I’ve been fly fishing for nearly fifty years. In that time I have seen quite a transformation from the old rules and ‘etiquette’ of the sport to a much more informed and intelligent technique based on close observation and experimentation.
These are patterns designed primarily for trout and grayling fishing but don’t disdain them for panfish in North America or some coarse fish in Europe. Different fish eat the same food after all.
When reviewing my favorite fly patterns I wondered how to write this article – about my three or four absolute favorites, or try and limit myself to just twenty!
On the right day and conditions, there are some patterns you simply cannot be without…some of these will be an ‘insurance’ for a blank day when you have already tried the other 19 patterns in your box!
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What is a Dry Fly?
This – once upon a time – simply meant a fly that floated on top of the water. In Victorian times with limited floatant or buoyancy in the materials, it very much meant ‘on the water’ on the tips of the flies’ hackles.
Knowledge, techniques, and materials have moved on. Some of the most useful dry flies are not very ‘dry’ – emergers are designed to cover the stage between a nymph hatching on – or in – the water surface film before becoming a dun or young adult fly.
Essentially though a ‘dry’ is a topwater fly – usually representing a real fly that is about to hatch, has already hatched and is drying itself on the surface tension of the river or lake, or is an ‘ovipositor’ a female laying eggs, or a dead or dying spinner – an adult fly which has dropped onto the water at the end of its life.
Some non-aquatic flies are included where they have been blown onto the water – these might also be included with ‘terrestrials’ other land insects that form fish food.
What Makes a Great Dry Fly?
When it comes to the best dry flies, there are some basic rules for fly design – guidance really – because there are some very effective traditional patterns which don’t fully comply – but catch fish nonetheless!
Modern dry fly design tends to be either Super Imitative, or ‘GISS’ – which imitates General Impression Shape and Size.
A hundred years ago famous dry fly fishermen such as Frederick Halford would have said his fly patterns were near exact copies of flies – as close as technique would allow.
Many of these patterns now look a little clumsy – but they still caught fish!
The great dry fly patterns have the ability to consistently catch fish and some can help compensate for poor casting technique by softening the landing on the water.
There are a few others such as USD patterns which can make all the difference to successful casting when beneath trees. More later
Some basic fly tying principles to assess flies are generally as follows:
The action of a wet fly streamer or nymph in the water can be crucial. Here we are probably looking at how the hook of the dry fly sits on or in the water surface film, how the fly lands on the water.
Hopefully, as part of a gentle cast as the line unfurls, and how well the fly floats without continual attention from chemical floatants, false casts and the like.
This will essentially be a combination of the profile the fish sees from underwater, coupled with colouration. Remember the fish will be judging the materials when wet or immersed and not as presented in your fly box on a sunny day!
Less of a key element in dry flies – we are not usually looking to add flash, sparkle or artificial bright colours to a dry fly.
Though the purple in a Kites Imperial works very well and the rams wool in a ‘Tups’ likewise so one can never be too dogmatic when making sweeping statements about ‘the rules of fly tying.’
20 Best Dry Flies For Fly Fishing
So – here I review some patterns – a few are modern classics which are my ‘go to first’ and a few are ‘save the day when everything else fails’ patterns. But remember a list of ‘best dry flies’ also requires some work from you, the fisherman.
If you always tie on your flies before arriving, in your hurry to the river bank then I suspect your catch rate will be much lower than a more patient angler.
A wiser fly fisher quietly approaches the waterside, observes the cobwebs and bankside fauna for trapped or dead insects as a clue to the essential dry fly of the moment, and observes the water closely for a few minutes before attaching a fly.
It’s a windy day? Shorten your leader. The water is becalmed? Lengthen the leader and look for a lighter pattern that won’t hit the surface with a splash.
There are no fish feeding on the surface? Don’t open the dry fly box; it’s time for a nymph or wet fly.
1.Wyatt’s Deer Hair Emerger
A relatively recent BWO (Blue Winged Olive) pattern by Canadian trout fishing whizz Bob Wyatt. The sparse body tying pierces the surface film representing a body and shuck.
When it comes to being wildly effective, the Deer Hair Emerger is definitely one of the best dry flies.
The buoyant deer hair wing and the thorax keeps the whole thing aloft. You should not need much in the way of floatant with this fly though a dab on the thorax provides some assistance and prevents the fly disappearing into the depths.
Some more recent variants use even more sparse body dressings and a CDC wing for a completely minimalist concept. I have had some pretty hefty takes on this fly and it is great for grayling just as much as trout.
I sometimes use a pink wool body when fishing in the UK grayling season when trout are having a rest (at least from anglers) during their spawning period. Not strictly imitative but this works a treat. You can fish this fly from a size 12 down to an 18 or 20 depending where you fish and the prevailing fish type and food.
2. Fran Better’s ‘Usual’
The ‘Usual’ is another fly that is wonderfully effective, and simple. One material plus tying silk.
And another BWO or mayfly tying based on snowshoe rabbit fur which, again is very buoyant and was designed for trouting on the Ausable River on the Adirondack – I think it has its origins in the late 1940s or thereabouts.
You could also try the ‘Haystack’ by Fran Betters which uses deerhair instead of snowshoe rabbit but follows a similar theme.
I love simple flies which don’t readily sink – you can spend more time catching trout and less time changing flies or fixing your kit up when using these great dry fly patterns.
3. The Gray Wulff
This is a pattern by American the late Lee Wulff who was famous for just about everything fly fishing and has a number of books to his name.
And it is a generic dry fly pattern – tied large and with the deer hair wings properly angled it is a good mayfly pattern, and smaller and with a more upright wing dressing might represent a range of upwinged fly life.
The bushy tail might be a good emerger trigger as a shuck representation but works equally well as a dunn or spinner. I sometimes attack the dressing to thin the tail to help match the hatch but after a few trout have chewed one it still seems to work. An evolution of this fly you might like was developed by Swisher and Richards as the Comparadun which is also worth a look at.
4. Deer Hair Sedge
The flies above are BWO representations; the sedge however has its wings set back and is not classed as an ‘upwing’. Again this is a simple and robust pattern.
Tied really large (4s or 6s) it might represent larger caddisfly species, but in the UK I would normally fish this in the range of 16 down to a 24.
The ‘F Fly’ designed by Marjan Fratnick is a similar earlier version using CDC – the buoyant cul de canard feathers coated from the ducks preen gland oil is an equally simple and effective pattern. Tied really small this is a good midge pattern. When midges are on the menu you could also try…
5. Black Midge, Gnat or Smut
This is again a straightforward pattern – probably an old one at that – it has a black stiffish hackle and black body and can be tied small and neat due to the simplicity of the materials used.
A variation is the knotted midge which has a hackle at each end. You would suppose that something which does not look obviously fly like would not work.
From the trout’s eye view however, the pattern is quite buoyant and sits on the water touched by only the hackle points at each end of the hook – and may well simply represent a small fly alighting on the water but with no particular profile.
This fly can get you out of trouble when all of the ‘standards’ have failed and I was reminded to use it by Nick Hart the manager at Farlows (doyen of fishing shops, Pall Mall, London – I can never walk past the front door without going in) following a couple of bum years on a particular stretch of chalk stream where the trout did not want to come out to play.
Worked the first time.
I have also seen this tied as a winged pattern but frankly never bother myself and stick to a hackled only version
If you need a smaller version of a gnat or midge (and every now and then there are times when you do, and nothing else will do) then look at:
6. La Petite Merde
Fortunately named in French and I shall not translate it for you. This can be used to tie the tiniest of flies the ‘thrips’ or thunder flies found at the height of summer.
These can be tied down to about a size 30 if your eyesight and fingers can cope. You may need one of those threading tools to actually get a size 30 threaded on the end of your leader though.
If you have no patience for tying some up then give in now and buy a few instead, and save your energy for the bankside.
The tying is a tiny wrap of brown CDC for the body and white or brown CDC wing.
7. GRHE – The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear
Normally seen as a nymph pattern – but when tied with a floaty wing of deer hair, CDC, snowshoe rabbit or something similarly buoyant.
This buggy looking creation sits down into the surface film, looks trapped, with a half discarded shuck of a tail and should look like easy prey to the next trout that sees it!
Ready to be sucked down. This pattern seems to represent most things or anything. It is nondescript in outline and a very useful problem-solving fly following GISS principles.
8. Greenwells Glory
The ‘Greenwell’ is an old British pattern named after its originator Canon Greenwell who requested its tying, and dressed by the fly tyer James Wright and dates from 1854.
Also, a bit unusual as this fly started life as a wet fly pattern, but can be tied as a wet or dry as an imitation of any of the olives and there are several variants of the tying. Whilst tied with a yellow silk, the beeswax applied to it actually creates a greenish hue.
9. The Adams
This is a good all-round classic American pattern and depending on the size of the tying might cover mayfly down to smaller pale wateries. It is a generic style of hackled tying for upwing flies.
10. Kites Imperial
Again this pattern is a ‘standard’ in terms of the hackle only construction (and no wing). What sets this fly apart is the use of the purple tying silk and heron herl body and the fly is an effective dun pattern through most of the season.
Heron are a protected species in the UK but if you tie your own heron feathers can usually be picked up bankside or gray goose feather used as a substitute at a pinch. Size 12 – 18 – I generally use them in the smaller sizes.
The fly was devised by Major Oliver Kite in the 1960s primarily for fishing on the River Avon in Wiltshire but has done service worldwide.
11. Crane Fly (or Daddy Long Legs in the UK)
You might not need this terrestrial pattern for much of the season but when crane flies are blown onto the water trout are certainly keen to suck them down.
There are numerous patterns but something with knotted pheasant tail legs and a semi-floating lightly hackled body over perhaps a pheasant tail or chenille wrap on the hook shank could do very nicely.
I usually use a pair of dun cock hackle points to set the wings in a half back (looks drowned) attitude. Tied in size 10 or 12 this can be cast with a light splash on the water to attract a bit of attention.
Don’t set the hook too quickly on these – I find the trout tend to swamp the fish on the first rise to get it underwater then suck it down a moment later. If you strike too soon you may have no fish attached!
12. USD Deer Hair Dun
This is one for under the tree canopy fishing to reduce hookups. The hook is tied ‘USD’ – upside down.
I think it was British fly fisher Neil Patterson who developed this idea which could be applied to a variety of ‘standard’ patterns. With the tying designed to float with the hook point ‘up’ there is less chance of catching vegetation as the tying cushions the hook until it lands on the water.
13. Oliver Edwards Mohican Mayfly
Although a north of England fly fisherman and fly tyer Oliver Edwards‘ reputation extends worldwide.
This pattern was worth including as an example of ‘precise imitation’ for which Oliver is renowned. I don’t actually have the patience to tie these, but they can be purchased easily enough.
14. Black Ant
There are a number of different tyings for this pattern – traditionally this might be dressed with the ant shape wound from silk and hackled to float with wings for the flying ant version. The more modern foam versions are probably rather more resilient and you are unlikely to need silicone floatant.
The foam will do all the work for you. On hot days in July or August when the ants are about this is a great dry fly pattern – even if it resides in the back compartment of your fly box for the rest of the year!
15. Tup’s Indispensable
If pale wateries are about you need one of these. This is a classic and very effective dry fly pattern. The ‘tups’ part of the name refers to the pink rams wool thorax. If you purchase commercial tyings these will probably be pink wool.
I use pinkish wool teased from barbed wire fences which does the trick just fine. By using unwashed sheep’s wool the natural oil make the thorax very buoyant and it is some time before one needs to dress the fly with floatant.
The fly was devised by Mr. R S Austen sometime around 1900 and was named by George Skues – if you don’t know about G M Skues look him up and pass a quiet ‘thank you’ to the man.
Nymph fishing as we know it started with this very observant gentleman, who handed on the baton to Mr Frank Sawyer to develop the Sawyers Pheasant Tail Nymph (the PTN) and others. Sawyer also devised a tying of another essential dry fly:
16. Sawyers Pheasant Tail Spinner / The Sherry Spinner
Some dressings of this pattern use a dark orange silk floss and there are many variations of this classic dry fly. Sawyer’s used pheasant tail (and is how he came to develop the PTN when nymphing with chewed up dry flies).
An essential best dry fly. Again this has limited periods when you should use it and requires careful observation to ‘match the hatch’ and fish when spinners are, or are likely, to be on the water.
17. The KMC or Kiss My Cul
The KMC is tied with a cul de canard upwing, flyrite body, or perhaps hares ear as a substitute – I have used Pearsall’s silk floss which is good if you can find it – and splayed microfibbet tail.
This is something of an ‘all-rounder’ best dry fly and is a pattern popularized by the likes of Stuart Crofts and Peter Hayes in the UK. They have both written books (‘Wild Trout’ and ‘Fly Fishing Outside The Box’ respectively) and I know Peter Hayes has fished all around the globe.
These fly fishers describe the next phase in fly fishing thought and observation. If you like to read fishing books when you have put up your rod for the season then either or both of these gentlemen are worth visiting in print and will help you become a thoughtful fly fisher rather than a ‘water flogger’
Peter Hayes recommends a tying in black as an Iron Blue variant.
I can never quite decide whether Rim Chung’s RS2 is really a nymph or an emerger pattern. You could sink it or fish it on the surface as a Baetis spinner.
But no matter how we define it this pattern represents a particular phase in the nymph/emerger/dun/spinner life cycle and has been used to great effect in the States and now Europe.
If you are a fly historian you could compare this with Mottram’s swimming nymph but the RS2 is immensely more flexible in its scope and application.
19. Cut Wing Dun
One of the more modern North American dry fly patterns – with a wing and parachute hackle this has a high degree of imitation coupled with all the advantages of a soft parachute landing on the water for days when the water is gin clear and as smooth as a mirror.
My copy of Charle’s Jardine’s book ‘Sotheby’s Guide to Trout Fishing‘ credits this to Paul Jorgensen.
A slightly unusual pattern – a black palmered hackle and single wing from jungle cock or a similar substitute.
This covers a range of nondescript land bugs – representing something and nothing – and also acting as an insurance policy ‘essential dry fly’ – sometimes it is better not to over analyze and if you have tried a few specific imitations when you can see terrestrials are about – without success – then swap to a general impression GISS fly and see what happens.
What Do The Best Dry Flies Imitate?
Dry flies are not of course just ‘flies’ and some have the name as a courtesy title only.
These tyings may represent any of the following in the aquatic fly life cycle: to imitate emergers as flies hatch from nymphs, as dunns the young adult or spinners – the fertile mature adult stage.
You may see the term ‘spent spinner’ and this refers to a dead or dying insect which has laid its eggs – or as a male may distract fish as a self-sacrifice whilst the female lays her eggs in the water.
The fish will target each stage of the fly life and each fly has a useful though sometimes time-limited application.
Dry flies for trout may also represent terrestrial life which is blown onto the water or falls from the overgrowth – so bugs, caterpillars, ants – even tyings of frogs or snails can be effective.
In this blog, I have concentrated on conventional trout and grayling patterns, and patterns which can be fished in the ‘classic’ style. (In other blogs we may touch upon other more specific applications and situations).
Review The Best Dry Flies
Table of Contents
- In this post, I will share 20 of the best dry flies. These include dry fly patterns that every angler should have in their box.
- What is a Dry Fly?
- Fly Tying Tutorials
- What Makes a Great Dry Fly?
- Fly Fishing Species
- 20 Best Dry Flies For Fly Fishing
- 1.Wyatt’s Deer Hair Emerger
- 2. Fran Better’s ‘Usual’
- 3. The Gray Wulff
- 4. Deer Hair Sedge
- 5. Black Midge, Gnat or Smut
- 6. La Petite Merde
- 7. GRHE – The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear
- 8. Greenwells Glory
- 9. The Adams
- 10. Kites Imperial
- 11. Crane Fly (or Daddy Long Legs in the UK)
- 12. USD Deer Hair Dun
- 13. Oliver Edwards Mohican Mayfly
- 14. Black Ant
- 15. Tup’s Indispensable
- 16. Sawyers Pheasant Tail Spinner / The Sherry Spinner
- 17. The KMC or Kiss My Cul
- 18. RS2
- 19. Cut Wing Dun
- 20. Jassid
- What Do The Best Dry Flies Imitate?
- Summing Up Dries
Summing Up Dries
In this article, I hope I have opened your eyes to a range of effective dry fly patterns – my top twenty trout dry fly shortlist based on several decades of fishing experience.
Remember that local knowledge and conditions are important and the advice from the gnarled bearded old fly fisher with a thirty-year-old rod should not be ignored – especially if you can see a satchel full of fish for supper!
The top twenty flies in this blog should cover you for the full range of dry fly applications and could be fished pretty much anywhere around the world and can be adjusted in the tyings to suit local conditions.
These are all tried and trusted effective dry fly patterns.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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