Best Trout Flies
Start thinking like a chef, because you are going to offer up a fine dining experience for a trout. Presenting an effective fly correctly is like ringing the dinner bell for even the biggest trout. Having confidence that your fly patterns are effective is vital. When you’re on the water we want to help you to hook-up more often, and land those big and selective trout.
That’s why Fly Fishing Atlas brings you our suggestions for the best flies for trout.
Dry flies in their strictest sense float on or near the surface of the water. Fly tiers design some dry flies to mimic the look of hatching aquatic insects. The life cycle of aquatic insects consists of being in or near the water.
When anglers reference aquatic insects, we are primarily speaking of mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, dragonflies, and damselflies. These insects live the majority of their lives under water and then hatch as flying adults for a smaller portion of their life cycle.
Dry flies are tied to imitate the adult phase of these aquatic insects, but there are other dry fly pattern that are important for a fly angler to imitate. As you might have gathered, the term ‘dry fly’ doesn’t only refer to aquatic insects.
Terrestrial dry fly patterns, like ants, grasshoppers, beetles and a few others imitate land borne insects. Often these insects are carried on the wind and unwittingly become trapped on the surface of the water.
Terrestrial dry fly patterns can be highly effective in early summer, when warm sunny days first appear, and the breeze is blowing bugs out of the surrounding vegetation. There are times when large hopper patterns will be tremendously appealing to hungry trout. But there is one terrestrial pattern we recommend every fly angler have in multiple sizes: ants.
Fish are attracted to certain fly fishing patterns even though they don’t appear to imitate any particular insect. Anglers have classified these flies as attractors. Many attractors look very bug-ish and are likely mistaken as an insect of some sort. Other attractors are obviously meant to evoke a reaction due to irritation or territorial infringement.
Streamer flies, or wet flies, are probably some of the most ornate and visually attractive flies. Atlantic Salmon streamer flies, in particular, have an unrivaled aesthetic appeal.
Streamer flies imitate bait fish in one sense. But many also have an uncertain association that parallels the attractor patterns of dry flies.
Classic streamer fly patterns have gone almost entirely unchanged for generations, which speaks to their effective nature. But many other streamer fly patterns are equally effective when fished properly.
Since fly tying is a creative effort, naturally a wide variety of tying materials and experimentation has entered all varieties of fishing flies and stream flies are no different.
Synthetic mylar tubing, stick-on eyes, and floating foam bodies has brought some streamer fly patterns to bear many parallels with those you might see in a minnow lure while spin fishing.
Nonetheless, these hand-tied works of art are effective tools on the line of a skilled angler. Retrieving streamer flies at varying speeds and depths can effectively coerce a strike.
Nymph patterns imitate the earlier life stages of a variety of aquatic insects. Rocks and streambed sediments provide a safe environment where aquatic insects seek shelter in order to avoid being swept downstream.
Despite this fact, many insects still regularly become dislodged during normal movement and during hatching behavior. These drifting nymphs are incredibly vulnerable to cruising trout, and these are the exact moments you want to imitate while nymph fishing.
Some species of aquatic insects are capable of swimming about at a surprisingly brisk pace. Lakes and ponds provide the ideal environment for this swimming behavior due to the lack of current.
As with dry flies and streamers, some nymph fly patterns are imitations of a living insect, and others play into more of the ‘attractor’ category of flies.
What Guides Trout Fly Selection?
Identifying natural trout foods, and when they are vulnerable to trout is your primary focus. We covered that in our guide on what trout eat, and in a similar vein this article has a primary focus on aquatic insects. The secondary focus then becomes selecting an effective fly pattern, or imitation, that portrays that same moment of vulnerability to a trout.
Guiding Principles of Trout Fly Selection
Successful imitation is based on more than size, shape, and color. Though those three elements are very important, it is equally, if not more important to imitate how the particular trout food behaves on the water, and also will feel when a trout bites it. The most effective flies for trout possess the whole package: size, shape, color, behavior and feel. Even the most traditional of fly patterns can, and should, be modified to resemble the natural trout food. When done correctly, success rates only increase.
“The most effective flies for trout possess the whole package: size, shape, color, behavior and feel.”
Selecting and making effective flies for trout is best accomplished with a suggestive approach in mind. That is to say, a pattern that suggests a particular real and living trout food while still leaving some latitude for error. We want to shoot for imitation, not duplication. Fly patterns that strive for exact representation of particular trout foods leave little room for error and fool fewer fish than suggestive fly patterns. Conversely, suggestive patterns also work much better in imitating a wide variety of species that might be available to feeding trout, rather than one.
Our fly pattern selections are based on years of buying, tying, and testing the most effective flies for trout on our home waters. However, these patterns can be effective for trout anywhere. But because of regional differences you will need to observe your own home waters in order to find the right timing and selections.
The Best Mayfly Patterns
When you look at the vulnerable moments in the life cycle of the mayfly you will find that almost every period, aside from the egg, presents significant opportunity to hungry trout. Mayflies burrow in mud and sand, crawl through bottom structures, and some even make fairly capable swimmers. In any case, they are a valuable source of food for trout both as aquatic insects and after they emerge and take flight. Anglers should seek to either make or acquire imitations for the following:
Mayfly nymphs are generally most vulnerable a few hours before their expected hatch begins. This is because many mayfly nymphs make what appear to be unsuccessful, or practice passes, toward the surface. As they swim partially toward the surface they are at great risk. Keen trout quickly recognize and target the rising and drifting mayflies. Trout consume more drifting nymphs than hatched mayflies by a ratio of at least ten to one. Though dead-drifting a mayfly nymph is no doubt effective, mimicking the rising action and swimming behavior to match your local mayfly behavior will prove deadly. Mayfly nymphs rise somewhat slowly, and a good imitation of that rising action will take many, many trout.
“Trout consume more drifting nymphs than hatched mayflies by a ratio of at least ten to one.”
The color of your mayfly nymph imitation is less important than its size, shape, and behavior. Nonetheless, a good variety of colors will only increase your success. For nymphs with darker shades of brown the natural pheasant tail nymph offers a great appearance and feel. Pheasant tail comes in a wide variety of dyed colors to match natural mayfly nymphs.
Any patterns you find to be effective flies for trout can be modified with the correct materials and colors to match your needs for other hatches as well. If you tie your own flies then you have a distinct advantage over anglers that are left to search for tied flies that match their local mayfly nymphs.
Another vulnerable stage is when the nymph reaches the surface and begins to split its nymph skin. The process of emergence does not happen in an instant and mayfly nymphs will often suspend in the surface film for a period of time in preparation for emergence. Floating nymphs should incorporate materials that help them float near the surface, but not on or above it. The best patterns utilize buoyant materials like foam or deer hair to form the top of the thorax. In using buoyant materials the floating nymph sits entirely submerged aside from the upper back of the fly. This is the precise posture that natural emerging nymphs assume just prior to their emergence.
If your floating nymph is tending to sink, fly floatant should only be applied on the back of the fly to allow the remainder of the fly to remain submerged. Sometimes you will find that trout are keying on nymphs that are sitting somewhere in the middle of the water column. Besides fishing a rising nymph, a great tactic to approach this scenario is to fish a dry fly with a nymph dropper suspended at the level that trout are feeding. The dry/dropper is an especially deadly combination of flies for trout displaying a mix of feeding behavior. The dry/dropper set up presents the opportunity to appeal to trout feeding on the surface as well as the subsurface and film feeders.
As the mature nymphs begin to emerge they don’t immediately assume their picturesque posture that resembles drifting miniature sailboats. Initially the wings of the emerged dun are crumpled up as they escape from their newly shed skin. Occasionally the emerging dun mayfly is unable to fully escape it’s nymph skin, or shuck, and cannot leave the water’s surface. Crippled or Stillborn duns usually appear much like the other emerging duns, but they frequently have wing defects as well. Wing defects cause one or both wings to retain the crumpled appearance rather than the upright wing of the typical drifting dun.
It is important to understand that stillborn mayflies and emerging mayflies are going to be riding in the surface film. The nymph shuck acts as a floating launch pad that the emerging dun uses to pull itself onto the water’s surface. Fishing a fully emerged dun that sits on the water’s surface is going to be less fruitful than a good imitation that remains trapped in the film. The best imitations will allow the wing or thorax to ride very high in or on the film while the abdomen and shuck should remain submerged. Comparadun patterns make perfect flies for trout feeding on the emerging and stillborn dun. One eventually emerges onto the water’s surface and the other remains trapped and struggling to emerge.
Fully emerged mayflies have climbed out of their nymph shuck and sit on the surface of the water. When the dun mayfly drifts away from the shuck, the dun can actually stand on the water due to the surface tension of water. Any fish that is feeding on drifting dun mayflies will primarily be keying on the tiny dimples on the water’s surface where the mayflies tiny legs stand. Catskill patterns make great flies for trout that are feeding on drifting duns. But if an active mayfly hatch is occurring then patterns that represent the emerging dun may work just as well or better. If you spot a big fish that is feeding on a particular stage of the hatch, it pays off to observe first, then present a fly that suggests that same stage. Otherwise you might miss a one-time opportunity to fool a big fish.
Female mayflies that return to the water to lay their eggs look much like the adult dun. But trout differentiate between the two based on different behavior and their brightly colored egg sack. The most effective flies for trout that are primarily focused on egg-laying females will incorporate this colorful egg sack at the rearmost portion of the abdomen. But be warned, egg-laying mayfly patterns are not easy to find commercially. And if you do find a commercially tied egg-laying pattern, chances are that it wont match your particular hatch. This is where being able to tie your own flies is a distinct advantage. However, adding a bright yellow egg sack to an existing fly isn’t tremendously difficult. Fishing your egg-laying females with a skitter or twitch will imitate the behavior of the natural.
At this stage the mayfly has become exhausted and has expired on the water. Because of this they lay on the water in a similar fashion as the emerging or stillborn dun, but differ in that their their legs and wings are lifeless and spread out to either side. There are a number of simple ways to imitate this life stage. Parachute mayfly patterns make decent flies for trout that are rising for spent spinners. The best parachute patterns to imitate a spent spinner will have very light colored hackle to represent the transparent wings of spinner mayflies. The wing post and the hackle that extends over the eye of the hook can be trimmed down short to be less visible to picky trout.
The best flies for trout focused on spinners are the classic Catskill style mayflies. That’s right, the same fly we recommend for fully emerged dun mayflies. Of course, fishing the pattern as usual won’t look like a spinner at all. The spinner look is accomplished by trimming the hackles completely off the bottom of the fly. This allows the fly to sit flush on the water. The top of the hackles can also be trimmed down significantly, but it is unnecessary to trim them off entirely. However, you will want to remove the wings and reduce the height of the hackles to half of their original height. Like the parachute pattern, the trimmed hackle represents the transparent wing of the spinner very well. The hackle with keeps the fly on the surface and lasts much longer than delicate feather winged patterns.
The Best Caddisfly Patterns
The life cycle of caddisflies presents plenty of opportunities to foraging trout, and for anglers to fool those trout as well. As with other aquatic insects, the egg provides little appeal to trout. This is also true of cased caddis larva while they are in their cases, and attached to various bottom structures. But that hardly limits the widespread availability of caddisflies as a food source. And with caddis hatches occurring throughout most of the late spring and summer, caddis imitations make ideal flies for trout when you scout new water.
Both cased and free-ling caddis are very vulnerable to trout when they become dislodged and drift in the current. Caddis larvae limit their vulnerability by living in cases that are anchored to bottom structures. But free living caddis larvae crawl throughout those same bottom structures and usually remain well concealed. Regardless of their seemingly remote and secluded nature, caddisfly larva imitations are quite effective and make excellent flies for trout.
“As with all flies for trout, the right imitation makes all the difference.”
Dead drifted caddis imitations are wonderfully effective. Caddisfly larvae don’t vary tremendously in shape and physical characteristics. Even while drifting, caddis larvae usually assume a similar curved posture. But their size and color does vary and will be important to reproduce in order to have the greatest chance for success.
Beadhead caddisfly larva patterns work particularly well when considering the fact that every pattern has a beadhead version these days. Caddisfly larvae have a darker colored thorax and head in comparison to their abdominal section. So a dark colored bead plays well with the appearance of caddisfly larvae. Some patterns incorporate two or three consecutive beads to suggest not only the head, but the entire thorax. And if you are fishing deeper water the additional weight will help sink the fly that much faster. In shallower water larvae with a single bead or no bead at all will fish very well. The addition of shot placed on the tippet is always preferable to using a beadhead fly that doesn’t suggest the natural.
Shortly after the larva pupates and passes through a period of dormancy, a very different looking caddisfly makes its move for the surface. This is by far the most vulnerable period for caddisflies. Mindful trout are quick to pick up on the pupae as they rise to the surface. The outer skin separates from the pupa and inflates with gasses that assist the upward movement of the caddis. This also makes the caddis look very different than it has in the past, or ever will again. Studies of emerging caddisflies have captured images that show the gas filled shuck and its shimmering, sparkled appearance. No pattern better captures this moment than Gary Lafontaine’s Emergent sparkle Pupa, also known as the ESP.
As the Pupa reaches the surface it quickly escapes its loose-fitting skin. Caddisflies often fly from the water only a few seconds after surfacing. Eager trout are acutely aware that the emergence is very brief, and their window of opportunity will quickly close. Trout rocket to the surface to capture the escaping caddisflies and cause very splashy rises. The emergent sparkle pupa is one of the few flies for trout that is effective as either a dry or wet fly. The sparkled appearance of the synthetic fibers helps the ESP to mimic the sparkled appearance of caddisflies as they rise and emerge on the surface.
During emergence occasionally the caddisfly only partially leaves its skin, but becomes trapped and cannot escape the water. Much like some mayfly imitations, the X-Caddis uses the concept of a trailing shuck to suggest emergence, or a crippled caddisfly that is unable to fly. The X-Caddis has a spread wing that suggests a mature caddisfly that is trapped and actively working to fly away. Dead drifting the fly will take trout, but a slight twitch better imitates the struggle of a crippled caddis. Natural caddisflies that fail to fully emerge will drift in the current or even skitter their way to the shore if they can make it that far before a trout chases them down. Trout will see the body of the X-Caddis better than a fly sitting above the surface. With this being the case, correctly matching the color is more important than high-riding dry flies.
Some caddisflies will rest or walk across the surface of the water immediately following their emergence and also during egg-laying. A folded wing pattern like the Lawson EZ-Caddis suggests this behavior very accurately and can be deadly in the proper size. You want this fly to sit on the surface so fly floatant and/or dry shake is a must. Small caddisflies that emerge at dusk frequently display this behavior. If you notice gentle sipping rises but cannot see the insects on the water its likely because the caddis are small and dark. Normally trout show splashy rises for caddis, but not when the caddisflies are resting. The hatches of small caddisflies extend into the first few hours after nightfall. The best imitations are resting caddis patterns in hook size #18 or #20.
“Big trout take notice and it is not unusual for these caddisflies to disappear in a large flushing rise.”
Large caddisflies display the resting behavior as well. On lakes and ponds large evergreen and orange caddisflies emerge during the summer and fall. Frequently these caddisflies take a lengthy period of rest before walking on the water’s surface to shore. The long walk to shore can attract quite a bit of attention because it is often hundreds of yards. Big trout take notice and it is not unusual for these caddisflies to disappear in a large flushing rise. The King’s River Caddis accurately imitates the walking caddisflies with a folded wing. But unlike some patterns that do not skitter well, the King’s River Caddis has a stiff-hackled collar that helps to keep the fly above water. Slowly walking the fly across lakes and ponds with a slight twitch can prove absolutely deadly during these hatches.
The average caddisfly that catches your eye when you are on the water will behave completely erratically. Almost the instant they emerge caddisflies start bouncing off the water and fluttering around at break-neck speeds. Their wild behavior continues in almost everything they do. Caddisflies congregate in chaotic-looking mating swarms and eventually lay their eggs by wildly skittering across the water or even diving right in. The drag-free drift that fly anglers so emphatically pursue is essentially unrealistic in suggesting adult caddisfly behavior. The Elk Hair Caddis is a fantastic fly for new fly anglers. It floats very high and is not easily swamped. And because caddisflies rarely hold still, some minor drag is of little concern. In fact, dragging an Elk Hair Caddis is quite realistic. The flared wing suggests flight so movement is to be expected. Caddisflies frequently bounce and hover over the water. If you hold your rod tip high on breezy days oftentimes the wind will bounce your caddisfly off the water’s surface. If you know a trout is holding in a particular area this method can drive them wild. Trout aggressively rise when you finally let the fly rest on the water. A wide variety of Elk Hair Caddis sizes and colors are a wise investment for any fly angler.
Even as adults caddisflies are remarkably good swimmers. Caddisflies sometimes crawl or dive into the water to lay their eggs. They assume a fairly streamlined and aerodynamic look underwater. Diving caddis patterns make particularly effective flies for trout when fished near structure like steep banks, downed trees and rocks. Female caddisflies often crawl down these structures to deposit their eggs. Afterward the egg-layers simply let go of the structure and swim their way back to the surface. Trout staged downstream stand a good chance at picking-off the swimming caddisflies. Caddisflies are every bit as erratic underwater as they are above water. Correct imitation of behavior is just as important as size and color. Swinging and lifting your imitations will draw more strikes. Classic feather-wing wet flies like the Quill Gordon and Light Cahill mimic diving caddisflies very well.
Spent Caddisflies slowly expire over a period of time. Initially becoming too exhausted to fly, they begin slowly walking to shore. A slight twitch can imitate these walking caddisflies. Eventually the caddisflies do not have the energy to move. At this stage dead drifting is very important. Truly spent caddisflies show very little or no movement. Eventually they assume a posture much like the resting caddis. The Lawson EZ-Caddis and the Skimming Caddis suggest a spent caddisfly perfectly. The insects drift until trout consume them or they are washed under and drowned. Whether above or below the surface trout still consume the caddisflies. Fishing a spent caddisfly subsurface with shot can be an effective method as well.
The Best Stonefly Patterns
Stonefly nymphs are one of the largest aquatic insects. Accordingly, they provide a substantial meal if opportunistic fish can capture them. Suitable stonefly habitat requires clean, oxygen-rich water. Of course, trout seek clean and oxygen-rich water as well. Which is why stonefly nymphs are particularly effective flies for trout.
As their name indicates, stonefly nymphs live among the stream bed rocks. When they are dislodged some stoneflies attempt to scurry their way back to bottom. Other large stoneflies assume a “C” shape and wait to settle on bottom while they tumble in the current. But all stoneflies remain on or near the bottom as much as possible. With this in mind, stonefly nymph imitations should also be fished near to bottom. And that leads to frequently hooking bottom structures which may or may not return your precious investment. Stonefly nymph imitations can sometimes look like works of art. Some fly tiers invest tremendous time in their inventions and the price reflects that effort. And when that work of art is lodged soundly in a submerged log it is unfortunate, to say the least. Effective imitations do not need to reflect exact realism.
Adult stoneflies vary drastically in size. Tiny black stones (snowflies) hatch in the very early spring and run from hook size #16 to #20 or smaller. Little yellow stones (sallies) run in hook size #16-#14. Larger golden stoneflies are around an inch in length with even longer wings. And the big boys, like the famous salmonflies of western rivers can go past two inches! Point being, you really need to observe what you have happening in your area. With that said, it’s hard to beat a good selection of Stimulators in a variety of sizes. Stimulators imitate adult stoneflies very well. But they are also very useful at imitating other large terrestrial insects like grasshoppers. Light yellow or cream bodied Stimulators are effective in fooling big trout during Hexagenia mayfly hatches as well.
The Best Midge Patterns
The tiny size of midges causes them to either go unnoticed by anglers, cause great frustration, or even be purposely ignored. But midges can also deliver tremendously for those fly anglers who solve the puzzle of the mighty midge. Using a fine mesh net to gather the emerging insects suspended near the surface can help crack the code. This might sound like a bit of work, and it is, but it pays off. Midges are small, but have a wild variety of colors. Colors range from bright green, red, purple to gold, cream and black. Once you nail down a size and pattern, matching the color seals the deal.
“Stomach samples show trout consume midge pupae over adults by a ratio of around fifty to one.”
The midge pupa is by far the most important life stage of the midge for anglers. Midge pupae preparing to hatch rise to the surface in great number near dusk. Cruising trout begin to consume them subsurface in very large numbers. In calm waters you will notice gentle rises and exposed dorsal fins. This finning occurs as the trout gobble pupae by the hundreds just beneath the surface.
This is when a pattern like Craven’s Jujubee Midge absolutely smokes trout in the right color. You want your midge pupa to suspend vertically just under the surface. The pupae suspend beneath the surface film so fly floatant is off limits. However, a great method is to apply floatant to your leader withing a few inches of the fly. This allows the midge pupa to sink just enough to imitate the natural. Another method is to tie your emerging midge on a short two inch dropper off a dry midge imitation. This suspends the pupa vertically and maintains the right depth.
Hatching or crippled midge
Just like all the other aquatic insects, midges can be crippled or stillborn during emergence, and fail to escape the water. But the mature midges that do fully emerge will rest on the surface of the water for a fairly long period. This makes them easy to catch and observe for anglers. Obviously the same ease of capture is provided to trout as well. But rather than expend the energy to rise, trout prefer to simply swim through the clouds of emerging pupa and gorge themselves. Stomach samples show trout consume midge pupae over adults by a ratio of around fifty to one. Trout are much more prone to rise for a group of midges that have gathered in a bunch. If you are fortunate enough to observe a cruising trout, a well-placed cast can draw a rise. A little twitch can sometimes have a good effect as well.
After emerging the tiny midges often rest on the surface of streams and ponds. The slightest breeze will send them drifting across the water. They frequently become bunched up in groups and sometimes in significant numbers. Trout are efficient creatures. Though they prefer the ease of gobbling up suspended midge pupae they will rise for a group of clumped midges. The classic Griffith’s Gnat is a very effective fly for trout rising during midge hatches. The Griffith’s Gnat seems to be nothing more than a bundle of legs and arms. Coincidentally that is exactly what a bundle of two or three adult midges looks like.
The Best Dragonflies and Damselflies
Many lakes and streams are loaded with tiny aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. But swimming among those other insects are larger predatory insects that anglers often ignore. On the contrary, big trout certainly do not ignore them. Dragonflies and Damselflies feed on the same little insects as trout. Since big trout eat bigger meals, it makes perfect sense that Dragonfly and Damselfly imitations make great flies for trout.
In the world of aquatic insects, dragonfly nymphs are tremendous predators. You’ll spot them crawling on the bottom, but they are also very capable swimmers as well. Some dragonfly nymphs spend two or three years trapping and consuming other aquatic insects before hatching. They become quite large and bold predators as they grow. But their size and boldness can make them captivating target for big trout. In bodies of water with good dragonfly populations Muddler Minnows are deadly flies for trout and make great dragonfly imitations. The Muddler Minnow shines when fished deep on sinking line near bottom. Dragonfly nymphs swim in a short jerky manner so try short twitches during your retrieve.
Damselfly nymphs are smaller and have a more slender appearance than dragonfly nymphs. But they are usually much more abundant in numbers than dragonflies. Like Dragonflies, they are very predacious of other aquatic insects, particularly midge larvae. Damselfly nymphs are very capable swimmers. When swimming they almost look and behave like a tiny minnow. Damselfly imitations are very effective flies for trout when fished near weed beds where they often live. This is due in part to their visibility to trout. They establish strong populations as nymphs and remain near the water as adults.
Damsel and Dragon Adult
Adult Dragonflies tend to stray quite far away from water while damselflies are quite drawn to it. You’ll spot damselflies hovering over water and landing on the waterside plant life much more than dragonflies. Most commercially tied imitations are primarily foam or deer hair, and are frequently blue in color. They seem to work regardless of the color, but damselflies certainly have a greater presence on the water. Dragonflies and damselflies don’t purposely land on the water like other aquatic insects. In fact they avoid contact with water aside from skimming the water to lay their eggs. If they do crash-land on the water’s surface they are often trapped and cannot escape. Casting your imitations to look like a spent dragon or damselfly is the best approach. Try working the edge of reeds and overhanging structure to tempt waiting trout.
If you are curious about tying your own flies, or maybe already do, here is a great video on how to make a foam bodied dragonfly or damselfly imitation:
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