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Understanding the Different Types of Fly Patterns

By, Frank Landis

A Primer on Fly Patterns

When we say “fly patterns", we are really just referring to the artificial “lure” that we use to attempt to catch a fish with a fly rod. Traditionally, these flies have been developed to imitate a variety of insect species that trout typically eat.

As fly fishing has evolved, anglers are now able to target different fish in different ways. And now, flies can imitate more than just insects or actual “flies”; they can imitate anything that a fish might eat. So today, you will hear people use the word “fly” to reference an assortment of fish prey. Anything from baitfish, crabs, mice, frogs, crustaceans, eggs, worms or any other type of fish food will all receive the title of “fly”.

So what makes a “fly” different from a traditional “lure”? The key element is how they are made. Flies are tied on to a hook using a method called fly tying. Natural fly tying materials ranging from bird feathers to assorted parts of game species to synthetic materials are tied onto a hook with thread so that they look like something a fish would eat. Below, we will take a look at some of the different types of fly patterns that are commonly used to target a variety of game fish.

Let's Scratch the Surface: Dry Flies

When people think of fly fishing, often the image in their head is that of someone casting a near weightless fly that floats on the surface before a trout rises to take the fly just as it passes by. This is what dry flies were made to do.

Typically, dry flies imitate adult insects that are available to the fish while floating on or near the surface. As a result, dry flies are tied to be very light to avoid sinking, and use specific materials to make them buoyant. Dry flies are not always a viable option while fishing, but because of the added excitement of seeing a fish take the fly off the surface, many anglers would say that dry fly fishing is their preferred technique whenever possible.

To keep things simple, a dry fly is any fly that is designed to float. This typically includes the adult stages of aquatic insects and terrestrial insects. Often when dry fly fishing is effective, it will be easy to tell because you can easily see fish rising to eat bugs off of the surface.

Now, Let's Look Deeper: Nymphs

Nymphs have become the bread and butter of any trout angler. Day in and day out, nymphs are what trout are eating most of the time. It is not every day that trout are eagerly rising to the surface, so we use nymphs to target trout below the surface, often near the stream bottom.

Nymphs imitate the immature stages of aquatic insects and crustaceans that live on rocks and other debris in a river. These nymphs are almost always available to trout in some capacity, so they are typically the most consistent flies in terms of being productive. Nymphs are often tied with something to help them sink, such as tungsten or brass beads, as well as lead or lead-free wire. Often, they are used in conjunction with something to help them sink such as split shot, which is attached to the leader separate from the fly itself, allowing you to get lightly weighted nymphs to the bottom of the river.

Often times, nymphs are some of the simplest fly patterns to tie and are a great starting point for fly tying. In many cases, the way a nymph is presented is far more important than how it looks to us. The goal of nymph fishing is a “dead drift”, where the helpless nymphs are drifting at almost the exact same speed as the current at the bottom of the river.

A Nice Compromise: Wet Flies

Wet flies are the most traditional fly patterns as the first fly anglers used similar patterns. Wet flies take on some of the elements of dry flies and nymphs. Wet flies are unweighted and will not sink fast, nor will they float well. Many wet flies are tied with feathers that provide some added movement such as soft hackle.

Wet flies can be presented in similar ways to nymphs and dries such as dead drifting, but another popular presentation is known as swinging flies. This is when flies are intentionally casted across currents so that at the end of a drift, they swing, lift and abruptly stop, which can often trigger a response from fish. Wet flies are a great option while caddis and mayflies are emerging, but can be effective variably throughout the year.

Big Flies that Catch Big Fish: Streamers

Streamers are a group of flies that imitate all of the larger food forms that can swim under their own power. As a result, streamer patterns can vary greatly, imitating anything from minnows, crayfish, sculpins, small fish, leeches and frogs.

When fishing streamers, anglers are focused on how to move or animate the fly in a way that will entice a fish to strike. This might involve a jigging or erratic motion that makes the fly look wounded or in distress.

Streamers come in a huge variety of styles and sizes. Many natural and synthetic materials are often combined to make the fly both look and move in a way that will attract fish. Streamers are used in almost all fly fishing settings including rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and saltwater. In turn, they can be used to target almost all of the species we typically fish for with fly fishing tackle.

If you are coming from a spin fishing background, streamer fishing is most similar to fishing soft plastics and other traditional lures.

Flies - More than Meets the Eye

Especially as you observe fly patterns that are used for species other than trout, you might see some examples that don’t quite fit in the categories above, but they are still certainly flies.

For example, crab patterns are especially prevalent in flats fishing in saltwater, cork poppers are common in bass fishing, and even grass and mulberry flies have been developed to target certain species of carp.

All in all, understanding what your targeted species typically eats is really the starting point in understanding which type of fly you should use. Fly tiers are constantly coming up with new and creative ways to find a better, more effective fly. As you progress as an angler, understanding the different types of flies and their uses will become more and more intuitive.