Essential Fly Fishing Gear for Beginners: What You Really Need
One of the best parts of fly fishing is the gear that goes along with the sport. Choosing the right fly gear for beginners can be hard. It is difficult and often intimidating to know where to start and which gear is essential to angling. It is important to choose wisely, especially for the first-time fly fisherman. Having the correct equipment can make or break the fly fishing experience, and having a successful start is key to sticking with the sport.
Table of contents
- How We Researched and Tested
- Fly Rod and Fly Reels
- Fly Backing, Fly Line, Tippet, and Leader
- Don’t forget your Flies!
- Basic Fly Fishing Equipment Accessories
- Waders and Wading Boots – To Buy or Not to Buy
- Final Thoughts
How We Researched and Tested
While I certainly don’t know it all, I have spent the last 16 years aggressively pursuing fish on the fly. The sport of fly fishing has taken me to many different countries and I have caught many different species of fish on a fly rod.
Ten years of my journey were spent rowing a drift boat and guiding fly fishermen on the Snake River in Eastern Idaho. One advantage to guiding is that you have the opportunity to observe other people’s fish. In many ways, you are actually fishing through them via the instruction that you offer. Guiding exposes you to all different types of fishing techniques, solvable problems, and of course gear. Every day, clients appear with different rods, fly fishing gear, and offer unique perspectives on the endless ways to catch fish.
The information below is my own thoughts. Refined over the years by time spent on the water. If I could go back in time, these are the recommendations that I would give to myself at the start of my fly fishing journey.
Fly Rod and Fly Reels
Arguably, the most important piece of equipment that you can own is the fly rod and reel combo. You cannot go fly fishing without these essential pieces of fly fishing gear. Fly rods and reels are different than conventional fishing gear, so we will go over the different pieces that make a rod and reel combo for fly fishing.
The fly rod is made up of the fly rod, fly reel, fly line, reel backing, and the leader. In conventional fishing, we use the heavy weight of the lure to load or bend the rod. The energy stored in conventional fishing rods projects the lure across the water and towards our target.
With fly fishing, we lack any weighted lures. In fact, our flies are almost weightless. In place of a heavy lure, we use a plastic weighted fly line to load or bend the rod. This cast our fly line and leader to the target with power. The leader is the clear tapered monofilament material that we tie our fly to.
Fly rods are generally either graphite or fiberglass and they come with a slow or fast rod tip. For the beginner fly fisherman, I would recommend a fast action rod tip, a fly rod with a stiffer tip. Fast-action rods are better all-around rods for both nymph fishing and dry fly fishing. In addition, they are easier to cast in windy conditions. A rod with a slower or more flexible rod tip is excellent for softer presentations and fishing dry flies.
Recommended Reading: How To Setup A Fly Fishing Rod For Beginners
Fly rods and fly lines are classified in weights from 2 to 15. The smaller the number rod, the lighter the fly rod. The larger the number of rod the heavier the rod and line are. A 5 or 6-weight rod is a standard trout fly rod.
For beginner anglers, choosing the correct weight rod is a difficult decision. For most anglers starting out, I would recommend a 6-weight fly rod with a fast action rod tip. A 6-weight fly rod is the best all around rod.
This rod will cover a wide variety of fishing scenarios, from fishing small poppers for bass to casting large foam flies in windy conditions on Western Rivers. A 6 weight is excellent for nymphing for trout if the situation calls for it. As you progress in the sport of fly fishing, you will want to buy more rods but choose a good all around rod for your first fly rod.
Many people will often ask for advice on what is the best fly rod and reel for a beginner. This is a personal choice. My favorite is the Clear Water series of fly rods that are made by Orvis. This is because the outfitter I used to work for is an Orvis endorsed outfitter. All of my fly rods are from Orvis except for a few Temple Fork Outfitter rods and Sage rods. My Orvis rods have served me and my clients well. They present flies well, feel good, and have been thrown in and out drift boats the truck for years. Over the years, when I break one they have been replaced with no questions asked.
Every rod company out there makes an entry level setup. The cost is usually between $250-$450 for a beginner rod, reel and weight forward fly line fishing setup. Do some research, there are many great companies out there: T.F.O., Sage, Scott Fly Rods, St. Croix, and Thomas and Thomas to name a few. All of these companies have some sort of warranty and most will replace or repair your fly rod for free or at little cost if it breaks.
For the beginner fly fishing setup, fly reels are probably the least important part of the rod and reel combo. With lighter fly rods, anglers will very rarely reel fish in. Typically, they are stripped or pulled in. In this situation, the fly reel is really a glorified line holder. That being said, in the rare case you do hook a trophy fish, you want a reel with a basic drag system.
I would recommend a fly reel with a standard click and pawl drag system. A click and pawl drag system is one of the oldest drag systems in fly fishing. This is a tooth and gear mechanism that is interlocking and acts as a drag. The gear can be loosed or tightened to create greater resistance. This is sufficient for a starter fly reel.
If you are sure that you are going to stick with the sport of fly fishing, then there are both synthetic and cork disc drag systems that are excellent options for fighting fish. These higher end reels allow an angler to grow into their outfit as they move through different phases of the sport.
Fly Backing, Fly Line, Tippet, and Leader
Often overlooked by beginner fly fishers, the fly line is an extremely important piece of equipment. As we mentioned before, fly lines are categorized by weight, 2 being the lightest and 15 being the heaviest. There are many different types of fly lines for different fly fishing scenarios.
How to Choose a Fly Line
Choose a fly line that is a good all around fly line for both dry flies and nymph fishing. Weight forward floating lines are ideal for both of these techniques. It is a good idea to choose a floating line that is one weight heavier than the weight of the rod. The heavier fly line makes loading the rod easier when making a cast. This makes casting easier for beginner fly fishers because the extra weight of the fly line helps to load the rod. This is an excellent way to start fly fishing and minimize just one of the frustrations of casting.
The last piece of the fly fishing rod and reel setup is the fly line backing. Fly line backing is usually a 20lbs breaded line that is spooled onto the reel prior to adding your fly line. Backing is connected to your fly line. This is an emergency fly line in case a larger fish makes a strong run and pulls all your fly lines off the fly reel. This is a rare occurrence, but if it does happen, it is always a relief to know that you have an extra line in emergency situations.
Even if you never catch fish that take you into the backing, the backing fills up extra space on the fly reel. This allows anglers to pick up the fly line quicker by reducing the number of times that an angler needs to turn the reel to pick the line up. Fly shops will usually add backing to your fly reel and spool your fly line for free or a small charge.
Leaders and Tippet
You will need to purchase leader and tippet material to complete your fly fishing setup. The leader is the clear tapered monofilament line that we tie our flies to. Tippet is material is sold on small spools. The purpose of the tippet is to allow us to add length to the leader or change the diameter of the leader.
Choosing the correct tippet and leader is important because matching the correct sizes of the leader and tippet will affect how we are able to present flies. These choices can make or break a successful day on the water.
Recommended Reading: 11 Truths About Fly Leaders That Make Fly Fishing Easy
How To Choose Tippet and Leaders
When presenting flies to fish, we need our flies to make moves as naturally as possible and also make accurate casts to the target. Matching the correct tippet and leader to the flies that we are presenting is critical to accurate casting and a natural presentation.
Tippet material is classified with an “X” number rating system. The larger the X number, the heavier the pound test the tippet is. It will also have a larger diameter. For example, the 0X tippet is the heaviest, and the 7X tippet is the lightest.
It is critical for fly fishers to understand how tippet and fly sizes are rated so that matching the two makes sense. For flies, the larger the number, the smaller the hook size and fly. The smaller the number the larger the size of the hook and fly. Trout flies are rated from sizes #2, all the way to ultra tiny flies in size #28.
Matching over heavy tippet and leader with small flies, results in flies that will not move naturally in the water or not sink to proper depth in the water column. An unnatural presentation will result in fewer fish being caught.
On the contrary, if we fish leaders and tippet that are too light with large flies, our casting energy will not be able to transfer enough power during the forward and back cast to properly present the flies to the target. It is critical that we find the correct balance between leader, tippet, and flies to make the proper presentation.
Recommended Reading: What Size Fly Fishing Tippet and Leader Should You Be Using?
It is important to note that when we add tippet to our leader, at a minimum we want to add the same number of tippet that matches your leader. For example, if we are fishing a 7.5 foot 4x leader, and we want to lengthen the leader to 9 feet, then we would need to add 4x tippet to it.
A good all around leader for trout fishing is a 7.5″ 3X or 4X monofilament leader. I prefer this size and length of the leader because it is the ideal length and diameter for throwing bigger flies with accuracy to the banks. If we need to present small dry flies, we can add 4X or 5X tippet to the leader and lengthen it from 7.5′ to 9′ or even 12′. This is same setup can be used to nymph deep as well.
Monofilament Versus Fluorocarbon Tippets and Leaders
Your local fly shop will generally carry two types of tippet and leader material: monofilament and fluorocarbon. There are advantages to both. The most immediate and noticeable difference is the price. As Fluorocarbon is often 5-7 times more expensive than monofilament. We will cover the differences between the two here. I fish fluorocarbon tippet exclusively because it is what I have confidence in and I am convinced it makes a difference when fishing heavily pressured water.
The main difference between monofilament and fluorocarbon material is that fluorocarbon doesn’t refract light and is more dense. Therefore, it is virtually invisible underwater. This is critical when fishing in gin clear tail-waters or spring creeks. Leader shy trout will refuse flies because they can see your tippet. Fluorocarbon gives you the stealthiest approach.
There is a density difference between the materials as well. Fluorocarbon is more dense than monofilament, therefore, it will sink. For this reason, many anglers will use monofilament when fishing dries. In my experience, floating monofilament lines on the water will create dimples on the water’s surface, which can be a disadvantage when fishing dries to weary fish. I prefer my tippet to be under the water’s surface and not visible to feeding fish.
The elastic properties of monofilament and fluorocarbon are vastly different. Monofilament is stretchy and has more give. When pulled on, it will stretch and then revert back to its original form when pressure is released. Fluorocarbon is not so forgiving.
For beginner fly fishers, using mono might be the best option when fishing ultra small flies on light tippet. An overzealous hook set will often break the fluorocarbon line when fishing 5x,6x, or 7x tippet. Mono is more forgiving. Whatever material you choose, choose the material that you have the most confidence in.
Don’t forget your Flies!
For me, choosing flies is the most fun part of choosing fly fishing gear. Fly tying and fly patterns have evolved over the years. There is a never ending amount of new patterns and materials that push the envelope of fly design.
That being said, there are some patterns that just plain catch fish. These are the standard workhorse patterns that every angler should have in their fly boxes.
There are three basic categories of flies that represent the aquatic life cycle of insects found in rivers or lakes. Dry flies are fly patterns that float on the surface of the water. Nymphs, sink, and are fished under the surface of the water. Streamer patterns, which imitate minnows, crayfish, and other aquatic vertebrates, are typically cast and then stripped back in. Flies are sized by numbers ranging from #2-#28, and the smaller the number the smaller the fly.
Recommended Reading: Different Types of Fly Fishing Flies And How to Use Them
When choosing fly fishing gear for beginners, I usually recommend choosing fly patterns that are impressionistic in nature. These are flies that cover a wide variety of insect lifecycles and hatches. They are usually tied in earthy or drab colors: grey, brown, black or olive.
These should be the first flies that a new angler adds to his or her fly boxes. Having a broader selection of flies will make it easier to match a hatch with limited angling knowledge. A singular impressionistic fly pattern could represent multiple insect species at the same time. While you might not know the scientific names of insects hatching on the water, impressionistic patterns allow anglers to observe hatches and choose a fly that is close to what is hatching. They increase your odds of making the right choice. Below are a few recommendations for impressionistic patterns that should be added to your fly boxes.
Impressionistic Dry Fly Patterns
Dry fly fishing is when we present our flies on the surface of the water. Dry flies floating on the surface of the water and being slurped by an eager trout, is one of the most exciting moments in the sport of fly fishing. We fish these flies when we observe active insects present on the water’s surface. Some of the best dry fly fishing patterns are impressionistic flies. Don’t leave home without them!
Elk Hair Caddis Sizes #12-#20
Caddis are some of the most prolific insects on the water. They are present most of the year and far outnumber mayflies. The Elk hair caddis fly pattern is a versatile fly that can be fished anywhere and at any time. The elk hair caddis floats well, looks buggy, and will even work when fish are eagerly eating mayflies that are the same size. In addition, when tied in yellow, it will also pass as a yellow sally stone fly. This fly is versatile. I have even caught fish with its nymphing subsurface.
Adams And Parachute Adams #10-#22
The Adams and Parachute Adams are usually tied in grey and can cover a wide range of mayfly hatches depending on the size of the fly that you are fishing. Since they are tied in grey, they can also be colored with permanent markers to match a specific color mayfly when the situation calls for it. These are versatile flies that will fish well in just about any trout stream in North America.
Comparadun Dry Fly #14-#20
Comparaduns are extremely effective mayfly patterns. Many aquatic insects become trapped in the meniscus of the surface water and make easy targets for hungry trout. Comparaduns sit low in the surface film and mimic this vulnerable stage extremely well. Their fan-like deer hair wing make them easy to see. This single pattern represents a wide array of emerging and crippled mayflies in various sizes.
Recommended Reading: Different Types of Fly Fishing Flies And How to Use Them
Impressionistic Nymph Patterns
Contrary to the movies, generally speaking, most fish consume the majority of their food below the surface of the water. They are eating aquatic nymphs. These are small insects that leave the floor of the river and travel to the surface of the river to hatch. As they drift in the current they are moving at the same speed as the flow of the water.
This is the fly fishers’ opportunity to present nymph or wet flies sub-surface to eager fish. Nymphs can be tied and weighted with small bead head weights or unweighted. They can be fished just below the surface of the water or deep in the water column. Choosing impressionistic nymph patterns to start filling your fly boxes, is an excellent strategy when choosing gear for beginner fly fishermen. Here are a few flies that I always carry in my fly box and they work universally well.
Jig Head Pheasant Tail #12-#20
The pheasant tail is a classic nymph pattern. It is tied both weighted and unweighted. My personal favorite is the Jig Head CDC pheasant tail. Jig head nymph patterns are relatively new to fly shops, as they have been around a long time in the competitive fly fishing circuit. They have gained popularity in the last decade. Tied on a jig hook, they sink to depth quickly, which gets the flies in the strike zone.
Pheasant tails with a CDC collar work exceptionally well. CDC is a webby duck feather that gives the fly life like movement. It also traps air bubbles exceptionally well. Aquatic insects use air bubbles during the hatching process, so this enhances the life like qualities of the fly. This single fly, depending on the size you are fishing, covers an entire array of mayfly species and even small stone flies.
Hare’s Ear #12 to #20
The Hare’s Ear is also a classic nymph pattern that should be in every angler’s arsenal. Tied from fur from the mask of a rabbit, the shaggy and bug like appearance is a fish magnet. There are many variations of this fly pattern, but I prefer this pattern tied on both jig hooks and traditional nymph hooks.
The jig hook version is ideal when fly fishing the Hare’s Ear in a dry dropper rig or nymphing the smaller version of this fly (#16-20) deep under a strike indicator. Tied on a jig hook with a tungsten bead it gets into the strike zone.
Because this pattern can imitate almost any aquatic insect, I will use the larger version of this fly as my point fly in a two-rig nymph fishing setup. The reason for this is twofold: first, the eye of a standard hook is an easy place to connect my extra tippet for the second fly. Second, as mentioned before, the hares ear covers almost every insect that both large and small trout prefer to eat. It covers caddis, mayflies, stoneflies, and even craneflies. This is a must have pattern.
Impressionistic Streamer Patterns
Streamer patterns are flies that imitate larger aquatic and terrestrial vertebrates. Crayfish, minnows, sculpins, and even mice can all be imitated with streamer patterns. Large trout eat big meals, and many of the largest fish that you see in grip and grin fish pics are caught stripping streamers. It is important to have some streamer patterns for when the occasion arises.
The wooly bugger is a classic streamer pattern. Although streamer patterns have evolved into flashy intricate creations over the decades, the basic wooly bugger continues to produce fish. Not only, does it catch trout, but it is capable of catching bass. I have even caught a redfish and speckled trout on it in the saltwater.
Choose wooly buggers in various sizes and colors. Olive, black, and white colors can cover various fish species as well as leeches. Orange and rust colored versions are excellent at mimicking crayfish. All around, this is a buggy effective fly pattern that covers many fly fishing situations.
I have even used it as a point fly when nymphing deep under a strike indicator. There are many versions of this fly and all of them are effective at catching fish.
Rabbit fur leach patterns are terrific streamer patterns for both lakes and rivers. Rabbit fur is an amazing material. When stripped through the water, it creates tons of life like movement. These are particularly effective in lakes where larger fish feed on the abundance of leaches which are often present. Choose various sizes of this fly pattern in drab colors: brown, black and olive.
Recommended Reading: Fly Fishing Streamer Flies: Everything You Need To Know
Choosing a Fly Box
Of course, it is important to select a fly box to keep your new flies in. There are many different styles of fly boxes: compartment boxes, hard boxes with foam slits, and the new fly boxes with silicone sticky fly slots. There are even entire boxes made just for streamer flies.
I prefer the newer fly boxes with the silicone slots. In my past experiences, foam-slotted boxes have deteriorated over time through use and with exposure to heat and water. This leaves you with loose flies tumbling around your fly box. Also consider, that moisture is a flies worst enemy. Fly boxes that are waterproof are well worth the money.
Basic Fly Fishing Equipment Accessories
In addition to the essential fly fishing gear that we have discussed above, there are a few tools and items that you need to complete the beginner fly fishing kit. These are an important part of the beginner fly fishing kit. Without them, it makes fly fishing more difficult.
Split shot is small weights that anglers add to their leaders in order to get wet flies or nymphs deeper in the water column. While many wet flies are weighted, they are often not heavy enough to break through swift currents and present the flies deep in the river.
Adding a shot to your leader helps anglers change the presentation. In years past, lead has been the preferred material. However, lead is detrimental to fish, water quality, and the environment. For this reason, tin shot has been substituted.
I prefer Boss Tin’s assortment of tin non-toxic split shot, which we offer here on The Fly Crate. This gives you all the weights you need in various sizes. In addition, they are in one separate container, so finding the correct size and weight combination is convenient.
Recommended Reading: Nymphing with Split Shots Makes All the Difference
Nippers are a critical piece of equipment. Used to clip line and tag ends, they make your fly fishing knots clean. In the long run, they will save your teeth and money on your dental bills. For years I have used my teeth to bite fishing line. My two front teeth have developed grooves from the abrasive nature of monofilament. Nippers worn around the neck on a lanyard save you time and your teeth.
The Simm’s guide nippers are well built line cutters that will cut through just about any diameter of fishing line. These are a bit pricey, but they will last your entire fishing career. If you are looking to save money, fingernail clippers will do the trick too.
Forceps are an indispensable tool that helps anglers remove hooks in an ethical humane way. Trout are delicate creatures. The fewer anglers touch them, the higher the survivability rates are. Gently handling trout and quickly releasing them is critical to survival. Forceps allow anglers to crimp barbed hooks, unobtrusively reach into a fish’s mouth, and remove hooks quickly.
There are many different styles of forceps. My favorites are ones that have small scissors built into the forceps for clipping lines. There are many features on forceps and knowing what task you perform the most will help you choose which is best for you.
My choice is the Dr. Slick Scissor Clamps. They come in various lengths, and they have the scissors built in for trimming tag ends. This is always handy when you forget your line nippers.
Nymphing, or presenting your flies sub-surface, is a huge part of fly fishing. Strike indicators are essential equipment that every fly fisher needs for conventional nymph fishing. Strike Indicators are the small floats that attach to the leader. These are essentially bobbers, that indicate when a fish has eaten our fly.
Strike indicators come in all shapes and sizes. In the old days, anglers even used small balloons. While the technology has changed over the years, the latest and greatest strike indicator is the Oros foam strike indicator. This new and improved streamlined indicator doesn’t have any exposed parts, and the line runs the center of the indicator for optimal balance when casting. These features allow for easy casting, and your leader won’t foul on exposed parts.
Recommended Reading: 6 Different Strike Indicators for Nymphing
Dry Shake Powder
When fishing dry flies they often become saturated with water. Having a good floatant or shake dry powder in your fly fishing kit is critical to keeping your dry flies floating high and dry. Shake dry is a specially formulated hydrophobic powder that sucks water from your dry fly and repels additional moisture. Powders made by High N Dry are my personal favorite and have always produced excellent results.
Recommended Reading: 6 Different Ways to Dry Off Your Dry Flies
I know many anglers that don’t carry a net when fly fishing. To each his own. Ethically, we should all be using nets. The faster and gentler we release a fish, the better for everyone. Nets aid in this process.
I prefer a long handled net with a clear ghost basket. The long handle allows for easier landings, and it can be used when fishing from boats with greater ease than a short handled net. The ghost basket ensures that hooks won’t become tangled in the net, and is much easier on a fish than cloth baskets that rub their slime off.
The Fishpond Nomad Net ultra light, cool looking with its camo pattern, and has inches notated on the net handle for easy measuring. It comes in both a long and short handled version for your preference.
Recommended Reading: Why Rubber Nets Are The Best
Hat, Sunglasses, and Buff
A hat, sunglasses, and buff are must have items. First and foremost, they are pieces of safety equipment that will prolong your angling career. All three of these items have saved me countless times from wayward flies embedding themselves in my face, eyes, or head. In addition, they offer protection from the sun. Nothing cuts a fly fishing career short like melanoma and cataracts.
From an angling perspective, seeing fish is important. Cutting glare and recognizing primary lies, locations in the river where fish hold and ambush prey, is important when reading water. All three of these items help in this regard.
One of my favorite tricks is to take a permanent marker and color the underside of the bill of my hat black. This, in conjunction with a buff pulled over your face and polarized sunglasses, drastically reduces glare and allows you to see deep into holes. This is essential for finding fish and ensuring that you are not fishing vacant water.
Waders and Wading Boots – To Buy or Not to Buy
While waders and wading boots are important items for fly fishing, I would not consider them essential gear. For most beginners, you are going to fish in the warmer months. The most comfortable times of the year. This means, June, July, August, and September. While the water may be cold, the ambient air temperature is really hot. During this time of year, I prefer to wet wade.
Typically, I wear an old pair of tennis shoes and quick dry pants or shorts. The water is refreshing. This time of year, waders are too hot for most locations in the lower 48 states. My recommendation is to save your money and buy the other essential pieces of fly fishing equipment.
If you wanted to buy either waders or wading boots, I would choose wading boots with good ankle support first. They can be helpful if you fish rivers with extra slippery rocks, as they do give you better footing. In the end, waders and wading boots can be added down the line.
Best Vests and Packs for Fly Fishing
Keeping your fishing gear accessible and organized is important when on the water. There are hundreds of different sling packs, fishing vests, bags, and packs that anglers can choose from. I fish from a drift boat and wade fish, so I have several setups that work for me depending on where I am fishing.
When I am fishing on a raft or boat, my main concern is keeping my gear dry. Fishponds Cutbank Boat bag does this well. In addition, it is the right size. Too big and it is a hassle in the boat, too small and you don’t have the essential gear that you need. It has plenty of pockets and attachment points for tippet and other gear.
If I am wading, then I go with a fishing vest and a back pack. In addition to copious amounts of pockets, I like this setup, because I can carry my rain jacket, water, snacks as well as additional fishing gear if needed. Choosing the right fishing vest is a personal choice, and depends largely on how and where you fish. You can even go with an American-made sling pack, like those made at Vedavoo. Sling packs are incredibly versatile and you can carry a net with all your snacks while keeping it out of the way during casting.
No matter what you decide to buy, just get out there and start fishing. That is the hardest part. The start of the fly fishing journey is just the beginning. Seek advice from other anglers and from your local fly shops. As you progress along our fishing path it will become more and more apparent which are your favorite fishing gear and how to fine tune your kit.
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