What is Fly Fishing: A Simple Explanation With Tips for Starting Out

This is a question we get asked a lot by people who have only a basic familiarity with fly fishing – maybe from a movie or TV show. In my …

This is a question we get asked a lot by people who have only a basic familiarity with fly fishing – maybe from a movie or TV show.

In my view, the simplest way to explain fly fishing is that is a form of fishing that fools fish with a near weightless imitation of its prey. 

I then go on to explain that because these artificial flies are nearly weightless, they are cast by using the trademark long rod with an opaque, weighted line to which the fly is attached via a long transparent leader.

The weight of the line allows the fly angler to cast the fly over the top of the fish without it seeing the opaque fly line.

To cast the required length sometimes the angler has to cast back and forth a few times (a process known as false casting) letting a little line out each time.

 That explanation usually resonates as most people have seen on the TV or big screen in  movies such as a River Runs Through It the rhythmic motion of a good fly faster. Indeed it is this that attracts some people to the sport.

Fishing Flies

 Usually at this point people will ask what the flies are made from. Some are reassured when I explain that we aren’t attaching real-live flies to hooks or anything.

 Explaining the diversity of fly types is harder when you consider fly fishing in the salt and for more exotic species, so I normally restrict my explanation to trout fishing.

The flies are tied from thread, feathers, fur and other materials – both natural and synthetic – to look like a range of insects on which trout feed (including mayflies and caddisflies) at various stages of their lifecycles.

We break this down pretty simply into wet flies, which are designed to sink beneath the surface, and dry flies, which float on top of the water’s surface.

 I usually try to squeeze in an explanation that at it’s highest – which for me is sight fishing for big brown trout – fly fishing is more like hunting and you might cover 10km in a day, see six big fish, cast successful to four of them without scaring them and land two!

At this point, this explanation usually satisfies the curiosity of most people. The last thing I want to be is “that guy” at a party haranguing someone about the virtues of a sport they may have very limited interest in. Happily, though, many people are interested to learn more and push me for a more thorough explanation with some of the questions below.

What Is Fly Fishing Like Today?

Rick Wallace releasing big brown trout New Zealand fly fishing net
Fly fishing today is not just exclusive to trout fishing but also to many gamefish such as bass, pike, muskie, and many others.

For these keener folk, I usually provide a bit more insight explaining that fly fishing today is not purely trout fishing. We fly fishing in the salt water from anything from bonefish and striped bass right up to tuna and mackerel.

And fly fishers are tackling many freshwater game fish such as bass, pike, muskie and many others.

Why Do You Fly Fish Instead of Lure Fishing?

The truth is I do both, but wherever possible I will fly fish. The main reasons I will fish with lures over flies is if it is an urban area where I am at risk of hitting someone with the backcast, or it is a species or situation that doesn’t lend itself to fly fishing. For example, while you can fly fish from a canoe or kayak, it is not easy and if you are targeting deepwater species you might be better off lure fishing or bait fishing.

Is Fly Fishing More Effective?

For trout, for me the answer is yes. For pretty much all trout species, except deep dwelling species such as lake trout, I’d be confident of outfishing a lure angler most days. Fly fishing enables you to imitate whatever the trout are eating – and that can very enormously and change significantly within a day. Lure anglers can only imitate a minor subset of a trout’s prey – other fish, frogs etc – when much of what it eats is small underwater invertebrates that are easily imitated via a nymph fly but cannot be fashioned into a castable lure.

For other species, lure fishing (spin fishing, jig fishing or throwing crankbaits and other fishing techniques) is doubtless more productive.

Is Fly Fishing Hard to Learn?

My answer to this question is that it is not easy to learn and requires patience and some up front investment, both in terms of time and money. So it is not for everyone, but it gets in your blood and can rapidly become addictive.

Fly fishermen and women are a passionate and friendly bunch and there are many fly fishing clubs that are happy to introduce people to the sport in a non threatening way. There are also many great fishing guides who do a brilliant job of educating beginners and introducing people to the sport.

What Fly Fishing Tackle do You Need?

Fly fishing requires a lot of gear such as rod, reel, line, leader, tippet, flies, and maybe waders as a start.

There is no getting away from the fact that you do need a lot of gear to fly fish. There is the rod, reel, line, leader, tippet, flies and maybe waders as a start (here’s our full list of gear to get started in fly fishing), but the good news is you can borrow fly tackle from a club or friend, and if your introduction to the sport is via a guide, you will be using their gear. It is good to do it this way to get a taste for it and seeing if you will like it before committing hundreds of dollars to buying new gear.

Fly Rod

Fly rods usually range from 8ft to 10ft long and are mostly carbon fiber these days, although specialist rods made from either fiberglass or bamboo are still made.

They are light and flexible with actions varying from medium through medium fast to fast.

Both the fly rod and reel (more on reels below) need to be matched in size and weight for the fly fishing outfit to be properly balanced.

Fly Reel

Fly reels are relatively simple compared to baitcasting or spinning reels. The primary purpose of the reel in fly fishing is to store the line, although a good fly reel also needs to have a smooth drag to release line when a fish surges. For larger fish such as salmon and steelhead, muskie and pike, striped bass and saltwater fish species, the drag becomes quite important and it needs to be smooth and consistent to help the angler subdue the fish. Most modern fly reels are lightweight and strong with a decent drag.

Fly Lines

 In fly fishing, the fly angler has to use the weight of the fly line to cast the artificial flies. The fly line should be matched in weight (fly lines are denoted by number – ie #4, #5 or four-weight, five-weight) to the weight of the rod for effective fly casting (although in some circumstances fly fishermen choose a higher weight fly fishing line thereby ‘overlining’ the rod.


It is easy enough to go to your local fly shop and buy a selection of common wet flies and dry flies to get started. A small selection of fly patterns tailored to the fish species you are targeting is enough to start catching fish. Generally, people who become serious fly anglers end up tying flies themselves (fly tying is a topic for another article).

What is Your Advice to Beginners?

Rick Wallace with big Hokkaido rainbow Japan fly fishing
Rick Wallace with a fat rainbow trout taken in Hokkaido’s Teshio River.
Credit: Takahiko Chiba

I always offer one simple piece of advice to beginners, including those I am introducing to the sport and that is to work on the casting BEFORE getting out on the water. That might be getting introductory casting lessons and doing two or three practice sessions at a casting pool before you attempt to fish a real stream or lake.

The casting takes some effort to even get to a basic level, particularly if you are someone who has lure fished before as the motion is so different. You want to have at least progressed beyond the pure beginner stage before attempting to catch fish for real or your first day on the water could turn out to be a tough one.

I can’t emphasize enough how important for fly anglers is to nail the casting stroke for your enjoyment of the sport. This advice still applies as you progress. The more automatic your casting is, the more confident you are and the more mental “bandwidth” you have for all the other factors that create success – observing the fish behaviour, choosing the right locations, picking the right flies, spotting the fish when you are sight fishing and more.

Final Thoughts on What is Fly Fishing

The message I want to leave people with is that if they are in anyway curious about fly fishing, then give it a go. Find a friend with fly fishing experience to take you out, visit a fly fishing club or do a fly casting lesson – those are all easy enough to arrange. Although it is harder to learn than traditional fishing methods, I think it is the most fun way to catch fish and once you start fly fishing you may find it becomes addictive. Like all forms of fishing, along with being great fun, it has many health benefits, some of which we’ve summarised in this article.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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