Fly Fishing Essentials, Part 1: Rod, Reel, and Line

Adventure Fishing Outdoor Activities By Kühl Editor

What’s keeping you from wading into fly fishing? If you’re like me, you might have been intimidated by the break-in cost and the misconception that it’s overly technical.

There’s indeed a lot of jargon and a little math mix, but trust me: if I can juggle fly fishing’s numbers, anyone can. Another reason I didn’t pick up fly fishing earlier is that I spent my school breaks in summer school or the company of math tutors.

OK, so poor math juju wasn’t the only reason. I was rebellious, and I cut my share of classes. But I squeaked by with the help of cheat sheets, so here’s one to help you feel more confident about building your first fly fishing combo.

Selecting the right weight for your fly rod, reel, and line

A combo’s weight class corresponds not to the line’s breaking strength but to the weight of the first 30 feet out of the reel. Anglers choose their gear’s weight rating according to game species and conditions, with 1wt being for betta fish in Solo cups, and 15w being for giant white whales 20 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot for anglers fishing the most common inland trout waters.

If you ask around for opinions on the best all-around fly rod weight for trout, you’ll probably get caught between the 5wt and 6wt camps.

“It reminds me a bit of those arguments over whether a .270 or a 30.06 is the best caliber for a deer rifle,” wrote Steve Mathewson in “Is the 5 Weight Fly Rod the Best All-Around?” for 2 Guys and a River.

In that article, he breaks up the fight with some excellent reasoning for each. In short, if you expect to fish mostly large rivers or in windy canyons, lean towards 6wt. If you’re going for calm days on the banks of slow-moving water across which you can toss frosty beer cans to your buddies, go with 5wt. And, pick up your litter.

Once you’ve chosen weight, nine-foot rods are fairly standard. You can opt for rods that break down into two to six segments. Four is ideal for me and plenty packable if I attach my rod case to my pack’s exterior.

man setting up fly fishing gear
Setting up the line.

Choosing and setting up your fly reel

Entry-level fly anglers should view their first reel as nothing more than a shiny line dispenser. Most brands’ budget models are just fine for the casual beginner, and if you take care of it, it will serve you well for years. Shell out for one or two extra spool cartridges so you can change between floating and sinking lines. Some anglers will even throw a 6wt line on a 5wt rod if the conditions warrant it.

A single reel is rigged up with four separate types of lines. Hooray, four more decisions to make!


Connecting the reel’s core (arbor) and the fly line, backing adds bulk to prevent the pliable fly line from retaining “memory,” or semi-permanent curls in its length. But backing is more than just filler. You’ll rarely use up your entire fly line if you’re fishing inland waters, but a high-quality, rot-resistant braided Dacron or polyester backing serves as a “reserve” for those unexpected lunkers.

Weight forward floating fly line

Fly fishing lines are made with a supple, polymer coating over a braided or mono core. Coating thickness, and positioning of that extra girth, determines how weight is distributed on the line; this affects how powerfully and accurately the line will cast over distance and in heavy winds. Weight forward fly lines are ideal for the entry-level angler given their versatility. Global Flyfisher has perhaps the best articles about fly line anatomy, and it belongs among your top five fly fishing bookmarks.

Line manufacturers apply special finishes to the coating that cause them to either float on the surface, or sink below. Then there are floating lines with sinking tips. I recommend you select a floating line for your first rig since you can always add sinking leaders and tippets.

woman fly fishing
Select a floating line for your fly reel.

Monofilament leader

Fly lines are generally brightly colored so we can see how they lie on the water, but their footprint on the water’s surface is hardly subtle to fish. That’s where the leader and tippet come in.

The leader is a long (usually about eight or nine feet), tapered length of translucent monofilament line that’s matched to both your rig’s weight and the fly pattern sizes. The thick (or “butt”) end test will be three to four times heavier than the forward tip, and the taper tends to level off to a continuous diameter in the final third of the leader. Back in the day, anglers would have to build their own tapered leaders by tying together several successive lengths of mono, but modern manufacturing produces “knotless” tapered fly fishing leaders.

Monofilament leaders float better on the surface and are more forgiving than more brittle fluorocarbon products, though you’ll want to consider the latter as your skills improve. Fluorocarbon is all but invisible in the water and many anglers prefer it for nymphing.


This is the hair-fine, highly-sensitive final component of your fully outfitted fly reel. While you could tie your fly directly to the end of your tapered leader, you’ll quickly lose that taper after swapping out a dozen or so patterns. The tippet itself isn’t tapered; it usually comes packaged in a small spool. For your 5wt or 6wt setup, you’ll tie anywhere from two to four feet to the tip of your leader.

Loading your reel: Fly fishing knots

Once you’ve selected your reel and your fly line components, I recommend you have an experienced fly angler set everything up for you while you watch. First, they’ll install the backing using an arbor knot, followed by an Albright knot to connect the backing to your actual fly line. Even if you know how to tie a nail knot, have them show you how they join the fly line to the leader since working with two very different types of lines can be tricky. If you ask nicely, you can coax some on-the-water hacks from a friendly pro. If you can tie a double surgeon’s knot, you shouldn’t have any problems with the tippet.

man fly fishing
Kühl Editor