Fly fishing is a sport enjoyed by millions around the world. Whether you are chasing some trout on the River Wye or swinging a streamer deep in the Bolivian Jungle, the practice, patience, and skills remain the same.
When we talk about fly fishing for trout, this is where it all started, I suppose, and we, as anglers, don’t always take into account the great advancements we have made in the sport over the last few decades. What’s beautiful about trout fishing is that as much as the sport has advanced, it has really stayed the same in many ways for trout fishing.
The perfect example of this would be the attempt to imitate the four life cycle stages of the insects that trout focus on.
One of my favorite life stages to fish is the Emerger stage. This is probably one of, if not the most difficult, to master for numerous reasons, but it is great fun once you have it dialed.
Understanding what the emerger is and how to fish it correctly to imitate the emerger best is the trickiest part. Whether it is a mayfly, caddis, or midge emerger, they all tend to follow a similar transformation from nymph to adult.
The emerger is the nymph swimming up the water column to the surface to break from its shuck and spread its wings, so to speak. It is a very vulnerable stage for the nymph and trout hone in on this very quickly and have a feast.
Knowing what pattern to fish when is the key to fishing emergers well. The section below will cover what we fish, when, and how. As always, take what you want from the information provided. This is what works for us on our waters, and changing things up to suit your style and conditions is vital.
Mayfly emergers are some of the most exciting patterns to tie and fish. They range from very simple to very detailed. It all depends on what you are comfortable with tying and fishing. The misconception of the more detailed pattern working better isn’t true, but rather how the pattern is presented and fished makes all the difference.
1. Barr’s Emerger
John Barr is no stranger to the fly-fishing world, and his contributions to the sport have paved many a way for new things. John’s BWO emerger is a great pattern to have and use. It can be fished as an emerger or a cripple, whichever you choose.
The dry-style version will sit a little higher in the subsurface and give more of a cripple appearance, while the beaded version will cover the emerging insect better. One of the best attributes this pattern has is the fact that it can be fished repeatedly. The trout seem to love it. Tied in olive and white, lighter browns are ideal, and a size #16 scud hook is best.
The RS2 fly or ‘Ray Semblance’ is a must-have in any emerger fly box. It was developed in the ’70s by Rim Chung and has accounted for many fish. It is the usual first choice change when the fish start getting picky or the first fly to fish if we know the fish are skittish and tend to look at the fly for a long time before they commit.
It was tied to imitate a true BWO emerger, but over the years, it has been used for many other emerger imitations and just seems to work.
Fish the flies small size #18 down to a #22 if you will be surprised at what comes up to eat that small presentation.
The Klinky is just one of those patterns you must have! It is my go-to fly on the first change if I have had a few rejections. I tend to always tie on a size #16 black klinky to fish after I have had a few solid refusals. I’m not too sure why, but this always works and gets the trout to rise and eat.
The Klinkhammer was originally designed and tied by Hans Van Klinken, who was trying to imitate an emerging caddis pattern. What he didn’t realize at the time was the effectiveness of the pattern in imitating many other emerging fly patterns. The BWO is one of these, and the klinky is a great emerging representation of this.
It is also a great pattern to fish as a dry dropper pattern, and if you tie the halo hackle rather densely with the added CDC under, they float all day and can hold a fair bit of weight under it.
What is also a great attribute of the Klinkhammer is that the quilled abdomen tends to sit in the water film and thus looks very much like an emerging mayfly.
Blacks and browns are the first choices here, with the sighter post in a hotspot orange or white for the larger size #14 and upwards.
Guide Pro Tip: Wondering about fly colors and what to pick? I’ve got help, Read 👉 How to Select the Right Color Flies for Trout
4. CDC Emerger
The CDC is a perfect material for emergers. The brown CDC emerger is one of those classic emerger patterns that rides low in the water film but has enough on the emerging wing to be easily seen by the angler. It has a beautiful profile that trout find difficult to resist. The soft CDC upwards wing gives the fly some good buoyancy but needs to be treated thoroughly with oil before its use.
A handy tip, if you are tying your own patterns, is to tie all your CDC patterns with a small CDC oil next to the vise and make a point to regularly wash your fingers with the oil when handling the CDC. This helps with prepping the feather and eliminates any human scent that may sit on the fibers.
I like to fish this pattern in. a size #14 and a #16; I find anything smaller I tough to see at times.
Keep to the natural colors of brown and tans with a touch of olive, and you should be well covered.
5. Olive Mayfly Emerger
This is a great pattern to fish to any brown or rainbow that s patrolling the subsurface. It is large profile makes it an ideal pattern to skate on the surface for that extra trigger element. Skating is a wonderful little technique to use when you need that little bit extra from the pattern.
The large profile of the fly is also a great visual for the angler as well. I lie to fish this pattern with a small dropper under it when the fish are being tricky.
Large flies in sizes #10 and #12 are my go-to choices in olives and browns. When I fish the dropper, I use a size #16, Copper John.
Caddis emergers differ from mayfly emergers in that they tend to metamorphose faster than mayflies and become airborne quicker. Many of the same patterns can be fished for both species. I tend to fish patterns that cover both well and may increase the size of the pattern for the caddis hatch.
6. Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear
The soft hackle/ the wet fly has so much history to it, with many a reference, some as early as 1975. It is around then that they really came into their own. Combining a soft hackle and GRHE pattern was ingenious! We all know how effective the hare’s ear nymph is; when tied and fished as an emerger pattern, it is just as deadly.
Fish these patterns in their natural colors; size #16 is best. This pattern is also very effective on the stills. Dead drifted over the grassier areas. The fish love them!
7. Parachute Caddis
The parachute caddis is actually one of my go-to dry fly patterns that is often the first fly for the session. Now when you tie this pattern with very sparse materials and CDC instead of Deer hair, it can easily be fished as an emerger.
One of my best ways to fish these patterns is as a single dry sitting in the water film with little to no dressing. The pattern tends to just dip under the surface, and with a few activation tweaks, the fly becomes deadly! Fish in size #14 is my first choice. I like to tie them in soft greys and browns.
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8. Foam Emerger – Lots to Love
Foam emerger patterns are becoming very popular. Fast to tie, easy to see when fishing. With some simple changes to the body color and hackle this fly can imitate many emergers. A great pattern for cruising browns and bows. They are best fished in larger sizes and work very well when they have some activation on the surface.
This can be done with a swing at the end of a drift or one or two small twitches during the drift. Sizes #12 to 14 are best, and browns, blacks, and olives work equally well.
9. Traditional Caddis Emerger
This is low riding caddis pattern is perfect for matching the hatch. Get it or tie it in olives and brown colors. Fish rising to emergers have a distinct look, often just a subtle bulge in the water surface.
This pattern work wonders for a sedge or caddis emerger, especially when fished a little more sunken and subsurface. It is one of the go patterns when fish are actively feeding on the adult or emerger patterns that are struggling to take flight.
Fish it in size #14 or #16, depending on what is on the surface, and ensure you have that dead drift dialed in. Occasional twitches at the end of the drift also work well to entice and eat.
Midge emergers are perfect for the shoulder’s seasons or changes from warmer to colder or vice versa. The midge is found throughout the western waters and can prove to be a very effective little pattern to have and fish. They are often very small but don’t be fooled by their size. The trout love them, and they will often make or break your day.
The Jujubee was developed by Charlie Craven many years ago. He needed to imitate the thread midge that would entice those very selective trout on the South Platte River. Developed by accident, really, whilst tying a few saltwater patterns.
Charlie’s Jujubee pattern soon was in full action and hasn’t changed since. Tied in small sizes and keeping with the color theme of greens and blacks are our best choices.
Watch how Charlie ties the JuJubee in this YouTube video 👉 https://youtu.be/4_Si87I7mIM
Fish it as you would any midge pattern as a single fly drifted over a shallow run or as part of a euro rig as well. It also works great for the still waters on a static or Hove-style setup with the odd twitch in the retrieve.
11. Top Secret
The Top Secret is a Pat Dorsey design that he thought out for those South Platte River fish. The pattern works great in any tailwater fishery and is a must for any winter or early spring fishing trip.
Usually fished in a washing line rig in the still waters or as a point fly on a euro rig, the unweighted versions move very naturally under the water. Fished in size #16 or smaller, it is a great pattern to carry.
Understanding Where the Emerger Fits into a Fly Life Cycle
As mentioned earlier, the emerger is a very important part of the life cycle of an insect. The emerger is the nymph pattern that starts its journey to the water’s surface to break free of its shuck, allowing it to spread its wings and start to fly.
During its flight, it will mate, and the females will lay their eggs back on the water surface or surrounds to start the cycle all over again.
The emerging nymph is a great pattern to fish but can prove to be tricky. One of the main issues I have with certain patterns is being able to see them properly to spot an eat or some interest. Many of the patterns are wet-style flies, so they are fished below the surface or in the water film, which can prove very tricky. One of my go-to ways to help with the sight issue is to fish the emerger behind a sighter dry fly.
This helps me spot the landing of the fly and track it throughout the drift. If I lose the size #20 midge emerger, then I know that it is about 10 inches (~25cm) behind the dry that I can see from a mile away.
This doesn’t always work because if I can see the dry fly, then chances are the trout can see it as well, and this can spook the very picky or sensitive fish. If the dry fly spotter rig isn’t an option, try to fish an emerger with a little dry fly element.
Something that sticks out on the surface to help with the visual part of things. A Klinky is a great fly for this application, and the fish love them, but more on this later.
The basic life cycle stage for all aquatic insects is as follows.
The length of the nymph stage varies from species to species. They live on various substrates on the riverbed and bank sides, crawling and swimming around freely. Trout’s diets are mostly made up of nymphs, which is a very popular way to fish for trout.
The emerger is the next stage of the cycle for these various insects, and as mentioned, they will start to emerge at different times and in various conditions. Warmer, overcast days are ideal for most of these insects to emerging and swimming to the surface, but each species has more detailed tell-tale signs.
It is important always to be ready and fish an emerger pattern as soon as you think the hatch will start if you start to see subsurface disturbances, gentle surface sips, or trout leaping right out of the water on the odd occasion. These are all good signs that something is happening.
The dun stage is just as interesting for me. It is one of my favorite stages of fishing. This stage is only applicable to the mayfly metamorphosis while the caddis has a pupa emerger stage, its wing drying time is somewhat shorter, and the caddis pupa doesn’t waste much time before it flutters away.
Once the nymph has survived the swim to the surface, it starts to emerge from its shuck and transform into an adult. It needs to dry its wings first and tends to sit on the water’s surface. It is this waiting time that makes it such an easy target for the trout.
The spinner or adult caddis and midge is the final stage of the cycle. Once the eggs have been laid, the adult mayflies tend to die off and drift down the river. The caddis and midge cycles are longer than this, with the caddis adults living up to three weeks before the drift off.
When to Use Emergers?
Knowing when to fish an emerger is key. Recognizing the signs and reading your water will help you make the right fly choices and catch more fish. While there isn’t a strict rule to follow, and often, the fish will do the exact opposite of what you thought, it is a great reminder that nothing is as it seems, and it is fishing, after all.
I look for the following signs when out on the water. The slow increase of insects coming off the surface sounds obvious, but if they aren’t coming off in notable numbers yet, but the fish are actively feeding, then they are eating emergers.
Secondly, if the fish are visually eating on the surface but ignoring every dry fly your throw at them, then they are feeding on emergers. Then lastly, if you see smaller fish launching themselves out of the water, then chances are they are eating emergers. Change your fly and get catching.
Fly Fishing Tips and Techniques
Fishing emergers can be some of the most exciting fishing around. If you get the timing right and the fish are zoned into your fly, the session will be awesome! Keep an eye out for signs of when to switch to an emerger, and when you do, make sure you have confidence in the pattern you are fishing.
Look for the subtle signs of the fish feeding subsurface and, on occasion, the trout leaping out of the water completely. Small surface eats are also a good indicator of what is to come, so be ready.
I like to fish most emergers upstream and at a 2 o’clock angle. Get the drift as drag-free as possible and try to follow the drift right through to 6 ‘clock. Here, I will hang the emerger a little and even activate it on the surface to trigger any fish at the end of the drift. Purposefully induced drag with control is often a great little trigger for trout.
When it comes to gear to fish emergers, a standard dry fly rod 3 or 4 wt. 9 foot will work fine with a normal dry fly line and leader. My standard line is the Rio Technical Trout line with a Harvey-style 15-foot leader.
A second and very productive way to fish emerger is with your nymphing setup and a Vision Nymphomaniac fly line or similar. These types of fly lines are designed for nymphing but have enough of a heavy taper to turn over smaller dries and emergers. So, it is ideal if you have a hatch that starts, and you weren’t expecting it. Change the leader, tie on your emerger, and get fishing!
Guide Pro Tip: Hey, I’ve got a FREE Fly Tying Class. Videos, and written instructions can be found with this shortcut link 👉 How to Tie Flies Step by Step
One More Cast with an Emerger
Recapping the importance of emergers, they are well worth a throw when the conditions present themselves. Keep an eye on the water for the signs that the fish are coming on to the emergers and change up fast! If you are new to the sport or a seasoned pro, I encourage you to try at least one of the patterns on your next trip.
As I mentioned, they are a great mix of simple and detailed patterns that have been tried and tested by many anglers.
Once you know your way around with a fly rod and have a few seasons under your belt, you will realize the importance of these emerger patterns and likely carry a box full for those perfect conditions and hatches.
As we all know, there is very little as good as getting an emerger eat on a size #16 emerger and pleading with the fish not to snap you off on your 7X tippet.
Hair-raising moments, but when the fish is netted, it all is so worth it. Your persistence and hard work will always pay off.
Fly fishing has been my passion and pursuit for the past 20 years. I am a South African based fly fisherman who loves nothing more than spending a day on the water. Fly fishing is more than catching fish, being in the outdoors with good friends and family is what it is all about.