The Biggest Beginners Mistake In Fly Fishing

12:01 pm

Free Video River Fly Fishing Course

20+ instructional videos, shot in 4k. Free to all new and existing newsletter subscribers – Click Here!

My name is David Johnson, I run Peaks Fly Fishing – A UK specialist fly and tackle retailer and fly fishing school. If I’m in the shop, I should be on the live chat at the bottom of the screen, feel free to ask for any help or advice you need.

First of all – fly fishing is about enjoying yourself. If you are enjoying yourself you have already achieved everything you need to! However, if you feel frustrated, confused or lost in information overload, hopefully, this article can help, it is intended for complete beginners.

I’ve worked for over 10 years now as a full-time professional guide and coach as well as running our specialist fly fishing tackle shop. There’s one common issue I’ve noticed over the years. It’s by far the biggest mistake I see when talking to newcomers to the sport! Most days, the phone in the tackle shop rings and I’ll be helping a beginner out with some advice, 9 times out of 10 this problem arises. What is the problem? Unfortunatley, its not a very interesting or glamourous problem – The problem is….. Focusing on small details.

Let me explain; A beginner buys some kit, has a play in the field after watching a few YouTube videos, heads out to the local fishery and then after a frustrating day, dives straight into social media, online videos, books and magazines looking for answers. This in turn leads them down endless roads of trying new leader materials, lines, adding droppers, boxes of new flies, even going as far as to replace rods and reels looking for answers. But most of the time, none of this stuff will provide any answers! It’s time to simplify your approach and focus on the things that really matter.

Fly fishing is essentially very simple, most methods require a rod, reel, line, piece of leader and a fly. That’s it. The kit has stayed pretty much the same for the last hundred years or more, only the materials it’s made from have changed. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but the kit normally isn’t to blame, most of the time beginners need to focus on craft and casting and not the kit.

A small caveat before we proceed. There is nothing wrong with buying kit, trying new methods and setups, it all part of the fun of learning. Just be aware, that most of the time, it’s probably not going to provide the answer for total beginners looking to improve.

Here are some common queries and considerations for helping you simplify your approach!

Presentation Is Important For Many Reasons.

Good presentation, means your line, leader and fly land straight, in the right place, as lightly as possible. If your line or leader is not landing straight, if your line is slapping the water or landing in a pile, if it’s catching the ground behind you, if it’s making a whiplash sound, if it’s not travelling any meaningful distance, if your leader is constantly wrapping around your line as you cast or is knotted up all the time – I’ll take a punt that it is your casting technique.

Casting a fly rod well is much like learning to swing a golf club. It’s all timing and technique. My advice is, if you can afford lessons then do it, it will save much frustration and time. The more you thrash it out on your own, the chances are, the more bad habits are becoming ingrained in your casting technique, and the more ingrained they become the harder it is to correct them. If you cannot afford a lesson, get a phone, prop it up, video yourself casting and email it to me, I will help you as best I can from your video. Very poor casting technique will severely limit your success, you will often be spending much of the time with the fly in the air and not in the water, when you finally get your line out, it’s often the case that there is so much slack in the cast that instead of fishing you are really just picking up loose line and then casting again.

Drop the dropper!

Forget any droppers whatsoever. They will cause nothing but frustration at the beginning. Just use one fly tied on the end of your leader.

Depth Is Important.

Most of the time, getting the fly to the right depth is probably more important than the actual fly you are using (within reason). This is particularly important for still water fisheries.

Simple fly box.

Create a very simple box of flies of no more than 10 patterns. 5 floating flies and 5 sinking. Learn about when, where and why to use each one before you start expanding your fly collection. Have plenty of each pattern to account for lost flies.

Where are the fish?

Until you gain more experience, use simple watercraft logic. If there are fish rising, use a dry (floating) fly, if there isn’t any fish rising, use a fly that sinks. On a still waters, if there is absolutely nothing rising, consider moving to your sinking line and try getting the fly down deeper. If you are not catching, move to another spot.

The leader/tippet nightmare.

Leaders, tippets, fluorocarbon, knotted tapered, poly leaders, braided leaders, tippet rings – ahhhhhhgggg! At the very beginning forget it all. Just use a rods length (9ft foot rod = 9ft leader) of monofilament or co-polymer straight off a spool. Choose a breaking strain suitable for where you are fishing (3.5lb ish on a river and 7-8 lb ish on most stocked still waters should be ok)

If your casting technique is ok, then you will be able to turn over your line and leader and get it to land straight with most flies. This setup is cheap and crucially, very fast and easy to replace during one of the many tangles you will encounter. Remember, hundreds of years ago they were using wooden rods, stretched silkworm gut for leader and a line made of horsehair or silk. They caught plenty of fish…

How to spend time when you are not fishing.

  1. Casting practice.
  2. If you are not practising casting, read about the craft; the hatches, how water temperature and bright sunlight affect fishing, how the changing seasons affect the fish, what controls saturated oxygen levels in the water, how a trout’s metabolism changes according to water temperature. Learn about the depths and features of your local fishing spot, read historical catch returns for your local river – what has been caught and when. This is the information that will help you catch fish! Spending time on social media reading everyone’s opinion of which brand of line casts the furthest will not help you in any meaningful way!


Rods – get some advice about a setup that suits where you will be fishing, brands do play a part, but getting the right weight and length is important. A 4 or 5 weight rod is a good all-round river rod and a 6 or 7 weight will suffice for most stillwater applications. If you have plenty of room go for a 9 foot or 9 and a half foot rod, if you are severely constrained by trees, get something shorter. If you need help, call the shop for some advice on 01143 600 590 – I am always happy to help.


Shooting heads, double tapers, short tapers etc. etc. Forget it all. Just get a weight forward line in the weight that matches the weight of your rod. If you are fishing rivers you only need a floating line. If you are fishing still water get 1 floating line and 1 sinking line – the sinking line is for getting your fly down to greater depths than you can achieve on the floater.


In most situations, you will have access to a river keeper, experienced club members, or bailiffs/staff on commercial still waters. They will be able to help you with information on how the fish are behaving, what flies have been catching, and the depth the fish have been feeding at. Don’t be afraid to ask! Also, most experienced and knowledgeable anglers will be more than happy to share this information with you, if I’m online, use the chat function at the bottom of the page – I am always happy to help!

Free Video River Fly Fishing Course

20+ instructional videos, shot in 4k. Free to all new and existing newsletter subscribers – Click Here!