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Fly Fishing Terms For Beginners

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

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 (there are many more in the glossary):

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 of a fly reel, where fly line and backing are tied, wound, and connected to the reel.

Attractor-an impressionistic type of 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 cast of a fly line 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 in order to help a fly 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. Also the lower shaft of the fly rod where the cork handle of a fly rod are joined.

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. Also used for attaching the backing to the fly line with a loop.

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 (upon which 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. This technique allows a fly angler to cast the fly with 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 of fishing two flies 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 artificial fly that imitates 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. Presenting a fly in an eddy can be difficult as the motion of the fly will be opposite of fishing downstream currents.

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 fisherman 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 bringing the fly back without being allowed to touch the surface of the water or the ground.

Floatant- any substance applied to a dry fly to help it float. Floating Fly Line (F)-a fly line where the entire fly lines floats; best all round fly line.

Forceps-hand-operated medical instrument widely used in fly fishing by the fly fisher 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-an attempt by a fly angler to pull on the fly line with the non-casting hand to increase line speed and achieve greater distance.

Imitative Flies- a fly tied to imitate or 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. The type of fly being tied is up to the tier.

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. This is attached monofilament to the fly line using a nail know or loop to loop connection.

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. You should select an artificial fly to imitate the same size and color of any larva you find.

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. The fly rod and fly line weight should match.

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. This technique is paramount for proper presentation of the right fly.

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. A method of presenting a fly under water in a dead drift. Nymphing Rod- Fly Rods usually long and low weights specifically designed for fishing with a nymph, wet fly or streamer.

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. This is important getting a the fly to a target using this cast.

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. These are great if the fishing that is available around you is bass and bluegill ponds and rivers.

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 to get a fish to eat a fly.

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 eat a fly.

Rod Flex-synonymous with action; the manner in which the rod bends through the sections of a fly rod 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 ways to cast a fly line; 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 fishing rod to put 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 and also used in saltwater fly fishing.

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 tapered fly line and leader straighten out at the completion of the cast.

Wading Staff- a packable folding cane that provides stability to a wading fly angler when moving through faster water or unstable terrain. 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:

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

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

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


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