The 14 Best Flies for Your First Fly Box
The 14 Best Flies for Your First Fly Box
After a few decades of helping folks pick out flies in the fly shop, you start to see the commonalities of most conversations. Customers ask the same questions, I crack the same jokes, they buy one of two dozen flies and we say our good-byes with a smile and a well wishing for their time on the water. That’s all absolutely great but every once in a while, we see a different kind of customer. This person wants to cover all the bases. They want to know they have everything they’ll need. This person wants a PLAN!
I can relate to the fly box planners of the world. I love to start an entirely new fly box for big fishing trips I have coming up. Part of the fun of a great fishing trip is the excitement and preparation for the trip. Sitting down with a cup of coffee, a sharp pencil, and a notebook full of fly ideas is how most big fishing trips start for me.
For new fly anglers, getting that first fly box can be a bit daunting for the fly box planner. Being a fly box planner myself, I feel your excitement and uncertainty. So, here are some top tips on how I would approach filling your first fly box and some suggested fly patterns to consider. Please note, these suggestions are primarily for anglers fly fishing for trout in rivers and streams.
1 - Start With The Classic Patterns
When you read about suggested flies or meet someone on the stream and talk flies, the conversation usually is about classic fly patterns that most anglers know. Classic patterns like the Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail Nymph, Parachute Adams, Wooly Bugger, Elk Hair Caddis, or Prince Nymph are commonly referenced because most anglers are familiar with them and because so many anglers fish them (because they work). For a first fly box, I recommend including a good portion of these classic patterns and getting to know them by name. You’ll increase your “fly jargon”, be likely to have the flies someone suggests to you, and you’ll be using tried-and-true patterns with histories of success.
2 - Buy Quality Flies
Shocker! The guys selling top quality flies are recommending buying top quality flies. Yeah, we’ll save you some time and expense right now and tell you that cheap flies are exactly that. There is a reason good fly shops only carry top-quality flies. Save yourself the hassle of learning on your own and start your first fly box with good quality flies that you won’t look at with disdain in the future.
3 - Cover Your Bugs
Part of fly fishing is knowing a bit about what your target species feeds on so you can match it with an appropriate fly. Knowing at least the basics about the major groups of insects in a trout stream is very helpful to the trout stream angler. You don’t need a degree in entomology, but grabbing a few flies to represent the most common insects and knowing what time of year they are present to the trout is very useful information. Take a moment to learn the basic lifecycles and common species of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. This knowledge can be very fruitful and adds to the enjoyment of fly fishing when you discover the missing piece of the puzzle, match the hatch, and put a smack-down on the trout that day.
4 - Consider the Seasons
Applying your knowledge of insects to the seasons you plan to be fishing can greatly impact your fly box. For example, if your fly fishing tends to take place when you vacation in July or August, your fly box will probably be heavy in dry flies and include lots of hoppers, caddis, terrestrials, etc. and not include much in the way of Skwala nymphs, Blue Wing Olives, October Caddis, etc. This information is all easily available by referencing a hatch chart for the rivers you fish or talking to a local fly shop.
5 - Size Matters
When selecting flies, remember the idea is to resemble food items that the fish are looking for. This includes color, shape, and size, and size can be the most important. Often, however, fly anglers don’t want to fish flies that are too small because they are hard to see, hard to tie on, or just seem like they won’t catch big fish. Unfortunately, though, all bugs aren’t size 12-16 and we need to use flies that are the size of the natural bugs if that’s what the fish are feeding on. When that Blue Wing Olive hatch starts going off and big trout are rising right in front of you on size 20 duns, you’ll wish you had a few with you… and possibly some higher magnification readers as well.
6 - Consult the Local Fly Shop
If you’re lucky enough to have a fly shop close to where you live and/or do your fishing, you most likely have some very valuable knowledge right in front of you and someone willing to share it. In this case, the information we are interested in is good flies for the rivers and seasons you are fishing. These are easy questions for the fly shop pro. In fact, these are questions he/she may have answered ten times in the last two hours of the same day. So, keep that in mind and ask well-crafted questions. Instead of walking into the shop and asking a general question like, “Hey, what are they biting on?”, maybe ask something more like, “I’m looking to fish the Example River now through September and was wondering if you could suggest like 10 or 12 top fly patterns to have on hand?”. When he/she begins suggesting flies, be prepared to buy them. They don’t work for free just like you probably don’t. Although BigTimeFlies wants to sell you flies on our website, we can never replace the value of the local fly shop so please support them when you can.
7 - Recommended First Fly Box
If you don’t have a fly shop close by or want flies for a wide variety of locations and seasons, we can still apply our first five tips to creating a perfect first fly box. Here is a recommended fly selection that includes classic patterns, certainly includes quality flies, and covers the most important insects in the most appropriate sizes for the most popular times of the year. You simply can’t go wrong with this selection of flies on any trout river or stream. Here we go…
Pheasant Tail Nymph
The Pheasant Tail Nymph is a dark, reddish-brown nymph that does a great job of imitating many common species of darker colored mayfly nymphs. The Pheasant Tail was originated in 1909 by Frank Sawyer in England. Over a century later, it is still as popular as it has ever been because it is a very effective fly. Get some in size 14, 16 and 18 to cover the most important mayfly species imitated by the Pheasant Tail Nymph.
Hare’s Ear Nymph
The Hare’s Ear Nymph (or Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear) is another classic trout nymph that is an important pattern to have in your fly boxes. The Hare’s Ear imitates tan colored mayfly and stonefly nymphs. Cover size 12, 14 and 16 for your size range so that you’re ready for action for Yellow Sally stoneflies a variety of lighter colored mayfly nymphs.
Any fly selection wouldn’t be complete without some caddis pupa patterns and the Hotwire Caddis is our first choice for an angler’s first fly box. The Hotwire Caddis has a bead head and a body made of wire with a shiny, metallic finish. This helps the fly sink fast but also adds an important element to the fly. The metallic sheen on the body of the Hotwire Caddis imitates the layer of gas that caddis pupa use to help propel themselves up through the water column when hatching. Get both the chartreuse and the tan colors of the Hotwire Caddis, but with more emphasis on the chartreuse color. Grab sizes 12, 14 and 16 in the chartreuse and the tan.
WD50 – Olive
The WD50 is a small nymph which serves as a great imitator of small mayfly nymphs like Blue Wing Olives and also is an excellent midge pupa imitation. Get the WD50 – Olive in size 18 and you’ll be in good shape for most situations. Give this fly a little extra playing time in the early spring and later fall months when both BWO nymphs and midge pupa are probably on the menu at Chez Trout.
Prince Nymph Bead Head
This list couldn’t be complete without the Bead Head Prince Nymph. The Prince Nymph is an attractor nymph, meaning it doesn’t imitate anything exactly. Instead, it imitates numerous food items and simply has characteristics that attract fish. The Prince Nymph is a great fly to put on when you don’t have any information and don’t know what fly to fish. It has also been a “day-saver” for many anglers (me included) when nothing else seems to work. The Prince Nymph is a confidence fly for sure. Pick some up in size 12 and 14.
Pat's Rubber Legs
Time for some meat and potatoes. On rivers with good numbers of stoneflies, you simply have to have Pat’s Rubber Legs. The brown color is excellent for Salmonflies and Skwala stoneflies, and is probably the one to have if you only pick-up one color. However, we recommend the Golden color as well, specifically for the Golden Stoneflies which usually hatch around the May-July timeframe. Grab size 6, 8 and 10 in the brown and size 8 in the golden color.
Every once in a while a fly pattern comes along and becomes so popular it (at least temporarily) knocks off an old classic! That may be the case with the Purple Haze and the Parachute Adams. Whatever the case, the Purple Haze is a real winner and adding size 16 and 18 to our fly box list is an important addition. The Purple Haze fishes great as an attractor dry fly and also as a BWO mayfly imitation.
PMD Sparkle Dun
In our fly box we need to include a dry fly for imitating the common Pale Morning Dun and other light yellow colored mayfly adults. The PMD Sparkle Dun is perfect for this task. Have some size 16’s and 18’s on hand and you’ll be pretty well set for most situations. Remember to put floatant on the body and wing of the fly to keep it floating, but not on the tail. We want the PMD Sparkle Dun to fish low to the water with the tail just under the surface.
The Chubby Chernobyl is as hot as they get. Another fly that is just simply effective. It floats like a cork, is visible from a mile away, and trout love it. Fish the Chubby Chernobyl as a stonefly adult and as a grasshopper pattern so tie it on in May or June and leave it on until September. To cover your bases best, grab the Chubby Norman in size 6, the Chubby Chernobyl – Gold in size 8, the Chubby Chernobyl – Pink and the Chubby Chernobyl – Tan in sizes 10 and 12, and finally the Chubby Sally – Yellow in size 14. This little Chubby assortment will have you covered pretty well for salmonflies, golden stones, yellow sallies, and hoppers.
Elk Hair Caddis
Another classic pattern you’ll hear anglers refer to all the time. The Elk Hair Caddis is an excellent caddis adult dry fly that brings back many memories of summer evenings and rising trout. The Elk Hair Caddis is a buoyant fly that stays floating on the surface well when used with dry fly floatant. We recommend getting the colors of Olive and Tan in sizes 12, 14 and 16 and the Black version in size 16 and 18.
The Missing Link is somewhere between a mayfly and a caddisfly. It kind of looks like both… which may be why it is such an effective fly. The Missing Link compliments our Elk Hair Caddis and other dry fly patterns as a great “I don’t know what to put on” fly and as a good caddis dry fly on flat water. We recommend the Missing Link – Olive in sizes 16 and 18 and the Missing Link Caddis – Amber in sizes 14 and 16.
Foam Flying Ant
When fish are going crazy on ants, it is often flying ants that have ended up on the water in big numbers. Our Foam Flying Ant is right on target for a fish whoopin’ if you encounter such a situation. Fish the Foam Flying Ant because you see them on the water or just because you’re looking for active fish. It is an excellent searching pattern for the summer months on just about any trout stream. Recommended size 14 & 16.
The Sculpzilla Jr. is a smaller version of the original Sculpzilla and has a smaller, more manageable conehead on the front for easier casting. The Sculpzilla Jr. is ridiculously popular and comes in numerous colors, making an effective imitator of sculpin, leeches and small fingerling trout, salmon, etc. depending on the color. We recommend the colors of olive/tan in the original Sulpzilla Jr. and also the Sculpzilla Jr. – Black and Sculpzilla Jr. – White.
Coffee's Sparkle Minnow
Another fly pattern that has risen to the top of popularity out of nowhere, Coffee’s Sparkle Minnow is catching fish all over the place. It is a VERY flashy fly that also has loads of built-in movement. Fish the Sparkle Minnow in front of Mr. Troutski with a fast strip and get ready for some violent takes. We recommend the Sculpin color and Light Olive color, both in sizes 6.
Here is a listing of all the patterns we just talked about in one easy checklist:
Pheasant Tail Nymph (size 14, 16 & 18)
Hare’s Ear Nymph (size 12, 14 & 16)
Hotwire Caddis – Chartreuse (size 12, 14 & 16)
Hotwire Caddis - Tan (size 12, 14 & 16)
WD50 – Olive (size 18)
Prince Nymph Bead Head (size 12 & 14)
Pat’s Rubber Legs – Brown (size 6, 8 & 10)
Pat’s Rubber Legs – Golden (size 8)
Carlson’s Purple Haze (size 16 & 18)
PMD Sparkle Dun (size 16 & 18)
Chubby Norman (size 6)
Chubby Chernobyl – Gold (size 8)
Chubby Chernobyl – Pink (size 10 & 12)
Chubby Chernobyl – Tan (size 10 & 12)
Chubby Sally – Yellow (size 14)
Elk Hair Caddis – Olive (size 12, 14 & 16)
Elk Hair Caddis – Tan (size 12, 14 & 16)
Elk Hair Caddis – Black (size 16 & 18)
Missing Link – Olive (size 16 & 18)
Missing Link Caddis – Amber (size 14 & 16)
Foam Flying Ant (size 14 & 16)
Coffee’s Conehead Sparkle Minnow – Sculpin (size 6)
So there you go, a terrific fly box for covering a multitude of trout stream situations and including a mixture of old and new classic patterns. If you need assistance with questions or have comments, get in touch with us at any time.
I hope this list and information is useful to you and helps you find success in your fly fishing adventures.
- Michael Bennett