In this article, I’ll share the 15 best flies for trout.
Finding the best trout flies isn’t always easy. I have been fishing for nearly fifty years; and yes, when I started I messed about switching fly patterns, always looking for the best new trout fly to try this season.
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We all do it I suppose, but now I tend to stick to a few tried and trusted trout fly patterns, with the odd one thrown into the mix as an experiment, or just for fun as a tryout.
In this article, I will review some history and basic principles of choosing the best flies for different conditions and think about how patterns have evolved as techniques and materials and experience have taught us valuable lessons.
I hope it will bolster your confidence to either select some favorite trout fly patterns and for the experimenters among us, to think about what you are trying to achieve and thoughtfully develop your knowledge and tactics with targeted fly selection.
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What Makes A Great Trout Fly?
Just over a hundred years ago the devoted followers of F M Halford – the doyen of dry fly fishermen – would have told you only dry flies were allowed and they should be an exact copy of the hatched fly.
Given the materials and entomology knowledge in 1900, these probably weren’t very close copies anyway! We have come a long way since then and the top trout flies today follow more general principles which I have set out below:
For wet flies, streamers, and nymphs this means how flies move through the water. Use of ‘mobile’ materials such as hares ear fur, rabbit fur strips or soft feather flue can all give flies ‘life’ and get them noticed by fish as something worth eating.
I hinted the Victorian dry fly man liked to achieve what they thought was an exact copy. But imitation may not mean copying. I am a great believer in the ‘GISS’ school – which means that the best flies for trout achieve a General Impression, Shape, Size of the natural insect.
The trout has – most times anyway – only a moment to decide if it will take your fly. Achieving a good first impression is probably all it takes and some of the greatest trout flies do just that.
Though a picky trout may take its time and scrutinize your fly, I think this is the exception rather than the rule.
Something to get the fly noticed. Not a hard and fast rule and the last on my list. Where I fish on the chalk streams of southern England small brown or green nymphs which are weighted to get down quickly are more important than any flash.
Having said that, a bit of red wool (or something pinkish for grayling) can sometimes work wonders when other ‘standard’ patterns have failed; looks nothing like the real thing – to us anyway – but grabs the fishes attention.
When fly fishing for trout, the main distinction is between brown trout and rainbows but there are some other subdivisions and local conditions may also play their part.
In the UK this generally means ‘stocked’ trout in fisheries and reservoirs. In the States, this may be a mainstream fish. Many people who are looking for the best flies for trout will have rainbow in mind.
These grow to bigger weights than ‘brownies’ and brook trout and consequently, you might venture a larger and stronger fly and hook. There is nothing worse than unbending the hook on a small fly pattern and a big fish.
A sea-run variant of the rainbow trout, steelhead tend to hatch on gravel-ground, well-oxygenated streams and rivers and some of them remain in freshwater for the duration of their lives.
Those that do become “Rainbow Trout”. If Steelhead do migrate to the ocean, they typically grow to larger sizes than those which stay in the freshwater rivers and streams.
Check out our guide all about Fly Fishing for Steelhead.
Brown Trout & Brook Trout
Salmo Trutta. Smaller than rainbows and rather more wily in my humble opinion. These could be wild brown trout or stocked fish.
Essentially the same species as brown trout but which have developed the ability to migrate to sea – possibly for better food availability, and back to freshwater to spawn. These can develop to some considerable size and strength and are a specialist discipline or target species for the UK fly fisherman in particular.
Trout are closely related to the salmon family and Arctic char and brook trout are very closely linked genetically. All are found in both North America and Eurasia and are typically highly valued as game and food sources.
Understanding The Hatch
A basic understanding of the fish food life cycle is key to your development as an observant fly fisher and helps you select the best trout fly patterns.
I have set out below the key stages in the fish food life cycle – in this case specifically for fly life.
Remember – fish spend most of their time below water, feeding on ‘flies’ in their immature stages – but there are other sources of food such as scuds or shrimps which also form a major part of the trout’s diet (and so are worth imitating as a ‘fly’ pattern).
Larvae/Pupae and Nymphs
This term is largely interchangeable as far as the fly fisher is concerned. Though caddis pupae – the ones which make themselves a suit of armor from small gravel and debris on the stream bed are generally credited with the term ‘larvae.’
These inhabit the bottom of streams, rivers, or ponds until ready to swim to the surface and hatch out as a fly.
A ‘peeping’ caddis pupa pattern can be very effective flies for trout and imitates the larvae emerging from the protective case it has built.
Nymphs are the swimming young of flies, hatched from eggs laid in or on the water. They eventually swim to the surface and shed their skin, emerge and fly away once they have broken the surface tension of the water.
Sawyers Pheasant Tail nymph is one of the simplest, most effective and best trout fly patterns in this group and must be one of the most productive trout flies ever.
An emerger pattern imitates the nymph as it has surfaced, shedding its skin, and prepares to fly. Typically the tail (hook) of the fly remains in the water representing the shed skin of the insect as it leaves the water.
The real emerger is very vulnerable at this point, and are easy prey for trout so well worth imitating. Wyatt’s deer hair emerger is a killer pattern for this stage of fly life, and although relatively recent is already one of the greatest trout fishing flies.
Many of the best flies for trout will be emerger patterns for this reason.
The young adult fly is known as a Dunn and matures further into a Spinner which is the reproductive stage of the insect. Imitations may represent the Dunn, or spinner as a dry fly or possibly a dead spinner – they die shortly after mating and fall on the water.
The trout will eat them dead or alive. Fratnik’s F-Fly or a deer hair sedge or a Wulff are all great adult fly patterns that float well.
What Do The Best Trout Flies Imitate?
I have mainly been describing flies that imitate actual fly species but of course, there is more to it than that. There are plenty of other species that form trout food and I have provided some examples of fly types below.
This encompasses a broad range of food such as land-based flies, snails, caterpillars, worms – and even frogs and mice.
Trout will eat other fish and fish fry usually with a bit of ‘flash’ in the tying are one of the top trout flies.
A significant source of fish food given the number of fly eggs laid in the water.
Scuds or Shrimps
Found in large numbers in freshwater and so an obvious source to imitate as a ‘fly’ pattern.
Basic Types of the Best Trout Flies
The primary categories of fly type concerning the fly fisher are long-established – a century ago just ‘dry and wet’ but things have moved on.
These were traditionally patterns that sat high on the water surface supported by a feather ‘hackle’ but may now include flies that sit in the surface film too – and these are often more effective in my experience. Silicone floatant may help keep these from sinking.
Check out our guide to Dry Fly Fishing.
Flies designed to sink and be fished below the surface and which could represent nymphs, maybe fish fry, sometimes nothing specific at all, but are a long-established trout fishing fly group.
Also designed to be fished below the surface but in this case specifically imitating young fly life before it has hatched into a true ‘fly’ with wings. I love nymph fishing and this is my favorite trout fly category.
Check out our guide to Fly Fishing Nymphs.
An emerger represents the very brief stage in the fly’s life between hatching from a nymph into a Dunn; it might last a few minutes only. The emerger struggles through the surface of the river, sheds its skin, dries its wings then takes to the air giving the trout only a short while to grab a meal.
Also fished in under the water’s surface – not the surface or top film – usually represent fish fry and are constructed from mobile materials such as rabbit fur which has a bit of ‘wiggle’ in the water.
Check out our guide to Fly Fishing Streamers.
The Best Trout Flies For Fly Fishing
Here is a capsule collection of flies which would probably see you through wherever you fish:
Best Dry Flies for Trout
One of the most popular methods for fly fishing for trout is the dry fly method. Here are some of the best and most productive dry flies for trout.
A great Mayfly and Blue Winged Olive (BWO) pattern. This is naturally very ‘floaty’ reducing the need for chemical floatant, simple and robust, and catches trout. Devised by Fran Betters on the Adirondack, it is in the ‘hall of fame’ as one of the top trout flies.
Devised by Marjan Fratnick this is usually tied small and uses a ‘cul de canard’ wing to help it float – this one sits in the surface film and is effective for ‘bulging’ fish sucking down fly life trapped in the surface of the water.
An unusual dry fly I thought I would throw into the mix, with a purple silk tying thread. This sits high on the water but on the right day is effective nevertheless.
The pattern was devised by Major Oliver Kite for fishing the River Avon in Wiltshire, UK in the 1960s. You do not need to copy the tying slavishly – the purple works a treat. It’s a top trout fly.
Best Wet Flies For Trout
You need a few wet flies for those waters where the rules permit this form of fishing. Nymph fishing has perhaps overtaken this traditional fly type but wet flies often have long soft tyings imparting movement and interest to the fish.
My favorite wet fly, the one I started with in the early 1970s and still just as good.
This is a much older wet fly pattern than I am and I have no idea who devised this – I believe it originates from the north of England, but it works very well and might even work for salmon at a pinch in its larger sizes, fished on its own or in a team it is an established member of the ”best trout flies’ team.
The Waterhen Bloa
This is another pattern that originates from the north of England – the long soft feather flue collar probably looks like a small fish fry as the fly moves through the water.
Before modern synthetic materials, the peacock herl body provided some flash; I tie mine with a red wool tag at the tail end as an attractor trigger point.
This is an easy pattern to add a bit of weight to, and get the fly ‘down’ quickly, and can be tied very small too. Varying the fly size is sometimes more effective than changing the pattern.
Best Emergers for Trout
I love fishing nymphs and emergers and use these patterns more than the dry fly.
The emerger is just such a logical pattern as it looks so vulnerable to trout with the tail seemingly trapped in the water and I have caught plenty of trout, and on the River Avon in Wiltshire in the southwest of England even more Grayling with some of these.
Wyatt’s Deer Hair Emerger
Designed by Bob Wyatt this is a truly inspired pattern – there are variants which are even more pared down with minimal body dressings and sparse wing of deer hair – but could be CDC – and I have even used snowshoe rabbit hair too.
This floats really well and reduces the need for application of fly floatant. I usually tie in sizes 16 and 18. Flies don’t have to be huge.
The trout have seen the big ones but surely there must be more small ones to eat – and so easier to fool the fish. Arguably you do not need any other patterns, but try these too:
The Klinkhammer Special or ‘klinker’
A very clever design of emerger by Hans van Klinken from Holland as a caddis fly imitation, which uses a hackle ‘parachute’ to land softly on the water. A bit fiddly to tie, these are easy enough to buy and leave a few in the fly box.
If the water is as smooth as a mirror this fly can assist with light presentation and does not drop like a brick onto the surface spooking every trout for a mile. Another candidate as one of the greatest trout flies.
Buzzers or Midge Emerger Patterns
These patterns can be tied down to very small sizes – I have tied them down to about size 30, but usually 24 or 26 and you then need very light tippet to fish them successfully.
Not a fly you would necessarily want to fish with all the time. For those of us with failing eyesight small sizes are a pain to knot to the nylon but when the fish are very picky or feeding on something nearly invisible then this may be one of the most productive trout flies.
Best Nymphs For Trout
Fish spend most of their time feeding underwater, so if you want to catch one it makes sense to try them with imitations of things living in the water.
I love these for nymphing, tied on a jig hook in small sizes – 16 or 18. They have transformed my catch rate, get down quickly and can be tied in all sorts of variants.
I generally use a Sawyers ‘pheasant tail’ hybrid with a silver or black tungsten bead with pheasant tail wound around into a thorax. These are always my first choice trout nymph and currently my favorite trout fly.
The gold ribbed hare’s ear is one of the most versatile flies about. Weighted or unweighted you can fish them in the surface or mid-water column. This is my ‘number two’ best trout fly pattern.
Bare Hook Nymph
I thought I should throw this one in – partly for fun – but also as an ‘educative’ fly. Major Oliver Kite was adept at fishing this pattern.
A bare hook – possibly weighted with a few turns of copper wire and using the ‘induced take’ method – a slight lift of the rod before the nymph passes the fish to add movement and create a ‘grab and go’ fish response.
This is a great nymph and technique to remind the fly fisher that GISS principles and good technique are of equal importance.
Best Streamers For Trout
Streamers are of course lures or attractors and do not represent a real piece of trout food but they still work! Not for the fly fisherman who aims to deceive with an accurate imitation then but great as a ‘pan fly’ for catching for the pot or a bit of fun.
Why not go a bit wild and try a ‘zonker’? Essentially a strip of rabbit fur lashed to a hook with plenty of mobility and wiggle to attract fish. It probably represents something fish-fry like to the trout and can be weighted or not. These catch pike as well!
A white hair strip minkie can be used to catch just about anything including pike, bass, and mackerel.
Often tied up in black marabou, again mobile and animated the black shows a large dense profile in the water. I like to alternate between black or white flies when using streamers and if one doesn’t work the other usually does. It may depend on the lighting conditions and color of the water I suspect.
Best Pre-Filled Trout Fly Boxes
Below is a few of our recommended trout fly boxes that you can pick up on Amazon for a great price. These boxes have most of the flies I listed in this article, as well as some other productive patterns.
- Included Flies: Elk Hair Caddis, Adams, Woolly Bugger, Stimulator, Griffith’s Gnat, Egg Fly & More
- Fly Types: 30pcs Dry Flies, 40pcs Wet Flies, 15pcs Streamer, 10pcs Nymph, 5pcs Emerger
- Included Flies: 24 Classic Adams, 6 copper john, 12 Elk Hair caddis, 15 Hares Ear, 9 Pheasant Tails
- Fly Types: 48 time-tested patterns size 8-16
- Included Flies: Adams, Olives, Parachutes, Elk Hair Caddis, Drakes, Chernobyl Ants, Stimulators, Wooly Buggers & More
- Fly Types: Size 10-16 dry flies and streamers
I hope this post has helped boost your confidence, both experimenting with some new patterns and sticking with the ‘reliables’ The French nymph is relatively new on the scene and hugely effective, my best nymph pattern for two or three years now. It is always staying up to date and reading about the latest techniques, and possibly even designing your own new killer pattern!
Don’t forget the bare hook nymph. This forces you to watch the behavior of the trout, the action of the nymph in the water, and analyze your own technique, and will improve your skills when fishing other patterns.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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