Favorite mayflies catch trout

Expert Picks: 21 Best Mayfly Patterns for Trout

The mayfly plays an indispensable role in the diet of trout, often considered the most favored insect by these fish. Trout eagerly feed on mayflies at every stage of their lifecycle, from the nymphs crawling along the riverbed, to the emergers swimming towards the surface, and finally the adult spinners delicately resting on the water to lay eggs. The key to successful trout fishing is accurately matching these stages with your fly patterns.

Favorite Flies for Brown Trout
Read all about 👉Favorite Flies for Brown Trout

Considering the myriad of mayfly species, each with its preferred stage for imitation, choosing the right pattern can be a complex task. Stepping into a fly shop confronts you with walls filled with diverse mayfly imitations, a sight that can be overwhelming even for seasoned anglers.

This article aims to demystify this selection process by presenting 21 top mayfly patterns, split between nymphs and dries. These patterns are chosen based on their effectiveness and versatility, providing a solid foundation for any fly box.

A Fly Fishing Epiphany: Less is More

A few years ago, I joined a group of esteemed fly anglers on a remarkable fishing trip. This experience, akin to fishing alongside heroes, was not just about the thrill but also about learning. My key takeaway from this adventure was a lesson in simplicity and effectiveness.

Lifecycle of Mayfly
Learn some “Buggy” stuff 👉 Lifecycle of Mayfly

Previously, I often switched between various fly patterns, seeking the perfect match. However, observing these expert anglers, I noticed they subtly tweaked their existing patterns – adjusting size or weight rather than changing the pattern entirely.

They relied on a few versatile, proven mayfly patterns, adeptly modifying them to suit different conditions. This approach consistently yielded impressive catches, both in size and number.

This experience reshaped my fly fishing strategy: now, I focus on fine-tuning a select group of reliable patterns, a method that has significantly improved my success on the water.

My 10 Go-To Mayfly Nymphs

Before we dive into the list of my favorite mayfly nymphs, it’s crucial to understand their significance. When arriving at a river, I always start by examining the underwater world. Flipping over a few streamside rocks often reveals the nymphs that form a substantial part of a trout’s diet – about 90%, in fact.

While the allure of dry fly fishing is undeniable, the real action often lies beneath the surface. So, let’s explore the nymph patterns that have consistently brought me success in various waters.

1. Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph – Quintessential Mayfly Mimic

Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph
Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph

A must-have due to its versatility, the Pheasant Tail Nymph effectively imitates a range of mayfly nymphs. Ideal in sizes #12 to #18, its natural colors blend seamlessly in clear waters. I’ve the greatest success with beadhead versions of this pattern in early spring, especially in smaller streams.

2. Beadhead Hare’s Ear – Buggy All-Rounder

Beadhead Hare's Ear Nymph
Learn to fish and tie 👉 Beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph

This pattern is a true workhorse. The beadhead adds the necessary weight, and its buggy appearance, especially in olive and brown, makes it a go-to in sizes #14 to #18. I often use it in slightly stained waters where its silhouette stands out.

3. Copper John – Weighted Attractor

Copper John Nymph
Copper John Nymph

The Copper John, with its distinctive wire body, is a favorite in both standard and red colors. Sizes #16 to #20 work best in deeper pools and faster currents. I’ve found its flashiness to be particularly effective during sunny midday fishing.

4. Zebra Midge – Tiny Insect Imitator

Brook Trout caught with Zebra Midge
Read all about it 👉 Brook Trout caught with Zebra Midge

This minimalist pattern, usually tied in black or red, is a top choice in sizes #18 to #22 for imitating small mayfly nymphs. It’s my go-to during winter months when trout are keyed in on smaller prey.

5. Juju Baetis – Clear Water Specialist

Juju Baetis
Juju Baetis – photo credit Umpqua

The Juju Baetis shines in clear water conditions. Its segmented body, typically in blue and olive, is ideal in sizes #18 to #22. I’ve had memorable days using this pattern during sparse hatches when trout are selective.

6. Prince Nymph – Flashy and Versatile

Prince Nymph is a proven mayfly nymph
Prince Nymph is a proven mayfly nymph

A blend of peacock herl and white biots, the Prince Nymph is a standout in sizes #12 to #16. I prefer it in slightly off-color water, where its flash can attract attention without being overpowering.

7. Rainbow Warrior – Eye-Catching Flash

Rainbow Warrior Nymph
Rainbow Warrior Nymph

The Rainbow Warrior, particularly effective in sizes #16 to #20, is a mix of flash and subtlety. Its luminescent body works wonders in overcast conditions when a little extra attraction is needed.

8. Perdigon – Fast-Sinking Favorite

How to Fly Fish with Perdigon Nymphs
Get all the details 👉 How to Fly Fish with Perdigon Nymphs

Originating from Spanish nymphing techniques, the Perdigon, especially in black and gold, sizes #16 to #20, is my choice for fast-moving waters. Its quick sink rate gets it right into the feeding zone.

Don’t be afraid to run two nymphs in your setup.  If you use an indicator, you can do this easily.

9. Flashback Nymph – Enhanced Visibility

Flashback Hares Ear Nymph - jighead
Flashback Hares Ear Nymph – jighead – photo credit UMPQUA

The Flashback Nymph, often tied in sizes #14 to #18, adds a reflective strip for visibility. I find the flashback feature particularly useful in murky waters or when fishing deeper runs. 

Again, use the beadhead version the key to drifting nymphs is to get hem in the “Fish Zone” which is typically near the bottom.

10. Hex Nymph – Big Trout Tempter

Bears Saddleback Hex
Bears Saddleback Hex

Mimicking the large Hexagenia mayflies, the Hex Nymph is effective in sizes #6 to #10. Its larger size and enticing movement make it perfect for targeting trophy trout in lakes and slow-moving rivers. I’ve had some of my most memorable catches with this pattern during late summer evenings.

Setting Up Your Fly Rod for Nymph Fishing

Fly Fishing Setup for Nymphs
Read the full article 👉 Fly Fishing Setup for Nymphs

When it comes to nymph fishing, having the right setup on your fly rod is crucial for success. Based on my experience and insights from Guide Recommended, here’s a concise guide to getting your gear in order:

1. Choose a Longer Rod: Opt for a rod between 9 to 11 feet. This length offers better reach and control for natural-looking drifts. A 4 to 6-weight rod is ideal, providing enough finesse for casting and mending with small flies.

2. Selecting the Right Reel: Ensure your reel is balanced with your rod. If using a 5-weight rod, choose a reel that’s either 4-weight, 5-weight, or 6-weight. A large arbor reel is recommended for its versatility and capacity.

3. Leader and Tippet: A 9-foot, 4x leader is a good starting point. It’s light enough to not spook fish but still strong for attaching tippet. Add about 20 inches of 5x tippet for a subtle presentation.

4. Strike Indicators: These can be crucial in nymph fishing, especially in challenging water conditions where it’s hard to track your fly. Choose indicators that suit the water you’re fishing – bobbers, strike putty, or even pieces of cotton can be effective.

indicators for fly fishing
indicators for fly fishing

Remember, the goal is to achieve a setup that allows your nymphs to reach the right depth while maintaining a natural drift.

Easy Mayfly Nymph to Tie: Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph

The Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph is a classic and highly effective fly pattern, renowned for its simplicity and effectiveness in imitating a wide range of mayfly nymphs. This pattern is particularly favored for its versatility in various water conditions and its ability to attract trout.

Check out my article with material list 👉 Fish and Tie the Pheasant Tail Nymph

11 Essential Mayfly Dry Flies for Fly Fishing

The dry fly stage of the mayfly is a fleeting yet pivotal moment in both the insect’s life and the fly fisher’s pursuit. Unlike their nymph counterparts, which can spend up to two years underwater, the adult mayflies have a remarkably brief lifespan.

Emerging as duns, they spend just a few precious hours in the air and on the water’s surface, where they complete their life cycle by laying eggs before drifting away as spent spinners.

This brief window offers a unique opportunity for anglers. During hatches, trout often become less cautious, aggressively feeding on these easily accessible surface insects.

However, they can also become selective, making the choice of dry fly pattern crucial. Understanding this phase, with its inherent beauty and challenges, is key to mastering the art of mayfly dry fly fishing.

1. Parachute Adams – Versatile and Reliable

Parachute Adams Fly
Read how to fish and tie it 👉 Parachute Adams Fly

Effective in sizes #12 to #18, the Parachute Adams is a must-have for its adaptability. Its gray body and white parachute post make it visible in various light conditions. Ideal for imitating a wide range of mayflies, it’s especially useful when you’re unsure of the hatch.

2. Blue Wing Olive – Overcast Day Favorite

Blue Wing Olives mayfly patterns for trout
Blue Wing Olives are small, but powerful. Read More 👉 Fish the BWO

Best in sizes #16 to #22, the Blue Wing Olive thrives in overcast and drizzly conditions. Its olive body and dun wings match the natural insect, making it a top choice during BWO hatches in spring and fall.

3. Hendrickson – Early Season Classic

Hendrickson mayfly a classic on Eastern spring creeks
Hendrickson mayfly a classic on Eastern spring creeks

Typically tied in sizes #12 to #14, the Hendrickson is perfect for the early season mayfly hatches. The variegated wing sets this fly apart. Look for yellows and grays to imitate the natural Hendrickson mayfly, a common sight on Eastern streams in spring.

4. PMD Pale Morning Dun – Morning Hatch Specialist

Pale Morning Dun a morning go-to fly pattern
Pale Morning Dun a morning go-to fly pattern

Sizes #16 to #20 are ideal for this delicate pattern. The PMD Pale Morning Dun is a go-to during morning hatches on clear, sunny days. Its pale yellow body and light wings are perfect for imitating the natural PMD.

5. March Brown – Springtime Staple

March Brown a favorite early in the season
March Browns are always in my fly box in the spring

Effective in larger sizes like #10 to #14, the March Brown is a robust pattern for spring hatches. Its brown and gray tones are excellent for imitating the natural March Brown mayflies in turbulent waters.

6. Green Drake – Large Mayfly Imitator

Green Drake a great mayfly for feeding trout
Green Drake a great mayfly for feeding trout

Tied in sizes #8 to #12, the Green Drake is perfect for late spring hatches. Its large size and greenish hue make it stand out in waters where Green Drakes are prevalent, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest.

7. Light Cahill – Delicate Evening Performer

Evening hatches are for Light Cahills and Sulphurs
Evening hatches are for Light Cahills and Sulphur’s

Ideal in sizes #12 to #16, the Light Cahill is a classic choice for evening hatches. Its light cream or pale yellow body and delicate wings make it a perfect imitation of the Stenonema mayfly, commonly active in the late spring and early summer evenings.

This pattern excels in clear, slow-moving waters where its subtle presentation can entice even the most cautious trout. I’ve got a great video on YouTube that details how to tie this. 👉 How to Tie the Light Cahill

8. Trico – Tiny but Effective

Female Trico Spinner
Female Trico Spinner Read about 👉 Small Trico’s and Big Trout

This pattern shines in smaller sizes, typically #20 to #24. The Trico is essential for late summer when these tiny mayflies hatch. It’s particularly effective in slow-moving, clear water where trout feed on these small insects.

9. Sulphur – Evening Hatch Match

A size 18 Sulphur is an absolute favorite for me
A size 18 Sulphur is an absolute favorite for me

Ideal in sizes #14 to #18, the Sulphur is a top choice for evening hatches. Its light yellow and orange body matches the natural Sulphur mayflies, commonly found in Eastern streams during late spring.

10. Rusty Brown Spinner – Late Evening Magic

Small but an excellent mayfly pattern the Rusty Spinner in size 16
Small but an excellent mayfly pattern the Rusty Spinner in size 16

Typically tied in sizes #12 to #18, the Rusty Brown Spinner is excellent for imitating spent mayflies. Its realistic profile is perfect for late evening spinner falls, a time when trout feed aggressively on these insects.

11. Barr’s Emerger – Hatch Transition Expert

Barrs Emerger Nymph
Barr’s Emerger Nymph read more about Emergers 👉 Favorite Emerger Patterns

Effective in sizes #16 to #20, Barr’s Emerger is designed for the early stages of a hatch. Its versatility allows it to mimic emerging mayflies, making it a great choice when trout are focused on insects transitioning to adulthood.

Looking to Learn the Tips and Techniques for the Fish You Love to Chase? I’ve Got You Hooked Up Below

Easy Mayfly to Tie: Parachute Adams

One of the most versatile and effective dry flies in my arsenal is the Parachute Adams. Not only is it a fantastic pattern for fishing, but tying this fly also equips you with skills that are transferable to many other mayfly patterns. The Parachute Adams stands out for its high-floating tail, lightly dubbed body, and grizzly hackle, which together create a realistic wing profile.

What makes the Parachute Adams particularly special is its visibility, thanks to the parachute post. This feature is especially useful during those spring evenings when the sun is setting, and visibility becomes crucial. I’ve found that this pattern, with its classic design and effective silhouette, is a go-to choice for various mayfly hatches.

For a detailed step-by-step guide on how to tie the Parachute Adams, check out my video tutorial. While you’re there, I’d appreciate it if you could subscribe to my channel for more fly tying tips and fishing techniques. The skills you’ll learn from tying the Parachute Adams are foundational, setting you up for success with a wide range of dry fly patterns.

My Approach to Setting Up a Fly Rod for Dry Fly Fishing

When preparing for a day of dry fly fishing, the way I set up my fly rod is crucial for success. Over my years of fly fishing, I’ve developed a method that works well for me, and I’ve shared this process in a detailed YouTube video.

Dry Fly Fishing Setup
Read the complete guide 👉 Dry Fly Fishing Setup

Now, let’s dive into my approach:

1. Choosing My Rod and Reel: I usually go for a 4 to 6 weight, 9-foot fly rod with a medium/fast action. It’s versatile and works well for most of my dry fly fishing needs. The reel I pair with it is equally important – it needs to balance well with the rod, which makes a big difference in handling and comfort during a long day of casting.

2. Selecting the Fly Line: I prefer a weight forward floating fly line, for newer fast action fly rods typically one size heavier than the rod weight. This choice really helps with casting, especially when I’m trying to lay down a delicate dry fly presentation.

3. Leader and Tippet Setup: My standard setup involves a tapered leader, around 7.5 to 9 feet long, in the 4x to 6x range. To this, I attach about 12 to 16 inches of tippet. This setup has never let me down, providing just the right mix of subtlety and strength for presenting those dry flies to wary trout.

By following these steps, I’ve found that my dry fly fishing sessions are more productive and enjoyable. The right setup not only improves your chances of catching fish but also makes the whole experience more pleasant.

Guide Pro Tip – Observing Trout Behavior: Take a moment to observe trout behavior during a hatch. Trout often have a rhythm to their feeding – strike, chew, and look for the next meal. Timing your cast to coincide with this rhythm can increase your chances of a successful catch. Patience and observation are your allies on the water

Last Cast: My Takeaway on the Mayfly Magic

Fly Fishing Matching the Hatch
Fly Fishing Matching the Hatch

So, here we are at the end of our mayfly tale. It’s been quite the ride, hasn’t it? From those early morning casts in the cool, misty air of Montana to the lazy, sun-drenched afternoons on a chalk stream, mayflies have been our constant, fluttering companions.

But here’s a bit of advice from one angler to another: in the midst of all that hatch frenzy and the buzz of landing a good catch, don’t forget to pause and just take it all in. There’s something pretty special about watching those mayflies do their dance above the water and seeing a trout leap up in a perfect arc – it’s like a little bit of river magic.

As you pack up and head home, mulling over the day’s adventures, let those moments linger. It’s not just about the flies you’ve tied or the fish you’ve caught; it’s about being part of something bigger, something wild and wonderful.

Until we meet again on the river – tight lines and good stories!

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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