Fly Fishing


While commonly associated with trout, fly fishing is a great way to relax and test your angling skills against any kind of fish. Learn more about fly fishing techniques for different species and recommendations on purchasing fly rods and reels.

Fly Fishing Basics

In fly fishing, fish are caught by using artificial flies that are cast with a fly rod and a fly line. The fly line (today, almost always coated with plastic) is heavy enough to send the fly to the target.

The main difference between fly fishing and spin or bait fishing is that in fly fishing the weight of the line carries the hook through the air, whereas in spin and bait fishing the weight of the lure or sinker at the end of the monofilament or braided line gives casting distance.

Artificial flies are made by fastening hair, fur, feathers, or other materials, both natural and synthetic, onto a hook. The first flies were tied with natural materials, but synthetic materials are now popular. Flies are tied in sizes, colors and patterns to match local terrestrial and aquatic insects, baitfish, or other prey attractive to the target fish species. Flies can be made to float or sink.

Man standing in knee-deep water, holding fly rod and netting a fish
MDC staff
Right to Use

It is important to note that you cannot become an accomplished fly angler by reading a book. It is a lifelong leaning skill learned best by doing. There is no substitute for:

  • Getting hands-on lessons from a fly fishing instructor.
  • Going fishing (a lot) with a fly rod.
  • Leaving your other poles at home.
Fly Fishing for Trout

Basic trout flies are made up of three types.

  • Nymphs imitate insects that are still in their immature stages living along the stream bed.
  • Dry flies float on the surface and imitate aquatic insects that are either emerging from the nymphal shuck to become an adult, are laying eggs, or have died after mating and laying eggs.
  • Streamers imitate minnows or other swimming aquatic life.

In all cases you are trying to make the fly look natural.


Strike Indicators

Nymphs can be placed on the line below a strike indicator. The indicator helps you see when a fish strikes the nymph and it also helps keep your fly off the bottom. Strike indicators are typically made of foam or plastic. A dry fly makes a good strike indicator and allows for an additional food offering. Generally it is a good idea to place the indicator about one times the water depth above the nymph.

Tight-line fly fishing

Tight-line fly fishing with a nymph calls for about fifteen feet of line past your rod tip. You will need to hold your rod tip high. The idea is to maintain a tight line from your rod tip to the nymph. No strike indicator is used when tight-line fishing. Most of the time you will feel the strike. However you want to keep a close watch on the end of your fly line and set your hook if the line pauses or darts.

Work the water like a grid

Fish water closest to you first, then cast a little farther out with each three to four casts. Then move upstream a few feet and begin again.

Imitate an emerging nymph

You want to imitate an emerging nymph by making your fly rise to the surface. To do this, cast across and slightly downstream and give it slack, allowing the fly to sink. As the fly line moves downstream, the current at the top of the water column is moving faster than the water at the bottom of the stream. The faster moving fly line will begin to drag your fly toward the surface, imitating an aquatic insect swimming toward the surface to hatch.

Often the strike is at the end of the swing immediately downstream of your position. Set your hook as you start to bring your line up for the cast upstream. You may have a fish on.


Dry flies are fished both upstream and downstream. You want the fly to float on the surface of the water and let it drift naturally downstream.

If the fly starts to drag on the surface causing a “V” in the water, this is a signal to the trout that it is not food.

You will need to learn the art of mending the line to avoid the drag. There are many techniques in mending the line. This is where lessons from and instructor are very important.


Cast your fly across and slightly downstream (or slightly upstream in faster water). Strip the fly back toward you as it flows downstream and across the stream.

You want to work the water like a grid. Start fishing near the shore and add two or three feet of line after each cast. After you have cast across the stream, take three steps downstream and continue fishing in the same manner. This allows you to cover the water more efficiently.

Fly Fishing For Other Species

There is no wrong time or place to use a fly rod, as long as you abide by state regulations. A good philosophy is: if it swims and eats anything bigger than plankton, it can be caught on a fly rod.

Casting for different kinds of fish in different kinds of water at different times of the year can help you get more out of your gear, and it can help you hone your fly-fishing skills.

We encourage you to discover for yourself that fly rodding is not just for trout. Remember, trout are just one species of fish that are fair game for a well-placed fly.

  • Bluegill are especially susceptible to black, slow-sinking flies.
  • Many fly anglers are particularly fond of fishing with a floating popping bug. Seeing the water explode as a bluegill nails the popper is as exciting as it gets.
  • Catching a feisty bluegill on a fly rod is a memorable experience. They know how to use their disk-shaped bodies to put up a spectacular fight, with circling runs that will put a nice bend in your fly rod.
  • Channel catfish can be found in most stocked ponds around Missouri.
  • Almost any streamer or nymph fly will catch a catfish. They are particularly fond of streamers that represent baitfish.
  • When you fool a 5-pound catfish with a fly, you had better hope you packed a lunch. That struggle will take some time. Heavy line and a heavier fly rod (6-7 weight) are important.
  • A catfish will run repeatedly from one side of the pond to the other, not stopping to rest until you are ready to take a seat yourself. Just about the time you think the fish is ready to give up, it resumes with even more determination to break your line.
  • Catfishing with a fly rod is something you will want to experience. Put that one on your bucket list — you’ll be glad you did.


  • The largemouth bass is a hard-hitting predator fish just waiting for your fly to land on the water.
  • Large popping bugs and any streamer fly that represents a small forage fish will entice these brutes to test your fly rod and are guaranteed to increase your adrenaline levels.
  • The largemouth bass has a boney mouth, so the hook set needs to be aggressive.
  • A heavier 6–7-weight rod with a fast tip is generally much stiffer than a trout rod. This will allow for a successful hook set and ease of casting larger flies.

The smallmouth bass is a Missouri native that, ounce for ounce, will outfight any species of fish Missouri has to offer.

  • Smallmouth bass have an affinity for crawfish étouffée on a hook. If you can offer up a well-tied crayfish pattern, you have an excellent chance at fooling one into taking your fly.
  • Smallmouth will also hit minnow pattern flies such as the Clouser minnow.
  • Smallmouth bass like cool streams. They can be found in the same kind of water and habitat as trout, but they prefer a slightly warmer water temperature. The lower end of a blue ribbon trout stream where water temperatures are marginally warmer is a great place to start looking for this hard fighting fish.
Purchasing a Fly Rod and Reel

The single most important tool to a fly angler is the fly rod. Its job begins with casting fly line, leader, and fly to the fish. Once the fly hits the water, the rod is used to control the line and the fly. This is referred to as "mending."

When a fish picks up the fly, the rod's job changes again. The rod is now used to set the hook or drive the hook into the fish's mouth. The role of the fly rod changes once again when the fish is hooked. It is then used to keep a constant pressure on the fly line so the fish cannot pull off or throw off the hook. At the same time, it is being used to play or tire out the fish so it can be landed.

Most fly rods are between 7 and 9 feet long. These lengths can accommodate most fishing situations.

When you hear anglers discuss the weight of a fly rod, they are not referring to how heavy the fly rod is. They mean the size of the line the rod will cast. A five-weight rod will cast a five-weight fly line.

Size and weights customarily fall into the following pattern, but many other combinations of length and weights are available.


Fly Rod Length and Weight Comparison


Fly Rod Length (feet)

Line Weight




Bass, catfish, carp






The fly reel is an important tool. In combination with the fly rod, it allows more control over the fish. You can slow down a charging run and use it to wear down the fish to bring it to hand.

Drag systems

When fighting fish, the drag system of a reel comes into play. The drag is a mechanical, controlled pressure on the outgoing line. There are two types of drag systems that anglers use today.


The click-and-pawl is the simpler, more common drag. It consists of a toothed gear that engages with the points of one or more pawl. These pawls keep tension on the gear and slow the spool down. This type of drag is sufficient for most types of freshwater fish.

Disc drag

The second type of drag, the disc drag, is used to battle larger and more powerful fish. This type of drag is the popular among most anglers today. The disc drag works much like the brake of a car; it has a pad, usually made of cork, on the inside of the frame. The pad keeps tension on the stainless-steel discs. The discs control the amount of tension on the spool that is locked down onto a pillar in the frame. A knob on the outside of the reel controls the amount of drag. The disc drag gives anglers a smooth and consistent amount of tension to help control more explosive fish like a trophy rainbow or a 16-inch smallmouth.

Note to New Anglers Purchasing Rods

Buy quality

Don’t scrimp on the most important tool in your fly-fishing kit. A quality fly rod will not only retain its value, you will not have to upgrade to a better rod later. Always buy the best that you can within your budget.

Buy rods with warranties

Fly rods are expensive and many accidents do occur! Make sure that you are covered.