How to Get Started Fly Fishing: Living the Dream

Want to get started fly fishing? You’re not alone. A few friends and acquaintances have asked me to take them fly fishing for trout over the years. Mind you, these are folks with no fly fishing experience. None. Nada. And probably no experience with the spin rod, either. I didn’t know what to say in those cases. The logistics of getting them fly fishing seemed insurmountable, as it all ran through my mind.

That said, learning to fly fish isn’t that hard. You just need to prepare yourself to fly fish. But how on earth does one do that? Well, you start with learning and knowledge, first. Equipment. Second. But most importantly, fly fishing should be in your heart. Don’t worry I’ll explain that part in a bit, but first I cover the basics.

First Lesson: Fly Fishing Blogs, Books, and Videos

I first learned a bit about fly fishing by buying a book on the subject. Fly Fishing Equipment and Techniques, by Jeannot Ruel, a book that’s surely outdated by now. Still, you can always find other books on how to fly fish or just visit the appropriate blogs, like mine, to learn all about the art of fly fishing. Anyway, I read the book and learned a lot from it. Enjoyed every page.

Lesson Two: Rigging the Fly Rod & Reel the Hard Way

I got started fly fishing by buying a cheap starter fly rod / reel kit from some retail outlet for $40. But the fly line it came with was total junk. Even I knew that, so I bought some good stuff. By good stuff, I mean I bought the very best fly line that I could find at the retail outlet. Then, using the book above as a reference, I rigged up my fly rod.

The hardest part was tying the leader–with a nail knot–to the fly line. Tying the backing to the reel is just a simple uni knot. Tying your backing to the fly line used to require a nail knot, but that’s easy with the soft and flexible backing. But tying a nail knot with the stiff 20-30# monofilament leader line to the fly line. Yeah, that’s a pain in the rear, especially if you don’t have a proper nail knot tool. Even if you do, it can still be a challenge, sometimes.

Easy Way: Loop to Loop Leader to Fly Line

Lucky you, though, because modern fly lines come out of the box with a factory loop and most of your leaders will as well. So you don’t have to learn the art of the nail knot. Instead, you’ll just loop the two loops together (that’s the leader to the fly line). Presto, you’re good to go. Easy as that. Believe me, a child can do this. That said, this is not the way I attach my leader to my fly line. It’s just the easiest way to do it.

Instead, I actually build my own leaders, starting with a nail knot tied and glued to the fly line, as shown below. Please note, the backing is the yellowish-colored line shown in the inner core of the reel below. And to recap, the backing first gets tied to the reel with a uni knot, then you reel up a large amount of backing onto your reel. Then, you attach the reel end of the fly line to the backing with either a uni knot or a nail knot. And finally, you can easily attach your leader to the fly line with the loop to loop connection.

Nail knots tied to 4 and 5 weight fly lines. Lightly glued knots drying in sun.

The Fly Rod, Reel, Fly Line, Backing, and Fly Shops

By the way, if you want to get started right for trout, I’d recommend buying an 8′ to 9′ 5-weight rod, with matching reel, and matching WF (weight forward) floating fly line. And no, you don’t have to spend a lot if you’re just getting started. Also, you could just visit your local fly shop to buy these items and most shops will actually rig the whole outfit up for you, which would be the EASIEST way of all to do it. And there’s no shame in that!

Fly Fishing: The One Knot You Don’t Tie.

I should also mention the most important knot of all concerning the fly fishing life. It’s the one knot you may not want to tie. Ever. The hitch. And it’s called tying the knot, or getting hitched. This is currently the weakest knot of all, having a failure rate of around 50%, and beyond. And it causes catastrophic losses of all that you’ve worked so hard for in life and to catch.

So remember this:
If you really wanna fish, never get hitched, men. I’m sure you’ll catch my drift here.
Leads to peace of mind too, which you probably won’t get if you tie the knot.

Truthfully, tying the knot can be a curse. I mean, I’ve seen guys, who’ve tied it, lose their catch–their whole life’s work–in an instant. And, as a result, sometimes they stumble and fall into treacherous currents. Some have even lost their lives after taking the plunge.

But to each his own. No doubt, I should risk everything on another person’s whim and caprice. Their oath that this bond won’t fail, when it has been proven to come undone time and time again.

Lesson Three: Fly Fish the Local Pond.

I didn’t just go straight out and start fly fishing for trout. I went to the local pond and practiced casting a small popper for sunfish. Believe it or not, there’s a hidden pond in Arlington, VA.

Had a blast there, practicing my cast. There’s also some bass in that pond. Yes, I did land a bunch of blue gills and sunfish that first day.

Now I was ready for bigger and better things for sure. Just not trout, yet.

Lesson Four: Other Essential Fly Fishing Gear

In addition, to your fly rod, fly fishing reel, backing, fly line, and leader. You’re going to need, at least, all of the items that I’ve succinctly listed below. However, if you’d like to see a full and complete list of ALL the essential fly fishing gear and apparel that you’ll really need to start fly fishing, please read my article about How To Get A Free Fly Fishing Lesson.

fishing license
forceps (helps to remove the hook)
a fly box
a few flies
polarized sunglasses
Some kind of shirt with big pockets. And a fly fishing vest wouldn’t hurt, either. If you can’t wait for summer, then you’ll need to invest in some wading boots and waders, as well.

Lesson Five: The Two Most Essential Fly Fishing Knots

So far, I’ve mentioned two knots. The nail knot. The uni knot. You’ll also need to know the blood knot to tie the tippet to the leader as you switch flies and continuously trim more line from your leader. But truthfully, I bet you could get away with just knowing the uni knot and blood knot. Those are, in fact, the two knots that I use almost all of the time. Therefore, I’ve embedded videos describing how to tie both below:

Now just imagine how hard it would’ve been to learn all of this before streaming videos became commonplace on the internet. Why, you’d have to rely on a diagram in a book. Incidentally, since I learned, but hadn’t memorized these knots, I bought a cheap pocket set of knot instruction cards and stuck them inside my fly fishing vest. Now I was ready to take on some bigger fish.

Lesson Six: Take it to the River.

It was a beautiful day in May, I believe. I’d arrived at Cedar Creek in Virginia near its confluence with the Shenandoah River. Parked my truck. Opened the cap. Inside of it was my trusty old spin rod. But alongside of it was my new el cheapo fly rod, which I prized above all other things in life.

I was at the crossroads in life. I knew I could catch fish with that old spin rod. It was a real dandy. All I’d have to do was deftly cast those smoke gray grubs on 1/16 ounce jig heads. Reel them in slowly. And I was sure I’d reel in one fish after another all day long. No way that I’d ever catch more fish with an awkward fly rod. But for some reason, I reached for my fly rod. Tied on a huge hellgrammite pattern that I’d bought from Bass Pro. Then, I locked the truck and stepped into the creek for my first real wet wading experience with my fly rod.

Fish came out of the shadows, and the depths.

What happened after that still surprises me to this day. Because not only did I have a stellar day of fly fishing. But I never picked up that spin rod ever again. And why would I? When every cast that day just seemed to yield yet another beautiful smallmouth bass. Truly, I could do no wrong that day. The river and it’s fish came alive for me that day. Fish came out of the shadows, and the depths. From underneath the overhanging branches and brush. Rushing through the water, like mini torpedoes, in hot pursuit of my fly.

Once hooked, they exploded out of the water, dazzling me with their aerial displays. And each one, I’d bring to hand, unhook, and then carefully release back into the creek. But it was me who was being hooked. I almost felt like I’d become a real expert caster, like Lefty, Humphreys, or Rajeff. When, in fact, I was just a beginner with some serious beginner’s luck. And some very hungry fish, which put on a show for me that day…

So now that I was hooked, I planned to spend the rest of this summer fly fishing for smallmouth bass. And many more, for that matter. But I still had one more kind of fish to catch to complete my transition in life. To become a fly fisherman for all time. And here’s how I did that.

Lesson 7: Wilderness Fly Fishing

So I used to spin fish a lot with a great friend of mine from college. We’d steal off after classes on Fridays to the Shenandoah River in search of smallmouth bass. And man, we’d slam those fish, too. Then, head back to JMU for a night of boozing with our crew.

Plan Your Fly Fishing Trip

It just so happened that he’d begun picking up the fly rod around the very same time that I did a few years after college. So we got to talking about doing a trout fishing expedition, since neither him, nor I, had yet to land a trout. As former Boy Scouts, we didn’t just want to go anywhere in search of our first trout. We both wanted to explore the very best wilderness area that we could find. That way, we just might catch a trout in a pure and unspoiled natural setting. Strangely enough, we’d both heard about a certain wilderness area in West Virginia that could deliver just such an experience and wild trout. So that’s where we decided that we’d go to backpack and camp for a few days in search of trout.

Sadly though, my friend was unable to make it and had to cancel at some point. I don’t remember why. I just remember saying to myself. Hell, just go by yourself. And that’s what I did.

Don’t Be Afraid to Go it Alone

So I drove six hours from my home. Parked my truck on a lonely gravel road in the woods. Put on my backpack, which dug so painfully into my shoulders that I still feel the ache to this day. Then, I started hiking into the woods late in the day.

Truck with backpack on open tailgate parked at trailhead.
Parked my truck on a lonely gravel road in the woods.

No, I didn’t know the area. Didn’t know the trails. Fortunately, I found one along the stream. And eventually, found my way to an old campsite along the stream. In the dying light of the day, I set up camp, ate dinner, then crawled into my tent, terrified to be alone in the wilderness. And no, I didn’t get much sleep that night and was grateful when the black of the night slowly turned to a dull gray in the earliest hours of the morning. Then, at last, I got some precious sleep.

An old campsite near the stream is shown, after backpacking tent has been pitched.
Found my way to an old campsite along the stream. Set up camp.

In Search of a Sacred Spring

A few hours later, I sat at my camp eating breakfast, marveling at the wilderness around me. And then, I went off in search of a spring. You see, I’d forgotten my water treatment pills and now I was out of water. But something told me that somewhere along this wilderness stream I’d find a pure spring.

Blog author pictured standing in front of scenic wilderness stream, as he searches for a spring.
I went off in search of a spring.

And I did, in fact, find a spring at a big outcropping beside the stream about a mile away. Underneath that outcropping, there was a spring of fresh water that poured from the rocks. No doubt, these were pure and unspoiled waters, as the springs must’ve been cleansed, as they made their way through the soil and rocks above. I placed my empty water bottles underneath the springs to fill them.

Fresh natural spring water pours from moss covered rocks in a Virginia wilderness area.
Underneath that outcropping there was a spring of fresh water that poured from the rocks.

Turning my attention to the stream behind me, I gazed down at the clear waters. My eyes searched the surface. Suddenly, there was the rise of a fish. And not just any fish. Why, that must’ve been a trout. I was sure of it. My heart beat insane. I couldn’t wait for those water bottles to fill. And when they did, I just rushed back to my camp and rigged up my fly rod. Then I hurried back to the spring. Fly rod in hand.

Now I stood beside the spring again. My eyes scanning the water. And by God, I could see a few fish in the pool. So I cast to them. But I hadn’t pulled out enough line. My cast fell short. Son of a gun. I pulled out more line. But when I backcasted, my line snagged the brush behind me. In frustration, I moved too quickly. And watched in horror as those fish fled, disappearing into the deeper, darker waters.

Don’t give up, I told myself in despair.

Don’t Give Up

But for the rest of the day, that was just my luck.

It seemed that every time that I’d spot some fish in a promising pool. Whenever I’d get close enough to cast to them, the fish would somehow see me and scatter, like leaves in the wind.

But I wasn’t giving up. I kept going. Because I was in the zone. Alone in the wilderness. Walking through God’s country. Seeing tranquility and beauty all around me. It’s difficult to describe the purity of this stream. All I can say was that I’d found a Garden of Eden. A real paradise in the woods. A place that put my mind and heart at ease. To the point, where I was only awareness. Of the stunning surroundings. The stream. The sound of the flowing water seemed to engulf all of me. The birds singing in the trees. The mountains. The sun. And still, those cunning trout eluded me. All day long…

A wilderness stream shown from the perspective of the author walking alone.
Alone in the wilderness. Walking through God’s country.

And then, I found myself back at camp near the end of the day eating a hot dog alone. Then another one. And my last one. My eyes turned upwards. Staring at the sky, I realized that I’d been defeated by those trout today. My God, I thought, was it really possible that I’d drove all this way, hiked into the deepest wilderness area in West Virginia, only to leave without even landing a single fish? Just didn’t seem right.

But then, I thought, why don’t you go upstream? I seemed to recall there was a nice pool beside a field, as I was hiking in yesterday. So I set off to find it in the last hours of the day.

Stunning blue skies, trout stream, and a backdrop of mountain are depicted in this photo.
A trout pool beside a field was found just upstream of here.

Approach a Pool With Stealth and Slowly

And once I arrived there, this time, instead of walking right up to the pool and trying to cast to those fish, which I already knew would flee at the slightest movement from me. This time, I crawled through those tall grasses in the field right to the head of the pool. Then, I poised myself on my knees. Already, I could see those trout rising in the riffles. My heart pounded wildly in my chest.

Cast Upstream of the Trout, Softly

Don’t screw this one up, I told myself, knowing that if I did cast too close to those fish that they’d flee in terror from the disturbance. So, I cast upstream a bit into the very start of that pool, putting a bit of slack into my line and leader, not by accident. Failure makes you learn quick. Then, I watched my Adams fly slowly bob, high and proud, through those riffles. The anticipation was killing me.

Be Ready for the Rise and Set the Hook

Suddenly, I saw a fish rise toward my fly! And a quick splash, as my fly was engulfed underneath the surface of those silver waters. I gasped, but my hook set was swift. Then it was on. The fight. Was an unforgettable one. And soon I landed the fish. A trout. A bona fide wild trout.

I had it in hand and was sure of it. I just didn’t know which kind. I’d seen pictures of rainbow and brown trout in my book, but never a fish that looked like this. Greenish in color. Orange belly. Yellow and raspberry spots on its flanks. A beautiful fish. Shining. Stunning. Like jewels. Stars. Or precious stones. Only a wilderness as pure and natural as this could produce such an amazing fish. A wild trout. In the wild. In the dying light of the day. My first trout ever! On the fly rod!

A beautiful wild brook trout is shown in picture. Blog author, blue sky, trees, and wilderness stream are in the background.
My first trout ever! Looked like this.

Fly Fishing: Living the Dream

I’d waited all summer for this. Maybe all my life. Carefully, I eased the trout back into the water. Felt its tiny heart fluttering in my grasp. In the current, I held it as it recovered. Then I let it go. Back to its home.

Standing up in the field now, I saw the world turning gray in the last light of the day. My breath was visible. The field cooling with the coming of the night.

Still in awe, I waded through the field back to the trail. I could barely see the whole way back to camp. I never stumbled, though. Felt like I was walking above the earth the whole time.

My mind did not wander. It stayed on that moment. The rise. The set. The fight. My first trout in hand. Sublime.

And back at camp, I sat down on the log in front of the fire ring. The sounds of the stream drowned out all else. The coals from my fire still glowed. And in the sky, I saw the light of a thousand stars.

I focused on those glowing embers again until I drifted off a bit. Then, at last, I crawled into my tent. Feeling nothing, but happiness and peace, as I drifted off to sleep. Dreaming. Living the dream.

Lesson 8: Still Want to go Fly Fishing? Getting Started.

So now we come back to where it all started with a few friends and acquaintances asking me to take them fly fishing. You know what? I’m always on a river or stream these days. Whether I’m at home writing these fly fishing articles or on the river actually fishing. It’s in my blood. Always will be, too.

So if you want to go fly fishing, all you gotta do is get that fly rod rigged up, get your fly fishing gear together, and get yourself ready to go. Then, you gotta really want it enough to do it on your own. Now, you just gotta show up at the river. And there, on the river, you might actually be able to get yourself a FREE fly fishing lesson, as I explain here. And finally, you can be sure that you’ll find me there, too. On the river, still living that beautiful dream that started so many years ago…


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After a long career in the publishing industry, Gary Alan left his corporate job to pursue his next adventures in life as a blogger, writer, investor, fly fisherman, hiker, and traveler. He is the author of the adventure fiction book, 'Big Thunder-Hearted River'.