Pro Tip: Fly Selection Made Easy

Written by: Steve May

This trout was fooled by a pheasant tail nymph, yet it does not know the latin name of the bug it represented.
Photo by Steve May

Editor’s note: Experienced fly fishers have certainly run into situations where fly selection is a lot tougher than described here—those situations in which the color or silhouette must be just right to draw a strike—but Steve May’s advice may help beginner or intermediate anglers get over their anxiety about entomology.

Many anglers are turned off by fly-fishing because they think it is too technical. Oftentimes, experienced anglers try to impress new fly fishers by spouting off about the “Baetis hatch” or talking about the “Ephemerellas” they saw yesterday. It can seem a bit overwhelming for a beginner, and learning the Latin names of all the insects one encounters on-stream seems a daunting task. Fear not, because the fish know less Latin than you do!

What is important when fly-fishing is to be observant. If you see the fish are eating small olive-colored bugs with gray wings, that is all the information you really need to select an appropriate fly. Simply look into your fly box and pick the fly that best represents the natural insects. You don’t need to know that you are in the midst of a Baetis hatch.

Rather than taking courses in Latin, taxonomy, and entomology, there are a couple of things you can do to to find out what available food items the fish might be taking advantage of.

1. Shake some of the streamside bushes
, watch what flies out, and match these creatures to an imitation in your fly box. The bugs in the bushes are usually those that have recently hatched or are about to mate and die.

2. Turn over some rocks.
If there are no bugs in the bushes and you don’t see any fish rising, then you can look for food sources under the surface of the stream. Shallow areas with some current are a river’s food factory. Try picking up a few rocks from the river bottom or holding a fine meshed net downstream while stirring up the bottom a bit. You will find lots of potential food items on the local trout’s menu. Take a look at these creepy crawlies and select your fly accordingly.

3. Collect some bugs in film canisters
filled with rubbing alcohol. (If you use river water, you will be surprised at how much stink can come out of a small film canister filled with rotten bugs!) A local fly shop or club can be invaluable in helping you identify your drunken-bug collection and select those flies that imitate your collection and work for local hatches. Over time, you will begin to pick up the names of the important local bugs, learn when these insects hatch, and know how to be prepared with the right patterns.

Before long, you will also begin to recognize the major types of insects that trout eat, as well as what a mayfly, caddis fly, midge, or stonefly looks like in both its adult and nymph form. This will be helpful when you talk with other fly anglers. Put your observation skills to the test and present your fly well, and you’ll be able to tell the old-timer who asks what fly fooled that big fish you just landed, “It ate a little brown fly that looks just like the ones flying around.”

You have to impress the fish, not other anglers, and trout do not study Latin.

Steve May is an avid angler who has worked and played on the Grand River for many years. He has been a guide and a fly-fishing instructor, and he has a number of innovative fly patterns listed with Orvis.

5 thoughts on “Pro Tip: Fly Selection Made Easy”

  1. i just wish they’d pick simpler names for the bugs:
    Take those tiny bugs olive colored bugs with the blue wings?
    How the heck are we supposed to know those are called ‘tiny blue winged olives’?

  2. Thanks. I’m new to fly fishing as in I just tried it for the first time this Saturday. It was a little overwhelming at first but after about an hour i started to see results. A guide from riverthroughatlanta taught me the basic. Needles to say I’m hooked. I’m looking to get my first rod soon. The bigger thought was how the heck was i going to know what type of fly to use. This was a great post. Thanks for the tip.

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