John Schips | 07.15.2016

Fly fishing is an incredible sport that incorporates all the elements that make fishing great: challenge, strategy, fun, excitement, cool gear, the great outdoors, and if you’re successful, epic strikes! In our opinion, there’s only one main drawback to fly fishing, which is how daunting it can be to start with no experience.

If you do a quick search online of fly fishing basics, you find countless pieces of advice and helpful tips, but when considered all at once, it can be way too much information to try and piece together. In this article, our goal is to provide you with some tips for creating a good, easy starting point that can allow you to practice and refine your technique without feeling overwhelmed.

Designate Your Practice Water

If you’re completely new to fly fishing, we would highly suggest identifying some local waters that you think you could have some fun practicing on. While the species or size of fish in those waters may not be your ultimate goal, this will essentially serve as a practice facility where you can work on your casting. Once you have ample practice and feel more comfortable, you can begin making adjustments to your gear based on your progression and where you want to go.


Even if you’re experienced in other forms of fishing, the fly fishing casting technique is unique enough that it’s a good idea to set aside some time to practice. One of the fundamental reasons casting is so different in fly fishing is that the fly itself is simply too light to be cast on its own and carry the line behind it. Therefore, a helpful mentality to adopt is considering that you’re casting a line, and not necessarily a fly.

There are different types of casting techniques that usually depend on where you’re fishing, but for now, let’s consider the most common type, which is the forward cast. This is the type you may have seen plenty before, where you’re performing a sweeping motion back and forth above your shoulder, eventually launching the line onto the water in front of you. In this case, it’s important to practice your tempo and release, as a combination of speed and flex in the rod both contribute to casting distance.

The point at which your rod reaches its maximum speed is the approximate release point. By quickly stopping your hand movement, the rod is forced to bend forward (think of a catapult), adding considerable distance to the cast. As you do this, the line will unfurl (its final “loop”), and ideally, will land softly on the water placing the fly in the desired location.

Learning how to cast is not only essential to your success on the water, but also for your enjoyment. It would be disappointing to head out to the river with hopes set on catching a beautiful trophy trout, only to realize you’re having problems putting the fly where you want. This is one of the reasons we recommend taking some time to practice after you acquire your gear in order to develop the casting technique.

For tutorials on a variety of casting techniques, please check out this great casting resource.


Flies are meant to mimic the natural insect prey of various types of fish, often trout and salmon (cold water) or bass (warm water). You can get flies that sink (nymph insect) or float (adult insect). You may see the term “nymphing,” which refers to using a fly that sinks and appears as an insect in the nymph stage. Fish consume most of their food underwater, so this already seems like a preferred technique. However, keep in mind that if the fly is underwater, you may have more difficulty monitoring what is happening and detecting a strike at the appropriate time. Using a dry fly can be advantageous for beginners, as you can see what’s going on, monitor the fly and potential fish in the area, and see the strike as soon as it happens, which can allow you to get the feel for setting the hook with a fly rod. Plus, it’s just more exciting!

For a great description of different types of flies and how they mimic the real thing, please click here.

Fly Fishing Gear Basics

In order to make sure you’re getting the right gear for your needs, do some research into each individual piece of equipment you plan on buying. For now, let’s just focus on the basics to get you started.

For fly rods, the main things you will want to pay attention to at first are weight, length, and action. Lower weights (e.g. below 5) are better for casting shorter distances and landing smaller fish. Larger rods (e.g. above 5) are better for longer casts and bigger fish. In terms of length, the longer the rod, the further the cast. One other thing to keep in mind when it comes to length is where you plan on fishing, as a small stream with lots of obstructions may be difficult to fish with a long rod. Most fly rods disassemble, so storage shouldn’t be an issue. In terms of action, fast action rods will provide longer casts and are usually more comfortable for beginners.

When looking at fly reels, you will see lots of specs reported like weight, arbor size, material, drag, etc. If you’re just starting out, the main thing to pay attention to is the weight. In this case, you just need to match the weight to your rod. For example, if you have a 7-weight rod, then a 7/8 fly reel is an ideal choice.

Last, but not least, chances are you will want to purchase a pair of waders if you don’t already have them. Waders are fairly straightforward, and for the most part, you get what you pay for. The main things to look for here are material and boot style. For material, rubber is low-end, cheap, less comfortable, but still functional. Upper-end materials include neoprene and Gore-Tex for comfort, warmth, and waterproofing for the latter. PVC is a common mid-range material. Waders either come with the boots attached or with a smaller neoprene boot instead (“Stockingfoot” waders). Stockingfoot waders are usually better, but they are also a bit more expensive.

For more information about the gear you will need when fly fishing, check out Redington’s useful guide

Fly Fishing Regulations

These two items may sounds boring, but they are crucial to understand once you finally get casting on the water. Fishing regulations can be different for any body of water. Rivers in particular can have regulations that differ based on what section of the river you are fishing in. Furthermore, these regulations can change with time, so it’s always a good idea to have a look in advance. The main reason that regulations are in place is to ensure a healthy marine ecosystem and environment in general. Many rivers and lakes are stocked annually, and if looks like a particular fish species is suffering and numbers are dropping, then the state may elect to impose regulations on that portion of water. Another reason it’s good to check these resources is because you can often find weekly fishing condition reports as well, which may help you land a nice trophy!

Therefore, before you head out to your planned destination, check your state’s fish and wildlife management agency website to confirm any potential regulations. This is especially important if you plan on keeping your catch for a meal, as often times you will find great fishing spots that are catch and release only. Even if you are allowed to keep your catch, most rivers and lakes will have size and number limits to observe. By disregarding these regulations, you are not only risking charges, but you are also hurting the fish population in that body of water, which can create a negative snowball effect for the marine ecosystem in the future. So have fun, but play within the rules!

Fly Fishing Licenses

For the majority of fishing spots across America, all youth and adults are required to purchase a sport fishing license, which can usually be done online or in numerous fishing stores. Children under 12 should be exempt from this, but it’s always worth double-checking with your local fisheries department. They will also state the exact cost of a license (youth aged 12 to 17 are usually cheaper than adults) and any exceptions such as times and areas when you would not need a license.

It’s pretty simple to get started. Getting a license can be as simple as an online search for a fishing license in your state. A quick search for “fishing license Oregon,” for instance, yields Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife as the first result, and here I can view all of the fishing regulations in Oregon as well as purchase fishing or hunting licenses. If you prefer to purchase your license in person at a store, then most outdoor stores will have that available.

Exactly how the fees are used will depend on the particular department, but they are typically used to fund the management agency, where the fees will be put toward wildlife, fisheries, and boating programs that include restoration, stocking, safety programs, education, and more. Essentially, the fees you pay are helping to sustain the environment while keeping it fun and safe for everyone.

Final Notes

At the end of the day, the main thing we recommend when starting out fly fishing is not to over-complicate things. Take your time getting equipment and learning as you go, almost in a step-by-step approach. This may require a bit more patience, but it will pay off when you’re landing those beautiful trophies! 


John, what a great article. Having fly fished for four years now, your sage advice is spot on. I would recommend considering going out with a guide from time to time. Combined with time alone on the river, the once or twice a year guided trips have been instrumental in honing my casting technique, learning new casts, and learning how to better read the water or select the right fly. Also, I try to always visit the local fly shop for information on fly selection, fishing advice and also just to support the locals who know the area best.
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