Updated: Aug 28
The best flies are typically tied to resemble a myriad of items in a trout’s diet, but many fly fisherman overlook the design of their flies that allow them to function optimally. Many fly patterns these days are made to catch more anglers than fish. Simplifying your arsenal is important to becoming a better angler as you’ll grow more confidence in certain patterns. Throwing flies that are nearly identical to their natural mayfly, caddis fly, or stone fly counterparts are not always the most affective. Variables such as sink rate, buoyancy, water resistance, and profile can be more important factors to address when selecting or tying flies for a given situation. These properties are different for dry flies and nymph/wet fly patterns and are also dictated by the type of water you are fishing. Dialing in the correct pattern becomes much more important on faster moving streams than slower moving waters. The nuance in your fly design can be the difference between a productive day and one where you’re their to enjoy the scenery.
Dry Fly Pattern Selection
When it comes to dry flies and emergers, buoyancy and profile are the two most important factors. Using or finding flies with the proper materials is the best way to optimize dry flies’ effectiveness. Many popular tiers can tie extremely realistic patterns. These patterns are mostly works of art, as the attention to detail needed to tie them is tremendous. These realistic imitations, however, do not possess the correct materials to maximize the amount of surface tension and increase buoyancy. Buoyancy is controlled by the materials used to create the fly. Knowing how you need the fly to sit on the water is essential to catching trout and it all starts in fly design.
Synthetic Materials for Dry Flies
Foam bodies, antron/poly wings and superfine dubbing are likely the best synthetic materials that allow a fly to float higher and longer than other flies. These synthetics are usually hydrophobic or absorb water more slowly than other materials. The trade off with these materials is that they add considerable bulk to the fly, making them are poor option for small or thin profile flies. The exception being the antron/polypropylene yarn used for parachute posts, wings, and shucks on popular patterns such as the x caddis, parachute adams, and sparkle dun. This antron reduces profile while adding surface area and overall buoyancy. Once the antron is soaked it will become a bit bulky on larger fly patterns such as the Chubby Chernobyl. Super fine dubbing is commonly used to add taper, color, and a denser profile to flies. Though the dubbing is waterproof, when used in excess the dubbing will begin to trap water and sink the fly. Much like with nymphs and other wet flies when applying dubbing while tying flies: if you think you aren’t using enough, then use less.
Natural Materials for Dry Flies
The best natural material used for tying dry flies are elk hair, cdc, and dry fly hackle. Each of these materials possess different properties that can be used in tandem with one another to achieve a desired outcome for your flies.
Elk hair is used in many popular caddis and stonefly patterns where the hollow hair adds bulk and buoyancy to the flies. These flies float higher and longer than other flies tied with hackle and cdc. For smaller mayfly imitation, the thinner comparadun hair can be used. Elk hair can give shape to the fly to imitate wing placement such as the stimulator and elk hair caddis.
Dry Fly Hackle
Dry fly hackles are used to increase surface area on the water while decreasing bulk and creating a smaller profile. Dry fly hackle possesses more fibers/inch than other hackle feathers. These additional fibers prevent the fly from breaking surface tension. The downside is their lack of buoyancy will limit the duration the fly stays afloat. The composition of body materials used on the fly will dictate how long the dry fly hackle can keep the fly on the surface.
CDC (Cul de Canard)
CDC feathers add buoyancy to dry flies of all sizes. Sparse CDC is enough to float the smallest (size 20 or smaller) patterns or float larger patterns, such as caddis imitations, while adding some bulk. CDC can be very effective but loses this effectiveness after extensive use. Once the CDC is soaked, it becomes tough to dry out and is best to swap flies. This is easier to deal with in slower water but can be irritating when fishing faster or more turbulent trout streams.
Dry Fly Bodies and Tails
Managing bulk is key for dry fly bodies. For mayfly imitations I prefer to stay thin and sparse and allow my tailing or wing material to float the flies. A thread or quilled body is a great way to keep a thin profile without using dubbing that may end up holding water faster. New synthetic quills are hydrophobic and come in many color options. For stonefly and caddis fly patterns, more bulk is welcome. Superfine dubbing works great here as the added buoyancy from the elk hair with occasional hackle are enough to keep the fly riding high for a longer period of time. For tailing materials, antron is often used on caddis and mayfly patterns to represent a shuck. This antron increases the surface area of the fly much more than other materials. Hackle is used for most mayfly patterns. These hackle fibers are quite thin and add some buoyancy to the fly by increasing surface area but tend not to keep the fly up for too long.
Emerger Fly Pattern Selection
Emerger patterns are the toughest to select and far more difficult than choosing a standard dry fly pattern. First you must find what the trout are keying in on. Does your fly need a shuck trailing? Do you just need a fly riding lower in the film? Or do you need a fly with majority of its body beneath the film? These questions must be answered while on the stream as you examine the trout’s behavior. But to be prepared with the correct flies, knowing what materials can address these circumstances is essential. When flies are emerging from the shucks on the water, patterns with antron or crystal flash tailing such as the sparkle dun, RS2, and x caddis will work great but float much higher on the water. When you need to split the surface, a slim body and replacing the tailing material with lighter hackle will cause the tail of fly to sit below the surface. One of my favorite new replacements for these tails is Coq de Leon feathers. Typically used in small profile euronymphing flies, their thin nature allows them to break surface tension and ride lower. Fly patterns that can split the surface like this are the klinkhammer, paraloop, and cdc emergers. Other patterns can also be modified to allow your flies to ride lower as well. I learned this lesson during several prolific BWO hatches late one winter. I had matched the size and profile of the hatching BWOs with my adams fly but was still receiving many refusals on the water. The remedy was cropping the lower half of the dry fly hackle off the adams and using Coq de Leon feathers as tails to allow the rear of the fly to sit below the surface. When the trout are barely breaking the surface at all and feeding just below the surface, patterns such as the parasol midge, top secret midge, Barr’s emerger, and even soft hackles are deadly effective. Even unweighted nymph patterns can be effective here. I apply silicone gel floatant to these patterns in order to keep them higher for longer. Once saturated, these patterns (with exception of the parasol) will begin sinking under the weigh of the hook.
Choosing The Right Dry Fly to Throw
Matching the hatch is always rule number one for dry fly fishing. Matching size and profile are key to landing more trout. This is followed up by how the fly sits on the water, and then finally color. Working your way down this list while trying to match the hatch will lead you to success. You will often stop before ever reaching color. The first changes I always make on the water is to downsize my offering. If I find the optimal size and refusals are still occurring, I will begin to tinker with how my fly is sitting on the water. From my experience, the flies are typically riding too high on the surface, so trimming hackle or switching to an emerger that sits half above and half below the surface will yield better results. Using a dry and emerger in tandem is an excellent way to gather information from the trout even quicker. The deductive reasoning used while throwing two flies in tandem will narrow down the best possible pattern more quickly. Many times the dry fly being in front will also act as an indicator, especial for those visually impaired anglers.
Nymph Pattern Selection
Nymphing patterns have evolved much more rapidly than dry fly patterns in the past decade. With the popularity of euronymphing rising, these nymph patterns are now tied with more purpose and utility. While the patterns that have been popular for years, such as the pheasant tail, hares’ ear, prince, zebra midge, or rainbow warrior will still catch plenty of trout in normal conditions, the modernized jig style nymphs can outperform these flies in most situations. These new jig nymph patterns still have variations of the older fly patterns but have an improved hook up ratio and holding power, along with being denser or the ability to be weighted more heavily. The ability to increase your bead size on the modern nymphs allows the flies to reach maximum depth more quickly, as well as maintain depth throughout the drift. These flies often have a slim profile that reduces drag on the initial decent and during the drift. The perdigon, walts worm, Frenchie, and blow torch are several popular patterns that minimize drag and fish as efficiently as possible.
Synthetic Materials for Nymph Patterns
The modern nymph patterns use many more synthetics than older patterns, especially for the body and collar. The bodies of these flies can be simply thread based with some tinsel, flashobou, or wire, and even an artificial quill. These materials can then be covered with UV resin to add durability and a glossy finish. The collars of these nymphs can again be a brighter thread, but more popular is the flashy ice dubbing. This dubbing material catches the trout’s eye as well as possibly adding a bit of movement in the current. These synthetics are used sparingly and maintain a dense and slim profile to the fly.
Natural Materials for Nymph Patterns
Natural materials can provide several benefits to the fly. These materials can add movement that many synthetics cannot, as well as a more natural coloration. The drawback on these materials is they often add more drag and bulk to the fly.
Cul de Canard feathers can be used as collar material for perdigon, blow torch, and other patterns to add movement to the fly while decreasing bulk as the sparse fibers do not grab as much water as similarly used materials.
The barbs of the pheasant tail feather can be use as tails, as well as wrapped around the body of the fly on Frenchie and jig head pheasant tail patterns. As tail material, the barbs grab more water than alternate materials and add a bit more bulk as a body wrap. There is very few materials that give a more natural coloration than pheasant tail barbs.
Coq de Leon Feathers
The fibers of Coq de Leon are incredibly strong, and the thinnest material you can find for tail fibers. These have become the unanimous staple in most modern nymphing patterns as they provide an accurate profile while minimizing drag compared to all other materials.
Rabbit and other small animal fur are used as body and collar materials. The material provides natural color and even some movement when added as a collar material. If overused rabbit can add bulk, so using sparsely is key to tying the fly efficiently. The walt’s worm is the most popular fly incorporating rabbit/squirrel fur into the fly to imitate caddis.
Peacock Herl can be used as a substitute for pheasant tail or dubbing in many nymph variations as it possesses similar bulk. It adds natural flash at the cost of durability to fly patterns.
Goose and other biot can be used as tails and material to wrap the nymph’s body. Biot adds a fair amount of drag to the fly so are not used commonly in many new nymph designs.
Junk Fly Materials
Junk flies include eggs, worms, mop flies, and possibly even the big stonefly imitations such as the girdle bug/pat’s rubber legs. These flies typically are not able to achieve as efficient of a drift than the other subsurface flies mentioned above. The yarn, chenille, and rubber materials used in the flies are very buoyant until they can absorb water. These flies are also prone to heavy amounts of drag as they are not very hydrodynamic. Some egg patterns can be designed to sink more quickly but tend to lose their ability to drift naturally with the current once on the bottom. These flies are still incredibly effective under many conditions, but an angler must rig accordingly to combat the additional buoyancy and drag.
Choosing The Right Nymph Pattern to Throw
Now that we better understand the materials in our flies and their construction, how do we choose where and when to throw then. First is of course to feel out what the fish are eating and match the most probable culprit. Once this is decided, understanding the type of water you are fishing is the next most important factor. For faster or deeper water, a heavier, thin profiled fly will get down to the bottom quickly. Dense patterns such as the Perdigon, walts worm, or jigged rainbow warrior and their many variations will be best for these scenarios. For more moderate paced water the fly box can open wider and matching the hatch may become more of a factor. Throwing odd or abstract patterns can also pay off in these situations as oddly colored or shaped flies may peak the trout’s curiosity. For hungry trout, larger flies tend to have more drawing power while finicky or wary trout may be more vulnerable patterns with a smaller or more natural profile.