Fly Fishing Gear: 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff

This post may contain affiliate links which help support the blog at no cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

So you want to get into fly fishing. Of course you do! Who wouldn’t? It’s a great sport, and those guys on TV look so cool casting, and they catch so many fish. I know, it’s not about the image, it’s just something you’ve always wanted to do.

You’ll need some fly fishing gear. The first logical step is to get a rod and reel. You could find grandpa’s old setup and call it “good enough.”  Or you could head for the nearest sports store to buy one. It’s more fun to go shopping, so you opt for the store.

You’re focused. You’re not distracted by all the sales. You walk straight to the fly fishing gear department. And guess what.  There are a thousand rods standing up all the way to the ceiling, like skinny soldiers in a row. You’re a little overwhelmed. There’s a vast selection, with so many rods and all the different makes and sizes. You pick one up and start wobbling it, trying to get a feel for the action.

And who knows where the reels are? You walk around and find that they’re kept under glass at the counter, like some kind of expensive jewelry. You get a flashback to that same stomach twinge you had when you were looking for your wife’s engagement ring. So many…so expensive. And y’know, none of this fly fishing stuff is cheap either.

You start reconsidering grandpa’s rod. About then a clerk appears and asks, “How can I take your money? I mean, How can I help you?”

“I’m looking to get a fly rod and reel,” you answer, but you’re really not ready to buy. You haven’t done your homework. And probably, you didn’t even realize you needed to do homework to buy a fishing pole.


Follow these 8 simple steps to choose your fly fishing gear, and download a free guide to help you set it up. This guide even tells you which knots to use and how to tie them! | Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


Get Smart

Don’t do what I did years ago when I first got started. Don’t go out and buy a lot of stuff that doesn’t balance right or work well for the type of fish you want to catch. I hope to save you from that costly learning curve. Here’s where this article will help. I’ll explain various features of different rods and reels, discuss the pros and cons for different selections, and list the basic categories. And I’ll be sure to throw in a boat load of my opinion in for free.

Then, when you’ve got a handle on all these fly fishing gear options, you’ll be a genuine, bona fide educated consumer. By then, you’ll be so in love with the sport, you won’t mind emptying your wallet. Just kidding, I don’t want to scare you off! Actually, you can get a pretty good starter rod/reel combo for around two hundred bucks. But for those who like name brands, you can certainly spend more.

Download a free guide to setting up your fly fishing rod. This guide includes which knots to use and how to tie them! | Fly Fishing Gear: 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |

8 Steps to Selecting the Right Fly Fishing Gear


1. Select the Right Weight

The main piece of a fly fisherman’s equipment is the rod and reel. As I alluded to earlier, grandpa’s old rod is probably hanging from the rafters down in the basement. Sure, you can dust it off and hit the water, but that’s going to set you off on the wrong foot. Besides, the old relic might be worth a bundle, so check it out on eBay first.

Putting together the right stuff holds true in just about any sport. Starting out with a balanced setup will save you lots of frustration down the road (or should I say, down the creek). By balanced I mean matching and assembling the same weight rod, reel, and lines together. And by weight, I mean the “power” rating. (I’m sure some rod manufacturing engineer is cringing at my simplicity. But I’m not interested in trying to describe the rating for stored energy verses force exertion times the square route of pi.) For freshwater fishing, generally the weight category falls between 1 and 12 , one being the lightest, and twelve the heaviest/strongest.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


2. Match the Fight

What you want to fish for determines your rod set up. My Dad used to say, “You don’t hunt elephants with a bb gun.” So you wouldn’t fish 50 pound King Salmon with a 2 weight rod and reel. Here’s another simplification, but matching the rod/reel set up to the fish fighting capacity would go something like this:

Rod combos from 1 to 4 would be best for small to medium size trout, pan fish, and bass.

Weights of 5 to 7 work well for steelhead, big trout, and big bass.

Lunkers, like salmon, muskellunge, and northern pike put you up into the stout 8 to 12 weights.

Then there’s the beef stick poles of saltwater equipment, but that’s a whole other category that I won’t focus on now.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |

3. Choose Your Fly Rod Length

Rod length is a big factor in your selection. Fly rod lengths usually range from 6 foot to 12 foot. There are specialty rods that are even longer.

Here’s my opinion, and here’s why: I prefer a longer rod for several reasons. For most fishing situations, rod lengths of 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 feet work best. Longer rods are easier to cast, and it takes fewer rod swings to get the line where you want it to go.

Many of your real-life stream angling situations call for a basic roll cast or an even simpler pendulum toss. The longer rod gets it done. Occasionally, you’ll have the luxury and room to make a full, back-and-forth overhand cast. Even with this, it’s easier to lay out line with a longer rod. If it’s windy, you’ll appreciate the longer rod’s ability to control your cast. Longer rods allow you to more easily cast weighted flies and sinker-weighted line, and give you the power to cast big surface poppers.

There’s little difference between carrying a foot and a half longer rod along a brush-edged trout stream. Careful maneuvering is required weather you’re carrying an 8 or a 9 1/2 footer. The advantages outweigh any inconvenience. You’ll be more accurate presenting to the target water and better control adjustments in the drift.

Here’s the biggest factor in favor of a longer fly rod: When you hook a fish, you’ve got a much better chance of landing it with a long rod than you would with a shorter rod. You’re holding a longer, more efficient lever to fight it in. If he’s really a big boy, there’s going to be a lot of give and take before he comes to the net. You’ll be more quickly able to react to when the fish runs, by lifting line off the water. The longer rod gives more ability to flex in the fight, and that’s important because it’s going to take awhile until one of you gets tired.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


4. Select Your Action

Going hand in hand with rod length is selecting the rod’s action. Simply put, the action is the stiffness of the rod. (I can hear that same engineer grumbling again.) They pretty much fall into three categories; slow, medium, and fast.

Slow action, sometimes referred to as soft action rods, are quite flexible, wobbly, and noodle-like. When casting, you have to give the rod extra seconds to load. The line loops more slowly in the casting process. It’s more difficult to punch line out through a cross wind. An advantage would be allowing you to use lighter weight tippets, as the rod absorbs more of the strain in fighting a fish.

Fast action versions give less flex but offer more power. A smooth flowing and adjustable drag system on your reel is more critical with fast action rods, (more on reel selection later). Fast action provides a quicker response in presentation and in drift adjustments, like mending line. What’s important is that it gives better sensitivity to the line. It lets you know what’s happening underwater. And most importantly, it allows for a quicker and more solid hook set when a fish strikes.

Fast action rods are just a lot easier to cast.  And to be vain again, it takes less casting skill to look good on the water.

Medium versions fall somewhere in between these two extremes. But if you ask my opinion, I prefer fast action, hands down. I like big fish; I like to land big fish; fast action rods help me do this.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |

5. How Many Pieces?

Rods made with four pieces are convenient for backpacking and travel.  But, the fewer the sections, the better. The more sections the rod has, the more connections there are to be concerned with. Every hour while fishing, it’s a good idea to check the furls. They need to be snug fitting and in alignment. Things like getting the line tangled in a tree, fighting a fish, or even just casting can loosen sections’ furls. Unchecked, these areas will be the point where the rod will break under a stress load. Even expensive name-brand rods are not exempt. The fewer sections, the better.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


6. Decide on Your Level of Quality

Investing a lot of money isn’t going to make you a better caster or allow you to catch more fish. Your selection of a balanced and matched system is far more important. If you’re just starting out, probably a name brand combo kit is a good purchase. These typically come ready to fish, with a 9 foot rod and matching reel with backing and line. For a pretty good one, you can expect to spend around $200.

On the other hand, you can spend ten times that on high quality fly fishing gear. There are levels of rods on the spectrum that offer a lifetime replacement or repair policy. Buying a rod with a built in insurance policy may seem a little excessive, but I think it’s worth it. There’ve been times I’m glad I did.

A couple of years ago, I took a three-day trip to fish king salmon on one of Lake Ontario’s tributary creeks. I was fighting in a big king, when the rod snapped. It was a name-brand and expensive rod, but somewhere during the fight, the furl connection had loosened. With the stress of the 35 pound king, the rod broke. It happened at the tail end of the fight (no pun intended), but I somehow landed the fish anyway. It was no fun breaking the rod all the way down in the gorge, but knowing the rod came with a 25 year warranty policy lessened the blow.

I hiked back to the car to get another pole. I’m not generally hard on equipment, but I always carry a couple of spares when I’ve traveled a distance from home to fish. As I was selecting which of two spare rods to use, a strong gust of wind slammed the car door on both of them.

In a matter of a half hour, I had managed to break 3 high-end fly rods. I couldn’t believe it. Thank goodness all had unconditional replacement policies.

And yes, being an over-planner, I had a fourth rod along that got me through the rest of the trip.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


7. Select Your Reel

So, now you’ve figured out what type of fish you want to go after, and you’ve determined your rod weight. The next step is picking out a reel. Fortunately, the manufacturers categorize the reels to match the weight of the rods and lines. So you can mix and match manufacturers, if you’d like.

Say you’ve decided to go with a 5 weight rod and reel combo. Selecting a name-brand model in a comfortable price range is next. One featuring a large enough line capacity is important, to avoid over-spool bind ups. If they offer options, go for the larger capacity. Make sure your selection has a drag adjustment. The old manual models were knuckle busters, usually resulting with the fish breaking off. You would have to add line resistance by palm friction on the bottom of the reel. Drag clickers let you preset the line tension for firm hook sets, then easily back off tension for the fight. The drag should start easy and run smooth, to allow the fish to run when needed.

Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |

8. Lining Things Up

Now you need to assemble and load your reel. The first line to spool on your reel is backing. Either Dacron or braided nylon works well. Generally, select 15 or 20 pound strength backing. Attach it to the reel with a backing knot. Fill the reel about 1/3 full. Next you’ll have to pick a fly line. Match the line weight to your rod reel choice. So to follow our example above, a 5 weight rod and reel would use a 5 weight line.

Of course there are more options with fly lines too. There are straight or tapered lines. Weight forward versions cast easily. You can pick floating, sinking or suspended lines. Different colors are available from fluorescent orange to khaki camouflage.

Here’s my opinion: For a good, reasonably priced line, go with a tapered, weight forward, floating, fluorescent-colored fly line that matches your rod/reel weight.

There are a couple of knots and methods to connect fly line to leader. But the easiest and most efficient is using a loop connector. For just a little more strength, add a drop of crazy glue when attaching the loop connector to your fly line. A standard loop-to-loop knot will connect your fly line to your leader. There are some very good tapered fly line leaders, however, I prefer to make my own using Maxima Ultragreen monofilament.

Setting up your fly fishing gear can be a little confusing, so I’ve created a handy free printout showing exactly what you need and which knots to use to connect everything. Hopefully, this reference will save you the time and money that would be lost if you set up your reel the wrong way. Download your free copy now.

Download a free guide to setting up your fly rod. This handy guide even tells you which knots to use and how to tie them! | Fly Fishing Gear- 8 Steps to Selecting the Right Stuff | Mountain Cabin Outdoors |


Hoarding Fly Fishing Gear

So now with the basics covered, you’re armed with the knowledge to go shopping and assemble your perfect fly fishing gear setup, and my free Fly Rod Setup Guide will help you get it all rigged up. Fair warning though—buying fly fishing gear can be addictive.

I think I might have a problem. My wife is certain of it. I do confess to owning too many rods and reels. By sharing this article, I might be able to spare you this particular condition. Since “the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,”  here goes:

I have more fish fly fishing rods and reels than I can count on all my fingers and toes, plus the fingers and toes of all my extended family. Which is kind of a weird thought.

I don’t like counting other people’s appendages, so let’s just say I’ve got a lot of fly fishing gear. I know that some of these purchases, that I just had to have, were poor selections. Thank goodness for places to get rid of stuff, like eBay.

Hopefully this article will help you determine what’s best for you. Be sure to print out my free download on how to set up your fly fishing gear, and share this article with your friends.

I want to hear about your setups, so leave a comment below and let me know what you’ve got!


Turkey target 1

Enter your name & email below, and I'll send your turkey target right to your inbox.

You’ll also get instant access to our entire Outdoor Resource Library with great hunting and fishing freebies like this turkey target and more, delivered right to your inbox.

This all-access pass is exclusively for subscribers, so sign up now!

Tom Bergstue

Tom Bergstue

Tom Bergstue is the author behind Mountain Cabin Outdoors. With over 30 years of outdoor experience, he offers real-life hunting and fishing advice that he's learned from some of the nation's top sportsmen. As a pro in the hunting and fishing industry, he's helped hundreds of people just like you bag and catch some awesome trophies. Now, he's sharing his expertise through workshops, ecourses, and ebooks to help sportsmen and women be more successful in the field.
Tom Bergstue

Latest posts by Tom Bergstue (see all)