There are literally thousands of fly patterns (imitation flies). How do you pare down your selection to fit the pockets of your vest? A little common sense goes a long way toward lightening the load you need to carry onstream.

Pheasant tail fly imitating a mayfly Nymph

Elk hair caddis fly

Choosing Which Fly

First, determine the major hatches on the rivers you fly fish and concentrate on patterns that match the hatch. Sometimes you can use the same pattern to match two different hatches. Here are three of the most common patterns:

Dry flies: There are many different hatches of mayflies, caddis, stoneflies and others to fish with on the surface. When it comes to mayflies, the best universal hatch-matcher pattern throughout the United States is the Adams. This gray-bodied, dry pattern with its grizzly and brown hackle and tail looks enough like so many different mayflies that it works well on many hatches of darker insects with dusky wings.
(See chart below for classic dry fly patterns.)

Nymphs: Nymphs (also called “wet flies”) represent the immature life stages of insects. These flies are fished below the water's surface and usually work best just prior to a hatch of water-born insects, when the nymphs and pupae that they represent become active. The pheasant tail fly is an example of a common nymph.
(See chart below for classic nymph patterns.)

Streamers: The easiest way to catch a big fish on a fly is on a streamer, a wet fly that imitates a small baitfish on which larger fish feed. There are many streamer baitfish imitations that will catch fish in lakes, streams, ponds and in saltwater, but the most common are leeches and minnows.
(See chart for classic streamer patterns.)

Geography Matters

Do you live in the East and fish mostly streams and rivers, do you fish lakes and ponds for panfish and bass, or do you fish primarily for saltwater fish? Each type of fish and fishing calls for its own fly selection, although in some instances there is a crossover, with flies for one type of water working successfully on other waters.

In general, mayflies, stoneflies, caddis, damselflies and dragonflies constitute the major aquatic insects of interest to trout, bass and panfish. But because these are the major aquatics upon which these fish may feed, you don't necessarily need a wide assortment of each in both nymph and adult patterns.

In the East, for example, dragonflies and damselflies usually are not of primary importance to trout, so carrying a complete assortment of these patterns is a poor choice. But go to the Rocky Mountains or far-Western lakes, and damselflies become a food staple for cruising trout and bass. Concentrate on carrying the basic flies you need for the waters that you fish regularly.

Pheasant tail fly imitating a mayfly Nymph


The Home-field Advantage

If you are a beginning fly fisherman or traveling to an area where you have never fished, you might think that you are at a disadvantage in discovering the important local hatches. Check with a local fly shop and follow the suggestions given. Most reputable fly shops know the latest about local hatches and can provide valuable information about hatch-matching patterns. There are times when a favorite local pattern may produce better than a well-known fly. Don't hesitate to try them.

The Basic Box

This chart shows fly patterns that will serve you well for all your freshwater fishing - from bass to trout and panfish. You may have trouble "matching the hatch" sometimes because, about 10 percent of the time, freshwater fish focus on one abundant water-born insect and become so choosy that they will take only a close imitation; but these flies can catch most fish most of the time.