A guide helps young children get ready to fish

Teaching Kids to Fly Fish

Reading Time: 6 minutes
So, you want to teach your obsession, fly fishing, to your son, daughter, grandkid, and/or your friend’s child because he thinks you know something about whipping the water with a fly rod. Casting a fly rod can be challenging for an adult, so imagine what it’s like for a kid who is barely learning how to walk and chew gum at the same time. What follows, owing to research and many years teaching children, is advice to help you teach a 4- to 12-year-old (4th grade is ideal) how to fly fish. Good luck and, most importantly, have fun.

Safety first.

Before even setting out to teach a kid to fish, be proactive. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Buy the young’un a pair of wrap-around shades to protect his/her eyes, not only from the sun, but also from angling accessories. If they want to wear swim goggles, so be it. Tell him/her that removing the glasses while fishing is not an option. Hopefully, that will become a lifelong habit. It’s is not just hooks that are a problem. Beadhead nymphs and streamers with dumbbell eyes can reach the speed of air rifle pellets on the end of a fly line.

Crush the barbs on all hooks, unless you want to subject your newbie fly angler to the trauma of pushing a hook up through skin, clipping off the barb, and then backing out the shank. Yeah, yeah, I know how to remove an embedded hook with the ol’ loop of mono on the bend and a quick jerk. Still incredibly upsetting to a kid, and mom, and likely to ruin the whole day. Trust me, children manage to impale themselves on fishing hooks with abandon. Why not just avoid the drama by crushing the barb or going naked with barbless hooks? That way, you can remove the hook from said newbie’s thumb, ear, forearm, shoulder, etc. quickly, with less pain. Tell the youngster to spit on it and move on.

Consider getting your child a tetanus shot when they visit the pediatrician next time. And when you head to the pond to rip some fishy lips, take a pocket-size first aid kit with you.

Start with bait and breem.

Your kid’s first “fly rod” should be a push-button, Zebco spincast rod/reel combo. Shoot, it can be a Barbie, Frozen, Spiderman, or Ninja Turtles package. The point is he/she needs his/her own weapon.

Put a bobber above the barbless hook. Knit some garden hackle on the hook. Or, kick over some rocks and find a big mayfly nymph or rock worm to spike on the hook. Check the weeds and bushes near the pond and grab some grasshoppers or a luckless stonefly. This is also a great opportunity for a simple streamside entomology lesson.

Teach the child to, “push the button, cast the bobber, release the button and stop the rod quickly.” Panfish hang around near shore all summer long. If a kid can cast his/her bobber/bait 10 feet into a pond full of bluegills, sunfish, bass, crappie, or stocked trout, they will catch a fish. Instruct them on the proper way to haul a fish in, net it, and remove the hook from the fish’s lip. Release if you must, but a panful of bluegill fillets is good eatin’.

My boys sat on the bank for five years catching trout with their spincast and spinning rods before touching a fly rod. Kids need to have fun and catch plenty of fish, getting lots of practice with little downtime before challenging themselves with a fly rod. They will be well on their way to being hooked (pun intended).

Next up, bobbers and hoppers.

By now, your fishing buddy has become proficient with the spincast outfit. Now tie on a big dry fly or a hopper a few feet behind the bobber. Nothing like a fish smacking a dry fly or terrestrial to get the juices flowing. Your child will see the take, learn to set the hook, and keep the rod tip up while reeling in for a satisfactory conclusion.

Make sure they see you cast your fly rod 30 feet and hook a fish on a dry fly. Sooner or later, your angling buddy will look up at you and say, “When do I get to do what you’re doing?” Ah, the tipping point.

Slowly, progress to the fly rod.

Your child wants to whip the water. Here are some considerations and tips:

  • Don’t just give him/her your old noodle stick that has been gathering cobwebs for years in the garage. A child’s first fly rod should be one that he/she can learn to throw 20 feet. Orvis and Redington make youth-specific, inexpensive combos that are shorter, and the handles are sized for young hands. If tenkara rods had been available when my boys were ready, they would have started fly fishing with one. No reel to screw around with. Loads quickly. Just plain fun.
  • For all that is holy, don’t let your child learn to fly cast with your $900 Sage X. When you turn your back, your child will be using your best friend as a light saber fighting with his brother.
  • A young fly angler does not need to know about rod flex, line weight, weight-forward line vs. double taper, blah, blah, blah. Keep it simple.
A guide shows a young girls how to fish
Youth-specific fly rods are easier for kids to use, thanks to shorter size and smaller handles.

Explain technique, and reinforce it with lots of practice.

There are no absolutes in the casting stroke, but you do have to form a backcast, accelerate the line forward, stop the rod (I wish half the adults in my boat could learn to stop the rod on the forward cast. Sheesh!), and then bring the rod tip to the water.

How do you show a kid how to form a backcast? Have him/her hold their cell phone at belt level with a bent elbow. Tell them to now, “Answer the phone!” Hand with cell phone goes to the ear… the perfect motion for a backcast! Have the newbie grab just the top two sections of a fly rod with no line. “Answer the phone!” fifty times to build muscle memory. Progress to the complete fly rod with 10 feet of line out the tip top. “Answer the phone!” fifty times. Have the young fly angler watch their backcast so they can see it straighten out and lay down behind them.

How do you get a kid to accelerate on the forward cast and stop the rod quickly? Get some cheap, long-handled paint brushes and a large cup filled with water. Have the young water whipper dip the brush into the water and hold brush bristles next to their ear. On command, “Flick the paint!” Even better if instructor is standing in front of kid to get a face full of water. The motion to “Flick the paint” accelerating the brush and stopping the brush to flick water is the motion we want to engrain in the child for the forward cast of the fly rod. Grab the top two sections of fly rod sans line and “Flick the paint” fifty times to learn the most important component of the casting stroke. Progress to entire fly rod with 10 feet of fly line out the tip top. And yes, I carry a paint brush and cup in my dry box when I must quickly teach a youngster or adult how to stop the rod when I have them in my drift boat.

Baby steps, and praise.

When starting out, put a bobber at line/leader junction for extra mass. Is this any different than nymphing? Graduate to a small Thingamabobber or corky. The young fly angler will have a good visual for elements of casting stroke.

For many trips to the stream or pond, there is no reason for your child to cast more than twenty feet. Baby steps. Baby steps. Later they can learn to double haul sixty foot casts into the wind to tailing redfish. And for God’s sake, don’t put two nymphs, split shot, or rig up a hopper-dropper on the leader. Just remember all the tangled messes you have made when throwing these ugly combos.

At all times, praise the child. Ignore bad loops or strokes. Immediately praise acceleration and stops. At all times, praise the child. Can it be said too many times?

Finally, the internet is full of videos giving advice on how to start your child fly fishing. Some of the best can be found at:

Teaching a youngster how to fly fish is incredibly rewarding and fun. Converting a newbie to your religion is so satisfying.

A young girl fishes as the sun sets in the background
Soon enough they’ll be fishing without the help of their sensei. Photographer: Ross Downard


Jim Hissong lives with his wife, Susan, and Wrigley, the fishing dog, in Mountain View, WY. He is currently president of Upper Bear River Trout Unlimited in Southwest Wyoming and a certified guide who plans to be on the sticks more often when he retires soon. Jim is a part-time product description writer and blogger for jans.com and vailvalleyanglers.com. You can encourage his blogging by contacting him at wyohiss@gmail.com