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Fly-fishing gear for beginners

Easily and affordably gear up for your first fly-fishing adventures.

Fly-fishing is seeing yet another spike in popularity a generation after the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It popularized the sport seemingly overnight. Baby boomers who remember the movie now have free time in retirement to take up fly-fishing, but they’re joined by members of all generations. Interestingly, women are the fastest growing demographic of new converts to the sport.

With so many options available, shopping for fly-fishing gear can be daunting for first-timers. This guide casts a wide arc over basic gear choices for freshwater fly-fishing, helping you to understand the terminology and new advances in technology.

Best rod, reel and line for beginners

The first items of fly-fishing equipment new anglers typically look for are the rod, reel and line. These can be purchased together as a kit or separately.

Our top picks for beginner rod, reel and line outfits

KitDescriptionAverage pricePurchase
Orvis Encounter 9-foot 5-weight fly rod outfitIncludes a matched fly rod, reel and line, as well as a sturdy storage tube. The large arbor reel is spooled with backing and an Orvis 5-weight, weight-forward line and leader. Ideal for the beginner on a budget fishing small or large streams, lakes and rivers.$169Shop at Orvis
Orvis Clearwater 9-foot 5-weight fly rod outfitIncludes the Clearwater rod, Clearwater II reel, Clearwater fly line and a rod tube. Not just for beginners, this rod can match or exceed the performance of many more expensive options. Comes with the Orvis 25-year guarantee.$336Shop at Orvis

Data obtained September 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

How to select a fly rod

The most popular and available fly rods are made from either graphite, fiberglass or bamboo. While each material has its advantages, experts typically recommended that beginners focus their search on graphite fly rods. Graphite composite rods are strong, lightweight and available in a wide price range, from under $100 to $1,000.

Anglers purchase fly rods based on two major factors that are often expressed together, such as “9-foot 5-weight.” That means that the rod is nine feet long and built to handle a five-weight fly line. The choice in length and line weight depends on the type of waters you plan to fish. Generally speaking, something in the range of 8-foot 4-weight to 9-foot 5-weight works well for a wide range of water environments.

How to select a fly reel

Like fly rods, you’ll find many types, materials and sizes of reels. The most common reel materials are aluminum, graphite and plastic. Aluminum reels can be cast molten aluminum poured into a mold or machined from a single block of aluminum. Machined aluminum reels are generally more expensive, so beginners may want to look for a cast aluminum reel. These come in a wide range of prices and are strong and lightweight.

Fly reel size

Fly reel size refers to the weight of line that it is designed to accommodate. A 9-foot 5-weight rod will require a reel that is built for a 5-weight fly line. Fly reels are designed to hold two or more weights of lines. They are typically expressed as 2/3 weight, 4/5 weight, 6/7 weight and so forth. The reel selected must be specifically designed for the line weight indicated on the fly rod that it’s paired with.

The arbor

The arbor of a reel is the center spool that holds the fly line. Fly reels are designed with standard, mid or large arbors. Large arbors are more popular, but any size arbor will work. Standard arbor reels are smaller in overall size. Large arbor reels are bigger and spool the line faster, with fewer coils than a standard arbor reel. Regardless of the reel and arbor size, make sure that the reel you select fits easily into the reel seat of your fly rod. Reel seats tend to be a standard size, but it’s best to double-check.

The reel drag system

The reel drag system is the mechanical apparatus used to adjust the amount of tension on the fly line as it’s pulled from the reel. The potential strength of the targeted fish species and the amount of open water that the fish has to use to escape after being hooked determine the amount of tension you’ll need. Drag systems also serve to prevent backlash caused by the reel’s over-spinning as fly line is stripped out.

The two basic types of drag systems are the click-and-pawl and the disc-drag systems. Reels with the disc-drag system are preferred and have become more commonplace. The price of disc-drag reels is decreasing as new designs and technology have simplified the manufacturing process. Although nothing is wrong with the click-and-pawl reels, especially for freshwater fishing, the disc-drag system offers more drag and is often quieter.

How to select fly line

The fly line you choose needs to be matched to both your rod and reel. In spin or bait fishing, the weight of the lure and sinker propel the line to the water. In fly-fishing, the weight of the fly line and the spring effect of the rod propel the fly forward as the line’s “unloaded” during your cast.

Fly line is designated by weight, which needs to be matched to the weight designation of the rod. For example, a 9-foot 5-weight rod requires a 5-weight fly line.

Line types

You’ll need to choose from many types and styles of fly lines: floating line, sinking line, level line, double-tapered line, weight-forward line, salt line and more. For most beginners who fish inland freshwater for trout or bass, experts recommend floating line. This line is designed to float, although the addition of split-shot sinkers and other added weight will make the line sink. Sinking line is designed to sink without the addition of added weight.

Colors and backing

Fly line color options range from white to olive to fluorescent and many more. Fluorescent yellow or orange line can be helpful for beginners, but some fly anglers believe that the bright colors spook the fish.

Fly line backing is braided nylon that’s much thinner than fly line. Its purpose is to add another 80 to 120 yards of line on the reel before the fly line is attached, in case a fish “runs” a great distance after being hooked.

Best waders and wading boots for beginners

While inexpensive hip boots are available, breathable waders and wading boots offer improved comfort, safety and versatility compared to the old hip boot design.

Breathable waders are constructed of layers of special fabrics that prevent water from penetrating the exterior of the wader, while allowing sweat to exit from the inside out. Most anglers prefer “stockingfoot” waders, which require the separate purchase of wading boots. “Boot foot” breathable waders, with the boots attached, are also available.

Boot foot waders

Boot foot waders are best for surf fishing, as they keep salt, sand and other debris out of the boots. But stockingfoot waders with separate wading boots are much more popular and comfortable. If you plan to fish primarily in cold weather situations, such as for steelhead, Neoprene waders can be a good option. But wearing a good pair of fleece socks and pants underneath breathable waders will keep you warm in all but extremely cold weather.

Wading boots

As for wading boots, your main options include felt or rubber soles, studded or nonstudded soles, laced or Boa closure systems and heavy or lightweight construction. Whatever brand and style you choose, purchase the boot a full size larger than your regular shoe size. All stockingfoot waders come with attached neoprene booties that add a least one size to your foot. Wading boots that are too small are painful and will force a hasty end to your fishing.

Take a look at our fly-fishing wader guide and best wading boots guide for more information and options.

Our top picks for beginner waders

WadersDescriptionAverage pricePurchase
Redington Crosswater stocking foot waderA budget-friendly option for beginners. Made with a three-layer breathable fabric that’s both stitched and taped to keep you dry. Includes a wading belt, inside flip-out pocket, gravel guards and neoprene booties.$115Shop at Amazon
L.L. Bean Breathable Emerger wadersConstructed of lightweight, durable, four-layer breathable material with Super Seam technology. Appropriate for beginners and experienced anglers alike. It includes the quick-fit wading belt, gravel guards and neoprene booties. Available in both waist-high and chest-high styles.$159Shop at L.L. Bean

Data obtained September 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

Our top picks for beginner wading boots

Wading bootsDescriptionAverage pricePurchase
Simms Tributary rubber sole wading bootAn entry-level boot that gets the job done, holds up well and is affordably priced. This boot pairs well with either of the above wader choices. Nonslip cleats can be easily added and are recommended for added traction.$100Shop at Amazon
Simms Freestone rubber sole wading bootA step up from the Tributary model, this pair is more durable and comfortable. The addition of nonslip cleats is recommended.$160Shop at Amazon

Data obtained September 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

Best fishing vests, packs and rain jackets for beginners

Fishing vests and fishing packs are designed to keep gear organized and within reach while you’re on the water. The choices are endless and a matter of personal preference.

Vests are typically more lightweight than packs and have multiple pockets in front for things like tippet, fly boxes, fly floatant, split-shot and more. Most designs incorporate at least one large pocket in the back to stow a rain jacket, lunch and other larger items. Fishing packs come in a variety of designs including vest packs, sling packs, waist packs and backpacks. Learn more in our guide on the best fly-fishing vests.

Rain jackets are a must for fly-fishing. You don’t want to have to give up your favorite spot or position on a crowded stream because you left your rain jacket in your vehicle. Carry a rain jacket made of breathable material while on the stream to protect you against an unexpected storm.

Our top picks for fishing vests, packs and jackets

KitDescriptionAverage pricePurchase
Orvis Clearwater fishing vestThis updated version of the classic fishing vest has 12 pockets, including a larger rear pocket with a horizontal zipper, mini D-rings on the front, a rear tri-ring net attachment, a soft nylon-knit collar and a built-in fly patch. Made of a polyester-cotton blend material.$69Shop at Orvis
Patagonia Vest Front Sling 8LOffers the best of the traditional fishing vest and a minimalist sling pack with an eight-liter capacity. The front holds the basics for fly-fishing, while the rear pack is designed to easily swing around to the front to provide access to larger items. Constructed of nylon and polyester with a durable water-repellent finish.$99Shop at Patagonia
Cabela’s Space Rain 4Most Dry-Plus full-zip jacketA breathable rain jacket that’s 100% waterproof and packs down easily inside a fishing vest. Constructed with a four-way stretch design for added mobility.$90Shop at Orvis

Data obtained September 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

Bottom line

Fly anglers have more equipment and apparel options than ever, which can be daunting for beginner water whippers. With our guide under your belt, you can more easily navigate the maze of options and zero in on affordable, yet durable products.

How we chose these products

We narrowed down fly-fishing products that offer a balance of affordability and durability in each category, taking our own personal experiences and third-party online reviews into account.

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