Fly Fishing Terminology: You’re Casting a What?

I thought it’d be fun to take a moment to cover some of the slang we take for granted as fly fishermen. If you’re a gear fisherman new to the sport of fly fishing, or a total fishing rookie altogether, the terminology can get a little overwhelming at first. Or, maybe you’re a fly fisherman who’s been hearing some of these words for ages but have never bothered to figure out what they mean (I’ve definitely had a few of those).

Some of these are run-of-the-mill terms used for special gear, casting techniques, or flies. Others are just fun words and phrases someone probably came up with after one too many whiskeys. Regardless, they all have their place on the water and should be studied carefully for proper use while spinning a fishing yarn.

The List

Action (of a rod) – The rod’s flexibility. Fast action rods are stiffer, while slow action rods are flexible.

Arbor – The part of the reel that the backing is attached to. Large arbor reels allow line to be reeled in more quickly.

Attractor fly – A fly that says “screw it” and imitates absolutely nothing. This type of fly is meant to get fish to bite out of curiosity, frustration, contempt, or any other number of emotions. It is meant more to illicit a triggered response than to actually look appetizing as an insect.

Backcast – The portion of a fly cast that shoots the fly line back behind the angler.

Backing – The thin braided material that attaches to the reel and connects to the fly line to allow the reel to hold a long length of line. See: Into the Backing.

Beadhead – A nymph fly that has a heavy, metallic bead on the front to add weight.

Belly (of a line) – The part of a fly line between the front and rear tapers.

Belly boat – An inflatable boat or tube that allows a fisherman to access the middle of a lake. Waders are usually worn and fins are put on wading boots to allow the angler to kick and propel the boat.

Bow and arrow cast – A type of cast used to get a fly under a low-hanging obstacle like a tree branch, or in other tight quarters. It’s done by grabbing the line and pulling back to bend the rod tip (like you’re drawing a bow), and then releasing to shoot the line forward.

Butt section – The thick part of a leader that attaches to the fly line.

CDC – “Cul de canard,” or “butt of duck” in French. These are extremely soft, buoyant feathers from a duck used to tie dry flies.

“A couple” – What people say when they got skunked but their buddies ask them how many they caught.

Dapping – Using a short amount of line and a long rod to softly place a fly strategically on top of fish that could rise to it.

Dead drift – A drift where the fly flows at the same speed as the current, therefore acting as though it’s dead.

Delivery – The act of presenting a cast to a fish.

Dink – A tiny fish. Note: a dink usually grows several inches when discussed later in the day.

Double-haul – A casting technique where the fisherman pulls and releases the fly line on both the forward and back casts to achieve a longer distance.

Double taper – A style of fly line where both the front and back are tapered, with a level belly in the middle.

Drag – One of two things: either the mechanical component of a fly reel that resists line pull and prevents line from unwinding too quickly, or the unnatural movement of a fly in the water due to the pull of moving current, often on the fly line.

Drift – The downstream path a fly takes between an upstream cast and retrieving the line again.

Dropper – A nymph or wet fly that is tied below another fly. See: Dry-dropper.

Dry-dropper – A rig where a dropper fly is tied below a dry fly in order to fish both at the same time.

Dry fly – A fly that floats on the surface of the water and usually imitates an adult insect.

Dun – The stage of an insect’s life when it has just emerged from the water and is about to fly away.

Eddy – A slow-moving area in a stream that is next to faster water where fish can rest and insects can hatch.

Emerger – The life stage of an insect when the nymph has risen to the surface to hatch.

False casting – Casting the line back and forth A River Runs Through It-style to achieve more distance by letting line out each cast. The line and fly stay airborne during false casting.

Flashback – A nymph fly that has flashy or shiny material tied into its wing case.

Float tube –  See: Belly boat.

Floatant – A substance applied to a dry fly to waterproof it and make it more buoyant.

Floating line – A type of fly line that floats throughout the length of the line.

Flossing – A style of snagging fish (some will argue that they are different) that involves pulling the leader, and therefore the fly, through the open mouth of a fish to hook it. In this style, the fish is caught by the mouth, but it didn’t intentionally eat the fly. In some places this is legal, but many people still choose not to do it for moral or ethical reasons.

Fly line – The thick, weighted, and usually colorful line used in fly fishing. The weight of the fly line drives the cast since most flies are too light to pull the line out themselves.

Forward cast – The portion of a fly cast that shoots the fly line forward in front of the angler.

Foul hook – When your fly hooks into something other than the fish’s mouth. This often happens with heavy nymphs, streamers retrieved very quickly, or rigs with multiple flies where the fish tries to strike one but is hooked in the body by another during the hook set. It’s debated whether foul-hooked fish should actually be considered caught, since many people believe a fish must willingly take the fly in its mouth to count.

Front taper – The part of a fly line between the tip and the belly.

Gink – Technically a specific type of floatant made by Gehrke, gink is often the word used for a gel floatant (think Kleenex, Band-aid, or Jacuzzi).

Gravel guards – The “cuffs” on the bottom of wader legs that fold down over boots to keep mud and gravel from getting inside the boots. They can also be standalone neoprene socks that do the same thing for people using boots without waders.

Hatch – When a large number of a single species of insect is emerging from the water and flying away at the same time. This is what dry fly fishermen live for.

Head (of a line) – The tip, front taper, belly, and rear taper of a fly line together.

Hog – A big ol’ fish.

Hog Johnson – The biggest fish in a given river.

Hopper-dropper – A dry-dropper rig where a large, buoyant grasshopper fly is used as the top fly.

Imitative fly – A fly that is meant to resemble a specific type of insect. Good for hatches when you know exactly what the fish are targeting.

Impressionistic fly – A fly that is meant to resemble a variety of similar insects, vs. imitating a particular species of insect. Great for when you have an idea what the fish are eating, but aren’t sure what specifically they are targeting.

Indicator – If you ask a snob: a highly specialized device for detecting strikes underwater. If you ask anyone else: a bobber. Most indicators are slightly different than the standard red and white hard plastic bobbers you’d normally think of, though. They are usually fairly small and come in a variety of forms like soft plastic balls, yarn, or foam pads (all things that, yes, bob in the water).

Into the backing – When a large fish fights so hard that it pulls all of your fly line off the reel so you are actively using the backing to fight the fish. Not many fish will take you into the backing.

Leader – The clear piece of line that connects the fly line to the fly to allow for smooth casting and to prevent fish from spooking.

Loading the rod – The act of putting a bend in the rod during casting, caused by the weight of the line pulling forward or back. Loading the rod is essential for making long, clean casts.

Match the hatch – When a fisherman uses a specific dry fly to match the species of insect hatching at that time on the water.

Mending – Manipulating your line during a drift by “flipping” it upstream or downstream to create a drag-free drift. This is achieved by making sure the line is moving at the same speed as the fly, thereby reducing drag.

Nippers – A tool for cutting line.

Nymph – An immature insect that still lives underwater.

Parachute – The small tuft of white or neon material on top of some dry flies to make them more visible to the fisherman while on the water.

Pegged egg – A style of rig where a bead, which resembles a fish egg, is fixed on the leader, followed by a hook at the end of the line. When a fish takes the egg, the hook is set, pulling the egg out of the mouth and the hook into the mouth. Some regulations require all hooks to be “flies,” meaning they must have material attached and cannot be fished bare.

Pig – See: Hog

Point fly  – The fly that is attached directly to the end of your tippet in a multi-fly setup. The opposite would be a dropper, which comes off a tag end or another fly.

Rear taper – The part of a fly line at the back of the head, between the running line and the belly.

Rippin’ lips – Catching lots and lots of fish.

Rise – When a fish comes to the surface to sip and eat a floating insect. This often appears as ringlets on the water, but sometimes you can see the fish’s head or back as it comes up. You’re morally obligated to yell out to your buddies when you start to see fish rising.

Roll cast – A cast often used when there is structure behind you to avoid getting your fly caught or rod damaged on the backcast. It is done by positioning the rod upright and “rolling” the line out in front of you.

Running line – The thin part of a fly line behind the head that connects to the backing.

Sink rate – The speed at which a sinking line sinks.

Sink-tip line – A type of fly line where only the tip sinks, while the rest of the line floats.

Sinking line – A type of fly line that sinks across the entire length of the line.

Skunked – When you fished all day and caught nothing.

Snagging – A style of fishing that involves intentionally trying to foul hook a fish instead of trying to get it to strike. This is often illegal, but is sometimes permitted for certain places, seasons, and species. Note: inadvertently foul hooking a fish is not illegal and happens from time to time.

Spey cast – A style of cast using a two-handed rod for long-distance casting.

Spinner – The egg-laying stage of a mayfly when it falls back to the water after mating.

Split shot – Small metal weights added to a rig to make it sink faster.

Spook – To scare away the fish. Fish can also be called “spooky” if they scare very easily.

Streamer – a large, usually heavy fly used to imitate baitfish or leeches. Streamers are usually stripped or swung and often get aggressive strikes from fish.

Strike – A bite.

Stripping – Not as dirty as it sounds, the act of retrieving line with your hand to pull the fly, or a hooked fish, back to you.

Stripping basket – A basket worn by fisherman to collect and hold excess line that gathers when stripping lots of line in. This is mostly for saltwater fishing. Also a great name for a sleazy nightclub.

Swinging – A style of fishing a wet fly that involves casting out and having the downstream current “swim” the fly back toward you.

Tag end – The end of a line used to tie a knot. Also what you call the little pieces of line that need to be trimmed off after tying a knot.

Terrestrial – A fly that mimics a land insect like an ant, beetle, or grasshopper, as opposed to aquatic insects.

Tight lines – What you say to fellow fishermen when you want to wish them well.

Tip (of a line) – The part of a fly line that connects to the leader, located in front of the front taper.

Tippet – The thin, clear line that can be added to a leader to lengthen it or achieve the desired line thickness before attaching a fly.

Tippet rings – Tiny metal rings used to attach tippet to a leader in place of a line-to-line knot.

Wading staff – A walking stick used for wading in deep or fast water to provide stability.

Weight (of a line) – The weight of the first 30 feet of a fly line, used to standardize them and match them to the proper rod. Can be thought of as the “size” of a line.

Weight forward – A common style of fly line where the front of the line has a heavier head for longer casting, followed by a thinner running line behind.

Wet fly – A fly that is fished underwater, such as a nymph. Can also refer to a specific style of traditional underwater fly with long, soft hackle.

Wind knot – A tiny knot that forms in the leader or tippet, usually from poor casting. Although they seem harmless, they weaken the line and could break while fighting a fish.

Zinger – A device that usually hangs on a pack or waders to hold other tools like nippers and extends to allow the tools to be used without detaching them.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. mark a sherwood

    This was a great article for us beginners, sometimes when I’m fishing people are using these words and now I get it. Great job!!

    1. Katie Burgert


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