How To Set Up Your Fly Rod

How To Set Up Your Fly Rod

Rigging up a fly rod is not as complicated as some folks make it out to be.

A quick internet search will turn up many different ways to set up your fly rod.

Most of those will involve overly complicated knots to learn. Frankly, many of them just don’t work very well.

In this article, the Fly Fishing Atlas team describes a simple and reliable approach to setting up a fly rod that has been tried and tested by many seasons of big fish.

Though this system does work extremely well, it might become much more complicated if you purchase certain parts of your setup before reading through this guide.

Beyond your fly rod and reel and some flies, you will need four additional items:

  • Backing
  • Fly Line
  • Leader
  • Tippet Material

If you are wondering what some of those items are, fear not. The first half of this article explains their purpose and function and in the second half we show you how to assemble them all.

How you need to setup your fly rod is going to depend on what species of fish you are after and how big you suspect those fish might be. But we particularly recommend reading through this article before you buy fly fishing line.

Which Fly Fishing Line Do I Need?

Which Fly Fishing Line Do I Need?

We are going to jump right into fly line selection because we assume that you have already purchased a fly rod and reel.

If you haven’t made that decision yet, you can jump over to our reviews on the best fly rod combos for some recommendations.

Regardless of whether you select floating, sinking, or intermediate fly line, do yourself a favor and buy one with welded loops on both ends.

And if you are trying to make sense of which of those fly line types you should buy, we suggest that you read this article which explains how to make that decision.

Until recently, fly line manufacturers made their lines with both ends simply cut off and ending in a straight section of line. This left the angler to decide which knots to use when making connections to both ends of the fly line.

If you wanted to set up your own rod then difficult Nail Knots and Albright Knots were foundational requirements. That has changed, thankfully.

Today many fly line companies make their lines with welded loops on both ends. This means the manufacturer ties loops into the core material of the fly line before the coating is applied.

The result is that a simple loop-to-loop connection can be made on both ends rather than learning complicated and difficult knots. Nail knots are still particularly good to know, but no longer necessary to get your rod ready for use.

What Is A Loop-To-Loop Connection?

What Is A Loop-To-Loop Connection?

Loop-to-loop connections are very strong and simple.

Two loops allow one line to pass through the other and produce two interlocking loops. The images below show how the connection works.

Now that you understand how the two loops connect with each other, we are going to start with applying backing at the reel and work our way out toward the final connection with the fly.

What Is Backing?

Companies produce their fly fishing lines right around 90-100 feet long.

For your average trout and bass fishing that might be plenty of line.

The problem is you never know when you’ll hook a beast of a fish that needs to make a run which requires more than 90-100 feet of line. To remedy that situation anglers add backing to the spool before connecting the fly fishing line.

Backing is made from a material called Dacron and is a braided line. Most trout and bass anglers use 50-100 yards of 20 lb. backing. But anglers after larger game fish like striped bass will use 200 yards of 30 lb. backing.

How much backing should be applied to your reel is usually recommended by the reel manufacturer.

Following these recommendations will ensure that you will preserve proper space on your spool for the addition of your fly line.

What Does The Leader Do?

What Does The Leader Do?

The fly fishing leader is a length of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line that is attached to the end of the fly line.

But the leader is not simply a straight section of fishing line that you would normally find on a spinning reel.

Instead, the leader begins quite thick at the connection with the fly line, and tapers down to a thinner diameter as it approaches the fly.

When an angler casts, the energy of the cast transfers down the line. The taper of the leader continues to transfer that energy which causes the leader to turn over and extend. With any luck the leader will land fairly straight on the water.

Fish aren’t attracted to a birds nest of fishing line piled on the surface of the water, and the tapered leader helps avoid that blunder. On average the leader is around 9 feet long, but can be extended by adding tippet material.

What Is Tippet?

What Is Tippet?

Tippet, or tippet material, is also a length of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line.

Anglers attach a tippet to the small end of the leader to make a nearly invisible connection to the fly. In this case it is a very lightweight, and flexible section of straight line rather than tapered line.

The tippet is designed to land in a “S” curve, unlike the leader which is designed to land fairly straight.

The fly is then provided enough slack to drift somewhat independently of the rest of the line until that “S” curve in the tippet is pulled straight. At which point, the fly will move due to tension on the line, and ruin the drag-free drift.

What Does 3X, 4X, 5X Etc. Mean?

You may be trying to make sense of the labeling on both the leader and tippet packaging that are printed with numbers like 4X, 5X, etc.

These “X” ratings correspond to a very specific diameter. The breaking strength of the various tippet sizes varies depending on the manufacturer.

How Do I Connect Everything Together?

Before you tie your backing onto the arbor of your reel you should know that wetting all your fishing knots before tightening is very important.

A tightening knot generates enough heat to weaken the line significantly and can cause the line to break unexpectedly.

Wetting the line lubricates the line to reduce friction and heat, but it also helps to cool the line as it tightens.

Most knots will reduce the breaking strength of a line to one degree or another, so you want to conserve as much of that strength as possible.

How Do I Connect My Backing To The Reel?

How Do I Connect My Backing To The Reel?

The backing connects to the arbor of the reel with the Arbor Knot.

The Arbor Knot is just about the simplest knot to tie after a simple overhand knot. If you can tie your shoes then you’ll be all over the Arbor Knot. You only need to tie two overhand knots. The first overhand knot holds the line to the arbor and the second acts as a stopper.

The Arbor knot works best if it is tightened very slowly. Don’t forget to wet the line before tightening. You will notice that the line slips in around the arbor as the knot tightens.

Once the backing is connected you can simply wind the backing on by using the reel. In all likelihood, you will only see this knot when you decide to change your backing.

How Do I Connect My Fly Line To The Backing?

We are going to make an easy loop-to-loop connection. You bought a fly line with a welded loop for good reason. It makes tying your backing to your fly line super simple. We won’t be fumbling around with Nail Knot tools, or learning the Albright Knot. This method will save you a tremendous headache.



The welded loop in your fly line will connect to a Surgeon’s Loop you will tie on the end of your backing. 

To accomplish this you will want to leave the fly line on the plastic spool that it comes on from the manufacturer.

You will also want to tie a large enough surgeons loop on the end of the backing that the entire plastic spool can pass through the loop in the backing.

After you have a large Surgeon’s Loop tied in the backing, pass the large backing loop through the welded loop in the fly line. Then pass the plastic spool through the loop in the backing.

Finish by gently snugging down the loop-to-loop connection by pulling the two lines in opposite directions and spool-up the fly line by using the reel.

How Do I Connect My Leader To The Fly Line?

The connection between leader and line will be another loop-to-loop connection. Pass the welded loop on the fly line though the loop at the butt of the leader. Then pass the tip section of the leader through the fly line’s welded loop.

Many tapered leaders come with a loop tied in the butt end already. If that isn’t the case, you can tie a small Surgeons loop in the butt of the leader. You will also be able to do a quick repair if the butt of the leader needs to be cut off. The Surgeons Loop can get you back in the game fast.

How Do I Connect My Tippet To The Leader?

The connection between your leader and the tippet section is made with the surgeon’s knot. 

A loop-to-loop connection tied this close to the fly might prove to be unattractive to some picky fish and prevent strikes. This time we will be binding two lines directly together with a smaller knot rather than forming loops.



The Surgeon’s Knot is very similar to the Surgeon’s Loop. The Surgeons Knot is formed by making a loop and passing both lines through the loop twice. Don’t forget to wet the line and tighten the knot slowly.

How Do I Connect My Fly To The Tippet?

We suggest two different knots to tie the fly to your tippet depending on the size of the fly. 

Generally speaking, if you are fishing a small fly, like a dry fly or nymph, we suggest the improved clinch knot.



The Improved Clinch Knot is a small and strong knot that has proven itself through many years, and many large fish.

The regular Clinch Knot is often one of the first knots a young angler learns to tie.

But the regular Clinch Knot tends to slowly work itself loose over time. The improved Clinch Knot adds one simple step that safeguards the knot from working loose.

Larger flies like streamers will eventually brake the Improved Clinch Knot. The Improved Clinch knot holds the eye of the hook tightly and can produce friction and heat if the hook rotates.

Streamers and large flies tend to rotate back and forth during casting and this can eventually break the line without ever causing the knot itself to fail.

For streamers and large flies we recommend the Non-Slip Mono Loop. The Non-Slip Mono Loop is an amazingly strong knot that retains almost 100% of the line strength.

And thankfully the knot isn’t difficult to tie either. The loose fit of the loop also has a number of benefits that prevent breaking off and can also help entice strikes while retrieving the fly.



The Non-Slip Mono Loop doesn’t cinch down tightly around the eye of the hook and does not generate heat due to friction like the improved clinch knot. Instead the loop allows the fly to freely move back and forth while casting.

During the retrieve, the non slip mono loop allows the fly to exhibit a more life-like motion. The open loop allows flies with bead heads or dumbbell eyes to rise and fall with little restraint.

Tightly cinched knots in combination with heavy tippets can really stifle the alluring movement of your fly during the retrieve. On the contrary, the Non-Slip Mono Loop encourages natural movement that can persuade a reluctant fish to strike.

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