Updated: May 24, 2021
I was “organizing” my fly room the other day and realized how much fly fishing gear I have that I rarely, if ever, actually use. I’m sure there were reasons for the purchases at the time, I just can’t recall them now.
The truth is, there’s so much gear available on the market it's hard for people getting started in dry fly fishing to know what they need, versus what might be just a shiny object that’s meant to catch more fishermen than fish. I have a closet full of “stuff” that will probably gather dust until the day I move house. (Or my kids can deal with it when I’m gone!)
If you are looking to get into dry fly fishing but don't want to break the bank on gear you'll never use, start with this list.
What’s the basic gear needed to get started in dry fly fishing?
3-6 wt Rod/reel/fishing line
3 Monofilament Leaders
3 spools of monofilament tippet
12-18 Dry Flies
Small Fly Box
Pack to carry your gear
Rod, real, and fishing line
This one may seem obvious, but here’s a common question: “Is there a special type of rod, reel, and line combination I need to cast dry flies?” While some rods will fit your style of fishing better than others, as long as you have a 3 to 6 wt fly rod, reel, and fly line that matches the rod, there is absolutely NO REASON to go out and buy a new rod when starting to dry fly fish. Trust me, if you enjoy it enough, you’ll have plenty of time to buy one, and by the time you do, you'll have a much better idea of what you're looking for.
When dry fly fishing, presentation is king. This comes down to making the appropriate cast given a specific situation. Effectively delivering the fly to the trout becomes much easier when using a leader that fits you and your rod. The best way to determine which leader works best for you and your rod is through trial and error. Once you find one that fits, take at least 3 of them on the water with you. 3 is probably 2 more than you’ll need, but I distinctly remember the trout who was rising in front of me when I tangled up the last of my packed leaders. Without having any spares, all I could do was watch (and mutter a few choice words).
Here’s a good place to start when buying your first leader for dry fly fishing:
- A 9 foot 4x monofilament leader
- A 7 ½ foot 4x monofilament leader
Both of which you would attach 12-36 inches of 5-6x tippet to
If I could go back to my early days of fishing, one thing I would do differently is to learn how to tie my own leaders sooner than I did. By doing so, I’ve not only learned a lot about casting and presentation, I’m now able to modify my leaders depending upon the situation. But the biggest benefit to tying my own leaders, is the impact on my bank account! It's considerably less expensive than buying pre-built leaders (which in those early days of fly fishing, I probably would have spent the money that was saved on leaders on shinny do dads that I didn’t really need anyways).
If you’re going to tie your own, here‘s a good recipe to start with. You can modify it from here to create what works best for you.
- 9.5’: All sections tied with monofilament leader material which can be found in most outdoor stores and fly shops.
38” of .17 of Maxima Ultragreen
30” of .13 of Maxima Ultragreen
11” of .10 of Maxima Clear
8” of .08 of Maxima Clear
30” of 4x, 5x, or 6x monofilament tippet depending upon your preference
Click here for a great resource on leader formulas
3 Spools of Tippet
Whether you're fishing emergers, parachutes, or caddis patterns, the primary presentation is a dead drift. Using a supple tippet material makes this much easier. I prefer Rio Suppleflex in 5x, 6x, and 7x. If you’re used to nymph fishing, you might be familiar with fluorocarbon tippet. For dry fly fishing though, monofilament tippet is preferred because it floats so much better than fluoro.
12-18 Dry Flies
Very few anglers who've been fly fishing for more than a year carry only 12-18 dry flies with them while they’re on the water. But to get started, 4-6 different patterns in 3 different sizes is all you’ll need! This will allow you to determine what you do and don’t like, as well as which are successful on the waters you fish most often. These flies would be good examples for those 12-18. If you have no idea what these look like, just ask someone at the counter. These are fairly standard patterns so they should know what you’re talking about. (If they don’t, ask someone else working there or find a different place to buy your gear).
Parachute Adams: Sizes 16, 18, 20
Elk Hair Caddis: Sizes 14, 16, 18
Foam Hoppers: Sizes 12, 14, 16
Deer Hair Flying Ant: Sizes: 16, 18, 20
Sulphur Dun: Sizes: 14, 16, 18
X-Caddis: Sizes: 14, 16, 18
Small Fly Box
You don’t need anything big if you’re only going to be carrying 12-18 flies. A 3” x 5” box is plenty large enough. One great thing about a small fly box, is at the end of a day on the water, you can look at the empty slots and see which patterns you used the most and which ones need refilled.
Given that dry fly fishing consists of floating something dry on top of a wet surface, it might be a little obvious that at some point the fly will become waterlogged. Floatant allows your fly to stay buoyant much longer than it would on its own, thus saving the time it takes to constantly tie on new flies. There are two primary types of floatant and they both work differently.
Applied to the dry fly after it's tied to the tippet but before it's first exposure to water. This type of floatant technically “sheds” water from the fly, thus increasing the amount of time it can spend on the water before water soaks into the material.
Applied to the dry fly either before or after it has been fished. This type of floatant works to “pull out” the water that either has, or is trying to, soak into the fly. By putting it on before getting it wet, it slows down the waterlogging process. If applied after the fly is already waterlogged, it can bring it back to life by absorbing the water that’s causing the fly to sink.
Having both types of floatant with you is handy, but not necessary. I started out using only the gel type, but now have switched over to powder. The application part is a little more clumsy and storage in my pack isn't quite as handy, but I like the fact that it can be applied to an already waterlogged fly and make it “like new again”.
Maybe goes without saying, but invaluable for snipping off tag ends of tippet.
High Quality Polarized Sunglasses
This is a game changer. I used to believe that most polarized glasses were the same, until I fished with a pair that wasn’t bought at a gas station. I’m not talking about spending hundreds of dollars on glasses (although they are out there if you’re interested), I’m talking about a step above the Break Time model. I’m currently using a pair from Strike King, which I found for under $50. Polarized lenses come in many different shades and colors, everyone’s eyes are different, so the best thing to do is try them out before you buy them to determine which works best for you.
Something to hold your gear while you’re on the water
Dry fly fishing involves sneaking around looking for rising trout, so having something compact and comfortable to hold your gear is extremely beneficial. I’ve tried the following:
Small hydration backpack:
Pros: Can carry water and your gear at the same time
Cons: A little heavier and bulkier than other options
Pros: Lightweight and unencumbering when walking through timber and tall grasses.
Cons: No pocket for a fly box.
Pros: Compact and easy throw in your vehicle when heading out or driving to a different fishing spot.
Cons: Has a tendency to get caught on limbs while walking and fly line while casting.
For a short hike in the woods on a cool day, I prefer the small pouch for it’s lightweight and compactness. If I know I’ll be on the water all day before returning to my truck, I prefer the small hydration backpack. It has enough room to carry all my gear, a snack or two, and the all important water for those balmy days.
Buying equipment for dry fly fishing can be intimidating for many reasons. One of which is sorting through all the “must have” gear to determine what you really need. This list will help you confidently approach the stream knowing you have the essentials, while also helping you avoid spending money on gear you don’t need. If you stick with dry fly fishing for long enough, you’ll most likely add to this list, but this is all you’ll need to get started.