The 14 Best Baitfish Flies

Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith lists fourteen baitfish fly patterns to bring along this season if you are looking to catch some big fish!

A man fishing in the ocean. He has a fish on his fly line.

Photo by Drew Farwell

It is a well-known fact that big fish eat little fish. So, it makes perfect sense that if you want to catch a big fish, using a baitfish fly is a good strategy. But which fly? There seem to be so many, and sometimes flies are marketed for only one species of fish. Can saltwater flies also be used on freshwater species? What baitfish imitators should I carry? These can often be daunting questions.

Often, flies go by different names. For example, streamers and bucktails are what trout fishermen call them, while warm-water anglers have names that are different than saltwater anglers. I have attempted to include flies that will work on multiple species, but please note that depending on what fish you are targeting, some of these may be less effective than others. Here is my favorite list of baitfish fly patterns.

1. Clouser Minnow

Clouser Minnow Flies.

Clouser Minnows. Photo by Joseph Smith

My first experience with this baitfish pattern was chasing landlocked Atlantic salmon. I stood in disbelief as the local fly shop told me to tie these up and was even more surprised as I outfished experienced anglers on the stream.

I still have some of these flies, and they have caught far more than landlocks. This eponymous fly has perhaps caught more species of fish for me than any other. Variations of this fly originally designed by Bob Clouser for smallmouth bass have spread this simple, yet effective fly far and wide. By increasing the weight of the dumbbell eyes, this fly can be fished at different levels of the water column and becomes the Clouser deep minnow.

Depending on what species you are chasing, these can be tied in various color combinations and in different sizes. Depending on which fly box you look in, I will carry these from 4/0 hooks all the way down to size 10 for trout. Chartreuse and white, all-black, and all-white tend to be effective color combinations.

2. Lefty's Deceiver

Lefty's Deceivers flies.

Lefty’s Deceivers.  Photos by Joseph Smith

Another in the eponymous fly line, this bait-fish imitator was designed by Lefty Kreh to target stripers in the Chesapeake Bay. Realizing that the large saddle hackles baitfish imitations usually used tend to foul around the hook shank, Lefty moved them to the rear of the fly, and the Deceiver was born. Again, this fly has been tied in different colors and sizes and works on a variety of both fresh and saltwater species. For largemouth bass, this is a favorite of mine. All-white, chartreuse and white, brown and white, or all-black tend to take effect on a variety of sizes.

3. Half and Half Fly

So, in the Mendelian world of genetics, what do you get when your cross two of the most productive baitfish flies ever? The Half And Half of course. This fly has the rear of a Deceiver and the front of a Clouser. A staple of Northeastern saltwater fly fishermen, this fly also works well in your local trout stream. Tie some of these up in your favorite baitfish colors and catch some monsters.

4. Woolly Bugger

Woolly Bugger flies.

Woolly Buggers. Photo by Joseph Smith

Now before everyone gets excited and screams this is not a true baitfish, take a deep breath and tell me what is it then? This fly imitates any number of aquatic food sources, and the pulsating marabou tail certainly looks like a fleeing baitfish to predators.

The Woolly Bugger has caught just about as many different species as the Clouser. Black and olive are the traditional trout colors, but this fly will catch in other colors and sizes as well. Microwoolly buggers are a little pattern that produce panfish, and larger buggers are great for steelhead and bass. Always have a Woolly Bugger in your fly box.

5. Marabou Muddler

Marabou Muddler Minnows.

Marabou Muddler Minnows. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is a variation of the famous muddler minnow. Originally designed to imitate sculpins, this fly has become a staple in not only my trout boxes, but my warmwater fly boxes as well. The Marabou just seems to breathe action in the water that fish cannot resist.

6. Slumpbuster

This easy-to-tie streamer is just as the name implies, a great fly to utilize when your fishing slows down. The big profile of this fly pushes water and screams for fish to look at it. Tied in different colors and sizes, the Slumpbuster is great for trout and warm-water species.

7. Black Ghost

Developed just before Carrie Stevens created her famous Gray Ghost pattern just across from him at the same Maine lake, this Herbie Welch creation has withstood the test of time. It can be tied with the original feather dressings or simplified as a bucktail. Either way, this fly catches fish whether they be trout, salmon, or warm-water species. Fly anglers have been using the Black Ghost since 1927. Having some of these in your fly box is worth your time.

8. Chocklett’s Game Changer

Moving into the world of modern baitfish imitations, this articulate fly has a motion that even the most finicky fish cannot resist. Tied on large hooks for pike and musky, the Chocklett’s Game Changer can even be tied on the micro level to induce trout.

9. Predator Pounder

Predator Pounder Fly.

Predator Pounder. Photo by Joseph Smith

The Predator Pounder was originally designed for pike and musky, but as the name implies, any predatory fish will fall for this. Try them in different sizes and colors to mimic the local baitfish. Anywhere you need a fly to displace water, this baitfish imitator will work—be it in saltwater or freshwater.

10. Sneaky Pete

This fly looks like a traditional bass popper that went awry. By simply turning the popper head around, the fly now slinks along the subsurface, imitating a wounded baitfish. For more fly-purist heresy, tie the fly with the head rotated and on the side of the hook. This will make the fly swim on its side and, on pause, float on its side similar to the profile of a dying baitfish. Fished either way, warmwater predators attack the Sneaky Pete with abandonment. Every bass fly box should have one or two.

11. Blados Crease Fly

Blados Crease Fly.

Blados Crease Fly.  Photo by Joseph Smith

Another eponymous fly, this surface baitfish imitator is a staple of Northeastern saltwater fisheries. Designed by Captain Joe Blados for striped bass and bluefish, the Blados Creae Fly has crept into the arsenal of other anglers. Smaller versions of this fly make great smallmouth and largemouth bass flies. Similar to the Sneaky Pete, when fished subsurface against a current, this fly imitates a dying baitfish and will produce strikes by predatory fish.

12. Glass Minnow

A traditional saltwater fly, this pattern mimics any number of small, transparent baitfish. Tied to be wispy, with a touch of pearl flash, the Glass Minnow can be fished in either saltwater or freshwater. Smaller sizes are effective for trout and larger sizes are killer for large saltwater predators such as snook, stripers, bluefish, seatrout, and redfish.

13. Surf Candy

Three colors of surf candy flies.

Surf Candy. Photo by Joseph Smith

Designed by Bob Popovics, the Surf Candy is the gold standard for small baitfish. This is an effective pattern because the profile of the fly closely resembles the profile of many smaller baitfish. Its epoxy head adds some weight while increasing durability, especially when chasing toothy fish.

14. EP Peanut Bunker

Since the advent of synthetic materials, saltwater fly fishing has had an explosion of effective patterns. Enrico Puglisi’s Peanut Bunker is a prime example. This fly was designed to imitate bunker (menhaden) and small herring. Since its development, other applications for the EP Peanut Bunker have developed and different colors and sizes have added to its use. Traditionally tied with EP fibers in an olive-and-white combination, tarpon anglers use the black and purple color scheme to get results. This is a fly that should be in every saltwater angler’s fly box.

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I hope this gives you some ideas for the next time you chase large, predatory fish. Depending on where you fish, you may develop your own list of baitfish patterns. 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 gear selections, reach out to one of us Fly Fishing Experts here at Curated. We love 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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