Outbound Collective logo

Fly Fishing for Trout 101

Have you ever thought about getting into fly fishing? Here's are the basics.

By: Jess Fischer + Save to a List

Fly fishing has been one of my favorite hobbies to learn. The first time we went out fly fishing I watched as my boyfriend peacefully and methodically cast his line and caught the most gorgeous fish I had ever seen. It took a little over a year for me to feel really comfortable casting and fishing but it's a sport that you really never stop learning. The bottom line is fly fishing is not an easy sport to pick up but with time and patience you can learn how and you'll love how peaceful and challenging the sport can be. There are SO many kinds of fish you can fly fish for but today I'm going to narrow it down and focus on trout. Have you ever wanted to get into fly fishing for trout? If so, here's my breakdown of everything basic you need to know:


Trout is a common name used to describe a plethora of freshwater fish and they are closely related to Salmon and Char. Trout live in cold, fresh water rivers and streams but you can also find them in lakes and some run to the ocean. Most trout die if water becomes too warm. Trout that live in streams and rivers eat mostly soft bodied aquatic invertebrates, such as flies, mayflies, stoneflies, as well as other fish. The lures you use to fish for trout mimic the different life stages of these invertebrates. Different species of trout can be identified by their distinct markings that help them blend into their unique environments. Trout that live in the ocean tend to have more silvery scales while trout that live in freshwater rivers have very vibrant markings.

A stonefly 

Brook Trout, Shenandoah National Park, VA


  • Fly rod & reel: the basic components of what you fish with. There are so many kinds of rods and reels. Unfortunately because of how many different types there are, you should first think about where you will most likely be fishing and then contact your local fly shop to inquire about what rod would be best for your needs. Where we fish, Tenkara rods are extremely useful due to how narrow most the mountain rivers are and how thick the foliage is around them.
  • Flies: flies are the "lures" of fly fishing and there are a lot of different kinds. They mimic what trout eat and are usually made with natural materials like feathers and thread. Dry flies are probably what you're used to seeing fly fisherman use. Dry flies are fished on the surface of the water and mimic adult or emerging insects. There are also wet flies and they are fished below the surface of the water, and are made to imitate things like pupal and nymph-stage aquatic insects. Streamers are really large fluffy looking flies that mimic other fish swimming through the water once they are wet.
  • Waders and wading boots: you don't always need waders and wading boots but since trout like cold water, waders help keep you warm and dry while you're fishing. Waders are made of waterproof material and basically look like a pair of overalls. Wading boots are worn on your feet over your waders and they can get totally saturated and most boots have felt or aluminum on the bottom to help you grip slippery river beds and rocks. Make sure if you have wading equipment to always properly wash and disinfect the gear so you do not transmit microbacteria and other foreign objects into other rivers and streams.
  • Other: there are tons of little gear trinkets that you can have with you while fly fishing. There are indicators you can use on your line to know when trout strike, pliers you can use to help you remove your hook from a fishes mouth among so many other things. A few things I definitely recommend having are a pair of pliers to help safely remove hooks from the fish and a net to safely pull trout out of the water.

Wading boots and waders under water.

A fly box (what you store flies in)

When Can You Fish?

Year round! But the specifics of when really depends on where you live in the country. Where I live (mid-Atlantic) sometimes in the summer the rivers get too warm and a large population of the trout die unless they live in rivers fed by cold mountain water. We also have a lot of stocked streams which means fish are stocked into the rivers and lakes. It is generally best to fish around "hatches" or when the fresh water invertebrates (mentioned above) hatch in the rivers. Mayflies and other insects lay their eggs in the water and trout will eat these insects as they float to the surface to spread their wings to fly away, and when they touch down on the water to lay their eggs or mate.


  • Catch and release: a common type of fly fishing. You should catch the fish quickly and not allow them to fight to the point of exhaustion or death. When the fish is reeled in, you quickly remove the hook, with no hands on the fish if possible (that's hard) and the fish should immediately be released back into the water. When releasing you should face the fish upstream and allow the water to run over it until it wiggles away on it's own.    
  • Dead drift: when your fly is moving across the current at the perfect time, so it looks perfectly natural and doesn't rip the current.    
  • Drag or "ripping the current": when a fly is moving slower or faster than the stream and causes ripples from the fly across the surface of the water.    
  • Drift: Four types of drifts: Straight upstream from you, upstream and across from you, downstream and across from you, straight downstream from you    
  • Eddy: A section of water that is less disturbed than the surrounding water, often found on the edge of a current or where two streams converge.    
  • Fingerling: A small, immature fish, such as a juvenile trout.   
  • Hatch: A large number of flies of the same species.    
  • Headwaters: An upstream section of the river before the main tributaries join it. This section is typically much smaller in width and flow than the main section of the river.    
  • Mending Line: A method used after the line is on the water to achieve a drag-free float. It constitutes a flip, or series of flips with the rod tip, that puts a horseshoe shaped bow in the line. This slows the speed with which the line travels if mended upstream and speeds up the line if mended downstream.    
  • Pool: A segment of a river or stream featuring slower currents and increased depths that helps protect fish from predatory birds and animals. Pools also give fish a rest from swimming against heavier currents, particularly important during spawning migrations.    
  • Presentation: The act of casting the fly on the water and offering it to the fish. The objective is to present the fly in a manner similar to the natural insect or food form that you are imitating. The variety of presentations is infinite and changes with each fishing situation.    
  • Setting the Hook: The act of pulling the hook into the flesh of the fish's mouth.

There are many more terms! I only picked a few... See the whole glossary here.

A "fingerling" trout, Glacier National Park, MT


  • There are going to be days or weeks when you don't catch any fish. There are going to be times when your line gets caught in a tree or when you slip and fall on your ass. Don't let one bad day of fishing ruin fly fishing for you! Keep at it!
  • Take a casting class through your local Orvis store or fly fishing guide service. A quick Google search will show you where these businesses are located. Guides are trusted experts that teach other people to fly fish for a living. Michael did a great job teaching me but he really learned how to teach someone how to fly fish when we went to Iceland and he saw how our guide helped me. Taking a casting class can also help you what kind of rod to buy if you don't have one already.
  • Go out into empty parking lots and fields to practice your cast. It's really hard to learn to cast with trees and bushes surrounding you (trust me I know). So go somewhere open where you can mess up and your line can drop without having to worry about losing a fly.
  • Use indicators at first to learn how to tell when a fish is hitting your line. I grew up fishing in ponds so I'm pretty good at knowing when a fish is taking my fly, but sometimes in fast moving water you can lose your fly as it floats down a big river. By using an indicator you can see when your line is moving more easily.
  • Wear polarized glasses. This is a personal preference but having a good pair of polarized glasses allows you to get rid of the glare on top of the water and more easily see what's moving on and under the water. It will also help you keep a better eye on your fly.
  • Use a guide the first few times you really go fishing. I never had to do this since I had Michael, but I think the benefits of using a professional guide are incredible. They have such a wealth of knowledge and they can tell you how to pick your fly, read water patterns and also help with other things like your cast. Michael did an incredible job teaching me all these things but if you don't have a friend who's been fly fishing their entire life, or a friend who isn't doing the greatest job teaching you, get at guide.
  • Watch Youtube videos. There are so many useful and informational videos on the internet. I learned how to read currents on rivers from Youtube and I really, actually learned something and it was completely free!

Keep in mind this is the basics of the basics! There is so much to know about fly fishing that this rarely scratches the surface but it's a good start if you're interested in the sport! 

Pulling out a trout using a net. Glacier National Park, MT

A mayfly

Cover: Fly fishing for Arctic Char, Iceland.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


Overnighter on the Sonoma Coast

Benjamin Canevari

10 Things you need to do in Baja

wyld honeys

Journey to Wyoming’s premier snowmobiling destination: Togwotee Mountain Lodge

Samuel Brockway

Hiking in comfort: a review of Danner Mountain 600 Evo boots

Meghan White