Is Fly Fishing Hard to Learn?

Fly fishing is not very difficult to learn. In fact, it is only slightly more difficult to learn than fishing with a typical spinning reel and rod. If you are already familiar with fishing in other ways, it will take you one day to learn how to cast, tie the proper knots, and learn how to make a couple of rigs. There is nothing about this sport that makes it too hard for anyone to learn.

Fly fishing is increasing in popularity every year. We are currently at 7 million fly fishing anglers in the USA in the year 2021. There must be something magical about it for so many people to learn how to fly fish and then keep doing it for the rest of their lives, right?

I can assure you, there is! Fly fishing is one of those fishing activities that is on par with kayak fishing but possibly even better. You can merge with the environment you're fishing in while fly fishing and enjoy the feeling of being at one with the nature around you, especially if you're standing in the water with waders. Fly fishing gives one an intimate connection with nature that isn't easily found elsewhere. If you try it, you're going to love it. 

As a beginner learning how to fly fish, you'll face a learning curve. If you've never fished a day in your life, you'll have to learn more like the best time to go out, but come on, this isn't rocket science by any means. You CAN do this and it won't take very long.

The main thing that is different about fly fishing when compared to other rod/reel fishing, is casting. You'll need to learn how to keep a lot of line in the air in order to cast accurately. I learned how to do this with some skill within 30 minutes. Truth be told, I'm still learning how to get pinpoint accuracy on some casts, especially with overhead branches trying to snag my line! It's a little bit challenging, but if you're up to the challenge, read on and we'll tell you more about fly fishing and what you need to know! 

Is Fly Fishing Hard to Learn?

fly fishing in summer

Advanced physics and calculus can be hard to learn. Casting a fly rod? Not even close. If you have some dexterity already, you should be able to learn how to cast with enough accuracy to catch some fish within a couple of hours.

Despite the challenges you'll face in learning how to fly fish when you're finally out there with your own or a borrowed fly rod and reel, you'll quickly become addicted to the feeling. You'll be able to fish streams, lakes, and rivers with ease and grace. It's a minimalist style of fishing that not enough people attempt in their lives. It took me over ten years to finally try it. I’m so happy I did!

Fly fishing almost always entails catching fish you can put on your plate. Trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappie, or even salmon, your skill as you learn how to fly fish will be rewarded with delicious meals for you and your family.

Give this amazing fishing style a chance and see how it goes. Read below to get a quick overview of what you'll need to learn. You won't be overwhelmed. Fly fishing is basic fishing in a very unique way. 

Let's review some simple areas you'll need to grasp about fly fishing below.

1. Casting

Man Fly Fishing

Let's start with the biggest difference between fishing with a regular fishing rod and reel versus fishing with a fly rod and reel. Casting your line is going to be the most difficult thing that you learn about fly fishing. Everything else is relatively the same with just a little spin in another direction.

If you've watched fly fishing masters with many yards of fishing line in the air before they drop it into the water perfectly you will have some feeling of awe. I did. You might think that it would take you years to learn how to cast like that. Really it doesn't, all you need to do is practice and you should be able to cast 10 to 15 yards pretty quickly and fairly accurately.

One of the tricks in casting is related to the timing of the twitches of your wrist as your line is in the air and you are trying to keep the line there and extend its length until you know your hook and Bait will drop exactly where you want it when you're ready to complete the cast.

A lot of the fly-casting techniques will come easier than you would expect. Overhead casting will be one of the most difficult casting styles to learn, but you can do it just like millions of other people across the world. Keeping your fishing line in even-sized loops directly overhead can take a couple of hours to learn. As you get good with the technique, you'll be able to cast farther and with more accuracy.

If there’s one reason people say fly fishing is hard to learn, it’s the casting. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard!

2. Equipment

Fly Fishing Gear

Some of the fishing gear that you use will be different from what you have used in the past. It will take a little time to learn about the most effective equipment you can buy for fly fishing. Essential equipment includes a fly reel, a rod, a fly line, a leader, a tippet, flies, floatant, a strike indicator, slip shots or sinkers, clippers, a lanyard, and a box to keep your fly collection in.

As you start out, you'll be wise to buy what many consider to be the ideal fly fishing rod in terms of length and action. The 9-foot 4-weight rod is considered the standard most people start with. Keep in mind that the reel is just a fancy line holder and has little to do with casting, unlike spinning and baitcasting reels. 

If you plan on standing in cold water, you'll need some waders to keep your legs dry. Some go up past your hips and some people fish that deep too! Otherwise, you can stand on the bank and wear warm boots. A floatant is an indispensable substance to keep your flies dry and floating on top of the water, not sagging underneath the surface. If you fish in the current using subsurface flies, you will also need a strike indicator and a split shot or two. 

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3. Ability to “Read Water”

Flowing River With A Fly Rod And Reel

If you've fished rivers, lakes, or streams before you already know what reading the water is. It's the mysterious art of knowing where the fish will be in some body of water.

In the beginning, reading water won't be so easy but it's a vital skill to learn on your way to becoming a competent fly fishing angler. It's not that difficult if you think about it in terms of fish needing to conserve energy as they feed to replenish energy. Make sense?

Here's what I mean. Fish need to eat at least a couple of times per day. They have a limited amount of energy to feed, avoid predators, digest food, and keep water moving through their gills to get oxygen. One of the topmost priorities for fish is to conserve energy and find food with the least expenditure of energy possible.

This means you need to identify the current in a moving body of water and find areas where there might be a break. Fish will stay there out of the faster current and wait for prey to float by. Fish can jump into the current briefly, eat their prey, and get back into the slower current or still water area to conserve energy.

Rocks break the water in a stream and river. Fish may be behind rocks of any size just waiting for something delicious to drift by.

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Ripples in the water signify rocks. When you see ripples, you'll know that food for trout and other fish cling to the submerged rocks in this area. Prey such as stonefly larvae, caddis, and mayfly nymphs make this a fish feeding ground. If you see a bigger rock in a set of ripples, try to float a fly down right in front of it in the current and see if you score!

Any area of still water near areas of moving water can be good. This can happen behind rocks, logs, or other obstacles. Curves in the river or stream can block some current in sections and provide great fly fishing spots.

Other highly productive areas of streams and rivers are pools of still water. These can be deep or shallow, but they are larger areas that don't seem to get much current. Finally, trout and many fish – freshwater and saltwater – tend to congregate on current seams. Current seams are places along a river, stream, or ocean where two distinct currents meet.

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4. Learning Basic Entomology

salmon fly

Entomology is the study of insects as they relate to humans, the environment, and other organisms. Like fish.

Knowing which flies to use on your tippet (the fine line that attaches to your flies) is something that comes with time. Ideally, you can fish with other people or read fishing reports to see which flies are being taken by fish in the area you want to fish. Fishing recon is essential no matter where you're fishing, so you probably already understand the significance of this.

You'll want to fish with flies mimicking organisms found in the area, on that stream, or on that river or lake. Fishing flies resembling insects that have never been part of the habitat in the area you're fishing is usually going to be a losing effort. Not always, but usually!

Know which flies should be floated and which should be dropped below the surface for the best presentation. Fish are picky. They may love San Juan Worms, but if you're floating yours on the surface, you are probably going to get skunked. Fish them under the water for the best result.

Just remember, the location, the season, and the species of fish you intend to catch are all factors that help you determine which flies to use on your trip. You'll learn these things with time.

Some of the most common fly species you are likely to find in fly shops targeting trout include San Juan Worms, Adam flies, mayflies, hare’s ears, stoneflies, pheasant tails, caddis, brassies, and Glo-bugs. You can try these in your favorite fishing spots where the species are abundant. You may not have any clue, but you can try each of these in series and see when you get strikes. Always, always bring a variety of flies with you. 

5. Setting Up a Fly Fishing Rod

Setting Up A Fly Rod

When you start fly fishing, your gear changes quite a bit as does your rod and reel. Setting up your fishing gear is an important skill. Some basics you'll need to learn about are the typical length of the leader, the type of fly you should tie on the leader, and how to tie the fly using a rugged knot that won't come undone. These are micro skills that can be learned quickly but will take a little study time to get it all down.

Start by outfitting your fly fishing rod with a 9-foot, 5x leader and similar tippet or whatever is appropriate for the size of fish you are targeting. Check manufacturers' labels to be sure what the breaking strength is. The diameter of the line is supposed to be coordinated to the 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, etc. leader/tippet designation and they usually are but what varies between brands is the breaking point of the line.

If using subsurface nymphs, add length to your tippet to reach the bottom or whatever depth you think the fish are feeding at. You may consider a strike indicator to make it easy to see bites, and a split shot if there is some current and you want to ensure your fly gets down deeper.

Next, join the fly to the tippet with an improved clinch knot. This has become my main knot for fly fishing and it should probably be yours too. It's simple and fast. After this, you're ready to cast. The rod is ready for casting.

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6. Handling Fish 

Properly Handling A Trout

As you are learning how to fly fish, you should also learn about how to handle fish.

Setting the hook may be necessary, depending on the species you're targeting. Don't set it too hard, trout mouths are not that strong, and it's possible to pull right through the lips or other soft tissue. For bass and salmon, you can set the hook harder. You'll learn this with time.

Pull the fish in with your rod as you raise it up vertically. As you drop it, crank your fly reel to store the line and then pull up on the fish with your rod again. Do this again and again until you land the fish. When the fish gets close to where you are you can use a small fly fishing net to pull it out of the water. 

If you are fishing just for sport and have no intention of eating the legal-size fish you catch you can catch and release. If you are harvesting the fish to eat, put it on a stringer in the water or bonk it on the head with a rock or bat to kill it quickly and put it on ice immediately for the best result. If the water is cold, you won't need ice!

7. Staying Safe

Fly Fishing In The Winter

Fly fishing isn't a horribly dangerous sport, but things happen. Fast-moving streams, deep holes where you don't expect them, bears, lightning, and other dangers await. Be prepared for anything and if you don't know how to treat snake bites in your area or what to do in a lightning storm, now is the time to find out.

Something that many people don't even consider is the risk of hypothermia. Fly fishing in very cold conditions for long periods can increase your chances of developing hypothermia. It creeps up on you and shock can come on quickly. Wear the right winter fly fishing gear. Wear layers of clothes. Don't wear cotton. Know where the closest clinic or hospital is to your fishing destination.

Wrap Up

Overall, fly fishing is one of the most enjoyable ways to pass your time and catch an amazing-tasting dinner of salmon, trout, bass, or any of another dozen species. Men, women, and children can all enjoy this special sport and there's no excuse for not delving into it if you have the initial desire. You can learn how to fly fish, it isn't going to take you very long at all to get up to speed and catch your first fish with your fly rod.

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Get out there and see what you can catch and let us know how it goes!

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Brian Hopkins

Brian is an outdoor writer and the youngest member of our team, but he is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to fishing and different techniques for catching different species. He shares valuable information that the younger generation can relate to. When he is not fishing, you can find him hanging with his friends and gaming on his computer.

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