top of page

Fly Fishing Terminology For Beginners

Updated: Sep 17, 2022


As a beginner there are a lot of new phrases and terminology that comes along with fly fishing. It can be like drinking from a fire hose, some of it is going to get by you. I've borrowed some terms and definitions from Orvis' beginner fly fishing course. Below are common words or phrases that you'll become familiar with:


Action-a term used to describe the flexing characteristics of a particular rod, generally broken into three categories: fast, medium, and slow. Fast-action rods tend to be stiff, require high line speeds to load, and can perform well against the wind and with larger flies; medium-action rods flex further into the body of the rod, require less force to load, and are typically used in freshwater fishing; slow-action rods flex nearly to the butt, load at short distances, and are most often used for dry-fly fishing.


Arbor-the center part of the spool, where fly line and backing are tied, wound, and connected to the reel.


Attractor-an impressionistic fly pattern, such as a Royal Wulff, tied with certain fish-enticing characteristics, meant to elicit a strike rather than to realistically imitate an insect.


Backcast-that portion of any fly cast that extends behind the caster (as in false casting).


Backing-usually braided Dacron, used to take up space on the spool before the fly line is attached (see spool and nail knot); on salmon, steelhead, and saltwater reels, also becomes important in fighting fish.


Barb-the backward-facing projection cut into a hook near the point to reduce the chances of hooked fish escaping.


Beadhead-term used to describe a fly tied with a bead near the eye of the hook, simulating a head, such as a Beadhead Pheasant Tail. Beads can be brass, nickel, tungsten, or ceramic, and typically add weight to the fly in order to help it sink; however, some beads increase buoyancy.


Butt Section-the thick end of a tapered leader, the section usually attached to the fly line via a loop-to-loop connection or a nail knot.


Caddis-one of the three most important aquatic insects imitated by fly fishers; found around the world in all freshwater habitats; adult resembles a moth when in flight; at rest the wings are folded in a tent shape down the back; the most important aquatic state of the caddis is the pupa, which is its emerging stage.


Clinch Knot-universally used knot for attaching a hook, lure, swivel, or fly to the leader or line; a slight variation results in the improved clinch knot, which is an even stronger knot for the above uses.


Damselfly-an important stillwater aquatic insect most commonly imitated in the nymphal form; usually hatches in early to mid-summer. Adult looks like a dragonfly, but folds its wings along its back when at rest.


Dead Drift-a perfect float (the fly is traveling at the same pace as the current); used in both nymph and dry-fly fishing.


Double Haul-a cast during which the caster quickly pulls and releases the line on both the back cast and the forward cast, used to create greater line speed, enabling the caster to reach farther or cut through wind.


Dropper-anything added to the main leader or to the fly at the end of the leader, most often a second fly or a weight such as split shot. The most common practice is to tie a piece of tippet (from four to 18 inches long) with a clinch knot onto the bend of the hook of a fly already attached to a leader, adding a second fly to the extra piece of tippet. The term “dry-dropper rig” usually refers to an arrangement where a nymph is attached to a high-floating dry fly in this manner.


Dry Fly-any fly fished upon the surface of the water; usually constructed of non-water-absorbent materials; most commonly used to imitate the adult stage of aquatic insects.


Eddy-a section of water in a stream found on the edge of a current that is less disturbed than the surrounding water, providing a place for fish to hold and for insects to emerge.


Emerger-pertaining to aquatic insects, the name used to describe that time frame when the nymph reaches the surface and the adult hatches out; the emerging nymph may well be the single most important nymph phase for the fly fishers to imitate.


False Cast-standard fly-fishing cast; used to lengthen and shorten line, to change direction, and to dry off the fly; frequently overused. In false casting, the line is kept moving backwards and forwards without being allowed to touch the surface of the water or the ground.


Floating Fly Line (F)-a fly line where the entire line floats; best all round fly line.


Forceps-hand-operated medical instrument widely used in fly fishing to remove flies from the jaws of a hooked fish; feature pliers-like jaws with locking clips so that once they are clamped to the hook, they stay there until released.


Hatch-a large number of the same species of insects emerging around the same time.


Haul-a pull on the fly line with the non-casting hand to increase line speed and achieve greater distance.


[ A ][ B ][ C ][ D ][ E ][ F ][ G ][ H ][ I ][ K ][ L ][ M ][ N ][ O ][ P ][ R ][ S ][ T ][ U ][ V ][ W ][ X ]

[A]

Abdomenposterior section of an insect’s body; located just behind the thorax; typically segmented and large in size relative to other body parts.Actiona term used to describe the flexing characteristics of a particular rod, generally broken into three categories: fast, medium, and slow. Fast-action rods tend to be stiff, require high line speeds to load, and can perform well against the wind and with larger flies; medium-action rods flex further into the body of the rod, require less force to load, and are typically used in freshwater fishing; slow-action rods flex nearly to the butt, load at short distances, and are most often used for dry-fly fishing.Adipose Fina small, rayless fin located between the dorsal and caudal fins of salmonids. The adipose fin of hatchery-raised salmon, steelhead, and trout is often removed to distinguish hatchery fish from wild fish.Adultthe winged stage of aquatic insects; reproductive stage.Anadromous Fishmigratory fish, such as salmon and steelhead, that live the majority of their lives in salt water before migrating to fresh water in order to spawn.Anodizinga process used to increase the thickness of the natural oxide layer on the surface of metal parts; often utilized in the construction of aluminum reels and parts intended for saltwater use.Arborthe center part of the spool, where fly line and backing are tied, wound, and connected to the reel.Arbor Knotknot used in fly fishing to attach backing to the spool of a fly reel.Attractoran impressionistic fly pattern, such as a Royal Wulff, tied with certain fish-enticing characteristics, meant to elicit a strike rather than to realistically imitate an insect.

Return to Top

[B]

Backcastthat portion of any fly cast that extends behind the caster (as in false casting).Backingusually braided Dacron, used to take up space on the spool before the fly line is attached (see spool and nail knot); on salmon, steelhead, and saltwater reels, also becomes important in fighting fish.Baetiswidely distributed genus of mayflies typically found in sizes 16 to 22.Bamboooldest rod building material still in use; the classic fly rod material.Barbthe backward-facing projection cut into a hook near the point to reduce the chances of hooked fish escaping.Barrel Knotsame as blood knot (see blood knot).Bass Bugname used to describe a large number of surface bass flies usually tied with hollow hair (such as deer hair).Bass Bug Tapera special weight-forward floating fly line with a short front taper so that the generally wind-resistant bass bugs can turn over (see weight forward and turn over).Beadheadterm used to describe a fly tied with a bead near the eye of the hook, simulating a head, such as a Beadhead Pheasant Tail. Beads can be brass, nickel, tungsten, or ceramic, and typically add weight to the fly in order to help it sink; however, some beads increase buoyancy.Bellymiddle component of a tapered fly line; located past the tip and front taper, but before the rear taper and running line (see running line, front taper, rear taper, and head).Bimini Twista strong, shock-absorbing alteration to a leader using a series of twists and knots, used almost exclusively in saltwater fly fishing for large game such as tarpon.Biota short thick barb from the leading edge of a first-flight feather, typically from a goose or a duck, that is used to simulate tails, legs, or antennae.Blankthe long, slender, tapered cylinder-typically constructed of graphite, fiberglass, or bamboo-to which other components are attached during the manufacturing of a fly rod; simply the “rod” part of a fly rod.Blood Knotthe most widely used knot for tying two pieces of monofilament with similar diameters together; the best knot for construction of a knotted tapered leader; also called the barrel knot.Bobbina fly-tying tool used for holding thread.Bodkinfly-tying tool used to deposit cement or lacquer to a fly, usually consisting of a thin, pointed metal rod attached to a handle.Breaking Strengthamount of effort required to break a single strand of unknotted monofilament or braided line, usually stated in pounds (example: 6 lb. test).Bucktail(1) the hair found on the tail of the Eastern whitetail deer, used in the tying of many types of flies; can be dyed any color, or used natural

(2) a type of minnow-simulating fly, usually constructed of bucktail.Butt Sectionthe thick end of a tapered leader, the section usually attached to the fly line via a loop-to-loop connection or a nail knot.

Return to Top

[C]

Caddisone of the three most important aquatic insects imitated by fly fishers; found around the world in all freshwater habitats; adult resembles a moth when in flight; at rest the wings are folded in a tent shape down the back; the most important aquatic state of the caddis is the pupa, which is its emerging stage (also see larva, pupa and emerger).Callibaetiswidely distributed genus of mayfly that is commonly found in lakes; often called the “Speckled Wing Dun” because of the speckled markings on the leading edge of the adult’s wings. Callibaetis are usually found in sizes 16 and 18.Capepart of a bird skin used for tying flies.Casting Arcthe path that the fly rod follows during a complete cast, usually related to the face of a clock.Caudal Finthe tail fin of a fish. CDCstands for “Cul de Canard” which literally translates to “butt of the duck.” Used both to refer to the feathers from the area around the oil gland of a duck and also to the flies tied with these feathers. The feathers from this area are very wispy and impregnated with natural oils making them extremely waterproof.Chargenus of fish related to trout that prefer cold water and are found many places in the world, identified by a dark body with lighter-colored spots and white-tipped pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins; examples of char are brook trout, lake trout, arctic char, Dolly Varden, and bull trout.Chenillea fuzzy rope-like material used for creating the bodies of artificial flies, often utilized in patterns such as the Woolly Bugger.Chironomidscientific name for the family of insects commonly known as midges; in the pupae stage they typically appear to be small aquatic worms.Click Draga traditional system on many fly reels used to slow down or resist the pulling efforts of a fish, created by a steel ratchet snapping over the teeth of a gear in the reel spool.Clinch Knotuniversally used knot for attaching a hook, lure, swivel, or fly to the leader or line; a slight variation results in the improved clinch knot, which is an even stronger knot for the above uses.Collara fly-tying term for a ring of feathers or hair placed immediately behind the head of the fly.Comparadunseries of no-hackle dry flies developed by Caucci and Nastasi in the 1970s using a hair wing tied in a 180° flair. They are very effective patterns in slow-moving clear water where an imitative (as opposed to impressionistic) pattern is needed.Co-Polymersmixtures of various nylons and plastics along with anti-UV chemicals that have resulted in the exceptionally high breaking strength of modern tippet material. Orvis Super Strong is a co-polymer tippet material. It allows us to use very fine tippets with breaking strengths two-to-four times as strong as regular nylon monofilament. However, co-polymers are not as abrasion resistant as regular nylon monofilament.Czech Nymphinga style of fishing multiple nymphs that trades a standard tapered leader for pieces of small-diameter fluorocarbon in order to get the flies to the bottom quickly; tight-line style of nymphing that evolved in Europe and generally covers water considered unsuited for traditional techniques; ideal for use with 10-foot fly rods.

Return to Top

[D]

Dacronbraided nylon line used for backing.Dampingreducing excess vibrations in the rod blank when unloading the rod during a cast. This causes fewer waves in your fly line resulting in more power and distance for less effort.Damselflyan important stillwater aquatic insect most commonly imitated in the nymphal form; usually hatches in early to mid-summer. Adult looks like a dragonfly, but folds its wings along its back when at rest.Dead Drifta perfect float (the fly is traveling at the same pace as the current); used in both nymph and dry-fly fishing (see mending line and “S” cast).Deer Hairmost commonly used of the hollow hairs for fly tying; used for the Humpy and the Muddler Minnow styles of flies.Deliveryterm used to describe the action of casting a fly to a fish or into a promising-looking area of water; synonymous with presentation.Disc Draga mechanical system within a fly reel that creates resistance as the line is pulled off the spool, created by the application of pressure between two or more discs, often made of cork or carbon.Dorsal Finthe fin on the back of a fish, often divided into two or three separate sections.Double Haula cast during which the caster quickly pulls and releases the line on both the back cast and the forward cast, used to create greater line speed, enabling the caster to reach farther or cut through wind.Double Taper (DT)a standard fly line design in which both ends of the line are tapered, while the greater portion or “belly” of the line is level; excellent line for short or moderate length casts, and for roll casting; not as well suited for distance casts; commonly available in floating or sinking styles.Drag(1) term used to describe an unnatural motion of the fly caused by the effect of the current on line and leader. Drag is usually detrimental, though at times useful (such as imitating the actions of the adult caddis).

(2) Resistance applied to the reel spool to prevent it from turning faster than the line leaving the spool (used in playing larger fish).Drag Freesee dead drift.Dragonflyimportant stillwater aquatic insect most commonly imitated in the nymphal form; usually hatches in early to mid-summer. Unlike the Damselfly, the Dragonfly adult holds its wings straight out (like an airplane) when at rest.Drop-offsteep drop in the bottom of a stream, lake, or beach; often a major attraction for fish as it offers access to shallow water for feeding with the safety of deep water for escape if threatened.Dropperanything added to the main leader or to the fly at the end of the leader, most often a second fly or a weight such as split shot. The most common practice is to tie a piece of tippet (from four to 18 inches long) with a clinch knot onto the bend of the hook of a fly already attached to a leader, adding a second fly to the extra piece of tippet. The term “dry-dropper rig” usually refers to an arrangement where a nymph is attached to a high-floating dry fly in this manner.Dry Flyany fly fished upon the surface of the water; usually constructed of non-water-absorbent materials; most commonly used to imitate the adult stage of aquatic insects.Dry-Fly Floatantchemical preparation that is applied to a dry fly (before using the fly) to waterproof it; may be a paste, liquid, or aerosol.Dubbingmaterial used in fly tying, typically used to create the body of a fly.Dun(1) first stage in the adult mayfly’s life cycle; usually of short duration (1 to 24 hours); this is the stage most often imitated by the dry fly;

(2) a darkish gray-blue color that is very desirable in some fly-tying materials.

Return to Top

[E]

Eddya section of water in a stream found on the edge of a current that is less disturbed than the surrounding water, providing a place for fish to hold and for insects to emerge.Elk Hairhair from the body of an elk that is used in many fly patterns to supply bulk for a body or to provide added flotation.Emergerpertaining to aquatic insects, the name used to describe that time frame when the nymph reaches the surface and the adult hatches out; the emerging nymph may well be the single most important nymph phase for the fly fishers to imitate.

Return to Top

[F]

False Caststandard fly-fishing cast; used to lengthen and shorten line, to change direction, and to dry off the fly; frequently overused. In false casting, the line is kept moving backwards and forwards without being allowed to touch the surface of the water or the ground (see casting arc, back cast, and forward cast).Ferrulethe point where sections of a fly rod are joined; the end of one section fits inside the end of another in an overlapping fashion at the ferrule.Fingerlingan immature fish.Flashbackany type of nymph fly pattern that has a flashy or reflective material tied in at the wing case.Flatan area of water with a relatively stable depth, often over a sand or grass bottom; common area for fish such as bonefish, stripers, and redfish to forage for food.Float Tubea one-person watercraft, typically oval or U-shaped with a seat across the bottom; popular with warmwater anglers and with individuals who fish alpine lakes.Floating Fly Line (F)a fly line where the entire line floats; best all round fly line (see double taper, level, shooting head, weight forward).Fluorocarbontippet or leader material with a low refractive index, making it nearly invisible underwater; known for its tensile and knot strength as well as its UV- and abrasion resistance; best used for saltwater fly fishing or freshwater nymph rigs.Fly Castingstandard method of presenting a fly to a target using a fly rod and fly line; involves many different casts (see back cast, forward cast, false cast, roll cast, “S” cast, and shooting line).Fly Linekey ingredient to fly fishing; made of a tapered plastic coating over a braided Dacron or nylon core; available in several tapers and in floating, sinking, and sink-tip styles (see double taper, shooting head, weight forward, sink-tip, and floating fly line).Fly Reelfishing reel used in fly fishing to hold the fly line. There are three basic types: single action, multiplier, and automatic. Single action means that one turn of the handle equals one turn of the spool. Multiplying reels use a gear system to increase this ratio. Automatic fly reels are becoming less common; they operate by a manually wound spring which is activated by a lever.Fly Roda type of fishing rod especially designed to cast a fly line; fly rods differ from other types of rods in that the reel attaches at the butt of the rod with the rod handle always above the reel; fly rods usually have more line guides than other types of rods of the same length; fly rod lengths vary, with common lengths being between 7 and 9 feet; materials used in fly rod construction are bamboo, fiberglass, and graphite.Forcepshand-operated medical instrument widely used in fly fishing to remove flies from the jaws of a hooked fish; feature pliers-like jaws with locking clips so that once they are clamped to the hook, they stay there until released.Forward Castthe front portion of the false cast or pick-up and lay-down, and a mirror image of the back cast.Forward Tapersee weight forward.Foul Hookto hook a fish anywhere but in its mouth.Freestonetype of river or stream with a significant gradient resulting in medium to fast-moving water; may be spring-fed, but most flows result from snow melt, run-off, or tributaries; fast-moving water inhibits vegetation growth; less fertile than spring creeks, but often full of opportunistic fish.Front Taperthe transition between the tip and the belly of a fly line.Frythe first stage of a fish after hatching from an egg.

Return to Top

[G]

Gel-Spun PolyethyleneA synthetic fiber that is extremely thin, supple, slippery, abrasion resistant, and strong; often used as a braided fly line backing where large amounts of backing are needed and space on the reel is limited.Graphitethe most popular rod-building material in use today; offers the best weight, strength, and flex ratio of any rod building material currently available.Gravel Guardsa standalone neoprene sock or attachment on a wader to pull over the top of wading boots to prevent gravel from collecting inside the boots.Gripthe handle of a fly rod, generally made of cork rings sanded in several different configurations, including a cigar grip, full-wells grip, half-wells grip, and superfine grip.Grilsean immature Atlantic salmon that returns to freshwater having spent a year or less at sea.

Return to Top

[H]

Hacklea feather, usually from the neck area of a chicken; can be any color (dyed or natural); hackle quality, such as the stiffness of the individual fibers and amount of web, determines the type of fly tied with the hackle; many hackles are grown specifically for fly tying.Hackle Pliersfly-tying tool for wrapping hackle feathers around the hook.Hair Stackerfly-tying tool; a small tube that is used to gather and trim a clump of hair, usually deer hair.Hatcha large number of the same species of insects emerging around the same time.Haula pull on the fly line with the non-casting hand to increase line speed and achieve greater distance.Headthe tip, front taper, belly, and rear taper of a fly line considered together as one section; generally the first 30 to 40 feet of a fly line on the casting end.Headwatersupstream section of the river before the main tributaries join it; this section is typically much smaller in width and flow than the main section of the river.Hollow Hairhair from some animals is mostly hollow, thus holding air and making these hairs float; ideal for tying dry flies and bass bugs; antelope, deer, and elk all have hollow hair.Hookthe object upon which the fly is tied; can be any size from tiny to huge; made from steel wire, and either bronzed, cadmium coated, or stainless; hook designs are variable; style used depends upon the type of fly being tied.

Return to Top

[I]

Imitative Flies-flies tied to more closely match specific insects (for instance a BWO Comparadun); imitative flies are most effective in slow-moving, clear water, with finicky trout in fertile streams with large populations of aquatic insects.


Impressionistic Flies-flies tied to loosely suggest a variety of insects or insect families; for instance, a Hare’s Ear nymph in sizes 12-16 can be used as both a mayfly and a caddisfly imitation and in larger sizes as a stonefly imitation; impressionistic flies are usually most effective in medium to fast water, in streams with sparser populations of aquatic insects.


Indicator-floating object placed on the leader or end of the fly line to “indicate” the take of the fly by a fish or to indicate the path of the drift of the fly; used when nymph fishing with a slack line; very effective.


Knotless Tapered Leader-a fly-fishing leader entirely constructed from a single piece of monofilament. Extrusion or acid immersion is most commonly used to taper the leader.


Larva-the immature, aquatic, growing stage of the caddis and some other insects; many species of caddis larva build a protective covering of fine gravel or debris to protect them in this stage; a bottom-dwelling non-swimming stage of the insect.


Leader-the section of monofilament or fluorocarbon line between the fly line and the fly; usually tapered to deliver the fly softly and away from the fly line.


Line Weight-the weight (measured in grains) of the first 30 feet of a fly line, used as a way to standardize fly lines in matching them to fly rods of differing stiffness.


Loading the Rod-phrase used to describe the bend put in the rod by the weight of the line as it travels through the air during the cast.


Mayfly-world wide, the most commonly imitated aquatic insect; most dry-fly and nymph patterns imitate this insect; nymph stage of the mayfly lasts approximately one year; adult stages last one to three days; adults have one pair of upright wings, making it look like a small sailboat; commonly found in cold or cool freshwater environments.


Mending Line-method used after the line is on the water to achieve a drag-free float, typically consisting of a flip, or series of flips, with the rod tip which puts a horseshoe-shaped bow in the line; this slows down the speed with which the line travels if mended upstream, and speeds up the line if mended downstream.


Midge-a term properly applied to the small Dipterans that trout feed on; often called gnats; similar to mosquitoes in appearance; midges have two wings that lie in a flat “V” shape over the back when at rest; term sometimes loosely applied (and incorrectly so) when referring to small mayflies.


Nymph-immature form of insects; as fly fishers, we are concerned only with the nymphs of aquatic insects.


Nymphing-word describing fish feeding on nymphs or the act of fly fishing with nymphs.


Pick-Up and Lay Down-a fly fishing cast using only a single back cast. The line is lifted from the water and a back cast made, followed by a forward cast which is allowed to straighten and fall to the water, completing the cast; good wet fly cast; also useful in bass bugging; most efficient cast to use, when possible, because the fly spends more time in the water.


Popping Bug-a bass bug made from a hard material. Usually cork or balsa wood, as these are high floating materials that can be made into a variety of shapes.


Presentation-the act of putting the fly on the water and offering it to the fish; the variety of presentations is infinite, and changes with each fishing situation. The object is to present the fly in a manner similar to the natural insect or food form that you are imitating.


Pupa-the transition stage between the larva and the adult; to fly-fishers, caddis pupa are the most important of these insects.


Riffle-a small rapid in a river or stream.


Riparian-a term that describes anything of, inhabiting, or situated on a riverbank.


Rise-the action of a fish as it comes to the surface of the water to feed.


Rod Flex-synonymous with action; the manner in which the rod bends during the cast during the acceleration phase of the cast; Tip-Flex rods bend primarily through the tip section, Mid-Flex rods bend down into the middle section, and Full-Flex rods bend throughout the entire rod during the cast.


Roll Cast-one of the three most basic fly casts; allows a cast to be made without a back cast; essential for use with sinking lines, to bring the line to the surface so it may be picked up and cast in a normal manner.


Setting the Hook-the act of pulling the hook into the flesh of the fish’s mouth.


Stonefly-very important aquatic insect; nymph lives for one to three years, depending on species; most species hatch out by crawling to the shoreline and emerging from its nymphal case above the surface, thus adults are available to trout only along shoreline and around midstream obstructions; adult has two pair of wings which are folded flat along its back when at rest; stoneflies require a rocky bottomed stream with very good water quality.


Streamer-fly tied to imitate the various species of baitfish upon which game fish feed; usually tied using feathers for the wing, but can be tied with hair and/or feathers; tied in all sizes.


Stripping line-Retrieving the line by pulling it in through your fingers as opposed to winding it in on the reel.


Tailwater-the downstream section of a river or stream found below a large man-made dam.


Tapered Leader-a leader made of monofilament and used for fly fishing; the back or butt section of the leader is of a diameter nearly as large as the fly line, then becomes progressively smaller in diameter as you approach the tip end.


Terrestrial-land based insects, such as ants or grasshoppers, that are often food for fish.


Tippet-the end section of a tapered leader; the smallest diameter section of a tapered leader; the fly is tied onto the tippet.


Turn Over-words that describe how the fly line and leader straighten out at the completion of the cast.


Weight Forward (WF)-an easy casting fly line because it carries most of its weight in the forward section of the line; instead of a level middle section, like a double taper, it quickly tapers down to a fine diameter running line which shoots through the guides with less resistance for added distance; the most versatile fly line.


Wet Fly-(1) any fly fished below the surface of the water; nymphs and streamers are wet flies; (2) a traditional style of fly tied with soft, swept back hackle, and a backward sweeping wing; the forerunner of the nymph and streamer.


X-measurement used to designate diameter of leader and tippet material used in conjunction with a numeral, as in 4X; To determine the actual diameter of 4X or any “X” number, subtract the numeral from the number 11 (eleven); the result is the diameter in thousandths of an inch; for example, the diameter of 4X material is .007".


Thanks to Orvis putting this together. A more complete list can be found here:

https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/glossary/beginners-fly-fishing-glossary


Come fly fish the Shenandoah Valley and put your new knowledge to work!


bottom of page