Essential Fly Fishing Gear

Essential Fly Fishing Gear

Each of the main pieces of fly fishing gear—the rod, reel, line, leader, and flies—plays a big role in determining your success on the stream. Choosing the right gear will not only save you money but also make your fishing more enjoyable.

The Fly Rod

A fly rod can be as short as 4′ or as long as 14′ for specialized fishing. For the average trout, bass, or panfish angler, though, a 9′ rod is the most practical. This length allows for better line control, longer casts, and better mending (manip­ulation of the line on the water) than a shorter rod.

Rod Blank

The rod blank is the actual rod itself, without the guides, reelseat, or grip. Today, most rod blanks are constructed of graphite fiber sheets and resins wrapped around a steel form (called a mandrel), which is removed after heat-treating. The result is a hollow, round, and very light rod.

Until the 1950s, most fly rods were made of strips of bamboo glued together—hence the term split-cane or split-bamboo rod. Many anglers still favor split-bamboo rods, and some rods of this type are still available.


The taper of a rod blank is the way in which it varies in diam­eter from the thick end (the butt) to the thin end (the tip). The taper is often complex, attempting to achieve maximum performance from a minimum weight in materials. A fly rod must be able to both cast a fly and play a fish, so taper design is a compromise between those two functions.


Fly rods come in different actions, or levels of flexibility. Action depends on the material used in the blank and the taper of the blank. The action is important because it dictates the speed of the casting cycle—how fast you must move the rod back and forth. The most common actions are:

  • Fast: The bend of the rod is concentrated near the tip. Fast action is good for casting in windy conditions because it generates the greatest line speed.
  • Moderate-fast: The bend extends through the upper third of this rod.
  • Moderate: The bend extends halfway down the rod. Moderate action is best for casting large poppers or bass bugs
  • Slow: The bend extends all the way down to the grip of the rod. Though slow action is not as popular, it has the benefits of reducing false casting and permits a greater amount of sunken line to be lifted into the backcast.

As a beginner, try a rod with moderate-fast action, which is forgiving yet can handle all types of flies and situations.


The grip, reelseat, ferrules, and guides comprise the fittings of the rod. These fittings transform the rod from a basic pole into a machine capable of relaxed, daylong casting and of successfully playing a fish.


The grip, which you hold in your dominant hand while casting, should be constructed of cork rings. Various foams and plastics have been introduced as substitutes for cork, but the organic feel of cork and its excellent wear properties have never been replicated.

The grip style you should use depends on the size of your hand and the rigors of the fishing you do. If you’ll be casting large flies or poppers or have large hands, choose a large, fuller grip. Many people cast with their thumb pressing against the front of the grip, exerting tremendous force at this point. For them, a full wells or half wells grip, both of which have a lot of cork to take the thumb pressure, are best. The cigar, reverse half wells, and ultra-fine grips all taper at the front and are favored by those who use rods for close-in fishing with light lines.


The reelseat holds the reel on the rod. It should be of good quality whether it’s up-locking, with the screw mechanism below the reel, or down-locking, with the screw mechanism above the reel.


Ferrules are the points where sections of a fly rod are joined. The ferrules of graphite and fiberglass rods are made of the same material as the rods themselves. The ferrules of bamboo rods are usually made of nickel silver and require special care (see a dealer for suggestions).


Along the length of the rod, the fly line passes through several guides, which distribute the pressure of the line. A single rod will include several types of guides—the stripper guide, the snake guides, and the tip-top.

You can often gauge the overall quality of a rod by looking at the number of guides. Each guide represents an investment in labor in fixing it to the rod by winding thread over the guide’s “feet.” In short, cheaper rods have fewer guides. A 9′ rod should have at least 10 guides—one stripper and nine snake guides. Any fewer, and the load will not be distributed adequately for optimum casting or playing of fish. The guides should be made of hard, noncorrosive metal.

Fly Rods and Line Weight

The weight of fly lines varies, and different fly rods are better for casting lines of different weights. The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Association (AFTMA) categorizes fly lines and rods using a system ranging from 1 (lightest) to 12 (heaviest). You’re best off with a rod somewhere in the middle: a 6-weight fly rod will perform well under most freshwater conditions: it’s powerful enough to throw streamers and small bass bugs, yet delicate enough to cast dry flies of all sizes with accuracy and a soft delivery. Match your fly rod with a line of the same weight designation (e.g., a 6-weight line).


Though expert fly fishermen can cast a fly 80–100′ with seemingly little effort, most freshwater fly fishing requires casts of only 50′ or less. If you subtract the length of a typical rod and leader (the connector between the line and the fly), the amount of line in the air during a 50′ cast is only about 35′. So buying a rod that casts best with 50–60′ feet of line would be a mistake for most freshwater fishing. Such a rod would likely lack the delicacy to make shorter casts and the sensitivity to feel a fish as it gently takes a sunken fly.


Though it might be tempting to buy the absolute best rod a salesperson shows you, it’s better to choose the rod that actually suits your fishing needs. Many top brands are in the $500–700 range, but other major manufacturers make rods that perform about 90% as well and cost as little as $100. Price differences stem from a number of factors:

  • Fittings: Much of the price difference across differ­ent fly rods has to do with the quality of the fittings. Some manufacturers use the same rod blank for an entire series of rods and just add different fittings and numbers of guides—and then charge a wide price range. You can save a great deal of money by purchasing a well-built rod with medium-quality fittings.
  • Brand: Just as with any other product, brands that are perceived as “premium”—whether that reputation is deserved or not—charge considerably more.
  • Novelty: New rod models are produced each year, and, just as with new cars, the advantage of one over another may be negligible. Thus, you can often buy a good year-old model at a considerable discount.

The Fly Line

The fly line is crucial: having the right line for your rod and the type of fishing you do can make all the difference between a pleasant day of fishing and utter frustration.

Floating vs. Sinking Lines

Lines are made of different materials that perform in markedly varying ways. They’re coded using different letters.

  • Floating (F): These lines are made from a hollow braided nylon core covered with a PVC coating: the coating contains tiny microballoons that make the line lighter than water so it floats. Floating lines are popular among beginners because they’re easy to cast.
  • Intermediate (I): If a floatant is applied, these lines float. If not, they sink slowly at about 1″ per second.
  • Sinking (S): These lines are usually made with a coating over a hollow, braided nylon core. Different coating materials have different weights: the heavier a line compared to water, the faster it sinks. Sink rates for these lines range from about 2–10″ per second.
  • Sink-tip (F/S): These lines are floating fly lines with a tapered tip portion that sinks.

Line Weight

Fly lines also vary significantly by weight. This table shows the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Asso­ciation (AFTMA)’s mea­sure­ment system, which categorizes lines from 1 (lightest) to 12 (heaviest). Weight measurements are rarely exact, so the table gives a range of acceptable weights for each category.

Most beginning fly fishermen use line weights of 5–7, which are very versatile. The lightest lines (1–4) are used for short casts on calm water and windless conditions. Heavier lines (8–9) are used for choppier and windier conditions. The heaviest lines (10–12) are used for saltwater fishing.

Weight Rating
Actual Weight Range (grains)


The diameter of every fly line gets narrower toward the front tip. This taper dissipates the force of the fisherman’s cast as it transfers to the leader and fly, which lets the fisherman deliver the fly delicately rather than just slap it forcefully onto the water. The most common fly line tapers appear below. There are many others, but they are all variations on the weight-forward taper or shooting taper.

  • Weight-forward taper (WF): In this line, weight is concentrated in the forward section, so the heavy line can pull the lighter running line for extra-long casts.
  • Double taper (DT): This line has an identical taper at each end. A double taper line is easy to cast with delicacy and also easy to roll-cast. Moreover, both ends can be used if the line is reversed, thus giving longer life to the line. However, it does not cast long distances as well as a weight-forward line.
  • Bass taper (BT): This is a weight-forward line with a short front taper to cast large, wind-resistant bass flies. It lacks the delicacy needed for fishing dry flies.
  • Shooting taper (ST): This line consists of a 30–40′ head with a factory-spliced loop for attaching monofilament or running line. It’s useful when casting large sinking flies in rivers for salmon and steelhead, but since it doesn’t allow a delicate presentation, it isn’t recommended for other types of fishing.
  • Level taper (L): This line is inexpensive but doesn’t provide a gradual release of force to leader and fly, and isn’t available in all line sizes, so it’s not recommended.

How Fly Lines Are Labeled

Every fly line you see on a store shelf will have an alphanumeric code on the box. For example, you might see “WF6S,” which indicates a weight-forward, 6-weight, sinking line. Or you might see a “DT4F,” a double-taper, 4-weight, floating line. The first line might be useful for fishing large sinking flies, while the second might be the choice for fishing small floating flies. However, you always need to match the weight of the line to the rod you’ll be using.


Some large sporting goods chains carry fly lines for as little as $10. For the most part, these lines are perfectly acceptable for basic fishing: they conform to weight standards and can cast an average distance well enough.

More specialized lines, though, cost more. For instance, if you need more delicacy in casting, you’ll want a line with a longer front taper and/or a thinner profile. If you need more distance, you might want a self-lubricating line. For any line other than the most basic, expect to pay $40–60.

What Kind of Line Should You Buy?

The right line for you depends on the type of fish you plan to fish for, the type of water you plan to fish in, and the type of fly you plan to use.

  • To catch trout (in small to medium rivers), bass (in ponds or streams), or panfish (in any type of water): Try a WF6F fly line. It casts flies from sizes 2–28 well, and the floating line allows easy pickup as you start your backcast.
  • To catch bass with bass bugs or streamers: Try a bass bug taper, also WF6F but with a short front taper.
  • To catch northern pike, muskies, steelhead, or salmon: Get an 8-weight rod and WF8F line. These fish take large flies that cast better with the heavier line and also require a heavier rod to fight them.

Whatever line you buy, always wind some backing on the fly reel before the line. Backing is a strong line, usually made of braided, 20- to 30-pound test Dacron® (“pound test” indicates the line’s breaking strength). The backing’s thickness increases your reel’s arbor diameter—the diameter of spool that the line winds onto (or unwinds from). This makes it quicker and easier to reel in long lengths of line and keeps your line from forming tight coils .

Hooks and Flies

The beauty and craftsmanship of hand-tied flies are a big part of the allure of fly fishing: every fisherman has favorite flies. In addition, each species of fish requires different flies and fly sizes. Some flies are more effective in some regions than others, due to prevailing food forms.


The hooks used to make, or “tie,” flies are specially suited to each type of fly. Some flies float on the water’s surface, held up by surface tension, and require very lightweight hooks. Others flies use long hooks to simulate minnows.

Hook Size

Hooks are numbered by size. The smallest is the tiny 32 hook. From there, size numbers count down by twos (30, 28, 26, etc.) as the hooks get larger, all the way to 2 and then 1. After size 1, a “/0” is added to the end of each size, and the numbers count up as the hooks get larger: 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, and so on up to size 19/0, which is used for big game fish.

Hooks for trout generally range from sizes 32–6. Hooks for panfish range a tad larger, from sizes 24–4. And hooks for bass tend to range even larger, from sizes 14–4/0.

A fisherman talking about flies will almost always mention the hook size. So if someone says he used a #12 Pink Lady Wet fly, you know the size, name, and style of the fly.

Parts of a Hook

The various parts of a hook have specific names, as shown here. In stores, you’ll see a variety of specialty hooks with extra-long shanks, differently angled eyes, and so on.

Some fishing waters only permit the use of barbless hooks, which are manufactured either without a barb or with the barb crushed flat. The barb of the hook assists in keeping the fish on; however, it also makes the hook more difficult to remove from the fish, the fisherman’s clothing, or, worst case, the fisherman himself.

Parts of a Fly

A fly consists of several basic parts, labeled on the classic American wet fly shown below:

Note that not all flies feature all the parts shown here. Some flies lack wings, while others lack hackles, for instance.

Types of Flies

Fly fisherman use countless types of flies, which attempt to imitate everything from gnats to insect larvae to minnows.

Wet Flies

Wet flies dangle under the water’s surface and are meant to resemble insects. They may have wings or no wings.

  • Classic wet flies: Classic American wet flies arose when American fishermen adopted bolder, brighter colors than European anglers. They found that brook trout, native only to North America, favored fancier lures. Winged wet flies waned in popularity as dry flies and nymphs became more popular, but they have seen renewed interest in recent years.
  • Soft-hackled wet flies: These wet flies have no wings. Always popular for trout fishing in Europe, they are effective in American waters as well.

Dry Flies

Dry flies float on the surface of the water, supported by surface tension. A floatant is usually applied to the fly to improve its floating ability. There are many types of dry flies:

  • Classic hackled dry flies: The hackle, aided by a tail, is wound around the front of the hook so that it holds the hook above the water’s surface.
  • Parachute dry flies: In these flies, the hackle is wound hori­z­ontally around the base of the wing or a stubby post, rather than vertically around the hook.
  • No-hackle dry flies: These flies do not use a hackle to aid flotation, so they’re best used in very calm water.
  • Spiders, variants, and skaters: Spiders and variants have a long tail, a vertical hackle that’s oversized in proportion to the hook, and no wings. Variants are usually tied with a hackle suited for a hook two sizes larger, whereas spiders have an even bigger hackle—typically 1.5–2.0″ in diameter. Skaters have no tail and no body: the entire hook is taken up by the hackle, which is the same length as the spider’s.
  • Attractor dry flies: Though most dry flies are tied to imitate a particular insect or a class of insects, some bear little resem­blance to insects and rely on bright colors and bulky bodies to attract the fish. Tied with thick hackle for good flotation, they’re usually used in fast-moving water where fish have only a short time to choose or reject the fly.
  • Terrestrials: These flies imitate land insects—such as grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and caterpillars—that are popular food items with some fish.


Nymphs imitate immature insect larvae. Though all insects go through a nymph stage, fishermen usually use flies that resemble the nymphs of mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies. Nymphs tend to live at the bottom of streams or lakes, so fly fishermen tend to fish deep when using nymph flies.

Streamers and Bucktails

Streamers are flies that imitate small fish. They are tied on long-shanked hooks with wings made of feathers. Bucktails are similar to streamers but have wings made of hair or fur.

Poppers and Sliders

Poppers, or popping bugs, are floating lures made from cork, hard foam, balsa wood, or another hard, high-floating material that can be worked into a variety of shapes. Poppers are usually used for bass and fished slowly with short movements and long pauses. Their cupped face makes a popping sound when pulled abruptly through the water.

Sliders are also made of cork, hard foam, or wood but are bullet-shaped and slide through the water quietly. They’re less likely to hang on weeds, easier to cast than poppers, and usually used to catch bass or pike.

Bass Bugs

Tailored specifically for bass, bass bugs come in many shapes and sizes and are usually made of deer hair spun around a hook and then clipped to shape. They can be quite wind-resistant and therefore difficult to cast.

Salmon Flies

Hairwing salmon flies are a staple among fishermen for both Atlantic and Pacific salmon. They have wings made of hair or fur.

The Leader

The leader connects the fly line to the fly in such a way that the energy of the unreeling line is transferred smoothly throughout the length of the leader, gradually diminishing as it reaches the fly. It’s important that the size of the butt of the leader—the part joined to the fly line—match the end of the fly line in stiffness and diameter.

A knotless tapered leader is made of a single piece of nylon that’s tapered from butt to tip. A braided leader or furled leader can be made from nylon or silk.


The right length for a leader depends on the type and size of fly, the wind and water conditions, and the wariness of the fish. Here are some typical leader choices:

Fly Type
Fly Size
Wind (high/low)
Wariness of Fish
Leader Length
Bass bug

Large flies with a short leader usually cast better and hold a fish’s attention. When fishing for bass, who aren’t very wary of leaders, a short leader is fine. On the other hand, some trout in slow, low-water conditions will spook at the splash of a line, so some fishermen use leaders as long as 20′.

Generally, the shorter your leader, the better your presentation—the delicacy and accuracy with which you “present” the fly to the fish—will be. Good presentation is key.


Knotless, tapered, nylon monofilament leaders cost $5–10 apiece. A good leader will last a season, though you’ll need to continue to replace the tippet (see below).


The leader is tapered to a fine point called a tippet. Usually made of nylon monofilament, tippets are sold on small spools and marked by an “X” designation. The greater the number before the X, the finer the tippet. The practical limit for most fishing is a 7X tippet, which is 0.004″ in diameter.

Hook Sizes
Tippet Size
0X (0.011″)
1X (0.010″)
2X (0.009″)
3X (0.008″)
4X (0.007″)
5X (0.006″)
6X (0.005″)
7X (0.004″)

Use a tippet that’s sized in relation to the fly you are using. Consult the table here, or try the traditional method of dividing the hook size by three. If you’re using a #16 dry fly, for instance, either a 4X or 5X tippet would permit the fly to land on the water with delicacy. Carry size 3X–6X tippet spools when trout fishing, 0X–3X when bass fishing, and a length of shock tippet (20-pound test nylon) when fishing for members of the pike family, because their teeth will cut through anything finer.

Fly Fishing Accessories

The following items are handy for any fly fishing trip.

  • Floatant: To help a dry fly float longer, apply a small amount of floatant to its hackles and body. Floatant comes in paste, liquid, gel, or spray form. A gel such as Gink® works well and is easy to apply.
  • Scissors or clippers: You’ll need these to clip the tag ends—the short pieces left over after a knot is tied. Though common nail clippers work, fly shops also sell a type that has a small needle at one end for cleaning the varnish from the eyes of new flies.
  • Forceps: A pair of forceps (sometimes called a hemostat) is useful if you need to grasp and extract a fly that’s stuck in a fish’s mouth.
  • Fly box or fly wallet: A sturdy plastic box with long compartments is good for streamers and bucktails, while a box with rigid foam strips will hold the hooks of your nymphs and wet flies well. Ask for advice at your local fly shop.
  • Leader straightener: Nylon leaders tend to curl after being kept on the spool of the fly reel. To fix this, pull the leader through a leader straightener—a 2″× 2″ square of rubber available at fly shops—gripping the leader hard through the rubber.
  • Water filter and iodine tablet: Fly fishing on a warm, sunny day can dehydrate you. Rather than carry heavy drinks, buy a water filter bottle: it’s lightweight when empty and provides drinking water when filled from a stream. To be extra safe, add an iodine tablet to the water.
  • Vest: Because much fly fishing involves wading in streams or rivers, it can be hard to carry a tackle box. Fishing vests have many pockets for fly boxes, floatant, and other items, as well as rings for attaching nets and clippers. When choosing a vest, consider its carrying capacity, length, and feel. A fully loaded vest can get heavy, so make sure yours fits well and spreads its weight across your shoulders. Its color should be subdued and blend into your fishing environment. If you expect to be wading in deep water, buy a short vest: having all your flies get wet because your vest dragged in the water can cause their hooks to rust.
  • Polarized sunglasses: Wearing these glasses will enable you to cut through the glare on the water’s surface and peer into the water to look for habitats where fish might be hiding.
  • Wading staff: A wading staff is the best protection against slips and falls, which can result in injury due to rocks. Collapsible wading staffs are often better than single-piece staffs, because they can be kept in a holster and won’t constantly get tangled in your fly line.
  • Chest waders: Chest waders cover you from your chest to your feet, allowing you to wade in deep water without getting wet. Waders made of “breathable” material are good for warm days, because they help the body’s perspiration pass through the lining into the outside air/water. Without it, the sweat collecting inside your waders will make you feel cold and damp. Waders made of neoprene provide good insulation if the water or air is very cold; however, the perspiration from your body will dampen your clothes quickly.
  • Waist waders: These waders come up only to the waist. (Note that many chest waders also permit you to fold the top section down to your waist.)
  • Wading boots: Made expressly for fly fishing, these boots are valuable in terms of both comfort and safety. Good boots are made of materials that dry easily without cracking, yet are easy to get on and off. Choose boots with soles that are suited to the stream conditions that you typically encounter. Felt soles grip wet rocks well and also conform to oddly shaped rocks. Slippery moss on rocks may require studded felt soles, though the sound of the studs scraping the rocks may alarm the fish. Sticky rubber soles are fine for sandy- or pebble-bottomed streams. Be sure that your boots provide good ankle support: many rocky streams have loose stones that roll underfoot and can twist your ankle.
  • Wading belt: This belt pulls chest or waist waders tight around your waist. Should you fall in deep water, the belt will prevent it from quickly filling up your waders.

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