9 Tips For Fly Fishing Beginners

In this section we will discuss some of the best tips for fly fishing beginners. These will help your success rate right out of the gate and make the process just a little bit easier for you while learning to fly fish.

Trout Behavioral Changes

It takes a while, but we all learn this lesson. You come to the river and find lots of fish rising, and they stop when you get to the water’s edge. Don’t assume the hatch is over. If the fish are actively feeding when you arrive, and then stop, 99 times out of 100 it’s YOU, not the environment that’s caused the change. It’s possible you showed up just as the hatch was ending, but not likely.

Trout are doing everything they can to avoid being eaten. They’re tuned into their environment as closely as possible, looking for any changes that mean they could be in harm’s way. Very little is more frustrating than wading into position to cast to a pod of fish, and have the shadow of an eagle pass over the water. Those fish are GONE. Even though the eagle was simply traveling to a new spot, its shadow has spooked the fish. Trout don’t recognize intention- they only recognize threats, and a shadow on the water is a threat.

When you get to the water and the fish stop feeding, stop and figure out how you threatened the fish. Did you allow a shadow to pass over them- is the sun at your back? Did you walk too close to the water’s edge, and spook them with your vibrations? If you go to the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, there are two paths running along the edge of the river. One, more worn than others, runs just along the edge. The less trodden path runs about 25 feet from the edge. You can always tell a Henry’s Fork veteran- they’re walking the path 25 feet off the river. Henry’s Fork fish are notoriously spooky. Walking along the edge of the river will keep the trout from getting active next to the shore. Walking away from the river will allow the trout to feel safe and start feeding.

Did you wade with a lot of vibration? Step on a log in the water. So many things can go wrong, but if you don’t look for the reason the fish went away, you won’t easily discover it.

Plan Ahead

Once in a while, you’ll see some buffoon casting from the middle of a bridge. Bridge pilings are great structure for large fish. They provide significant current breaks, and protection from predators. Most waders can’t get there, due to the speed and depth of the water. So they go stand on the bridge and cast to the fish in the middle.

What will you do if you hook a fish? Derrick it up 60 feet on 5X tippet? String out a bunch of line and try to get around the edge of the bridge? Sure, you’ve hooked a fish, but now what?

This can happen in so many ways on a river. Standing above a seam on a cut away bank, you cast and hook a fish. The water is 4 feet deep on the edge of the river. You can’t scramble down and get in the water. How will you land the fish?

You’re standing on a boulder in the middle of the Blackfoot river, and hook a trout in the faster water. There’s only one way off that rock, and it’s the way you came on it. Can you hold the fish on while you scramble around, trying to find a way to get close enough to control and release the fish?

Whenever you go fishing, you need to have a plan for what happens when you hook a fish. If you’re delicately balanced in 3 feet of fast water, how will you move to effectively fight the fish? What’s the game plan?

If you don’t have a game plan, it often leads to . . . . .

Falling In!

There is SO much to know about falling in! Face it, we’ve all done it. It’s amazing the perils anglers put themselves in to catch a trout! This is the the most important tip for fly fishing beginners.

Let’s debunk the first myth about falling in, which is your waders will fill with water and drown you. Not true. Yes, your waders may fill up if you’re not wearing a belt, but water is weightless in water. Full waders will not pull you under. They WILL, however, act as a drag anchor, hamper your swimming ability and be an all-around nuisance. But full waders will not sink you under the water and drown you.

If you take an unplanned swim and can’t immediately find bottom to get out, the move is to orient yourself in the river, feet pointing downstream in a sitting position. Now you can see where you’re going, and use your arms to back paddle away from problems to a point of safety. Find a place to eddy out, or a shallow spot to get out of the water. As you exit the river, the water in your waders is NOT weightless. Undo your suspenders and stand up. The water will drain out, and you can start the after-fall triage.

In a really good fall, with a spectacularly acrobatic entry in deep, fast water, you’re going to watch a lot of tackle float away from you. Of course it’s a game time decision, but you need to set priorities. If you feel relatively safe, try and get it back. But not all falls are benign, and you can find yourself in danger very quickly.

EVERYTHING in your vest can be replaced. Your rod and reel can be replaced. What’s irreplaceable is your life. If you must drop your rod and paddle to safety, do it! It’s not like you don’t have an idea of where it is. There’s a really good chance you’ll remember this spot for quite a while. Live to cast another day. A river can get dangerous in a hurry- you need to respect its power and take care of yourself first. Safety is the number one priority.

This is a great time to talk about tackle loss, and its prevention. As you fish, you’re going to come across all sorts of river booty- floatant, forceps, fly boxes and nets, even rods and reels. All dropped or left behind by other anglers. 99 time out of 100, there are no identifying marks on these tackle items. You don’t expect it on floatant or forceps, but nets can be upwards of $130, and depending on how many flies are in the box, they can be worth much more. PUT YOUR PHONE NUMBER on tour tackle.

If you came across some tackle on the river with a phone number, you’re going to call. We all strive to do the right thing. But with no ID, it becomes a moot point. The last place you want to be is wishing you’d ID’d your tackle is as you watch it float down the river. Take a sharpie and get your number on your stuff. It has a much better chance of coming back to you.

Test Your Knots

You should be spending some time practicing your knots. Get in the habit of pulling on them really hard before using them. You don’t want to find out you’ve tied a dubious knot when you hook Mr. Big. If your leader comes back with a “pig’s tail”, a spiral bit of leader right at the end, your clinch knot failed. Find out before you cast!

River Etiquette

Yes, there is etiquette on the river. Everyone wants a quality experience when they’re on the water, and people horning in on a fishing hole can be annoying. You don’t want to be the horn-er or the horn-ee. It’s pretty easy to know what to do on the river- follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you don’t want an angler fishing that close to you, then don’t go and fish that close to another angler. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. People can get a TAD grumpy if their fishing gets infringed upon- don’t be that person. There are more fish in the river, and more places to fish. If there’s someone in “your” spot when you get there, go find another.

Fly fishing has the original Row v. Wade. It’s a pretty hard and fast rule. Wading anglers get precedence over floating anglers. Boats will cover miles in a day- waders are constrained by their feet. If you’re in a boat and pass a wading angler, do the best you can not to disturb their fishing. Waders- the boat will be past in 30 seconds, and it can’t row back upstream. Let it glide by, and go back to fishing

Loading Your Vest

There are lots of ways to carry your tackle to the river, but few beat the old school vest. Fanny packs and sling packs are cooler in the summer, no question, but nothing carries as much so well as a vest.

Think of your vest as a portable filing cabinet. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Most vests have outer pockets designed for oft used tackle like tippet and floatant. Some pockets are very convenient for your favorite flies, others storage for boxes less used but still valid at points during the season. Always a spare pocket for a sandwich or candy bar. One of the best vest items is a folding water filtration bottle. Keeps you from carrying a lot of heavy water- you’re surrounded by the stuff, no need to carry it!

Over time, the vest gathers all sorts of useful paraphernalia. Bottle openers, a knife, flashlight, lighter or matches- things you don’t always need but can be lifesavers when wanted. That’s the grand thing about a vest- it’s big enough to hold less important items so you have them when you need them. Some parts of the vest are like a well-stocked junk drawer!

Another great tip for fly fishing beginners is when attaching your nipper/zinger combo and forceps, attach them to the INSIDE of the vest lapel. That way they don’t get tangled in the fly line while fishing. The little loop sticking out of the bottom of the vest? There’s a matching Velcro strap near the topmost pocket- stick the rod butt through the loop and Velcro the rod in the strap. Now you don’t have to hold your rod when changing flies or retying a leader.

Properly equipped, a vest can keep you on the water for an entire day’s fishing. Not to be sneezed at!

At Day’s End

You’ve just gotten off the water, and all you can think of is a cold bevvie and decent food. You might want to take 5 minutes and do a little maintenance- it pays off in the long run. This is a crucial tip for fly fishing beginners and key to making your gear last.

Turn your waders inside out to dry. You don’t care if fungus grows on the outside, but growth on the inside of your waders gets gross. Get the inside dry first, worry about the outside later.

Flies are expensive. If you’ve had a busy fly changing day, or run a bunch of big nymphs or streamers, take a moment and open the boxes. Hooks are metal- metal rusts. The points aren’t too bad, but if the eyes rust, well, they cut the leader every time. Foam boxes tend to hold moisture as well, and sometimes the rust gravitates to the body of the fly. A little preventative maintenance can save you a lot of money down the road.

If you’re not a daily fisherman (most of us aren’t), pull your phone out and make a note you’ve lost your floatant or run out of 4X tippet. It’s a sure bet you’ll forget without it, and that will annoy you greatly on your next fishing trip.

And check your bootlaces for wear!

Breaking Off a Snagged Fly

There comes a point when you’ve snagged your fly in an unretrievable location. That fly is lost, and you have to break it off. DO NOT use the rod to yank on the fly. You can easily break your fly rod doing that. Instead, point the tip of the rod directly at the fly, and pull with the left hand. Essentially, you’re removing the rod from this process, and tight lining, Depending on tippet strength, you may have to tug very hard to make this work. The line will come back along the path of the tug. If you have pulled the fly free, it’s now coming directly back at you. At speed! Always angle the pull so when the line comes back, it’s not coming directly back at you, for safety.

Applying Pressure To a Fish

OK, you’ve hooked the thing! Now what! You start by keeping the rod tip up.

A 5wt rod can’t deadlift 5 pounds. If you attached the rod handle to a forklift, and tied a 5 pound weight to the tip top, the rod will break before the weight is lifted. So when the rod is vertical in the air, it’s applying less than 5 pounds of pressure to the fish, no matter what your right wrist is telling you. It’s almost impossible to break a fish off with a vertical fly rod.

You’re not applying much pressure to the fish, and it can go anywhere. Under logs, back into snags. You need to control the fish during the fight. To apply more pressure, you lower the rod tip from vertical. When the rod is pointing directly at the fish, there is no shock absorption, and you’ll break off. You need to find a happy medium.

When a trout wants to run, rod tip up and release line in a controlled manner. When the trout stops running, drop the rod tip and apply pressure to get the line back. It takes time to figure this out, and there will be much cussing during the learning process! Good news! You get to be fishing while learning. It’s well worth it.

Hopefully these tips for fly fishing beginners was helpful and provide you with a successful day on the water!

Additional Beginner Fly Fishing Resources