April 06, 2023
By Mike Gnatkowski
If you’re like me, you probably carry way more flies in your trout vest than you’ll ever use on any given trip to the river. Truth is, there are about a dozen go-to patterns that I end up tying on when there isn’t an active hatch happening. When you’re forced to downsize you fly-box selection, like with a pack-in trip or a quick evening session, and space is limited, there are some tried-and-true favorites you shouldn’t be without.
Many don’t imitate anything in particular, but simulate a variety of insects and other creatures trout eat. Most can be fished in a variety of ways, making them both productive and versatile. Some are favorites because they are easy to tie with inexpensive materials, and they flat-out catch trout.
It’s commonly believed that about 90 percent of what a trout eats is taken under the surface of the water. It’s logical then that a good portion of our Dependable Dozen consists of wet flies, nymphs and streamers. You generally can’t go wrong if you have a fly that sinks on the end of your tippet.
Subsurface flies are tied either with no weight at all, with lead wire wrapped on the hook under the body or with a bead positioned at the head of the fly to allow it to sink quickly, which is important in swift mountain streams or when you want the fly to get deep in still waters. Beads come in brass, copper and tungsten, and a variety of sizes.
Even heavier cone-head versions can be added to streamers and nymphs to dredge bottom. The beads not only add weight, but also flash that gets the attention of hungry trout. Additionally, there are anodized beads available in a variety of colors. Using a bead on a classic pattern, like a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear or Prince Nymph, adds a bit of pizazz.
Pheasant Tail Nymph
About the only improvements that can be made to the classic Pheasant Tail Nymph (PTN) is to add a flashback and a beadhead. The rust and olive colors of a pheasant feather give the fly a natural, realistic tone that matches a variety of aquatic insects. The PTN does an good job of imitating a mayfly nymph, but can simulate a variety of bugs trout eat. The fly is a great searching pattern when there’s no visible hatch to match.
Adding a copper ribbing to the fly gives it a bit of subtle flash, adds durability and gives it a segmented, buggy look. The Mylar flashback simulates a wing case of a nymph and the air bubble trapped as it emerges. The fly can be fished on a dead drift or with subtle twitches that imitate an emerging or escaping nymph. The most popular and productive sizes of the PTN are 16 and 18, but you’d be wise to have patterns in sizes 10 through 20 in beaded and un-beaded versions.
Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear
The Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear (GRHE) has a buggy profile and coloration that doesn’t imitate anything specific, but to a trout it looks like something good to eat. A fatter pattern than the Pheasant Tail, the GRHE is to nymph anglers what the Adams is to dry-fly anglers.
In smaller sizes, the GRHE suggests a mayfly nymph, caddis pupa or freshwater shrimp. Larger versions imitate stonefly nymphs and larger caddisflies. Because the GRHE does such a good job of imitating a little bit of everything, it’s a go-to fly. Try the GHRE in sizes 10 to 16. The most effective color for the GHRE is the standard brown/tan color of the hare’s mask, but olive or darker tones can be effective, too. The GRHE can be dead-drifted or fished with small twitches to imitate more active insects.
Simple to tie, the body of the Zebra Midge is nothing more than tying thread ribbed with fine gold or silver wire and a small bead head. You can substitute a dab of Antron yarn or peacock herl for the bead if you want to fish it just under the surface.
You wouldn't think trout would be too interested in a morsel as small as a midge larvae or pupae. But chironomids are one of the most important food sources in still waters and they can represent 25 to 50 percent of a trout’s diet. Generally, the largest chironomids emerge during the spring and will decrease in size through summer and fall. Right after ice-out, midges become active and trout gorge on the newfound smorgasbord in the lake shallows. You’ll want to have the midge in sizes 16 to 22 in myriad colors including black, olive, red and even blue.
Pat's Rubber Legs
The easy-to-tie Pat’s Rubber Legs is similar to classic patterns like the Bitch Creek and Girdle Bug, but is tied in several colors with black/brown and orange/black being proven favorites. The rubber legs do a good job of simulating legs and antennae on stonefly nymphs in sizes 6 and 8. Pat’s Rubber Legs is so productive because is it imitates stonefly nymphs that are so prevalent in Western waters and it can be fished year-round. Stonefly nymphs live for two or three years in the stream before they hatch, so they’re always available for the trout and they’re used to seeing them.
Invented by Colorado angler John Barr more than two decades ago, the Copper John is actually a combination of three other very productive flies. It has the goose biot tail of the Prince Nymph, the wire body of the Brassie and the thorax, wing casing and head of the Flashback Pheasant Tail. The Copper John is another one of those flies that doesn’t imitate anything in particular, but imitates a little bit of everything. The bead head and wire body help it sink quickly, so it’s a go-to fly when fishing fast water or when you want to dredge the depths. By simply changing the wire color you have a variety of color options. The Copper John is a must-have in sizes 14 to 20.
The Prince Nymph can be traced to brothers Don and Dick Olson of Bemidji, Minn., but Doug Prince of Monterey, California, made the fly popular in the West. Along with the PTN and GRHE, it’s one of the must-have nymphs that no Western fly-angler’s box should be without. One of the attractive qualities of the Prince Nymph is the peacock herl body. The green/blue/purple herl gives off an iridescent shimmer that makes the fly look alive. The goose biot tail and wing casing add to its allure.
Depending on the size, weight and how it’s fished, the Prince Nymph is much more than just a simulator, it can be used as a bead-head to work the bottom, crawled along the rocks to imitate an emerging stonefly and fished as an excellent dropper pattern. You’ll want to have some in sizes 10 to 20.
The classic Breadcrust is the original soft-hackle fly, and similar patterns have become staples in the West. Soft hackles imitate both a cased and a free-living caddisfly. The original Breadcrust required the tedious task of preparing a red-phased grouse tail feather quill for the body. Larva Lace and similar products make a good substitute. Larva Lace produces a buggy, segmented body and is extremely durable.
The hackle can be hen hackle or soft, mottled feathers from a grouse or Hungarian partridge. The soft hackle used for the collar undulates in the current and gives the fly a lifelike appearance. It can be fished on a dead drift or stripped in short spurts to imitate an emerging caddisfly.
Many anglers prefer the simplicity of fishing dry flies and the thrill of seeing a trout rise to take the delicate offering. While not as productive as wet flies in many situations, dry flies are fun to fish and give the angler the added challenge of trying to match the hatch when bugs are emerging from their nymphal stage or returning to lay eggs on the water’s surface.
Some consider the Adams to be the world’s most recognizable dry fly, and for good reason: It catches trout everywhere it’s used. The parachute version is the most popular in the West because of its profile and visibility in choppy water. The mixed brown/grizzly tail and hackle have a natural buggy look that imitates mayflies very well, but it’s also a great searching pattern. You’ll want to have the Adams in sizes 12 to 26. It’s that versatile.
Elk Hair Caddis
The Elk Hair Caddis is easy to tie, uses readily available materials and flat-out catches fish. In the West, it’s a proven pattern because it imitates the caddisflies and stoneflies that are so prevalent in the region. With the elk-hair wing, the fly floats like a cork and simulates the folded-wing profile of the caddis and stonefly.
It does a great job of imitating these flies when they are hatching, but it’s also a proven pattern to tie on when nothing is working the surface. The original calls for a peacock herl body, but rust, tan or olive can be substituted to match the hatch. You’ll want to carry this pattern in sizes 12 to 20.
Parachute Madam X
The Parachute Madam X can look like a caddisfly, stonefly or grasshopper. The Antron yarn post makes the fly highly visible. The original calls for white rubber legs, but colored, speckled legs make the fly even more appealing. Sizes 14 to 16 imitate caddisflies while sizes 6 to 8 work as stoneflies and hoppers.
Streamers can be fished on a dead drift to imitate a nymph, stripped in quick jerks or swung downstream to imitate a fleeing minnow, or crawled to look like a leech or crawfish. That’s why they fool so many trout.
Very easy to tie, a Woolly Bugger can be enhanced with some Krystal Flash fibers in the undulating marabou tail, a crystal chenille body and/or a matching dyed grizzly saddle for the palmer hackle. Tie the webby base of a saddle hackle behind the head to simulate gills. The most common color for the Woolly Bugger is black. Popular sizes are 10 to 12, but larger size-6 and size-4 Buggers are deadly on trophy trout.
The original Muddler Minnow was created by Dan Gapen from deer hair, turkey tail and squirrel tail to imitate a sculpin. About the only improvements are to add some marabou and Krystal Flash to the wing. Versions tied on long-shank hooks from size 10 imitate hoppers and stoneflies; size-2 bead-head versions tempt big trout. Regardless of size, the Muddler Minnow deserves a place in your Dependable Dozen.