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Fly Fishing 101–The Basics

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

United Women on the Fly founder, Heather Hodson, shares her expertise on how to get started fly fishing. This online class is geared towards someone who has never picked up a fly rod or has minimal experience.

United Women on the Fly (UWOTF)

A community that focuses on connection, education, and resources.

Mission: United Women on the Fly (UWOTF) is committed to building an inclusive community that educates, provides resources, encourages, and connects anglers (mostly women) from all backgrounds into the sport of fly fishing. We will advocate for equitable outdoor opportunities and representation for ALL women. UWOTF acknowledges that our events and photos shared take place on traditional, unceded Indigenous lands.

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Catch and release principles

Many fly anglers do practice catching and releasing fish. If you do want to catch and release, you can find the principles and tips at Keep Fish Wet to reduce the amount of harm done to the fish you catch.

United Women of the Fly does support eating local or the legal harvest of fish.

Fish anatomy & physiology

The heart is between and under the gills and liver, just above the Pectoral fins. Gripping a fish in the pectoral area using inward force and squeezing pressure will compress the heart and maybe the liver and gills.

Know the regulations

As a new angler, you might not know you need a fishing license or the specific regulations for the local waters you’re fishing. In Washington State, it’s illegal to physically take a wild steelhead out of the water. In order to find the local regulations near you, go to the state or county and look up fish regulations. You can also find resources where you buy your fishing license.

Why fly fishing?

First and foremost, fly fishing is FUN, family friendly, nerdy, challenging, and rewarding. Not to mention, fish don’t live in ugly places, so if you’re getting frustrated, take a break and look around.

What is fly fishing?

Fly fishing is when the angler casts the line, not the bait (or lure). In fly casting, the fly line casts the fly versus weighted lure or bait carrying the line. When you’re fly fishing, the angler is imitating or mimicking what the fish are actually eating whether it’s an insect underwater or above water and/or can be some kind of bait fish.

Equipment / fly fishing gear

Below we’ll share an introduction to the fly fishing gear you’ll need to start. As you continue your fly fishing journey, you can dive deeper into the technical fundamentals of the gear you’ll need for the areas and types of fish.

Fly rods

Fly rod weight is the number designation to the overall power or size of the fly rod. General rule is the smaller fly rod weight is equal to a smaller fish and the larger fly rod weight is equal to a larger fish. If you’re trying to catch an average weight trout, the fly rod weight would range around 5 or 6.

Parts of a fly rod

Butt section is where the reel inserts into the rod to the cork handle. Connect the rod sections into the ferrules. The guides are the round pieces sticking off the rod pieces and might look different depending on the location of the guide on the rod. Each fly rod has a unique taper. The butt section (where the reel is attached) is thicker and each section of the rod is tapered to the tip top.

The fly rod sections can have one to eight (sometimes more) sections. The most common consists of a 4-piece rod with the following sections:

  • Butt - The bottom, thick section of the rod.

  • Butt Mid - Middle section, next to the butt.

  • Top Mid - Middle section, next to the tip top.

  • Tip Top - The section of the rod or blank farthest from the butt section.

Fly rods also come in different lengths. An example is if you are fishing a small creek that may only be seven feet across you probably don’t want to use a long rod. The average fly rod length is nine feet. As your rivers get bigger, you might need a longer fly rod. With different types of fishing techniques, you might need a longer rod to mend your line. Mending your line is moving your fly line either up or downstream to have your fly moving at the same speed of the water. This is also called a dead drift and is the most natural presentation.

Fly rods can be made from three different materials: graphite, fiberglass, or bamboo. Graphite is the most common material.

Every fly rod company labels rods differently. Some examples are:

  • Sage rod: 486-4 means 4 weight rod, 8 feet and 6 inches length, and 4 pieces.

  • Scott rod: 8’8” 4 line means it is 8 foot and 8 inches rod length at a 4 weight.

  • Winston rod: 8 ½ 4wt means 8 feet and 6 inches rod length at a 4 weight.

Rod action essentially is where the fly rod loads (bends). You can buy a different fly rod with a different action. There are four types of rod actions:

  1. Fast action rods: Stiffer rods that barely bend at the tip top of the fly rod.

  2. Moderate-fast action: The bend of the rod starts to come down or is lower on the fly rod giving it slightly more bend than a fast action.

  3. Moderate action: The bend of the rod starts to come down or is lower on the fly rod giving it slightly more bend than a moderate-fast action.

  4. Slow action: Usually a bamboo, or fiberglass rod material and bends lower and closer to the butt section of the rod.

What you want to get out of your rod action is if you have a slower action fly rod, you have to wait longer for your back or forward cast to unravel in front of you. For an average or a new angler, a moderate-fast or moderate action fly rod is recommended because you can really feel the action (bend or load) of that fly rod. Test out different action fly rods and embrace your uniqueness and what feels comfortable to you. Your preference might change as you become a better caster.

How do you know what the action is on your fly rod? Go to your local fly shop or go online and look at the manufacturer details and it will tell you what the action of your fly rod has.

Fly reels

The two main things to know about fly reels is the anatomy and the drag systems.

Reel seat (foot) is the piece that connects to the fly rod butt section. The frame of the reel. The handle is how you reel the fish in. An arbor is the center part of a fly reel where first backing and then line is wound. There’s two types of arbors: a large size and a small one.The larger the arbor, the less line capacity and the large arbor means faster retriever. When you are purchasing a reel, think about what you are going to be using it for. Are you going to have a fat or thin fly line and/or are you going to be fishing saltwater. Saltwater anglers prefer larger arbor because when they are reeling, they are picking up more fly line and it’s faster to reel in the fish on a large arbor.

Drag is a setting of tension on the line released from the reel. Drag comes into play more when you catch larger fish, especially saltwater fish, and you'll want one that is fully enclosed to keep saltwater away from the drag.

Don’t forget to wash off your reels and rods with fresh water after each day of fishing before you store them.

Consider versatility when looking for a reel so you can use it in as many fishing scenarios as possible, like fresh and saltwater fishing.

When you have your fly rod, you want to make sure it is matched up. In other words, you want your fly rod weight, fly reel weight, and fly line weight to match. For example, you have a 5 weight fly rod with a 5 weight reel and a 5 weight fly line on it.

Fly lines

A fly line is what is creating the weight in order to cast out a fly.

The backing is the backup to your fly line.

The fly line or the “heart” of fly fishing. The line provides the weight for casting and is typically 90 feet and are designated weights that match your rod and reel weights.

Types of fly lines

The whole purpose of the fly line is to transfer the cast energy from the fly rod out through the line and to the fly so it can be “presented” to the fish.

  1. Floating – a floating fly line floats and is the most common fly line, used most of the time for flat water

  2. Full sink – sinking line sinks. The rate at which a sinking fly line sinks is indicated by the type number. Type 1 has a slower sink rate than a Type 10. A full sink line is recommended more for lakes versus rivers.

  3. Sink tip – sinking tip line combines both floating line and sinking line. With the sinking tip line, the majority of the line floats, but the last 10 or so feet sink. This option is great for both lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Basic fly rod set-ups

You can easily get a sticker shock when buying fly rod set-ups and unfortunately it can be expensive. There are some basic fly rod set-ups. There are so many companies out there and Treeline Review provides a great resource: The Best Beginner Fly Fishing Combos for 2021.

How to set-up your fly rod?

Heather demonstrates how to set-up your fly rod by connecting all the parts together. Go out in your yard or a place where you can assemble your rod for the first time and work your way through the video below.

Two take home tips from the video: 1) Be careful not to pull the tip of your fly line off the ground because you can dent or damage your reel and 2) Make sure all the fly line is up and through the guides before attaching the flies to the end of the line.

Leaders and tippet

As a new angler, the leader and tippet concepts might be harder to grasp.


As a review, you have your reel then backing then fly line. Attached to your fly line, you’re going to have a leader. A leader is a clear piece of monofilament or fluorocarbon. Some may be familiar with these materials used in conventional fishing.

  • Leader – line that forms the link between the fly line and the fly.

  • Tapered – helps to complete the transfer of energy from the rod to the fly line to the fly.

  • Length – 3 feet to 20 feet. Average is 9 feet.

  • Strength – pound test (X numbers). The average strength is 3-4X. As the X number goes up, the diameter goes down.


Tippet is at the tip of your leader. The tip of the leader is assigned an “X” number to identify its diameter. As the number of the tippet goes up, the diameter goes down. A 3X is larger in diameter compared to a 5X. When purchasing a brand new leader, there is approximately 2 feet of tippet at the end of the leader.

When you’re tying on your tippet to your leader, you want to keep a tapered formula to transfer the energy from your fly rod to your fly line to your tapered leader to your fly. Example you’d tie on 3X then 4X then 5X.

Leader suggestion is a 9’ 3X leader for medium size trout, bass, and panfish. If you want to go smaller, you can tie on a 4X tippet to your leader.

Tippet is purchased in spools. Start with buying 3X, 4X and 5X spools to start. If you're going to be going into more technical trout areas, you might need 5.5X or 6X tippet spools.

Monofilament takes over 800 years to break down. Fluorocarbon take 10,000 years. As an angler, it is our responsibility to properly dispose of this material. Several rivers and water access points have monofilament recycle tubes. If these are not accessible, then connect with your local fly shop or research where you can recycle monofilament. Bring all bits and pieces of clipped leader and tippet material home with you. This “microtrash” should be recycled.

Match your tippet size to your fly size:

Tippet Tip: Divide the hook size by 3. Example: a hook size of 12, divided by 3, equals a 4X tippet. A hook size of 8, divided by 3, equals 3X tippet. You can round up or down depending on what size tippet you have with you.

Hook anatomy