I was asked recently to make a presentation to a fly club about selecting flies from a fly tyer’s perspective. It’s a great topic for new fly fishers who might be overwhelmed walking into a fly shop and picking a few flies for their next fly fishing adventure. Here are some highlights from my presentation.
Walking into a fly shop can be an overwhelming experience if you are relatively new to the sport. Many fly shops are helpful, but I’ve walked into some within the last 5 years and none of the employees even acknowledged I entered! I have found that to be the exception rather than the rule. Most of them are VERY helpful.
A great strategy is to ask for help. Purchase a dozen flies for the water you plan to fish and they’ll usually help select flies for the insects hatching at that time of year. When on the water, pay attention to the flies that work and purchase more of them. Fishing the same water a month or two later might require a different set of flies because hatches have changed. Time to return to your helpful fly shop for more flies!
But I’d like to reduce your learning curve and provide general information to make you a better fly fisher.
One option is to make your life easy and only use attractor-style flies. Here are some examples:
These flies don’t imitate a specific insect, but all can be very effective. And for some reason, purple flies just catch fish!
When you don’t see insects hatching, but find an occasional rise, just tie on one of these flies and see what happens. It’s a strategy I use occasionally, but most of the time I try to match the hatch.
And for those who would rather fish with nymphs, here are a few classic fly patterns that imitate a variety of insects:
You can skip the rest of today’s post and fish with the dry flies and nymphs shown above and have a successful day on the water. But I believe you will be more successful if you learn to “match the hatch”.
I’ve tied flies for over 50 years and one of the reasons I do is because I pay attention to the profile of the fly I’m trying to imitate. I focus on proportions to simulate the natural insect. Many flies I found in fly shops didn’t do a good job managing proportions and ended up with different profiles.
Selecting the right fly is easier than you think. Here are three simple criteria:
What isn’t discussed much is VISIBILITY!
If you can’t see your fly, the likelyhood of hooking a fish is very small. A fish might rise, eat your fly, and spit it out without you knowing any of that happened. At times, being able to see your fly can be difficult. I’ll try to offer suggestions to help.
If you have problems seeing your fly, select flies with visible wings. I believe it’s the major reason parachute-style flies are so popular. The white post is easily seen at a distance.
The following image demonstrated the three styles of mayfly wings.
Years ago, all you were able to find in fly shops were the “classic” style of fly. Parachute and Comparadun flies sit lower in the water and offer a more realistic profile of the real insect. And the white wing on the parachute fly is much more visible! You’ll be hard pressed these days to find many classic flies in a fly shop. The popularity of them has diminished.
But they can be very useful in heavy, riffled water. The hackle is what makes them float so well.
At times, glare on the water makes seeing the white post difficult. As a fly tyer, I can use different color posts to help with the visibility issue. Black, pink, or chartreuse can be used during different light conditions. In fact, a black wing at dusk can be seen much better than white.
The first thing I’d like to discuss is hook size. If you are a new fly fisher, knowing how flies are sized will help you select flies.
The following hook chart identifies hook sizes. The smaller the number, the larger the hook. Notice how big a size 8 hook is compared to the size 28?
Once you find a live insect, just select a fly close to its size.
The next criteria is profile. I’ll provide examples of the major insects; mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies.
Let’s begin with my favorite – the mayfly.
Notice how the wings are upright? Find one of these and you’ll know right away it’s a mayfly. There are many sizes and colors of these insects. The largest I fish imitate Brown and Green Drakes in sizes 6 and 8. Small Blue Wing Olives, or BWO, are found in the 16 – 22 size range.
As you can see in the image above, the two key attributes of a mayfly for me are the upright wing and slim body (although the larger Drakes bodies can be stubby). You’ve just matched the two most important criteria – size and profile.
Understanding insect life cycles are another important aspect in selecting flies to match them. While the body size remains constant, wing profile changes.
Take a close look at the wing of the emerger, dun, and spinner. The profile has changed.
Here are a few effective mayfly imitations. I’ve selected examples to match different profiles to those stages seen above.
Mayfly nymphs live on the river bottom. When ready to hatch, they will swim to the surface. Here are effective flies I use.
Most mayfly nymphs I know of are either root beer brown (or from a fly tyer’s perspective, pheasant tail color) or shades of olive or olive/brown. As a fly tyer, I attempt to select material colors for bodies with that in mind. Again, notice how slim many of these nymph fly patterns are. The exception is a Green Drake nymph, which is quite stubby and the Prince Nymph is one effective imitation.
To see more mayfly imitations, view my Mayfly Fly Patterns page.
The next major insect for fly fishers are caddisflies.
The profile of a caddis is a tent-shaped wing. I have seen caddis as large as size 6 (October Caddis) down to micro-caddis in sizes 22 and 24.
As you can see in the image above, the two key attributes of the caddis for me are the tent-shaped wing and thicker body.
The caddis life cycle is shown below.
You’ll find cased-caddis and net-building larva. They become dislodged periodically and available to the trout. Here are a few effective caddis imitations. Notice how the profile of these imitations are similar to those stages seen above?
And a few patterns to imitate the larva and pupa stages.
The next major insect for fly fishers are stoneflies.
You’ll find stoneflies in a variety of sizes, with size 4 Salmonflies being the largest. Other common sizes are the size 8 Golden Stones and Little Olive Stones in size 16. Stonefly hatches are some of the most fished hatches because the fish enjoy a big meal. These large flies have thick bodies, which checks the other criteria – profile. To learn more about their life cycle, here is a link to a post I wrote about Salmonflies and Golden Stones.
Stoneflies are known for their flat wings. When resting, their wings sit flat on top of their body. You’ll see them fluttering on the water if the wind blows them off stream-side bushes or when the females fly back to the water to lay their eggs. And their bodies have quite a bit of substance to them, making a great meal for trout.
Most stonefly imitations seem to imitate the fluttering fly. Large wings of elk or deer hair are used to match the profile and the hair is one way to help float the fly. You’ll see that in Clark’s Salmonfly on the top right. The Chubby Chernobyl on the bottom right has a thick body with floam over the top to imitate the resting insect. The wings might change the profile, but help tremendously with visibility.
Here is the stonefly life cycle.
Stoneflies live on the stream bottom, crawling under and over rocks until they are ready to hatch. They walk to shore and the backs split open and the adult slowly climbs out.
Here are a few effective stonefly imitations. Notice how the profile of these imitations are similar to those stages seen above?
And some stonefly nymphs.
To see more stonefly imitations, view my Stonefly Fly Pattern page.
Terrestrials are another important food source for trout.
To see more terrestrial imitations, view my Terrestrial Fly Patterns page.
Lastly, streamers are an important food source for large trout.
Size and profile are the two most important criteria for selecting streamers. Generally, you’ll see two styles of fish with vastly different profiles. Young trout or salmon have a much thinner profile than the round shape of a sculpin. Fly tyers select different materials to create streamers with these attributes in mind.
I don’t fish a lot of streamers, but you’ll find a few examples on my Streamer Fly Pattern page.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope you have a better understanding how size, profile, and color affect the flies selected to catch your fish.
Enjoy…go fish, stay safe!