Can You Fly Fish With A Regular Fishing Rod

It seems like every type of fishing needs expensive specialty equipment to get started.  Fly fishing is no different.  When I first started fly fishing, I used whatever I had to cast my ugly, hand-tied flies to feeding trout.  That included a regular fishing rod.  

So, can you fly fish with a regular fishing rod?  Yes.  It is possible to use a spinning rod or bait casting rod to cast flies if you add lead weights or a casting bubble.  However, the action and length of regular fishing rods is not designed to properly cast unweighted flies very far, even if used with fly fishing line.  

There is a lot more going on than meets the eye with fly fishing equipment.  It is all specially tuned for one task; to cast an almost weightless fly over long distances with minimal effort.  There are also fishing laws that define what type of gear is allowed in fly fishing only waters. 

Let’s take a look at what makes fly fishing different and how you can take advantage of the benefits of fly fishing while using a regular spinning rod.

How does fly fishing work

Fly fishing works by utilizing the flexibility of a long, limber rod to propel small artificial flies out to feeding fish using a series of back and forth false casts.  Used in conjunction with fly line it is possible to cast long distances because of the line’s thickness and weight.

A stealthy presentation of the fly is achieved by tying the fly to the fly line using a leader and tippet material.  The tippet is nearly invisible and with proper casting technique you can fool even the most wary fish.

The main reason many anglers choose to fly fish is the extreme realism of artificial flies.   The majority of a fish’s diet is small aquatic insects and flies tied with hair, feathers and fur are a convincing substitute.  

Often, fly fishing is considered the most challenging form of fishing but like all fishing methods, it requires only basic knowledge to get started.  Fine tuning your abilities comes with time and practice.

Difference between fly fishing and spin fishing

There are many things that differentiate fly fishing from conventional fishing but here are just a few of the most obvious differences.

Fly Fishing VS. Spin Fishing

Fly FishingSpin Fishing
Rod typeLong, limber rods with slower actions and a short handle built for one-handed casting.Heavier and shorter rods with faster actions and long handles for two-handed casting.
Reel typeIn-line with constant drag.Spinning reel with bail for free spool casting.
Line typeLarge diameter line that allows small flies to be cast greater distances.Small diameter monofilament or braided line used with weighted lure to cast far.
Casting methodFalse casting until desired distance is achieved.Single cast with weighted lures, line free spools from reel.
TackleSmall artificial flies that mimic aquatic and terrestrial insects.Live bait or weighted artificial lures.
Lure presentationIntended for shallow water applications but can be fished in deeper water with sinking flies and indicators, very subtle presentation.Used for any water depth, difficult for subtle presentations with finicky fish.
Fish typeMostly trout in rivers but can be used for any species in rivers or still water.  Not intended for deep water species. Can be use for any species deep or shallow.
CostModerately expensive but can be very expensive for high end equipmentVery inexpensive for entry level equipment.  High end gear can be just as expensive as fly fishing.

How to fish with flies on a spinning rod

If you are not quite ready to make the investment in time or money to get started with fly fishing, not all is lost.  There are several ways in which you can fish with the same artificial flies using a regular spinning rod setup. 

Casting bubbles

Casting bubbles are the easiest way to use flies with spinning gear.  It is nothing more than a clear plastic float.  The added weight lets you cast light flies into rivers or lakes.  You can even partially fill them with water to add more weight for farther casts.  

Since casting bubbles are clear, they are not seen by fish but I usually like to keep them a few feet in front of the fly.  Don’t place the bubble more than 3 or 5 feet from the fly or casting becomes difficult.  

Dry flies and wet flies both work with any type of casting bubbles but the Crystal Cast bubble is ideal for dry flies.  It provides the most stealth of any bubble I have ever used.

A casting bubble is best used in water with current but it does work on still water as well.  However, the splash of the bubble is enough to scare away larger and wiser fish.  This technique is very effective for stocked trout in the spring since they are not as skittish.

When using a casting bubble in rivers and streams, cast upstream and let the bubble drift with the fly downstream while reeling up slack line.  Let the bubble pass you and swing in the current for a moment before retrieving.  Sometimes the change in speed triggers a strike.

Strike indicators

Indicators are essentially little bobbers but with a more subtle approach that pairs nicely with wet flies like nymphs or scuds.  They work like a casting bubble and should be used with an ultralight spinning rod and reel with 2-4 pound test monofilament line.

Our favorite indicators are small foam ones that can be adjusted up and down the line without retying.  If you need to go deeper or cast further, just add a small split shot weight or use weighted nymphs.  

Good strike indicators to try are E-Z Trout Floats designed for use with Trout Magnet baits.  They work just as well with flies and are the most affordable option.  You also can’t go wrong with the Thill Shy Bite.  It’s a bit more expensive but it catches plenty of fish in most situations.

Add weight

Many of my best fishing days were with a wooly bugger and some lead split shots on an ultralight spinning setup.  When you need to get deep and cover lots of water, nothing beats stream fishing with spinning gear.  

I have caught everything from trout to bass in deep and shallow water with large streamers on spinning gear.  All it takes is one or two split shots to add weight and you’re ready to go.  

Attach the weights 14 to 16 inches above the fly and use the lightest line you can get away with for your situation.  This technique works in streams and lakes.  Scale down the fly size for smaller streams and use only enough lead to make an accurate cast. 

Is it legal to use a regular rod for fly fishing

With increasing frequency, many coveted trout waters are becoming “fly fishing only” waters.  Especially out west.  Regulations differ from state to state but most legal definitions define fly fishing as a type of angling using equipment specific to fly fishing and only artificial flies without bait.

This usually includes conventional fly line with fly rods.  In that case, it would not be legal to use a spinning rod and reel even if you do use a fly as a lure.  

Most locations that are fly fishing only are catch-and-release as well.  Fly fishing is generally less harmful to fish than spinning tackle.  In addition, fewer anglers fly fish.  In an effort to protect fish while providing quality angling opportunities, laws prevent the use of regular fishing gear.

Always check your local regulations before fishing.

Are fly fishing rods expensive

One of the main reasons people don’t get into fly fishing is the perceived cost of specialized rods and other gear.  It is true that fly fishing can be expensive but it only requires a modest sum to get started.  

There are many combo fly rod kits that come with a reel, fly line, backing, leader and tippet.  Some combos even include basic items like flies, fly box, forceps and clippers.  The quality is pretty good and they are fairly cheap at around $100.  A good combo kit will get you started and last for years.

As you begin immersing yourself in fly fishing, check out our popular article on how to start fly fishing on a budget

Final thoughts

That’s right, you can experience the benefits of fly fishing with a regular spinning rod.  All it takes is the right presentation and a well-tied fly.  Keep in mind that using flies with a regular rod is not technically the same as fly fishing, legally or otherwise.  But that doesn’t mean you won’t catch plenty of fish.  Use the tactics I’ve shared and I can almost guarantee that you will start carrying flies wherever your fishing adventures take you.