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How to Fly Fish: 7 Tips on Fly Fishing for Beginners

So you want to learn how to fly fish? It doesn't have to be daunting. Here are some tips to get your fly fishing journey started.

How to Fly Fish: 7 Tips on Fly Fishing for Beginners

Maybe you were gifted a fly rod for a special occasion, maybe you found one in your grandpa’s garage, or maybe you’re just thinking about giving fly a go and haven’t yet purchased a setup. Whatever the situation, there are a few things that you should know before going down the black hole of fly fishing.

1. The Local Fly Shop is Your Friend

Walking into a fly shop for the first time can be a bit daunting. It’s like getting off the plane in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. While not all fly shops are created equal, for the most part the people working in the shop love to talk to newbies. Ask questions, take a class and make friends. But don’t just take the info and run.

inside of a fly fishing shop
Supporting your local shop ensures it’s there in the future when you need it. Driftless Angler Fly Shop

Support the shop by at least picking up a few of their flies every time you go in. You’ll find a wealth of knowledge within that real estate and, once you start down the path of fly, you’re going to spend a lot of time and money in the shop. Their job is to make you successful on the water and keep you in the sport, but they are also there to make a living. Supporting your local shop means the shop will be there for years to come, just don’t let them talk you into that expensive gear right off the bat.

2. A Casting Class is Worth 1,000 Self-Taught Lessons

group of people standing at a park learning to fly fish
Fly casting class in Florida looks on as the instructor offers advice.

You can watch all the YouTube videos on fly casting you want and stand in your backyard swinging that stick for days, but the reality is you will most likely teach yourself a whole bunch of bad habits. Sure, it may seem intimidating to pick up a fly rod and cast in front of someone else, but everyone’s cast sucks when they start. Chances are the person giving you the lesson is loving the fact that you want to give it a go. And, for the record, no one makes a perfect cast all the time. If you’re not tangled in your fly line at some point during a fishing trip, you’re just not doing it right.

little girl in a pink dress casting a fly rod
Who said you can't learn fly in a dress? No one. Little Della surely practices casting in style.

The information garnered by an hour-long casting lesson will propel your casting skills forward exponentially. And, when you head to the water, don’t be deterred by a bad cast or having the line loop around your head—that’s just fly fishing.

3. Gear is Important—But Not That Important

woman leaned over to grab fish out of fishing net
You don’t need all the bells and whistles to catch fish.

Unless you’re a millionaire with dollars to spend for no good reason, you don’t need top-of-the-line gear when you’re starting out. The entry-level fly combos that grace the shelves of retailers are great for beginners, and today’s graphite rods will cast well enough. Save your money, take off the line that comes on the combo, and invest in a good fly line instead. Then, when you’re ready to upgrade, head back to your local shop and cast a bunch of rods before you buy. At the next level up, not all fly rods are considered equal and once you know what your casting stroke is like and understand the nuances of the rods, then purchase a setup that feels like an extension of your arm.

4. Be the Bait

open tackle box full of flies
Box of saltwater flies. Photo Credit: Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Sure, fly fishing isn’t all about catching fish. It’s about being outdoors and enjoying nature, it’s about having fun with friends, and it’s so much more. But at the end of the day, you got that fly rod to catch fish. There are thousands of different flies to choose from and unless you have an eidetic memory, you won’t remember the names of half of what ends up in your fly box one year in, so don’t even try.

close up of salmonfly sitting on finger
Salmonflies on the Missouri in Montana. Photo Credit: Heather Hodson

If you’re river fishing, walk to the riverbank and pick up some submerged rocks to see what’s living on the other side. That will be a good indication of what the fish are eating. Then tie on something that looks similar. This is called matching the hatch. If you have no luck, don’t hesitate to ask the local fly shop or the angler upriver for a fly recommendation. However, the best-tied flies rarely work without a proper presentation.  This is where you need to “be the bait.” If what you’re throwing is supposed to imitate a crab, then strip it like a crab would move. If it’s imitating a grasshopper, then strip it erratically like a hopper that just fell into the water. If you consciously think like the fly on the end of your line, you’re much more likely to get lucky and catch a fish. Yes, luck still plays a part in this sport we love.

5. Start Small at Your Local Pond

hand holds bluegill with fly hook in mouth
Bluegill can save the day and teach you a lot about the basics.

Be it your local golf course or the local bluegill pond, starting with small fish that love to eat flies is the best way to learn how to present a fly, manage line and fight a fish. While many think of bluegills as a bycatch in a bass pond, these little gills can save the day and teach you a lot about catching fish on a fly.

Give yourself a head start in your fly journey and go to the local pond on a nice summer day. Tie on a hopper or other terrestrial pattern, and practice casting, stripping, hooking and landing bluegill.  They love to eat flies, they’re abundant and will give you a lot of practice.  Then, take your skills to the next level on the river or at the beach.

6. Hire a Guide & Pick Their Brain

two men on a boat one posing with a trout other giving thumbs up
Your guide will most likely be more excited than you are when you catch your first fish.

Most anglers think they need to fish for a couple of years before they can hire a guide for a day on the water. That’s simply not true. Guides take out clients every day who are new to the sport. The biggest gripe of a guide? Clients who pretend to know more than they do. If you’re new to fly tell your guide that. They’ll be happy to help you and you have their undivided attention for the allotted amount of time. Use it to your advantage. Pick their brain. Tell them you want help with your cast, that you’ve never been on a boat or that you’re just there to have a great day on the water. Whatever your goal, the guide will be eager to teach you and be even more excited than you are when you catch your first fish.

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7. At the End of the Day, You’re a Fly Angler

upward angle of woman casting a fly rod
No matter what level of experience you have, if you choose to pick up a fly rod and take the time to learn, you're a fly angler. Keep at it!

There are many terms floating around for someone who fishes with a fly—fly fisherman, fly angler, fly fisherwoman. While all of these describe someone who fishes with a fly, there is technically only one correct term and that is fly angler. The first book of fly fishing, The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, talks about what it means to “fish with an angle.” While many will wrongly assume “angle” refers to the bend in the rod, it refers to the hook. And that is the difference between an angler and a fisherman. An angler only fishes with a hook, while a fisherman can fish with a hook, a net, a spear, etc. So, in fact, since you only fish with a hook, that makes you a fly angler. And that’s good news because the term is also generic and can be used interchangeably regardless of your gender (and it’s easier to say).

The longer you’re in the sport, the more you’ll realize there’s much you still don’t know. Fly is an ever-evolving art that is a big, happy black hole. That’s what makes it so much fun and so much of a challenge. Before you realize it, you’ll be fully immersed in a sport that will grab you and not let go. There are a lot of opinions in the fly world, and there’s always something new to learn, be it a new cast, a new fly or a new piece of water. But at the end of the day, fly fishing is simply fishing, and fishing is supposed to be FUN.




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