When I started I had a few flies I made at camp as a kid. I bought a few more from the local fly shop and headed for the stream. I didn’t catch any fish.
Was it the flies or was it me? Probably me, but the flies were partially responsible. I still have one that is purple and yellow on a salmon hook that was in that original collection that never has been bit.
Flies are based on the season, the geography and the quarry you are fishing for. There is no simple answer to this question. Everybody has to start somewhere so I am offering a list of the dozen flies I would buy if I knew then what I know now. Factor in that I fish in the northeast US, and these flies are for trout.
So here we go: Seven categories and 12 flies for you to consider.
Category 1 – Dry Flies, also known as duns. They are the ones that float on the surface and lift off into the air.
#1 – A Parachute Adams. (on the right above) It is probably the most universal dry fly in the country. It imitates a mayfly and comes in sizes from 28 (tiny) to 10 (large). I would suggest having a 12, 14 and 16 in your box. You can also try the standard Adams (on the left) with wings and hackle wrapped vertically (the parachute’s hackle is wrapped around a vertical post, horizontally).
#2 – An Elk Wing Caddis. The Caddis differs from the mayfly in that its wing is swept back on its body where as the mayfly’s wings stand upright. It does not have a tail. It is another dry fly that can be used across the country. It floats well and represents a fly that is on most of our waters, much of the time. Caddis imitations come in a wide variety of colors and variations but to keep it simple I would have an Elk Wing in size 12, 14 and 16 in tan, black and green.
#3 – Blue Winged Olive (BWO). A mayfly that hatches much of the year. As the name implies the body is an olive green and the wings are a shade of light blue. I always look for them when the weather is cloudy, rainy, nasty or cold. They tend to be smaller so a size 14, 16 and 18 would be advisable. The fly is tied in a number of styles – standard wrapped hackle, parachute.
Note: Those are the three dry flies I would start with unless I was going during a time when a specific hatch is known to be on the water. In that case I would still have these flies in my box but would stop at the local fly shop and pick up a few of whatever is hatching. (See Art Flick’s Streamside Guide if you are east of the Mississippi. Look for it in the Reading Room.)
A few variations of dry flies you will hear about:
Emergers. As a fly progresses from nymph to dun (dry fly) it spends some time in the surface film opening its wings and getting ready for flight. There are flies that are tied to imitate this stage and they are usually very effective. So if you are picking up some March Browns, also get a few emergers.
Cripples. Like emergers, these are mayflies that were in the process of opening their wings on the surface but didn’t make it.
Wet flies. There are some flies that are in between drys and nymphs and can be fished both on the surface, in the film and under water. Wet flies fall into this category. With a fly like this you just may not need any others, right?
A fly that I always carry is…
…the Fran Better’s Usual. If you ask someone what they are using and they say “the Usual” don’t get insulted. This is tied with the fur of a snowshoe rabbit and looks like a fuzzy mistake, but don’t let its looks fool you. Give one a try. They are often tied in dirty white fur with a red or bright orange under-body of thread. I like the fur dyed a burnt orange.
Category 2 – Nymphs – I list these behind dry flies as I prefer to fish the fly dry, but do use nymphs when the occasion calls for it. It is also said that fish feed on nymphs 80% of the time, so your odds of catching are a bit improved over the dry fly.
#4 – Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (GRHE) Nymph. “The” nymph in my book, at least early on. Nymphs are fished on the bottom so it is a good idea to get some with weight on them. It could be in the form of a bead head, a lead wired under-body, or both. The heavier it is the closer to the bottom it will fish, with a little help from your technique. There are times when you want it to be lighter, like when popping it through a fast, shallow run. Sizes should be from 12 to 16.
#5 – Pheasant Tail Nymph. Easiest fly to tie and very effective. I like it as the trailing fly in a two fly set up with a weighted GRHE in front of it. I also like it in smaller sizes – 14 – 18.
Note: As with dry flies, if a particular bug is hatching you will want the nymph that matches it. These two will do the job a lot of the time, but you should always stop in at the local fly shop and ask what they are hitting.
#6 – Stonefly. These creatures are on almost every river and active most of the year. They are bigger than most other insects that trout love and when fished properly can be deadly. There are many ways to tie them, some looking like the living insect, and others a bit more basic. You will want a few in the box in larger sizes 10 – 12
There are many more nymphs to consider: Cooper Johns, Prince Nymph and Green Caddis Pupa being some of my other favorites, but I am trying to keep it simple.
Category 3 – Spinners are next on my list. They are the final stage of a mayfly’s life and the fish sip them off the surface and pick them out of the bubble stream. I love to fish them but they are not always on the water. So many evenings I have waited for the promised spinner fall, straining my neck from looking up to see if they are descending. It doesn’t always happen, but when the event occurs, and you are there to see it, you will want to have some spinners.
#7 – Rusty Spinner. If you can only have one spinner, this is the one you want. It imitates a broad range of bugs and is an easy fly to tie. Spinners have spread wings of white or light color, and long split tails. I carry them in 12 – 16.
Category 4 – Streamers are what I encourage every new fly fisher to use first. They are very effective and easy to fish using the current of the stream rather than a complicated cast. Also, all the other flies mentioned have to be carefully managed throughout their time on the water, which is relatively short. Casting, mending, drag free drifts and so on. The streamer imitates a bait fish that can swim here, there and everywhere. It can stand still, pulse back and forth, dart. fall backwards in the current; swim on top or the bottom. Its hard to screw up a presentation is what I am trying to say. Read more about fishing them in my books or fishing journals.
#8 – The Woolly Bugger. I like it in green but other colors do well too. I like them tied with a bead head, a green chenille covered hook, a marabou tail and palmered hackle running along the body. Truth is most any large, green, weighted, hairy looking fly will do the job. I have them with no weight, with just a bead, and a bead and extra lead to cover a range of water depths and conditions. See my post “When in doubt – go to the Woolly Bugger.”
#9 – Black Nosed Dace. It is simple and elegant and represents a wide variety of bait fish.
I also love the Mickey Finn, the Grey Ghost and more.
Category 5 – Attractors. I consider attractor flies in their own category even though they basically are dry flies. They are usually big and gaudy. They are fun to fish, especially in difficult conditions like fast water or low light because you can see them, as can the fish.
#10 – The Royal Wulff. I was first introduced to the Royal Coachman which evolved from an earlier wet fly of the same name. The western Trude is similar, as well. All of them have peacock hurl bodies with a bright red band of floss. The Wulff has tall, thick white wings and brown hackle wrapped to stand vertically and a deer hair tail. It is, in my mind, truly “royal.”
Category 6 – Small Flies.
I add this category with some trepidation as the new fly fisher is probably having difficulty managing regular size flies and these tiny ones are tough to handle. I am talking size 20 to 28. Tough to tie on, to see on the water, and to deal with in general. (I recall being on the Little Lehigh and picking up a local fly called Al’s Rat – just about a bare hook. I dropped one and could not find it for the life of me. If this happens to you, use a magnet to sweep the area.) There are times and situations where small flies are the only thing that will work. They go by different names: baetis, tricos, midges. There are tiny Blue Winged Olives and Adams, small nymphs as well. Have a few small flies in your box and some 6x or 7x tippet that will fit through the eye of the hook. You may also want some magnifiers that clip on the brim of your hat so you can see what you are doing. Good luck.
#11 – a size 22 Parachute Adams. I pick this one as it is a universal imitator and more visible with its white post, but as always, ask at the local fly shop on the day you are fishing for a more specific fly.
Category 7 – Terrestrials. All the above flies live in the water. This category is of insects that don’t live in the water but sometimes find themselves there. A windy day will fill the stream with grasshoppers, crickets, ants, and beetles; inch worms drop from the trees as do tent caterpillars. If you see a tent caterpillar nest over a stream, poke a hole in it and take a seat as the little fellows drop into the current.
# 12 – Hoppers. I suggest a Hopper as the basic terrestrial fly as it is fun to fish and easy to see, but you will probably want some ants and beetles and inch worms.
There you have it, my suggestion for the seven essential categories and twelve trusty flies that should be in your box. Now its your turn:
The list above is my list and it is personal and debatable. It is mine because it is what I have experienced. I have other favorites like the Joe-Stack, any Isonychia pattern and all Sulfurs. Drakes are always on stand-by for that infrequent but memorable hatch, as are Hendricksons, March Browns and Art Flick’s Grey Fox Variant. So the next fly in your box is the one you like, the one you read about, the one you have confidence in.
A final thought: If you have a fly that is working and come across a struggling fly fisher why not introduce yourself and say: “Here, try this one, maybe it will change your luck.” It may not change his but I guarantee it will change yours.
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