Classic Pro Tips: 3 Steps to Teaching Teens to Fly Fish

Written by: Will Lillard, Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions

Teens are among the hardest groups to engage in a new activity.
Photos by Will Lillard

[Editor’s note: Do you know a youngster who’d like to get into fly fishing? Here’s some great advice from a man who makes it his mission to instill a love of the outdoors and ethics in young people.]

Before I led Lillard Fly Fishing Expedition’s first teen fly fishing adventure, I sat down for a beer with TU’s Director of Youth Education, Franklin Tate. We talked about the success TU has had engaging young kids with their Stream Explorers program, and the growing number of college students participating in TU college chapters. Then we talked about the challenges of engaging teens. Despite their efforts, TU has not experienced the same success with teenagers that they have enjoyed with pre-teens and college students. In the last few years, I have worked almost entirely with teens. During that time I have come to the conclusion that there is no shortage of teens who are willing to give fly fishing a try; the key is presenting and teaching fly fishing in a way that caters to them. The three stage process I use was designed specifically to get teens hooked on fly fishing. It may not work for all teens, but if you would like to share your love for fly fishing with your teenager it is a good start.

Stage One: “Presenting the Fly” or sparking an interest

Movies, Magazines and Blogs—We have all heard it: “Isn’t fly fishing a sport for old men wearing tweeds and smoking cigars?” A quick look at the increasing number of cutting-edge fly-fishing magazines, movies, and blogs shatters that stereotype. In magazines such as the “Drake,” movies like “Geo Fish,” and blogs like Moldy Chum, “young” anglers are chasing fish all over the world.

Start with some video trailers on sites like vimeo and youtube. (You can find some of the best in the weekly Friday Fly-Fishing Film Festival here on the Orvis Fly Fishing blog.) If your teens show an interest, graduate to a full-length movies, magazines, and blogs. Some teens will fall in love immediately, while others won’t show any interest in fishing. If anglers catching monster trout on mouse patterns in New Zealand or “trout bums” embarking on an epic adventure in search of fish in Mexico does not spark even a little interest, it might be time to start looking for something else to bond over, but don’t give up yet.

Oftentimes, teens will learn better from someone other than a parent.

Get Some Help—Fly fishing can be a great bonding experience for you and your teen, but when it comes to learning a complicated sport like fly fishing, sometimes teens learn best from someone other than their parents. Find an aunt, uncle, grandparent, guide, or local TU member who connects well with teens to help teach the basics. Plan a day together, but get some help with the bulk of instruction. It will save you both a lot of frustration.

Stage II: “Setting the Hook”

Gear—Lets face it: one of our favorite parts about fly fishing is getting new gear. Remember how excited you were after your last fly-rod purchase? Multiply that by 10 for teens. If you have caught their interest with movies and time on the water, get them hooked with a rod of their own. It does not have to be a top-of-the-line rod and reel, but it shouldn’t be a box store special, either. You wouldn’t want to fish with a broomstick, and neither would they. We use the Orvis Clearwater combos at all our camps because they provide a forgiving rod at a great price with a 25-year warranty. Warranty is key! Teens are hard on their gear. Don’t start them off with Grandpa’s irreplaceable hand me down.

Casting Games—When the fishing is slow, your time might be better spent away from the water. Teens get easily discouraged when they are not catching fish; instead find a field and play some casting games. Teens love some light competition. See how far you can cast, aim for some targets, get creative.

Adventure—You have made a couple trips to the local river, caught some fish, and your teenager is pumped about his new gear. Now it is time to set the hook with an adventure of your own. In my experience, combining fly fishing with camping, a road trip, or better yet backpacking gets teens exponentially more excited about the sport. I think it is a combination of being in the wilderness and the fact that back country trout are generally more willing to eat flies. Never been camping before? Start with a night at a cabin and work your way up from there. Many outdoor stores will rent gear and provide you with information about local camping areas.

Inviting a friend is a great way to get your teen more excited about a trip.

Stage III: “The Release” or creating a confident, independent angler

Let Them Figure Things Out on Their Own—Teenagers are really smart. Once they have learned the basics of casting, reading water, choosing flies, and tying knots, let them learn through experience. Hovering over their shoulder always telling them what they are doing wrong will only frustrate them. Give them space to learn by trial and error. If they are struggling give them a “feedback sandwich”:  compliment them on what they are doing well, then offer some pointers on what they could do differently, and end with another compliment.

Invite a Friend—This one is a win-win. Teens love spending time with their friends. If your teen can find a friend to share his or her new passion for fly fishing with, they will not only be more likely to want to spend time fly fishing, but they will also help inspire another young fly fisher. So next time you plan a day on the river, ask if they want to bring a friend along.

Camps—Their is a growing number of TU chapters, lodges, and fly shops offering camps specializing in fly fishing. These camps range from one day to multi-week adventures, like LFFE’s CO West Elk Adventure. has a pretty comprehensive list of camps listed by state. When searching for a camp for your teenager, look for a camp that will challenge them on and off the river and matches them with similar age groups. I promise they will get a lot more out of the experience than just a love of fly fishing.

Last but not least, Join a Club—Once they have developed an interest in fly fishing, getting involved in a club will help them stay engaged. TU is a no-brainer, and a growing number of schools have fly-fishing clubs. If their school doesn’t have one get some friends together and start one. Local fishermen and -women are almost always willing to help with casting lessons, fly tying clinics, or supervising a day on the water.

Will Lillard operates Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions based in North Carolina and Colorado.

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