Don’t Fear The Fly Rod

Comfortable With A Spinning Rod? Then Adding A Fly-Fishing Set Up To Your Arsenal Is Easy.

The fall run is the best time of the year to fool a striper on the fly rod.

Comfortable With A Spinning Rod? Then Adding A Fly-Fishing Set Up To Your Arsenal Is Easy.

It was a lovely May afternoon on the West Wall at Point Judith Harbor of Refuge in Rhode Island. I tossed streamers for awhile and watched another angler work the water column with a variety of lures. The bass fishing with silverside flies had been strong that morning, but it slowed during the afternoon, prompting the other angler to come over and say hello. As so often happens, the spincaster began with a nod at my fly rod and said, “I never did have the patience for that.” With a friendly laugh I told him wasn’t as hard or complicated as it looked, and if a competent fly-rodder worked with him for an hour, he would quickly grasp the essence of fly casting and be making relatively good casts.

Though the design is different, spinning and fly reels both operate on a drag principle.
Though the design is different, spinning and fly reels both operate on a drag principle.

I am often surprised at how seasoned anglers that effectively employ spinning outfits are hesitant to add fly-fishing tackle to their arsenal. Though sometimes a conditional tackle, there are times when flies will out-fish hardware, and no fisherman should ever assume that fly fishing takes more patience, or is more complicated, than any other style of fishing.

Component For Component

It may be helpful to get past the differences between spinning and fly-fishing tackle by comparing and contrasting the components of each system.

The major difference between spinning and fly tackle is how they cast. With spinning tackle, a lure with weight is flung by the rod, pulling along a thin length of line behind it. A fly, on the other hand, has virtually no weight. It is attached to the end of a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader, which often has its other end affixed to the fly line via a loop-to-loop connection. The fly rod is actually casting the weight of the line, which is why a vast majority of fly lines have a weight-forward configuration – the weight (and thickest diameter) is concentrated toward the fi rst 15 feet of the casting end, which pulls along the leader and fly.


There are a seemingly endless variety of specialized fly lines on the market.
All have both pros and cons. Consider how you plan to fish and what you hope to catch, and match the line to the situation.

DOUBLE TAPER: This line is best suited for situations requiring delicate and precise casts. It is superior for line control and roll casting. It is not ideal if you are looking for distance.

WEIGHT FORWARD: These lines are thicker and heavier on the business end, enabling longer casts. The casting weight is generated in the front part of the line, which pulls the thinner and considerably lighter running line, resulting in longer casts but sacrificing accuracy.

The spinning rod is not only used for casting weighted lures, it is also a fish-fighting tool. A heavy fish is worked in with a spinning stick by pumping the rod toward the angler, and then as the tip of the rod is quickly moved forward, the line is rapidly retrieved back onto the reel. A fly rod, in addition to being designed to cast a fly line, is used differently to play a fish. The rod should not be held so that the classic “horseshoe” profile ensues, but rather kept more at an angle that resembles being pointed toward the fish. Fish are often battled using sideways pressure, bending the rod to the right when the fish turns left. The butt of the fly rod does the brunt of the work, and the line should be retrieved on the reel with no pumping motion.

A spinning reel holds several hundred yards of line from the spool arbor to 1/8 inch from the spool rim. Fly reels can hold several hundred yards of “backing,” which generally varies between 20- and 50-pound test, also affixed at the spool arbor. The actual fly line is 90 to 120 feet, attached to the other end of the backing. The spinning line should be tight from the time a fish strikes to its release. The fly-rodder usually has loose coils of fly line when a trophy strikes and must be certain to clear the fly line through the rod guides with no tangles, getting the fight on the reel.

Both reels operate with an adjustable drag, ideally set close to the limit of the tackle. The spinning line is the same diameter and breaking strength throughout. The fly reel backing also has that same characteristic, however the weight-forward fly line consists of five sections: running line, rear taper, body, front taper, and tip. A spinning lure can be affixed directly to the main line, or via a snap or snap/swivel in addition to a custom leader. A fly-fishing leader affixed to the fly line is imperative, and often is tapered to assist with proper casting and “turnover” of the fly, while being the weakest link in the rigging system. A common denominator of both types of tackle is each component should balance with the entire setup.

Whether you are fishing from shore, on a boat or in a kayak, learning to use a fly rod will help you catch more fish in certain circumstances.
Whether you are fishing from shore, on a boat or in a kayak, learning to use a fly rod will help you catch more fish in certain circumstances.

Fly Rod Categories

Fly rods and lines are designated by a weight system designed to measure the first 30 feet in grains. The rods are also listed by weight, so a 6-weight rod and line balance. Fly lines are actually made from 0 to 15 weight, becoming heavier as the line rating increases. The most popular fly rod/line weights can be grouped into four categories.

Light-tackle fly-rodding includes 3-, 4-, and 5-weight rod/line combinations. The low weight and small silhouette of these rigs make them well suited for casting small flies to panfish and trout. The 5 weight isn’t as sensitive as the 3 and 4, but the added heft in the rod and line makes it easier to toss a wider range of patterns, including small-to medium-size streamers and lightly weighted patterns.

Fly anglers who select 6 and 7 weights shuffle to the halfway mark of the finesse/strength gradient. These are effective for tossing bigger, more windresistant flies on larger bodies of water. The past decade has seen several major manufacturers design 6 and 7 weights for light saltwater applications, including striped bass and bonefish. These rigs are also very practical for smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing.

The 8-, 9- and 10-weight rod/ reel combinations bend to the power side of the spectrum. These are used by jetty and surf fly-rodders to toss big flies and weighted crab patterns to large stripers, and in the pursuit of slammer bluefish, false albacore, and bonito. Nine-and ten-weight rigs are ideal for salmon anglers who need the extra beef to chuck oversize offerings and largemouth enthusiasts who need the muscle to horse a big bass from the weeds.

The fourth classification are the heavyweights, from 11-weight up to 15-weight rigs, which are used for saltwater applications including tarpon and bluewater shark and tuna angling. The 11 and 12 weights are effective for salmon and saltwater heavy duty scenes where the largest flies and wind are often in the mix.

Selecting The First Outfit

A potential fly-rodder who browses the Internet, a local fly shop, or a sporting goods catalog will probably be overwhelmed at the array of rods, reels and lines. For example, there are specialty lines for trout, bass, pike, saltwater, and bluewater in a variety of floating and sinking types. An excellent way to start is considering what type of fishing you do most and make your tackle selection based on that. Describing your fishing passion to your local fly shop staff will give them the information to assist with making a practical tackle selection.

If you purchase a mid-priced saltwater- safe 8-weight combination to scour salt ponds for stripers, remember that you can also use that rig to toss streamers in a local lake. Spend as much as your budget allows, because a higher quality product will serve you better and cost less in the long run.

The most popular and practical length in any weight fly rod is 9 feet, and it is an excellent first choice. Fly rods come in 1, 2, 3 and 4 piece blanks, so consider how you will store and transport the rod when making the selection. Fly rods come in different fl exes, including slow, mid, and fast. Here again, taking the middle-of-the-road approach and going with a mid-fl ex taper in any weight will offer good all-around casting features in addition to being more forgiving for beginning casters.

As mentioned earlier, the reel should balance with the rod, and be sure to select a saltwater-safe design if you plan to fish salt venues. Most fly reels are interchangeable from left- to righthand wind. A spinfisher who reels left handed will most likely be comfortable retrieving line on a fly reel with the same hand, though someone who has never fished before may find it best to use their dominant hand for winding.

If you really enjoy topwater action with your spinning rod and fish this way most of the time, select a weight-forward floating line, which is necessary for surface work and is also the easiest to cast. If you rarely fish topwater but expect to usually fish streamers, begin with a weight-forward slow-sink line, which will permit angling in the upper to middle of the water column.

By taking a basic set of ideas about what species you plan to fly-fish for and where you plan to do it, you can greatly narrow down your initial purchase requirements. Also, this will enable the fly shop staff to suggest an array of leaders and flies consistent with your needs.

Learning To Fly Cast

The best place to begin fly casting is on a open, calm pond or backwater, or on a level grass surface with a 90-foot area free of obstructions. Set the assembled rig flat on the surface in front of you and pull about 25 to 30 feet of line out the guides. A leader should be attached to the line and a small loop tied at the leader end will simulate a light fly.

Shallow bays and estuaries give you plenty of room for your backcast
Shallow bays and estuaries give you plenty of room for your backcast, making them great spots to master your casting.
photo by John Burke

Hold the rod pointed at the leader loop with the reel down and the thumb toward the tip on top of the cork handle. A right-handed caster will hold the line firmly in the left hand with the left foot positioned ahead of the right, so she doesn’t directly face the line set on the surface, which is the direction the cast will be made. (A left-handed caster would reverse this posture.)

The forearm and rod is pointed straight down the line. The backcast is made by lifting the rod briskly and smoothly up and slightly past the head to a 1 o’clock position, not letting any line from the left hand.

Fly casting may be the only sport where the angler does not follow through. The rod is stopped abruptly, and the line and leader should flush straight behind you. The rod is not waved side to side during casting, just straight back with the elbow kept close to the body.

If the line does not straighten, let it fall and work on the backcast. A good forward cast needs a good backcast. On a good backcast, the right hand is slightly higher than the shoulder and the left hand close to the right, which will avoid sag in the line. The key here is working on a good, smooth stroke.

When a good backcast is made, you’re ready to continue with the forward cast. Start the forward cast almost when you feel the line straighten behind you – this is a timing thing that comes with practice and soon becomes automatic. Accelerate the rod smoothly and briskly without extending the arm fully. When the rod reaches a 11 o’clock position, abruptly stop. Stopping suddenly on the backward cast, waiting for the line to almost straighten, then stopping abruptly on the forward cast is the key to getting a good casting stroke down. After a good forward cast, make the backcast again, then on the next forward cast, let the line flow out of the left hand. A competent caster can reach the desired distance with two backcasts and two forward casts.

It should be noted that no two casters have the same stroke. Some excellent fly-rodders bend the rules with their casting, and some even invent a casting style, like noted fly-fisherman Mark Sedotti did with his sling and distance casting of huge flies. Nevertheless, everyone has a starting point, and the essence of casting will be attained with the suggested approach.

Working with an experienced caster is a very wise move because they can spot what you are doing right and wrong. Every accomplished fly fisherman I know will cheerfully share their casting knowledge. They will stress that the main thing is timing and practice. Other, more advanced casting maneuvers, such as the double haul, shooting line on the backcast, and roll casting, can eventually be mastered, but are not vital to a new fly-rodder.

Get past the fear of fly-fishing, and you’ll probably find that fly-fishing gear has more in common with spincasting gear than you realized. It doesn’t have to be complicated; start with what you enjoy about spincasting, and use that approach to purchase a fly-fishing outfit. With just an hour of practice, I bet you’ll be a competent caster, and you’ll have another avenue to catch more fish and have more fun.

2 on “Don’t Fear The Fly Rod

  1. Phillip Hayman

    Simple, well stated facts about basic fly fishing equipment and casting technique. I am a tennis pro new to fly fishing and would like to see some info written that simplifies proper knot usage.
    Thanks for your input.

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