how to setup a fly rod

How To Setup a Fly Fishing Outfit: A Beginner’s Guide

Fly fishing is an art form, a passion, an obsession. It’s a tether to primal human instincts and a reconnection to nature that the modern man so often lacks. Fly fishing gives us purpose, happiness, and endless frustration- feeding us just enough to allow our hunger to draw us back for more.

Even someone who has never fly fished will watch a fly fisherman in action with awe and wonder. The casting is majestic, the technique rhythmic. How do people catch fish like this? What do they use for bait?

That mystery is often enough to lure them in.

Whereas most traditional fishermen get their start at a young age, with mentorship from dads, uncles, and grandfathers, many fly fishermen get into the sport later in life. They’ve usually fished before, but with heavy tackle and lures covered in treble hooks.

So, they come to the sport with questions – about gear, where to go, how the hell to catch fish. When I was getting started fly fishing, I had these same questions. Now, I’m here to help.

Fly Fishing Gear

setup fly fishing outfit
setup fly fishing outfit

Like all of my favorite hobbies, fly fishing can get extremely expensive very quickly. But, that doesn’t have to be the case. There are a few pieces of gear that are completely necessary, but most of the stuff out there just makes fishing easier or more comfortable.

So, we’ll start off by talking about the most necessary gear-the stuff you have to have to get started, and then we’ll go to the extras.

Fly Fishing Rod – How to Select

The most obvious piece of equipment you’ll need to fly fish is a fly fishing rod. At first glance, fly rods appear just like a normal fishing pole. But fly fishing rods are specialized tools and tend to be both lighter and longer than traditional tackle. The fly rod is used primarily to cast, but it also plays an important role in fighting the fish and managing your fly line.

There are 3 major characteristics of a fly rod, and you should consider each of them before making any purchases.

What Does Fly Rod Weight Mean

Fly rods are primarily designated by their weights. You’ll hear people say, “you need to fish an 8 weight on that river, the fish are huge!” or “that stream is tiny, bring your 3 weight.”

In regards to fly rods, their “weight” coincides with the actual weight of the fly line that rod casts the best. We’ll explain more about the weight of fly lines later, but for now just understand this: heavier fly lines are used for bigger fish and/or casting heavier flies.

Select Fly Rod and Weight
Select Fly Rod and Weight

So, the weight of the fly rod you should purchase will depend on the type of fish that you are targeting. But it can also depend on the body of what you’re fishing. Here’s what I recommend.

What Length Fly Rod to Choose

After determining the appropriate weight rod for the fishing you’ll be doing, the next consideration is the length of the rod. The rod’s length will affect the accuracy and distance of your casts, how you fight fish, your ability to manage line, and the type of places you can fish.

The most popular fly rod for trout fishing is a 9 foot 5 weight. It is long enough to accurately cast for good distance, is long enough to properly manage your line, and has enough strength to fight good-sized fish without being too strong. This rod will be good enough for most situations, but won’t be perfect just as many.

For smaller stream trout fishing, fishermen usually want a rod shorter than 9 feet. In these streams, you won’t need the casting distance provided by a longer rod, and a longer rod would just limit your fishing to more open areas of the streams because small streams are usually crowded by bushes and trees that would keep you from being able to cast. Being unable to cast=not being able to fish.

So small stream fishermen mostly use rods around 7 feet in length. In big, open water rods of 10 feet provide more accurate long distance casting. Some rods called “spey rods” go up to even 14 feet in length.

My advice for beginners is to not make it too complicated. Get a 9 foot rod if you’re fishing in normal freshwater, or a 10 foot rod if you’re in salt.

What Action Fly Rod is Best for Me

Fly fishing rods are also designated by their action. In regards to fly rods, “action” just refers to how flexible the fly rod is- how much it bends. Today, we have 3 general categories of action: slow, medium and fast. Each has its advantages and disadvantages in certain situations, but for the most part it just comes down to personal preference.

Slow Action Fly Rods

Slow action fly rods are the most flexible. During a back cast, or when hooked to a struggling fish or fellow fisherman, a slow action rod will bend to almost 90 degrees. Because the rod bends so slow during a cast, it takes a longer time to rebound forward to propel the fly. Hence the name “slow.”

Slow action rods are easier to cast because they have a larger margin for error and cast accurately at short distances, but they won’t cast as far. Besides learning how to cast, slow action rods are ideal for small stream fishing with dry flies.

Fast Action Fly Rods

On the opposite end of the spectrum are fast action fly rods. Fast action fly rods are referred to sometimes as “tip flex” because during a cast the entire rod remains straight besides the tip, which flexes. This stiffness allows for longer casts, casts into strong winds, and casting with less motion.

However, fast action rods are not ideal for short casts, as it takes more fly line to bend the rod and propel the fly, and can be difficult for beginners to use.

Medium Action Fly Rods

And in between fast action rods and slow action rods we find medium action. As I’m sure you assume, medium action rod’s flexibility falls between the two, and it makes it a more utilitarian choice.

Medium action rods will be the most versatile types and can be used in almost any situation. They’re also somewhat easy to learn with, and forgiving to a degree. So, if you’re just starting out fly-fishing, I recommend a medium action rod as your first.

Finding a Fly Fishing Reel the Works

After choosing your fly rod, the next piece of equipment you’ll need is a reel. We won’t say too much about fly reels here, since we’ve covered them extensively already, but here’s some general thoughts.

In most fly fishing situations, fishing for trout, most bass, sunfish, etc., the reel is almost a non-factor. Usually, you just need a reel to hold your line. So, investing in a high quality reel is a waste of money, for most people. However, there are obvious exceptions.

The reel’s most important feature is its drag. The drag is what provides resistance to caught fish and prevents them from running off with all your fishing line. When you’re catching trout near or above 20 inches, big bass, salmon, carp, or any saltwater fish, you’ll need a powerful, smooth drag or that fish is going to snap your line.

Fly Line Selection – Picking the Right Line is Easy

Once you have your rod and reel, the next piece of equipment you’ll need is your fly line. As we mentioned earlier, fly lines are designated by their weights measured in grains. 1-weight lines are the lightest, 14 weight lines are the heaviest. The weight of the line affects the fish that it can catch as well as the flies the line can properly throw.

In general, a 4, 5, or 6 weight line is what you’ll be using for most fly fishing. If you’re fishing for tiny trout in streams you may use 1-3 weight line. Or if you’re fishing for large freshwater fish or saltwater fish, you’ll want to use something heavier. Here’s a table to help you out.

Selecting Fly Line Weight
Selecting Fly Line Weight

After considering the line’s weight, you have another choice to make: do you want your line to float or to sink? Floating lines are used for dry fly fishing and nymphing: pretty much the majority of fly fishing. And sinking lines are used for streamer fishing for trout and bass, as well as fishing for saltwater species, steelhead, and salmon.

If you’re going to fly fish for trout, read this article on the Best Fly Line for Catching Trout.

If you’re just getting started, I recommend using a floating line, as it is easier to fish with.

Fly Fishing Line Backing – Do You Need it?

The fly line is attached to the reel with another type of line called backing. Backing is usually made of a material called Dacron and it feels like a thin string. We won’t go into much detail about it here since we’ve talked about backing extensively in other articles.

Read about the different types of fly line backing in this article. What is Fly Line Backing and How Much Do I need.

How to Set Up Your New Fly Fishing Outfit

Alright, so you’ve bought your new rod, a reel, fly line, and backing. You now have all of the necessary components of your tackle, but you’re not done yet. Time to put it all together. To do this we’re going to use a few simple to tie knots.

Attaching the Backing to the Fly Reel

As mentioned earlier, the fly line is attached to the reel with the backing, so obviously the backing must be attached to the reel. To do this, we’re going to use a knot called “The Arbor Knot.”

  1. First, remove the spool of your reel.
  2. Take the free end of your backing, being careful not to let it tangle, and wrap it around to spool twice.
  3. Take the free end of the backing and tie a double overhand knot to the long end of the backing.
  4. On the short, free end of the backing, tie another double overhand knot to prevent it from slipping.
  5. Gently pull the long end of the backing in a back and forth motion to tighten the knot until it is snug to the reel.

After tying and tightening the arbor knot, attach the spool to your reel and get to turning. Use our article on backing to decide how much you’re going to need.

Attaching the Backing to the Fly Line

Once the backing is reeled in, it’s time to attach the fly line to your backing. Take your fly line and find the end with the tag that says “attach this end to the reel.” If you don’t, you may put your fly line on backwards which will make it perform much less efficiently.

Once you find the correct end, check to see if it has a loop or not. If it does, I recommend using a loop-to-loop connection. Some fisherman will cut the loop off to use a nail knot, but I find the loop to loop to more convenient.

If you’re using a loop-to-loop connection:

  1. First, you must tie a loop in your backing. To do this, tie a triple surgeon’s knot (If you don’t know this knot, checkout 5 Essential Knots for Fly Fishing).
  2. Trim the free end of the line, but not too close. Keep in mind that backing has a tendency to fray.
  3. Insert the backing loop through the welded fly line loop, past the point of the surgeon’s knot.
  4. Take the cassette of fly line and pull it through the backing loop.
  5. Pull gently to enforce the connection.

If your fly line doesn’t have a welded loop, you’ll need to use a nail knot. We won’t give you a full explanation here, as we’ve already written about it in “5 Essential Knots for Fly Fishing.”

After connecting your fly line to the backing, reel in the fly line until there’s only about 2 feet free. The last step is attaching your leader.

Attaching the Leader to the Fly Line

For fly line leader, you have the option of making your own or using purchased leader. Since you’re just getting started, I’m going to assume you’re going to just buy one. But don’t think that gets you out of the woods- if you aren’t careful these leader will piss you off.

To attach the leader to the fly line, you’re going to use another loop to loop connection.

  1. Take the leader out of the package. It will be coiled and looped around itself.
  2. Insert four of your fingers into the coil and push them out to keep it tight.
  3. Find the free, thin end of the leader and slowly unravel it. Be careful while you do this and make sure your fingers are still pushing out on the coil. If you don’t this can quickly turn into a tangled mess.
  4. As you free more of the tapered line, rub your fingers across it to heat the line up. This heat will help to straighten the line, and again help prevent tangles.
  5. Continue to unravel and heat the line slowly and carefully until it is uncoiled.
  6. Take the loop end of the leader and insert it into the loop end of the fly line.
  7. Insert the free end of the leader into the loop end of the leader, and gently pull it tight.

Tying Tippet to Your Fly Line Leader

Depending on what you’re fishing for, when you’re fishing, and where, you may want to consider also using a piece of tippet on the end of your leader. Tippet is thin monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line that is tied onto leaders in order to prevent the need to replace leaders all the time.

Basically, tippet provides a breaking point on your line.

To attach tippet to your leader, you can either use a blood knot or a surgeon’s knot.

Whether you decide to use tippet or not, all you have to do now is slap that reel onto your new fly rod, and you’re ready to go.

If you want to avoid the difficulty of picking out a rod, reel, fly line, and backing, then having to put it all together yourself, you can instead buy them all at once as a fly fishing combo. A fly fishing combo will pair appropriate line with your reel and rod, and can be just as high quality as other equipment.

Fly Fishing Combos – Get it All Setup and Balanced From the Beginning

If you’re just getting started fly fishing, I urge you to look at fly fishing combos. And don’t think you need to break the bank. Save some money for now, and invest in better equipment in the future.

Fly Selection When Starting Out

Ok, you almost have everything you need to start fishing. The last thing you’ll need to start fly fishing is flies. Flies are what you’re slinging around at the end of your line, and imitate food items that fish actually eat.

In general, there are 4 types of flies: dry flies, wet flies, streamers, and poppers.

Dry flies are flies that imitate insects on the surface of the water. I could write a book explaining why dry fly fishing is the best type of fishing, but I’ll save you the trouble. Dry flies are meant to float, and range from tiny midges to finger sized hoppers. Fly fisherman use dry flies to catch trout, bass, sunfish, and carp.

Wet flies imitate sub-surface insects and crustaceans that (unfortunately) make up the bulk of trout’s diets. Most wet flies are tiny, but they can be larger. Wet flies are often fished under an indicator, which is just a fancy term for a bobber, and sometimes are used with split shot. Wet flies are mostly used to catch trout and salmon.

Streamers are sub-surface flies that imitate baitfish, crawfish, large insects, and other larger pray items. The size of the streamer depends on what it is imitating, but they range from the size of the tip of your pinky finger to larger than your hand. Streamer fishing can catch some of the biggest trout, as well as medium sized trout, bass, salmon, and saltwater fish species.

Poppers are like dry flies, as they are fished on the surface of the water, but I designate them separately from dry flies as they typically imitate baitfish, mice, or other surface prey. Poppers are used to catch trout in specific situations, small and largemouth bass, redfish, and some exotic saltwater species (such as the coolest fish in the world in my opinion, the giant trevally).

What flies you need to be fishing with are entirely determined on where and when you are fishing. To figure out what to use, go into a fly shop and they’ll be happy to tell you (and sell you some). And if you have no way of figuring out what fly to use to fish, just use a wooly bugger. You can catch fish with those pretty much any time and anywhere.

Fly Fishing Sunglasses Must be Polarized

smith optics great fly fishing sunglasses
smith optics great fly fishing sunglasses

Once you have a rod, reel, line, and some flies, you have everything you need to start fishing. But, I’d argue that one of the most important pieces of equipment for fly-fishing is a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

Especially while fishing for trout or any other Clearwater species, being able to see the fish gives you a serious competitive advantage. Seeing fish before they can see you allows you to decide the best way to catch them, see what they’re eating, and know how big the fish is. And, knowing where the fish are in general is of obvious vital importance, as you can’t catch fish that don’t exist.

I’ve written extensively about fly fishing sunglasses, good quality polarized sunglasses make a difference. I was a huge surprise for me when I tried on higher end quality Smith Optics Sunglasses. Read about those sunglasses and others in this article 4 Best Fly Fishing Sunglasses.

Polarized sunglasses allow you to look into the water and see the fish that are feeding below the surface. They’ll also cut down on the glare off the water that can cause serious long-term damage to your eyesight.

Fly Fishing Waders – Get Quality

In some fly fishing situations, waders will be necessary. If you’re wade fishing in cold weather, wear waders- pure and simple. If you’re wade fishing in cool weather, you should probably wear waders.

But if you’re wade fishing during the summer, you can probably get away with just wearing a swimsuit and shivering a little bit. And if you’re fishing from a boat, or from the shore and know you won’t get in the water, waders are not necessary.

If you do choose to buy a pair of waders I recommend spending the money to invest in a quality pair that will last. You will also need to buy a pair of wading boots, and will need to know the local regulations on the type of sole those boots can have.

Landing Nets for Fly Fishing

Another sometimes-necessary piece of equipment is a net. A net allows you to handle fish safely while trying to look at them or take a picture and can make unhooking fish easier. But if you’re fishing for trout, be sure to buy the right kind of net.

Trout have an antibiotic slime that covers their body and nets that aren’t specifically designed for trout fishing can remove that slime, endangering that fish’s life. Trout nets are either microfiber, or rubber coated.

If you’re fishing in saltwater, you won’t need a net.

Fly Boxes – So Many to Choose

Fly fishermen have a tendency to horde a large number of flies and a desire to carry that load to them whenever they fish. Since flies can get quite small, it can be helpful to organize them into fly boxes. Fly boxes are containers that have inserts for individual flies that keeps them separated preventing their hooks from getting tangled up.

Fly boxes are not always necessary, but they can be helpful when wade fishing for trout or salmon while using small flies. If you’re fishing from a boat, you can usually get away with just using a tackle box.

With so many selections for fly boxes it can be difficult. Read this article on selecting a great fly box. Recommended Fly Boxes

They make specialized fly boxes for nymphs, dry flies, streamers, and poppers and they can cost as much as you want to spend. My advice to beginners is to keep it simple, and if you do think you need a fly box, don’t spend too much.

Learning to Fly Fish, Means Putting in the Time

When I first really started to fly fish, I pretty much taught myself. I would go out on the river for as many hours as I could, often times forgetting to eat or drink water, and try everything I could think of to catch fish. So naturally, at the beginning, I barely caught anything.

But, to help you learn from my mistakes, I suggest you take advantage of these resources.

Fly Fishing Mentors

The most beneficial resource you can utilize while learning how to fly fish is someone who knows how to do it. Someone who knows the area you’re fishing in, the fish you can catch, and how to catch them. Fly fishermen can tend to be tight lipped about these topics, but if you have a personal relationship with one, they are usually more than willing to help you out.

But if you don’t already have a relationship with an expert fly fisherman, finding a fly fishing mentor can be more difficult. You’ll be forced into desperation extraversion.
When you’re on the water, go out of your way to be kind to other fishermen. Be cordial, polite, and suck up a little bit. If you’ve got a cooler full of beer, pass one along to the guy fishing near you. He could be a wealth of fly fishing knowledge and giving him that beer could be the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship. You get him drunk, he teaches you to fish.

If there’s a local fly shop in the area, hangout in there in your free time. Ask questions to customers and people who work there. And if there are any bars, breweries, or any other forms of drinking establishments (places where fly fishermen can be commonly found), spend your evening there as well.

Talk about fly fishing with as many strangers as you can. I’ve been invited on float trips in Colorado after talking to men at bars in Belize. People who love to fly fish love to talk about fly fishing, and when you’re a beginner, you need to take advantage of that fact. You’ll learn more about fly fishing from these people than you ever could from a book, video, or article, and you could make a life long friend in the process.

Fly Fishing Guides

Many people will turn their noses up at this suggestion, but going out with a fly fishing guide can be one of the best possible ways to learn more about fly fishing. Sure, you’ll have to pay this friend for the knowledge he’ll give you, but you’ll be able to apply that knowledge for as long as you keep fishing.

If you decide to fish with a guide, I recommend fishing with one in your local waters. Though most people just hire guides on destination trips, fishing with one where you do most of your fishing will be more help to you. Not only will you learn to be a better fly fisherman in general, but you’ll also learn how to fish your water specifically.

Fly fishing guides also tend to be awesome people, so while you’re fishing with them you’re bound to have a great time full of dirty jokes, fishing lies (stories), and talking shit. The loads of fish you’ll probably catch are just icing on the cake.

Fly Fishing Classes

Fly fishing classes can be another valuable resource to invest in for beginner (or even experienced) fly fishermen. Classes will be about topics ranging from casting to fly tying, with casting being the most valuable for beginners.

Casting classes will teach you the basic mechanics of casting a fly rod, and having a set of eyes on your personal technique will give you valuable criticism. It is much easier to work on your casting technique early on, as opposed to fixing technique after years of doing it the wrong way.

If you’re in a fly fishing town, just head down to your favorite local fly shop and see what classes they have to offer. If you live in an area where people don’t fly fish, just move! Or see if there is an Orvis or Orvis endorsed store in your city. They’ll have fly fishing classes as well.

Fly Fishing Shows

It’s 2019, so if you rather learn to fly fish from the comforts of your bedroom, or if you’re just looking for another resource, there are plenty of fly fishing shows out there. Here are a few of my favorites.

OK – some self promotion going on – PLEASE CHECK OUT my YouTube channel. Here’s the link – GUIDE RECOMMENDED YOUTUBE Over 30 How To Fly Fishing Videos and growing.

Jensen Fly Fishing is a YouTube channel from Dave and Amelia Jensen. Their videos focus on their fishing in the South Island of New Zealand and in Western Canada. Most of these videos feature massive brown trout caught in crystal clear water on dry flies, but sometimes they vary. No matter the topic, Dave and Amelia always share valuable information alongside the beautiful cinematography.

So, best-case scenario you learn something watching their videos, and worst case you just get more excited about fly fishing.

Another awesome fly fishing YouTube channel is Wish4Fish, hosted by Ken Tanaka who is one of the fishiest guys out there. The videos feature Ken as he goes on guided and DIY fishing trips to famous, and not so famous, fly fishing destinations across the world.

His videos contain helpful information for beginner fly fishermen about techniques as well as places to fish. Before I go fishing somewhere new, I always check to see if Tanaka has been there first. If he has, I know the fishing will be good.

Be careful though, his enthusiasm for fly fishing is contagious and may make you quickly consider pursuing it professionally.


Books are always a helpful educational resource, no matter the interest, and fly fishing is no exception. There a few books that I recommend to all beginner fly fishermen both to educate and inspire them.

The first is A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. This story is known and loved by a fly fisherman I’ve ever met, so it’s pretty much required reading. You won’t learn a ton about how to fly fish from this book, but you’ll learn a lot about why we do it. I won’t spoil any of the story for you, though, so I’ll leave it at that.

Another must-read, for me, is a more recent book titled Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski. Besides being one of my favorite of all time reads, this book also explains the complex role of fly fishermen as outdoorsmen and conservationists. Like A River Runs Through It, this book may not make you a great fly fisherman, but what it will do, I argue, is more important.

fly fishing books
fly fishing books

And I can’t talk about fly fishing books without name-dropping John Gierach. His entire library is full of books that will educate you on the sport as well as entertain you during the explanations. Start with Trout Bum, Standing In a River Waving a Stick, or Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing, then read all the rest.

Where to Fly Fish

You can read books, watch videos, and talk to fishermen all day, but at some point you’re going to get tired of all that and want to catch some fish. The first thing you’ll have to decide is where.

That’ll largely depend on where you live. Some states have abundant public fishing waters with easy access. Others have more private water and land that you’ll have to pay to fish on. If you’re fishing on your own, your best bet will be to talk to fishermen in the area and see where they go. They probably won’t give you their honey holes, but they can point you in the right direction.

If that doesn’t work, go on your state’s DNR website and find a map of public waters. Or, hire a guide.

Fly Fishing: Beginner’s Gear Guide

Of course, there is more gear that you can buy- pliers, clippers, fishing packs, wading poles, split shot. But since you’re a beginner, try to just focus on learning how to fish: casting, reading the water, identifying food sources.

In fly fishing, knowledge will always be more valuable than equipment. Thousand dollar rods and reels are useless if the fisherman holding them doesn’t know what he’s doing. So just focus on getting the gear you need then put your energy towards learning as much as you can.

Want to see the Ultimate Fly Fishing Checklist? Read this article and download the FREE checklist for the beginning fly fisher. The Ultimate Fly Fishing Checklist

You’ve got a lifetime of frustration and elation awaiting you in the world of fly fishing. Get out there and get after it.

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