Fly Fishing Flies 101 - What are Fly Fishing Flies?

Fly Fishing Flies 101 - What are Fly Fishing Flies?

Fly fishing flies are used to help fish trout in rivers. You can visit almost any river, and you'll notice flies in, on, and hovering above the water. These flies are natural food for trout, and today we're going to talk in-depth about what fly fishing flies are and how they can help your fishing experience. Essentially, here's a fly fishing 101 for anyone that's new to the game or would like to learn more about the trade to improve their skills.

Fly Fishing Flies

What Are Fly Fishing Flies?

Fly fishing flies are artificial yet realistic looking imitations of insects, baitfish and other aquatic life that are used as bait in the sport of fly fishing. They are made to resemble trout and other game fish's natural food, and can effectively help fly fishers catch larger and a higher volume of trout with each fishing trip.

Fly fishing flies are typically made of artificial materials such as hair, fur, and feathers, and attached to a hook. These materials are used to help trick the sport fish such as trout into thinking they are natural insects, baitfish or other aquatic life.

Man Catching Large Trout

Where Does Fly Fishing Come From?

Fly fishing is a form of fishing that dates back centuries, with various styles emerging simultaneously worldwide as humans attempted to find out how to trick fish that ate lures that were too small and light to capture using traditional hook and line methods. At its most simple level, fly fishing involves casting the 'fly' into the water using the weight of the line.

Fly fishing aims to fool a fish with an artificial fly made with animal parts (feathers, hair, etc.). Many fly fishers want to test themselves with a more challenging fishing method and catch as many fish as possible.

Catch More with the Best Fly Fishing Flies

Fly fishing is built on the concept of challenging yourself. It has been marketed as a more pure way to catch a fish, undoubtedly more peaceful. Most of the time, trout prefer insect imitations, and using lures with spin fishing limits your choices for catching fish in trout waters.

How Entomology Plays a Role in Fly Fishing

Ensuring the flies used for fly fishing are correct; first, we need to look at why they work and how different stages of the flies' lifecycle can help catch more trout. 

Typically, smaller insects that trouts eat go through 4 stages of their lifecycle, and it goes as follows:

1. Nymph

This is when they first come out of their eggs but are still growing. Typically they cling to the bottom of the river until the current sweeps them away from their home.

These fishing flies are made up to look like nymphs (small macro-invertebrates) that float in the water column or stick to river rocks, as their name implies. Nymphs should be in any fly angler's fly box because trout feed much more often below the surface than they do above it.


2. Emerger

This is when they start to come out of the water; they're getting ready to fly and mate.

Emerger Trout Flies are made to look like insects hatching from the water as they develop into adulthood, and trout can easily feed on them. Sometimes emergers don't make it past this stage as they are eaten by trout and can also be known as spinners, which we'll discuss further in the article.


3. Adult or Dry

This is when they have reached adulthood and have the ability to fly around searching for food and an appropriate mate.

Much like emergers, they sit on the water's surface and become food for trout beneath the surface. Because they are at a later stage in their lives, they will be much bigger and more appealing to trout. However, even though they are bigger than an emerger, it will still take a lot to fill the trout up.

Dry Fly

4. Spinner

This is when they have mated or passed on and are floating in the water.

As briefly mentioned above, spinners can either be adult or dry, or even an emerger for trout. Spinners may have completed their lifecycle, and their bodies are simply floating on the water for trout to feed on. It works much like emergers and adult or dry flies! Here's a great guide that talks about how entomology plays a role in fly fishing.


What About Larger Insects on the Water?

It's also worth noting that there are larger insects that trouts feed on, but they don't go through the same kind of cycle as smaller insects. Larger insects, such as stoneflies, have the same life cycle, but the patterns representing it are usually restricted to the nymph and adult stages. 


A stonefly's emerger stage occurs above the surface, where they allow the sun and air to dry their wings before flying. Terrestrials usually only make it to the water for fish as adults since they are born on land.

Zebra Midge

What kind of Fly Fishing Flies should I be Using?

When it comes to fly fishing, because the stages of smaller insects' life cycles are relatively similar past the emerger stage, the kind of fly fishing flies you use are nymphs, emergers, dry fly, hoppers, and streamers.

What are Hoppers?

Hoppers are also known as terrestrial and are very attractive to trout beneath the surface because of the movement they create in the water and the light reflections that the trout can see. Hoppers are used in fly fishing to represent grasshoppers.

Hopper Pattern

What are Streamers?

Streamers are designed to resemble a "bait-fish," or a smaller fish such as sculpin and minnows. Streamer flies can also take leeches, crayfish, and other aquatic morsels that larger fish like to eat. The size of the fly can range from small and simple wooly buggers to complex articulated flies stretching the length of your hand.


Since streamers are fished with an active retrieve, they need more attention than a typical dry-fly or nymph rig. This means that they move primarily due to the angler stripping in line to bring the flyback for another cast.

There are different types of fishing flies available to help you fish trout effectively during your fishing trip. We recommend every angler has all of the following fishing fly assortment in his or her tackle box for an enjoyable and, ultimately, a successful fishing trip.

Why Use a Nymph when Fly Fishing?

While dry flies receive the majority of fly anglers' attention and praise, the fact is that trout spend the majority of their time feeding underwater. What are they eating down there? You guessed right! There are a lot of nymphs and other aquatic life that the trout to feed on.

Nymphs can be found in rivers and lakes at any time of year and any hour of the day. The majority of the time, trout are nibbling away at them.

Is that why nymph fishing is so effective? You don't need to time it right or wait for a hatch to catch fish because trout still eat nymphs. Simply tie on one or more nymph flies in size and color that closely resembles the natural insects in the water and start fishing. If you dont know what is currently floating around in the water, use a hatch chart like below.  Pick two flies that are in season for optimal success on the water.

Seasonal Hatch Chart

The fantastic thing is that aquatic insects can live in almost any kind of water, whether it's a fast-flowing freestone, a glassy spring stream, or even a Stillwater lake or pond. And, as previously said, the nymphs spend the whole day underwater, regardless of whether or not a hatch is taking place. 

Copper John

Since trout primarily feed on the bottom of the river or stream, nymph fly fishing has proven to be highly effective. Of course, the fishing technique and method matter too, and if you want to learn more about these techniques check out our members portal with a ton of helpful information 

Why Use an Emerger when Fly Fishing?

Emerging flies are ideal for use in the time leading up to a hatch. If you see insects moving on the water, tying on an emerging fly is a good idea. 

It will be pretty evident if the fish are feeding on emerging flies. If you see tails or fins breaching the surface, the flies haven't completely developed. They're probably trapped in the film, and the fish are eating them. 

Large Trout Chasing Emergers

You'll know the hatch is in full swing when you start to see fish breaking the surface of the water. You still have 10-20 minutes of fishing time until the bulk of the flies are fully grown adults with dried wings.  But when a hatch is coming off Trout will key in on these emergers.

Stages of a Fly

Since the window is so tiny, make sure you're paying attention. Good fly anglers, once again, pay careful attention to the finer points. You could miss out on another dozen or so fish if you don't. It takes some practice to pick up on these cues, but fly fishing can take on a whole new importance for you once you do.

Double Bunny Streamer

Why Use a Streamer when Fly Fishing?

When it comes to why you should use a streamer instead of a different fly setup, the main reason is simple: big fish, like trout, need a lot of protein to live and will attack big flies if given the opportunity. For a variety of reasons, including hunger, territorialism, or just plain instinct, aggressive fish will sometimes target meaty snacks.

Streamers are also an excellent way to cover a wide area of water in a short period of time. An angler can efficiently and sometimes successfully cover entire pools by using some cast and retrieve methods.

Streamer fishing is one of the most exciting types of fly fishing because it requires a lot of effort and sometimes results in aggressive strikes when a fish tries to take the fly. Every angler recalls the first time they felt or saw a hungry fish strike their streamer. 

There is also a significant advantage to having streamers in your fly box. Have you seen any recent rainstorms? Is there no evidence of insects in the area? Is it murky and deep in the water? These are all things to think about when deciding whether or not to use a streamer.

Large Trout Caught on Streamer

A streamer could be a viable alternative to topwater flies or nymphs if you're having trouble matching the hatch or even identifying any insects around. This is frequently attributed to temperature fluctuations.

Trout, in particular, are most active when the water temperature is about 55-60 degrees F, and do not rise if the water is too cold or too hot. It's not a guarantee, but putting a big meal in front of them would almost certainly increase their willingness to accept it.

Fishing Thermotoer

Streamers can be a fantastic way to improve your fly's visibility and ability to sink when the water is muddy or deep (usually after a rainstorm). Fish would be less likely to swipe at large streamers in bright daylight and clear water because thicker tippets will be more visible, and there will most likely be plenty of insects to feed on. When fishing clear water with a streamer, the smaller and more subtle the streamer, the better.

Muddler Minnow

The majority of streamers are made with flashy elements to attract fish. They're more likely to be seen than microscopic nymphs while flickering through muddy water. Furthermore, the fish lurking at the bottoms of those large ponds aren't fingerlings. Larger trout are waiting for a more substantial meal.

Why use a Hopper when Fly Fishing?

If you're looking to primarily fish larger trout (and let's face it, who isn't?!) then hoppers are a great way to attract them. Fishing with a hopper is very different from fishing with conventional dry flies.

Box of Fly Fishing Flies called Hoppers

The soft cast, landing, and drift can be swapped out for more gritty splashes and jerking strips on the retrieve. You could try tracking down a live hopper and tossing it in the water for a great example of how to fish a hopper. Look at how it swims back to shore with both of its legs going at the same time.

As we cast out and carry the fly back to us with quick, steady stripping motions, this should be the model for us to aim for in our hopper fishing. Fluttering the rod tip left and right quickly to send the fly a skittering motion over the top of the water adds another layer of imitation to attract the larger, chunkier trout.

Hoppers are a lot of fun to use, in part because of the time of year they are active. Summer is the perfect time to start focusing on terrestrials, with the wet wading and warm breezes. However, most people are unaware that hoppers can (and should!) be fished well into the fall. Grasshopper

These bugs can survive in grassy fields and along stream banks until the first freeze, usually in late October or November. Even after this, trout know who they are and, most importantly, they instinctively recognize the protein boost that comes with inhaling these buzzing bugs! As a result, "hopper season" usually begins in early June and lasts until early November. What's not to like about a six-month season of big dry fly casting?

Hoppers are perfect for use in rivers or streams that have long grass and foliage, as trout are attracted to these areas not only for the possibility of catching a grasshopper but also for safety.

Is there a Fly Fishing Pattern that Will Catch Lots of Trout?

One thing to remember when fly fishing is that not only does your catch depend on what kind of fly you use, but it also entirely depends on other circumstances such as weather, the time of year, and also where you're fishing.

We have a fantastic video here that gives you insight into where you can fish from, what's more effective, and what to choose depending on your level of experience with fly fishing.

In short, the answer to "Is there an all-rounder fishing fly that will catch lots of trout?" is no. Still, we recommend having each style available in your box ready to use should the circumstances of your fishing trip change so that you can still make the most of your time fly fishing.

For example, as mentioned earlier, streamers are great to use in dark and murky waters because they attract trout to the surface to feed. However, they may not work as effectively if the waters are clear, the weather is warmer, and there are flies on the surface of the water ready for them to snack on.

Catch More with Drifthook Fly Fishing

That's not to say, however, that they won't work at all. There's still a chance that using a nymph after a storm and in dark waters that you could catch trout. The chances are dramatically reduced based on the trout's behaviors, sightline, and how rough or choppy the water is.

Where Should I be Casting my Fly Fishing Flies?

This again will depend entirely on what kind of fly fishing flies you want to use, but here's a general guide on which flies to use and where.

Where to Cast Nymphs

As mentioned briefly earlier, nymphs live in all kinds of water and can be found at the bottom of almost every type of water bed. That means that no matter where on the river or stream you are, as long as the fish can see the nymph, they are a great solution to use anywhere. 

Where to Cast Emergers

Emergers can appear on all bodies of water, so they can be used in a wide variety of situations. You need to keep an eye out for flies on the water to make your emerger fish fly successful. You can take your time and make sure you can reach any part of the water. There will be an emerging fly anywhere you see a dry fly. Emerging flies don't need any special techniques, just patience, and enjoyment.

RS2 Emerger

One of the most important things to consider when fishing emerger flies is that it will be difficult. Fish are finicky creatures that will not make your life easy. They expect a natural presentation and will only approach something that doesn't seem to be out of the ordinary.

Where to Cast Streamers

Secure areas, such as under banks, behind large rocks, and around submerged logs or trees, as well as existing seams and deep pockets of water, are the best places to look for streamers.

Predators exist for all fish, regardless of their size. Fish are instinctively attracted to cover and defense, whether it's from birds, humans, or even larger water-dwelling animals. Submerged debris (i.e., trees) serves as a perfect hiding place for fish, not only to protect themselves from predators but also to wait and lurk for prey to swim by (in this case, your fly).

Tom Catching Large Trout with Streamer

Inspecting the seam is an essential part of any angler's water expertise. The seam is an invisible line in the water where two current speeds intersect, forming a small pocket where fish can rest and conserve energy. They often serve as underwater drive-through lanes, allowing fish to relax in the slow-moving water while waiting for insects or curious minnows to be washed straight into their mouths.

The golden rule of streamer fishing is that they work best when fished in deep water. If you're fishing in a spot where you can't see the bottom, one of two things is likely to happen: 1. visibility is poor, and if the trout can't see your fly, they won't eat it; 2. There are big, hungry fish below.

Where to Cast Hoppers

Grasshoppers, like trout, mayflies, tricos, crayfish, and everything else in the riparian ecosystem, prefer certain areas. This usually refers to meadow stream sections with taller grasses. These are the areas where the majority of grasshoppers will live and, as a result, where trout will feed. Hopper fishing can bring big trout to the surface, and it also happens to coincide with warm weather and blissful wet wading.

Essentially, if you come across areas with taller grasses and foliage, you can expect larger trout to be beneath the surface too, and that's why having hoppers in your tackle box is a great idea!

Trout Eating Hopper Pattern

Please note that everybody of water is different, and the fish that live there can prefer different things on different days. As a result, fly fishing becomes a constant act of adjustment, development, and transition. Make a change and try again if you don't get the presentation right the first time. Don't keep casting blindly if you're not catching fish in one place. If necessary, try fishing the run from a different angle, go deeper with your flies, or switch patterns.


The fly is an important part of the allure of fly fishing because it is the only part of your tackle that the fish sees. The highest-quality flies capture more fish and last longer, allowing them to be caught again and again.

As mentioned in this article, while it's important to use high-quality fly fishing flies, your results will depend entirely on circumstance. There isn't necessarily a "better weather" or "circumstance" for fishing, as different fishing flies serve a multitude of other purposes, meaning no matter what the weather is, how hot or cold it is, or even how dark and murky the waters are, there is always an option that's viable to catch yourself a large and meaty trout or two.

It's important to remember that fly fishing also takes a lot of time and patience, and it's very unlikely that you'll get it right the first time. You don't need to be a certain age to master it or a certain height, weight, or strength level. A lot of fly fishing comes with technique and patience. However, with dedication and practice, you'll soon begin to realize how enjoyable fly fishing can be.

We're sure you're ready to get out and try your hand at fly fishing but before you go, keep this guide tucked somewhere easy to reach, such as a bookmark on your phone, so that you can reference it whenever you please!

Matthew Bernhardt - Founder Drifthook Fly Fishing

About the Author

Matthew Bernhardt, a third-generation Coloradan, grew up at the forefront of the state’s fly-fishing revolution, enjoying time on the water, side by side with experienced guides and lifelong anglers.

By combining his passion for fly-fishing with input from other experienced fly-fishers and guides and his fine arts degree from Colorado State University, Matthew spent five years carefully developing the Drifthook Fly Fishing System, built to help every angler catch more trout.

When he’s not spending time with his wonderful family, you’ll find him out on the water catching MONSTER trout, and he anxiously looks forward to the day when his kids are old enough to join him there.

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