How To Fly Fish For Trout: An Angler’s Guide

Our expert angler shares the best methods to fly fish for trout. If you want to learn how to fly fish for trout, whether in streams or lakes, read on.

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An angler’s main goal is always to learn how to fly fish for trout. Fly fishing was created to catch trout. It’s rich history dates back almost two centuries and fly fishing for trout has become a universal language.

It’s a skill that is nearly impossible to master but will always be a great source of entertainment.

Growing up, I was able to experience the joy of catching trout on a spinning rod. It wasn’t until I entered college that I saw how amazing fishing for trout on a fly rod was. It’s an art form and almost all of the best fly fishing destinations are geared towards trout fishing.

For those reasons, it is a technique of fly fishing that will forever hold a special place in my heart.

What is Trout Fly Fishing?

Trout are a fish found all over the United States. They live in cold water streams and feast on small baitfish and flies. There are multiple species of trout found in the United States including brown, rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and bull trout.

Rainbow Trout Species on the fly biting hook

Many fly anglers target streams and rivers in the western United States to fish for trout. The crystal clear water and mountains views lead to experiences anglers remember for the rest of their lives.

The Best Flies for Trout Fishing

Fly choice for trout varies quite a bit depending on where you are located. Each river and region in the United States has specific insects that hatch in their waters.

However, there are a few universal flies that seem to catch fish no matter where you are in the world.

woolly bugger fly

Wooly Bugger

If you look at any anglers fly box, you’ll likely find a Wooly Bugger. These flies are used to imitate smaller baitfish. They’re great to use if you’re fishing deep pools or still water. They have a fanned out “tail” that looks like the tail of a fish when wet.

You’ll use Wooly Buggers with a 5 or 6-weight rod with weight forward or sinking line and 4x tippet. They’re a bit heavier fly that needs to reach the lower levels of the water column to look natural.

Pheasant Tail

Pheasant Tail Nymph

Nymphs are some of the most common flies to use. They imitate a hatching fly and they sit lower in the water column as they develop. A pheasant tail nymph has a small “tail” tied off the hook that looks exactly like a larvae.

These are great to use through riffles, pocket water and even deeper pools. You can use them on weight forward line and lighter tippet. It’s also smart to fish these flies with some sort of indicator.

Elk Hair Caddis

Elk Hair Caddis flies are some of the most common dry flies you can find. They’ll sit on top of the water and imitate a fully developed insect. As soon as an elk hair caddis hits the water, be ready for a bite.

You’ll use the elk hair caddis with floating line, 5x tippet on a 4 or 5-weight rod. Also, be sure to carry floatant to ensure that the fly stays dry and doesn’t begin to sink lower in the water column.

How to Fly Fish For Trout With a Wooly Bugger

When using a Wooly Bugger, you want to be sure you’re using it in pools or other types of deeper water. If you’re fishing a pool, cast the Wooly Bugger ahead of the pool and let it drift into the pool.

Brook Trout Fly Fishing Oregon

As it’s drifting, wait for a strike. If nothing strikes on the dead drift, wait until it reaches the end of the pool and begin stripping towards you. This will often entice fish to come out of the depths and strike the fleeing fly.

How to Fly Fish For Trout With a Pheasant Tail Nymph

There are a variety of ways to fish with a pheasant tail nymph. The most common is to fish the nymph along cut banks or through riffles. Hold your rod tip high above the water and let the nymph lead the way.

As it floats downstream, fish will dart out from their cover to strike. Be sure you tie an indicator on a few feet above the nymph to help you see when you get a bite. These flies take some technical ability to use, but they’re quite a bit of fun.

How to Fly Fish With an Elk Hair Caddis Fly

Dry fly fishing requires quite a bit of finesse. The small flies can be difficult to cast and rest on the water without much commotion. When using dries, you want to target where fish are rising. If you see a fish feed at the surface, cast near it.

Trout Species Fly Fishing in Canada

Once you cast near the rise, be sure you don’t have any extra drag. Dry flies need to look extremely realistic in order to work. Also, use 4 or 5x tippet to make sure that the only thing the fish are seeing is the fly. Light-reflecting off of the water can expose your leader and tippet!

Gear to Use When Fly Fishing For Trout

When targeting trout, there are a few things that every angler needs. You need a rod, reel, line, and a wide variety of flies. The more experience anglers gain, the more their fly fishing arsenal grows.

It’s tempting for anglers to purchase too much gear, but it takes time to understand your preferences and the necessary equipment.


When fishing for trout, you can use anything from a 3-weight to a 6-weight. Depending on the size of trout you’re targeting and the water you’re fishing, the weight of your rod changes.

Orvis Encounter Fly Rod For Trout Fishing
Me Holding My Orvis Encounter Fly Rod and Reel

If you’re fishing large rivers like the Yellowstone or Columba River, you’ll want a 6-weight. You’ll need the extra casting power as well as more power to fight the larger fish you may catch. The larger the water, the larger the rod.

If you’re fishing small mountain streams, you’ll likely only need your 3 or 4-weight. These rods will be a bit shorter in length and easier to use when making finesse casts. You don’t want to feel cramped when fly fishing. These smaller rods will help you feel more confident in your abilities when on small streams.

Overall, a 5-weight is going to be your most versatile trout rod. It will be able to thrive in almost any situation you put it in.


Be sure that you match your reel to your rod. If you’re using a 5-weight rod, be sure you’re using a 4 or 5-weight reel. Your rod and reel need to be balanced. If not, your casts will not be nearly as accurate as you would like.


Depending on what type of flies you’re using, your fly line will differ. If you’re using streamers and larger nymphs, you’ll want weight forward or sinking line. Weight forward line will sink in the water column, but not too far. It’s the most universal fly line available.

setting up fly line on a fly reel

Sinking line is great if you’re fly fishing in deep lakes. Many times the larger fish will sit near the bottom and you’ll need line that is going to fall in the water column. Sinking line will fall quickly and put you in the best position to catch fish.

If you’re fishing with dry flies, you’ll want floating line. This line will stay on top of the water and not pull your fly under the surface. Floating line is absolutely vital if you’re going to be using small flies like Elk Hair Caddis. Any sort of pull from your fly line will immediately submerge the fly.

Leader and Tippet

Leader and tippet are another vital portion of your fly setup. For trout, you’ll only need 3 or 4x leader. Few trout are going to require larger leader. For tippet, you’ll want 4x to 6x.

how to tie fly line to leader

Many anglers don’t use any tippet if they’re fishing with streamers. They need the stronger leader to hold the streamer and ensure that the trout don’t break the line. However, if you do use tippet, be sure that it is 4x.

For nymphs, you can use 4 or 5x tippet. The lighter tippet is going to make your fly a bit more presentable. For dry flies, use 5 or 6x tippet. The trout should only be seeing your fly. If this is the case, you have a higher chance of receiving a bite.

How to Fly Fish For Trout

There are a variety of ways to fly fish for trout. Each type of water and region of the world requires a few different methods. Fly fishing a lake is going to look much different than fly fishing in a mountain stream!

Fly Fishing for Trout in a Lake

When you’re targeting trout in a lake, the first thing you need to consider is the time of day. Is it in the morning or the evening? If so, the fish are likely rising and hitting dry flies.

fly fishing for trout on a lake

If you see rises, tie on your dry flies. Cast near a rise and see what happens. It shouldn’t take long for you to receive a strike! If the fish aren’t rising, tie on a streamer or large nymph.

When fishing with streamers and large nymphs in a lake, look for structure. Fish are always going to want to sit by structure because it provides them an element of safety. Cast near the structure, let your fly sink and begin stripping towards yourself.

As you are stripping, vary your retrieval speed to see what is going to work. Depending on the day, the fish may want a bit more aggressive strips or vice versa.

Fly Fishing For Trout in a River

When fishing for trout in a river, you want to look for three main areas: pools, pockets, and seams. A pool is a slow-moving, deep portion of the river. A pocket, is a small pool in front of behind structure.

Fly Fishing for trout in Argentina on a river

A seam is where two currents meet! Food usually is most easily found in these three areas a fish like to congregate in them. Cast your fly above all of these options and let it drift into them.

As it drifts, be prepared for a strike. If it doesn’t happen, let it drift through each option and begin stripping towards yourself. Fish are willing to leave structure or safety in an effort to strike a fly.

Fly Fishing For Trout in a Small Stream

Small stream fishing is amazing. It requires an extreme amount of skill and is often rewarding. When fishing small streams, you want to look for cut banks, eddies, pockets, and riffles.

When fishing cut banks, cast your fly as deep under them as you can. Fish will always sit under these. Dead drift your fly under a cut bank and you’ll likely receive a strike.

Fly Casting Long Cast
A Photo Of Me Fly Fishing For Trout On a Small Stream

Eddies are great places to target in small streams. They’re often the deepest and fish will stack themselves in them in hopes of food. Let your fly drift into the eddy and it won’t take long for you to get hit.

When fishing pockets, you want to drift it along the side of them. The fly will naturally fall into the pocket and fish will strike it out of pure instinct. Finally, when fishing riffles, let your fly dead drift through them.

Trout will hit a dead drifting fly through a riffle. It doesn’t take much more them to strike!

Best Time to Fish For Trout

When fishing for trout, you should try to go in the morning or evening. These are when the hatches happen and the trout are most actively feeding. Also, May through October is the best time of year to fish for trout.

winter fly fishing for trout

For weather conditions, a slightly cloudy day is great. You’re more hidden from the fish and you don’t have to deal with as much glare on the water. Sunny days are nice as well, but you’re going to have to be a bit more inconspicuous.

It’s also good to fish right before and after a storm. Storms make the fish more aggressive and they’re always willing to feed. If you feel a weather system coming in, spend a few more minutes on the river and you’ll likely catch quite a few fish.

Fly Fishing For Trout Tips & Tricks

There are quite a few ways to fish for trout and each body of water is going to require a different technique. There are a few methods that seem to work on every river, but the best way to learn is to get on the water yourself and experiment.

Present Ahead of the Fish

When you’re fly fishing, presentation is always going to be key. If your fly doesn’t look natural, your chances of catching the fish decrease. If you identify a location where a fish might be, cast above the fish.

delicate presentation of fly when fishing for trout

When you cast above the fish, you give your fly time to drift right over top of it. The drift over the top of the fish will make it look more natural. If you’re fishing a pool, cast a few feet ahead of it so the current sucks the fly directly into the pool.

Always pick a spot a few yards of where you would like your fly to be and cast there. Once you hit your spot, you can move on to mending your fly.

Mend, Mend, Mend

Mending is a skill best learned over time. The biggest thing to remember, however, is to let your fly do the work. You always want your fly to lead the charge.

If your fly line or leader is pulling your fly downstream, the presentation will not look natural. If you’re fishing a faster current, the first thing you should do when your fly hits the water is to lift up your rod tip and mend.

Mending Fly Line

A great rule of thumb is to mend upstream. This puts your fly in charge of choosing its path. The less line you can have in the water, the better. The more line that is in the water, the more of a chance of an unnatural drift.

Mending doesn’t have to be an elaborate maneuver. A small flick of the wrist may be all it takes to reposition your fly. Read the current. If you line is being pulled downstream ahead of your fly, a quick wrist role will likely put it in its proper place.

Read the River

Before you do any of the above-mentioned steps, you need to take a few minutes to read the river before you cast. Where do you think the fish might be hiding? What obstacles will get in the way of your fly?

Savegre river costa rica

Where do you need to cast to create the most natural drift? The more of a plan you have before you put your fly on the water, the better chance you have of catching fish. Preparation and studying will always pay off in the long run.


Fishing rarely requires the same action two times in a row. When you are fly fishing, you need to be willing to try new things and make mistakes. Fish are finicky and require quite a bit of attention to catch.

Lower Deschutes River Oregon Fly Fishing

If your mends don’t seem to be helping, try something new. If the pattern of fly isn’t drawing any attention, try something new. The more time you can spend on a body of water, the more of a chance you have at learning the tendencies of the fish.

Best Destinations For Trout Fishing

There are locations all over the world to fish for trout. A quick Google search will present thousands of rivers and lakes for you to choose. If you search hard enough, there are likely several areas within a few hours that hold trout.

There are, however, a few key places that every trout fly angler should visit.


Wyoming has numerous legendary rivers. The Bighorn, Yellowstone, Snake and Green Rivers all hold trophy trout and provide anglers with the opportunity to witness amazing scenery.

Jackson Lake Wyoming

Wyoming is a wonderful place to visit if you’re in search of seclusion. There are thousands of miles of water and ample opportunity to escape into the mountains to fish. Do your best to make a visit to Wyoming. You’ll understand why it’s the favorite destination for anglers.

Read More: Our Guide To Fly Fishing in Wyoming

New York

New York is the birthplace of fly fishing in the United States. Some of the most prominent fly fishing brands in the world have headquarters in New York. The Au Sable and Beaverkill River systems are some of the best in the country.

Fly Fishing in New York Featured Image River

You can’t go wrong visiting New York. You can enjoy some beautiful time in the city and combine with a fly fishing trip of a lifetime. For any history buff, New York is a necessary place to visit.

Read More: Our Guide To Fly Fishing in New York


Montana is another state with quite a bit of fly fishing history. Anglers from all over the world have been flocking to the Yellowstone and Madison rivers to try their hand at landing trophy trout.

Madison River Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing For Trout on The Madison River in Montana

Beautiful fly fishing lodges are spread throughout the entire state and offer anglers the opportunity to learn more about how to truly succeed in the sport.

Read More: Our Guide To Fly Fishing In Montana

Why Go Fly Fishing For Trout?

Every fly angler needs to target trout. These elusive fish are hard enough to catch on spinning gear so adding the extra challenge of a fly rod makes it much more exhilarating.

Rainbow Trout Species for Fly Fishing

The art of casting and hitting the perfect spot where a trophy trout is waiting is a difficult feeling to match. These fish are going to do everything in their power to not hit your fly, but the more you practice, the more success you’ll have.

That’s How To Fly Fish For Trout

Remember, presentation is key in fly fishing. Many anglers will stand by the fact that it doesn’t matter what fly you throw, as long as it looks natural, the trout will eat it. There is some truth to this statement.

Trout are going to reside in some of the most beautiful places in the world. Even if they aren’t biting, trout fishing will always provide something amazing to look at. Be patient, practice and you’ll eventually learn the ways of these fish.

Fly fishing for trout will provide story after story and hook you for life. As soon as you land your first trout on the fly rod, you’ll look for every opportunity to catch more.

Some photos in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.

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How To Fly Fish For Trout An Angler’s Guide
How To Fly Fish For Trout

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My name is Danny Mooers and I’ve been fly fishing for five years. As soon as I went to college, I dove headfirst into my obsession for fly angling. Every spare weekend or long break was dedicated to finding fish. I’ve fished all over North America in search of trout, salmon, steelhead and everything in between. I currently write articles for Guide Recommended and Reel Adventure Fishing. Fly angling is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hobbies any person can have. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.  It’s an addicting activity that tests everything from your fine motor skills to your patience, but it’s well worth your time.

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