Rainbow trout prove over and over to be some of the most beautiful and tough fighting freshwater fish. Whether you’re chasing steelhead on the west coast or stocked rainbows in the midwest, you’re guaranteed a phenomenal experience.
I remember my first time landing a rainbow trout in northern Minnesota as a teenager. It was a small 12-inch fish out of the Knife River right next to Lake Superior. It was unlike any fish I’ve ever landed before. The colors of the fish and the setting it was landed in gave me an itch to go after these fish all over the country.
A proper fly choice is a necessity when pursuing these fish. Being able to identify what they’re eating and presenting it properly is what’s going to get them into the net. One of these 15 patterns is going to give you a great chance to hook into a rainbow.
The Adams fly is an ideal for rainbow trout. It’s quite versatile and is able to represent a mosquito, caddis, horse fly, midge and a variety of other insects. No matter where you’re targeting rainbow trout in the world, the Adams should be in your tackle box. You can find these in size 10-20. Sizes 12-16 are nice and easy options.
Make sure you’re using floating line when using this fly. If you use weight forward sink tip line, it’s going to fall in the water column. Floating line with an 8-foot leader and a couple feet of tippet will help you present this fly naturally. This fly doesn’t work great as the top of a dry dropper rig because it’s smaller and won’t hold up a heavier nymph.
Pay attention to mosquitos, caddis patterns and horse flies. If you see those flying around then tying on an Adams is going to land you fish.
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2. Elk Hair Caddis
The Elk Hair Caddis is another pattern that often finds its way into lists of top flies for trout. Some anglers argue that these flies sit too high on the water column. A fly sitting high can lose the interest of fish, but it’s rare. The Elk Hair Caddis is a wonderful pattern and well worth using.
Sizes 12-18 will land the most fish. They’re versatile and make your size decision based on the insects you are able to see.
When tying on this pattern, floating line and longer leader is your best friend. Don’t forget to tie on the proper sized tippet. Often 4 or 5x is a great choice. It has the strength to land fish, but stay hidden so fish don’t spook.
3. March Brown
March Brown patterns are some of the most prominent flies you’ll see at the beginning of a fishing season. When temperatures start getting into the 40’s you’ll see them all over the place. If you’re fishing anywhere in the Western United States, be sure to have several of these in your box.
Size 10-16 flies will be your go-to options. They’re a bit on the small side, but fish will be anxious to eat March Browns because they’re some of the largest hatches of the season. Take the opportunity to fish these flies. It always seems like the most fish are caught on March Browns early in the year.
Tie these flies on with a 10 foot leader and 4x tippet. Throw them later in the evening. This is when the spinners will make their way to the surface. Throughout the day nymphs work great, but these flies are almost always the most active in the evening.
Video for Setting Up a Fly Rod for Dry Flies
The Stimulator is another classic dry fly pattern. Flies like these are known as attractor patterns. Attractor patterns are meant to look obnoxious, move water and attract big fish. The stimulator can work well in a dry-dropper rig. You won’t be able to float a huge fly underneath it, but it will work for smaller nymphs.
If you’re not sure if there is a hatch or what is hatching, the Stimulator is a wonderful search pattern. Fish will notice it and if you’re lucky, you’ll land a fish or two. If you’re looking to fish with it, do so on floating line. Tie on a 7 to 9-foot leader with a foot or two or 4x tippet. If needed, drop a Pheasant Tail nymph below it to do some searching in new water!
You can find these flies from size 8-16. Carry a few different sizes depending on the insects you’re seeing and the size of the dropper you’re throwing.
5. Chubby Chernobyl
The Chubby Chernobyl is the ideal pattern for late summer. As soon as those air temperatures are around 80 degrees, those terrestrials start hitting the water. Hoppers, beetles and large ants are favorite foods for trout. The Chubby is a solid imitation of a hopper. If you’re searching for fish, tie on a Chubby and drop a Prince Nymph below.
Both Prince Nymphs and Chubby’s are buggy looking flies. When fishing the Chubby, do your best to stay away from the middle of the water. Throw these flies up along the bank and in slack water where terrestrials would land or fall into the water. Areas with high vegetation are perfect!
Floating line, long leader and 4x tippet will work great for this fly. It’s strong enough to land powerful fish, but won’t stick out so much that it’ll spook your fish.
6. Royal Wulff
The Royal Wulff is one of those dry fly patterns that never seems to fail. There are plenty of days on the water where anglers aren’t quite sure what the fish want. Searching patterns like the Royal Wulff are what make these days bearable. If you see rises, but don’t know what’s hitting, tie on a Royal Wulff and see what happens.
The Wulff imitates mayflies as well as terrestrials. You can fish this in slower and faster water as well. It isn’t limited to where you can present it! Tie it on with some floating line, a long leader and a foot or so of 4x tippet. Let this fly do the searching and you’re in for a treat.
Fish this fly anywhere from size 10 to 18. The larger flies are great for faster moving water.
Video for Setting a Fly Rod Up for Nymph Fishing
7. Pheasant Tail
In the world of nymphs, you’ll struggle to find one as productive as the pheasant tail. This fly originated in England and was created to represent a mayfly. If you know that Blue Winged Olives are hatching, the Pheasant Tail should be one of the first flies you try. They may be the most closely related.
When fishing with the Pheasant Tail, you don’t have to worry about using it in a specific type of water. It’ll work in lakes, streams and fast moving rivers. It’s a perfect pattern to use on a dry dropper rig. Tie a Chubby on top and let the Pheasant Tail fall beneath.
You can find this anywhere between a size 12-18. The 12 or 14 seem to be the most productive in moving water. Tie it on to a 10 foot leader and feel free to high stick your way along the river or creek. You want to make sure this fly bounces along the bottom so be aware of the depth you’re fishing before you use it.
Guide Tip: Learn how to setup a fly rod for nymph fishing using indicators in this article. How to Setup a Fly Rod for Indicator Fishing
8. Hare’s Ear
The Hare’s Ear is one of the best patterns you can use if the water is stained. If it’s recently rained or you’re fishing early in the spring, the Hare’s Ear has just enough flash that it’s going to get their attention regardless of the water color.
This is a buggy looking fly. It’s not an elegant pattern and the more disheveled it looks, the better. When tying your own, keep this in mind. When you hit the water with this fly, make sure you have it deep enough in the water column. Too many anglers make the mistake of fishing this in the middle of the water column and fail to get it deep enough.
Some anglers choose to use sink tip line when fishing with nymphs, but floating line will do the trick as long as you have a long enough leader to get it to the bottom. You want this fly bouncing along the bottom if at all possible. Similar to many other nymphs, you’ll find this in size 10-18. Fish sizes 12-16 the most.
9. San Juan Worm
Anglers are quick to forget about the usefulness of a worm. Many of us started with a bobber and a worm when we first began fishing. Don’t lose sight of this while you’re fly fishing. The San Juan is an easy fly to tie and almost always catches fish.
If you’re fishing still water, you may need to tie on a split shot to make sure it falls enough in the water column. If you’re fishing moving water, go ahead and let it float around throughout the water column. Worms don’t often make it to the bottom so it’s okay if it moves up and down.
Use floating line with the San Juan!
Guide Tip: A Squirmy Worm is a great alternate to a San Juan Worm. Squirmys’ aren’t as durable, but still effective.
10. Zebra Midge
The Midge Nymph always has a use in your fly box. If you tie a beadhead on it, you can fish it through some of those deeper runs. Fishing with midge nymphs isn’t always easy. You have to find the right pattern and likely fish it with some extremely light tippet.
Be sure to use somewhere near 5x tippet with these nymphs! Many anglers will fish Zebra Midges with size 16-20 hooks. This fly will test your skills, but when they’re hitting it’s hard to find a more productive pattern.
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11. Pat’s Rubber Legs
Pat’s Rubber Legs is a perfect fly choice when the Stoneflies are out and about. There are several color options and sizes for you to choose from, but it’s always going to be productive. These flies rarely have beadheads so make sure you know the depth you need to hit before you use them.
Sizes 8-12 are perfect options. Tie any of these on when you see Stonefly husks floating around and you’re going to land fish.
12. Pink Squirrel
The Pink Squirrel is always going to land trout. If you’re targeting fish who need a bit of flash, the Pink Squirrel is the right choice. It’s buggy and has a unique look, so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
It’s on the smaller side, but a size 12 or 14 won’t have any trouble landing fish. Fish it below a large dry fly and fish are going to take a long look at it. Long leader under floating line will help you get this fly deep enough.
13. Woolly Bugger
The Woolly Bugger is the ultimate fly for fly fishing. This streamer is known to catch everything from pike to rainbow trout. It can imitate minnows, leeches and crayfish. Fish this in size 4 or 6 and you’re going to attract the larger fish.
Depending on the depth of the water, you may need to use a sink tip line. However, floating line is going to work well in most cases. Drift it through slack water or swing it through pools and you’ll have plenty of success.
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14. Muddler Minnow
The Muddler Minnow is another pattern that’s always landed fish. If you know there are big fish in the water you’re fishing, then the Muddler is the right choice. Strip it aggressively and move some water with this fly! You’ll feel the wrath of those trout when you use it.
Size 2 or 4 will work great. Use a 7 or 9-foot 1x leader. You need the power and strength to fight those fish.
15. Hot Flash Minnow
The Hot Flash Minnow is an all-purpose and always successful streamer. It’s a great shiner representation. Many anglers will fish this in still water where there is a healthy minnow population. Throw it near structure and strip it aggressively.
A 7-foot 1x leader is what you need to use it with! Also, sink tip line is a good choice if you’re fishing a lake or pond.
At the End of the Drift for Rainbow Trout
Fly fishing for rainbow trout is something every fly angler needs to try. They’re strong and aren’t always easy to land. Do yourself a favor and spend some time going after these fish. You’ll get addicted as soon as you land your first.
Danny Mooers is a high school English teacher in Arizona with a love for fly fishing. Growing up in Minnesota gave him the opportunity to experience all types of fishing and grow his skills. After living out in the Western United States for several summers in college, his fly fishing obsession grew. Having the opportunity to share in his passion for fishing through writing is a dream come true. It’s a lifelong hobby and he strives to make it understandable for people of all skill levels.