Different Type of Flies for Fly Fishing

OK, you have your fly rod and reel ready to go for the weekend, paired perfectly with a great line and tippet, but what some consider the most important part of fly fishing is still lacking from your inventory. You need a great selection of flies to cast! However, with aisles full of potential tackle your choices can seem overwhelming. In this article I am going to break down the different types of flies you have to choose from so that you will be knowledgeable before making lots of choices.

The Life Cycle of a Fly

Before we discuss the types of flies you will be filling your tackle box with, let’s take a moment to discuss the life cycle of the fly. This might seem a bit strange, but remember; fly fishing is an imitation of life. If you do not understand the life you are trying to imitate, you won’t fool that prize fish into striking your fly!

I was fly fishing in the High Sierra one year, just after that season’s mosquitoes had hatched from their pupae to start the adult phase of their life cycle. I was not finding success with my normal flies and so I switched to a tiny black dry fly that looked just like a large adult mosquito. I began hauling in Rainbow trout immediately; I could not cast this fly without having ab instant and vicious strike! Rae lakes will always hold a fond place in my memory from the sheer number of fish I pulled in shore.

The life cycle of the insects you are trying to imitate is fairly simple. Starting from an egg, the insect will go through one or more larval stages before undergoing a morphological change into its adult form. The two points of the life cycle of the fly best suited to fly fishing are the larval and the adult forms.

What are the materials used in constructing artificial flies?

The short answer is anything and everything the fly fisherman can dream up to use, of course! However, modern fly manufacturers use many products from natural sources like feathers, fur, woolen thread, wood, or from synthetic materials such as rubber, metal, plastic, and mylar. I once read about a famous fly fisherman (who tied his own flies) and swore by a fly he tied using a few hairs from the tail of his favorite hunting hound!

Some of these materials and construction techniques can produce very expensive flies; as with anything the building up of your inventory will be an investment, so the more you know about flies the more you can stretch your budget!

...My biggest worry is that when I'm dead and gone, my wife will sell my fly fishing gear for what I said I paid for it!

Koos Brandt

The Two Families of Flies

There are countless variations of flies available for purchase and this does not take into account your own hand-tied flies. However, we can first group flies into two families, the imitative and the attractive. An imitative fly does exactly what its name suggests and imitates a natural food source from somewhere in the environment. The fish recognizes and believes the fly is part of its diet, therefore strikes the fly.

The second family of flies, the attractive flies, require more research to produce. These flies are designed not by imitating a natural food source but by producing something that will initiate an instinctive strike response from the fish. The use of bright colors, for instance, is a way to attract some fish.

The Five Main Types of Flies

Working down from the two Families of Flies used in fly fishing we can further separate the flies into five main types. These five main types of flies are the dry fly, the nymph, the wet fly, the streamer, and the terrestrial.

Dry Fly

The dry fly is used to mimic adult flying insects that normally land on the surface of the water or hover just above. These also can imitate insects that fall from overhanging brush into the water.

Wet Fly

The wet fly is used to mimic an adult insect that normally lives underneath the surface of the water.

Nymph

The nymph is a specific type of wet fly that is used to mimic the larval stages of the insects the fish commonly feed upon.

Streamer

The streamer is used to mimic a small fish, worm, crayfish, or leech that the game fish is used to consuming as part of its natural diet.

Terrestrial

is used to mimic a land-based insect that has accidentally entered the water. The fish is accustomed to seeing these and regularly consumes them as part of its natural diet.

OK, now that we have some basics regarding the different types of flies that are available for purchase let’s get a bit more specific!

First Word on Catch and Release​

There he stands, draped in more equipment than a telephone lineman, trying to outwit an organism with a brain no bigger than a breadcrumb, and getting licked in the process.

Paul O'Neil
1965

The knowledge you will gain from your research into fly fishing and different types of flies available is only the beginning of your journey into this realm of thinking. Fly fishing requires patience!

I was in Oregon one summer and per my usual, I was bumming around the mountains, looking for a peak to climb or a river to fish. I had run short of supplies and lucked into a ride to town from the trail in a car with a fellow fisherman. He was a die-hard catch-and-release sportsman and we discussed this at length on the ride. I have mostly tried to eat what I catch so this was something I enjoyed learning more about.​

He summed up fly fishing succinctly in his defense of catch and release mentality.

“I don’t particularly enjoy eating fish,” he remarked in a slow fashion, “I enjoy solving problems. Each pool, each bend of the river, each lake, these present their own set of problems to solve. Are there rapids or still waters to cast into? Is there wind, rain, perhaps sunny shores that cast my shadow and scare the fish? What flies are the fish going to strike, what are they eating at this time of year? And the satisfaction I gain from solving the problem is instant, at the moment the fish strikes and I know I have succeeded. Eating the fish is secondary to this moment.”

After hearing this, I had to admit that I do agree. This is culmination of fly fishing, the moment of the strike. All of the preparation and all of the gear is just to get you to this penultimate moment that can feel as if it lasts for hours.

That being said I still think a pan of high-mountain Brookies sizzling in bacon fat with Orion’s Belt just starting to twinkle above my camp is a pretty spectacular second!

Common Flies Used in Fly Fishing​

A good statistic to keep in mind, when considering what sort of fly to use, concerns the feeding habits of the fish; fish generally consume 80% of their diet underwater! Taking this into account it would seem that it is far better to use a fly that mimics an underwater food source. If we were in Vegas you would be foolish to pass on a bet where the odds were stacked that heavily to one side! However, dry flies have something more.

The moment a fish strikes a dry fly is simply spectacular.

Imagine your cast, the pendulum of your arm moving back and forth just so, the laying of the line perfectly toward your target, the tippet slowly falling and…..just as the fly hits, the fish strikes, and the water erupts with action. Everything is there in front of you to watch. That visual moment is what drives me to use dry flies in the majority of my fly fishing expeditions.

The main categories of flies used in fly fishing are the mayflies, the midges, the stone flies, the caddisflies, ​the dragonflies, and the scuds.

I am going to break these down and discuss the different types of flies that fall into these categories. Depending on your location and the time of the year, the type of fly you use will vary depending on what stage the natural food source is currently presenting. Of course, if the fish has been consuming the larval stage, it will still recognize the adult phase, but this is a way to take your fly fishing to the next level; present the most flawless imitation of life you can possible present!

Mayflies

The mayfly is a very common type of fly used in fly fishing. The insect undergoes several stages of life that can be successfully mimicked by your tackle. The mayfly nymph is used as a wet fly and is fished below the water, along the bottom. The mayfly emerger is fished closer to the surface, and the mayfly adult is cast as a true dry fly.

Insider Tip: When casting with a nymph or wet fly, it can be difficult to know when you have a strike. A small float on the base of your leader will allow you to know when a fish has struck! Watch for unnatural movement in the indicator you choose. Wind and water flow generally produce regular effects. When the fish takes hold, the float will move against the natural currents. Just be sure to bring him in!​

...it is not a fish until it is on the bank.

Irish Proverb

Midges

The midge is a commonly consumed by game fish while in its pupae stage, so this is a good starting point for your nymph midge. The adult is a dry fly.

Stoneflies​

The stonefly is commonly presented like the midge, with a larval stage and an adult phase.

Caddisflies​

The caddisfly is much like the mayfly, with a nymph, emerger, and adult phase available to mimic the stages of the natural food sources. If you are overwhelmed in your selection of caddisflies don’t be too hard on yourself; there are reported to be over 7,000 varieties of caddisfly in the world!

Dragonflies​

We have all seen these skirting the tops of the water as we fish; these can also be larger and therefore attract a larger fish, although this is not a rule, rather an assumption.

Scuds​

Scuds are small underwater insects that are great to mimic! Try the hunchbacked scud in a variety of habitats to see what sort of monster you land.

A Word on Nymphs​

As I mentioned earlier in the article, fish consume roughly 80% of their natural diet underwater. SO if you are striking out with the dry flies, a switch to a nymph could turn your trip into a winner. It is good to keep a variety of flies on hand to adapt to any situation. Remember, these are problems to be solved, so be patient!

Streamer Dreams​

These wet flies are used to mimic baitfish or leeches. The action of retrieval is very similar to using a spinner with your traditional bait casting rod and reel. These can be used to land some very large fish!

In Conclusion​

We have now discussed different types of flies so you can be knowledgeable when you visit your local tackle shop. There are some great options available on Amazon as well, but as with many outdoor pursuits, a local's opinion can save you hours of trial and error. If I had packed more than one black fly on the trip to Rae Lakes I would not have been so heartbroken when a whopper struck my only one and swam off with it and a piece of my light leader in his mouth!

Local guides and fly tying professionals will know what works in their areas. I would suggest building a box of general use flies, popular to fish in any location. BUT be sure to visit the local places for a fly or three to carry along with you on your next fishing expedition, and to ask about what the fish are striking. This is also a great way to build up your inventory of flies without buying everything at once!

Now let's go fishing!

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