Remember to study the current. You want to determine the speed of the current where your fly and line will travel after you cast. Will you line or fly travel in a faster current than the other? I usually make a few practice casts unless I am familiar with a specific location where I am fishing.

Fly Depths

Trout feed at different depths depending on the food source available at the time. When flies are hatching and floating on the surface or the water drying their wings and preparing to fly for the first time, a dry fly is your go to fly. Dry flies float on the surface of the water using hackle (fine feathers) to remain buoyant. Sometimes if a dry fly gets too wet and is not floating onto of the surface as much as it needs to, you can apply a chemical flotant or false cast (making a cast without letting the fly or line hit the water) the fly a few times to dry it off.

Emergers can be used when flies are starting to transition from nymphs and are rising up in the water column preparing to hatch.

A good deal of a trout's diet consists of insects living at the bottom of a river. Nymphs are used to imitate these types of insects.

(Illustration by Ray Hyman)