There are so many types of flies in the store that it’s easy to throw your hands up and walk away. Please don’t. Most of the fly guys behind the counter are used to seeing people come into their section and peruse the bins. Knowledgeable anglers come in, grab a little cup, and proceed to fill it with the variety they need for the day. Inexperienced anglers come in, stare at the flies, look at the guy behind the counter, back at the flies again, then either gather themselves up and ask a question or just turn and leave.
I know this from experience. When I started fly fishing, I remember being so overwhelmed in the fly aisle that I would go right up to the counter and ask the guy what I should buy. I’m so glad I took that approach early on. I still do that when I am exploring new areas. I’ll hit the local fly shop and check out what they have, pick out a few of my personal favorites that are very universal, then ask the local staff what works best for their rivers and lakes. I’ve learned almost as much from local shops as I have from actually being on the water. Local knowledge will get you far in fly fishing.
Flies fall into five main categories, with each having sub-categories for specific types. I’m going to try and help you make sense of the different options available to you. I’ll go over a who, what, where, when for each type as well, which should help in narrowing down your search in the fly shop.
Before we can get into the main types of flies, let’s cover the stages of a fly, so you have a solid understanding of how the stages represent the different categories and the depths these flies are at. Breaking this down further into a per insect life cycle tends to be a bit too complicated and time-consuming for even the most avid angler among us. A better way to figure out what’s happening on the river is to have a general understanding of the stages of a fly. Then it doesn’t matter as much the type, and you’ll be able to understand where it is in its cycle, therefore knowing the water column to fish. So, let’s do a quick dive into a bug’s life cycle.
Most insects you find in a river have four main stages:
The first stage of most aquatic insects lives after the egg is a nymph. The nymph typically hangs out on the bottom, holding amongst the rocks, trying its best not to get swept away. Of course, they do get swept away and end up in other pools downstream, where they keep growing into the next stage if they make it that far.
The emerger stage sees the nymph growing big enough to change into the form they’ll exit the river with. An emerger is going to take flight at any point. One of the best events in the fishing world is catching a salmon fly emergence just right. Trout love those things, and when they start exiting the water, a dry fly will make the surface explode with the ferocity of the bite. It’s a true thing of beauty.
The adult stage is fun for the rest of the season. Tossing dry flies while the adults fly around the water near where they grew up can be very productive. You’re going to see the adults searching out an appropriate mate before long. Once that occurs, the end is near.
Spinners are the insects that have either just mated or the corpses that are floating around on the surface. There are also those unlucky few who got caught up in their shells when trying to emerge from the nymph stage. During this period, fish snap them up greedily.
This entire process can last between three weeks and three minutes, depending on the insect. It can happen at 6:00 in the morning or midnight, and you’re going to be lucky to catch it when it does happen. In your local rivers, you’ll learn the patterns. The next step is understanding the basics of a fly.
There are several varieties of flies on the market, ranging from hand-tied all-natural materials made from feathers, animal fur, hair, and thread, to more synthetic materials. I know anglers that take a vice with them and tie flies at camp to get the proper imitation for the next days’ fishing. I’ve done that a few times, though I prefer to swing by the fly shop on the way to camp to pick up what I need.
Flies range in size from tiny size 24 up to saltwater fish like bonefish, tarpon, shark, and more. Tying flies for these sizes works the same; they just take different amounts of materials. A streamer for trout looks a lot like a streamer for a tarpon, only several inches shorter. The rods and lines are significantly smaller for trout as well, though the technique is the same. Streamers generally use a stripping retrieve where you quickly pull the line in, moving the streamer along like a lure.
Types of Flies for Fly Fishing
Now let’s dig into some of the types of flies you can use when fishing. There are always outliers that will fall between the lines, but overall, everything should line up into these five. The five main categories are:
- Dry Flies – Fished on or at the surface
- Wet Flies – Fished below the surface
- Poppers – Fished on the surface like a topwater bait for bass
- Streamers – Fished like a lure
- Saltwater Flies – Any fly used in saltwater
Related: Types of Worms for Fishing
Dry flies start the list in part because they’re my favorite type to cast, plus they are the most recognized. Dry flies sit on or at the surface and entice the fish into biting. The best part of dry fly fishing is the bite. You get to see the fish come up and take the fly. It’s a magical moment that is just as thrilling for me today as it was 30+ years ago. Other types of fly fishing don’t provide that direct line of sight to the fish that dry flies do. They all have their merits, and I love each technique, though dry flies hold the top honors for me.
Before hitting the water, be sure to “match the hatch.” The best way to accomplish this is by heading to your local fly shop and seeing what’s happening on the river or lake. Once you’ve got a good idea, pick up what you need and head out. There are some flies that you’re going to have in your box for any occasion, like the Parachute Addams, the PMD or Pale Morning Dunn, the BWO or Blue Winged Olive and the Mayfly. I don’t leave home without these in my fly box. One thing you must have to make these present properly time and again is floatant. While that sounds like a made-up word, it’s not as crazy sounding as my favorite type; Gink.
Floatant keeps your dry fly on top of the water or in the perfect zone on the surface of the water. Without it, your fly will get wet and sink after a few trips through the current. You should reapply every once in a while. I like to rub a bit on, then hold the fly between my fingers and blow it dry.
Next, we’ll get into terrestrials. These are larger dry flies that can (and usually do) double as strike indicators. One of my favorite late-summer setups is to tie a terrestrial to the leader, then run another four feet or so of leader from the hook of the fly to a nymph that I suspend with a split shot. The terrestrial will float along and draw the nymph along through the current, and if the nymph is hit, the top fly will disappear.
Terrestrials look like crickets, grasshoppers, large ants, ladybugs, and other larger insects that fall into the river. I tend to catch as many or more on the bigger fly as I do on the nymph.
One last terrestrial I love is the mouse. It’s a go-to under certain conditions. When a lake is approaching ice-off, and the ice is finally several yards offshore, I like to toss a mouse pattern onto the hard deck and drag it into the water. Huge trout will destroy that thing. It also works for bass when played out of weeds or off logs.
There are drawbacks to surface fishing. Sometimes fish have plenty of nymphs to eat and don’t bother looking up. If you’ve been fishing for half an hour without even a sideways glance from a trout, it may be time to switch to a nymph. That brings us to the next section.
Wet flies are the underwater baits of the fly world. Several varieties are tied to imitate nymph stages, pupal stages, salmon eggs, scuds, and even crawfish and worms. . While there are all sorts of insects under the water, the basic technique with the fly doesn’t change drastically. Here are a couple of the more popular wet flies and how to fish them.
One of my all-time favorites is the Brown Caddis Woolly Worm. It works great as a damselfly and a mayfly pattern. I like to use a sinking tip line and fish it from the bottom of a lake to the top, stripping it in 5” to 8” strips. In rivers or streams, I use a floating weight forward line with a split shot below an indicator and bring it in slowly. An occasional fast strip or two can get the tentative stalking trout to bite.
The Bead Head Pheasant Tail is a fantastic fly to fish an entire water column. I like to get these in a smaller size and attach one to several feet of leader. If you’re learning how to nymph fish, add a bit of yarn or another terrestrial about four to six feet above this, depending on water depth to alert you to any bites.
When you set out fly fishing, you imagine the perfect cast: Think “A River Runs Through It.” Nymph casting is not like that. Remove all the grace you expect to see and replace it with a more utilitarian cast that gets the fly where it needs to be in a “chuck it where you want it” style. Don’t hit yourself in the head. Removing a tiny hook from your ear is not the best way to get a new piercing.
Poppers are the go-to bass fly. They also work great for other predatory fish like pike and the occasional trout. The typical design is a solid body made of either cork or plastic with a scoop at the front, followed by a tail of feathers or hair. The scoop creates a commotion as the fly moves across the water, acting like an injured baitfish or creature. Fish love easy meals.
Poppers are like taking a topwater and tossing it out. Bass will explode out of the water to clobber a popper. I love the action of a popper, and I love watching the water disappear around it as the bucket mouth comes to the surface. It’s such a huge rush.
The setup for these is to use a stronger rod than for trout. I like a 6wt with a weight-forward floating line. Use a stronger leader and be prepared for a fight. If you’re newer to fly fishing, a 7wt might be a better option. Cast your popper to the same area you’d place a topwater and let it sit for a moment. I’ve had bass hit just after it landed. Once the water starts to settle around it, pop it twice, then let it sit for a moment. Keep this up in a consistent pattern. Change your timing if you don’t get any bites. Each cast needs to be consistent, though you can change your timing for each cast, so change up every time unless you’re seeing them chase it. If they chase it, pause a little longer, then pop it three times, then wait. If they are still chasing, pop three more times, pause, and pop again quickly. They should bite. If not, try again and go slower.
Streamers are a lot of fun. Think of a streamer as if you’re retrieving a Kastmaster that needs to be brought in fast. Once you figure these things out, you’re in for a great time. It’s hard to miss a bite with a streamer.
Streamers imitate minnows, leeches, and other underwater foods. The technique is easy. Tie a streamer to six feet of leader tipped to a sinking tip line and cast. Strip back a foot at a time pretty quickly. You want the streamer to look alive. Leeches are a bit slower than minnows, though they still move pretty quickly. Once you get the speed right, you’ll be amazed at how hard fish hit these things.
Streamers are perfect for those that want to catch a lot of trout in a short time. If you’re in a rush and must get off the water in a few hours, use some streamers (though that sounds like a terrible thing to have to do).
Saltwater flies work like any other fly, with the exception that they’re generally pretty big. Most of them are wet flies and are most representative of streamers and poppers. Shrimp, baitfish, and crabs are the main styles. However, the style you use is very dependent on the specific area you’re fishing. Fly fishing in saltwater is not as easy as freshwater. You need specialized equipment and everything’s bigger.
I recommend talking to a guide or the local fly shop to see what’s best to use in that area before heading out. It’s very possible to show up with a full fly box and not have anything the fish are interested in. Do your research and go to the local fly shop!