By Doug Rose
A lot of flyfishers fall deeply under the thrall of trout flies. They like to fish them. They like to tie them. They like to accumulate the materials, be they natural or synthetic, employed in fly recipes. These anglers’ fly boxes are stuffed with patterns that imitate virtually every insect, forage fish and terrestrial that trout prey upon in rivers or lakes. For these anglers, it isn’t enough to carry a mere grasshopper pattern – they carry a Dave’s Hopper and a Joe’s Hopper and a Chernobyl Hopper.
But do you really need to carry a dozen fly boxes to regularly tempt trout? Not really.
Several years ago, author Thomas McGuane asked John Bailey, proprietor of Dan Bailey’s, the internationally known distributor of trout flies, what percentage of the trout he currently caught did he think he would still take if he were limited to an Adams and a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear. I don’t remember the exact figure Bailey cited but it was high – somewhere in the 80th or 90th percentile. And this from an angler who has been fly-fishing all of his life and whose Montana home waters are one of the most productive trout destinations on the planet.
Fortunately, anglers don’t have to confine their fly selection to two flies. But most flyfishers will probably take nearly as many trout with far fewer patterns than they usually carry. In fact, you might actually catch more fish. As a part-time fly-fishing guide, I have observed that most anglers spend far too much time pondering fly selection and far too little time considering how to present the fly to the fish. Most trout fishermen would, similarly, profit greatly by spending more time practicing casting and less time at the tying bench.
If you ask 10 veteran flyfishers to list their indispensable trout patterns, of course, you won’t get two lists that are the same. But the dry flies, nymphs, wet flies and streamers listed below would earn a slot in most expert trout angler’s fly boxes. For beginners, this list is also an excellent foundation upon which to build a fly collection.
These flies won’t answer every riddle you encounter on the water. And as you gain experience, you will refine your list and add local patterns. But day-in/day-out, these 10 flies will get you through most angling situations, and they are especially valuable when prospecting unfamiliar lakes and streams.
The Adams is the quintessential trout fly. With its brown and grizzly hackle and gray body, this Michigan pattern is very “buggy,” and passes for a host of insects, especially mayflies. Like all of the essential trout flies, it also seems to possess a magical ability to trigger a response even when nothing is hatching.
This is an excellent “soft water” pattern. Fish it behind obstructions, in cut banks and in pools. The most popular sizes in Western waters are 10s through 18s.
The Elk Hair Caddis is the Adams’ alter ego. Developed in the West, its elk hair wing is lighter-colored, and its palmered body is bushier than the Adams. It floats very well, and is an excellent choice on rougher water. Depending on the body color, it can be tied to represent a host of caddis species, as well as stoneflies and even Green Drake mayflies. It usually ranges between sizes 10-18, and tan and olive are the most popular body colors. Tied on a size 4 or 6 hook, it passes as an adult October Caddis.
A good general-purpose nymph should suggest more than one species of insect. By that criterion, the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear is one of the very best.
Tied on sizes 12-16, it can be fished as a mayfly nymph, caddis pupa or even a scud. Tied in sizes 4-10, it suggests stoneflies and large caddis pupa such as Dicosmoecus. The natural tan shade of hare’s mask is traditional, but olive is good in the smaller sizes.
The Pheasant Tail is more slender and darker than the GRHE. It is most productive when mayflies are the critical part of the trout diet. Like the Hare’s Ear, it is effective in rivers and lakes, and it is also an excellent searching pattern when no insects are visible on the surface. Brown and olive represent most mayflies, and you should carry them in sizes 10 through 16.
Although it is a far cry from classic New England streamers, the Muddler Minnow is one of the most versatile and effective flies ever conceived. Originally designed to represent a species of bottom-hugging sculpin in Lake Superior tributaries, it remains an excellent sculpin imitation. However, when it is tied on a lighter hook and dressed with floatant, the Muddler is also a fine grasshopper pattern.
Sizes 4-10 are the most productive trout-sized Muddlers, and they can be fished on floating, sink-tip and full sinking lines.
The Clouser Minnow wouldn’t make the list of indispensable trout flies in most regions of the country. Along the West Coast, however, anglers fish in sprawling impoundments. They also cast for sea-run cutthroat along saltwater beaches and large rainbows in mountain lakes. In all of these situations, trout feed heavily on baitfish, and Clouser’s eyed bucktail is one of the most deadly forage fish patterns. Chartreuse over white, blue/white, pink/white and tan/white in sizes 2 and 6 will cover most situations.
Partridge Soft Hackles are actually more of a style of fly than a specific pattern. They are the essence of simplicity – a sparse floss body, a few turns of partridge hackle, and a small dubbed thorax.
As with most of the patterns listed above, they are very versatile, impressionistic flies. They can imitate everything from an ascending caddisfly pupa to a drowned mayfly to a Yellow Sally stonefly. Yellow bodies represent Rycophilla caddis, Yellow Sallies and pale morning dun mayflies, while green is best when Hydropsyche caddis are present. Sizes 12-18 are standard.
I have heard more than one veteran flyfisher claim that if they were restricted to a single pattern they wouldn’t hesitate to pick a Woolly Bugger. With its chenille body, marabou tail and palmered hackle, this is one of the most suggestive flies you can fish. Black Woolly Buggers can imitate large stonefly nymphs, and chartreuse flies are fine dragonfly patterns. When tied very sparsely, it can pass as a damselfly nymph. Brown flies fished on the bottom imitate crayfish. Carry these flies in sizes 4-10. Bead and c
oneheads are commonly added to Woolly Buggers.
Midges or chironomids, as they are often termed by lake anglers, are the smallest insects flyfishers commonly try to imitate. Some flyfishers shy away from midge patterns, because they are small and often hard to see on the water. But trout in both stillwaters and streams routinely feed on these minute dipterans, especially during winter and early in the season.
The Griffith’s Gnat was created to imitate an emerging midge, resting or struggling in the surface film. Fish it on a long fine leader and let it rest for long periods. Sizes 12 and 14 imitate the large chironomids on many desert lakes, while sizes 16 to 20 are better on most waters.
During late summer and autumn, when subaquatic insect activity dwindles on rivers, trout often shift their focus to terrestrial insects. Along with grasshoppers, ants are a highly relished trout diet item. Most ants are black, brown or reddish, and they can be fished both on the surface and as drowned insects. Sizes 14, 16 and 18 are the most popular. Trout key on ants near grassy banks, in meadow stretches and, especially, around log jams and snags.
By now, it has probably dawned on you that you actually end up with far more than 10 flies when you figure in all of the color, size and pattern permutations described above. The nymphs, streamers and wet flies may also be weighted (or not), and many of the subsurface patterns can include beadheads or coneheads. As you accumulate the variations, it doesn’t take long to fill several large fly boxes.
There is still a clear advantage to be had by focusing your attention on a handful of proven patterns: Each of these flies is fished essentially the same way, regardless of its color or size or weight. This allows you to concentrate on learning how to effectively present a relatively small number of flies, rather than flailing about ineffectively with dozens of different patterns. And limiting the amount of time you spend thinking about flies frees up time to practice casting, line handling and presentation.