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Keen to start Fly Fishing? But not sure how.

As with most sports, beginners often face challenges when starting out and fly fishing is no different. These challenges can mostly be handled with a little guidance and a simple answer to a question to get them started.

As a Provincial fly fishing body one of our main responsibilities is to promote the growth of our sport. Growth comes in many different forms, but we believe the most important one is the development of the individual. Education is and always will be the key factor. We are fortunate to have many very experienced anglers that represent the province, who openly share their knowledge and skills with the future talent. Our goal is to provide an environment that promotes the growth of individuals, regardless of what their skill level may be.

The purpose of this article is to provide beginners who are keen to start fly fishing with a simple and effective approach to help get them going. This is the first in a series of articles that is aimed at starting the right way.

When we facilitate clinics, one of the most common sets of questions that we always get asked revolves around what equipment to purchase. It can be quite overwhelming where to start and sometimes the perception that surrounds the sport of it being elitist and very expensive can often put people off before they even get going.

Over time as you develop, you will understand what is meant by the term ‘premium equipment’, but to get started let’s use an analogy and compare the purchase of buying fly fishing equipment to buying a car. A vehicle is designed to get you from one place to another. Some people choose a top of the range SUV, whilst others may prefer a vehicle that is fuel efficient. There are many factors that people take into consideration when making a purchase, but in simple terms, you buy a vehicle for a specific purpose that matches your needs and budget. Fly fishing is no different and once you understand that you choose your equipment with a specific purpose in mind and then match it as closely to your budget as possible, the decision making process becomes much easier. It can be expensive but this should not put you off as a beginner as there are reasonably priced alternatives available to get you up and running and with good guidance you will find it easy to make the right choices.

Whether you are interested in joining the competitive scene or just keen to fly fish socially, you need to ask yourself a few questions to get going. The answers to these questions will help you to determine what sort of equipment you should be looking at purchasing. The first element is to determine what type of species you would like to target and then identify the type of environment where you will be spending most of your time fly fishing. For example, if you live at the coast and will be spending most of your time fishing in the surf for large species, it would be inappropriate for you to purchase a lightweight freshwater outfit. This sounds rather ridiculous, but on more than one occasion we have seen people arrive at a trout dam with equipment that is designed for saltwater use.

For the purpose of getting started and as an inland provincial body, we are going to focus predominantly on freshwater fly fishing and break it down into two key areas, ‘still-waters’ and ‘rivers’. In future articles we will unpack the more technical aspects of equipment needed for each environment, but for now let’s just look at the basics.

Xplorer Guide 2 Fly Rod

Choosing the correct fly rod:

A fly rod’s primary function is to energise the fly line during the cast and inevitably propel a ‘weight less’ fly to the target. Secondly it is designed to absorb the pressure on the line when you are ‘fighting’ a fish.

All fly rods are classified into different weights and are rated by the American Tackle Manufacturers Association or AFTMA. When purchasing a fly rod it is essential to understand the weight rating scale and to try to match it as closely as you can with the environment and context you are going to be fishing in. Fly rods are made and rated on a scale of 0 to 15, with a 0 weight being ultra light and a 15 weight built for handling larger deep sea fish species like sailfish, wahoo and marlin.

To help simplify this for you we are going to look at a few different scenarios. If you fancy small stream fishing, you should be using a lighter rod. A 2 to 3 weight fly rod would be ideal for this. For larger rivers and still-waters you should use anything from a 4 to 7 weight and if you are keen on targeting some of the larger species like barbel or tiger fish an 8 to 9 weight is a necessity. If you think about it logically factors like the size of fly you are fishing, the size of the fish you want to catch and different environmental factors all play a role in this decision.

So, depending on your needs you may have a few different rods in your collection to refine your approach in a specific environment. However, to start off it is possible to purchase one fly rod that can cover most scenarios. In this instance, we recommend a 5 weight as a perfect “all rounder”. You will be able to target both trout and yellow fish in most environments with this rod.

You are probably thinking, “Great, I have all the information that I require now, but where do I find the AFTMA number?” It is quite simple, if you look above the handle, you will see a number printed or painted onto the rod. An example could be the number 9054. This number indicates the length of the rod, it’s weight and how many pieces it can be broken down into for travel and storage. The example above would indicate that the rod is 9’0 foot in length, it is a 5 weight and is made up of 4 pieces. Different manufactures may make slight variations to how they display these numbers, and if you are not 100 percent sure about it, don’t hesitate to ask the store owner for guidance.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, the length of the fly rod, its taper and its action also play an important role when choosing a fly rod. Technology is changing rapidly and so are techniques and this can cause it to become a little complicated. However, this is where we can help you and once again, if you go back to the earlier principle of choosing the correct rod for the environment and type of fish you are targeting, you are already more than halfway there!

Choosing the correct fly reel:

It is quite surprising that in most freshwater situations the fly reel’s function is of less importance than it is in conventional fishing situations like when you are spinning for bass or tiger fish. If you are purchasing your first outfit the reel is a part of your equipment where you can save costs if you know what to look for. When fishing in the freshwater environment the reel is in most cases only used to store the fly line. However, the one key factor that you should look out for is the quality of the drag system within the reel. The drag system is important as it provides tension on the spool and prevents it from spinning freely. A good drag system is defined by two elements. Firstly, it needs to have the ability to be set accurately to make minor tension adjustments and secondly it needs to turn smoothly under this tension. This is critically important as a smooth drag that is set correctly will help you to protect a light weight tippet. We will discuss technique in future articles about when you should ideally use the reel or your line hand to retrieve the line, but for now keep an eye out for a reel with a decent drag system.

Like the fly rod, the fly reel also comes in different sizes and weights to match the outfit. In most cases your goal is to try to match the fly reel to the rod. For example, a 5/6 weight reel should be matched with a 5 or a 6 weight fly rod. This inevitably helps you to balance the fly rod, which in itself also provides a number of benefits. However, the most important one at this stage is the comfort and feel provided by a balanced outfit.

Most of the newer fly reel models are designed with large arbors. The term arbor refers to the diameter of the spool which holds the fly line. The benefit of this is that the newer models can retrieve the line faster than the older models can when fighting fish if you use the reel during the fight. Another factor is that the fly line is less likely to have ‘memory’ or coils in it if it is wound around a larger diameter. Memory is a common occurrence in fly lines that are wound around reels with small and occasionally mid arbors and it can affect your casting.

One of the ways to combat this is to add backing to the reel. This is done before attaching the fly line to it. Backing has three purposes, with the first being to build up the diameter of the arbor of the fly reel, secondly to help balance the fly rod and finally to provide some form of security when a large fish takes a lot of line when it runs. For freshwater fishing when targeting trout and yellow fish you will need to have about 50 meters of backing on the reel, whilst for tiger fish and saltwater species you may need to have as much as 250 meters of backing.

Choosing the correct fly line:

The fly line is one of the most advanced types of fishing line that you can get. We recommended that where you could potentially save money on a fly reel, you should be prepared to invest a little more into buying a quality fly line. The fly line is designed to load the fly rod, which will assist you to cast a fly that is relatively light, often “weightless” far enough away from you so that you can catch a fish.

When fly fishing we don’t use any official weights or sinkers to assist our cast. This is probably the most significant difference between fly fishing and conventional fishing equipment and it shows in the way that we can catch a fish by presenting a fly close to it without it being scared or swimming off.

There are plenty of different types of fly line designs available, but there are three major ones to look out for. The two types that we recommend are the Double Taper and the Weight Forward. Both of these fly lines have been designed to taper from thin to thick and back to thin in a way that places the “weight” or substance of the fly line tactically to perform specific functions and help load the rod. They are slightly different though based on their taper design. A weight forward line has more of the weight placed towards the ‘head’ or fly end of the fly line, whereas a double taper line has its weight spread evenly across the main body of the fly line. Weight forward lines load the rod more easily than double tapered lines do and therefore assist the angler to turn over heavier flies and cast further. This is ideal in some situations but could also be a hindrance in others like when you are targeting ‘spooky’ fish. In this case a double taper line would be more suitable as it presents the fly and line more delicately and therefore is suited to situations where subtle presentation is key.

The third fly line is called a level line. We wouldn’t recommend purchasing one of these fly lines at this stage as it has no taper. The line is the same thickness from start to finish. These fly lines do have specific applications, but at this stage it is not necessary to explore them. So, in summary with regards to taper, it is recommended that when starting out, you should purchase a weight forward fly line instead of a double tapered version. This will make casting easier and as you develop you can add different fly lines to your collection to perform different functions.

In addition to the fly line’s taper, we usually recommend that new fly fishermen purchase a floating line as their first line. The reason for this is quite simple. A floating line is less dense than an intermediate or sinking line. This means that the line is a little thicker and tends to load the rod a little more easily. The second factor revolves around the colour of the fly line as most fly line manufacturers make floating lines in bright colours that are easy to see. Colours like orange, yellow, and peach are quite common and will assist you to see the fly line when you are casting. In addition to making casting a little easier, the final reason is that a floating line is very diverse, and you can fish it in almost every setting. By changing the length of your leader and the type of fly, you can cover the different parts of the water column effectively.

Like the fly rod, it is important for you to be able to identify which line you are looking at when you pick up a box in the store. If a box says WF5S it indicates that line in the box is a weight forward, 5 weight, sinking fly line. If it says DT3F it indicates that the line is a double taper, 3 weight, floating line. Weight forward and double tapered fly lines are priced in the range of R500.00 to R2000.00 for the line. If you see a fly line that is selling for less than this be careful, this may be false economy and it is probably a level line. Remember our theory for freshwater fishing is to spend a little more on your line and the fly rod and save a little on your reel.

The leader and tippet:

With all the information we have just touched on when looking at fly lines, you may be thinking that if fly line is thicker than normal fishing line and it is bright in colour, how do I manage to convince a fish to bite the fly tied onto the end of the fly line? The simple answer is, you can’t.

To make this possible, we use a leader which we attach to the end of the fly line. The leader is very similar to normal conventional fishing line. Leader design is a little technical and can be very tactical. It is possible to adjust certain elements of it to improve your presentation. However, at this stage, there is no need to go into that now. In most still water scenarios, it is recommended that your leader should be about 9 feet in length and tapers from thick to thin. This taper helps to transfer energy from the fly line, down the leader towards the fly to help you when casting. This applies to fishing with floating and sinking lines in still waters and when fishing dry flies in river scenarios too. However, when nymphing in rivers a tapered leader can be counterproductive and fishing a leader without a taper can really improve success.

From a practical perspective it can be difficult as a new fly fisherman to present a long leader effectively and we sometimes recommend that you shorten the leader slightly to achieve a better presentation of the fly. Trim off a bit of the line from the thicker ‘butt’ end of the leader before tying it back onto the fly line. With a bit of practice, your casting will improve and then you can increase the length of your leader.

During a day’s fishing you are likely to make a number of fly changes. Each time you change your fly the thin end of the leader becomes shorter until it starts to get to the point where the taper becomes too thick. When this happens, you need to add a length of tippet to the thin end of the leader.

Leader and tippet material are graded on a scale of 0X to 8X. 0X has the thickest diameter and a high breaking strain, whilst 8X has a thin diameter and can break quite easily. Be careful though as some manufactures mislead the angler by marking their spools of tippet with an incorrect X rating. Use the X rating as a guideline but rather compare the thickness of the diameter of the tippet with its strength rating. This will provide a more accurate reflection.

A tip that we recommend when choosing the right size leader is to divide the size of the fly that you are going to be fishing with by 4. This will give an approximate idea to what thickness you should choose. In simple terms if I am going to fish a size 12 fly, I would divide the size of the hook by 4 and choose a 3X leader and tippet setup. This principle is not cast in stone and should be used only as a guideline.

Finally, you will notice that you get two types of tippet. Fluorocarbon and monofilament. Both have pro’s and cons in different fishing scenarios and come with different price tags. To start off, all you need is a descent spool of monofilament tippet. It is a little more cost effective than fluorocarbon and at this stage will do the job perfectly.


So, in summary, it really can be quite overwhelming when choosing your first set of equipment. I hope that this article has simplified your thought process and given you a little more insight into the basic factors that you need to consider. If you are still a little uncertain, don’t hesitate to chat with us and we will gladly help you to make the best choice for your current situation.

South Africa has so many amazing places to fish, and by starting the right way you will enjoy your time on the water even more. At the end of the day, just being out in nature is what really counts. Enjoy every second of it! Tight lines.

Written by Chris Tough, Gauteng North Fly Fishing Association

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