Fly Fishing Flies and Their Uses

Fly Fishing Flies and Their Uses

Whether you're a seasoned fisherman or just getting started, one of the most important things to get right is the lure you're using. Fly fishing is a little different from traditional fishing, so it's important to understand nuances such as bait selection. This post will be looking at some of the most common fly fishing flies and their uses and explaining a bit about fly fishing to help beginners understand why fly selection is essential.

Whether you're a seasoned fisherman or just getting started, one of the most important things to get right is the lure you're using. Fly fishing is a little different from traditional fishing, so it's important to understand nuances such as bait selection. This post will be looking at some of the most common fly fishing flies and their uses and explaining a bit about fly fishing to help beginners understand why fly selection is essential.

Fly Fishing Flies and There Uses

What is Fly Fishing?

Fly fishing is a little different from what most people consider to be traditional fishing. Fly casting uses specialized fly fishing equipment, including a purpose-built fly rod, fly line, leader, tippet, and the fly. You can get fly fishing starter kits that include all of these items plus instructions to help you get the hang of fly fishing. 

Fly fishing is different in that the fly is typically very light compared to traditional baits. Even if you start fly fishing for larger fish such as pike and bass, you'll notice that the flies are still very lightweight compared to traditional lures.

With traditional fishing, most of the weight from a cast comes from the lure itself. When cast, the lure is thrown forward, which pulls the line behind it as it goes through the air and eventually reaches the water. In fly fishing, you're not using a lure. You are using a hand-tied pattern called a fly. The fly is much lighter, meaning that something else needs to propel the fly forward. This is where the fly line comes in. In fly casting, the line is the heaviest part. When cast, the line propels forward and carries momentum along with the leader and the fly itself.

Fly Fishing Flies and there Uses

How are Fly Fishing Flies Different?

Fly fishing flies imitate a variety of foods that the fish feed on. The goal is to trick or fool the fish into taking the bait. While fly fishing has been used primarily for trout fishing in the past, many fishermen have challenged themselves to use fly fishing alone for numerous other species, such as Carp, Bass, and even Tarpon. The key to successfully using fishing flies is to imitate the way they normally behave. This takes a great understanding of what the fish like to feed on, and it's essential to control the fly skillfully to attract the fish to take your fly.

Steel Head Trout - Tom

The Stages of a Fly for a Fly Fisherman

As you can imagine, fish tend to feed on a variety of different insects. There are millions of different species globally, and it isn't easy to document all of them. They also might have drastically different life cycles depending on the location and the body of water they're on. Much of the information you'll find on this subject can be overly complicated and overwhelming. Thankfully, there are a few ways to simplify it so that you can get a better understanding of the stage of a fly.

Most smaller insects that can become airborne in their life will go through 4 different stages.

Stages of Flies for Fly Fishing

The Nymph Stage 

This is when the insect first comes out of its egg. In most cases, the nymph will sit at the bottom of a river until the current manages to sweep them away and migrate them to a different location. These insects are still growing, so they're relatively defenseless and will look different from their final form. Mayfly Nymph

The Emerger Stage 

This stage is when the insect is starting to come out of the water, and they're getting ready for their mating cycle. They've also grown wings at this point and are getting ready to fly, but they might still lurk around on the surface.

Emerger Mayfly

The Adult or Dry Fly 

This is when the insect has reached adulthood and is comfortable flying around. They have much larger wings and will start to search for an appropriate mate, typically around the body of water that they grew up in. 

Adult Dry Fly

The Spinner

This is when the insect has mated or passed on and is just floating around on the surface of the water. However, the term spinner is also given to insects that didn’t quite make it past the emerger stage. This can be because they’re stuck in their shells or have difficulty flying. 

Spinner Mayfly

This lifecycle is typical for smaller insects, but larger insects also go through a similar process. For example, stoneflies have an emerger stage that happens above the water. They typically rest in the sun to allow their wings to dry off before using them to fly away. This is similar to other insects that are born on land instead of in the water. They typically make it to the water during the adult stage of their life instead of potentially being eaten during the earlier stages.

The purpose of understanding the different stages of an insect's life cycle is to closely imitate what the fish in the water would be feeding on. By understanding each stage in an insect's life cycle, you can find the appropriate fly to use, which will increase your chances of catching something.

Drifthook's fly fishing kits include the many different stages of an insect, giving you plenty of choices when it comes to choosing the right lure.

Types of Fly Fishing Flies and Their Uses

Fish aren't incredibly bright when it comes to fooling them. You don't have to imitate an insect to catch something entirely, but they can be somewhat picky when it comes to certain types of flies.

1. Nymphs 

As we've explained above, nymphs tend to spend most of their time underwater because they have yet to develop their wings and are relatively defenseless. This makes them a prime target for fish to feed on and is one of the main reasons you might want to focus your efforts on learning how to imitate a nymph's movements and actions when fly fishing. 

Copper John Nymph

To imitate nymphs, you'll need to have some weight to help get the nymph down to the right depth where the fish are feeding. You can get weighted nymphs to do this, or you can have a weighted fly line. There's also the option of putting weights on your leader. If the current is strong, then you'll need to use more weights to help stabilize the depth of the nymph fly.

Using nymphs can be tricky because you don't have a clear view of the fly as it sinks into the water. As such, it's important to use a variety of fishing techniques to help you identify if you've had a strike. You can't see the fish as it swims underwater, and you might not feel any pressure on the rod. To make things more complicated, nymphs are abundant under the water. Fish don't need to make an effort to feed on a nymph, meaning they don't lunge for it and you might not feel anything on your end. To the fish, a nymph is a little snack that is readily available. 

Using a strike indicator with nymphs

However, what you can do is attach a strike indicator onto the leader above the fly. This will float along the surface of the water together with your fly. The indicator will either stop, move upstream, or even slow down depending on if you have a strike or not. In other words, you're keeping an eye out on the indicator to help you tell if you've got something.

If you want to learn what types of strike indicators are out there check out this article

Unfortunately, using a strike indicator can create some problems. There's a bit of delay between the fish taking the fly to when you notice the indicator changing its course. However, it's still a good way for beginners to get started with fly fishing, and you'll attract the most attention from the fish when using nymphs.

Strike Indicator

European nymphing techniques 

One of the main issues with nymph fly fishing is that you can't see the fly itself and need to rely on an indicator (or your instincts) to tell if you've got a strike. When you get accustomed to casting and can read the water to find out where fish reside and are ready to step up your fly fishing game, you might be prepared to utilize European nymphing techniques. 

European nymphing doesn't use a strike indicator. Instead, it's a close-quarter fishing technique that utilizes a tight line technique to detect strikes. They also utilize leaders with a colored section to act as a strike indicator.

This is a specialized form of nymph fishing that takes some time to get used to but can be a fantastic alternative to using a strike indicator.

Dry Fly

2. Dry Flies

Dry flies are the most traditional form of fly that you can use. These sit on the water's surface and force the fish to come up to the surface to claim their prey. This gives you a fantastic view of the fish feeding and makes for a visually spectacular experience. It also makes it very obvious if you've got a strike, unlike nymph fishing, which often requires an indicator of some sort. 

To make effective use of a dry fly, you need to ensure your fly matches the insects that would typically hatch from that body of water. This is known as matching the hatch and will greatly depend on your fishing area. Typical species in this category include stoneflies, caddis, and mayflies. However, you can also have dry flies made to look like terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers. These typically float along the water, but it's always a good idea to inspect the waters you're fishing in to see what species are around.

For a general US hatch chart to get you started, check out the graph below.  This will give you the best opportunity for species during specific times of the year.

Seasonal Hatch Chart


In some cases, you may be able to use a dry fly known as an attractor. These are not made to look like a specific type of insect. Instead, they have unique designs that are designed to attract as many fish as possible. Fish are opportunistic feeders, meaning they’ll lunge at the chance of free food. If the attractor looks similar to what they’ve fed on before, then they’ll usually go for it.

Royal Wolf Attractor Dry Fly

The practicality of dry flies

While using a dry fly is undoubtedly exciting, it's not the most practical or productive use of your time. Depending on the body of water that you're fishing in, some fish might not bother rising to the surface to feed. If there are plenty of nymphs in the water and easier prey to feed on, then your attempts to use a dry fly will be ignored.

To make things worse, some fish can be extremely cautious and refuse to rise to the surface to pick at a dry fly. For certain types of fish, such as trout, using a dry fly can be extremely unproductive unless you're fishing in very specific conditions. This is because trout spend the majority of their time feeding underwater on nymphs and other easy-to-find prey. 

Lastly, it would be best if you made sure to dry your fly after it's been used. The fly might not float well anymore if you've caught something with it. You can quickly dry a fly by false casting into the air, but you can also use a bit of absorbent towel to speed up the process.  Different types of floatants are also available to keep your dry fly buoyant.

Flotant and Dry Flies

Despite difficulties, dry fly fishing is rewarding and enjoyable.

Much like any lure, dry fly fishing does have its benefits and downsides. While difficult to use, it’s also one of the most rewarding forms of fly fishing. It’s spectacular to see fish leaping out of the water to grab your bait, and it can create some of the most rewarding fishing memories you’ll ever experience.

It's also much easier to see your dry fly than nymph fishing, where the fly sits under the water for an extended period of time. You also want to avoid any sudden or fast movements because it will look unnatural to the fish. You want a dry fly to sit on the water and follow the current to look natural. 


3. Emergers

We briefly explained what an emerger is in terms of an insect's life cycle, but we're going to go into more detail to help you understand how to use emergers as fly lures. First, we need to understand that an emerger is an insect that has yet to break through the water's surface. In fact, the surface is a difficult barrier for most insects to overcome. Many insects struggle to break free and reach the surface. During this time, they're incredibly vulnerable to fish feeding, and some might not even make it past the surface.

Because emergers are found just below the water's surface, it can be easy to confuse them with dry flies. It's a good idea to look at the fish's activity before picking an emerger or dry fly because it can drastically affect the success rate of your flies. Fish tend to hover just below the surface of the water to catch emergers when they're most vulnerable. This is the correct water level to aim for when using emergers.

Water column

However, emergers can also include insects that have just hatched and are rising to the surface. In other words, emergers can be used at many different depths. As such, anglers tend to pick flies that sit on the water and sink just below the surface. In most cases, the hook itself is below the surface to make it easier to catch something.

At Drifthook, we love to combine our emergers for both Dry Fly Fishing,


4. Streamers

Fly fishing with streamers tends to be quite aggressive and fast. Much like dry flies, you’re in for a spectacular fishing experience once you get accustomed to using streamers. 

A streamer imitates a large number of underwater fish foods. This can include leeches and even minnows. Streamers are typically cast into the water, and then it's pulled in short and long bursts to imitate different kinds of fish foods. The goal here is to make the bait look alive with constant movement. This makes it hard for fish to resist, and they'll jump at any opportunity to strike your streamer fly.

As you might have noticed, this fishing style is very similar to traditional fishing with a spinning lure. It takes a little while to get used to using a streamer, but it's a fantastic starting point for anyone coming from traditional spinning lures and is just getting started with fly fishing. It's also one of the most productive flies and is second to only the nymph. This makes it an excellent option for anyone that is looking to catch as many fish as possible in the shortest time.

We carry a great starter set of streamers for both rivers and lakes.  You can purchase this set here>

Fly Fishing Flies Poppers

5. Poppers 

Poppers are the most common type of fly lure that is used for bass fishing. Poppers are designed to imitate distressed creatures that are struggling through the water. This catches the attention of fish such as bass and tempts them to chase down their prey. Poppers are retrieved with a snapping motion. This causes it to pop and spit water, causing a lot of noise and disturbance that draws nearby fish' attention and brings them to the surface. 

When your popper first hits the water, you'll want to wait a few moments before reeling it in. This gives the fish in the water a bit of time to focus on the weak and distressed creature you're about to imitate. In lively waters, you might get a strike almost immediately. You'll need to put on a good show before you can attract any attention in most cases. 

The most common way to retrieve a popper is to pop twice then pause for a moment. The timing between each movement is entirely up to you, but the goal is to keep it as consistent as possible. If nothing bites, you can adjust the timing of your movements. You can make it a little slower, go a bit faster, or even change the number of times you pop. You'll need to change this from time to time based on the water's conditions and the time of day. 

Saltwater Flies

6. Saltwater Flies

Saltwater fly fishing can be quite the challenge even for an experienced fisherman. The corrosive nature of saltwater means you'll need to have specialized gear that is resistant to corrosion. The thickness of your fly line also plays a role. It's essential to ensure that you match your equipment and saltwater flies to the types of fish you plan to catch.

Saltwater flies are much more exotic and unique than the patterns you might get for a nymph or dry fly. For example, you'll find plenty of colorful shrimp, crab, and bonefish flies that are designed to be used in saltwater conditions. These eclectic flies can be quite interesting to use as some of them are relatively buoyant, while others will sink rapidly. They can also be a little more expensive, given their unique designs.

Salt Water Fly Fishing

As such, you'll find that it's challenging to pick a handful of saltwater flies that work in all conditions. Guides will often tell you that your flies will be useless in a particular area, requiring you to buy precise flies to match the requirements you'll be fishing in.

This makes it incredibly vital to do your research into saltwater flies for a specific location before you head out with a box of unusable flies. 

Picking the Right Fly Pattern for the Job 

Hopefully, this article has helped you understand the many different kinds of fishing flies available and their uses. It can be a daunting topic for new fly fishers, but it's essential learning to improve your chances of getting a catch.

 Matthew Bernhardt - Owner & 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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