An Expert Guide to the 12 Best Dry Flies

Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith lists twelve dry fly patterns every angler should be sure to have in their fly box before getting to the water!

A box of flies.

Photo by Brendan Hollis

When people think of fly fishing, dry fly fishing is usually what comes to mind. After all, dry flies were what Brad Pitt was magically throwing through the air in the movie A River Runs Through It(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A/_River/_Runs/_Through/_It/(film))_. Who doesn’t like the exhilaration of watching a hungry trout rise to slurp their fly, and then have the surface of the water explode into a froth as the hook is set? Perhaps, dry fly fishing is really what got us all into fly fishing. Often, though, dry fly fishing can be confusing to beginners. What does “match the hatch” mean? Why are there so many different dry flies? In this article, I will give you my go-to dry fly patterns that should have a home in everyone’s fly box. Break out the fly floatant, and let us begin.

Mayflies

Mayflies are the aquatic insects that most trout anglers think about when they hear dry flies. These insects hatch primarily in the spring (hence the name mayflies), although some species will hatch year-round if conditions are right. For most serious anglers, though, the hatches are predictable and follow a pattern that once an angler is dialed in, they will know what to fish for the coming month. Within this classification, I have included the following flies.

1. Adams Fly

Tied in various sizes, this fly does not specifically match a hatch, but it is close enough to many hatches and as such is a workhorse. I prefer this tied in a parachute style to aid with visibility. When in doubt, you will seldom be wrong with a size 14 parachute Adams Fly.

2. Blue Winged Olive

Blue Winged Olive flies.

Blue Winged Olive. Photo by Joseph Smith

This ubiquitous fly is a couple of different flies, and unless you are an entomologist, it doesn't really matter. These flies will hatch just about any time the temperature is greater than 40 degrees and as such, you should have some of these flies, typically in a size 16 or 18. I prefer the BWO Sparkle Dun version. The sparkle adds a little pizzazz that fish seem to love. Of note, there is a larger Blue Winged Olive, which is the Pale Morning Dun. To purists, this is a different fly altogether, but often it will be lumped in with the Blue Winged Olives.

3. Hendrickson

Hendrickson flies.

Hendrickson. Photo by Joseph Smith

This mayfly is one of the first mayflies to hatch. It is also rather large at around a size 12. This makes it easy to spot on the water and allows anglers the opportunity to shake off winter’s cobwebs before smaller flies are needed.

4. Rusty Spinner

Rusty Spinner flies.

Rusty Spinner. Photo by Joseph Smith

After the adult mayflies have mated and the female has laid her eggs, the insects fall to the water and become a twilight feast for gorging trout. Most mayflies, independent of the species, turn a rusty color at this stage, and as such, this fly is a great fly for that twilight magic of a spinner fall.

Caddisflies

Often overlooked, probably because they are not as graceful as the mayflies in appearance, the caddisflies are an important part of the trout’s diet. With that in mind, every fly box should have some.

5. Elk Hair Caddis

Elk Hair Caddis flies.

Elk Hair Caddis. Photo by Joseph Smith

This fly is magic. It comes in many different sizes and colors and imitates a variety of caddis species. For this reason, it is the only caddisfly to make the list. I prefer having this in sizes 10–16 in black, tan, brown, and gray. If fish are slurping flies around you and you are not having any luck, tie on an Elk Hair Caddis. Your luck will change.

Midges

Again, an overlooked food source, but it is often just too hard to see and difficult to tie on. Aside from the classic Trico hatch (which is specific, and as such, does not make the cut), there should be at least some of these flies in your box.

6. Griffith's Gnat

Griffith’s Gnat flies.

Griffith’s Gnat. Photo by Joseph Smith

This fly is another one of those flies that just seems to imitate so many species. The hackle allows it to float well. I prefer having some of these in sizes 16–20 for those times I want to challenge my eyesight and catch fish.

Terrestrial Flies

Although these are more riparian insects than aquatic insects, there is a special place for these flies. Often the dog days of summer can turn into exciting fishing when using some of these flies.

7. Ant Pattern

Ant flies.

Ants. Photo by Joseph Smith

There are countless ant patterns out there. The fly pattern is easy to tie. A wing can be added to aid in visibility, and most importantly, trout love to eat them. These can come in different colors, but I find a black ant usually works. I prefer the winged ant to aid with visibility.

8. Foam Beetle

Foam Beetle flies.

Foam Beetles. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is another terrestrial that is easy to tie and floats well. At certain times of the day, these flies will produce like nothing else. Make sure to include some in your fly box.

9. Hopper Pattern

Hopper Flies.

Hopper Flies. Photo by Joseph Smith

The fabled hopper hatch of late July and August is real. Nothing is more exhilarating than casting a hopper to the banks and watching a huge trout explode out of the water to take it. These flies are often big enough that nymphs can be fished under them as well for a lethal one-two combination.

For more on terrestrial flies, check out My Top 5 Terrestrial Patterns.

Attractor Flies

These flies do not necessarily imitate anything in nature. They can be used as nymph indicators like the grasshopper patterns, or they can be used to search pockets of water for hungry fish. These can elicit strikes from fish that otherwise would pass your offerings by.

10. Chernobyl Ant

Despite the name, this does not look like a naturally occurring ant, but it does look good to fish. The large size makes it a great fly to fish nymphs under, and it is easy to see on the surface.

11. Stimulator

Simulator Flies.

Simulator Flies. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is another large fly that floats well. It may imitate the Salmon fly, but it works even on streams where there are no Salmon flies. This comes in a variety of color patterns. I have found that it does not really matter. Bass and other warm water species readily take this fly, as do trout. Every fly box should have a couple.

12. Royal Wulff

Royal Wulff flies.

Royal Wulff. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is the hair wing version of the fabled Royal Coachman. Not sure what naturally occurring species this imitates, but fish seem to fall for it every time. The hair wing and tail give this fly more buoyancy than the Royal Coachman, and as such, it is my preferred version. I like this in sizes 10–14.

This should give you a sense of where to start your dry fly fishing. Depending on where you fish, you may develop your own best dry flies list. As you do, remember that just as there are great fly fishing brands, when you consider your gear, there are important features that make a great fly. If you need any help in making your selections or help with any other gear, please reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here at Curated. We would love to help you. 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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