Pheasant tail nymphs, hares ear nymphs, copper johns, and prince nymphs have been staples to for any fly box for decades. These flies have accounted for bringing countless trout to the net for both expert and beginner fly anglers. The rapidly evolving fly fishing industry has introduced several new patterns in recent years that may offer something different to these tried and true patterns. We will take a deep dive into each of these patterns along with there situational uses and benefits.
Mayfly Nymph Patterns and Imitations
Next to the classic pheasant tail, copper john, hares ear, and prince nymph patterns, the modern quilldigon, frenchie, rainbow warrior, and wd40 patterns can fool the most selective trout. These modern flies offer something different from the classic flies and possess different characteristics that can be more attractive to the trout that other flies do not.
First we will start with the older fly patterns and why they became popular, as well as the benefits they provided to anglers.
Pheasant Tail Nymph
The Pheasant Tail could very well be the simplest fly pattern designed. Fly tiers need only thread, a few pheasant tail fibers, and an optional bead at it's simplest to tie an effective fly. The fly makes and excellent nymph profile. The only real downside may be its durability. Even when tied with wire and super glue for more structural support, the tend to only last for a dozen or two trout or so.
Hares Ear Nymph
Very few flies are as buggy looking as a Hares Ear. These can imitate both mayfly and stonefly nymphs effectively as well as several other aquatic invertebrates. The stray hairs undulate in current, creating the illusion of movement, becoming a tantalizing meal for trout. The only down side may be the fly's bulk and density which doesn't allow the fly to sink as rapidly in quicker currents compared to other mayfly nymph imitations.
The Copper John is a great imitation for smaller mayfly nymphs. The appeal to this fly is the added weight and density provided by the additional wire as well as extra flash that can catch a hungry trout's eye. While still simple, tying this pattern can take a bit more finesse and more time than other patterns.
The Prince nymph, and its seemingly infinite variations imitate both stonefly and mayfly nymphs. This pattern doesn't necessarily have the benefits or the downsides of the other mayfly imitations but can non the less be an effective alternative at times.
Modern Mayfly Nymph Patterns for Fly Fishing
Modern nymph patterns were designed to improve on these classic patterns and offer the trout a different look. The first major improvement occurred with the development of jig style hooks with a slotted or inverted bead. These improvements made nymphs more weedless, and improved hook up ratios. These modern nymphs are typically more streamlined and dense allowing flies to reach the bottom, where the trout are holding much quicker than other patterns.
Rainbow Warrior Nymphs
Simple, Flashy, and Dense these flies descend in the water column quickly and get the attention of nearby trout just as fast. This pattern amplifies the positive aspects of the Copper John. Its flashiness compliments its small profile when trout are selecting for smaller foods with the added the advantage of being more visible to the trout from further away.
An excellent natural mayfly nymph imitation that still possesses all of the positives of modern nymph patterns. A dense fly pattern that gets to the trout quickly, it is a great replacement for the pheasant tail. The quilldigon can fool the spookiest of trout in your local rivers and streams.
Another simple jig nymph pattern, the Frenchie can be tied with a variety of colors that appeal both to trout and fly anglers. Fly fishermen can certainly offer the trout something they have yet seen with the frenchie and it's variations.
The WD40 is another great small mayfly nymph imitation. This fly can also imitate larger midges in the early emerging stages. A simple pattern that is excellent for selective trout feeding anywhere in the water column. While likely not the best point fly, the WD40 is a great tag fly or used as a shallow dropper.
The Best Mayfly Dry Fly Patterns
Unlike many of the nymphs, trout can become increasingly selective when feeding on dry flies. Matching size and profile is incredibly important for anglers looking to maximize their catch. On occassion, color can be a factor but typically to a lesser degree. Matching overall hue is typically enough to get the job done. For matching species such as a sulfur, cahill, or PMD (Pale Morning Dun), lighter colors such as yellows, whites, manillas, or lighter grays are optimal. Darker, more earth toned colors are better for species such as the BWO(Blue Wing Olive, Mahogany Dun, Quills, and Baetis. Understanding the adult phases (emergers, duns, and spinners) can be important in knowing where the best presentation on the water should be made. To understand more about the stages and selecting the proper fly, check out the article on Selecting Flies for Trout Fishing.
Popular Mayfly Dry Fly Patterns
Variations of the Adams fly, sparkle dun, wally wing, mosquito, and rusty spinner are excellent mayfly imitations when trout are rising to the surface. Each pattern has its pros and cons, so understanding these will help when making your selection.
The Adams, Parachute Adams and their thousands of variants have been staples in fly fishing for decades. They are a must for all fly boxes. Tied in nearly every size, they do a great job of imitating just about every mayfly species that find their way into a trout's mouth.
The Sparkle Dun is another excellent mayfly imitation that can imitate both the dun and emerger stage. Much like the Adams, the Sparkle dun can be found in just about any size and imitate a variety of mayfly species.
The Wally Wing pattern is likely the most visually similar fly to and actual Maylfy. The standing wings are easily visible to anglers. The fly does a great job of imitating both duns and spinners. It downside comes with durability as it rarely lasts for more than a dozen trout before being mangled beyond repair.
The Rusty Spinner is a great pattern for imitating smaller mayfly species in their spinner form. Though this form is typically seen much less than the dun and emergers, they can be deadly effective when selective trout are feeding.
The Mosquito is another excellent pattern for imitating smaller mayfly species. When Tricos, BWOs, and smaller Sulfurs are the target of hungry trout, the mosquito is a great bet for fly anglers.
Extended Body Mayflies
Extended body flies alloy fly anglers to match the hatch of larger Mayfly species such as Drakes, Quills, and Hexes, while increasing the buoyancy of the fly by downsizing the hook. These flies often imitate the dun or spinner phase and can be excellent when gluttonous trout are feeding on bigger meals.
Mayfly Emerger Patterns
The CDC Emerger, Shuttlecock, RS2, Foam Wing Emerger, and forementioned Sparkle Dun are excellent mayfly emerger imitations. These flies sit half way above and below the waters surface, much like a trapped hatching mayfly would do.
Foam Back Emerger
The heavier body paired with the buoyant foam on this fly does a great job of positioning this fly where it needs to be in the water column. The only potential downside may be that this fly is often bulkier than other emerger patterns which can be troubling with selective trout.
The shuttle cock has a thin profile and does an excellent job matching the hatch for larger mayfly emergers toward the beginning of a hatch. These are a excellent flies during those late evening hatches in late spring and summer when larger species begin to take to the air.
Many variations of a cdc emerger exist such as a loop wing emerger. These flies sit very low on the water. Saturating the fly, or simply failing to re-dry the fly while fishing can allow it to sit lower, potentially leading to additional strikes.
Our article on What Do Trout Eat takes a deeper dive into the trout's diet. Learn more Fly Fishing a Hatch and about the best flies for trout in our related articles on The Best Caddis Fly Patterns, The Best Stonefly Fly Patterns, Streamer Fishing for Trout, and Filling out your Fly Box.