Back To The Basics- Fly Selection Made Simple

Sep 19, 2014

Author: Kyle Wilkinson

Choosing the "right" fly shouldn't be hard!

If you follow us on Facebook, you may have seen we recently started a new addition to our Blog called "Let's Hear It". The way it works is simple, at the beginning of each week we will post the simple statement "Let's Hear It!" on our wall. At this point, you will have the opportunity to comment on what you'd like to know more about regarding fly fishing. Any and all questions or topics are appreciated.  From fly selection to entomology, destination travel tips to casting techniques, etc. We want to help you get the answers you're looking for. Every employee at Trouts was once a begginer and hasn't forgotten that fact. No question/topic is too basic or simple. The sky really is the limit with this. We will then pick a minimum of 1 question/comment posted during the week to answer on our Friday blog (and possibly Saturday/Sunday as well if we pick multiple topics).

With the first week of this new idea coming to a close, and multiple great questions/topics recieved, it became apparent that picking just one topic was going to be tough. So with that in mind, I had to go with the first question we recieved. It seemed only fitting that we answer our very first participants question in our very first week with this. The topic was: Basic fly selection and what flies to always have. 

This is a great topic to discuss and putting together a basic fly selection is something that can certainly be an intimidating task to the beginning/intermediate angler (heck, I even find myself overthinking it sometimes and I've been doing this for 20 years!). Take our shop for example. When you walk in the first thing you will notice is our fly bins. We literally have over 3000 different fly patterns and sizes on hand and the majority of them are targeted towards trout fishing. So back to the question of how to keep it "basic"....

To answer this, I will keep it focused on "Rocky Mountain" trout fishing. If you live on the East coast, the same logic applied here can be used when putting a basic selection together for your home rivers. Some of the flies I mention may carryover, some will be different, but the same logic used will work no matter where you're headed.  

To start this off, we'll break it down to the most elementary level.

Q- What are we doing when we're fly fishing? 

A- Imitating the natural insects (trout food) that live in and around a river.

Q- What natural insects live in most Rocky Mountain trout streams? 

A- Caddisflies, Mayflies, Stoneflies, Midges, Terrestrials (grasshoppers, ants, beetles).

Q- How do I imitate the above mentioned insects? 

A- With flies that imitate both the adult and nymph (baby) version of these insects. 

Hopefully by now you realize where we're headed with this. Throughout the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Montana, every river you could possibly step wading boot in will have some combination of the above mentioned bugs- Caddisflies, Mayflies, Stoneflies, Midges and Terrestrials. Many- if not most- will have all 5 varieties. Aside from Terrestrials, the other four insects begin their lives on the bottom of river as nymphs. Flip over a softball sized rock in most any river and you'll see little bugs crawling around on the bottom of it. These little bugs turn into trout food in four primary ways 1) crawling along the bottom towards the shallows to hatch ( i.e. turn into the adult version we visually see flying around) 2) swim up through the water column to hatch into adults  3) getting knocked loose by wading anglers/animals, or just the current in general. 4) generation discharge from a dam (on applicable rivers). The most surefire way to figure out which fly to fish if you're feeling stumped is to turn over a rock and find a fly that matches what you see crawling around. Matching the size of your fly to the bugs you see crawling is generally more important that matching the color specifically in my opinion. As long as I'm in the ballpark with color, I'd much rather focus on matching size.

Mayflies: 

If I had to pick one single bug to imitate on any given day of the year, on any given river, it would be a mayfly. I'll save the topic of discussing life cycles of the various bugs for other blog posts, and try to keep this simple. Given though the mayfly's importance as trout food, I'll give this insect the most attention here. 

Mayflies come in a variety of sizes, colors, and prevelance throughout the year. The good news though (aside from the fact that trout LOVE them), is that they all look generally the same in their nymph versions.  Some will be smaller, some will be larger, some darker, some lighter, but they will all have the common characteristic of a larger head, a body that tapers towards the tail, and little segmented legs. 

Having a few different mayfly nymph patterns is a must for any fly angler. As a beginning angler, if there was one bug I would spend a little time studying it would be mayflies. From a fly perspective, the Pheasant Tail is arguably the most popular mayfly nymph. Copper Johns and Hares Ears are also very popular patterns as well. All three of these patterns would fall under the category of "general" mayfly nymph patterns- meaning they don't imitate a specific type of mayfly. This is perfectly fine. While imitating specific mayflies can certainly be beneficial at times, versus just finishing a "general" pattern, the patterns listed above should always put at least a few fish in the net.  Identifying a mayfly from other types of bugs you may see flying around is easy. They will be the ones with a wing that looks like a sailboat. Finally, Mayfly adults typically fly in a rather straight line. See picture below right. 

If you're in a river known to have mayflies and you don't see the adult version flying around, fish the nymph version. It really is that simple. (This will apply to all insects we discuss).

To imitate the adult version with a dry fly (which actually floats on the surface when you're fishing it), you need look no further that a Parachute Adams. While there are countless Mayfly dry fly imitations out there, if we're sticking to the theme of keeping it basic, a Parachute Adams will get you by in most situations. Just make sure you are fishing one that is similar in size to the ones you see flying and you'll be set. 

*** This is as complicated as I'll take this I promise- As you begin to fly fish more, two of the first specific types of mayflies you will likely here mentioned are PMD's (Pale Morning Dun) and BWO (Blue Winged Olive, also called a Baetis). Keeping these two types of mayflies straight in our head is easy. PMD's are going to be more of a summertime mayfly and paler/creamier in color. BWO's will be more of a fall/winter/spring mayfly and will be more of a grey/olive color.  Having some nymph patterns that imitate these specifically is a good "next step" from just keeping it totally basic. 

 

Caddisflies: 

Caddisflies are another popular bug to imitate and their importance as trout food will vary from river to river. Either way, having a few caddis patterns- in both the nymph and dry version- in your box is always a good idea.

Caddis nymphs are different from mayflies in that they don't crawl around as actively on the bottom of rocks. They actually build little "homes" out of a variety of materials, (sand, gravel,etc) and affix themselves to the bottom of rocks. 

In general, real Caddis nymphs come in three different colors: Green, Cream, Orange.

Popular caddis nymphs include: Barr's Graphic Caddis and Buckskin Caddis. Green Copper Johns and Hare's ear nymphs can also be used to imitate caddis nymphs due to their coloration and size.

When it comes to Caddis Dry Flies, an Elk Hair Caddis will almost always do the job. 

Identifying an adult Caddis Fly is easy- they will have a flat wing across their back. I like to think of it as resembling a little pup-tent.  These will typically be seen from late spring through October. Caddisflies love streamside bushes and will typically be seen flying around in an irregular flight pattern. 

Stoneflies: 

Stoneflies come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well. Imitating their nymph version will work year round in rivers that have a good population of them. The adult versions are only seen in the warmer months of the year, and often for only a relatively short window of time. Salmonflies for example (one of the more popular stoneflies) only make an appearance as an adult for approximately 1 month in June and/or July. 

A good Stonefly Nymph to always have on hand year round in the Rocky Mountains is a Pat's Rubber Legs

In keeping with the idea of "Basic", I wouldn't worry about carrying Stonefly dry flies. They are, for the most part, a very seasonal and river specific insect. If you're fishing an unfamiliar river in the summer, give us a call or stop by the shop and we'll let you know whether or not to carry some Stonefly dries.

Terrestrials: 

In most years, July through September will be prime time to always have some Terrestrial patterns in your fly box. Grasshoppers are the most popular terrestrial to imitate, however ants and beetles also fall into this category. My general rule for keeping hoppers "basic" would be this- pick a foam hopper that looks good to you, as well as a non-foam hopper. If you're fishing mid-late summer and see grasshoppers bouncing around, this will be your key to fish a hopper pattern. Start with the foam one and if that doesn't get results, switch to the non-foam one. If that doesn't work, they're not eating hoppers! 

Popular foam hoppers include: Sweetgrass Hoppers, Fat Albert's and Amy's Ants

Popular non-foam hoppers include: Dave's Hopper, Schroeder's Parachute Hopper

 

Midges:  

Last but not least, we arrive at Midges. Midges are primarily going to be a cold weather food source for trout and carrying a few basic midge patterns can be a great way to put fish in the net. Fishing the nymph version of these should be your primary concern. Nothing else really needs to be addressed regarding midges, other than the fact that they are always around and can be a very important food source from fall through spring. 

Popular midge patterns include: Top Secret Midge, Black Beauty, Rojo Midge, Zebra Midge. 

 

Now that we've addressed the common aquatic bug life you're likely to encounter in the Rockies,  we have one final fly consideration to discuss: 

Streamers: 

Streamer fishing is an exciting way to fish that is completely different from any other method of trout fishing. When imitating the above mentioned bugs, you will for the most part be trying to achieve a dead drift. i.e.- getting your flies to float along with the current in a completely natural way that mimics the other food sources present in the water. With Streamer fishing, you will actually be imparting action upon the fly. This could vary from casting across the river and retrieving the fly through the water column back to you, to simply adding a jigging/twitching motion to your fly as it makes it's way through the drift. Your goal here is to imitate a baitfish, baby trout, or sculpin and get a larger trout to strike out of reaction. This can be an extremely fun way to fish a fly that can result in some very violent strikes.

When you look at the Streamer selection in many fly shops, my favorite way to describe it is "it looks like someone murdered the muppets". Many streamers today are made using a wide variety of materials, feathers, furs and rubber legs that create some pretty complicated and incredible patterns. That doesn't mean you need to make it complicated though.

The most basic, and still very effective, streamer pattern is called a Wooly Bugger. Having one of these in Black or Olive can be a good option. 

 

In summary, hopefully this sheds a little light on basic fly selection and what considerations to take when choosing which flies to fish on a given day.  From a nymph perspective, you'll want Mayfly, Caddis, Stonefly and Midge patterns. You can effectively be covered in this department with 7 different patterns-  2 mayfly, 2 caddisfly, 1 stonefly, and 2 midge.  When it comes to dry flies, you can be covered on most any day with even fewer patterns- a Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and a couple Hopper patterns throughout summer will have you set.  Add in a Wooly Bugger Streamer and you should feel confident in your ability to head towards any river in the Rocky Mountains and catch some trout! 

If you would like to discuss any fly patterns in further detail please give us a call or stop by the shop. There are certainly other patterns out there many people would consider "basic" and we're more than happy to discuss flies in more detail at any time. When it really comes down to it though, narrowing your fly selection down so that you have a few different options in each of the available food source categories will be all it takes to ensure success on the river! 

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