Setup a Fly Fishing Rod and Reel

How to Setup a Fly Fishing Rod and Reel: From Reel to Fly

You’ve made the decision to learn to fly fish. Stop right now because your about to make a leap into the ”unknown” crazy terms and weird knots that are just waiting to snag you.

This post is designed to take you from the shopping phase to actually rigging up a the fly rod and reel so you can catch some fish. Along the way, you’ll start to learn why so many folks love flinging flies.

You need 8 things to setup your first fly fishing outfit:

  1. Fly Fishing Rod – Start with a 4 – 6 weight, 9 foot, medium/fast action rod.
  2. Fly Fishing Reel – A simple 4 to 6 weight machined aluminum reel is great.
  3. Fly Fishing Line – I recommend getting one size higher than the fly rod weight to start.
  4. Fly Line Backing – 100 yd spool of either 20 lbs or 30 lbs.
  5. Fly Fishing Leader – A 7.5 foot, 4X or 5X tapered nylon leader is a great starting point.
  6. Tippet – Get a small 30 yd spool of 5X tippet.
  7. Flies – A small variety pack with a fly box is perfect to start out.
  8. Combination Clipper with Nail Knot Tool – This is one of those things you’ll wish you had if you don’t get it. Plus they’re cheap!

Next I’ll describe some of the intricacies of selecting the components and putting it all together. The list above is the minimum, like any activity, you can go wild spending thousands and collecting an unbelievable amount of gadgets, but with the above and a little bit of fishy water you can catch your first fish on a fly.

Selecting a Fly Fishing Rod

Fly rods are selected based upon the fish you are targeting to pursue. In fly fishing, the term ROD WEIGHT is used. This isn’t the physical weight of the fly rod, it is related to the weight of the fly line the rod is designed to cast.

You got it – In fly fishing the line is weighted to cast out the fly. The fly rod is designed to cast the weighted line efficiently..

In the simplest terms; low fly rod weight numbers mean light lines and little fish. Large weight number rods are designed for heavier fly lines and bigger fish. As an example:

Fly Rod Selection Guide
Fly Rod Selection Guide

One of the best analogies for selecting a rod is one of selecting a golf club. Certain golf clubs are designed for particular situations. In fly fishing a small 3 weight rod might be perfect for tiny mountain streams chasing beautiful brook trout, but, that same fly rod used for a nice steelhead would quickly snap and end up becoming a stake to hold up tomatoes in the garden.

Fly Rod Action: when starting out you’ll see fly rods labeled with an “action” which basically describes the flex characteristics of the fly rod. A “fast action” fly rod tends to be very stiff and flexes mostly in the tip. A “medium action” fly rod will flex into the middle of the fly rod. A “slow action” rod will flex all the way down into the fly rod grip.

When starting out, I recommend a 4 to 6 wt fly rod with a medium/fast action. This allows the fly fisher to better time the casting stroke.

How to Select a Fly Fishing Reel

In most cases, the fly reel will be designed and labeled for a particular size rod. For example, a ¾ fly reel will work with either a 3 weight fly rod or a 4 wt. In the smaller fly rod (sizes 0-4) the reel drag isn’t used much during fishing. The fish are usually pulled in by hand with an action called stripping.

For fly rods and reel sizes 4 and up, the drag starts to become more important. Often when a fish is hooked, you will want to get the “fish on the reel”. This means reeling in the extra fly line until the fly line is tight between the fly reel and fish. This allows the reels smooth drag system to apply pressure on the fish.

You can read about “fly fishing reel drag” in an article I put together that describes the different reel drag systems and how to set the drag correctly in this article: “Understanding Drag on a Fly Reel”.

The quality of the fly reel becomes more important in the larger sizes. If you asked me when you should seriously look at the quality, I would say any reel designed for a fly rod size 6 and up needs to be machined aluminum with a sealed drag and a hard anodized finish. If you plan to fly fish in saltwater getting a good quality fly reel is a necessity.

Typically, a larger sized reel ( i.e. 8 weight and above) will have enough line capacity of over 150 yards of fly line and backing. This is more than adequate for all fresh water fishing. When fly fishing in saltwater, line capacities of up to 300 yards might be needed. (I have it on my bucket list to hook a tarpon which would need that amount of line)

For the 4 to 6 weight fly rod, I recommend. Look at putting 50 yards of backing plus fly line on the reel.

When shopping for a reel, take your fly rod with you. Any important factor in selecting a fly reel is that it BALANCES on the fly rod. You should be able to lightly hold the fly rod and reel and the setup will balance in your hand. This will reduce wrist strain when fishing for an extended period of time.

balance fly rod and reel
balance fly rod and reel

This last fly reel factor isn’t necessary, but it is nice to be able to exchange fly spools. Many folks will put a floating fly line on one spool and have another spool with a sinking line.

Matching the Correct Fly Line to the Fly Rod and Reel

I wish that all fly rods were sold with the correct fly line matched to it. For the beginner, this would just relieve some of the stress of getting into the activity. I’ve had great success with a fly rod combo sold by TFO. It’s called the NXT and it comes with a fly rod, reel and a matching line. I wrote about it in a comparison, where I bought 3 popular name brand fly rod combos and wrote an in depth review here – Best Fly Rod Combo Under $200

Once you have a little bit of experience, you’ll find that your casting technique will push you into a pattern for selecting fly line. For me, if I’m casting a faster action 6 wt fly rod, I prefer a 7 weight forward fly line.

Alternately, I have a fiberglass 6 wt fly rod that has a medium to slow action that feels right with a 6 wt forward fly line.

Given all of this, I would suggest when you start out with the 4 – 6 weight fly rod recommended, you should get a “weight forward floating fly line” ONE size higher than the weight of the fly rod.

Some quick info about fly lines

Fly Lines are rated by measuring the weight in grains of the first 30 feet of line. (minus the tip) The grain weight equates to a line weight number. As an example a 3 weight line (minus the tip) is a 100 +/- 10% grain line.

Sections of Fly Line
Sections of Fly Line

Type of Fly Line – Floating or Sinking
As you might guess, the “floating line”… floats! And “sinking fly line”… sinks. Floating fly line is the most popular and is used in 85% of most fly fishing situations.

Taper of Fly Line – Two common ones, but many variations
A fly line taper is how the weight/thickness is spread over the length of the fly line. As you might image, different conditions might warrant a specialty fly line taper. The two most common tapers are:

  • Weight Forward, which positions the weighted section forward on the fly line. This is used in 85% of fly fishing.
  • Double Taper, which places the weight in the center of the line which is often used in delicate presentations when casting short distances.

Fly Line Finish – higher priced fly lines will have textures and coatings to improve casting and floatation. These might sound like gimmicks, but they do really work. I have a Scientific Anglers Amplitude Fly Line (Amazon Link) that is amazing. It casts like a rocket and float like a cork. It does cost a pretty penny though.

Looking for a recommendation? A great value (can you say cheap) plus a great fly line is the Scientific Anglers Air Cel Weight Forward Floating Fly Line. (Link to Amazon to check prices and reviews)

Just a little reminder: Get one fly line size up from the rod weight. This is called “over lining” and is super popular.

Some closing thoughts on fly lines…. You need to try other lines, this doesn’t meaning buying 3 different fly lines,though. What I’m suggesting is go to a fly shop,and take a couple demo rods out to cast them. Mixing and matching and FEELING how different weight lines work is an important part of fly fishing.

Some Other Gadgets Needed for Fly Fishing

  • Scissors with a clamp: great for clipping lines and removing hooks from fish. I love the Dr. Slick Scissor Clamps. Check this video on “Hacks for Fly Fishing Hemostats” – VIDEO LINK
  • A Combo Clipper with Nail Knot: Tie-Fast has a really nice one. It’s a heavy duty model. Tie-Fast pretty much invented nail knot tools, so you can trust them. When I ordered one from Amazon I received it with next day delivery. Here’s a link to read more and to check the price – Tie-Fast Combo Tool
  • Fly Box: I’ve written extensively about fly box organization and selection. I sell thousands of fly boxes every year at my online store “River Traditions”. Read about Fly Box Selection (Links to my article).

Read about even more Fly Fishing Accessories in this monster of an article, “The Essential Fly Fishing Accessories Every Fly Angler Should Have”.

Putting a Fly Rod, Reel and Line Together

Assembling the Fly Rod

Some fly rods have alignment dots on each of the sections. This really speeds up the assembly process. You want to insert and twist the fly rod sections together at the same time. The connection between the fly rod sections is called a ferrule. Start with the sections a quarter turn out of alignment and as the sections come together twist into alignment.

I’ve started applying a wax to the male section of the ferrule. A buddy broke a fly rod when attempting to disassemble the rod sections. A couple swipes with candle wax is all that’s needed.

With all the sections put together and the guides (eyes) aligned, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Attaching the Fly Reel to the Fly Rod

Now we dig into attaching the reel foot to the fly rod reel seat. You’ll need to understand which hand you’ll cast with. I’m right handed so, I cast with my right hand and reel in with my left. Many spin casters setup their fishing rods to cast with the right hand and reel with their right hand. (When reeling, you’ll hold the spinning rod with your left hand)

Look closely at the forward section of the reel seat. Under the cork you should see a cut-out. This is called a stationary hood. If you cast with your right handed insert the reel foot into this inlet with the reel crank on the left side.

With the reel foot seated into the inlet, either slide or screw the moving hood over rear reel foot and tighten securely.

fly rod reel seat and reel foot
fly rod reel seat and reel foot

At this point, give the reel crank a spin to understand the reeling and drag direction. The spool should spin easily counter-clockwise. This is the reeling in correctly for a right handed caster. If required, almost every reel retrieve direction can be switched. I have a video on YouTube that details how to switch the direction on the three most common fly reels. VIDEO

Loading the Fly Reel with Backing

Unless the fly fishing outfit is extremely small, the first line to go on to a fly reel is “backing”. The important thing when loading the reel is, when the reel is full, the fly line never touches the reel body.

Unfortunately, what I just described usually means doing a little bit of trial and error when loading the backing onto the reel.

Here is a general guide for how much backing to put on the reel.

  • 1-2 weight reel = 0 to 25 yards
  • 3-5 weight reel = 25 to 50 yards
  • 5-7 weight reel = 50 to 100 yards
  • 7-9 weight reel = 100 to 200 yards

The backing is attached to the base of the spool arbor with a very original knot called an ARBOR Knot. Seriously, I wouldn’t worry to much about which knot attaches the backing though, just make sure that it is secure.

Reel the backing onto the spool so that the backing line lies flat.

Attaching the Backing to the Fly Line

Most fly lines will be labeled with a tag saying something like ”This End To Reel”. Many fly lines will have a loop on this end to help attach the backing to fly line. If this is the case, tie a “double surgeon’s knot loop” onto the backing and attach the fly line using a loop to loop connection.

If your fly line doesn’t have a loop, now is the time to learn the first of three knots used in fly fishing: the “nail knot” ( which is best tied with a little nail knot tool). Like most knots, the nail knot is best learned by watching it done so checkout this video –

With the backing and fly line attached, wind the fly line onto the spool. Let me repeat: with the fly line fully loaded onto the reel, it SHOULD NOT TOUCH THE REEL BODY.

fly line touching reel body
fly line touching reel body

If this happens, pull off the fly line and shorten the BACKING LINE until the fly line is clear of the fly reel body. This might take a couple tries so be patience.

How to String a Fly Line Through the Fly Rod Guides

Those small wire loops on the fly rod are called guides. The easiest way to string the fly line through the guides is to pull off 7-8 feet of fly line and double it over. Then string the folded over portion of the fly line through the guides. This is done because if you drop the fly line while stringing the line, usually it won’t slip back through all those guides back to the reel.

With the guides strung, do a double check to insure each guide has the line passing through it. I missed a guide close to the tip of the rod once, and on one of my first casts hooked a nice fish and SNAPPED my rod at the missed guide.

Pull 10 feet of fly line out the tip. The eyelet at the tip of the rod is called the TIP-TOP. Now your ready to tie on the leader.

How to Tie the Leader onto the Fly Line

I’ve written a ton about leaders so I’m going to list those articles below. I highly recommend:

The two most common lengths of leaders are 7.5 feet and 9 feet. I’m going to assume you have one of these.

Most modern fly lines have a loop all ready manufactured onto the end of the fly line.

loop to tool connection fly line to leader
loop to tool connection fly line to leader

If this is the case, you’re half the way toward attaching the leader. It’s a coin toss if your leader has a loop. I’m going to assume it doesn’t so you can learn the next knot needed for fly fishing…the Double Surgeon’s knot.

The “Double Surgeon’s Knot” is easy so don’t be discouraged. If you’ve ever tied an overhand knot you can tie a Double Surgeon’s knot – it’s just two overhand knots. Watch this video to learn how to tie it and how to make a loop.

How to Tie a Double Surgeon’s Knot and a Double Surgeon’s Loop

Attaching the Tippet onto the Leader

This step isn’t technically needed, because the last 10 to 12 inches of the leader is a section of tippet. But once you changed flies 3 or 4 times you’ll use up that tippet. The addition of the a tippet allows you to snip off a little bit of line without cutting away that more expensive leader.

I wrote a great article and here’s the link called “What is a Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet”. It explains those X numbers and the different materials.

The quickest knot to attach the tippet is a Double Surgeon’s knot, so if you didn’t watch the video above do it now.

Tying a Fly onto the Tippet

So here’s the last of the three knots needed to fly fish: the Clinch Knot. I’ll try to write this up, but a video best shows how to do this. Clinch note video link?

  • Slip 3 to 4 inches of tippet through the hook eye.
  • Wrap the tag end around the running line 5 to 7 times
  • Slip the tag end through the small loop created by the tippet at the hook eye.
  • Holding the hook and tagline in one hand and the running line in the other. Lubricate the knot.
  • Pull the hook and running line away from each other to draw down the knot
  • Clip the tag line about 1/16 inch from the knot.
How to Tie a CLINCH Knot for Fly Fishing

At this point, you’re ready to fish. Go Do It!! Okay.. if your reading this, you’re probably not on the water. So I’ll answer some more questions that might be popping up.

How to Select the First Fly to Cast

Usually, you’ll have an idea what kind of fish is in the water you’re fishing. So selecting the first fly usually starts with what is called a “searching fly pattern”. Searching patterns are some of the most common and productive flies. These flies should form the foundation when filling a fly box. If you’d love to read more about what flies to start out with read: “21 Best Flies for the Beginning Fly Fisher”.

For each species of fish you can always use one of these tried and true performers:

  • Bluegill – start with a size 12, Black Beetle or a Spider.
  • Trout Rising – proven classics like a size 14, Adams or Elk Hair Caddis.
  • Trout – if you know the water is fishy, you’ve got to go sub-surface. Try a size 12, Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Size 14, Beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph
  • Bass – on top a great choice is a size 4, White Deer Hair Popper.
  • Bass – if feeding subsurface tie on the classic size 4, Clouser Minnow.

Dang, you’ve got to love the names of flies – Elk Hair Caddis, Popper and Hare’s Ear Nymph. (Just think of a ⅜ inch brown thing with a hook hidden in it).

When to Switch Flies While Fly Fishing

I have seen fish completely ignore a perfectly placed fly. I’ll switch to 10 different fly patterns and still – Nothing! It happens, and when it does take a deep breath, look around at the beauty surrounding you and move on.

But, sometimes switching flies is just the right thing to do. Example: if you’re seeing fish actively feeding on the surface and you make a couple nice drifts over their noses without success… Switch Flies! I would suggest you try something smaller in those cases.

If nymph fishing, and you see a fish come up and look at your offering and turn away… Switch Flies! I would tie on something with a bead and fish it a little deeper.

If you’re streamer fishing for bass and you pull your streamer into the strike zone a couple times without getting any movement from the fish, change up the colors and vary your retrieval speeds.

Some days though, the fish aren’t biting. On those days enjoy the moment and enjoy your fishing partners.

Typical Fly Fishing Setups for Dry Fly, Nymph and Streamer

Dry Fly Fishing – This is straightforward and what I described above. A weight forward fly line, with a 4x to 6x tapered leader and 12 to 16 inches of tippet. On the tippet tie a classic dry fly like an Adams or a Elk Hair Caddis.

pheasant tail_parachute adams_wooly bugger_elk hair
pheasant tail nymph, parachute adams, wooly bugger, elk hair caddis

A little bonus info – get some fly floatant like GINK and apply to your dry flies before heading to the water. Gink and other floatants are more effective if applied and given a chance to dry. What is GINK? It’s a gel that you apply to your flies and leader/tippet to help them float.

Nymph Fly Fishing – With nymph fishing you’ll be adding weight to the fly or leader to sink the fly. In a current, most fish will hug the bottom, usually next to something that helps obstruct the current. The objective is to get your fly right in front of the fishes nose.

I’m going to talk about fluorocarbon line in the next couple paragraphs. Fluorocarbon material is nearly invisible to fish in water, as an added bonus it also sinks. When you get to a fly shop pickup a spool of either 4X or 5X.

What kind of rig do you need to fish nymphs? I’ve got piles of info in a couple articles, but the best is probably this one: How to Tie and Fish a Basic Nymph Indicator Rig.

A quick guide for rigging up a nymphing outfit. Tie on a 9 foot or longer tapered 3X to 5X fluorocarbon leader. Onto the leader tie 24 to 36 inches of fluorocarbon tippet using the double surgeon’s knot explained above. Tie your fly onto the end of the tippet.

Streamer Fly Fishing – Fly Fishing Streamers are designed to move. If your fishing stillwater, this means your “stripping” (pulling the line in by hand). If your in a current, you can combine stripping and using the moving water to create the fly action.

My Streamer setup in stillwater uses a floating fly line with a weighted streamer. I’ll tie a long 2X to 4X tapered leader (9 to 12 feet) this long leader allows the weighted streamer to drop to the desired depth. Onto the leader I’ll add 3 feet of 3X fluorocarbon tippet.

I’ll fling this baby out and let it sink for a couple seconds. This pausing allows the streamer sink to different water depths. Varying the time of this pause is a great way to hone in on the depth that the fish are holding.

With Fly Fishing with Streamers in a Current, I like to add weight to the fly line. I do this by tying a section of heavy sinking line to the fly line. I describe how to do this in this VIDEO. Make a Sinking Tip for Your Fly Line

From the tip of the sink fly line, I’ll add 6 feet of 4X fluorocarbon tippet. When fishing streamer flies in a current, the fish tend to aggressively bite the streamer. Be alert because most times it’s just when you start to relax they strike… BAM!

A Little Bit about Maintaining Your Fly Reel and Line

Please take care of your gear. A few minutes of maintenance will do wonders to extend your gear life. Two of the important ones are:

Cleaning your fly line, clean fly line will last longer, cast farther and float better. Read more about how to clean your fly line in this article – HOW TO CLEAN YOUR FLY LINE

Maintain your fly reel, in 2 minutes you can scrub and oil your reel. Don’t be that guy standing riverside crying because a trophy was lost because a fly reel failed. Watch this video on YOUTUBE that teaches you HOW TO CLEAN AND MAINTAIN A FLY REEL.

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

Select Fly Rod and Weight
Select Fly Rod and Weight
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