Assembling Your Fly Fishing Tackle

Getting off on the right foot in fly fishing begins with obtaining a well-balanced tackle system and knowing how to assemble it. Putting all the components together can be confusing, bewildering, and down right discouraging without some help or good advice.

The best place to get assistance is at the shop where you purchased the equipment.

Fly-fishing friends or local fly-fishing clubs are also usually willing to show you how they do it.

If you have to go it alone, here is a guide to procedures that will allow you to make the most of preparing, using, and storing your fly tackle.

Fly Tackle Components

Fly tackle usually consists of seven components:

  1. rod
  2. reel
  3. backing
  4. fly line
  5. leader
  6. tippet material
  7. flies

Seldom do these come totally assembled and ready to fish. Usually each item comes in a separate package, so the procedures of attaching the backing to the reel, fly line to backing, leader to fly line, tippet to leader, and fly to tippet must be done before casting and fishing with the tackle. Assembly requires learning and using a few knots.

Getting Started

Before you begin assembly, pick a well-lighted area with a chair and table.

You should have on hand the following items:

  • a pair of small scissors
  • fingernail clippers
  • a small pair of needle-nose pliers
  • a pencil
  • a few small screw drivers
  • a size 8 needle
  • a small strawlike tube or large needle
  • a bottle of flexible nail polish or fly head cement

1. What Hand Will You Reel With?

First, you must decide which hand you will use to reel in the line.

Fly-fishing tradition has usually dictated cranking the reel with the hand used to do the casting. However, this requires switching the fly rod from the left hand to the right or from the right hand to the left.


Using one hand to cast and fight a fish and the other hand to operate the reel has more advantages than the traditional switching-hands method. I believe it is almost always better to crank the reel with your free hand (the left hand for right-handed casters and the right hand for left-handed casters).

Change the Reel to Accommodate Your Reel Hand

Consult the reel instructions to see if your model is reversible. Most reels, because of tradition, come set up to retrieve with the right hand. The reel’s line guard and the drag system will be set accordingly.

If conversion is possible, the manufacturer will supply conversion instructions with the reel, along with operating instructions. A small screwdriver is usually the only tool you will need for the conversion.

When the reel is set up for the hand you choose, attach the reel to the reel seat on the rod’s butt section. Make sure the reel is hanging below the rod and the reel handle is on the correct side for the hand you have decided to use to crank the reel. The reel’s line guard should face forward.

Attaching Line to Reel

This is the most time intensive step.  If your reel came with a fly line and leader already attached, then you can skip it.  If you need to attach backing, line and leader, then follow these steps.


Now before you start putting line on your reel it would be wise to determine how much backing is needed to take up the dead space on the reel. Generally there are two ways to do this.

The first is read the instructions that the manufacturer has provided. There is usually a chart that matches weight and length of fly line to appropriate backing lengths. This is generally a good estimation and often times is exactly what is needed. However, some angler’s prefer to have a little less backing on the spool.

To determine this amount the standard practice is to first wrap your fly line around the empty spool then attach the backing to it once it is wound up. Continue to wind on the backing until satisfied with the amount of spool space taken. This could be 1/8th or 3/16ths inch from the edge of the spool for most.

The difficulty with this method is that the line now has to be removed and reversed on the reel. One may find themselves walking around the room laying out rows of line and backing in an attempt to not cause a bird’s nest when winding the reel for the final time.

Another good thing to do before assembling your gear would be to practice the knots you are going to use with either an old leader or better yet an old fly line. Really any rope will do.

Backing To Reel

There are two main reasons for using backing on the reel.

  1. The first is that it allows the fly line to wrap in larger diameter coils about the reel spool. This will greatly reduce line memory as well as allowing the angler to reel in line faster.
  2. Also, when playing a big fish it may make the difference between a successful landing after a big run.


The most common form of backing today is made from a braided material known as Dacron. This is sold under many brand names and is a product from Dupont.

Dacron backing comes in a variety of strengths. For weighted lines 4 or less a good match would be the 20 lb test while 5 -weight or greater should use a 30 lb test.

To begin, attach your reel to the rod seat. This will allow using the guides to help keep the line moving more efficiently.

Once the amount of backing has been determined and you are ready to attach the backing to the reel, pass the tag end of the backing through the stripper guide of the rod and around the arbor of the spool.

The most basic connection to attach backing to reel is accomplished by using the Arbor Knot.

arbor knot for fly fishing
arbor knot
  1. In the tag end, tie a single overhand knot without disturbing the standing part of the backing line.
  2. Then tie another overhand knot across the standing part of the backing line.

This effectively make a slip knot with a stopper knot.

Now hold the reel in you left hand while pulling on the standing part of the backing with your right effectively snugging the two knots against the arbor.

To finish the step begin to reel the line smoothly on to the reel. Make sure the line is feeding to the bottom of the reel. If not then this would indicate that one is winding in the wrong direction. Make smooth layers while keeping a tight pack of the backing. The next step is attaching the fly line to the backing.

Fly Line to Backing

Ensure that you have a few few feet of backing unwound from the reel in order to be comfortable with the next knot. Now unwind 3 feet of fly line from the container. Make sure you have the tag marked “this end to reel”.

To attach the two, use the Albright Knot.

  1. Start by doubling back a few inches of the fly line and hold the loop with your left thumb and forefinger.
  2. With the right hand, insert about 8 inches of backing into the fly line loop from the side facing you and pinch it with your left thumb and forefinger.
  3. With your right hand wrap the tag end of the backing over both sections of the fly line and the backing.
  4. Continue moving from your left to right wrapping 10 times toward the loop end. Ensure that these loops remain fairly tight.
  5. Push the tag end of the backing back through the loop so that the tag leaves the loop in the same direction it originally entered.
  6. Next pull the standing end of the backing to remove the loop held in the left hand.
  7. Then pull both tag and standing section of the backing.
  8. Now, pull gently on both ends of the fly line while squeezing the knot down, but not off, the loop ending.
  9. Moisten the knot and hold all four ends sections of line.
  10. Pull as tight as possible to ensure a tight knot. Clip off the tag ends when complete.

You are now ready to wind the fly line onto the reel. Make sure to keep the line tight and load the reel evenly.

When you are done you should have about 3/16ths of an inch left on the reel.

Leader to Line

To form a strong non-slip connection, use a Nail Knot to attach the leader to the fly line. The nail knot requires an cylindrical object about twice the diameter of the fly lie.

A tube is ideal for this knot.

  1. Grasp both the fly line and tube with your left hand leaving a few inches to work with.
  2. With the right hand bring in a large loop and pinch it down with your left hand.
  3. Proceed to make 5 or 6 snug wraps around both the tube, leader, and fly line sections.
  4. Make sure that these wraps are at least a half inch from the end of the fly line and tube.
  5. Slide your left thumb and forefinger over the wraps to make sure they hold while feeding the tag end of the leader through the tube from right to left.
  6. Next remove the tube from the left and begin to snug the wraps by pulling on both ends of the leader.
  7. Moisten the knot and ensure that all of the wraps are smooth and uniform.
  8. Now pull hard on both sides of the leader until it bites into the fly line.
  9. Then pull hard on the fly line in order to further seat the knot in place. Lastly, trim the tag ends so both the leader and the fly line.
tube knot
tube knot

You are now ready top attach tippet to leader.

Tippet to Leader

While fishing it will be necessary to develop a quick method for attaching tippet to the leader. Arguably the fastest method is to employ the use of the Surgeon’s Knot.

  1. Begin by overlapping the leader and tippet for about six inches.
  2. Then hold the standing leader and the tag end of the tippet between the left thumb and forefinger.
  3. Use the right hand to create an overhand knot with the leader tag end and the tippet.
  4. Then pas the tag ends again through the loop just created.
  5. Now just grasp all for ends and pull. Before pulling taught. Moisten the knot and proceed to tighten securely. Trim the tag ends.


Loop-to-loop Connections

Some fly fishers find changing leaders and tippets with the procedures just outlined to be too time consuming. By putting a fixed-loop knot on the end of a short section of permanent leader butt section a fast simple loop-to-loop connection can be used to change leaders quickly.

loop to loop connection
Loop to Loop

Simply put a second loop in the new leader’s butt end and pass one loop through the other to make the connection. The same procedure applies for loop-to-loop leader-tippet changes. Just unlock the loops when you want to change.

Use either a perfection loop or double surgeon’s loop (not to be confused with the double surgeon’s knot) for these loop-to-loop connections.

Fly to Tippet

The last step in assembling your tackle is to use an Improved Clinch Knot to secure the fly to the tippet material.

  1. Begin by inserting five inches of tippet into the eye of the fly hook.
  2. Then proceed to wrap 5 or 6 turns away from the hook around the standing portion of the tippet.
  3. Next take the tag end of the tippet and pass it through the opening created by the first wrap. This will create an open loop over all of the tippet wraps.
  4. Next push the tag end through the newly created loop and start to pull slightly while observing the knot beginning to close.
  5. Moisten the knot. Alternately pull on the standing portion of the tippet and the hook until he knot snugs neatly against the hook.
  6. Always be sure to give the knot a hard tug at the end to ensure it will not slip.

2. Uncasing the Fly Rod

Your fly rod and fly reel should be carried in protective cases. If your equipment was supplied with cases, be sure to use them.

If your rod does not have a case, you can purchase one made of aluminum or fiberglass, or you can make one of PVC tubing and end caps.

Rod sacks and protective reel cases are also available at most fly shops or from mail-order suppliers. (When purchasing a rod or reel case, be sure the cases you buy will fit your equipment. Don’t assume that your rod breaks down into sections of equal length. If possible, take your rod and reel along with you when you buy cases for them.)

Remove your fly rod from its tube and cloth bag. Put the tube lid in your pocket as you open the tube.

Once the rod is pulled out of the cloth bag, put the bag back into the tube and replace the cap. This keeps your bag and tube dry and clean and prevents loss.

3. Fly Rod Assembly

Put the rod’s sections together by connecting the ferrules.

Most rods are two-piece, so there will be only a single ferrule connection.

Multi-piece pack rods with as many as six sections have additional ferrules.

With pack or travel rods, begin assembling the rod at the butt end and progress to the tip.

Line up the guides and slightly tighten the ferrule. Never push, force, or twist the ferrule excessively-damage or locking of the rod sections may occur if you do.

Look down the rod to make sure the guides are all in a straight line.

To avoid rod damage do not lay the rod down or prop it against an irregular surface as you unpack your fly reel. Be especially cautious of doors and car trunks, which break more rods than fish do.

4. Fly Reel Attachment to Rod

Remove the fly reel from its bag or case. Do not drop it. Most fly reels will be damaged if dropped onto a hard surface.

Position the reel correctly, making sure the handle is on the proper side, and tighten the reel seat hardware down snugly on the reel foot.

Never tighten the reel to the seat by using excess finger pressure or pliers.

5. Pulling Line Through the Rod’s Guides

Find the leader’s end and pull the entire leader and 10 to 15 feet of fly line from the reel.

Pull line off with one hand while holding the rod with the other.

Never lay the rod down and pull the line out. This will cause reel damage and allow grit to get into the reel. If grit does get into the reel, remove the spool and rinse off both the frame and spool with fresh water. This will usually flush away most of the grit.

Double over the fly line about two feet from the leader and pass the doubled end through each guide, pulling the excess line and leader after it.

6. Straightening the Leader and the Fly Line

Because both the leader and fly line are stored in small coils on your reel, they will not be straight enough for good casting and fishing performance.

You must straighten each.

Stretching the Leader

Hold the fly line firmly just above the leader junction knot. Grasp the leader at the junction with both hands and begin pulling, using sliding strokes, working slowly down to the leader tip.

This heats and stretches the coiled leader. Feel the leader get warm in your grip, then stretch it very tightly for about 30 seconds.

This heating, stretching and cooling will straighten the leader. Repeat if necessary.

Avoid using so-called leader straighteners. These can easily overheat the leader and weaken and damage it.

Stretching the Fly Line

Pull as much fly line as you will be casting out through the rod’s tip guide. Slowly pull on and stretch short sections of the fly line. This should remove most of the line coils.

Repeat this step if necessary. In cold weather (below 40 degrees F.) be extremely careful not to quickly pull the fly line very tight or the plastic finish may crack.

You can also attach the leader and line to a stationary object then pull the entire length at once.

Now rewind the fly line onto the reel. It will remain straightened for a day’s use.

7. Dressing the Fly Line

If you are using a floating fly line and intend to clean or dress it with waterproof floatant, this is the most opportune time to do it.

While the fly line is stretched, apply the cleaner with a clean cloth or dressing applicator. Fly lines, new and used, always last and perform better if they are regularly cleaned and dressed.

Products designed to clean and condition fly lines are available at most fly shops.

8. Fly Attachment

Attach your fly to the leader tippet with the Duncan loop, Turle knot, or improved clinch.

The Duncan loop, or Uniknot, is usually the most practical and versatile.

Because the loop formed is adjustable, the fly can be held tight or loose, or with a large shock loop, with a simple loop size adjustment.

9. Fly Retention

To hold or store the fly temporarily before you begin casting it, or between fishing periods, put the fly in the rod’s hook-keeper and tighten the line so it will not fall out.

If the leader goes inside the rod’s guides at this point, pull it entirely out, pass the leader around the reel seat, hook the fly in the keeper or the closest rod guide, and bring the leader under tension again with the fly reel.

10. After Fishing

Improperly disassembling and storing your tackle can cause damage or deterioration, or delay before its next use. After a day of fishing, it is easy to neglect your tackle and forget it until next time.

Avoid problems by following these next steps.

Cleaning Your Fly Line

After every few trips to the stream or pond it becomes necessary to clean the fly line. In certain waters it is relatively easy to pick up grime and residue that will decrease line performance.

In addition there are too many products out there that we use that can have devastating effect when placed in contact with today’s high performance lines. Sun screens, insect repellant, petroleum products and the like contain chemicals that can weaken the outer coating of our expensive lines.

Heat exposure as well as back yard casting has also been known to further line deterioration. Much of the distress of these and other items on your fly line can be countered by merely cleaning the line.

You won’t believe the improvement the next time on the water.

The easiest way to accomplish this task is to soak it for a few minutes in warm soapy water. Dish water detergent is nice and it is oh so good for the hands.

After the soak, take a soapy soft rag and pass the line from end to end through a couple of times to remove the residues. Next it is good to treat the line with a dressing. Dressing serves to lubricate the line and preserve its integrity.

The line manufacturers will have recommendations about he best dressing to use.

After casting a dirty line, then cleaning and applying one of these conditioners you will not believe the difference in your fly line performance. There are many ways to clean a fly line but the important thing to remember is to keep your line clean.

11. Long Term Storage

If you are not going fishing again the next day, consider these steps for longer term storage.

Fly Removal

Cut the fly off the leader and carefully store it in an open area (hat band or vest fly-drying patch).

Line/Leader on Fly Reel

Carefully and evenly wind your fly line and leader back onto the reel under light tension only.

You can wipe the fly line nearly clean and dry with a towel. Do not wind the line onto the reel too loosely or too tightly. Either will cause line damage or tangles.

Reel Storage

Remove the reel from the rod. Wipe it clean with a towel. Put it into its storage bag or case, but do not close it tightly. Allow air to reach it so any moisture remaining in and on it can evaporate.

Fly Rod Disassembly

Take a careful, firm grip on the two sections and pull the ferrules apart. If the ferrules become stuck, have your partner also take hold of each section as both of you pull the sections apart.

Be particularly careful that you do not bend or twist either section as you pull them apart.

Use a towel or cloth to dry and clean the rod. A spray window cleaner will safely remove any dirt or greasy film.

Rod Storage

After the rod has been wiped dry, place it, ferrules down, in the cloth bag. Do not get the bag wet. Now place the rod, inside its bag, into the rod case or tube.

If you must store either a damp rod or damp bag, remember to remove them from the case and allow them to dry when you get home or return to your motel room.


Keep both the rod and reel in a cool, dry, dark place away from sunlight when possible. Be sure you do not seal either the rod or reel case tightly during long storages.

When storing your reel and fly line for a few months, it’s best to remove the line from the reel, clean it and store it in large loose coils to extend its life. Fly lines have soft, flexible coatings or finishes that will deform if left tight on a reel for long periods.

Well maintained fly-fishing equipment is a joy to use and less likely to fail when the fish of a lifetime is at the end of your line. Routine maintenance and care will ensure that your equipment gives you the best service for your investment.



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