What to Look For in a Good Fly

With thousands of flies on the market, it can be overwhelming to find the right choice for your local waters! Here are a few suggestions to help sort through the noise.

Fly fishing flies in a fly box.

Photo by David Boozer

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When I first started fly tying, my mentor would always say, “there are flies that catch fish and flies that catch fishers.” I used to fish with a guide too, and we would joke about his guide flies versus custom store-bought flies.

The punchline is that fish eat ugly flies. And considering an errant cast may cost you a fly, there’s no need to spend inordinate amounts of time or money tying or buying flies. That said, it never ceases to amaze me that people spend close to $1,000 on a fly rod or reel but buy cheap flies.

Flies are one of the most important pieces of gear for catching fish, yet are the most overlooked. You don’t have to break the bank to fill your fly box. Just like you don’t want to buy the cheapest fly rod, you need some quality flies.

There’s a balancing act between high-quality fly-fishing flies and best deals that are inferior in quality. Here are my thoughts on what to look for, followed by my list of inexpensive go-to flies that are easy to tie.

Quality Features

Clauser flies sit in a box.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Consistency

Whether tying them yourself or purchasing from another source, consistency is the best indicator of quality. Given 100 flies, they should all look the same, from tail and hackle lengths to the coloration. You shouldn’t be able to discern differences between individual flies.

Quality Hooks

Budget-minded tyers may try to save money by substituting inferior hooks. But the hook is the most important part. You don’t want to lose the fish of a lifetime because it bent the hook straight. The hook on the fly should match the application.

For example, with dry flies, fine wire hooks help it float better than a thicker wet fly hook. Some hook brands bounce off rocks better than others without breaking. Although you can sharpen a hook point with a file, quality hooks have a sharp point that stays that way longer.

Chemically sharpened hooks from Gamakatsu, Tiemco, and Daiichi are examples of quality hooks. A quick test for hook sharpness is seeing if it sticks into your thumbnail. Dull hooks don’t.

Quality Materials

If you buy pre-tied flies from your local shop, it’s hard to know if quality materials were used. But if you tie your own, you control the parameters. Hackles from Whiting Farms and material from Hareline and Wapsi are excellent products you can trust. If the shop doesn’t know where the materials come from, look at the colors. They should be consistent. Shoddy materials often vary in color from one dye batch to the next.

Artisanship

I’m not saying every fly should be frameable in a shadowbox. But you should be able to tell how well it’s tied, as it’s often linked with its durability. A second fish shouldn’t be the death of a fly. Look for loose wraps of thread, broken hackle tips, hook eyes covered in epoxy or head cement. Budget flies made in Kenya or Sri Lanka are notorious for these issues. Consistency is the best indicator of quality.

Tying Your Own

Crayfish flies.

Photo by Joseph Smith

There is something special about catching fish on flies you tied yourself. It is a great hobby and pastime, especially for seasonal anglers during the long winter months. You have direct control over the quality of the materials you use. And with some practice, you get consistent flies.

However, fly tying is not a cheaper way to get flies. With conservative estimates, a novice tyer spends about $150 for the first 50 flies. That’s roughly $3 per fly. Tyers can remove the initial startup costs such as tools and a vise from the next batch of 50. This brings the cost down to approximately $35, or about $0.70 a fly.

Before the accountant in you points it out, no, I haven’t properly depreciated startup costs nor spread the remaining figures out over batches. There may be flaws in my method, but remember, with this analysis, we’re only talking about tying a few distinct patterns or sizes. This limits your options. Bottom line, tie flies as a hobby, not as a money savings venture.

Inexpensive Flies You Should Have

This list is slanted toward trout fishers. But as they make up most fly fishers, trout flies make up most of this list. You might have local variations or your favorites that work better. This is simply a list of flies I always carry with me and can tie quickly or purchase for little.

  • Copper John: I can’t think of any reason not to have this on a nymph rig. The bead head, copper body, and epoxy wing case get this fly deep, quickly. Trout love it.
  • Bead Head Prince Nymph: This nymph is the trout version of meat and potatoes. It mimics many insects.
  • Hares Ear Nymph: Fished with or without a bead head, this fly, in colors ranging from tan to olive to gray, mimics many aquatic insects and is easy to learn to tie.
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph: Much like the Prince and Hare Ear, this trout fly imitates many insects, is easy to tie, and catches fish.
  • Adams Dry Fly: This is one of the best all-purpose dry flies for trout. Try a regular hackle style for tying ease. A parachute hackle adds buoyancy and often is more visible.
  • Elk Hair Caddis: The Elk Hair matches caddis flies just about everywhere. If a hatch is going on and you’re having problems trying to match the hatch, try one of these. You will probably catch fish.
  • Clouser Minnow: As streamer flies go, this one catches the most species of any fly. Largemouth bass, trout, snook, blues, and strippers are all its victims. Assortments of salt and freshwater flies often include this one. It’s easy to tie and should be in most boxes.
  • Wolly Bugger: The Wolly is a streamer that routinely catches fish like trout and smallmouth bass. It’s easy to tie and fun to fish.
Wolly bugger flies.

Wolly Buggers. Photo by Joseph Smith

  • Mop Fly: Although purists argue this shouldn’t be classified as a fly, it catches fish and is great to learn how to tie. The color options are limitless, and all produce. Don’t be a fly snob. Give this one a shot.
  • San Juan Worm: The San Juan is yet another fly that is easy to tie and catches fish.
  • Green Weenie: This fly might be one of the first flies people tie, and with good reason. It requires minimal material and skill, and catches fish.
  • Black Ant: In the world of terrestrials, ants and hoppers are trout favorites. Black Ants are easier for novice tiers. Add a wing for extra visibility. For these reasons, the Black Ant made the list.

Final Thoughts

Flies in a fly box.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Flies are often the most overlooked piece of fly-fishing gear. If you want to tie your own flies, start with one or two patterns and keep at it until you’re consistent. Here are some helpful Fly Tying Kits.

If you want to purchase flies, assortments such as this and these are readily available. And don’t forget your local fly shop. After picking their brains for information, the purchase of some flies is an appropriate thank you gesture.

Regardless of how you get your flies, quality ones catch more fish. If you need help selecting flies or other gear, the Fishing Experts here on Curated are ready to help. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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