Is Fly Fishing Effective? Why Fly Fishing Is So Popular

man fly fishing

As a lifelong fly-fisherman, I can tell you that the majority of the enjoyment that we get out of this hobby has to do with the journey, and not the results of any given day. Skilled fly-fisherman head home emptied handed more times than not. A good fight is more meaningful to us than a cooler full of fish.That being said, a well placed fly can be extremely effective for catching game species. 

Fly-fishing is not effective for anglers that are fishing for harvest. Use of a fly over live bait is more complex for anglers to execute properly, resulting in less opportunities for a fish to strike. When a fly is presented properly, fly-fishing can be extremely effective and at times, even more effective than other baits. 

So when should you even bother with fly-fishing? I’m going to walk you through what makes this sport so fascinating, and why a lot of us prefer it to traditional bait fishing. Additionally, we will review when it will be most effective versus other more traditional baits.  I’ll also spend some time discussing it’s difficulty, what your options are for fly-fishing, and what equipment you may need to pick up before your first trip. Let’s dive in!

Why do people choose fly-fishing over spin fishing?

The biggest reason that many anglers choose fly-fishing over traditional spin fishing is the enhanced focus on technique. I mean no disrespect to my fellow anglers, but the precision required to land a fish on fly is second to none.

The margin of error is quite small, and the result of a weak cast or untimely movement can spook fish easily. Recovering from your mistakes is much more challenging.

Additionally, the lack of movement from a live bait, as well as the missing associated smell, put all the more emphasis on the angler.

So why exactly is this appealing?

Just like anything else, the harder you have to work for something the more rewarding it tends to be. When you’ve spent hours casting at a rolling tarpon, and you finally watch him take down that fly that you were working oh-so-subtly just seconds before, you know that it was 100% related to your execution all the way through.

You don’t get the same rush out of spin fishing. At least I don’t. There is no loading up 3 lines, tossing them out while knocking back a cold one, and then grabbing whichever one goes off first. You work for it.

Admittedly, this isn’t something that you just pick up overnight. I still learn new things to this day. Learning how to make a cast is only one piece of the puzzle. Many species of fish will react differently to the way a fly moves in the water. Learning how to solicit the bite through fly movement, takes a lot of time on the water to learn. 

fish close up

When will fly-fishing be most effective?

As mentioned above, a well placed fly, moved correctly is extremely effective. What will make fly-fishing not very effective is the difficulty in executing accurate, well timed presentations. 

Flies are designed to imitate prey such as baitfish, crabs, shrimp, and insects. Fly-fishermen have scoured the globe in search of materials that provide excellent movement in the water and imitate practically every aspect of the prey. These materials include things such as marabou feathers, fox tails, and even fake fingernails from beauty supply stores to create crab bodies.  As a result, the ability of a fly to imitate a bait is quite incredible. 

Fly-fishing has some advantages

One of the major advantages of fly-fishing is the soft entry of the bait into the water. When fishing for gamefish that use eyesight to track down prey, stealth is extremely important. Splashing a large bait into the water will send these fish running, even if the bait used is their favorite meal. A fly on the other hand is small, and designed to make a soft landing into the water. This allows you to place the fly in front of the fishes face without spooking them.

To many people’s surprise, the majority of fish will eat very small baits. This is true even for large species, such as tarpon. Tarpon, for example, will eat tiny flies that imitate shrimp and worms. Fish become conditioned to seeing anglers and being casted at all day long. Moving to smaller, softer baits allows you to make unnoticed presentations.

Depending on the species you are targeting, or the way a fish is feeding, you will need to adjust the water column depth of your bait. At times, you will need to fish the middle of the column or even at the surface. Therefore, the use of a lightweight bait is required.

The weightless bait favors fly-fishing

As many spin-fishermen have discovered, casting lightweight/weightless baits can be a challenge. This is due to the fact that traditional spinning rods use the weight of the lure to project forward when making a cast. In these situations, fly-fishing will excel.

The fly cast uses the inertia from the fly-line being whipped back and forth to carry the line forward. This allows the fly to weigh virtually nothing, even if it is a large fly. The ability to make long distance casts of light weight baits is unmatched when it comes to fly-fishing.

Using a combination of different materials when constructing a fly will allow you to adjust how far a fly will sink and at what rate. If needed to get a fly to the bottom, small weights can be tied onto the fly as well. The materials used to give a fly profile are nothing more than fibers. Therefore, the smallest weights can help a fly sink to the bottom quickly. The ability to use these small weights allows you to maintain a soft presentation to the fish. 

Sight makes fly-fishing extremely effective

The last component that makes fly-fishing effective is the strip or retrieval. Most of the time fly-fishing is done by sight, meaning you are physically seeing and casting to the fish. This affords you quite an advantage as you are able to see how the fish reacts to the movement of the fly.

Aggressive fish typically prefer a fast moving fly that appears to be fleeing, whereas species that feed on the bottom may like a fly that has short bounces that imitate crustaceans. In freshwater, there are times where the fly cannot move at all. This is designed to give the appearance of an insect floating down a river. 

Learning how each fish reacts to fly movements is the biggest learning curve to being productive. Once you have put time in on the water and have seen when your fly is rejected versus eaten, the effectiveness of fly-fishing comes to light. Rarely will a fly that is moved correctly be refused. In fact, I have seen where they have eaten the fly over a live bait when casting them simultaneously. 

effective fly fishing man catches spotted trout

How difficult is fly-fishing to learn?

The learning curve of fly-fishing is steep in the beginning. The majority of people who venture into fly-fishing quit early as they are unable to master the cast quickly. If you put in the time, maybe take a lesson, the cast will come to you.

How can I practice fly-fishing?

I strongly recommend taking a professional one on one lesson or using YouTube videos to learn the technique. Practice is going to be key. When I first started learning, I would practice every day in my front yard. The key to practicing is creating muscle memory and feel. Oftentimes you are able to feel when a cast is done correctly. The rod will load and the line will shoot a great distance. 

Don’t overdo it

When practicing, it is best to do so in short sprints. Practicing casting for hours a day, will cause you to become burnt out and frustrated. I recommend casting for no more than 30 minutes a day. Reinforce your practice sessions by re-reviewing YouTube videos or taking another lesson. This will help you create the building blocks of a correct cast.

Assign yourself goals

As you begin to see your technique improve, start giving yourself goals. These goals typically come in the form of mastering accuracy.

Place multiple objects in your yard and practice hitting each target over and over again. This will help you gain line control and have a feel for making casts to varying distances. Sometimes a fly cast needs to be short, being able to only throw long distance casts will not help you in real world applications where the fish is only feet away. 

Knowing when to transition to water

Once you have created a concrete cast, only then should you start applying fishing to water. Trying to learn on the water, adds additional challenges, such as line management, boat mechanics, etc. While you are learning, you do not need to add in these additional challenges. Your first goal is to learn the mechanics of the cast. 

After you have solidified your cast and then started practicing on the water, you are ready to start targeting fish. This process will be frustrating and make you want to give up. Hang in there!

As you learn the nuances of when to strip and feed the fish, the reward is incredible. No one forgets their first fish on fly!

Is fly-fishing freshwater only?

Although fly-fishing originated in freshwater, a common misconception is that fly-fishing is done in freshwater only. Saltwater fly-fishing has become extremely popular as fly-anglers look for ways to further challenge their skills. Fly-fishing in salt for species such as bonefish, tarpon, permit, and redfish is extremely popular. 

Saltwater and freshwater techniques can vary quite a bit based on the environment, the species targeted, and the prey that is present in the area. For a more detailed comparison of saltwater vs freshwater fly-fishing, check out Saltwater vs Freshwater Fly Fishing – What is the Difference?

Do you need special equipment to get started?

The basic equipment needed to start fly-fishing will be a fly rod, reel, fly-line, and flies. When searching for this equipment be prepared to be sticker shocked when you notice the price of some of these items. High-end fly setups can range from $900-$1600, but keep in mind there are cheaper models that will help you accomplish the same goals. For a review of some quality rods a cheaper price point, check out Best Saltwater Fly Rods Under $300.

When selecting a fly rod and reel, it is best to start with rod size that is versatile and can do a little bit of everything. If you are planning on fishing both fresh and saltwater, I would highly recommend selecting an 8wt rod and a reel that matches this weight. An 8wt rod will be able to handle all freshwater species and still have enough backbone to fish for salt species such as redfish, stripers, bonefish, and permit. 

After you have confirmed your passion for the sport, it will be time to venture into differing weights for different applications.You may also choose to spend money on a higher quality rod and reel. It is important to make sure this is something you want to continue to pursue before you spend too much money. 

As you become a more competent caster, you will identify your casting style. Are you a slow caster who takes their time during the cast? Or are you a power caster who’s casting motion is fast? Is it windy where you fish? The answer to these questions will help you find a fly set up that best fits your cast and maximizes performance.


If you are thinking of becoming a fly-fishermen to catch more fish, I would highly advise against this. Fly-fishing is designed to further challenge your skills and ultimately learn how to trick fish. There are times where fly-fishing will be more effective than traditional fishing, but will require more knowledge and time on your part. Ultimately, a well placed fly that is worked correctly, is a very effective, but the margin of error is very small.