We can spend a lot of money on a fine fly rod and reel, but in the end it's the fly that catches the fish. Still, it's amazing how little importance is sometimes given to fly selection or fly quality. Bottom line is that we cannot become good fly fishermen without a basic knowledge of flies.
Flies are not made by a machine — never were and probably never will be. They are tied by hand by a fly tier. Starting with a hook, the fly tier will use carefully selected natural or synthetic materials and thread, and with a few specialized tools will create a fly that looks like something a fish wants to eat.
Flies that imitate are tied to look like a minnow, a crustacean, a particular insect, or a stage of an insect's life cycle that a fish might find appetizing. Flies that attract are tied to do just that, attract the fish. Through color, motion, and size, these flies produce a response from the fish.
Don't be intimidated when you look in someone's fly boxes and see literally hundreds of flies. You can start with a small selection of fly patterns, have fun, and catch fish. But as you become more experienced, you'll add a few flies here and there. Soon you too will have boxes full.
Fly Types And Names
All flies, whether they attract or imitate, fall into two basic fly groups: dry flies and wet flies. Dry flies float on the surface of the water. Because they float, you can usually see them. Wet flies sink and are fished under the surface. Within these two basic groups are subgroups. Dry flies include standard dry flies, spinners, floating terrestrials, and other floating flies. Wet flies include nymphs, emergers, streamers, and sinking terrestrials. If a fisherman says he is fishing "drys," he means the flies float.
If he says "wets," he is fishing flies that sink.
Nymphs imitate an underwater stage of an aquatic insect. Emergers imitate an advanced form of an aquatic insect that is swimming toward the surface to hatch into an adult (emerging). Streamers imitate baitfish (small fish that large fish feed on) or leeches, sculpins, and so on — things that move through the water that a fish will eat. Often streamers are simply a lure-type fly that coaxes a reaction from a fish because of color and motion. We move these flies through the water and they look alive.
Names for flies are generally arrived at by the fly tier or the fisherman who first came up with the idea for the pattern. The name may also imply what the fly imitates. For instance, the Goddard Caddis is a "caddis" pattern developed by the late British fly tier John Goddard. On the other hand, the Hare's Ear Nymph is a simple, but effective nymph tied with the fur from a hare's (rabbit) ear or mask. An Early Black Stonefly nymph is a pattern tied to imitate an early-season black stonefly nymph.
We have several popular attractor dry flies that catch trout and panfish, but my favorite is the Parachute Adams. Although the Adams does not imitate a specific insect, its blend of gray and brown makes it look buggy. I carry it in five sizes: 12, 14, 16, 18, and 20. One of these sizes will match the size of almost any insect I see on the water. There are a few fishermen who use only this fly. My favorite Adams has a white parachute wing, making it easy to find on the water.
My next favorite is a true attractor: the Royal Wulff. With a red floss body band and white calf hair wings, it certainly does not resemble any insect I've ever seen. Yet it floats high and is visible, especially in fast water, and it's effective. Royal Wulffs work well on wild brook trout and even bluegills. At the right time of year, it's possible to have a 30-fish day twitching a Royal Wulff along the bank or through the runs of a favorite brook trout stream. I carry Royal Wulffs in sizes 12 and 14. And because it floats well, the Royal Wulff is also a great fly to use as an indicator fly with a nymph trailer.
My third choice would be a Henryville Caddis. Although the name indicates an insect category (caddis), the Henryville is not tied to imitate a particular caddisfly. It's a generic caddis imitation. The profile is one of a caddisfly and I think in the correct size fish will often take it because of the profile even though the color may not match the caddisfly on the water. Like the Adams, I carry the Henryville in sizes 12 through 20. With these three dry flies, I can confidently fish on the surface and expect to catch fish.
A Bead Head Hare's Ear Nymph is hard to beat for fishing underwater. It's a popular pattern, easily found in most fly shops. I carry it in sizes 10, 12, 14, and 16. I also carry Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymphs in sizes 18 and 20. These flies are not heavily weighted and work well when a smaller nymph is needed. PTs (as they are sometimes called) are often effective when fished as trailers.
To round out our underwater selection there are two streamer patterns that I always carry. The first is a Super Bugger. This is my pattern derived from a Woolly Bugger. It's a bulky, weighted fly that looks alive in the water and has caught many different species of fish. It can be a little difficult to cast, but it is so effective that you'll want to have it in your box. I keep a selection of black, brown, and olive in sizes 6, 8, and 10.
My second streamer is a white fur leech. This fly is not weighted, but split shot can be added to the leader near or against the fly to make it sink.It's amazing how often a white leech will work. It is especially effective in water that has turned color from a heavy rain.
The above seven flies in the suggested sizes and colors will give you a good start. They are all popular patterns and should be easy to find in fly shops or mail-order catalogs and websites. A good source of regional information is your local fly shop. When I'm traveling and fishing, I always check with the local shop. One of the most commonly asked questions in any fly shop is "What flies are working?"
You'll usually find the answers, along with helpful information. You may hear names like Quill Gordon, Hendrickson, or Light Cahill. There may be talk of caddis or stoneflies. It may be summer and you'll hear suggestions of ants, grasshoppers, or beetles.
During a hatch or spinnerfall, for instance, when there are thousands of insects available (and maybe more than one kind of insect or different stages) trout can become selective, focusing on specific insects. Sometimes you may find that there are duns hatching and spinners returning to the water at the same time, and it's not unusual for the fish to switch from feeding on one insect stage to another. As well-rounded fly fishers, we should learn as much as we can about the habits and food sources of the fish.
We're all a little overwhelmed when we first hear all the insect jargon. Don't be intimidated if you hear that the male Paraleptophlebia spinners are falling about four in the afternoon — all insects have common and Latin names. Most of a trout's diet consists of insects, mostly aquatic, but often land born (terrestrial).
Most of the insects found on trout streams are harmless. In the adult stage, mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies have no mouths. They only live for a short time. There are other types of insects like bees, gnats, inchworms, and mosquitoes, too. Most are vital to the environment. They feed fish and birds and often hang in a delicate balance with the environment. A lot of anglers take great pleasure in keeping a journal that lists and describes the insects found on a particular day. And the habit of keeping a journal will make you more observant.
The mayfly is a major food source for fish. There are hundreds of different mayflies, but perhaps only 18 to 20 that fly fishermen need to recognize. They are the same size and color every year, and they hatch at about the same time every year.
There are four stages in the mayfly life cycle that are important to the fly fisherman: nymph, emerger, dun, and spinner. Generally, mayflies live for about a year, and most of that time is spent underwater in the nymph stage. Mayfly nymphs cling to rocks or burrow in the silty bottom of the stream. Nymphs have bodies, tails, wing pads, gills to breathe with, and legs for swimming and crawling.
When the nymphs reach maturity, they swim to the surface or crawl to the shoreline. We refer to this stage as the emerger. This movement makes the nymphs vulnerable to the fish. Some emergers struggle to rid themselves of the nymphal shuck, taking longer to get to the surface, and the fish take every advantage of this hardship. The insects that successfully emerge are now adults. The wing pads split open, allowing the two sailboat-like wings to unfold. They ride the surface unable to fly until the wings dry. At this stage too they are very vulnerable.
The mayfly adult has no mouth — it can't bite or sting. Its sole purpose is to mate and reproduce. Fly fishermen refer to this first of the adult stages as the dun.
With wings dry, the duns leave the water and fly to the stream bank where they rest under leaves of trees and bushes. During this rest period, the duns go through another transformation, shedding the adult skin. They are now called spinners.
The noticeable difference you will see between the dun and spinner is that in the spinners the tails are longer and the wings have changed from a solid or mottled color and now look glassy and transparent. The male spinners leave their resting place first, flying out over the water, gathering with other male spinners in cloud-like clusters. They begin a mating dance, with sometimes hundreds of spinners gracefully rising and falling above the water. The females appear, enter the cloud of males, and choose a partner.
They copulate in the air, and the female returns to the water to deposit fertilized eggs. The eggs drift to the bottom and with time evolve into immature mayfly nymphs. The spent female spinner floats on the surface, once more becoming easy food for the trout. The male spinner may mate again, but he too will soon fall to the water and die. This entire cycle, from emerging nymph to spinner, may last just a few hours or a few days, depending on the species.
When a fly fisherman says that a certain fly is "hatching", he means that the insects are emerging and hatching from the water. This is the emergence. When he talks about a "spinnerfall", he is referring to the spinners coming back to the water to deposit eggs and die.
The wise use of a hatch chart will prepare us for a particular hatch. Some insects are the same in both the East and West; others may be similar but only have different names in different parts of the country; and still others may be present on certain streams in certain regions. A good fly shop or regional book will have hatch charts for reference. For instance, our chart for Eastern mayfly hatches shows us that in the spring on most rivers, the Hendricksons (a mayfly) hatch. So at this time of year we should always have Hendrickson nymphs, emergers, duns, and spinners in our fly box ready to use.
If you're reading this and thinking that you don't even know what a Hendrickson looks like, remember this — if you see insects on the water and the fish are coming up and eating them, go to your fly box and hope that you have something that looks like the insect that you see on the water. If you do, you're matching the hatch whether you know what it is or not. You can ask at the fly shop or refer to a good insect identification book later to learn the name. As you fish and gain experience, you will learn the names of the insects and the fly patterns. Using a compartment box and labeling the flies will help in the beginning. It gets easier as you go along.
Often fishermen will carry an insect net. This is usually a small net with stiff edges that the angler can hold in the stream. As the water flows through the net, insects will become trapped on the mesh and can be identified. Then, by going to a fly box and choosing a fly that resembles the insect in size and color, the angler matches the hatch.
Caddisflies are the energetic insects of the stream bottom. They have three stages: the wormlike larva, the pupa, and the tent-winged adult. In some cases, the larva can be a homemaker, building an underwater home out of minute pieces of stream debris. Like the mayfly, caddis live in an underwater world for about a year. When they emerge, the larvae transform into pupae. And, like the mayfly, they are vulnerable to the trout in this stage.
But unlike the mayfly, which has to dry its wings before flying, the caddis is usually able to become airborne immediately when it gets to the surface. Sometimes, though, the pupae have trouble shedding the larval shucks and float half in and half out of the water with the shuck trailing behind still attached. Any struggle on the surface will surely attract the fish. After hatching, the adult caddis migrate upstream, often in great numbers, cloud after cloud moving together above the water. Caddis, like mayflies, are harmless and will rest before mating. On my home stream, Fishing Creek, I have seen caddis hatches so thick that fishermen can't open their mouths without eating caddisflies!
When the adult caddis lay their eggs, they often skitter around on the water, expelling eggs. Some species will actually swim back underwater to deposit eggs on the stream bottom. At all times during egg laying, they are available to the trout.
Some caddis hatches occur regularly throughout the year; others seem to pop up sporadically. The adults usually have mottled brown, gray, or tan wings. One of the biggest caddis hatches in the West is black. On my home stream, the Grannom Caddis hatch is one of the heaviest of the year. The Henryville Caddis mentioned earlier works well, as a generic pattern, for almost all caddis adults. In the air, caddisflies look like tiny moths.
To many people, large mature stonefly nymphs look prehistoric. They appear to be armor-plated with two distinct wing pads (mayflies have one), and two tails (most mayflies have three). Often nocturnal in the East, this insect requires fast, well-oxygenated water. Stoneflies have two stages: nymph and adult. When mature and ready to hatch, the nymphs usually swim to the shoreline and climb out on exposed rocks or the bank itself. The nymphal shuck splits open, allowing the adult to emerge. The adult's wings lie flat over the back of the insect.
The stonefly, like the mayfly and the caddis, is harmless but is important in the trout's diet. Stoneflies hatch sporadically throughout the spring and summer. In the West, anglers wait patiently for the dependable spring stonefly hatches that bring up some of the biggest fish of the year.
Midges include the tiniest of insects and some that bite, including mosquitoes and gnats. Midges have three stages — larva, pupa, and adult — and play an important role in trout fishing. Active year-round, they are sometimes the only insect available to the trout. At times, when they are migrating in the surface film by the thousands, it becomes necessary to imitate them. The midge pupae hatch in the film, and the adults swarm over and on the surface to lay their eggs. Often imitated on a size 20 or smaller hook, midges are sometimes referred to as "the angler's curse" or "no-see-ums" because the small flies are difficult to tie on the leader and to see on the water. The Griffith's Gnat, in a couple of small sizes, is a good fly for imitating adult midges.
Terrestrials are any of a large number of landborn insects that can find their way into a trout stream. Ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, leaf rollers, moths, and caterpillars all fall or are blown into the water. When aquatic insect hatches are sparse during the hot summer months, terrestrials help fill the void in the trout food chain. Actually, many of these insects are available from the time the frost leaves the ground in the spring through the first heavy frosts of late fall. Of all terrestrials, the ant is probably the most prolific, and a black ant pattern can be deadly fished dry or wet.