If you’re headed out into the waters for the first time this season (or ever!), make sure your fly box is filled with these best flies for fly fishing. There is no such thing as the single “perfect” fly, as fish will bite on different flies depending on the weather, time of year, location, depth, color, species…the list goes on. Don’t limit yourself to just one or two flies. Instead, stock your pack with a wide range of flies to ensure you don’t go home empty-handed at the end of the day.
A good fly can make or break your fishing adventure, so be prepared with our list of the twenty best flies of all time.
The 21 Flies That Should Be in Your Fly Box
1. Pheasant Tail Nymph: easy to recreate
This fly is the quintessential mayfly imitator. With a dark brown color and slim shape, it is deceptive in its imitation as a mayfly and moves quickly in the water. This fly is easy to tie at home for beginning fly-tyers, as it can be kept slender and made out of natural materials. It’s not a flashy tie, but it mimics a wide variety of bait species and has an established reputation for catching loads of fish.
2. Parachute Adams: versatile and attractive
This versatile dry fly is a popular choice on rivers throughout the world. It’s easy to cast and easy to see, with a bright white post and dark body. It is visible even in bright sun or dim light, and rises quickly. It can imitate a variety of small flies, such as mayflies, but can also imitate a Caddis fly. This makes it a great option when fish are feeding unpredictably, or if you’re not entirely sure what they’re feeding on in a new area you have not fished yet.
3. Wooly Bugger: an old-fashioned favorite
The wooly bugger is a traditional fly that works well for catching trout and several other cold-water species. It is an older variety of fly, but combines all the right moves with the best profile for catching tons of fish. It has a specific pulsating action and, when purchased in various sizes and colors, can attract several species of fish. It can be tied with several strands of tinsel or with a metal cone head to make it flashier and heavier, but the unweighted and unadorned version is more popular.
4. Elk Hair Caddis: for when the waters aren’t so calm
This tan, gray, or black fly is an excellent pick for turbulent waters, with a hackle body that allows the fly to avoid getting dragged under. It is a highly mobile fly, skittering along the surface and creating enticing movement that is highly tempting to fish. It imitates emerging caddis trying to leave the surface of the water. The hackle and elk hair wing of this dry fly allow it to bounce along the water’s surface instead of becoming waterlogged.
That being said, this fly can also be used on calmer waters, as it can catch some serious air before touching down lightly on a lightly rippling surface. It is best used for trout, but also has success with smallmouths and panfish.
5. Bead Head Hare’s Ear Nymph: won’t limit you to one type of insect
This productive fly imitates a wide range of insect species. It moves into the feeding zone rapidly, making it a good choice for calm waters. Many people use this fly to imitate a caddis larva case or a mayfly. It can also be used to imitate damselfly nymphs or even stonefly nymphs. It can be made out of dyed hair and synthetic fibers, making it imitate just about anything you want it to if you’re crafty enough to tie your own flies.
6. Bead Head Caddis Nymph: acts like pupa
The bead head on this nymph helps to drive the fly below the surface of the water quickly. It is a great fly to use in any current. It can be used as a dropper fly to increase trout-fishing success.
7. Blue Wing Olive: a twist on the ordinary
The Blue Wing Olive is a simple yet effective dry fly that imitates one of the most common insects in the world’s waters. Especially from September to November, you should always carry Blue-Winged Olives, as these are one of the most abundant hatches during that time of the year.
There are many flies that represent these species (such as the aforementioned Pheasant Tail nymph and the Parachute Adam) but this fly is more simple to use and a must-have in your dry fly box. These flies usually hatch in mid-morning on cloudy days and work well in slower currents along banks. Wherever you live, you are almost guaranteed to encounter the live, actual version of this insect–so make sure you have its replica on hand to land some monster trout.
8. Eggs: don’t knock ‘em till you try ‘em
Egg patterned-flies aren’t ideal for all situations, but work well during steelhead spawning season, or for trout or salmon fishing. The reason why these flies work best during spawning is because this is the time of the year when there are other loose eggs from competitors hanging about in the water. Fish will naturally strive to eat eggs because they are heavy in protein and other nutrients–plus, they’re easy to target as they don’t fight back! Egg flies can be tied using simple egg yarn (such as Glow Yarn) or with impaling beads.
9. San Juan Worm: for use in the murkiest waters
The San Juan Worm is a simple, effective way to fish for trout with worms. It is simple to tie, made of a single piece of chenille and a hook. It can easily be tied in a variety of colors and weights in just a few minutes. It’s especially effective in muddy, high waters.
10. Prince Nymph: classic but effective
Prince nymphs are skilled at drawing in fish no matter what the weather. With a classic trout fly pattern, it imitates stoneflies or mayflies. Its wire-ribbing stands out against its dark body, attracting curious trout. This classic trout fly is a must-have in any fly fisherman’s tackle box.
11. Black Stonefly: just buggy get them in many sizes
Smaller black stone flies can be super effective in the winter months right into March. Fished in a bouncing on the bottom method in the cold months these flies need to be in the fish zone, because trout won’t expend much energy to nab a meal. In the warmer months I fish these much bigger, they imitate the salmon fly nymph and later the golden stones. Use these bugs when nothing seems to be rising.
12. Beetles: not just for the late summer months
Many people wait until late in the season to fish terrestrial imitators like beetle or ant flies. However, these work exceptionally well in the warm afternoons of late spring when the water is calm and the sun is bright. Foam beetles are great prospecting flies and can be used throughout the season–not just when it’s hot. For a highly visible beetle, spring for a Quick Sight Beetle that has a permanent fluorescent spot on it’s back so you can see it without straining.
13. Muddler Minnow: one of the best for fall trout
This scruffy-looking fly can be fished in a number of ways, and has the ability to mimic several different prey species. When lubricated with floatant, it rides on the surface of the water like a grasshopper. When wound through deep pools, it looks more like a sculpin. It can even imitate mice, crickets, and cicadas. It is best used in darker waters or low-light conditions. Designed for trout, steelhead, and salmon, it is also an excellent fly for bass fishermen.
14. Kreelex: flashy but effective
This castable, weighted fly is effective in all kinds of conditions. It works best early or late in the day, as you’re losing light, but can also be used in the high water conditions of spring. While it’s designed to attract trout, it also lures smallmouth in some conditions.
15. Zug Bug: fun to say, but even more fun to use
The Zug Bug isn’t just linguistically appealing. It is also perfect for use in the dirty, high waters of spring as it is best used with a little bit of movement. With a dark color and bulky profile, it stands out in deep waters. With its mallard flank wing-case, the fish spot it easily in deep, slow-moving water. Zug Bug imitates isonychia, big slate drakes that hatch during the autumn months. It is one of the only fall mayflies, so Zug Bugs should always be used in the fall.
16. Zebra Midge: a high-flying attractant
Zebra midges are often used as a second-fly in a two-nymph setup but don’t have to be. These should be used often in spring creeks as they are effortless and can attract fish of any size. It is effective on emerging fish or adults on the surface, but can also be used a foot beneath the surface. The glass beads of this midge don’t sink so with a little bit of floatant it will hang right where you want it to. It works best when small mayflies are active making it a good choice in the fall as well as in the spring.
17. Bunny Leech: an attractive rabbit fur fly
Bunny Leech is made out of rabbit fur, an effective material for catching trout well below the surface. The material is cut into strips, giving the flies a pulsating movement that is irresistible to trout in particular. A general-purpose streamer, it is best used in lakes or slow portions of rivers. It is good for early season, as leeches are an important food source at this time of the year. It offers a great deal of movement and flare and is a great dry fly for steelhead or even smallmouth.
18. Crayfish: an eclectic suggestion
Crayfish flies aren’t a must-have for all fly-fishermen, but are a good fly to use when others just aren’t working for you. Crayfish add a new type of prey to your tackle box, offering a new “food source” to fish when they might not be hungry for anything else you have to offer. In saltwater fishing, crustacean flies are significant, but in freshwater, crayfish are equally omnipresent. This fly should be used along the bottom of the water to help initiate predatory behavior in fish.
19. Clouser Deep Minnow: colorful and unique
This heavy, lead-eyed bucktail is known as one of the world’s best patterns. It behaves more like a jig when it moves through the water, and is highly visible to both you and the trout with a chartreuse and white body. One fun fact? This fly is so one-of-a-kind that it actually inspired a pattern name to become a verb. “Clousering” a rod means to hit your tip with the weighted fly as a result of poor casting.
20. Black Ghost: streaming success
This is a streamer fly with unique black, yellow, and white coloring. Streamer flies move quickly through the current and work well with other presentations. It was originally developed during the Great Depression in Maine to help hook large brown trout. A simple fly, it can also be used on steelhead and salmon. It works especially well when dead-drifting right below a dam or similar structure, as it imitates a stunned or dead bait fish and attracts hordes of hungry salmon and trout.
21. Stimulator: Elk Hair Caddis’ sibling fly
This fly is somewhat of a spin-off on the Elk Hair Caddis, but sit son a longer-shanked hook with more hackle. It also utilizes hair that is naturally more buoyant, as it is designed to be twitched hard on the surface. It imitates several types of stoneflies and can be tied in various colors and sizes for wherever it is you might be fishing.
While most of these flies admittedly target trout, keep in mind that a huge array of “trout-flies” will also work well for other species, including salmon and smallmouth. Whether you’re tying flies yourself or purchasing them directly from the experts, know that much of fly-fishing success comes from a willingness to try new things. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different fly sizes, styles, colors, and casting techniques.
In most cases, the “perfect” fly doesn’t exist and you must play around with your methods to figure out the right formula for the fish on any given day. With a little bit of flexibility, knowledge, and experience–and yes, a dash of luck–you’ll learn how to adapt your fly selection to just about any fish there is.