Fly fishing gear

5 Basic Flies Every Angler Should Know

Part of the fun of fly fishing is having lots of different flies and knowing how to use them. But the sheer number of flies that have been designed over the years is sure to intimidate anyone considering picking up a fly rod. There are thousands of them and fly anglers dream up new ones every day.

The good news is that all of these “new” flies are variations on a few basic styles. The five flies listed here will cover most situations you will encounter when trout fishing. Learn what they are for and how they work, and you will begin to understand the myriad of fly patterns available today.

1) Moose hair caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis.

Morgan Lyle

Everyone loves dry fly fishing – using a floating fly to catch trout catching insects on the surface. Trout don’t come up all the time, so a lot of planning is required to be on the stream in time for the “hatch”. When that happens, it’s exciting: anticipation builds as your carefully selected fly drifts downstream towards the rising trout. A sudden splash provides the thrill of victory.

The Elk Hair Caddis is a brilliantly simple design for a floating fly. It consists mostly of bleached elk or deer hair attached to the top of a hook, with the tapered tips pointing backwards. It closely resembles a true caddisfly, whose wings are folded along its resting body, as opposed to a mayfly, whose wings are mostly erect. Most trout streams have more caddisflies than mayflies, and trout love to eat them. You can, however, use an Elk Hair when you see trout becoming mayflies floating on the surface, or when you’re not sure what they’re up to. You can even use it when the trout aren’t soaring at all, in hopes they won’t pass up a perfectly good fly floating overhead. That’s often enough to make it worth trying.

The fly’s oblong body, translucent wing, and feathery fiber legs are all triggers that entice trout to bite. It sinks well, floats like a cork and has the quality of the mid 20se century writer Ted Trueblood called it “insectness”. Wear a size 12 (about half an inch long), some 18 (a quarter inch) and a 14 or 16 for intermediates.

2) The Frenchie Nymph

The Frenchie Nymph.
The Frenchie Nymph. Morgan Lyle

The trout may not come up, but they keep eating, just underwater and out of sight. The flies that eventually emerge to the surface live most of their lives in the stream bed, either as crawling nymphs or helpless larval worms. These creatures are almost always present in trout streams and often end up drifting into the current, where trout casually pick them up as they pass.

Flies that mimic these underground insects are called nymphs. The Frenchie is one of the best. Developed by European competitive anglers, it has a metal bead head, usually tungsten, which allows it to sink quickly into the trout snack lounge among the rocks of the creek bed. It has a speckled tail, which certainly seems to suggest the trailing tails or shells of many real aquatic insects, and its body is mostly made of fibers from the tail of a pheasant, which has a segmented, fuzzy, brown, similar appearance to an insect when wrapped around a hook shank.

The Frenchie is also notable for what it does not have features intended to make it look more like a real insect, such as a rib wrapped around the body, legs or antennae made of feather fibers, or a “wing” on the top of the stalk. If this were a painting, the Frenchie would be considered impressionistic and not realistic. Many of the best flies and lures are the same way, and competitive anglers wouldn’t use the Frenchie if it didn’t work. Also noteworthy on the Frenchie: a garish “hot spot” of pink, orange or another bright color, completely unnatural. It attracts the trout’s attention, and a trout can’t eat a fly it hasn’t noticed. Frenchies are generally neither very short nor very tall; size 12 to 16 is the typical range.

3) The Woolly Bugger

The woolly bugger.
The woolly bugger. Morgan Lyle

Many people have called the Woolly Bugger their desert island fly, the fly aviators should pack in their survival kits, the only fly you really need if catching fish is your goal. It’s probably an overstatement to say that it catches all swimming fish, but people say that too. The Woolly Bugger is truly a category of its own these days because so many people have tweaked the recipe over the years. The basic recipe consists of a soft, wavy tail and a yarn body with a feather wrapped around it so the fibers flare out.

Woolly Buggers are larger than most “insect” flies like Frenchies and Elk Hair Caddis, usually about 2 inches long, and are often considered “streamer” flies, meaning they look like a small fish and are made to swim underwater like a swimbait. However, Buggers also resemble large insects like stonefly nymphs, hellgrammites, and caterpillars, and can be trained like a nymph. Part of the fun of using a Bugger is the fact that in its basic form it was catching fish in Europe hundreds of years ago. This original version, with the wire body and wrapped hackle feather, established itself as a low fly in the Ozarks in the early 20e century, and became the Woolly Bugger when Russell Blessing of Pennsylvania added the soft marabou feather tail in the 1970s.

A small assortment of Woolly Buggers in sizes 10 to 6 in black, brown or olive will cover a lot of freshwater fishing. Those with metallic beads or cones are the best because they sink quickly.

4) The rusty spinning top

The Rusty Spinner.
The Rusty Spinner. Morgan Lyle

The Rusty Spinner mimics an end-of-life mayfly, floating helplessly downstream. Over the past 48 hours or so this insect has swum from the creek bed to the surface, transformed from a crawling nymph to a winged adult, avoided being eaten by fish or birds, moulted back into a sexually mature fly, mated in an aerial swarm above the stream, and fell back into the water. Trout love these flies. This is why anglers are so enthusiastic about catching a “spinner drop”. But like the Elk Hair Caddis, the Rusty Spinner is effective beyond its intended purpose. Trout will often rise to take one even if there hasn’t been a real spinner drop in weeks.

After all, an easy snack is an easy snack. And the Rusty Spinner creates the unmistakable profile of a ready-to-eat insect. Its body, wings, and tail are flush with the surface of the water, so the fly is very visible, silhouetted against the sky. It is also useful in sizes from tiny to jumbo. As small as size 22 it could represent a small blue-winged olive or the mini mayfly known as Trico, while in size 10 it is used to imitate one of the larger mayflies, such as Isonychia or the Brown Drake. It probably reminds trout of any number of insects with wings that end up floating on the stream, on purpose or by accident, from gnats to moths. It is therefore worth carrying them in a wide range of sizes. Due to their flat shape, they can be difficult to see; fortunately there are versions available with small neon glowing appendages on the back, which are not visible to trout but allow the angler to more easily follow the progress of the fly downstream.

5) The partridge and the green

The partridge and the green.
The partridge and the green. Morgan Lyle

There are times when trout feed near the surface, but not on it. They may feed on a bloom of mayflies or caddisflies, but are more interested in insects that come to the surface than those that are already there. Or they may just graze random insects adrift in the middle depths. It’s not necessary to bounce a nymph off the bottom, but a floating fly won’t do the job. You need a wet fly.

The Partridge and Green is never a bad choice at times like this. It has a green body with just a few banded partridge feather coverings suggesting the legs (this is often called a soft hackle, which is also the name for the general category of similar flies.) It is thin and light, a quality shared by many true water flies but not reached by many false ones. So, in addition to being a great all-around fly, the Partridge and Green can be effective on trout that aren’t fooled by heavier, shaggy patterns.

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The Partridge and Green has two siblings, the Partridge and Orange and the Partridge and Yellow, as well as many similarly made cousins, with a simple body and wispy hackle. The green version is a good choice as this hue is seen on some common caddis flies, although yellow and orange also appear among water flies. It is generally used in sizes 12-16. You’ll be glad to have one with you if you see fish feeding just below the surface during a hatch, and it’s never a bad idea to drift one through a riffle or swing it slowly and shake it through the tail of a pool.