Fly Fishing Basics: A Different Way to Fish | Great Days Outdoors

Maximize your fishing experience by learning the fly fishing basics

There wasn’t even a ripple on the surface of the water. On this late afternoon, the whole world seemed at peace. I was determined to break this peace and quiet with a little bit of jerking on a line; me on one end and a fish on the other.

I put my fly rod together and threaded the leader and then the heavier fly line through the eyes of the long fly rod, and then I tied on a small yellow popping bug. I made a few false casts, and then I let the line settle on the perfect water.

The little bug sat there. I let it sit a moment longer and then… nothing.

At this point in my story, I knew something was supposed to happen, but it didn’t. The fish were just not following the script. I knew fish of some kind had to be in this deep little pocket of shaded water near a deeper water drop-off.

The bug still sat there.


When I couldn’t wait any longer, I picked up the rod tip and started a backcast. That’s when the bass struck and ate the bug. My rod bent way over, and the bass jumped and ran and generally shattered the placid surface of the water.

It took me a little while to work the three-pound bass to shore, but it was time well spent.  There’s something special about making a good cast with a fly rod and then doing everything right, and then finally having the fish respond properly.

No doubt about it, this fly-fishing is addictive.


Fly fishing basics are a necessity when first learning to fly fish

Small ponds offer both practice and hungry bluegills. This photo was taken by Ed Mashburn.



How to Get Started in the Fly Rod Game Equipment

One important piece of information for fly fishing basics, anglers should know that there are tools for every purpose, and just like any other kind of tool fly anglers have a wide range of tool choices to make.

One of the most important choices for beginning fly rod anglers is selecting a rod. It only takes a moment inspecting rack after rack of new fly rods in any fishing equipment store for a new fly-rodder to realize how hard the selection can be.

Spencer Johnson, who owns Fairhope Fly shop at the Church Mouse in downtown Fairhope, Ala., advises a starting angler, “Determine the primary species you’re going after with your fly-fishing. Then buy the appropriate rod.”

So, what does that mean?

Every fly rod has specific information printed somewhere on the rod which tells the length of the rod—most are nine feet or so long—and a vitally important piece of information about the rod; the weight line it is designed to use.

A new fly rod angler may be confused by this term. What is “weight?” Being familiar with this term is one of the fly fishing basics.

Spencer Johnson says, “Weight is the size of rod and accompanying line to match the rod. If the rod you choose is an eight weight rod, you need to buy an eight weight line. If the rod selected is a five weight, then the line needs to be five weight, too.”

So, which weight is best? That all depends on the size of the fish the angler is likely to encounter. Fly rods are numbered by weight from one to twelve. One weight rods are extremely light and designed to fish tiny lines and super-small flies for little fish.

Twelve weight rods are made for tarpon, sharks, amberjacks, and other bruisers of the saltwater. Most bass and other freshwater anglers do quite well with five or six weight rods. Most inshore saltwater anglers fishing for redfish and trout use eight or nine weight rods.

Wally Kirkland of the Eastern Shore Fly Fisher club, a local group of talented and experienced fly anglers who meet every month to exchange ideas and techniques about fly-fishing, says, “Fly-fishers can get started with a modest investment. Here are some suggestions:

“I recommend a Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Series Model TF 4/5 86 which is an eight-and-a-half-foot rod designed to cast four or five weight lines. The four-piece rod sells for about $110, the two-piece sells for $90. I recommend the four-piece rod.”

“Mixing rod and line weights is usually not a good idea. However, putting a line one size heavier on a rod usually doesn’t hurt a thing.”

Mixing rod and line weights is usually not a good idea. However, putting a line one size heavier on a rod usually doesn’t hurt a thing, and can, in fact, help a beginning angler in the learning-to-cast process.

When asked to select a good starting weight for the average fly rod angler’s rod, Spencer Johnson says, “You might select a six or seven weight rod and line. This allows you to fish for bream, bass, and trout in freshwater and small reds and other inshore fish in salt water.”

Fly reels are used mainly to hold and store the fly line. Most freshwater fishing doesn’t involve using the reel to play and land the fish at all; line management is done by hand. This means that for lots of fly-fishing situations, a fairly inexpensive reel works just fine.  A $50 reel should serve very well.

However, as we get into the heavyweight fish—big reds, tarpon, and other big-game saltwater fish—the reel becomes very important, and much more costly. Again, the name of the game in fly-fishing is matching the equipment to the fish being sought.

Selecting the fly line is one of the most important fly fishing basics for anglers to know. The fly line itself is a crucial piece of the fly- fishing equipment. After settling on a good weight (we’ve already talked about that), then the angler has to decide between fly lines that float, fly lines that sink slowly, and fly lines that sink fast. Generally, most beginning anglers will do just fine with a weight forward floating fly line in the appropriate weight to match the rod. A weight forward- floating fly line will work just fine for perhaps 95% of fly-fishing situations.

“Cortland lines are all reasonably priced,” says Wally Kirkland.  “The 333 Series retails for around $35, and can be found on sale many times.”

Leaders are the line—usually monofilament or fluorocarbon—that connects the fly line and the fly. At least at first, it’s easier to buy pre-made commercially prepared leaders in the weight and size that matches the rod and fly line.

Most fly leaders are about the same length as the rod, so a nine-foot-long fly rod will most of the time have a nine-foot-long leader. Leader length, of course, can be shortened or lengthened to meet changing specific conditions.

“White River leaders from Bass Pro are about the best value,” Kirkland says. “I recommend 7 ½ foot leaders with 5X tippet. You can buy separate tippet material to replace broke-off tippets.”

“For less than $300, you can be in the game,” adds Spencer Johns.


What Flies? There are so Many!

One part of knowing the fly fishing basics is selecting what fly to use, many books have been written on this topic. Basically, fly anglers try to put a fly before the fish that looks like the natural food the fish are feeding on. Trying to “match the hatch” is a never-ending source of fun and frustration for fly anglers, whether they are fishing in clear freshwater trout streams, farm ponds, or the salty water of the Gulf.

However, for beginning anglers who are practicing their casting on a pond or creek and are still trying to figure out the fly fishing basics, it’s hard to beat a small yellow popping bug. These little bugs are sold in most tackle shops, and they work well with small-water fish.

It won’t take long before a wide range of flies will be collected by the novice fly angler, and that’s good. It’s great fun to try and match what the fish are eating. But here’s my best bit of advice: get a small yellow popping bug and use it. When a big bull bluegill or a feisty bass sucks the little yellow critter down, you’ll know why this bug is a small-water standard. It catches fish.


Instruction and Other Help

Learning to cast a fly with a fly rod is not the kind of process that can be explained easily in a short article. It would be like trying to explain how to walk. It seems simple until the actual explanations begin, and then it gets really complex, really fast.

The best way to learn good fly-fishing technique is to spend some time with a fly angler who knows what she or he is doing.

“The best way to learn good fly-fishing technique is to spend some time with a fly angler who knows what she or he is doing.”

Fly-casting lessons can be arranged easily. Locally, there are a number of experienced and certified fly-casting instructors who can make life much better for a beginner.

Wally Kirkland says, “Spencer Johnson of Church Mouse offers casting instruction.” Spencer has shown lots of folks how to fly-fish and he says, ”If you buy a rod at my shop, there’s no charge for beginning instruction.”

Folks, that’s a hard bargain to pass up.

Spencer says, “Women tend to enjoy fly-fishing more than men. And I’ve noticed, when I teach couples to fly-cast, the lady almost always picks it up faster. She pays attention to what I say, while he’s thinking about hooking a big redfish. Seventy-five percent of the time, she picks it up faster than he does.”

It is possible to go online and get some good tips from videos when it comes to learning the fly fishing basics, but nothing beats a live, attentive teacher who is well-versed in the skills and techniques involved.

Most fly anglers left on their own to learn fly-casting learn some bad techniques that hinder their progress in casting, and these bad habits are very hard to unlearn and correct after they have been practiced. It’s much better to learn the fly fishing basics correctly from the beginning and then develop these skills through practice.

Wally Kirkland advises beginners, “The Gulf Coast Fly Fishing School in Mobile ( is staffed by three International Federation of Fly Fishers certified casting instructors. They can teach you everything you need to know about fly casting and the fly fishing basics.”

Also, some very good information can be found at the Eastern Shore Fly Fishers meeting which is held the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 at the Fairhope Yacht Club. The club welcomes and encourages newcomers to the sport, and there’s always some casting on the beach before the meeting where tales and techniques are discussed.


Learning fly fishing basics by using a yellow popping bug

This fine pond bass wanted this yellow popping bug a lot. This photo was taken by Ed Mashburn.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Any skill—even fly-casting—improves with use and good practice. Learning this skill would also be one of the many fly fishing basics.

When asked how important practice is, Spencer Johnson laughs and says, “It’s critical!  Especially when you want to be able to put a fly on a feeding fish, to hit the target.”

Many people practice in the backyard where there is plenty of open room to allow full-back casts and casts to a target, but there is a better place to practice.

Spencer says, “Go to a pond that has lots of bluegill in it. Practice your casting there. The bluegill are not spooky, and there’s nothing like actually catching some fish to keep a beginner at the work.”

Wally Kirkland agrees. “The easiest place to start fly-fishing is a farm pond if you have access to one. All the local creeks and rivers offer excellent opportunities for catching bream and bass. Delta creeks in the spring when the bream are spawning are can’t miss spots.”


Important Contact Information:

Fairhope Fly Shop at the Church Mouse

14 South Church Street

Fairhope, Alabama



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