Back to Basics: Golden Rules for Choosing the Right Fly

Guest Blogger: John Holman, owner and operator of No Se Um Lodge, Alaska.

choosing-flyWe got to thinking about how many folks take up fly fishing for the first time. It’s our favorite way to connect with the great outdoors. It’s an unparalleled mix of fun, excitement and relaxation. It’s also a little confusing for someone who’s never done it before.

We ponder and choose from our fly boxes with an experienced eye. We watch the fish, read the water and identify the bugs. We fly fish Alaskan rivers and lakes almost year-round, so it’s easy to forget we weren’t always the accomplished trout bums that we are today. For those of you who are just now tuning in to one of the best sports in the world, we offer a quick outline for choosing the right fly.

Ending Confusion One Fly at a Time

You want to be as well-prepared as possible. When the action starts to explode, you have to be ready. If you can’t get any interest, you need to be flexible. This can all be accomplished by covering all your fly bases. We usually go fishing with at least a trio of each of these three fly types.

1. Dry Fly: Fishing for What You See

When you see fish rising to the top and inhaling insects, this is your go-to fly. It floats on the water’s surface imitating different bugs. We get pretty caught up in trying to match the hatch, so we like to keep an assortment of stonefly, caddis and mayfly patterns in the box.

Our list of classic dry flies includes the black midge, royal coachman, Dave’s hopper and the Adams. We recommend casting a floating line with a 9- to 12-inch leader and keeping some dry fly floatant handy.

2. Nymph: Sneaking Up on Them Sub-Surface

When fish won’t cooperate and rise to the occasion, the nymph gets you down to their level. It’s considered one of the most productive flies in the box. It imitates that time in an insect’s life when it’s underwater in the nymph stage. This type of bug presents fish with a perfect meal that doesn’t require much work.

You can’t see what’s going on with a nymph, so some anglers use a strike indicator to stay visually in touch with potential strikes. Nymphing takes a little practice, but it’s an excellent way to put your fly right in front of trophy fish. Copper Johns, gold-ribbed hair’s ears and bead-head princes are a few of our favorite nymphs.

3. Streamer: Stripping for Aggressive Action

They’re big, they’re effective, and they stretch your fishing talents. Streamer patterns imitate minnows, leeches and sculpins, but you need to do your part. You have to make the fly swim underwater with line pulls. Stripping moves the streamer through the water with an action that most fish find irresistible.

Streamers are ideal for bank banging, but you can dead drift these flies too. Just be sure to use this trick in water that would toss around a minnow. Fish are suckers for what they think are disabled targets. Every angler needs a good assortment of classic wooly buggers in his fly box.

fly-fishingChoosing the Right Fly

We follow three simple rules for choosing the best fly. Our method isn’t perfect, but we think it’s worth sharing.

  1. Read the water, check the bugs and watch the fish.
  1. Pick your fly based on what you see.
  1. When it doesn’t work, switch fly types.

That last step is usually the hardest. We strongly advise against being stubborn when you’re fly fishing. Sometimes, all you need is a fly change-up. It can be that simple.

Thank You for Your Patience

If you’re a dedicated fly fisherman who already knows more about the sport that you’re willing to admit, we appreciate your patience with this post. If you’re headed out on your first trout stalking expedition, we hope we’ve armed you with some good information. We’ll let you in on a secret too.

No matter how long any of us chase fish, we’ll always be changing our minds about the perfect fly on any given day. It’s not that we’re indecisive. So many factors come into play, but that’s what makes fly fishing so much fun. We’re never bored, and we usually catch our fair share.

6 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Golden Rules for Choosing the Right Fly

    1. Michael Vorhis

      Or maybe 9 to 12 fathoms? : )

      John, did I read you saying that when your choice of fly doesn’t get the job done you prefer to change not the fly but the fly TYPE? That caught my eye. Normally when I’m getting no action I presume that I’ve at least got the broad-stroke strategy right but might need a different size or different depth or to imitate a different species. But you implied you’d try to fix things with a completely different strategy–by going from nymph to streamer or from dry to wet.

      To me that almost seems like doubting the bigger decision rather than the smaller. Care to expound on your reasons? It caught my eye, and I’m always curious to hear how another angler approaches choices on the water.

      – Mike

      Reply
  1. Richard Cook

    Good example. Fish jumping everywhere around you, you have tied on every style of dry fly you have and no takers. They are taking bugs just under the surface or in the film, and their moment carries them above the surface. If you watch closely you can usually tell. (1) cut all the bottom hackles off a BWO and apply dry fly dressing just to the tips of the remaining top hairs. (2) just carry a couple of emergers. (3) use parachute drys and dress only the post above the hackles. (1) & (3) has worked more than the emerger. To me, that’s changing the “type”

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      I guess if you’ve already tried all your drys, then sure, change something more than just the pattern because you’ve already done that.

      Myself, if I’ve tried a nymph pattern or two and got no takes yet, I’m more likely to try a third nymph pattern before I start clipping pieces of them off or going to a dry. I’ve already made a careful decision of fly type, based on time of day, cloud cover, season, water level & temp…etc. I’m not prone to second-guessing that decision until I get a lot more desperate. But that’s just me, everybody has their own tendencies.

      Reply
      1. Richard Cook

        Basically you are still fishing a dry. The takes are just as exciting as a fly riding high and dry, in fact, the top part of the fly is still sticking out of the water. You can’t be such a purist that trimming hackles on a couple flies makes them a nymph

        Reply
        1. Michael Vorhis

          No, didn’t say I was worried about making dries into nymphs. Just wondered what YOU meant. It seemed by “type” you meant dry vs wet vs nymph vs streamer…etc, and by “change” you meant “change out,” as in “tie on something else.” Turns out you were actually talking about changing–that is, modifying–flies, such as with a scissors or by some other means. That’s a whole different topic. So I retract my original question.

          I’ll modify anything I want on a stream, by the way. They’re my files, nobody to tell me I can’t.

          Thank you for clarifying what you meant by “change the type.” Nothing to add. Thanks for sharing.

          Reply

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