One of the most common questions I get when guiding new anglers is what flies I recommend they buy to “round out a fly box.” While my answer is usually, “it depends,” I thought that today I’d share what I consider to be the 12 flies every new angler needs.
And, as a special bonus – if you want to add some of these flies to your own box, you can do so via Ventures Fly Co. I’ve partnered with them to sell their flies, and I’ll personally vouch for the fly quality. Plus, if you use the code “SDOUTDOORS” at checkout, you’ll get a free Baker’s Dozen box of flies. Just add the box you want to your cart, enter the promo code at checkout, and boom. Free flies. It doesn’t get better than that.
Now, moving on from the shameless plug (although I’m not ashamed of trying to make some money here; I need to keep the lights on somehow), let’s talk flies.
1. Parachute Adams
Yeah, I know, this is far from an original take, but how can you make a list of indispensable flies and not include the Parachute Adams? It’s worked for decades, and keeps on producing. Whether you’re in the middle of a mayfly hatch, or you’re trying to lure fish from the upper-third of the water column to the surface, an Adams is as close to a sure thing as it gets in fly fishing. In fact, I’d say it’s only rivaled by one other dry fly – the elk hair caddis.
I like my Parachute Adams in a size 16-20, though they work well as the top fly in a dry-dropper-dropper rig in sizes 12-14, too.
2. Elk Hair Caddis
Yep, no surprise here, either. The elk hair caddis is the only dry fly that can rival the Adams in terms of sheer success rate, as far as dry flies are concerned. More fish have likely been caught on a woolly bugger than anything else, but we’ll get to that fly later.
The elk hair caddis, in sizes 12-18, is a must-have fly. It works as the indicator fly when you’re fishing nymphs, and it doubles as a stonefly or terrestrial in its larger sizes. The thing I love most about the elk hair caddis, though, is that it floats so well. A good bit of floatant applied at the start of the day is usually all it needs to stay up for at least four hours.
3. Chubby Chernobyl
I fish a dry-dropper-dropper rig almost all the time, especially when I’m on a river. Every so often I’ll but out the Euro nymphing rig, and it’s even rarer to see me throwing a bobber. I just love fishing with three flies. That means my top fly needs to be both durable and a high-floater. A foam-bodied fly makes tons of sense, and when there are big bugs out and about, the Chubby Chernobyl is my go-to dry fly. It floats high, and stands up to abuse really well. I remember, last year I believe, using the same Chernobyl for three weeks before I finally lost it in a tree.
4. Hare’s Ear
The Hare’s Ear was one of the first flies I ever learned to tie, so maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for it. Regardless, the fly does work, and it’s one that I turn to frequently year-round here in the Rockies. It mimics mayfly nymphs, but even in streams with a small or inconsequential mayfly population, a Hare’s Ear always seems to produce. I think it has a lot to do with the natural movement of the loose fibers used in tying the fly. I don’t try to question a good thing too much, though, so I’m just happy knowing that this fly works.
5. Rainbow Warrior
This is an overlooked fly, in my opinion. I love it because it’s flashy, it’s fun, and it works great as an attractor pattern. If you’re fishing new water, or just trying to find where the fish are holding in the water column, this fly works like a charm. It’s bright enough that I reckon fish eat it more because they’re annoyed with it, rather than it resembling food. Either way, I like to have a dozen of these in my box, and I surprise myself with how quickly I’ll go through these during a season.
6. Woolly Bugger
I don’t think you can have a list of effective flies without mentioning the wooly bugger. If you’re new to fly fishing, streamers might seem intimidating, but they’re not. The woolly bugger is perhaps the most unassuming of the bunch. I’ve caught some great fish just dead drifting it beneath an indicator, and countless more when stripping it through virtually every type of holding water I’ve seen.
The woolly bugger just flat-out works. When fish aren’t moving for anything else, I’ve found they’ll often move to eat one of these.
7. Zebra Midge
I love the zebra midge for its simplicity. This fly doesn’t try to wow you with fancy colors and tinsel. It’s just thread, wire, and a bead. If you’re feeling cheeky, you can even throw a dubbing collar on there, just to shake things up. But the zebra midge works so well, I think, because it doesn’t try to be more than it should. It looks like a midge, an observation validated every time a fish eats one. Make sure to have a few dozen in your box. Trout tend to chew these up pretty fast unless you’re tying your own and use a resin or superglue to keep the thread intact.
8. Pat’s Rubber Leg Stonefly
This is a new-ish fly that wasn’t the big seller it is today when I started fly fishing. It works, though, and unlike the Squirmy Wormy, I don’t think this one is a fad. It’s one of the flies that Fly Fishing Team USA Medalist Lance Egan uses frequently as the point fly on his Euro rigs, so I reckon it’s probably a good one for me to use, too. Just last week, I tied one on as a last-ditch effort to pull up some trout in the last minutes of daylight. Sure enough, the trout obliged – on the first cast, no less. This is a fantastic pattern that you’ll have as long as you’re fly fishing for trout.
The RS2 is a fantastic fly because of its versatility. You can fish it down deep, or you can swing it like a soft-hackle. It’s one of the flies every new angler needs for that very reason – it works in a variety of situations. When fish are taking just below the surface, or they’re feeding on all the other nymphs that aren’t yours, an RS2 usually gets a few fish to the net. I wouldn’t fish a tailwater in the Rockies without a few of these ready to go.
10. Bunny Leech
This is one of the flies every new angler needs because it’s so much fun to fish. A bunny leech looks and feels so good in the water, and it’s saved my bacon more than once. From dolly varden and pink salmon in Alaska, to brown and rainbow trout here in the Rockies, the bunny leech is a mainstay in my boxes. For new anglers, I think it’s a good fly because you don’t need a perfect presentation with it to entice fish to bite.
This is another creation from Lance Egan, and it’s another staple in fly shops and guide boxes across the country. I’m not sure why the fish love it so much, but the Frenchie just flat-out puts fish in the net. You’ll be glad you have a dozen of these on hand when trout are feeding heavily on nymphs. It’s one of my few go-to patterns I can trust to produce when nothing else is getting the fish’s attention.
12. Parachute Midge
Parachute midges are one of the most effective flies I have. When fish are eating tiny bugs, a size 24, 26, or even a 28 parachute midge is the perfect imitation. I tie these with a black thread body, a sparse hackle, and a thin parachute post. You’ll want to use 7x tippet on these, but you’ll get rewarded with plenty of fish. In fact, these tiny midges have put some of the biggest brown trout I’ve ever caught in my net. I know going small seems a bit intimidating at first, but it’s not that hard. Just get used to looking for where you think your fly is, instead of searching for it. Chances are, a fish will let you know by rising up to eat it.
If I had to put a box together for new anglers, I’d fill it with these flies. These are time-tested patterns that imitate a wide variety of aquatic insects; as such, they should work on plenty of trout streams across the country, if not the world.
What do you think? Do you have some different flies you’d like to see make the cut here instead of the ones I listed? Let me know in the comments.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide/Owner of The Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spener_Durrant.