DWWFFGuest Blogger: Mary Kuss. All Photos: Rabbit Jensen. Both Mary and Rabbit are avid fly fishers and leaders in the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association.

Most of us are familiar with a certain very popular series of books, with black and yellow covers. These books have a title that implies that they can teach even a “dummy” how to do whatever the subject in question might be. I think there’s even a book in this series on fly fishing. I can’t jam even a modestly-sized book’s worth of information into this article, but if you’re a fly fisher just starting out I think I can give you a few tips that will make the early days of your journey a lot easier. Intermediate-level fly fishers may even learn a few new tricks.

The complexity of fly fishing becomes quickly apparent to anyone who takes up the sport. It’s very easy to become daunted and discouraged. Part of the problem is that many people who write books or produce other fly fishing instructional materials have been fly fishing long enough that they have lost the beginner’s perspective. They tend to take for granted and omit a lot of things that are so obvious to them that they don’t seem to bear mentioning. Yet these seemingly insignificant bits of information can be a total mystery to someone with no fly fishing background.

Sometimes, in their love and enthusiasm for the sport, these experts want to move on quickly to what’s exciting to them rather than what the beginner needs. I know this happens, because I did it myself when I first started teaching. It took a while for me to understand that to be an effective instructor I had to learn to look at things from my students’ perspective rather than my own.

No one can remove all the bumps in the road to fly fishing competence. My hope is only that I can ease the process a little. Although it’s not going to be possible to explain every bit of fly fishing jargon I may use in this article, for the most part I am going to try hard not to assume that my readers know anything about fly fishing.

It’s not a bad idea to have a checklist of things you will need, whether in the car or on your person, when you head out to fish. After you’ve been fly fishing for a while it will become easier to remember everything you’ll want to bring, and have a system for getting it into your vehicle. However, even experienced fly fishers can slip up and arrive streamside only to have a forehead-slapping moment when they realize they’ve forgotten something as essential as a reel. I know because I’ve done it. This is most likely to happen when you’re distracted and in a hurry.

Let’s start with that most basic of procedures, assembling one’s rod and reel outfit. There’s no absolute right or wrong way to do this. I will simply describe how I do it. This method has evolved after forty-some years of trial and error as an avid fly fisher, and watching a lot of other people perform this essential task.

I’ve seen some beginners leave their vehicle and walk down to the stream carrying their rod and reel in their cases. This is a problem, because you are not going to want to carry those cases around with you while you fish, nor would you want to abandon them on the stream bank. It’s a much better idea to set up your rod and reel at your car and leave the cases there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you “gear up,” use the trunk or cargo area of your vehicle as a work station. I try to keep the back of my Subaru Forester free of clutter, but I know that not everyone can manage to do that. If your vehicle’s cargo area or trunk is full of stuff, drape an old sheet or blanket over it so that you can lay out your tackle items without having them fall down through the crevices and get lost.

As you read through the directions below, I suggest that you have your rod and reel at hand and actually perform the steps as described. This will help you remember the process, and it will make more sense to you. If you practice assembling and disassembling your outfit a few times at home, it will seem much easier and more natural when you do it at the stream.


Start by taking the cap off your rod tube. Then take the reel out of its case. If your rod tube cap is a separate piece, put it into your reel case and zip it up. In this way the cap will not get lost.

Many if not most fly rods are four-piece. Remove the pieces from the tube or protective sack and lay them out in your work area. For any rod of more than two pieces, it’s much easier if you start assembling it from the tip and progress toward the butt. Otherwise you will be struggling to hold up the heavy butt end of the rod as you attempt to work at the tip end.

Loosely assemble the tip section and the next bigger one, line up the guides, and seat the ferrule with a firm push. You want the rod sections joined firmly enough that they will not work loose while you’re fishing, but not so tight that it will be hard to disassemble them when you’re done. By the way, never brace your fingers against the guides as you assemble or disassemble the rod, you can bend the guides or even pull them loose from the rod blank. If your rod’s ferrules are hard to get apart, you will need to clean and wax them. Consult your favorite fly shop for advice on this issue.

Work your way down toward the butt end of the rod, adding one section at a time. The butt section of your rod may or may not have a guide on it. If it does not, you’ll have to examine the reel seat to see how this section should be oriented with the rest of the rod. You’ll want the guides in line with your reel when it’s mounted. You should be able to see the recess that will hold the reel foot and align it accordingly.

Reel set for right-hand wind
Reel set for right-hand wind

Next mount the reel on the rod. Fly reels can be set up for either “right-hand wind” or “left hand wind.” This refers to the hand with which you will turn the reel handle when putting line back on the reel, either while playing a fish or if you have more line out than you need at any given time. Unlike with a spinning rod, there is no absolute rule about which hand will run the reel. A right-handed angler can operate a fly reel with either the right or left hand. I advise using your dominant hand to operate the reel, particularly if one hand is strongly dominant. Most of the time it won’t matter whether you turn the reel handle with your right or left hand. When it does matter, however, the speed and dexterity with which you can manage the reel can significantly affect the outcome of a fight with a big fish.

Reel seat types: up-locking, down-locking and sliding rings
Reel seat types: up-locking, down-locking and sliding rings

Once the backing and fly line were installed on your reel by the fly shop or wherever you purchased your equipment, you became committed to use it in the way it was set up. If the reel was set up for left-hand wind, you will have to use it that way. If you are not happy with the way your reel is configured, you can have it switched without too much difficulty. Any reputable fly shop can do this job for a nominal fee.

When putting line on the reel, it’s customary to turn the reel handle in a counterclockwise direction for left-hand wind and a clockwise direction for right-hand wind. In other words, the handle rotates over the top of the reel and away from the angler at each turn. Although it’s possible to mount the reel backwards from the way it was set up, and reel backwards, this is not recommended. Sooner or later you will find yourself using a borrowed reel that is configured traditionally and you’ll find yourself confused and tangled up.

Pull the leader and a few feet of fly line from the reel in such a way that the line is coming off the bottom of the reel and is not running over any of the reel’s pillars. If the reel’s handle is on the left, you will reel with your left hand. Reel seats come in different configurations. If you can not figure out how your reel seat works, stop in at your local fly shop and let them show you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor our purposes here, let’s assume an up-locking reel seat with a sliding hood and two screw-locking rings. Turn the rod upside down, so that the guides are on the top side. There will be a little recess at the front end of the reel seat, to accommodate one end of the reel’s foot. Slide the front end of the reel foot into this slot. If the reel is set up for left-hand-wind, the reel handle should be on the right when the rod is in this upside-down state. When the rod is rotated to its working position, with the reel and guides underneath, the handle will be on the left side.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACradle the rod and reel in your hand so that the reel doesn’t fall off, then slide the hood up so that it covers the back end of the reel foot. Bring up the first screw ring so that it’s “finger-tight” and snugged firmly up against the hood. Then bring the second ring up to lock against the first one. Never move the two rings at the same time, they can become jammed together and very hard to separate.

Check to be sure the line is coming off the bottom of the reel, not on the side next to the rod. If it does come off the top side of the reel you have the handle on the wrong side.

Now that the rod is assembled and the reel is in place, lay the butt end of your rod in the back of your vehicle with the reel handle up. I always cringe when I see people put their reel down on pavement, or bare soil. If you do this you will scratch up your reel and the butt cap of your rod. And dirt and grit can get inside the reel, negatively impacting its performance and useful life. I’ve also seen people awkwardly try to balance the butt of the rod on their foot while stringing up. This is not going to work unless you have a very short fly rod. It’s OK to put the butt end of your rod and reel over a branch or lay it down in grass if you have to string up in a remote location.

Pull enough fly line off the reel that you can gently fold the fly line over forming a loop. Thread this loop of line up through the guides, letting the leader trail behind. It’s much easier to do this rather than attempt to thread the skinny end of the leader up through the guides, which most people seem to do instinctively. The doubled fly line is a lot easier to see and handle. Once the loop of fly line is outside the tip of the rod, pull the leader on through.

Tie on a fly, any fly, just so you can secure it in the hook keeper and reel up the slack for the walk to the stream. The hook keeper is a tiny loop of metal just above the rod’s grip. Do use it to hold your fly, and don’t mistake it for a guide and put your fly line through it. Don’t stick the hook into the rod’s cork grip, either. Over time this will shred the cork.

If you are very sure you know what fly and method you’re going to use, it’s fine to complete your rigging at the car. I tend to want to wait to see what’s going on with the insects and the fish before I commit to any major rigging. You can imagine how much time and effort is wasted if you put on a nymph, split shot, and strike indicator then walk down to the stream and discover that you really want to fish a dry fly because there are insects all over the water and fish actively rising.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlways take the time to put your rod and reel away properly when you’re done fishing. A rod/reel combination case makes this much easier, since you won’t have to remove the reel from the rod or even unstring the rod or remove the fly. In my opinion, it’s well worth the additional expense to purchase one of these cases. Your rod and reel will be protected yet conveniently ready to go.

If you want to use this time-saver, do buy a two-piece case even if your rod is four-piece. Simply take the rod apart at the center ferrule and let the tip half dangle downward as you reel the fly up to the tip of the rod. Carefully reel up any slack, and fold the rod in half at the ferrule. Slide the entire rod and reel into the case. When you’re ready to fish again, simply remove the rod from the case and assemble the two halves. Carefully pull out enough line to put the fly in the rod’s hook keeper, just above the grip. You’re ready to go.

If you don’t have a combo case, you’ll have to take the fly off the leader, and put the line and leader back on the reel. If your reel is not overloaded with backing and fly line, you should be able to see some daylight in the outer set of ventilation holes on your reel’s spool. Instead of reeling the skinny end of your leader all the way up onto the reel, put about two or three inches of the tip end of the leader out through one of the vent holes. In this way the tip of the leader will not get lost among the coils of line on the reel.

Remove the reel from the rod and put it in its case. Take your rod apart, working from the butt end up to the tip end. If the rod is very wet, wipe off the excess moisture before putting the rod sections into their protective case or sack. Once you’re home, it’s a good idea to take the cap off the rod case and leave it open overnight so that any trapped moisture can escape. It’s also good idea to leave the reel out of its case to dry if it’s very wet.

I hope that this rather detailed description of how to assemble a fly rod and reel outfit will help to demystify the process for the beginners who read it. Always remember that the fly shop near where you live or fish is the greatest resource a fly fishing newbie could possibly have. As you learn and grow in the sport, nothing will help you more than developing a mutually beneficial working relationship with the experienced folks there.

Note from J. Stockard: This article was previously published in the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association Newsletter and, in an edited version, in the Mid-Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. We thought it was worth repeating!

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