A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Selection
The fly box. The contents inside, like a good journal, tell stories, hold memories, and bring us back to hopefully happier times. In our early angling careers, most of us rely on the help of Grandpa, the local fly shop, blogs or a good book to aid us in choosing our confidence flies. My Grandpa is from the Middle East, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for fly fishing. Unlike our favorite fictional character from “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”, the Maayteh family didn’t have the funds to pursue a multi million dollar pipe dream, they were shepherds on the Dead Sea, which you can probably guess is devoid of fish. I digress. Over the years, with the help of all the above (sorry Papa Sam), friends, failure and success, I’ve become more discerning when choosing my “starting line up.”
The point of this piece isn’t to pontificate to you on what particular patterns should be in there, but hopefully get you to think about why you choose the flies that you do. Many will praise flies like the American Pheasant tail as being a good fly, but why? To my fellow Yankees, prefacing something with American doesn’t automatically make it better. I think we all fall victim to searching for that “silver bullet”, the magic fly. But do we take the time to consider how, and where we fish these flies? The following text will be a series of questions to ask yourself before your next outing to help you dial in your “starting lineup.”
Before we jump into this I’d like to paraphrase the 14th Dali Lama, “You need more than good wishes, you need to take action.” None of the below will help much if you don’t get out and fish! Don’t be a victim of “paralysis by analysis”. Take action, find what works for you and your fisheries. They’re not all created equal. There are no absolutes in fly fishing, except that it’s supposed to be absolutely fun.
Whatever fly you choose, make sure it’s built on a good hook. Fulling Mill takes the guesswork out this equation. I’ve made the mistake of using cheap hooks more than a few times. The worst case scenario happened early on in my guiding career. The river was high and the fishing was slow. We spotted a rising fish eating PMDs in a slow pocket adjacent to the raging torrent. My client made the cast and hooked what would have been the largest fish of his life. Sliding off the bank into chest deep water, I went to net the fish, suddenly the line went limp. We both stood there crushed. The hook snapped and the large rainbow sank slowly into the depths. After that day, I have never made the mistake of cheap hooks again.
Before thinking about the patterns you will choose, think about the way you will present them to the trout. Where are you fishing? Creeks, rivers, lakes? Where do you want your flies to present in the water column? Do you like fishing dries, dry dropper, indicator rigs, euro nymphing, streamers, or still water? Some flies are fished more effectively for the technique they were designed for. While I have caught brook trout stripping a submerged parachute adams like a streamer (don’t ask), the fly really shines presented on the surface as intended (duh). If you can understand your rig and why it works for you, fly choice pairings will become much easier.
When choosing flies, I like to think about the water and the rigs that I’ll fish and reverse engineer it from there. Presentation is a crucial element in determining what flies to pick depending on water type. Low and clear, or high and muddy? Pocket water or slow broad glides? Bug rich or nutrient poor? Fishing with your head before you fish with your flies can certainly pay its dividends. Consider these elements before you tie or buy your bugs for the next outing. Water type can really help you narrow down the flies you choose based on how you want your fly to present to the trout. Trout tend to follow similar holding patterns based on water type, but remember there are no absolutes.
For lower, clear and slower water I lean toward smaller, lighter, and more drab patterns. While the opposite can induce strikes, generally I find the trout to be a little more wary/selective in these conditions, especially if they’re rising. When the water is stained, which is a lot down here in the South West, I’ve tended to favor patterns with hot beads, flash, and weight. High and/or stained water usually allows me to get away with being more aggressive in my presentations, as the trout tend to be less wary/selective in the higher and/or off colored flow.
While this can be a catch-all for what trout are doing, I’m going to try to simplify it as best I can. Trout will change where they hold throughout the year, this is especially clear if you’ve ever fished the same river during the summer and then again during the winter. Trout live in water and water has a big impact on where the fish will hold. While most anglers consider this, water temperature is often overlooked. Trout are cold blooded. During the colder months, water temperatures fall and so do a trouts metabolic needs. Usually, the trout will be found hunkered down in the lower third of the water column expending very little energy. Using this information to my advantage, I target slow deep “tanks”. Knowing what the trout “should” be doing, and where they will be, I can choose flies that will allow me to get the best presentation. The same goes for summer fishing in small mountain creeks. Water temperatures have risen, trout metabolism is high, and I know the fish could conceivably be anywhere feeding. I find great joy in fishing Holo Humpies to gluttonous small stream fish in the warmer months. The last thing to consider about the trout you intend to fish for is if they are Albert Einstein’s or the opposite of smart. A bushy foam creation may be an irresistible meal for small stream brookies, but it may put down those midge sippers nosing in a shallow tail out. Again, take action – learn your fisheries and the personalities of their inhabitants.
Below is a list of fly types and some elements to consider in selection.
Imitative or attractor?Does it ride high or sit low in the film?Can it support a dropper?Will it smack the water or land delicately?Can you see it?
Imitative or attractor?Tungsten/Brass/Or No BeadHow will it show up in stained/clear water (Flash, UV elements, hot bead)?Profile (Slim and fast sinking or water resistant construction)Is it heavy or light enough to present where and how you want it to?
Weighted streamer to be fished on a floating line?Unweighted streamer to be fished on a sinking line?Where will you fish it in the water column?Profile (Slim and fast sinking or water resistant construction) Bright and flashy or drab?
Fly selection doesn’t have to be as scary as it can sometimes seem. When choosing your starting lineup, try to consider the elements above. If you can present your flies the way you want to in a broad array of water types and conditions, I’m confident you’ll find increased success on the river. You won’t do much good sitting here and reading. Take action. Get out there. Have fun.