Mastering the Art: Essential Fly Fishing Rig Tips for Beginners

Mastering the Art: Essential Fly Fishing Rig Tips for Beginners

In one of our Minturn Anglers Fly Fishing Schools last season, I had our group of students pull into a parking lot.  I noticed one other SUV at the opposite end of the long dirt lot.  I could tell that he was rigging up for the day.  We proceeded to get wadered up and move down to the river.  I could still see the fly fisherman rigging.  I got through my river safety portion and started talking about entomology.  The fisherman was still working on his fly fishing rig.  I then moved to the knots and rigging section of the class.

 

At this point, we were just about an hour into the class when I heard a trunk slam hard from across the parking lot and some inaudible frustrated words.  A door slammed and then the SUV peeled out of the parking lot kicking up a cloud of dust while heading up the road away from the river.  I could tell this fly fisherman was newer, that he was rigging up that morning, and something happened that was so frustrating that he gave up an entire day of fishing ahead of him.  I suppose I’d be pretty frustrated if it took me over an hour to fly fishing rig up, too.  Don’t be this guy.

 

I’m just going to say it, this article will not take the place of either a really good fly fishing rig class or time on the water.  You won’t be able to learn everything you need to learn here as a beginner fly fisher.  Too often, I’ve shown people a knot, given a rigging tip, or provided an example on the water and I know that it will be forgotten before the waders have dried.

 

I don’t mean to be pessimistic here.  Rather, I want you to understand that rigging proficiency comes with practice, practice, and more practice.  If you’re sitting down watching your favorite football (or preferably basketball) team, practice tying knots and rigging.  If the only times you’re practicing rigging is on the river, you’re shortchanging yourself in a big way.

 

I’m going to throw some tips and tricks at you in this article in no particular order.  Please know that most of the fly fishing rig tips are for nymphing based on our Western Rivers here in Colorado.  As a point of reference, my guide nymph rigs here generally consist of the following: 5wt weight forward floating fly line > 7.5’ 2x leader > tippet ring > 3x fluoro tippet > attractor fly > 4x fluoro tippet > fly > 5x fluoro tippet > smallest fly.

 

These are all tied using a Davy knot and I usually tie my flies on eye to eye instead of eye to hook bend as I fish a lot of barbless flies.  This setup is also the general setup for my personal fly fishing rigs when I’m nymphing, but I will usually go a little lighter on my leader and tippet.

 

Alright!  Let’s get started!  Fly fishing rig tips in no particular order:

 

GENERALLY

  1. Practice.  Practice.  This is so important, that it gets mentioned at least twice in this article.  You have to practice rigging and knowing your knots.  Don’t be the frustrated guy in the parking lot.  Your time to practice is at home.  Go buy some larger hooks and some Stren fishing line from Walmart for $3 and practice away.  Build that muscle memory.  It’ll pay off on the river, I promise.
  2. Know your knots. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube videos out there about fly fishing knots. You don’t need to know all the crazy knots out there, but you need to know some and especially those that span your rig: perfection Loop (leader attachment), surgeons knot (leader to tippet), clinch knot (leader to flies), non-slip loop knot (streamers).  There are many others and “improved” versions of these.  Watch some YouTube videos and practice at home.  As a quick note, I use the Davy Knot more than the clinch.
  3. Use new and quality gear. If your tippet is old, it will break.  If your fly line is old and cracked, it will not float. This doesn’t mean that you have to have the newest and best of everything, but you need to have newer and quality gear.  I buy new tippet at the beginning of every guiding season because tippets ages rapidly.
  4. Taper your fly fishing rig. I learned this from our head guide, Levi Lambert, and it has been immensely important.  This is where your leader might be a 3x, your first fly might be on 4x, your second on 5x, and your third on 6x.  Why?  This way, if you snag your last fly or a fish breaks you off, you generally only lose the weakest tippet section.  Otherwise, if the tippet sections are all the same break strength, it’s still going to break at the weakest section, but that could be anywhere in your rig and may even be your leader if it’s the oldest.
  5. Think logically about what is happening with your rig. This goes for any type of rig.  Think about how the different components interact so that you can get the best drift possible.
  6. Never be afraid to adjust your fly fishing rig. Add weight or subtract weight.  Change the distance between flies.  Move your indicator.  Try a different fly.  Too often, we tend to keep the same setup all day even when it’s not working.  Never be afraid to change your rig after a while if it’s not producing.
  7. Use the lightest tippet you can reasonably get away with. This isn’t to say that you have to fish with 7x all the time, but fishing to 12” browns with 3x is overkill.
  8. Pinch your barbs on everything but the smallest flies. This will allow you to get the flies out of the fish easier, but also your skin and clothes.
  9. Re-rig at the bank. Too many new anglers try to tie on a new fly in the middle of the river only to drop that fly, or their entire fly box in the river.  I even did this myself a few weeks ago.  I tied up several specific flies for a day out with some of my buddies.  I had them in an old hook box as I hadn’t transferred them into my fly box yet.  I went to change flies, the hook box opened, and almost all of those fresh flies floated downstream.  If you re-rig at the bank, if you drop something, it’s easier to find.  Plus, you don’t have the water moving behind you to mess with your eyes.
  10. If you can travel with your rods rigged, do it. This makes it easier once you get to the river.  This is why I’m a fan of Riversmith and Trout Mount.
  11. Wet the knots that need to be wet. Knots like the clinch knot and surgeon’s knot need to be wet (by spit or water) before they are synched down.  Without this, you get line burn and will dramatically decrease the strength of that knot and line.  Ever get a curly Q or a pig’s tail when your line breaks?  That was the knot that failed and it was likely because it wasn’t wet appropriately.

 

NYMPHING

  1. Overweight rather than underweight with split-shot. I was told during guide school by Levi Lamber, again our head guide out of our Lone Tree shoot, that the difference between a bad day and a good day of fly fishing can be a single split shot.  Man, that has proven to be so true.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out with clients, and the fishing is mediocre to poor, I add a split-shot, and we’re suddenly into fish.  So, if you’re going to err on one side or the other, err on the side of being too heavy.  This doesn’t mean that you need a boat anchor, but keep adding split-shot until you see your rig tick on the bottom.  No ticks after three good drifts?  You need more distance or more weight.
  2. Use the smallest indicator you can get away with. Too often I see guys with very light rights and huge indicators.  The larger the indicator the more drag they create and the less sensitive they are.  Sometimes we have to do this with drop-shot rigs, but you really want to go with the smallest and lightest indicator you can so that you can see more strikes and have less drag on your fly fishing rig.  Check out our blog article on indicators.
  3. The distance between flies matters somewhat. You don’t want your flies to be too close to the split-shot or each other.  You don’t want them to be too far apart either.  8″-24″ is probably the minimum and maximum range.  Most of us will rig in that “12 to 18” range.
  4. Don’t use overly weighted flies. This isn’t to say you can’t use flies with beads and whatnot, but I’m not a fan of flies with huge beads and lead wire in a traditional nymph rig.  You lose the ability to control the weight and therefore the drift.  Plus, they snag a whole lot more.  This doesn’t apply to Euro or drop-shot rigs.  Also, be cautious of tungsten-weighted flies for traditional nymph rigs.
  5. Use easily adjustable indicators. Look at Air Cell and Oros indicators.  Thingamabobbers are fine too, but they don’t adjust very well.  I like indicators that don’t damage my leader and allow me to make quick and precise adjustments.

 

DRIES

  1. Use nylon (often incorrectly referred to as mono) tippet for dries. Nylon doesn’t sink like fluorocarbon tippet does.  This won’t drag down your flies.
  2. Throw to flies. If you’re wanting to fish a small size 20 or 24 Adams, or something like that, they’re pretty hard to see.  Here’s another Levi Lambert special, tie on a larger file that’s more visible first and then trail the tiny fly 6” or so off the back of the larger fly.  If you see a fish rise within that 6” radius, set the hook.
  3. Fish the film. Sometimes fish are eating emergers in the film and not on top of the water.  You may want to not apply floatant and let the fly sink every so subtly.
  4. Use floatant before your fly is wet and dry shake after your fly is wet. Applying floatant to a wet fly doesn’t really work.

 

THE LAST CAST

There is much, much more to a good fly fishing rig.  This article was intended to give you as a new, or even experienced angler, some tips and tricks that will allow you to have more success on the water.  I think the single biggest mistake that anglers make in rigging is that they don’t really think through what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.

 

Plus, and I really can’t emphasize this enough, practice at home.  The river is not the place to learn how to create a successful fly fishing rig.  I hope these tips and tricks allow you to find more fish on the end of your line and make your setups more consistent.  Remember, the one rule in fly fishing is that there are no rules in fly fishing.

 

If you want to learn to rig for more success come take one of our Fly Fishing Classes, or better yet, book a trip with one of our experienced guides who will be happy to teach you their tips and tricks in person.

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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