In general, I come across two types of fly fishermen: those who tie their own flies and those who don’t. It seems to be a zero-sum game, but I’m here to make an argument for a gray area in the middle. Enter me, the purely functional fly tyer. I have never smuggled exotic bird feathers to save up for a rare golden flute, invented my own fly, or even carried a vise on a trip for that matter. In other words, I don’t even consider myself a “fly stalker”, but I do tie some flies. There is a difference.
While it’s true that some flies are much easier (and sometimes cheaper) to buy at your local fly shop, there are a few that I think every fly fisherman should know about. These flies (and many others, I’m sure) are easy to tie, use fairly inexpensive materials, are very effective, and, perhaps most importantly, can be modified. The beauty of tying your own flies is that you can experiment without going to the fly shop. Add some sparkle to that Pheasant Tail or throw some rubber feet on that Woolly Bugger. It’s easy and could result in more catches.
So, here are 10 flies that meet the criteria to qualify as “must-have flies” for all non-tiers. If you’re averse to vices, give them a try. You’ll thank me later.
We start with a broad category: worms. If you’re a stickler for flies, you might skip this section, but there’s no question that a San Juan Worm can be the most effective fly you can tie to a leader, especially when other options don’t work. The best part? They are incredibly easy to tie. I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m a master at tying a piece of chenille to a hook and you can be too in about ten minutes. If you’re feeling more adventurous, let’s say first grade level, try Wire Worm, another great option that adds a bit of weight. Try them in dozens of different colors and sizes, and with or without bead heads, go crazy.
Eggs work. Enough talk. And the Glo Bug is one of the most effective and easiest to tie trout patterns out there; they have also been known to fool a carp or two. With just a few steps, you can have a fly box full of deadly options at your disposal.
pheasant tail nymph
The pheasant tail nymph may not be the easiest fly on this list, but it’s not that difficult. Like I said, I’m not an expert and I got pretty good at tying these flies in just a few tries. I love this one (as well as the hare-eared nymph, which almost made it to this list) because it’s so damn fishy: it’s a mayfly-killing mosquito mimic, as well as general trout food. It looks buggy and tasty. Add a bit of flash for a flashback variation, and you have what may be my favorite trout fly in the world.
The Zebra Midge is an absolute no-brainer. It’s as easy as the St. John’s Worm and can be tied in as many colors as you can dream of. Any fly fisherman knows that Zebra Midge represents a primary food source for trout and works year round, particularly in early and late season conditions. It can be fished at almost any depth, with tungsten bead heads, copper bead heads, or light variants. Let’s face it, you’re going to have this fly anyway, so you might as well learn how to tie it.
While ubiquitous in fly fishing, the Woolly Bugger is a slightly more difficult fly to tie well, or so I think. But because it can be used effectively in so many different scenarios, it’s essential for any fly fisherman. I’ve caught more fish with this fly than any other, from browns and rainbows to bluegill, bass, carp and even a spotted sea trout. It’s just a great streamer, and the one I tend to reach for when I get tired of seeing my nymph rig float by.
The Clouser Minnow is perhaps the best investment you can make in a vise. Like the Woolly Bugger, it is effective in dozens of different environments. But, unlike the Bugger, you can probably master this fly on the first try or two. It is easy. It is so effective that I have even had a fly box dedicated to Clousers and their variations, of which there are many. If you want to catch a lot of fish anywhere in the world, this is something you need to know.
There are plenty of big, nasty flies you can tie. But, the one that I feel balances simplicity and effectiveness is the Meat Whistle. It is my favorite large mouth and small mouth fly that mimics bait flies, crayfish, leeches and seems to be irresistible when moving in front of reeds or a lily pad. And, if you drop it against an embankment, the chances of a big brown are in your favor. Unlike many other great streamers, this one is also not too difficult to tie.
elk hair caddis
To kick off the dry fly category, we have an all-time classic. Dry flies are hard to choose because they tend to mimic very specific insects, but an Elk Hair Caddis is simply a great looking, great performing fly. It’s also a great introduction to working with elk hair or deer hair and hackle, which will open the door for a lot more flies. Also, it seems like a right of passage to know how to tie up an Elk Hair Caddis.
Perhaps one of the most advanced flies on this list, relatively, is the Stimulator. It’s such a great dry fly that you really can’t afford not to have many in your fly box and once you’ve learned how to work with moose hair, dubbing and grizzly hackle, it’s not that hard to put together. . Tied in smaller sizes, like 16 or 18, it can be a great imitation caddis fly, or go up to a size 8, 10, or 12 to imitate stoneflies or even some terrestrial ones. It’s also a great option for a dry drip combination.
We’ll end with a fun one. The Chubby Chernobyl doesn’t always work, but when it does, there’s nothing like it on the river. Seeing a fierce size 10 nail will make your heart skip a beat and can be very effective at certain times of the year. It is ideal for an imitation hopper in late summer or an imitation stonefly during hatching. Also, if you’re introducing new anglers to fly fishing, it’s a good way to show off drift and line repairs because it’s easy to spot in the water. Lastly, it’s a dry dropper because the foam will keep it afloat all day.
There are dozens of different flies that I could have included on this list. For someone who primarily fishes in the Southwest and South, these came to mind as some of my favorites, but this list might look completely different for someone who fishes in the Northeast or Northwest. Either way, if you’ve been hesitant to learn the art of fly tying, rest easy, because I i still ambut these 10 flies are definitely a great place to start.