One of the most challenging things for me when I started fly fishing was figuring out what kind of fly rod, fly line, leader, and tippet to use. There are a ton of options and you can easily be overwhelmed when trying to figure it out on your own. My goal is to give you a starting point to understanding how to match a fly rod, reel, line, leader, and tippet.
Fly Rod Weights
First of all, let me give you a quick overview of fly rod weights. The weight of the rod you use really should be determined by your target species or technique. Fly rod weights typically range from 2-14 weight (you might see weight noted as “wt”.) The lower the weight, the lighter the rod and the smaller the fish the rod can appropriately handle. So, if you are fishing for small brook trout in a remote mountain stream, then a 2 weight rod would be good. On the other hand, if you want to fish for tarpon (large saltwater fish) then a 9 to 12 weight rod would be better. For most beginning fly fishers a 5 weight fly rod is a great and extremely versatile choice. I say that thinking you will probably be fishing for 6” to 25” trout in a small to medium size river or lake. That doesn’t mean you have to start there, but that’s just what most anglers are after when they start out fly fishing.
Specialty rods are also available for certain techniques. For example, long and light (10-11 foot 2-3 weight rods) are available for European style nymphing techniques. An advantage of lighter weight rods is that they have a greater ability to absorb head shakes of larger fish while protecting your light tippet. On the other hand, a heavier & more stout rod can help turn over larger flies and sinking lines to get your streamers down to deeper holding fish.
Fly Reel to the Rod
It is easy to match a fly reel to the rod. You want to make sure that the fly reel covers the weight of the fly rod. Most fly reels will cover 2 or 3 weights. 4/5/6 or 5/6 weight reels are the most common. If a fly reel says 4/5/6, then it can correctly be used on 4, 5, or 6 weight rods.
Backing to the Reel
The backing is extra line that is spooled up between the reel and the fly line. The purpose is to give the fish lots of room to swim away after you set the hook so that you can then bring it in without it getting off the line. For up to a 6 weight fly line, 20 lb backing is appropriate. For heavier lines, use 30 lb backing.
Line to the Backing
The next component in the setup is the fly line. There are lots of options when it comes to fly lines. But it can be a relatively easy decision on which one to match to your fly rod. The weight of the fly line needs to match the rod weight. So, if you have a 5 weight rod, choose a 5 weight fly line. There are other factors to consider with the fly line, however, the most commonly used and most versatile line is a WF5F (weight forward 5 weight floating) line. This is a great all-purpose line that can be used effectively in most fishing situations. Intermediate and sinking lines are available to cover other specific fishing needs, but a floating line is best to start with.
Leader to the Line
There can be a lot to think about when comes to leaders. See our in-depth discussion on them here. The basic rule of thumb for buying a leader is to use a size that is matched to the fly sizes you are using. To do that, take the leader size such as 6x, and multiply by 3. That gives you 18, which means you can safely use up to a size 18 fly on a 6x leader. When buying flies, remember fly sizes are in reverse order numerically, so a size 22 is smaller than a size 18. The smaller the number, the bigger the fly. So, on a 6x leader, you can use size 18 to 28 flies.
The most common leader length is 9 feet, so that is a great place to start. 5x and 6x leaders are the most common sizes because they cover the fly sizes used most for trout fishing. My suggestion is to carry a range of leader sizes from 3x to 7x (9-foot length) so you can use almost any size fly you want.
Tippet to the Leader
Tippet is used to extend the length of your leader, or to return the leader to its original length after you have fished for a while and had to cut some off as you change out flies. The tippet choice is pretty easy like the fly line choice. Match the tippet to the size leader you are using. Leaders are typically tapered and the “x” rating refers to the smallest diameter on the leader. So, if you are using a 5x leader you may want 5x tippet to get the leader back to its original length, or 6x tippet to extend the leader beyond its original length. It’s always a good idea to carry multiple tippet sizes to cover various situations. I recommend carrying at least 5x through 7x tippet spools with you.
Fly to the end of the Tippet
Now tie the fly to the end of the tippet and start fishing! I hope this helps demystify some of the basic fly fishing equipment you need to get started.