Updated: May 24
Fly Fishing can be a daunting hobby for beginners just looking to get on the water. Whether you are facing long casts to spooky wild trout out west or tackling the small streams of the southeast where the overhanging rhododendrons and mountain laurel line the creek and riverbanks complicating your cast, we will break down the basics in this article and simplify the process. The upfront cost for the equipment needed may look intimidating at first, but maintaining simplicity is key for new fly anglers. Our guide to fly fishing gear will better answer this question on what gear will benefit you the most on the water and minimize the cost of entry. Here we will focus on the basics once you get on the water and where to start.
Getting Started in Fly Fishing
If you’re just looking to get into fly fishing, time of year can be quite helpful. Late spring through early fall is the ideal time to give fly fishing a shot. Trout will be eating heavily and consistently during these months which should give you more positive feedback as an angler. Along with this, you can cut some of the overhead costs as waders won’t be needed in many places as water temperatures are a bit more suitable. A pair of old hiking boots, and either a swimsuit or quick dry pants will be perfectly adequate. For anglers eager to start fly fishing outside of those warmer months, a pair of waders will be necessary, and getting a guide will be even more helpful as trout can be tougher to find during these months and possibly even tougher to get to eat. The learning curve for fly fishing is a long J curve. A beginner must accept that they will stink for a decent while and instant gratification likely isn’t in the cards. A guide will certainly cut the length of this curve down but understanding the basic concepts is crucial to going out on your own. Finding trout is another area where guides can certainly help, but this can be one of the more gratifying processes anglers can undertake while fly fishing. This article on Finding the Best Trout Fishing explains this process for targeting many of the American salmonid species throughout the country and world, how the process changes throughout the year, and the helpful tools that will help you on your adventure. The most important lesson to learn for beginning fly fishers, especially those who regularly fish for other species with conventional tackle, is that stealth will yield you far more opportunities to catch trout than with any other fish species.
Stealth in fly fishing refers not to your voice, but your body movement, presence and approach to a piece of water. The first concept many new fly anglers fail to recognize when they reach a stream is that fly fishing is not conventional fishing. The best fly anglers don't catch more trout because they are making 10,000 casts per day. They catch more fish because they are making 100 perfect casts and drifts to actively feeding trout or to areas where trout are highly likely to be holding. The 10,000 cast or "shotgun" approach works fine for anglers with conventional gear as they are playing the numbers. Only a small percentage of trout within a stream are likely to be aggressive towards their offerings so making a large number of casts and covering large expanses of water is likely to be there best strategy. Fly fishermen on the other hand have the advantage of achieving a quiet cast and a drag free drift with more natural food items that likely makes better than 90% of the trout in a stream catchable. Using a "sniper" approach when targeting likely water that trout are holding in and making the perfect cast on the first cast will yield far better results by the end of the day. Using stealth to get into position for this perfect cast and presentation will further the odds in your favor.
Trout will be facing upstream 99.9% of the time. This means we should be approaching from downstream as trout in shallow water (less than 5ft) are quite wary of predators from above. Any movement seen by the trout will likely spook the fish into hiding or at minimum stop the fish from actively feeding. Next to an approach from downstream or below the trout’s line of sight is the awareness of your shadow and the wake you leave while wading. Managing or being aware of your shadow falls in line with a downstream approach in terms of importance. If your shadow extends onto the water and reaches the trout’s line of sight, nearly all wild fish and majority of stocked fish will shut down or take to cover. Sometimes managing your shadow can be nearly impossible while the sun is at a low angle but being aware of this factor may stack the cards in your favor. The number one reason I see new fly anglers spook fish before even making a cast is moving water. While wading, be aware of the pulse of water you are pushing into the pool or run upstream of you. The waves and ripples you leave while wading upstream move through the water and can alert the trout to suspicious activity, so minimizing this disturbance is a must. The downstream approach will also dampen these disturbances, especially in turbulent water. In calm or slower water, walk slowly while wading to assure this doesn’t happen to you. In fast water you can often get away with heavier movement as the quick flow will mask your presence. Once we are in position, the next step is delivering the right cast.
Setting Up Your Cast
After you have positioned yourself in the water downstream and adjacent to where you think trout may be lying, take note of any overhanging limbs or obstacles that may cause you trouble. Taking ten seconds to recognize these obstructions will save you money, time, and the headache of having to retie or untangle your rig. The next step is deciding how you need to set up your cast. If a water haul is what you need to make, then a quick cast downstream will allow you to adjust how much line you have out, and about how much you will need to make the perfect cast. If you are trying to cast across stream, a roll cast may be a better option and having line upstream of you may be the way to go. In the occasion you have an open stream bed or no canopy above a conventional cast may be the best option. In this scenario make extra sure to check for any obstructions within your back cast radius.
Fly Fishing Casts
Many beginners to fly fishing are intimidated at the prospect of casting at first. Others see casting portrayed in films such as A River Runs Through It and arrive on the water with overly complex ideas. The remaining few often use their knowledge from other forms of angling such as bass fishing or surf casting. All of these lead to problems for beginners and quickly lead to bad habits. The fly casting often needed by beginning anglers can actually be far more simple.
Two casts can achieve 99% of what we need to accomplish on the water while fly fishing in tight places or around cover. These are the Water Haul and Roll Casts. These casts are designed to keep your fly line and flies low to the water and out of the surrounding trees, rhododendrons, and mountain laurel and overhanging grasses. They also use the water to help load the rod instead of momentum created from the fly line.
Water Haul Cast
The water haul cast begins with your line completely outstretched downstream of you. We then raise our rod tip to clear all fly line from the water. This will reduce any excess drag during the cast. With the rod tip lifted, this will be about the peak height our line and flies should reach during the cast. The main problem most anglers encounter is dropping their rod tip back before moving forward with the cast. While this would be how you load spinning or baitcast gear, which most bass or saltwater anglers are accustomed to, this drops our fly line back to the water causing much more resistance. This will lead to a shortened cast, far less accuracy, and often an unwanted splashy landing for our flies. Being patient and allowing yourself to setup for this water haul cast will help your entire presentation once on the water as well as an outstretched or straightened line will be much easier to manage.
The roll cast is similar to the water haul in the sense that slack is not your friend. It differs in the fact that your line does not have to be downstream of you. The fly can be anywhere on the 180 degree plane in front of you. The water haul is a more accurate cast when targeting areas about 45 degrees in front of you, whereas the roll cast is able to target anywhere on the water in front of you depending on where your line is originating and can cast up to a 90 degree angle. The key factor in the roll cast is to drag the flies slowly back toward you. If you rush this process and pick the flies up off the water, additional slack will build up and make the cast impossible or much more difficult. A sharp flick from a high rod tip will send your flies directly at target as your line unfolds, softly landing your flies on the water. To learn more about the individual casts, and the conventional fly cast the videos from the Orvis Learning Center are unmatched and do an excellent job detailing the dos and do nots of each cast. Once we have our flies on the water, the drift is the next task to master.
Mastering the Drag Free Drift
The drift is the step that takes most anglers the longest to grasp as a beginner. Once you truly understand the concept on how to achieve a drag free or dead drift, you will hit the curve on your productivity of your fly angling. To achieve the best drift with your flies, you must first understand current. A river or stream acts as a conveyor belt of food for trout. Trout rarely must move to find food. Instead, they position themselves in a favorable current where they expend as little energy as possible and food flows by as often as possible. Because these fish are not moving often they have a very good idea of how fast their food should be moving downstream. If they see 100 small insects flowing downstream at 5 mph every day, they certainly know something is wrong when your fly glides by at 7 mph. The nuance seems negligible to us as new fly anglers but to the trout, it is incredible the slight changes they can see. It is also important to know that the current along the surface is faster than current along the bottom of the stream. Combatting this factor is relatively easy though. With trout sitting along the bottom, which is typical, we want the amount of line between or dry fly or indicator and our nymph (subsurface fly) to be 1.5X the stream depth in walking paced water. In faster water this length will be a bit longer, in slower, a bit shorter. A good angler will constantly adjust this until the trout give a positive response. The key to matching your flies to the speed of water is control of your slack line on the water. Varying surface currents will pull and drag on your fly line, causing the speed of your flies to accelerate. Minimizing the slack by manipulating the angle of your rod tip (moving tip downstream or lifting off of surface) and keeping line off the water is a good way to decrease additional drag. Mending your line as the flies float downstream will also reduce this drag. Once you have achieved the desired drift it won’t be long until we get bit.
Fly Fishing Hook Sets
Setting the hook on trout is very different from other forms of fishing. Speed is everything when fly fishing for trout. On a good day trout can just about set the hook on themselves, but on the average or typical day, they can eat and spit the fly before you can think about lifting your arm. Getting a good hookset starts before you ever receive a bite. Just like before casting, knowing where your surrounding obstacles are is important on where we set the hook. Keeping our slack line off the water means more tension in the line and a quicker hook set. Setting the hook down stream is optimal when the flies are upstream of you. As the trout will nearly always be facing upstream this will give you the best chance of securing the hook. If the flies are downstream of you, setting upstream is the quickest path to tension, the odds are a bit lower in this scenario as you could pull the flies out of the trout’s mouth. The set itself is just a fast sweep of the rod that stops when tension is secured. Pulling any softer will likely not secure the hook, pulling harder could break the line. Many conventional anglers often set too hard thinking the need to drive the hooks in. This will lead to disappointment most of the time. The small hooks often used in trout fishing don't take force to penetrate, just simple tension. Harder hooksets can also cause problems with trophy size trout as they will take off very quickly and likely find a way off the hook or break line rather than hanging around in the water they were originally holding in. Getting your set speed in that perfect range will make the rest of the fight much easier.
Once you have the fish on, the first thing to do is to get an idea on the size of the fish. If its smaller, landing the trout shouldn’t be a problem. Larger fish are much more difficult and require more time and patience. The video below will show a good example of how to land these trophy size trout.
By following these steps, you will be well on your way to being more productive on the water and find a much less stressful and far more enjoyable. For an idea on flies that work best for just about any trout around the world, check out our articles on What Trout Eat and the Best Flies for North Georgia which will help you load your fly box with the most productive flies for the state and get more trout to the net. In our Fly Fishing Lessons page, we share our stories from our adventures around the globe on fly fishing lessons we learned the hard way.