The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Fly-fishing

Fly Fishing Near Park City, Utah
Courtesy of Montage Deer Valley

Picture this: Crisp, early-morning air, the sound of a rushing stream, and (of course) a six-pack of one of the season’s finest brews.

Sounds pretty damn perfect, right? You’re just missing one thing: A rod and reel.

This summer, I made my first try at fly-fishing on the Provo River, a world-class destination for catching wild trout just outside of Park City, Utah.

Because this was my very first fly-fishing rodeo, I was lucky to get set up with the ultra-experienced—and patient—crew from Stonybrook Fly Fishing by the Montage Deer Valley, a stunning mountain lodge situated a few minutes away from Park City’s Main Street. We were led by the supremely knowledgeable and all-around badass Joe Mitchell, a master at the art of fly-fishing and authority on all things outdoor. (This is the dude who created the Hayduke Trail, a 800-mile, months-long backcountry trail through six national parks.)

Along with Mitchell and his team (shout-out to Scott, who helped me land my first and only catch of the day—a beautiful brown trout), we suited up in waders, learned how to properly cast a line (trust me, fly-fishing is deceptively simple), and worked on perfecting our technique throughout the morning. 

But you don’t need to tag along with an expert angler—although it definitely can’t hurt to—to spend a few serene hours at your local river hooking trout (or salmon, steelhead, or bass, depending on where you are) and shooting the breeze with a few of your buddies. With Mitchell’s tips on technique, gear, and safety (yes, fly-fishing can be dangerous if you’re not careful), you’ll have everything you need to hit the river, cast your very first line, and catch some fish.

One more thing: don’t feel bad if you snag a few logs. I did that multiple times.

Part 1: The technical basics of fly-fishing

Before we get into technique, it’s probably helpful to understand why fly-fishing is different from the conventional fishing you’re probably used to.

“With most forms of conventional fishing,” Mitchell says, “an angler casts the heavier lure or weight with the rod, and then the line follows.” But with fly fishing, you’re doing almost the opposite—the angler casts the heavier line, and then the fly follows. That being said, like conventional fishing, there are variations. There are three different types of fly-fishing: dry, wet fly, and streamer. 

Dry fly-fishing is when an angler is casting a buoyant fly—one that imitates aquatic insects—and is primarily used to catch trout, according to Mitchell. With dry fly-fishing, Mitchell says, “the angler typically tries to cause the dry fly to float along naturally with the current.” It’s also the best option for beginners—and it’s the type of fly-fishing I tried—because it’s relatively easy to tell when you have a strike (essentially, a bite from a fish) thanks to the visibility of the floating fly. 

Wet fly-fishing, which is primarily used to catch trout and some warm-water species, is when “an angler casts a fly that sinks or uses a small amount of weight to cause it to sink,” says Mitchell. “The angler tries to cause the fly to drift at the same pace as subsurface currents, or to slowly swing the fly across subsurface currents, or move the fly through still waters,” meaning this technique is probably a little too advanced for beginners.

The last of the techniques—streamer fly-fishing—is when “an angler casts a sinking fly, often one that imitates a bait fish, and then swings it across the currents or retrieves it through still waters,” according to Mitchell. This technique, which is also probably a bit advanced for a total newbie, is used to catch the largest variety of fish, including trout, warm-water fish, and saltwater fish.

Now, you’re ready to cast a fly-fishing rod. First things first: You’re going to have to “load” your fly rod by letting some line out of the reel. The more line you let out, the more “load” you add. Ultimately, the amount of line to let out will depend on the length of your rod and weight, but a good rule of thumb is to let out “about three rod-lengths of line,” according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. You’ll want to grip the handle of the rod, keeping your hand above the reel, with your thumb on top and four fingers wrapped around the rod.

Then, bending only your elbow, “bring the rod back in swift, steady motion, stopping when the rod tip is pointing up and behind you.” An easy way to think about it is to bring the rod back to the 10 o’clock position. Watch your back cast until the line unfurls, and then, just before it completely straightens out, bring the rod forward again in a smooth, straight line towards when you want it to land on the water’s surface. The movement should be relaxed and easy, and you don’t need to apply as much force as you might think to get the fly out and into the water.

If you think you’ve got a strike (aka a bite), your first inclination might be to start reeling it in. Don’t. Instead, lift the rod in a quick, firm motion so that the rod moves away from the water line—that should secure the light wire hook into the fish’s mouth. While maintaining the tension by keeping the rod bent, you can start to reel in the slack and then slowly lower the rod as you bring the fish in closer to you. 

Catching a fish isn’t easy, though, and you’ll probably lose a few bites before you get the hang of it—and that’s completely normal. It’s going to take a bit of practice before you’re able to successfully reel one in, making your first catch all the more satisfying.

The basic equipment you’ll need to get started

“To get started in fly-fishing,” says Mitchell, “a new angler would need a fly rod and a reel, waders and boots for cold-water fishing (such as trout), an assortment of flies appropriate for the types of fish, polarized sunglasses, and a lucky hat.” That’s the bare minimum of the equipment you should stock up on before getting started, but once you get the hang of things you’ll also probably want “line nippers, forceps for handling flies, spools of different diameter tippet, and a landing net” for when you actually manage to catch something.

In terms of where to buy all this stuff, major outdoor retailers are a pretty safe bet and when it comes to specific brands, Mitchell’s favorite and most-trusted include Simms, Rio Products, Sage Fly Rodds, and Abel Reels.

Safety tips

Taking the proper safety precautions while wading is crucial. “Never underestimate the power of moving water,” says Mitchell. That’s why, when wearing waders (which can become as heavy as a cinderblock if water gets in), it’s important to “wear a snug belt to prevent them from filling up with water if an unexpected swim is taken.” 

Fly rods are also “excellent conductors of electrictiy,” according to Mitchell, and coming in at nine feet (or in some cases longer), they are prime targets for lightning strikes. So at the first hint of lightning, it’s time to call it a day and get out of the water immediately. 

Another pro tip direct from the expert: “always use barbless hooks” on your flies. Not only does it save the fish some unnecessary pain, it could “save the angler a trip to the ER to have a barbed hook removed from their ear,” says Mitchell. Noted. 

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