The only fly-fishing trout flies you need for western rivers and streams.
It’s a sunny July Saturday, and I should be fly fishing the Coeur d’Alene or St. Joe Rivers today. Instead, I’m sitting on my back deck writing about fishing for trout. Fishing is one of my favorite things to do. So naturally, I follow several fly fishing groups and pages on social media sites.
These social media threads are packed with new fly fishing enthusiasts asking for direction and advice. Typically, the questions are centered around which fly to use on what river. They get a myriad of complicated answers about fly patterns, hatches, and fly sizes that clearly leave them more confused than before.
As is consistent with many of my articles, we’re going to simplify it here. Reduce the clutter that clutters the fly fishing world. My writing is designed to be simple, applicable, and actually helpful to folks looking to learn. If you haven’t read it yet and are new to fly fishing, click here for an overview of fly fishing basics.
Let me start this article about simplifying your fly box by saying that my fly boxes are packed with hundreds of flies. I have flies that I have no idea what they are. I have flies I’ve never got wet. Like most fly fisherman, I’m a sucker for fly shops and aimlessly buying random or even redundant flies. I’d be better off just sending a monthly check to my local fly shop without anything in return.
But here, I’m going to provide you a list of essential flies that will work on any river or stream in the western U.S. or specifically, the Rocky Mountain drainage. Focus on learning with these basic flies, I will provide a few options for each main season, and as you gain experience you can add to your collection later.
To make it easier, links are provided to order said flies. However, your local fly shops will absolutely have these in stock. Also, the seasons I list these flies are based on personal experience. Other anglers may have success in other seasons with some of them.
Spring/Early Summer Fly Patterns
- Blue-Winged Olive
(Click on the images if you want to purchase any of these recommendations online)
From March through as late as mid-June, I have caught hundreds of brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout on this swanky little bugger. From a size 12-18, with most of my success being a size 16. This should be in your fly box always. You can buy them anywhere.
In a fly shop, they’re usually listed as BWO, and they’re not blue. Use a green with some gray and if you fish it properly, you will net some dandies.
2. Green Drake
This is my favorite fly for spring and early summer. I’ve had better success with it from mid-April on. In fact, my top three largest trout were caught on this fly; a brown trout in Utah, and two cutthroats in Idaho. Personally, a #14 has offered the most success for me.
If you are a prolific fish selfie taker, then get some Green Drakes in that fly box and share away. By the way, this fly has been most successful in this season category, but I have caught fish with it all year with the exception of winter.
I found this smoking deal on Amazon for a 3-pack, click on the image if you want.
If you’ve never caught a trout on a streamer, your life is dark and empty, you need a change. Toss a streamer to the opposite side of the river and strip it back to you in short, quick motions. You’ll thank me later, it is perhaps the funnest way to catch fish.
I never get caught up in color patterns on streamers as I’ve landed trout on all of them. A nice green is my go-to, but don’t hesitate to try multiple colors. Also, this fly is listed in spring/early summer but works from spring to late fall. In fact, fall has always been good to me with streamers.
I prefer in size four or six with the weighted head.
Get started with a streamer collection here:
Summer into Late Fall Fly Patterns
4. Elk Hair Caddis
What would a trout fly fishing list be without the Elk Hair Caddis??
It wouldn’t be right, that’s what. A truly must have fly pattern. From June through September, there is not a fly in the world that has produced more trout in my net than this simple, tan colored fly in size 16. This has held true in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Montana, and Colorado. Casually and naturally drift this fly in riffles and pools alike and your heart will skip a beat a time or two.
You will find this fly in almost all pro fly fishers fly box. If there is only one fly you get out of this article, it needs to be this one. Once again, Amazon is by far the best deal for this at $9 for a dozen, link is the image.
The grasshopper fly is interesting… When it is working, it’s fantastic. I’ve had the most success in August and have caught small to large fish on them.
I’ve found a natural drift works best, no manipulation necessary. It’s a fun fly to fish. Generally, I pull the hopper out when nothing else is working or there is no active hatch. It can pull fish from the bottom and entice them to bite when they’re feeding sub-surface. However, if there is an active hatch, they will often ignore it. You’ve seen the bumper stickers, match the hatch when there is one.
A local fly shop will offer expertise on your area. I personally love the ones in the link/image below.
6. Copper John
I am mainly a dry-fly angler. But let’s face it, sometimes you need an arsenal of wet flies.
I run this nymph with a strike indicator (save me the drama you fly fishing purist’s out there) and as close to the river bottom as I can. Generally, a size 16 or 18 has been the best for me off of at least a 5x tippet. However, I was fishing with a co-worker a while back and he caught a monster 26″ cuttie on a size 12 in a small stream. It was literally in only 14″ of water. It was the only fish I ever saw him catch in several trips, but still I was envious.
Copper, red, and black have always served me the best. Check out this deal on them.
Winter Fly Fishing
Here’s the thing, I no longer fly fish in the winter. After several failed attempts, frozen guides, and few fish caught, I find myself threatening to fly fish in the winter more than actually doing it. From December through February, you can find me around my fire-pit with a cup of whiskey or hunting wolves far away from the water.
There are some real winter fishing experts out there, however. They will provide much better guidance than I can. I only write about things I know and have real experience with. Winter fly fishing is not one of those things.
Concluding Basic Fly Patterns
If you are just starting out, get these six flies in your fly box and start catching fish. Don’t over-complicate fly patterns and how they are fished. In an earlier article called “Learn to Fly Fish,” I break down one sentence that was said to me that changed my fly fishing career overnight; allow a reasonable representation of a food source naturally drift past where you know fish are at.
Once you are armed with these basic flies, read that other article and hit the river. You will catch trout.
Once you have some beginning success, build upon it. Build your collection and branch out from these basic fly patterns and enjoy the process of learning what does and doesn’t work. Don’t spend thousands of dollars on gear until you know two things:
- Am I passionate about fly fishing, and committed to doing it often?
- What type of fly fishing and waters do I enjoy the most?
You will know the answers to both of those with some level of experience. It’s at this point you can visit fly shops often and learn how to explain to your spouse some sort of justification for the money you spent. It’s a good time.
Most of all, have fun! Get on the water as often as you can. Fish with experts if possible. Take selfies, preferably with a toad of a trout!
If I could only have six fly options on the river, these would be my choices. I’ve caught more fish with these flies than any other pattern. They are dependable, they are proven. Start here and begin rippin’ lips like a pro!