Types of Fly Fishing Flies

Fly Fishing Expert Andrew Pryor runs through the four main types of fly fishing flies: dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, and streamers.

A blue, purple, and green-tinged fish sitting in a net with a hand reaching towards it.

Photo by Gordon Patterson

Fly fishing flies can take all kinds of forms, shapes, and sizes. It is imperative for the fly fisher to try to imitate the fish species' natural food sources when fly fishing to step into the mind of the fish you are targeting. There are so many categories and subcategories of different flies, but a majority of them fit into four major categories: dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, and streamers.

1. Dry Flies

A dry fly on a fishing line.

Photo by Gordon Patterson

Dry flies imitate a fly that has already hatched from its nymphal state, has wings, and is sitting on top of the water. The fish, likely a trout, will rise to the fly and sip it at the surface of the water. Typically these dry flies will be imitating aquatic insects that hatch from the water system and will be most effective when the "hatch" is happening, or when the majority of these insects are transforming from their nymphal stage into the winged adult stage. This can be seen frequently with mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, and even others like crane flies and midges.

When the dry fly in question isn't imitating an aquatic adult insect, the flies are called terrestrial flies. These typically are better fished at the banks and resemble terrestrial insects, such as grasshoppers, beetles, ants, cricket, etc. These trout flies at the surface will be dead drifted to imitate a compromised fly on the water and are rarely supposed to be moved unless you are specifically fishing a skated fly or are using other surface strategies.

Bass Flies

A final subcategory of dry flies can be referred to as a topwater fly. These are surface flies that resemble struggling bait fish. These flies include poppers, divers, and sometime gurglers. They are made of foam and are fished near submerged weeds or Lilly pads. Bass bugs like these will be cast to a weed line where the angler will strip the fly to get it diving, rattling, and making a lot of noise to attract largemouth bass.

2. Wet Flies

A wet fly made up of wisps of different striped feathers on a hook against a white background.

Photo by Gordon Patterson

Wet flies are fished below the surface. They typically imitate flies that have been swept below the surface. Some flies even penetrate the water's surface to lay eggs. Wet flies have a stronghold in the classical roots of fishing with artificial flies and have many classical recipes and fly patterns used. Wet flies are typically swung across a stream or section of current with a tight line. This can be done with a floating or sinking fly line.

Spey flies are fished in a similar swinging motion but are a member of their own category due to the rod properly being a two-handed, much larger rod used to cover more water and the targeted fish typically being a salmon or steelhead.

Dry Fly Fishing vs. Wet Fly Fishing

It is said that a trout only rises 10 percent of the time. While dry fly fishing can be exciting, rainbow trout just aren't always going to look up. For this reason, the fly angler can expect to fish below the surface most of the time. The main difference for a beginner is that a dry fly pattern will float on top of the water. To get a floating fly to float, a fly tier will use buoyant feathers and fibers as a component of the fly recipe. Wet flies, on the other hand, are tied with beads to help the fly sink and dead drift through the water column. What matters is what the fish are keyed in on and if the menu resembles a bead head pheasant tail nymph or copper john more than a chernobyl ant.

3. Streamers

Brightly colored red, purple, green, pink, and white streamers sitting on a wooden table.

Photo by Gordon Patterson

Streamer flies, unlike wet flies, will imitate smaller fish, minnows, crayfish, and leeches. When fishing for trout, a sculpin pattern streamer or woolly bugger is a popular and typically productive choice. Streamers are a versatile type of fly due to the number of predatory fish that will consume a baitfish, which is what this type of fly can imitate in all kinds of situations. These flies will be "stripped" in, or pulled back in in a darting motion. Occasionally, this darting motion is applied to surface flies, like bass poppers to imitate frogs or mice, which are in a category of their own. For more on using streamers, check out How to Fly Fish a Streamer.

Of all of the best fly fishing flies, streamers are most similar to conventional fishing's artificial lures. A cone head streamer can easily be used as a jig in deep water to coax large brown trout from their shadowy lair, just like using a pig and jig for bass or large bucktail spinner for pike.

4. Nymphs

A box containing 20 nymphs neatly arranged in six rows.

Photo by Gordon Patterson

Nymphs imitate the nymphal stage of aquatic insects. Like dry flies, a nymph pattern can become more active during their proper hatching period. The flies coincide with the same species of aquatic insects you'll use when fishing dry flies. A dead-drifted nymph fly is preferred, but the flies will be sub-surface, often below a strike indicator. Typically, fly fishermen will choose to use strike indicators above the flies on the line to visibly see a strike from the fish. This can vary by strategy, though. Some euro-nymphers prefer to use a longer fly rod and no indicator. Nymphing for trout is a very productive way to catch, as most of a trout’s food is consumed below the surface.

A chart showing the different types of fly fishing flies and their attributes.

Choosing the Right Fly

Choosing the right fly can be challenging, but with experience and knowledge, the fly fisher will be able to observe the stream and key into the mind of the trout.

If a visible hatch caddis is coming off of the water, it would be a great choice to use the imitative pattern, the Elk Hair Caddis, for example. If this isn't doing the trick, different sizes and colors of Elk Hair Caddis should be used. If a hatch of mayflies is due, but not actively causing trout to rise to the surface, perhaps the Pheasant Tail pattern imitating a mayfly nymph would produce fish.

Sometimes nothing is hatching on the surface. In these times, attractor flies such as a San Juan worm, prince nymph, wooly bugger, parachute adams, or anything with a little flash can imitate any number of potential fare. Just because nothing is hatching on top doesn't mean abundant midge larvae or sculpins aren't on the menu since they are always in the water columns.

Best Trout Flies in the US

  • Hare’s Ear (Blue Winged Olive )
  • Zebra Midge (midge imitation)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (caddis flies)
  • Epoxy Scud
  • Wooly Bugger (Attractor Pattern)
  • Peanut Envy (Trout Streamer)

Casting a Fly

When casting a fly that is meant to be dead drifted down, it is a good move to stand downstream of your target fish and cast upstream. The dry fly or nymph can then be drifted back down to you imitating a compromised aquatic insect. If the fly you want to fish is a wet fly, I would recommend a cast downstream to maintain a natural drift. This will keep your line and tippet tight and apt to feel a hit from a fish. Similarly, streamers are great to fish downstream but also do really well when fished across the stream, from one bank to the other, and when fished in slack water.

It is hard to say if there is any one best way to target large trout. Heading to your local fly shop or studying a hatch chart is always a good way to stock your fly box and get prepared for the water in your area. Fly fishing can take place year-round if your local laws allow it. Winter fishing can be a bit slower, but can really shine in the subsurface nymph category. Summer will provide all kinds of opportunities to cast a dry fly, terrestrial (land-based insect), and even a mouse for trout as they become more active and bugs become more abundant.

Fly Tying

Fly tying is a great way to save money and stay in tune with the system you are fishing. A good place to start fly tying is to head down to the stream you'll be fishing and flip a few rocks over to study the insects that are present. Once you discover the insects that you'll be imitating, you can find the appropriate patterns to match.

To make a fly, you'll need a vice for holding tiemco hooks, bobbin for holding thread, whip finisher for knots, thread, scissors, hooks, and the appropriate materials. There are tons of kits available out there to get started. These kits will provide bits of supplies but not in large quantities. If you are ready to make this a life-long skill, buying supplies on their own may be a good option and will get you more supplies for your dollar. Size, color, and shape are all critical things to consider when imitating a particular insect. A proper body taper on your fly, imitating a realistic nymph, is important to keep in mind when tying for the first time. Also, it doesn't hurt to tie some in bright colors or with shiny materials to catch their attention. Not to mention, adding weight like a tungsten bead ensures the right depth. The feeling you have when a fly that you’ve made is hit is truly unrivaled.

A large wall of white cubbies containing different kinds of fly fishing flies.

Photo by Michael Aleo

All things considered, fly fishing and choosing your fly can be very rewarding. All it really takes is a bit of studying and thinking like a trout.

If you have any questions about finding the best flies for trout fishing to redfish, bonefish, or tarpon for your next adventure, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here at Curated.

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Written By
Andrew Pryor
Andrew Pryor
Fly Fishing Expert
I started my fly fishing career in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. In grade school, I started tying flies and by the time I was in high school, I figured I should get myself a fly rod. I fell in love with matching the hatch and trying to be inside the mind of a trout. I guided fly fishing trips in...
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