How To Organize a Fly Box

Learn how to organize your fly box with Fly Fishing Expert Marshall McDougal so you are ready to hit the water and grab all the right flies.

The author laid out all of his fly boxes on a table outside. They're nicely arranged, with small boxes in the front and the two biggest ones in the back.

Photo by Marshall McDougal

How many times have you gone to change a fly and found yourself rummaging through multiple fly boxes out on the water and still not being able to find the right pattern? Tune in to learn how to turn the mess in your box into a fly library for every fishing scenario and how to target species so you’re not caught fumbling in your box while fish are eating.

Picking the Right Fly Box

There are many different styles of fly boxes on the market. When selecting a box, make sure that it fits the flies you are trying to put in it. If your plan is to have big streamers ready to go, consider a boat box or a longer streamer box. If you have dry flies, terrestrials, and nymphs then maybe a smaller silicone box is what you need. Most boxes nowadays are sealed when they are closed, allowing them to stay dry even when submerged. If you plan on doing a lot of wading, you might want this feature for peace of mind so you know your flies are staying dry even if you happen to take a dip in the river.

Dry Fly/Nymph Box

One of my favorite boxes to store these flies is the Region Double Sided Combination box. This will offer you the option to store your dry flies on one side and your nymphs on the other. It is also waterproof and compact so you can have a few of these in your pack for different rivers or for targeting different species.

Streamer Box

If throwing big meaty flies is your forte, then having a place to store them all is going to be key. The streamer boxes on the market are offered in all sizes and shapes. Boat boxes are common for anglers that like to have a huge arsenal of big flies at the ready in their boat. They can also be a great storage locker to keep in your car and replenish lost flies out of a smaller box. The Umpqua UPG LT High Bugger Fly Box is the perfect carry box for any day outing and has plenty of storage space for large streamers. Make sure to dry your fly before adding it back to your box. That wet fly will create a moisture build-up in your box when it is closed, leading to a lack of visibility in the box and wet foam peeling away from the adhesive.

Dropper Box

A very popular way to fish is to throw a multi-fly set up. The Orvis Dropper Rig Fly Box is an awesome box for any angler that wants to tie these setups before they get to the water. This allows you to save time tying knots and gives you more time to fish. This box easily accommodated hopper dropper, double and even triple nymph rigs as well as any other wild multi-fly rig method you might have in your arsenal.

Saltwater Flats Box

If you plan on taking on the salt, make sure you get a box that seals. The last thing you want is corrosive saltwater getting into your fly box and having to deal with drying them out after a day on the water. Another tip is to lean towards a silicon box instead of foam. The salt can be hard on your gear and silicon is one of the longest-lasting materials. It offers slots to back your hooks into and will last longer overtime than foam.

Fly Organization

Size and Pattern

“Birds of a feather stick together.” The ol’ saying can apply to organizing your box. Put all of the same types of fly in the same row and simply organize by size. This way of organizing takes the guessing out of where each pattern is. Go a step further and use some labeling tape to mark which fly pattern is in each row and stick it on the front of your see-through box for easy identification.

Bug Imitation

The author holds a small round rock in his hand and examines the bug that's sitting atop it. He also holds his rod and reel.

Photo by Karli Quinn

Do you find yourself fishing multiple hatches throughout the season? Certain areas will call for different insect species as the season progresses. Divide your box into quarters. The bug that is the earliest hatch should go in the top left quadrant. Slowly work your way down that side of the box and as you get closer to the middle, start transitioning your bugs over to the next predominant hatch in your area. Have a good mix of adult flies along with aquatic insects for each of these hatches. Repeat on the other side of the box and boom! You now have a box organized so you can slowly work through it during the season. A pro tip is to track the date periods where each bug pattern is working in your area. After a few seasons, you will start building reliable data on when each hatch is happening and will lead to catching more fish.

Target Species

Organizing for the fish you are chasing is a great way to target multiple types of waters out of different boxes. Fishing for redfish in the gulf is going to require a completely different style of fly than if you are hiking to an alpine lake in search of brook trout. For this style of organization, you will need multiple boxes. A trout-specific box will hold dry flies, nymphs, and midges while a redfish box will be packed with muddlers, crabs, and shrimp imitations. In my home waters, I target mostly largemouth and striped bass, so my box holds baitfish imitations and large streamer patterns. Organize these boxes with a handful of your favorite flies that you know will produce, as well as some exploration flies that you might want to try out or have just started tying.

Fishing Season

Many fisheries across the world require different patterns depending on the time of year. Set up four different boxes accounting for the seasonal changes. For trout, this would be a spring, summer, fall, and winter box where your spring box will be mostly big stoneflies and dry flies matching the different hatches. Your summer box might consist of flies you would use in a hopper dropper rig along with a few dries to match the summer hatch. As you work your way into the fall, load your box full of meat and work the banks and brush piles with streamer patterns. When the temperatures drop and the nymphing becomes popular, fill your last box with midges, nymphs, and attractor patterns.

Your Go-To Flies

The moneymakers! Always keep a box handy loaded with your favorite flies. These are your most trusted patterns that will land you fish even on the slowest of days. There is not much organization needed in these boxes as you should know exactly what each pattern is and how to fish it. After catching many fish on the same fly, they can sometimes start to fall apart. That is ok, I like to keep some of my most productive torn-to-shreds flies in this box just to bring me better fishing juju.

Fly and Fly Box Care

Fly Maintenance

One of the keys to always presenting fish with an attractive fly is to take care of them. A few tips to keeping your flies in good shape: dry them off, add a dab of super glue and clip the knot. After a fly has been used and is still wet, make sure to put it on a drying patch. This can be anything from your hat brim to the drying patch on your vest—just make sure that when you return it to your box, it does not bring moisture with it. Flies that have caught multiple fish can start to fall apart over time. The best cure for this is to add a drop of super glue around the thread at the head of the fly where the thread has been tied off. Obviously, this doesn’t need to be done to a brand new fly but make sure to check your used flies for flaws before you return them back to the box. The last, and sometimes the most overlooked, step is to clip the previous knots off your fly before returning them to the box. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to feed your leader or tippet through the eye of a hook only to find out that there is an old knot still tied on.

Fly Box Care

Box maintenance is very easy and requires little to no effort. The leading cause of fly box damage comes from wet flies sitting in your box and building up moisture. Over time, this will slowly eat at the adhesive that holds your foam in place and, when left in a wet box long enough, can cause rust build up on your hooks. Open those boxes up to dry every now and then. Try not to put wet flies back in them and if you do, make sure to remove those flies after your trip and let your box dry out. If you notice that the foam is pulling away from the box, add some super glue to resecure it. The fly boxes on the market today should last you a lifetime of fishing and then some. Take care of them and they will take care of your flies.

Personalization

The author's rod and reel lie on damp grass and rest across the top of his open fly box, which is filled with brightly colored flies.

Photo by Marshall McDougal

Have fun with your boxes. They reflect who you are as an angler. Add some flair to them with stickers. A fun organization tip that I use is to find stickers that represent the species of fish you target with that box so it makes it easy to recognize which box holds certain fly patterns. This could look like a mayfly sticker or a trout rising sticker for your dry fly boxes. For saltwater, add a sticker of a bonefish or a crab. If stickers aren’t your thing and you want something to identify what is in each box, consider labeling tape. This is an extremely cheap option to keep your boxes organized and easy to recognize.

Now that you have a couple of ideas of how to organize your fly box, take the time to sit down and go through your collection. Success is in the preparation and if you take the time to organize and maintain your fly boxes, you will find yourself catching more fish. Know where your flies are so it takes less time to change patterns and maximize your time with your line in the water. The best advice I have ever received is “You can’t catch fish if your line is not in the water.” Get out there and get to fishing. If you have questions about gear for your next adventure, reach out to me or another Fly Fishing expert here on Curated. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I picked up a fly rod at the age of 10 and have never been able to put it down. Fly tying started shortly after and I have chased fish all over the US and Mexico. I now own a small fly tying company as well as run guided trips. My favorite area to fish is the Bitteroot River in Missoula, MT and my f...

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