An Introduction to Fly Fishing

By Jim Auckley | January 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2002

Anglers fly fish for the same reason some deer hunters use longbows and arrows. By reducing automation, they make the sport more personal, more intimate and more satisfying. And, like an archer who makes his own arrows, a fly fishermen can create his own flies or build his own rods. The fun in that recipe can add 10 happy years to anyone's life.

Fly fishing is different from other kinds of fishing in a couple of ways. Most basically, the weight of the line propels the cast, not the weight of the bait or lure. A tiny fly is very light, but it is possible to present it to a fish 40 feet away by using a fly line.

Most anglers come to fly fishing after a long apprenticeship in other kinds of fishing, be it with live bait, bass lures or deep sea tackle. I spent many hours plastered to the seat of a boat dangling minnows over the side or sitting on a mud-slick creek bank trying to outwit catfish before ever holding a fly rod.

When I first started fly fishing, I spent a lot of time on streams full of greedy sunfish and small, naive bass. Casting colorful woolly worms and little popping bugs, I waded in cool waters for hours on end catching lots of small, feisty fish while learning to keep a fly line airborne.

Fly Rod

Missouri anglers can start with one fly rod that will maximize the fun in catching sunfish, small stream bass and trout. Most fly rods today are made from graphite and, sometimes, a combination of other materials, such as fiberglass. This is good, resilient stuff that can be turned into a light, sweet-casting rod. The least expensive rods will probably contain less graphite and more fiberglass.

Experienced fly anglers select a rod based on the "line weight" the rod is rated for, the rod action and the length of the rod. Rod "actions" are rated fully-flexing, medium, medium-fast and fast. As rods progress from the most flexible to the fastest, they become stiffer.

Short, light fly rods suitable for sunfish use feather-weight lines, while longer, more muscular rods used for bass fishing require heavier lines to tease the leverage out of them. A new fly caster should look for a rod in the medium range. It will "load" (flex the rod) with its matched line at short to medium ranges, making casting easier at the distances most people actually fish.

Another consideration might be how many pieces the rod comprises. If you carry your rod in a small car, you might like the convenience of a short tube that holds a multi-piece rod.

For your first fly rod, consider one between 8-9 feet long. A rod designated for a 4- or 5-weight line is a good starting place. There are two ways to dive in. One is to buy a rod, reel and fly line separately. The other is to buy a package that includes these items, plus a protective tube for the rod and a leader to go with the line. You can get a good quality, entry-level kit for about $180.

Whichever you buy, I suggest you do so at a full-service fly tackle shop where knowledgeable people can help you. You can take a step up in a fly rod by considering a rod alone that costs in the range of $250. This might get you a better grade of graphite and nicer trim.

The tip of a fly rod is delicate. That's why some rods now come with lifetime guarantees. It doesn't matter if the fish of your dreams breaks the rod or you slam it in a cabin screen door, the manufacturer repairs or replaces it at no cost to you.


A fly reel should serve a purpose beyond merely storing line. Use it to play fish, once they are hooked. Many fly reels have drags to reduce the stress on the line.

A basic die-cast aluminum reel with a simple drag system costs about $40 and will suffice for most Missouri angling. By tightening or increasing the drag, you control how much pressure a fish has to apply to peel line off the reel. Double the price for a basic reel and you can get a die-cast version with a more efficient disc-drag.

If you are of the Swiss watch persuasion, you may prefer a reel machined from aluminum bar stock. These reels are mechanical marvels, but there is something to be said for starting out with a reel that you don't have to worry about dropping on a gravel bar, or denting or scratching in any other way. If someday you move up the fly reel ladder, your initial reel can still serve as a reliable backup.


The line is what makes a fly rod work, and while fishing you will usually be holding your rod with one hand and the line in your other. You actually manipulate the line with your hand rather than with the reel.

A leader, made of the same type of monofilament material used in spin fishing lines, connects fly line to fly. Fly anglers generally use tapered leaders 9-12 feet long. Tapered fly leaders generally cost $3 to $4. Their packaging specifies the type of fly fishing for which they are best suited.

Tackle makers use an effective system to size fly lines, making it easy to match a given line to a given rod. The weight, in grains, of the first 30 feet of a fly line designates its size. (A grain is the smallest unit of measure in the U.S. One pound avoirdupois equals 7,000 grains.) Many anglers find a 5-weight fly line (and matched rod) ideal for Missouri trout fishing. The first 30-feet of this line weighs 140 grains, plus or minus 6 grains.

Fly lines range in length from about 60-90 feet. Consider purchasing a double-taper or weight-forward fly line. A double-taper fly line is fat in the middle and tapered to a finer point at both ends. The belly of the line provides the weight to cast, while the tapered end presents the fly in a delicate manner, making it ideal for fishing a floating fly. Double-taper lines also are economical. When one end becomes worn, you can thread it the opposite way on the reel and have a fresh end to use.

A "weight-forward" fly line works well for medium- and long-range casting. One contemporary weight-forward line has a tip of about 7 feet, a belly of 27 feet, a rear taper of 6 feet and 50 feet of thin running line. The weight that loads the rod and drives the line forward is up front, while the running portion trails behind. A weight-forward line really shoots for distance and does well in windy conditions or when casting bulky flies.


Fly casting at moderate distances is not difficult. The good news is that you can catch fish while you are learning to do it.

The two best ways to grip a fly rod are with your thumb along the top of the grip, or with your forefinger along the top. To learn the basic cast, imagine you are standing next to a large clock. Straight ahead is 9 o'clock, and straight behind is 3 o'clock. The motion you will use in just about all fly casting limits the movement of the rod between the positions of 10 o'clock (in front) and 2 o'clock (behind).

Start with about 15 feet of fly line off of your reel in a pile at your feet and about 6-8 feet of fly line beyond the tip of the rod. You are going to work the line in the pile out by making a casting motion back and forth, or false casting. Begin with the rod in front of you with your wrist tilted down slightly. Lift with your arm, then snap your wrist while briskly moving the rod back to 1 o'clock. At the same time, pull downward with the hand holding the line. The pull accelerates the speed of the airborne line.

An all-important pause takes place at this point in the cast. The pause allows the fly line time to straighten out behind you. Then, bring the rod "smartly" forward, snapping your wrist down a bit when the rod hits 10 o'clock. Release the line in your hand; some of it will shoot forward. Continue false casting until you have the amount of line that you need airborne, and then release the line, shooting it forward for the actual delivery to your target.

The most common errors in fly casting are failing to pause on the back cast, and not applying power on the forward cast. If you do not pause, your line is going to meet itself coming and going, and it may actually snag on itself or snag your rod. If you fail to apply power on the forward cast, the line may simply fall in a puddle at your feet rather than delivering your fly to its target. A third problem is waiting too long on the back cast, which can cause the line to make a cracking sound, like a whip.


If you do not have a friend who can help you improve your fly casting, your local parks and recreation department may offer a fly fishing class. A Trout Unlimited or Federation of Fly Fishers club in your area can show you how to cast and might introduce you to fly tying.

There is beauty in fly fishing. In an article appearing in the magazine of a national fly fishing club, Michael Fong wrote, "What separates fly fishing from other forms of fishing is the joy that comes by feeling and watching as the fly is propelled through the air as the cast is executed."

There is something in the sight of an uncoiling fly line that I find incredibly soothing. I'll bet you will, too.

Useful Items:

  • 9-foot fly fishing leader tapered to 6-pound test
  • One spool each of 3- and 2-pound-test leader tippet to add to above
  • One light-weight fly box
  • Clipper to trim leader ends
  • Hemostat to remove hooks from fish
  • Small landing net
  • Fishing vest (this is the fly fisher's tackle box)
  • A card or book that illustrates fly fishing knots
  • A small selection of flies for the type of fish you pursue

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer