"Why do we buy the rod first and flies last?"
As a fly fishing instructor and trout guide I have had the benefit of teaching and guiding a considerable number of fly fishers. This exposes me to a significant range of fly fishing equipment, all manner of casting techniques and the ever-changing challenges of weather and water. We must get the best out of these circumstances and can only do so by focusing on the critical elements of fly fishing

, namely:

-    Balancing the Outfit,
-    Casting the Fly and
-    Fishing the Water.

   The element, which is the quickest and easiest to fix, is balancing the fly fishing outfit. If this is not achieved it is difficult, if not impossible, to cast the fly. We all, in our separate ways, learn varying aspects of this requirement but this learning is, all too often, painfully slow.

   Many people sadly give up fly fishing in frustration with their inability to cast, when in reality, the problem lies with their fly fishing outfit not being balanced for the task required. It is easy to balance your equipment, if you understand the manner in which to balance the various components elements, or have the assistance of a knowledgeable fly fisher.

"We were standing knee-deep in very cold water, which was noticeably warmer than the 25 knot, snow laden wind. He was a very competent angler and had drifted off along the marsh in search of fish; most of whom I feared lay sulking and out of reach, on the bottom of the lake. His wife had enthusiastically embraced the fly to avoid fishing widowhood. From the States, both were equipped with some of the best fly fishing tackle available.

Try as she might, she could not get any workable length of line out. For my part, I was struggling to see any contributing casting errors. I attempted to cast the outfit with only slightly better results than her. She politely accepted my offer of a "not as nice", but perfectly balanced outfit, from the vehicle parked nearby.

Almost miraculously, she was casting accurately and consistently, in circumstances, which optimistically, could only be described as appalling. The reason was as obvious as it was simple, she was now fishing with a balanced outfit."



   The only decision you have to make in the balancing of the outfit is your choice of the size and number of the flies you wish to fish with. Once you have made this decision, everything else must be selected on the basis of its ability, to satisfactorily cast these flies.

   You need very different outfits to cast an air-resistant # 5/0 saltwater fly, a team of weighted #10 freshwater wet flies or a sparsely dressed #22 dry fly. All beginners know this, more or less. Its importance however seems to be lost when individual components of the outfit are acquired, or simplistic questions of fishing locations and prevailing weather conditions, are discussed and given inappropriate consideration.

   The size and number of the flies to be cast is the absolute criteria, against which all other components of the fishing outfit must be selected.


Flies are firstly catagorised on the basis of whether they float or sink. Those flies that are designed to float on the water, or in it's surface film, are called dry flies. Those that are designed to sink under the water surface are commonly and collectively referred to a wet flies but more accurately should be described as:

    Wet flies - small and usually intricate, very much favoured and
    predominantly developed by the British;
    Nymphs - representations of the larva stage of insects and
    Lure flies - large and commonly flashy flies.

Flies are also tied as either imitators or attractors. Attractors seek to genuinely represent natural food items and thereby deceive fish. Attractors or exciters rely on colour, shine and movement to induce a take.


   The leader, or leader and tippet combination, is designed to present the fly in such a manner as to maximise your chances of deceiving the fish. This requires that the leader be as invisible as possible, by using a translucent material and which is as fine as prudent. It must also be long enough to space the fly an acceptable distance from the fly line. The conflicting requirement is that this leader must be capable of transferring sufficient energy from the fly line, to lay out the fly in a straight line.

   The ability of a leader to transfer energy is directly proportional to its diameter. All leaders, be they tapered, knotted, braided or twisted, must be selected on their tip diameter. The diameter of the tip is classified using the "X" rating system, zeroed against a measure of 11/000 of an inch. Sounds complicated, but it works like this:

    Line Diameter    X Rating    Basis of X Rating
    0.013            02X        11 minus 13 = minus (or 0) 2
    0.012            01X        11 minus 12 = minus (or 0) 1
    0.011            0X        11 minus 11 = 0
    0.010            1X        11 minus 10 = 1
    0.009            2X        11 minus   9 = 2
    0.008            3X        11 minus   8 = 3
    0.007            4X        11 minus   7 = 4

   The reason that a working knowledge of this is important, is because the minimum tip diameter needed to easily turn over a single fly is obtained by dividing the hook size by three.

   Minimum Tip Size = Hook Size
    Required         3

   As an example a #10 fly, needs at least a 3X leader or tippet to turn it over. (#10 hook divided by 3 = 3.333'). You can either do your own mathematics or use the following mid-ranged scale:

    X Rating    Line Diameter    Maximum Single Hook Size
    02X        0.013 inches        #3/0
    01X        0.012 inches        #2/0
    0X        0.011 inches        #1/0
    1X        0.010 inches        #4
    2X        0.009 inches        #6
    3X        0.008 inches        #10
    4X        0.007 inches        #12
    5X        0.006 inches        #14
    6X        0.005 inches        #16
    7X        0.004 inches        #18

   If you can not roll over a #10 lure fly on a 15 foot 7X leader don't give up fly fishing. Change you leader to 3X or heavier. It would also improve the presentation if the leader could be shortened.

   The breaking strain or test poundage of individual tippets and leaders, of the same X Rating, varies from one brand to another, because of the material used in their construction. A disproportionate number of anglers describe leaders and tippets by their breaking strain, which implies that their function is to break. But, as we now understand, their function is to transfer casting energy and present the fly in a manner, which will deceive fish.
   And yes, you may be able to push the rules of X Ratings with leader and tippet materials which store or transfer energy more efficiently, are short or are shaped differently, but do so knowingly.

   When using multiple flies the same principles apply but, of course, much thicker leaders and tippets are required. Similarly, skilled casters can also push the envelope by transferring more than the normally required amount of energy down the fly line.


Most leaders taper so that they will roll over uniformly as the energy being transmitted down them is dissipated. This tapering is accomplished by braiding, twisting, knotting or knotless production.

Braided Leaders
A long time ago, but in our very own galaxy, silk thread was braided to produce tapered silk leaders in the same way that silk lines were made. In recent years braided nylon leaders have become available but these tend to be bulky and collect water, which is regrettably flicked free over the water when casting.

Knotted Leaders
Nylon was developed by scientists in the 1930s, and with a much higher tensile strength than silk, was rapidly adopted for use by anglers. The initial manufacturing process could only produce parallel filaments of nylon thread but, by knotting threads of reducing thickness, a tapering effect was achieved. Some of the "ancients" still use knotted leaders because of their alleged superior roll over while ignoring that every knot is weaker than the nylon it joins, gathers debris, refracts sunlight and disturbs the surface of the water.

Twisted Leaders
Created by joining multiple 2 or 4 thread sections, of reducing diameter nylon together, which are then twisting and held until sufficient memory develops to maintain the shape. Easy to produce but with the same bad characteristics as braided leaders.

Knotless Leaders
With improvements in technology a process was developed whereby tapered nylon threads could be produced. They are rightly now the industry standard.


   The fly line is the linear weight which loads the fly rod and is then, thrown with sufficient energy to propel it, leader, tippet and fly to the target. If the fly line is not of sufficient mass it cannot take on, and then transfer this energy, which is all the time being reduced by line turn and air resistance.

   The mass of fly lines are classified according to a standard designed by the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer's Association (AFTMA), now administered by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) This standard is based on the weight, in grains, of the first 30 feet of fly line, less the first two feet of parallel tip. This standard, at the bottom end of the scale, looks like this:

    Weight Class        Line Weight           Tolerance
         ASA                    (plus or minus)
            0              40 grains            6 grains
            1              60 grains            6 grains
            2              80 grains            6 grains
            3            100 grains            6 grains
            4            120 grains            6 grains
            5            140 grains            6 grains
            6            160 grains            8 grains
            7            185 grains            8 grains
            8            210 grains            8 grains
            9            240 grains          10 grains

   An ASA4 weight line can comfortable roll over small flies tied on #12 and smaller hooks provided they are not too air-resistant or excessively weighted. A ASA6 weight line will similarly handle medium sized flies tied on #6 hooks. Significant saltwater flies require the mass of an 8 weight or better fly line.

   Another more subtle aspect of a fly line is its shape, whether it is double tapered (DT) or weight forward (WF). After the first 32 feet a DT has a further 46 feet of thick belly section, unlike a WF, which immediately reduces to a light running line. This means that if you, like most fly fishers, carry more than 32 feet of line outside of the tip runner before casting, a DT will have more mass and place a greater load on the rod. What flows from this is that you can not change between a DT and WF without effecting the balance of your outfit, but by knowingly doing so, you may be able to really fine tune it. However, there are usually other overriding factors, in line shape selection.


   The shape of a fly line effects how it casts and transfers energy. Most fly line have a very similar forward tip and taper which will give a similar presentation. To ascertain what type of line is most appropriate a decision must be made on the characteristics wanted; versatility, economy or casting distance.

Double Taper (DT)

The extensive thick belly section of a DT fly line mitigates against very long casts. The upside is that this belly also transfers energy very well and permits long roll casts. You may not plan to roll cast but it is the quickest and least disruptive way to unhook most snagged flies. The symmetrical shape also permits the line to be reversed once the used (or abused) front end of the line starts to crack. This is also a handy capability should the fishy flavoured front end get devoured by a Tasmanian Devil on an overnight fishing trip. Versatile and economical.

Weight Forward (WF)

The WF is designed to false cast with the belly section outside of the tip runner and then shoot the relatively light weight running line. Provides good casting distance.

Shooting Head (SH)

Designed for even greater shooting range than the WF because of the utilisation of low memory, light weight monofilament attached to the loop end. Two SH lines can be made by cutting a DT line in halves and whipping a loop onto the end. Provides maximum casting distance.


   Selecting a rod to cast a fly line should be easy, if only because the fly line weight is on the line's packaging and the rod's assessed ability to handle one or possible two fly line weights is usually marked on the rod. It is the basis, and indeed accuracy, of this rod assessment, which we must first understand, and then question.

   For the first time in selecting our equipment, we have not a standard but a subjective human assessment, made by an unknown person with his own angling style and preferences. Has our assessor formed his opinion on the basis of casting 30 feet, 45 feet or 60 feet of fly line with the rod? Who knows?

   The defining question is what length of line do you want the rod to work most effectively at? Do you polaroid and cast very close? Do you fish clear water and need to put the fly a good distance away from you? Or do you fish for those skittish species, which always seem to feed at the very limit of your casting ability? Do you fish tight on mountain streams, tunnelling through the rain forest or chuck every inch of line possible, in the general direction of the Southern Ocean? You, the angler are the only person who can answer these questions.

   It is now time to put your fly line, with leader, tippet and fly on a fly rod, get your preferred length of line out and see how it performs. Cast in the shop, if skill and staff permit. Cast in the street, if necessary. Cast in a casting pool, if possible. But do cast. An under-loaded rod will struggle to throw the line. An over-loaded rod will usually do a little better, albeit, with wide and tailing loops in your line. Try different rated rods of the same brand and model rod that you have decided to buy. Make sure that you finish up with a rod that will give optimum performance, for your fishing preferences.


   A balanced outfit should counter-balance at or near the point your index finger wraps under the handle. This permits the caster to apply final casting power through the wrist without having to overcome either, the weight of the rod or, the weight of the reel. Therefore, the feature in a reel we need is its ability to provide enough, but just enough, weight to accomplish this. Even with the lightness of carbon fibre rods, you will find that you still need a reasonable heavy reel to accomplish this.


All anglers cast with their dominant hand. Fly fishers continue to fish with the rod in their dominant hand. All fly fishers learn to strip line with their other hand. The first few seconds following a hook-up are critical, with the very real possibility of a fish darting for shelter or worse, charging, straight toward the angler. As soon as possible a fish should be got on the reel. This provides the greatest possibility of successfully playing out larger fish. In my opinion, to change rod hands to strip or wind, with a fish on and fly line where-ever, is unnecessarily troublesome and easily avoided by learning to wind with the left hand. It is not easy, but what worth while activity is? The "ancients" used to recommend changing hands to wind with the dominant hand.

Rod control is greatest with the rod held in the dominant hand. This applies not only to casting but also play the fish.

A fish of reasonable size, pulling on the tip of a fly rod, held at a right angle, puts considerable pressure on the angler's arm. Within 20 minutes or so of this, the immutable logic of playing a fish from the most powerful arm, the dominant arm, becomes obvious to all.

Virtually all reels are capable of adjusting for left hand or right hand wind and this should be detailed in any accompanying documentation. Of course, having reversed the direction of drag, backing and fly line must also be re-spooled in the opposite direction.

   The reel must also have a spool of sufficient size to accommodate your bulkiest (DT Floating) fly line, plus whatever length of backing you may consider necessary. Some manufacturers seem not to test the capacities of spools even when they state it on the reel itself, or associated packaging. Test the reel capacity before buying, or if this is not possible, always purchase a reel at least one size larger than recommended.


   Fly fishers are inevitably optimistic individuals. No other element of the outfit better testifies to this than the presence of backing, and the more the better. That is not to imply that backing is unnecessary because, very occasionally, it may get some sunshine in the heat of battle. But, the overfilling of a spool with too much backing does more harm than good. It will cause the fly line to scrape or jam against the spool cage and line guide, resulting in line damage and, in a worse case scenario, total reel lock-up.


   There are many ways to put the individual components together, but you should always strive for the simplest and most versatile structure. The use of loop to loop joins, wherever possible, and the least number of knots and types of knots can achieve this:

Backing to reel - Arbor Knot with maybe, a Clove Hitch first on the shaft, to ensure a really secure hold;

Backing to Fly Line - A large (250mm or longer) loop created on the end of the backing by use of a Improved End Loop Knot and a whipped loop on the fly line, joined to form a Reef Knot or Square Knot connection. Make sure that both sides of the knot are symmetrically or else excessive pressure will be placed on one side thereby reducing the knot breaking strain. This large loop will permit the changing of fly lines by simply opening the join and then, passing the entire rod and reel through this loop;

Fly Line to Leader - A whipped loop on the fly line, connected loop to loop with a Improved End Loop on the leader. This permits the interchange of practice leaders to fishing leaders, fishing leaders of differing X rating when needed and also simplifies the connection of new leaders;

Leader to Tippet - A Double Grinner Knot. This knot can be opened and closed which permits the no fuss insertion and removal of strike indicators, when required;
Tippet to Fly - A Grinner Knot. This knot can also be opened and closed which permits the leaving or creating of a small loop to allow the fly to orient and swing freely.

Tippet to Shock Tippet - Wire shock tippets are essential for species like barracouta and shark. The easiest material to use is braided multi-strand, plastic coated wire. Created a Bimini Twist on the end of your class tippet and then use it to tie a Albright Knot onto the end of the shock tippet. The Bimini Twist is the only knot which tests greater than the breaking strain of the unknotted material. Connect the shock tippet to the fly using a Figure 8 Knot (IGFA rules require at least 15 inches of class tippet and no more than 12 inches of shock tippet for Australian Records).

Fly to Fly - A Grinner Knot. Tie the extra fly or flies to a length of line and put a Grinner Knot in the other end. Then engage the Grinner Knot loop around the bend of the attached fly to build up a team of flies. Dis-assemble or change the fly team by opening the sliding loop.

"A balanced outfit will work willingly, for any beginner;
in the hands of an skilled angler, it is an absolute joy to use.
Still planning to buy your rod first and flies last?"

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