The simple seven
Fundamental flies that practically guarantee fish
Pining for the open-water season? Keep your mind and hands busy during winter with these easy-to-tie flies
Credit: Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing
Here’s a secret truth for novice fly anglers and tiers: It’s not that hard to tie flies that will actually catch fish. How? By sidestepping fly fishing’s notorious complexity and focusing instead on just a few proven, easy-to-tie patterns. And what better way to while away the dark winter hours than spending some time at the vise and filling up your fly boxes?
These seven flies call for only fundamental tying techniques and easy-to-find materials, making them well within the capabilities of the beginner fly tier. And because they’re designed to get wet rather than look pretty in your fly box, these flies will work just fine if they’re a little sloppy. If yours don’t look exactly like the following photos, not to worry—mine don’t either, and the fish don’t seem to mind.
Like all successful baits, these flies are generically imitative of forage, and made of materials that come to life in the water. They cover surface, shallow and deep water, and will fool trout, bass, panfish, pike and more. You could stock a box with just these workaday patterns—tied in a range of sizes and colours—and confidently catch fish almost anywhere in the country.
BEAD-HEAD WOOLLY BUGGER
Hook: 2XL streamer, sizes 2 to 12
Tail: Bunch of olive marabou
Body: Olive chenille or wool
Hackle: Olive hackle palmered through body
Head: Brass bead
If you’ve ever tied a fly at a sportsmen’s show, this was likely it. The Woolly Bugger uses three basic fly-tying techniques that open the door to a world of tying: attaching a tail, forming a body and wrapping a hackle feather over that body (called “palmering”). Even a perfectly tied Bugger looks kind of gnarly, so the youngest and clumsiest fingers can produce a serviceable fly. And because all the materials are available at a craft or dollar store, you can literally tie 50 of them for about $10.
But that’s only part of the reason the Bugger is the world’s most popular fly. It’s one of those patterns that doesn’t look like anything in particular, but vaguely resembles everything. In olive or brown, it’s a crayfish or large aquatic insect, while in black, it’s a leech. Include some flash and it’s a baitfish. Adding a bead head helps the fly sink and gives it a seductive jigging action as it swims. In current, you can dead-drift the fly or swing it downstream. In stillwater, let it sink and retrieve it quickly, slowly or somewhere in between. Basically, you can’t fish it incorrectly. And any fish that will take a fly will hit a Bugger.
BROWN & WHITE BUCKTAIL
Hook: 4XL streamer, sizes 6 to 12
Tag: Clump of red marabou
Body: Flat silver tinsel ribbed with oval tinsel
Wing: Sparse clumps of bucktail, brown over white
Side wing: Few strands of clear Krystal Flash (pictured) or Flashabou
Bucktail is one of the most common and useful materials for minnow-imitating streamers. When starting out, expect to end up with bulky, lopsided flies, but learning to work with bucktail is worth a few misfires. For one, bucktails are cheap and plentiful, and they last a long time. More importantly, bucktail looks great in the water because it’s strong but flexible, and slightly buoyant, giving it a breathing-like motion. The only thing a baitfish has that a bucktail lacks is a little sparkle, which is why you add a wisp of synthetic flash.
Fly-tying books offer many traditional bucktail streamers with very specific recipes, frills and flourishes. But I like the way this generic pattern distills the fly to its essence of a shiny body and brown-and-white bucktail wing (it’s also a winner in chartreuse and white, or red and white). In moving water, you can swing the fly downstream or dead-drift it with occasional twitches, making it appear like a wounded, tumbling minnow. I’ve also found bucktails are excellent for fishing the top few feet of the water column in lakes and ponds to fool bass, sunfish, pike, walleye, rainbows and brookies. To my immense surprise, I even once caught a quillback carpsucker on a bucktail.
CLOUSER DEEP MINNOW
Credit: Umpqua Feather MerchantsHook; Standard wet fly or saltwater, sizes 3/0 to 8
Eyes: Lead dumbbell weights
Belly: White bucktail
Wing: Natural brown or dyed bucktail, over six strands of Krystal Flash
If there’s a fly that works in a wider range of sizes than a Clouser Deep Minnow, I can’t imagine what it might be. Among my various fly boxes, I have at least 50 Clousers, ranging from two to eight inches in length. Along with natural brown, time-tested wing colours include green, yellow, blue, grey and, my favourite, chartreuse. Flies with all-white or all-black bellies and wings are also popular. All season long, the Clouser is my go-to fly for pike and subsurface bass, or any time I want to fish something deeper or bigger than a standard bucktail.
Tying a Clouser is not difficult, but it’s easy to screw up. There are two trouble areas, which are common even in commercially produced flies. For one, be sure not to place the lead eyes too far forward, which disrupts the fly’s sleek profile and crowds the head. And the bucktail must be sparse—so sparse that the fly almost looks unfinished. When compressed, the bucktail clumps should be about the diameter of a wooden match. Use too much, and the wing loses its tantalizing, flowy action.
Hook: Standard dry fly, sizes 10 to 16
Tail: Brown hackle fibres
Body: Palmered brown hackle
Front: White hackle
A hook, thread and two feathers—dry flies don’t get any simpler than that. This pattern is nearly 100 years old and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s wildly out of fashion among anglers. But because it floats so well thanks to the palmered body hackle, it remains one of my favourite flies for swift- to medium-speed rivers. The secret to tying this fly (and most dry flies) is using the right kind of feather for the body. It’s crucial to select one with fibres of a consistent length and stiffness that don’t appear webby.
The Bivisible is one of my first choices when there’s no obvious insect activity, but I want to try surface fishing. It’s intended as a mayfly imitation, though it lacks the prominent upright wings characteristic of classic mayfly patterns, such as the Adams. One theory is that the fly dimples the surface film in the same way as a long-tailed, six-legged mayfly does, making it attractive to a hungry trout or smallmouth. The name Bivisible reflects how the fly is visible to both the fish and the angler. The white front does indeed make it easier to see on the water, which is very helpful in detecting surface takes, which can be surprisingly gentle.
Credit: Discount FliesHook: Wide-gap, short-shanked, sizes 10 to 16
Body: Egg yarn
How simple is the egg fly? Put it this way: If you’re too clumsy to tie one of these, stay away from all sharp objects, let alone a flowing river. Just fasten an inch of egg yarn to the hook, tease and fluff it out, then shape it into a ball using scissors. Useful colours range from pale yellow to hot pink (the colour of the pictured Egg Fly is, hilariously, Oregon Cheese). If you want to get a little fancier, you can add an extra dot of colour with a marker, or by twisting in a strand of yarn in a different shade.
Egg patterns are so effective that some fly purists consider them cheating, which is a pretty good endorsement. They’re best when dead-drifted near the bottom, often under a strike indicator. These flies are generally associated with steelhead and West Coast salmon fishing, but inland river trout will bite them as well, especially in cold water when other foods are scarcer. Even stillwater rainbows will have a go, and I’ve heard of anglers nabbing such surprise catches as suckers and carp. Wherever you fish it, this is a fly to warm up a cold spring day.
HARE’S EAR FLYMPH
Credit: Discount Flies
Hook: Standard wet, sizes 8 to 14
Body: Fur from hare’s mask and ear, roughly dubbed
Collar: Soft, webby hen or partridge hackle
In modern fly fishing, the dominant subsurface insect pattern is the nymph. These highly realistic imitations are fished up and across stream in a dead-drift. But here’s what no one tells you: Nymph fishing is hard. Expert nymphers catch plenty of fish, but many anglers are left frustrated by the difficulty of achieving a drag-free drift, let alone detecting the near-imperceptible strikes. I also find typical nymph patterns pretty static, lacking the subtle signs of struggle and life that turns on predators.
That’s why I love the Flymph, a deliciously vulnerable-looking hybrid of nymphs and old-timey wet flies. On the drift, I’ve found this fly just as good as more elaborate nymphs. It’s lethal when swung down and across stream like a traditional wet, and swims beautifully in ponds. The overall lifelike effect comes from the Flymph’s wiggly feather legs, and the fibres of the natural-fur body, which move slightly and capture tiny air bubbles, just like natural bugs. Whether you buy commercially prepared dubbing material or clip your own from a bunny face, be sure the body has a ragged, untidy look. In fact, this fly fishes better once it gets a little chewed up.
Credit: SierraTtrading Post
Hook: Standard dry, sizs 10 to 18
Tail: Antron, Z-lon or similar yarn
Body: Fine dubbing
Wing: Elk or coastal deer hair
Head: Trimmed butts of wing
Caddisflies are a major food source for fish, and a source of a lot of fun for fly anglers. As caddis emerge from both rivers and lakes into their moth-like adult form, they often skitter across the surface, provoking explosive, splashy strikes from trout, bass and panfish. The X-Caddis dry fly imitates a bug that has reached the surface, but failed to shed the husk of its pupal form. That little extra vulnerability amps up predators, just as the erratic wobble of a Rapala imitates an injured baitfish.
Caddisflies exist in a wide variety of buggy shades, but I stick with two body colours for the X-Caddis—cream and dark brown. And the wing should always be natural tan so it’s easy for the angler to see. I do carry a few more elaborate caddis patterns, such Stimulators and Henryville Specials, for special situations like fast water or for actively skating a fly across the surface. Eighty per cent of the time, however, I go with the X-Caddis. It’s just so fishy, simple to tie and durable enough to survive a lot of savage strikes.