A Guide to Basic Fly Fishing Gear

One of the biggest barriers to getting into fly fishing is the gear.

Even if you’re an avid spin fisherman, fly gear is usually a completely new realm. Not only are there things that aren’t used in other types of fishing, but the things that are common across the board often go by different names when referring to fly fishing specifically.

If you’re looking to get into fly fishing for the first time, or have done it and are ready to get your own setup, here’s a guide to all the basic gear you’ll need, what it’s called, and how it’s used.

For more helpful info for the first-timer, also check out Fly Fishing Terminology.

Rod

One piece of equipment that most people are probably at least mildly familiar with is the rod. But, it’s not necessarily obvious right away what makes it fly fishing-specific.

First and foremost, most seasoned fly anglers will scoff if they hear it called a pole. Regardless of the apparent pompousness of that fact, fly rods do differ from standard fishing poles, or spin rods, in a few notable ways. The biggest of these is that they tend to be long, lightweight, and built to load with a fly line. While it’s possible to get spin rods in longer lengths, a typical fly rod runs around 9 ft, with some styles in the double digits.

A close up shot of a man holding a fly rod/

A fly rod also tends to have small, discreet wiry guides, with one or two closed-loop eyelets near the base, as opposed to the bulkier all-closed guides of a spin rod.

Rods come in different weights and actions. Weight doesn’t actually refer to how much the rod weighs, but instead can be thought of as the size and strength of the rod. Lower weight rods are used for casting smaller flies and targeting smaller species, while higher weights can handle bigger flies and fish. The action is essentially the stiffness of the rod. Fast action rods are much less flexible when casting than slow action rods.

Reel

Another piece of gear that makes an appearance in other fishing styles, but that is noticeably different in fly fishing, is the reel.

Many trout anglers have jokingly referred to fly reels as “line holders,” since fishing for your average trout tends to cause a reel to sit dormant. As opposed to a spin reel that’s active on every cast, a fly reel mostly sits and keeps line collected. Saltwater anglers, on the other hand, use the reel much more frequently due to targeting species that can run.

A fly reel attached to the base of a rod.

Most of the actual line maneuvering (casting, stripping line, etc.) is done with the hands, and only occasionally do trout anglers get the fish “on the reel,” which means all excess line is pulled tight, and the angler is directly using the reel for drag and to wind up line. For larger fish, the reel does come in handy, as a good drag can make or break the fight of a lifetime.

Even when fighting a fish on the reel, there’s still a major difference from spin fishing: spin reels have a larger gear ratio. A gear ratio simply means that the reel uses gears to spin the spool multiple times for every single turn of the handle. Spin reels may have a gear ratio of as low as roughly 5:1 (the spool spins five times for every one turn of the handle) and up to roughly 8:1, with options in between. On the other hand, fly reels are a 1:1 relationship. You manually turn the spool of a fly reel, so it only spins as fast as you can go.

Fly line

The fly line is the real distinguishing feature of fly fishing. Many people, upon seeing A River Runs Through It for the first time, probably noticed this, and it’s one of the most confusing aspects to beginners.

Fly line is thick and often brightly colored, two qualities that at first seem undesirable to spin fishermen. However, the utility becomes apparent the instant they try to cast a fly with conventional gear.

Flies are so lightweight that they’re unable to pull line out with their own momentum. This is why trying to cast one on normal fishing line leads to extremely short casts. Instead, fly line, which is rubbery and heavy, pulls the fly out to its destination. When fly fishermen cast back and forth, called false casting, they’re building up the fly line to shoot the fly toward its destination.

Fly lines come in a ton of different styles. They vary between water type, technique, and depth of presentation, among other things. Most people start with a weight-forward floating line, which means that the line is tapered to be heavier on the end being cast, and also floats on the surface of the water.

Backing

A unique piece of equipment to fly fishing, backing is put on the reel before fly line. It’s usually made of Dacron, which feels like a thick, strong string. It attaches to the reel on one end and the fly line on the other.

The point of the backing is obvious to those who have fly fished for a while, but may be confusing to those just starting out. Since fly line is so thick, it takes up a lot of space on the reel. You can’t fill up a reel with hundreds of yards of fly line, as you’d quickly run out of space. Since the front of the fly line is where the bulk of the casting power comes from, there’s also no need to have a super long line taking up space in the back. The backing allows there to be enough line on the reel to handle a fish that runs, while not taking up excess room. Most trout anglers rarely have enough line out to actively use the backing.

Leader

The leader is a clear, usually tapered, piece of clear line that ties onto the end of a fly line. It serves several purposes.

One is to present the fly delicately to the fish. A nicely tapered leader at the right length will turn over correctly to land the line straight on the water with the fly outstretched. This is exactly what you want while targeting wary fish.

Another is to give some space between the thick, conspicuous fly line and the fly. Without a long-enough leader, many spooky fish like trout wouldn’t give a fly a second look, since they’d immediately notice the massive fly line. The leader puts an invisible length between the fly line and the fishes’ target.

The exact specs of the leader you’ll choose depend on what you’re fishing for, the style of fishing, and the conditions. While a variety of factory-tapered leaders are available at shops, many anglers opt to build their own from tippet (see below). By using sections of tippet, a fisherman can build the perfect leader for the depth, water speed, species, and technique of his or her choice.

Read more on A Guide to Leaders and Tippet.

Tippet

Tippet can be easily confused with a leader if you’re just starting out, and for good reason. It’s basically the same thing, just in a slightly different form. Tippet is line that is tied onto the end of a leader, or that can also be used to build a leader if needed. It’s also added to leader rigs that have snapped and need to have more line added to get to the proper length and thickness.

While a tapered leader comes in a set length from the store, as its own item, tippet is more of an open-ended material. It’s made from the same stuff as leaders, and therefore looks similar. However, tippet material is sold on a spool. Different thicknesses are sold separately, and these thicknesses are used to “top off” a leader with line at the appropriate size.

Read more on A Guide to Leaders and Tippet.

Fly

The equivalent of a lure in spin fishing, a fly is an iconic piece of fly fishing gear.

Flies are generally quite small, although they can be pretty large for some species like bass, pike, muskies, and saltwater fish. Flies are tied by adding material, either natural or synthetic, to a hook. These materials include fur, feathers, thread, wire, and foam, among many more.

They most often mimic insects, but can also imitate baitfish, crustaceans, worms, and other small critters. The art of fly tying is an activity in itself, and anglers range from never tying their own flies, to tying some, to tying all.

There are numerous categories and subcategories of flies, but the most basic ones for a beginner to know are dry flies (which float), nymphs (which sink), and streamers (which also sink, but are large and typically mimic baitfish as opposed to insects).

Waders

While waders definitely aren’t specific to fly fishing, they do seem to be worn more often by fly fishermen than other anglers.

This may be due to the fact that people often fly fish for trout, which live in cold water, making waders the de facto uniform of the fly fisherman. If you’re strictly a warmwater angler, you can get by without them. But, if you live up north or regularly fish for coldwater species, you’ll probably find that you want a pair at some point.

Most anglers opt for lightweight chest waders, which typically have some interior and exterior pockets, neoprene booties at the feet, and a wading belt, which is used to keep excess water out in case of a fall.

A good pair of waders with some soft layers underneath will keep you warm and toasty even in the middle of winter.

Boots

Although some waders come with boots built-in, most serious anglers opt for separate waders and boots. Doing this allows the boots to tie down more securely and fit better. Boots are worn on top of the neoprene feet of the waders, but are not waterproof themselves. Instead, the wader feet keep your feet dry, and the boots are just there for traction, protection, and stability.

Wading boots come with several sole options, the two most common being felt sole and rubber sole. The benefit to felt sole is a better grip on slippery rocks. The downside is that they can transfer organisms from one body of water to another while wet, and because of this, are illegal to use in some states. For winter anglers, they can also be a pain because snow sticks to felt like glue.

Rubber-soled boots don’t have as much traction on slippery underwater rocks, but are generally considered more environmentally friendly when it comes to the transfer of species from one area to another. They also do better in the snow.

Pack or vest

Nearly all types of fishing involve some sort of holder for tackle. Tackle boxes and fishing vests are two of the well-known options. Although vests are also used by some fly fishermen, packs are more common.

A fly pack is essentially a tiny duffle bag that houses all the necessities. Fly boxes, leaders, tippet, and any other accessories are stored here. They come in several styles, popular ones being hip packs, sling packs, and chest packs.

Many come with cupholders, loops, and attachment areas for accessories to be clipped on the outside as well. Although a fly pack isn’t completely necessary to get out and fish, small ones are affordable and make life on the water much more convenient.

Read more on How to Choose a Fishing Pack.

Floatant

Floatant is pretty specific to fly fishing, since the goal is to keep delicate flies aloft on the water’s surface.

As dry flies, which float, are fished for long periods of time, they’ll become waterlogged. Once that happens, they’ll stop floating. In order to combat this issue, an angler can apply floatant to get back on the surface.

Some people use the word “floatant” to refer specifically to a gel product, but in this case I’ll use floatant as anything that’s used to keep dry flies aloft. This varies from a desiccant powder, to a gel, to a paste, and numerous other products. The powder and gel are two of the most used options.

Gel is best applied before starting to fish a dry fly. This is because the oily substance is meant to repel water. Put it on first, and it keeps water off your fly. Put it on after the fly is soaked, and it’ll just lock the water onto the fly.

The powder, on the other hand, is meant to make a wet fly dry. This is usually used after a fly has become waterlogged and needs some help getting back on the surface.

Indicators

Indicators, simply put, are fly fishing bobbers.

There’s a debate about whether calling them indictors is evidence of the pretentiousness of fly fishermen who don’t want to admit they use bobbers. I disagree with this argument, since although indicators do perform a nearly identical function to bobbers, they do generally differ in terms of their physical characteristics.

The standard fishing bobber most people picture is a large, red and white, hard plastic ball. Although indicators come in lots of different styles, that classic hard plastic bobber isn’t one of them.

Instead, to be the appropriate size and weight for lightweight flies, indicators are often small, soft plastic balls or other nearly-weightless materials like foam or yarn.

Indicators are most often used to fish nymph flies in rivers, another slight difference from a typical bobber, which is often used in a lake to hold wriggling bait.

Although it’s definitely helpful to think of an indicator as a bobber if you’re new to fly fishing, I do think it’s also good to understand the slight differences between the two. You probably don’t want to grab that red and white behemoth out of your tackle box to throw your first nymphs.

Accessories

Now that most of the major gear is out of the way, the last things to cover are the fly fishing accessories that most anglers carry. These include fly boxes, nippers, hemostats, split shot, nail knot tools, and more. Here’s a quick summary of each of these.

  • Fly box – a small, usually plastic, box that holds flies. Flies typically sit in a foam or rubber insert.
  • Net – although I consider a net to be more of a “real” piece of gear than an accessory, I included it down here since nets don’t really differ between conventional gear and fly gear. A net is a net. Rubber netting is better for the fish.
  • Nippers – a tool similar to nail clippers (nail clippers actually make great nippers), used to cut leaders and tippet.
  • Hemostats – although they look like scissors, hemostats are basically a small pair of pliers mostly used to pinch hook barbs and get stubborn hooks out of fish (and T-shirts!).
  • Split shot – not really specific to fly fishing, but used frequently, split shot refers to small metal weights that are added to a rig to make it sink faster. Fly fishing split shot tends to be smaller than shot for conventional gear.
  • Nail knot tool – nail knots are an unfortunate reality in fly fishing, and are often used when setting up a reel. Nail knots are named from the fact that they were originally tied using a nail as support, but the nail knot tool is a much more efficient way to get these stubborn knots tied. If you’re lucky, your life will contain very few nail knots.
  • Sunglasses – a pair of polarized sunglasses might as well be a mandatory piece of equipment for all types of fishing, fly fishing included.
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