Fly Fishing Basics: Loading the Reel

Because it is so unique, several aspects of fly fishing can be intimidating for a beginner or even someone just a little rusty. Not only are the casting and fighting techniques different from all other methods but just the fishing basics of loading the reel with line can seem complicated. You need to know the three components (backing, fly line, leader), their sizes and lengths, and finally (gasp) the knots to join them.

Whoa! Come back here. Relax. I’m going to keep this simple: just two knots.

Fly fishing differs from all other fishing methods because it is the weight of the line that propels the lure in the cast rather than the weight of the lure being used to launch a length of fishing line. Because of the composition and diameter of the middle fly line piece, it would retain too much “memory” if the entire reel was filled just with fly line. That is, once it is coiled in the tight inner loops, it would want to stay in those tight inner loops. So that initial roll goes to a line called “backing.”

Backing is a heavy braid type line with no memory. It is tied to the reel with an arbor knot. This first knot is not much worse than tying your shoes. Just center it on the spool and tighten so it doesn’t spin. You’ll probably never see it again, unless should be lucky enough to cross paths with a tarpon.

After the backing, often sold in 100 yard lengths, comes the fly line. To connect, tie a nail knot. Take a deep breath. If I can do it, you can do it. Some instructions call for a “nail” but I use tiny straws from my kids’ empty juice boxes. This knot might take a couple of tries. But, then you can use that tying momentum and tie it again to connect the final part, the leader.

You could purchase a fly rod preloaded with line. Or, many sporting goods stores offer a reel-filling service. Recently, I loaded a friend’s reel using a fly line combo that matched the size of the fly rod and reel, in this case a 4/5 wt. This combo (100 yards of 20lb backing, 4WF fly line, and a 9 ft tapered leader) was reasonably priced and in the proper lengths to fully load the reel so all I had to do was tie two knots.

If you have more questions about fly fishing, we have more answers so check us out!


Andy Whitcomb

Andy Whitcomb

Andy Whitcomb is a columnist, outdoor humorist, and stressed-out Dad. He says there are “people who fish”… and there are “fishermen”.  One of the few things he knows is that he is a “fisherman”...  To the point it could be classified as borderline illness.  Sharing this obsession is rewarding, therapeutic. He likes to encourage people to “stop and smell the crappie."  Enjoys catching fish, but gets a greater thrill out of helping someone else hook up.
Born in Florida, but raised on the banks of Oklahoma farm ponds. Now relocated to western Pennsylvania. He has fished, worked, lived all around the US.  He has a B.S. in Zoology from Oklahoma State as well...
And he met his wife while electrofishing. He has been contributing weekly to www.takemefishing.org since 2011.