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Demystifying Fly Fishing



The Following is an introduction to fly-fishing that I wrote for a Leisure Learning course that I was teaching for McNeese State University.  My hope is that it can be of use to the person just getting their feet wet in fly fishing, so that they may at least have understanding of some of the terms and different types of tackle associated with fly fishing.



Introduction To Fly-Fishing

By Ron Begnaud


Fly-Fishing is one of the fastest growing segments of the sport of angling.  Many people currently pursuing the sport are long time anglers looking for new challenges, while many others are people who had never considered taking up fishing with conventional tackle, but were intrigued by the grace and aesthetic quality of fly -fishing.  Whatever may drive a persons interest in fly-fishing, it is a sport that can offer a lifetime of challenges and rewards.


In this course, you will be introduced to the different items that make up fly-fishing tackle, and hopefully brought to understand the different types of fly fishing tackle used for different applications.  You will also be shown a few basic knots, and given materials with which you can learn how to tie these knots, and their application within different rigging systems.





We will begin with a basic overview of the elements of a fly fishing set up or combo, and then proceed to refine the discussion to the differences in specific tackle designed for different purposes.


Fly -                        A fly is a collection of materials, either natural or synthetic attached to a hook that is cast, lobbed, or thrown at an unsuspecting fish in the na´ve hope that it will be dumb enough  to think it is a natural food item and eat it.  Flies can range from the nearly microscopic gnats and midges often used to attempt to catch picky trout on technical spring creeks, to creations of gargantuan proportions used to pursue blue water fish, that often require an entire generation of chickens and heard of deer to provide materials for. 


                                While many patterns and combinations of materials can fall within the definition of a fly, and indeed there is often much debate as to what actually constitutes a fly, particularly with the recent introduction of many synthetic materials.  One thing  that is always a constant in defining a fly is that it must be castable with a fly rod and line by forming a loop.  When fishing with conventional tackle, the weight of the bait or lure carries the line when cast.  In fly-fishing, the weight of the fly line carries the fly, therefore once a certain weight is exceeded, the line can no longer carry the fly, and it is thus no longer a fly, but a lure. 

                                Flies are produced commercially and can be purchased in shops and on line, however most fly fishermen  eventually begin tying their own flies.  Both because it allows them to more effectively match their local conditions, and because there is a sense of personal satisfaction that comes from catching fish on a fly you made yourself.


Fly Line -               Fly line is a line designed specifically for use on a fly rod.  Since most flys have very little mass or weight of their own, they cannot provide the energy required to produce and effective cast.  To provide the ability to cast a fly, fly line has a considerable mass and weight on its own as compared to standard monofilament or gel spun fishing line. 

                               When you examine a fly line it is obviously much thicker than standard fishing lines.  Most fly lines consist of a core of material such as braided Dacron, or braided monofilament, coated with a pvc type material.  When the coating for a fly line is extruded, it is done with one of several tapers.  The different types of tapers of fly lines are level lines, meaning the line is the same diameter from one end to another, double taper, meaning the fly line tapers to a smaller diameter at each end.  And the most popular and perhaps most useful taper weight forward.  Weight forward lines usually consist of a long fairly narrow diameter section of line that grows thicker toward the last 30 to 40 feet of line towards the end with which you will cast your fly, then tapers down to a finer diameter the last few feet.  Many manufacturers also make species or application specific lines within these types of tapers featuring different core materials that make lines more supple or stiffer, as well as differences as to how much of the weight of the line is carried in which portion of the taper. 

                                In addition to different diameters and tapers, fly lines are made with different characteristics in regard to whether they float or sink, and at what rate they sink. 

                                Something else you will see indicated on a fly line box is the line weight.  Fly lines are assigned weights of 1 up to 15 based on the number of grains the first 30 feet of the casting end of the line weighs.  For almost all purposes the line weight should be matched to a rod designed for that line weight to cast properly.  As important however, line weight, and thus rod weight, needs to be matched to the size of the fly you intend to cast at a given time, as well as to suite casting conditions such as wind.  For example, if you are going to be trout fishing with pretty small flies, a rod weight of 2 to 5 will get the job done in most situations depending on the size of the river, and hence the length of the cast required, as well as wind conditions.  If  you know you will be fishing a particularly large river requiring long cast, you may want to lean to the heavier end of that spectrum.  If you are going to be fishing small creaks, you may wish to lean to the lighter end.  If you were to use a heavy rod, say an 8 weight, for this application, you would not be able to deliver the fly with a particularly delicate presentation , as the heavier line hits the water harder with a larger splash.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you were going to be using large flies for either saltwater species, or say bass, lower line weights would not have the mass to carry that large of a fly, particularly in windy conditions.


Rods                  Rods are generally the most expensive part of a fly fishing outfit, and as such are generally given the most attention.  For most applications the bulk of your budget for a fly fishing set up should be spent on the rod, even if it means getting a reel of somewhat lesser quality.  Fly rods will vary in length from 7' up to 10' or 12' foot spey or 2 handed models.  The most common lengths for fly rods are 81/2' to 9'.  Fly rods will also vary in the number of separate sections of which they are composed for 2 to 4 or even 5 piece models.  Multi piece rods used to be considered a liability because the ferruls where the sections were joined were considered to be weak points in the rod, however modern materials and techniques have eliminated almost all problems with multi piece rods.


                                Fly Rods are rated for a specific line weight they are designed to cast.  On the blank of the rod you may see a designation like 9' 8wt.  This would be a 9 foot rod designed to cast and 8 weight line. 

                               Another consideration in selecting a rod is the rods Action.  Many rod makers will designate a rod as having either a slow, medium, or fast action, or full, mid, or tip flex.  These terms relate to the way the rod bends or flexs when loading under the weight of the line during a cast.  Rods described as Slow or Full Flex bend throughout most of their length during a cast.  Rods designated as Medium or Mid Flex bend roughly halfway down their length during a cast.  Rods designated as Fast Action or Tip Flex will bend only at the tip during the cast.  There are pros and cons to each type of rod action.  Full Flex, or Slow action rods tend to be very forgiving and provide a very delicate presentation and light touch, however they often lack the ability to make long cast, or to deliver bushy flies in the wind.  Medium Action or Mid Flex rods have a little more ability to cast at distance although they can still be stifled by strong winds or particularly heavy flies.  The suffer little in the way of a delicate presentation.  Fast Action or Tip Flex rods are able to develop great line speed and throw tight loops.  Recent studies have shown line and fly speeds approaching 135mph.  They are however a little less forgiving of errors, and don't provide the most subtle presentation.  Which action you choose depends largely on application, and what fits your style.


                                Here is a very general outline of what rod weights and actions you may wish to use for different species and applications.  This is meant only to be a representation of what types of tackle are typically used.  Your casting style and fishing preferences may well lead you to use rod for applications other than as they are listed here.


Species              Line wt        Length     Action


Small Trout and 

Panfish                 -    1 to 4wt              8.5 -9 ft          slow (full flex) to medium (mid flex )    



 Small Stream -        1 to 4wt            8.5 -9 ft     slow (full flex) to medium (mid flex)   

 Larger Streams -    4 to 6wt          8.5 to 9ft*   medium (mid flex) to fast (tip flex)

And Rivers



Largemouth and -    5 to 8 wt          9ft               medium (mid flex) to fast (tip flex)



Redfish/Snook-         6wt to 9wt       9ft               Fast (tip flex)

Bonefish -                   6wt to 8wt       9ft               fast (tip flex)


Speckled Trout:

 Schoolies -                 6 to 8 wt           9ft               fast (tip flex)


Large Specks -            8 or 9wt            9ft               fast(tip flex)

(requiring large flies)           

 Tarpon :

 Juvenile  -                     8 or 9wt            9ft              fast (tip flex)

 Giant -                          10 to 12 wt       9ft               fast (tip flex)


*a longer rod allows an angler to more easily make larger mends often   required on bigger rivers

Reels:                    For most freshwater applications a fly reel is little more than a place to store your fly line.  For many saltwater applications however a reel with a good smooth operating drag is essential for controlling fish on long runs. 

                                Fly reels come in 2 basic designs, direct drive, and anti reverse.  Direct drive reels are most common.   These are reels with the handle mounted directly to the spool that holds the line, so that when you turn the handle one revolution, the spool turns once, so you retrieve line with a 1 to 1 ratio, and when a fish takes line off of the spool, the spool and handle rotate backwards as the line is played out.  Anti reverse model reels can vary in ratio at which they retrieve line.  Some maintain the 1 to 1 ratio, while others are multipliers  rotating the spool at a rate greater than the handle is rotated.  In anti reverse reels, when line is stripped from the spool by a fish, the handle does not rotate.   

                               Reels are now made with many different types and designs of drags, from a simple pawl clicker design, to draw bar disc, offset disc, cone drags, viscosity drags and more.   A drag is an apparatus by which a reel applies various amounts of pressure or tension against a fish in amounts usually determined by the angler.  The drag allows the fish to take line without over running the reel or breaking the line.  The essentials are that you want a drag  that can provide adequate pressure to slow and stop the species of fish you are fishing for, and that has a very smooth start up and operation.   

                               Reels are generally rated by capacity, as being sized for a small range of fly lines, and should balance with the rod you intend to use them with.

Backing:                Backing is simply line that is used to fill  the reel behind the fly line.  Backing is usually a braided material such as Dacron or Spectra.  Backing is generally connected to the butt end of a fly line with a nail knot or loop to loop connection.  Backing also provides additional running line for long running species such as bonefish. 

Leader:                  A leader is a length of clear, tapered monofilament used to serve as a transition from the fly line to the fly that may vary in length from about 6 to 12 feet, with 9 feet being about average.  Leaders can be purchased as tapered leaders  which are continuous lengths of monofilament extruded to taper from a larger diameter butt section, to a fine tip section over its length, and leaders can also be hand tied by joining different lengths of different diameters of monofilament together with knots. 

                                A leader must taper over its length or it will not turn over the fly at the end of the cast.  If you try simply using a level piece of monofilament as a leader, it will more than likely pile up at the end of the cast.  When starting out fly fishing, I strongly recommend buying knotless tapered leaders, and appropriate tippet to attach to the end of it as needed.  As your skills develop, it may be worthwhile to begin tying your own leaders.  A formula for tying leaders is included in the knots section that follows.

Tippet:                   Tippet is the section of the leader that attaches directly to the fly.  There are generally 2 categories of tippet, Class Tippet and Bite or Shock tippet.  Class tippet is defined as the part of the leader with the lightest breaking strength.  Since leaders taper from the heaviest line at the butt section to the lightest line forward, the class tippet is generally at the very front of the leader system.  The exception to this rule is when a Bite or Shock tippet is used.  A bite or shock tippet is a short section of heavy monofilament or light wire between the class tippet and fly that is generally used when pursuing large toothy fish, or strong fish in an environment where there are many objects the tippet may rub against or get broken off on.



System  -    

       While I recommend Knotless tapered leaders when first  learning to fly fish, you may eventually want to start  tying your own leaders, either to customize the lengths and weights, or just to keep cost down.  The basic formula for tying leaders is called the rule of halves.  First, decide what length you want your leader.  For trout in large tail waters you may want a leader as long as 10 or 12 feet, while for some warm water applications, you may only want 6 ft.  A good average length leader for many applications is around  9ft.  Once you have decided on the length of your leader, take a piece of heavy monofilament about half the  length of the total length you want your leader to be for the butt section.  For a saltwater leader that you will use to cast large flies you should probably use line of around 40lb test for the butt section, for a trout leader 25 or 30 pound test should suffice.  You would then take a piece of mono that is a little lighter, and about half as long as the butt section, and attach it to the butt section with a blood knot.  Then take a piece  of mono, still a little lighter and about half the length of the second section, and attach it to the second section with a blood knot.  Then take your class tipped of about a foot and a half to 2 feet long and attach it to the 3rd section with a blood knot


                Using this formula, if you started with a butt section of 4.5  feet of 40 pound test, added a second section of about 2 feet of 30 pound test, then a 3rd section of a foot of 20 pound test, and finally about a foot and a half of 12 to 15 pound test tippet, you would have a good 9 ft leader for inshore saltwater, or bass applications.  Don't worry about being too precise on your measurements, as long as you are in the ball park, your leader should turn over a fly nicely.  





Knots:                   One aspect of fly fishing that tends to intimidate many people are the knots that it is necessary to master in order to fly fish effectively.   Actually with a knowledge of only 3 or 4 simple knots, you can fly fish for virtually any species in almost any environment.  Following are a few knots that are essential.



Nail Knot
The Nail Knot is a knot that every fly fisherman needs to have in his repertoire.  It is essential for connecting leaders to fly line.  The Tube Nail Knot produces the same end result, however most people find it considerably easier to tie with a tube instead of a nail. I find that coffee stirrer straws cut into about 11/2 inch lengths make the perfect tool for this knot.  
Step 1

Put a hollow tube (1 1/2 inch section of coffee stirrer straw works well) against the end of your fly line.  Lay the butt section of your leader and the tube, leaving about a 10 to 12 inch overhang of the tag end of the leader butt.

 Louisiana Fly Fishing Nail Knot 1

Step 2


Hold all 3 pieces together with left thumb and forefinger and make six to 8 close wraps back around the leader, fly line, and tube working left to right.

Pass the tag end of the leader butt through the tube, gently pull the two ends of the leader to snug the coils slightly, remove the tube by sliding it to the left, off of the tag end of leader.

Louisiana Fly Fishing Nail Knot 2

Step 3

Moisten knot with saliva then pull standing and tag ends of leader at the same time to seat knot firmly on fly line.  Trim the tag end close to knot, trim any excess fly line hanging out of knot.

Louisiana Fly Fishing Nail Knot 3

Blood Knot:


The Blood Knot is essential in leader building.  It is a great knot for connecting the different diameter pieces of mono needed to make a tapered leader. The Blood Knot is strong, maintaining nearly all of the lines breaking strength; it's neat, and not too difficult to tie



Step 1

Fly Fishing Louisiana Blood Knot 1

Overlap and cross the ends of the 2 lines to be joined.  Leave yourself fairly long tag ends to work with.  Twist the tag end of one line around the standing end of the other line 5 times, then bring back between the two lines.  Pinch the spot where the tag end is brought back between the two lines to hold everything together.


Now take the other tag end and wrap it 5 times in the opposite direction, and bring back through the same space that the other tag end goes through, but pass through going the opposite direction.


Fly Fishing Louisiana Blood Knot 2


Moisten knot, then slowly pull the standing lines in opposite directions.  Turns will wrap and gather.


Fly Fishing Louisiana Blood Knot 4

Pull tightly, seating knot with your fingernails if necessary.  Clip tag ends close to knot.


The Non Slip Mono Loop, or Kreh Loop Knot



Lefty Kreh is credited with popularizing this knot.  It is strong, and depending on which of the following variations used test at either 90% or 100% of line strength, is easy to tie, and makes a nice open loop.  This is my preferred loop for connecting leader to fly, as the open loop allows for more movement and action of the fly.  In addition to using this loop to tie on a fly, I often use it to create loops in my leader for quick-change loop-to-loop connections.


Step 1

Fly Fishing For Redfish Loop Knot

Begin by making a simple overhand knot in the standing line, then pass the tag end of the line through the eye of the hook.  Pass the tag end back through the overhand knot.  Make sure it goes back through on the same side it came out of the overhand knot. 





Illustration #2

Fly Fishing For Redfish Loop Knot 2

This option produces 100% knot strength and a wider loop



Wrap the tag end around the standing line between 3 to 7 turns as follows.


For 50 or 60 pound line - 3 turns,


For 14 to 40 pound line - 4 turns,


For 8 to 15 pound line - 5 turns,


And for lines less than 8 pound test - 7 turns.


After making the turns around the standing line, insert the tag back through the loop in the overhand knot.  If you pass it through, entering the opposite side of the loop that it exited as in illustration 2, the finished loop knot will be a little wider  and will test at near 100%.  This variation is usually preferred for connecting tippet to fly..


Illustration # 2A

Fly Fishing For Redfish Loop Knot 3

This variation produces a slimmer loop that test at around 90 - 95%

If you pass the tag end through entering the same side of the overhand knot it exited as in illustration 2A, it will produce a knot that test at 90 to 95%, but with a loop that is a little slimmer.  I often like to use this loop in the butt end of may leader a loop to loop connection that is a little slimmer.  Moisten knot and begin tightening by pulling on the tag end.  Once knot begins to tighten grab the standing line in one hand and the hook in the other and pull hard to tighten.  Trim tag end close to knot




Improved Clinch Knot




The Improved Clinch Knot is a reliable, easy to tie knot for tying on your fly.



Step 1

Fly Fishing Louisiana Clinch Knot

Begin by passing the tag end of the line through the hook eye, then wrapping the tag end around the standing line 5 to 7 time depending on line size, the larger the line, the fewer the number of turns.  Once all of the wraps are made pass the tag end through the small loop formed in the line between the hook eye and the first wrap, then pass the tag end through the large loop formed when you went through the small loop.


Fly Fishing Louisiana Clinch Knot 2

Moisten the knot with saliva and tighten by pulling on the standing line and hook.  Trim tag end close to knot




There are 2 ways to achieve a taper in a leader.  One is in the manufacturing process, where a knotless leader is extruded in a taper.  The other is to tie a tapered leader using pieces of monofilament of various thick nesses.  While the knotless tapered leaders you can buy are very convenient, they can be a bit expensive.  They are also not readily available in all sizes in all areas.  Hand tied leaders are inexpensive to make, and can be easily customized both in size and taper to meet specific needs.

While there are specific leader and tippet materials available on the market, I find that regular Ande brand monofilament makes a fine leader at a low cost.

The first step in building a leader is deciding on a length, and also what diameter or class of tippet you want the leader to terminate in.  The tippet is the thinnest and weakest part of the leader, which is at the front end that attaches to the fly.  Leader length is usually determined on fishing conditions.  How spooky are the fish you are pursuing, how clear and or calm is the water, as well as how big are the fly's you plan on throwing.  A shorter leader generally turns over a fly more easily, but offers a less delicate presentation.  Longer leaders offer soft presentations to spooky fish, but can be a little harder to cast with.   The size of your tippet will also depend on what you're fishing for and what fly's you're casting.  Larger diameter tippet turns large flies over more easily than thin tippet.

A good moderate all around length for a leader is 9 ft.  For most inshore saltwater applications tippet of 8 - 15 pound test is usually sufficient.  Lets look at the construction of a 9ft saltwater leader.


When constructing your own leaders, there is a good rule of thumb called "The Rule of Halves".  Which states generally that when building a leader, the butt section should be roughly half the total length of the leader.  The butt section is followed by a second section of line, one step lighter or thinner than the butt section that is roughly one half the length of the butt section. This is then followed with a third section, again one step lighter, and half as long as the second section.  Following the third section you can elect to taper further with a fourth leader section, or you can tie in your tippet of around 16 inches.  The above illustration shows a leader made with three sections and a tippet, which is fine for most inshore saltwater applications.
In some instances, such as situations where a delicate presentation is not required, and you have to turn over large flies, you may build a leader of just a butt section of 3 or 4 feet and a tippet.   On the other hand, when fishing a crystal clear spring creek for spooky trout, you may need an extra long leader of say 13 feet, and add additional sections to the leader.  I find a 9 foot leader of 3 sections and a tippet a good all around leader.
The size lines you construct your leader of depends on where you want to end up with your tippet.  If you are going to be fishing a tippet of 8 - 15 pounds, you probably want to start with a butt section of around 40# test.  If you are going to be fishing 5x tippet for trout, a butt section of 20# test is fine.
The different sections of the leader are joined with a blood knot.  The tippet can be connected to the leader with a blood knot or with loop to loop connections made with a non slip mono loop knot.  The leader is generally connected to the fly line with a tube nail knot or loop to loop connections made with a non slip mono loop knot.




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