Ok, now that we have all of our gear, how do we put it all together? Well, you really have two choices. You can either do it yourself or have someone else do it for you. The best scenario is if you learn how to do it yourself because then you'll be ready for anything just in case conditions change while you're fishing and you need to change your line, leader, etc. I'll be totally honest here and tell you that there have been times when I've taken mine to a local fly fishing outfitter and just paid him to do it. The cost is nominal at around $5 or $10. Even if you choose to go this route, you'll still want to learn your knots to change your leaders, tippets and flies, etc.
Here is a visual of the process we're about to step through...
Quite simply, your success all depends on your ability to tie the knots we're about to walk through. The old saying "There's more than one way to skin a cat" definitely applies here as there are many knots that can be used for each application. We'll review the common knots used in each connection and provide a hyperlink to the knot that I use and recommend. Feel free to click on the hyperlink for each knot or wait until you’re finished and read about all the knots at the same time.
The first question should be a simple one to answer. Are you right or left handed? You need to know this to determine which hand you'll reel with. Most right handers will cast with their right hand and reel with the left hand. Left handers usually do just the opposite. Either is fine, just do what you're most comfortable with. If you purchased a good or high quality reel then your reel will be capable of both a right-hand or left-hand retrieve. I prefer the left-hand retrieve because I do not have to switch the rod into the other hand to begin reeling in the line. Your reel should have more drag when reeling one way versus the other. Check to see that you've set it up the right way for whatever hand you have chosen as your retrieve hand. Look straight at the side of the reel with the handle. If you are retrieving with the left-hand you will reel in the line with a counter-clockwise motion. You should be able to reel line in easier than pulling line out from the reel. For a right-hand retrieve, The exact opposite should be true. If it is incorrectly put together either take it to a fly shop or consult the owner's manual for the reel.
Installing the Reel
Your reel will have 2 "feet" that allow it to be attached to the fly rod. You will see the reel seat at the very base of the fly rod. Decide which hand you will reel with and insert the bottom reel foot into the bottom reel seat. Then position the top reel seat down over the top foot of the reel and tighten it securely. Now hold the fly rod in the hand you plan to use as your casting hand. Is the reel hanging down under the fly rod? Is the handle of the reel on the side you plan to reel with? If the answer to both of these is yes then you're ready to move on.
How Much Backing Is Enough?
The first line we'll attach to the reel will be the backing. Consult your local fly shop owner or your reel's owner's manual to find out how much backing to start with and what weight to use. For my particular reel, I use only 50 yards of backing (20 lb test) with a weight-forward 5 weight line for the small to medium size trout I target. The goal is to use enough backing so that the combination of the fixed length fly line and the backing fills the spool to about 1/8" or even 1/4" of the spool's outside diameter.
If you don't know how much backing to use, simply take your fly line and wind it on first. Then wind your backing on until the reel is full. Cut the backing here and remove both lines from the spool. Make sure you do not mix up which end of the fly line is which as the one end is meant to be tied to the backing and the other is the end to which you attach your leader. The two ends will be different if you are using a weight-forward or a shooting taper line.
Attaching the Backing to the Reel
Decide whether or not you want to assemble the rod at this point. I would recommend just using the bottom/handle part of the fly rod at this point so you don't have to worry about hitting the rod off anything while you're going through this process. If you do assemble the rod now (which is fine also), take the backing and feed it through the guides on your rod and run it down to the reel. Now tie an Arbor Knot to attach the backing to the reel and wind it onto the reel in a counter-clockwise motion if you are using a left-hand retrieve or clockwise if you are using a right-hand retrieve. Wind the backing on as evenly across the reel as possible. Leave some slack so there is enough room to tie your next knot.
Attaching the Fly Line to the Backing
Next you’ll tie the backing to the reel side of the fly line. I like to use a Nail Knot here. This knot must be as small and smooth as possible so it doesn't get stuck in the guides if a large fish happens to take you into your backing. Now that the two lines are attached, continue winding the line onto the spool as evenly as possible. Once you have the fly line reeled in, check to make sure that you’ve attained your goal of being 1/8" short of the spool's edge as mentioned earlier.
Attaching the Leader to the Fly Line
Ok, take a deep breath and rest a moment. We’re half way home now. You can do this step using a Nail Knot or a Perfection Loop. I’ve included a hyperlink for both of these because I like them equally and can’t really recommend one over the other. The Nail knot will give you a solid knot with near 100% strength however you will not be able to tie on a new leader without tying a new knot. This is fine if you can tie these knots quickly and easily. Otherwise you would want to use a Perfection Loop with a looped leader so you can change leaders in seconds.
Tying on Tippet
The main purpose of the tippet is to extend the life of the leader as you change your flies. The rule of thumb is to add tippet material when the leader is 80% of its original length. For instance, a 7.5 foot leader has about 1.5 feet of tippet when it is new and a 9 foot leader has about 2 feet of tippet when it is new. I'd suggest you add tippet before your leader gets this short because that way you will be able to replace the tippet many times without losing any taper in the leader. This is not a MUST but I like the added flexibility the tippet gives. You will use either a Surgeons Knot or a Blood Knot to make this connection. Again, this is one where I like either knot. I personally find the surgeon's knot easier to tie so I tend to use it more but I know an awful lot of masterful anglers that use the blood knot here as well.
Tying on the Fly
Ok, here we go. Drum roll, please. We’ve made it to the end. If you don’t have your rod fully assembled, this is the time to do it. Once the rod is assembled, making sure the guides line up (which is essential for casting), thread the leader through the guides with at least 3 feet of leader pulled out passed the top guide to give yourself enough slack to tie on the fly easily. You're now ready to tie on your fly using an Improved Clinch Knot. That's it! You're gear is ready to use.
First, after you’ve mastered the single fly approach, you’ll want to try a dropper fly. This is simply tying a second fly onto the hook of the first fly using about 18 inches of tippet. The first fly is usually a dry fly with some type of nymph tied on as the dropper. This is not always the case though as many times you’ll want to use 2 nymphing flies in such applications as Steelhead fishing.
Second, when tying knots, always remember to lubricate the knot with saliva or water from the stream before tightening the knot. The reason for this is that without doing this it causes friction as the different sections of leader/tippet rub against one another. Friction causes heat and heat is an enemy to leaders and tippets and will weaken the knot.
Ok, next you can move on to either the Knots section or the Fly Casting section to learn these areas.