A man fly fishing on the Grand River at dusk.

Grand River, Fergus | Mark Melnyk

Understanding fly fishing terms

A man fly fishing on the Grand River at dusk.

Grand River, Fergus | Mark Melnyk

For those entering the sport of fly fishing, the terminology may seem like its own language. Like every other sport or activity, terms and phrases have been developed over many years to name and explain a variety of elements.

At first, these terms and names might be confusing. However, with a little experience, a fly rod in hand and the willingness to learn from other anglers, this seemingly foreign language can easily be decoded allowing fly anglers to understand and communicate with a basic understanding of fly fishing terminology.

It’s important to note that anglers don’t have to be fluent in fly fishing terms to effectively fly fish, after all the fish don’t speak that language either. Understanding common fly fishing terminology will help anglers understand seasoned anglers, in turn gaining more insight into how to fly fish. Fly fishing terminology can be as basic or as complicated as an angler makes it.

Here’s a glossary of some basic fly fishing terms and lingo.

The fly rod

Modern-day fly-fishing rods are manufactured with a high level of technology. Each fishing rod is designed to allow the rod to maximize its casting performance. There are a variety of terms surrounding the design and use of a fly fishing rod, here are the basics.


A fly rod’s action is a reference to the stiffness of the rod.

Actions come in three main categories fast, medium and slow. Fast action rods are stiffer rods designed to deliver larger flies and can be used in windy conditions. Medium action rods are not as stiff meaning they will bend further down the rod toward an angler’s hand. They are used in lighter winds and don’t require as much force to cast a fly. Slow action rods bend all the way to the angler’s hand and are generally used for shorter casting distances. The feel of these three types of rods are all different and can be considered based on the angler’s location and target fish species,


Ferrules is the term used for the end sections of a multi-piece fly rod.

Ferrules fit together male end into female end to create the full length of the rod. Many modern fly rods are made up of four sections. Ferruled fly rods are used for travel as they break down into smaller sections to allow for suitcase or other luggage packing ease.

Fighting butt

Many larger fly rods used for fighting larger fish have an extension at the reel end of the rod, that extension, usually about ten centimetres has a cork end, or butt which is designed to be placed just above an angler’s beltline to offer lifting leverage in landing a fish.


Graphite is the most common construction material for modern-day fly rods. They are lightweight, strong and flexible which is ideal for fly casters.

Loading the rod

Loading the rod is the phrase meant to describe the bend an angler puts in the rod before presenting or casting a fly. A well loaded fly rod will cast farther than one that is less loaded.


The weight of a fly rod isn’t its physical weight, it refers to an organizational system developed by the fly fishing manufacturer industry to categorize fly rods for ease of understanding and purchase.

The weight of a fly rod can vary from zero to 14, zero being the lightest used for small fish and small flies and 14 being the heaviest used for many saltwater angling applications for large fish.

The fly reel

The fly reel is a vessel to hold the angler’s fly line. They come in different sizes and are designed to be matched in size to their corresponding rod. Fly reels consist of many different components and are an important part of fly fishing success.


The arbour is the center section of the fly reel spool.

This is the part of the reel where the angler’s fly line and backing are attached. Reels come in small, medium and large arbour sizes with small arbour reels requiring more turns with the handle for retrieval and large arbour reels requiring fewer turns to reel in line. The smaller the arbour, the more reel revolutions are required to bring the line back onto the reel.

Click drag

Click drag is a traditional method of adding drag to a reel system. Click drag reels utilize a steel ratchet which is engaged to the teeth of a gear. The friction of the ratchet against the gear causes drag in the reel.


Drag is a term used for the pressure it takes to pull fly line off a reel.

The looser the drag, the easier it is for a fish to swim away from the angler. The tighter the drag, the more difficult it is Today’s modern reels have drags sealed to prevent water penetration for both salt water and fresh water applications.


Palming a reel is a term used to apply drag to a reel which doesn’t incorporate a drag system.

It’s done by applying pressure to the spool of the reel with the side of the angler’s hand creating friction to make it harder for the fish to swim away.

Line, leader, tippet

Fly line, leader and tippet are the three items required to present a fly to a fish.

The Fly line serves as the weight of delivery, while the leader and tippet are designed to separate the fly from the very visible fly line. They work together to present the fly to an unwary fish species.


Backing is the first type of line anglers put on a reel.

Braided line or Dacron is wound on the spool. Attached to the arbour, backing serves two purposes. First, it acts as a brake, it stops the fly line from slipping around the reel during landing of a fish. Second, it allows a fish ample line to swim away from the fly angler during a fight. Often, there is as much as 115 meters of backing attached to the fly reel.

Fly line

Integral to fly fishing, the fly line is a weighted line designed to be cast without weight at the end, like a conventional fishing rod is with a lure. Designed to float, partially sink and fully sink, fly lines are matched with the weight of the fly rod.

Matching a five-weight fly line with a five-weight fly rod will allow for ease of casting distances as they are made to be paired together.


A tapered fly line has different thickness throughout its length. The middle section is referred to as the belly of the line. It is generally uniform thickness located before the front taper and after the rear taper.

Butt section

The butt section of a leader is the thickest part of the section of the leader that is attached to the fly line.


The leader is the section of either monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line that separates the fly from the main fly line. Leaders can be used in many different lengths however the most common leaders are in the 2.75 to 3.6 meters in length.

Tapered leader

A tapered leader is a leader that is not uniform in diameter throughout the length of the leader.

The butt section holds a larger diameter than the tip of the leader. Tapered leaders are generally used to make casting flies easier as the thin end of the leader will unfurl or roll out at the end of a cast during the presentation of the fly.

Line weight

A line’s weight is measured in grains.

It is a classification of the weight of the last nine meters of the fly line. Line weight is a system to match the proper weight of the fly line to the intended weight of the fly rod. A six-weight fly line will match well with a six-weight fly rod.


Monofilament, often referred to as mono or nylon is a filament or fishing line used to attach the fly to the fly line for casting. It is available in many breaking strengths and diameters. Monofilament floats on the surface of the water


Fluorocarbon, often referred to as fluoro is a filament or fishing line used to attach the fly to the fly line for casting. It is available in many breaking strengths and diameters. Fluorocarbon has slight sinking properties.


Tippet is the narrowest diameter section of a tapered leader.

Tippet can be replaced as needed by tying additional, same-diameter line to the leader. As an angler changes flies, tippet gets used up in the act of knot tying, adding tippet during a day of fishing prevents the angler from having to replace the entire leader as it gets used throughout the day.


The X system is a standardized measurement of leader and tippet line diameter.

The X system runs from 0X to 8X with 8X being the lightest leader and tippet diameter for fly anglers. 0X has an approximate breaking strength of 7kg while 8X has an approximate breaking strength of .08kg. The lower the number in the X system the harder it is to break the leader and tippet.


The sport of fly fishing, like most activities, has specialized equipment designed to make an angler's day on the water fun and easy.

Many of these tools have been designed specifically with fly fishing in mind. Many anglers enjoy the ease of utilizing these tools during a day on the water, however, it’s known that these accessories are not necessary for a fun and successful day on the water.


Nippers are a simple cutting tool used to cut leader and tippet line.

Many nippers, which aren’t at all different from the nail clippers in an overnight bag, have accessories built into them for ease on the water. Some nipper manufacturers include a hook sharpening device, a hook eye needle to get glue out of the fly’s attachment point and some even come with a retractable cord to hang off an angler’s jacket. Nippers are an easy way to cut line as many anglers risk damage to their teeth when attempting to bite through different diameters of leader and tippet.

Polarized sunglasses

Polarized sunglasses serve two purposes in fly fishing.

Firstly, the polarization in the lenses of the glasses cuts the glare off the surface of the water caused by sun and clouds. It allows an angler to see into the water column.

Secondly, glasses help prevent any eye injury from occurring from wayward fly casts, false hooksets and even walking through heavy brush on the way to the river or lake. They are an integral part of the fly fishing system.


Floatant comes in many forms, powder, gel and wax to name a few.

Floatant is used to keep the materials on the angler’s fly dry which in turn prevents the fly from sinking into the water column. Many fish feed on bugs that live on the surface of the water. Floatant ensures the angler’s fly imitates that natural food source as closely as possible.


For many fly anglers, the well-being of the fish is paramount in common catch and release practices.

One of the tools anglers can use in helping to minimize stress and exposure to hooked fish is to carry a set of forceps. These tools are like small pliers used to remove hooks from a fish’s mouth allowing the angler to return the fish to the water as quickly as possible.


An indicator is a fancy name for a bobber.

They are also called strike indicators, or suspension devices. Indicators come in many shapes, sizes and materials, but share the common use of letting an angler see when a fish deeper in the water column has eaten the fly.  As the fish eats the fly, the tension on the leader increases causing the strike indicator to move in an unnatural way. This is the cue for the angler to lift on the rod to set the hook.


A landing net is a tool used by anglers to safely capture the fish once they have brought it close to their person.

Nets serve many purposes as well. They keep fish safe from damage from being exposed on land or in a boat, they keep fish wet and breathing and they are a safety tool for anglers as well. Once a fish is securely in a net and is kept in the water, the angler can safely and quickly prepare the fish for release not causing the fish any physical damage.

Sling pack

Think of a sling pack as a portable, wearable tackle box.

A well-designed sling pack will allow anglers to carry all the equipment they require for a day on the water including water and snacks. They are handy tools to keep gear organized and on the angler’s person preventing having to return to shore or lose valuable fishing time searching for specific equipment.

These are but a few fly fishing terms anglers should be familiar with when they plan on spending time on the water.

Ontario is teeming with great populations of multi-species sport fish. When anglers are well prepared and well versed in the sport, it only serves to increase the enjoyment of angling in a province known for world-class angling.

Last updated: April 18, 2024

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