All long term anglers find a set of files to believe in. We attach a confidence to these patterns that carries over from the moment we form the knot to the hook eye. We fish better with these flies. We make them work. With more focus, we refine each drift with our best patterns. But there’s also something special about a great fly to begin with.
Rummage through the fly boxes of some die hard fishermen and you’ll see common elements — repeated themes. We all use similar materials and shapes, because these are the building blocks and forms that trout look for. And to these similar, well known frames, we add our own flair: a hot collar for a nymph, a long tail on a dry, or a double hackle on a favorite streamer. The roots of our confidence may start with a familiar form, but our originality seals that confidence in. I believe that my flies catch more trout on these rivers, and I can give you reasons why the tweaks to my patterns matter. You probably believe the same about your own set. And both of us are probably right.
I’ve hesitated to publish this list of flies. Not because I’m secretive about the patterns, but because of something more important. The most common question I receive is about favorite fly patterns. And I’ve answered the question with a wide variety of explanations — always with an emphasis on finding your own confidence flies. And so I reiterate that here. Find your handful of flies. You could surely copy my list and get busy at the vise to fill out your fly box. And that might be a good start. But by fishing thoughtfully, you will eventually tweak your own list into something new — something personal.
These are the flies — as a group — that I see when I open my nymph box. I carry just one box with a full selection that’s tidy and efficient. It covers every nymphing situation I encounter. I also carry some secondary nymphs, alongside this set of seventeen, as change-up patterns for specific circumstances. They’re in that box too.
Material and Composition
I won’t provide a full recipe for each fly below, because it’s not necessary. Instead, I’ll tell you why these flies have become my favorite and how they fit into a system.
You can tie all of these flies on a variety of steel. If you like thin wire, barbless hooks, choose those. You’ll notice my preference for 1X strong scud hooks and 2X long perfect bend nymph hooks. But you can transfer these patterns to your own favorite hook style and brand. Just be sure to keep the lengths correct. (Don’t tie a Zebra midge on a TMC 5262.)
The material selection, however, is what defines a fly. And substituting Ice Dub for Arizona Synthetic Peacock because that’s what you have in you desk drawer changes the fly significantly. Most of the patterns below are simple designs, with just a few materials. So if you sub one of those materials, you fundamentally change the fly.
Likewise, the profile of all these flies is essential to their character. If you tie a thin fly too thick or lose the taper, the fly is different.
Every one of my beaded flies has lead wraps behind the bead to about mid-shank. I like the way it provides a taper and adds more weight.
And all of these patterns are designed to look like a lot of things down there.
I’ll mention one more thing before digging into the list. The set of flies below are built and carried as a system. There is very little overlap. Each fly does a specific job or offers the trout a certain look. I could tie a Hare’s Ear in five different colors, but I don’t. Instead, I see the flies in my box as pieces of a puzzle that lock together and fill out a whole. I choose to simplify this collection by carrying one color for each fly. If the trout want a Pheasant Tail nymph on the end of my line, they eat it with a copper bead and a red collar. If not, maybe I’ll change the fly to a Black and Tan. Now let’s get to that . . .
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Bead Head Pheasant Tail
It’s no coincidence that every good angler has a Pheasant Tail variation in their handful of go-to nymphs. The material is a perfect trout attractor: wonderfully mottled, with micro barbules that undulate in the current. It’s simple and understated — movement in a fly, but not overdone. My PTs are tied with no legs.
Copper bead, pheasant tail, copper wire, red thread collar. #14-18
This is the only gold-beaded fly in my box. It’s a flashier change-up to many of my other patterns, but the rust collar keeps it somewhat subdued. There’s enough attraction to gain a trout’s interest and enough realism to seal the deal.
Gold bead, CDL, Hare’s Ear, gold wire, Arizona Synthetic Peacock (Bronze), rust orange thread collar. #14-16
Full pattern description and tying video is here:
With simplicity of form again, this is the go-to silver bead option in my box. The micro tubing shows a glossy look to the trout — something much different than dubbing or pheasant tail. And it does so without messing with UV resin. I like my dubbing collar on this fly a little more pronounced than Hoffler’s original design.
Silver bead, CDL, olive-brown micro tubing, Hare’s Ear. #14-18
Walt Young’s pattern originated here in central PA. It’s now fished worldwide because it confuses neither trout nor fly tyers. Hook and dubbing — that’s enough. I’m told that Walt’s original pattern called for Hare’s Ear Plus, with no rib and no bead. I tie those, but I also carry a couple of others. So here I break my own rule against tying just one form of each fly design. Simplicity gone. Sorry about that.
Copper bead, Hares’ Ear, 4X mono rib, hot orange thread collar. #10-16
No bead, Hares’ Ear Plus, 4X mono rib. #10-16
Silver bead, Hare’s Ear Plus (olive), 4X Mono rib. #10-16
Black bead, Mixed Hare’s Ear and Olive Hare’s ear. #10-16
Black and Tan
I love the platform of the Bread-n-Butter, and I carry a few patterns that keep the form and change the colors, to show the trout a very different look in a deadly effective shape. The Black and Tan is a fly I turn to when the trout shy away from too much flash.
Black bead, CDL, x-small copper wire, Hare’s Ear Dubbing and a very narrow band of Arizona Synthetic Peacock in Dark Hare’s Ear color. #12-18
Here’s the opposite of the Black and Tan. Egan’s Rainbow Warrior is a little too much for my trout on most days. But I’ve had many mornings with slow action turned fast by changing out to a RW. Sometimes this one just turns trout on.
Silver bead, Pheasant tail, pearl tinsel, Rainbow Sow Scud dubbing, red thread collar (and underbody). #16-20
This is another of my own pattern solutions to fill a need in my box. Woodstock has a thin profile, with subtle flash coming mostly from the collar. This one-off pattern at the vise hit so well that it gained a permanent spot in my lineup.
Black nickel bead, Lemon Woodduck, copper rib, olive thread body, Arizona Synthetic Peacock (bronze). #14-20
This is the fly that taught me to tight line nymph on the Mono Rig. As a point fly, the Polish Woven reaches and rides the bottom like nothing else. The woven embroidery floss creates a tight-bodied fly that plummets, then ticks the bottom (inverted) and keeps the angler in contact. If you want to stay in touch, this is your fly.
Copper bead, copper wire, yellow and brown embroidery floss in a shuttle weave, SLF Squirrel (natural). #8-12
Girdle Bug | Turd | Pat’s Rubber Legs
The legs of the girdle bug were first formed with round elastic strands from an underwear waistband. These days the pattern has evolved, with various names and materials. However you tie it, put wiggly jiggly legs and chenille on a hook, and you have a winner.
Copper bead, brown chenille, brown legs. #6-12 (2XL)
The Hare’s Ear Nymph is another that finds a home in every angler’s fly box. And this is my version of that platform.
The Standard Issue has no bead. And this is the pattern I use when I need that tumbling, free-rolling look you can only get with split shot and a light fly.
A few lead wraps for a taper, Ringneck Pheasant back feather tips for the tail, copper wire, SLF Squirrel (brown) blended with orange sparkle yarn (70/30), turkey tail wingcase. #10-18 (1XL)
Every game fish eats chartreuse, and trout are no different. Some anglers believe the Green Weenie is taken for an inchworm, fallen from overhanging trees. Meh . . . maybe. I believe trout eat the GW because it grabs their attention and has enough of a natural larva shape that they can’t resist trying it out.
I tie this to the original design, with a loop tail at the back and with no bead at the head. It fishes better by using split shot for the weight. I promise.
About six wraps of .015” lead cover the front third of the hook, providing a tapered look, Chartreuse rayon chenille. #12 (2Xl)
Here’s another fly with color that attracts. Eggs are my go-to winter pattern and provide an odd change up on slow summer days. Trout are conditioned to eat eggs. And this is my favorite fly to kick in that instinct.
Hot Orange thread, Caron Simply Soft yarn (Sunshine), tied in loops. #12-16
Full article with tying video for the Sucker Spawn here.
When trout don’t eat the Sucker Spawn with enough conviction, I show them the orange Nuke Egg. This is an old school glow bug, but with an added veil. That thin over-body makes a huge difference.
Orange Mcfly foam, Oregon Cheese Glow Bug yarn. #12-16
When the squirmy first hit the scene, it was lights out, no matter where we fished it. I never saw anything like it. And watching that kind of production has had me looking for the next miracle fly ever since. At first, we pulled the legs off kids’ Kooshball toys for the material. But by the time every fly shop was selling their own brand of Squirmy material, the trout had wisened up. It’s still a good fly, but the timing has to be right. I do carry more muted colors, but pink is still my go-to. Here’s another fly that I believe fishes better without a bead.
Rust-orange Hareline dubbing, Pink Squirmy material. #14
The WD40 is a natural pattern. With fly boxes full of flash, beads and rubber legs, this fly stands out by being subtle. The last three flies on this list are tiny, and I love trailing them behind something larger or more attention getting. Sometimes, tiny flies are just the thing for turning the trick. And the WD40 is my favorite. It’s a near-perfect match for a BWO nymph, and I’m sure trout see it as plenty of other foods as well.
Lemon Wooduck, olive thread for the body, Lemon Woodduck wingcase, grey Fly Rite dubbing thorax. #18-22
When I was introduced to the RS2, I thought I didn’t need another fly, and I hardly gave it a chance. But I was wrong about that. The RS2 is so unique and so versatile, that I couldn’t keep it out of my box. There’s nothing extra on this fly, nothing flashy, just a natural, convincing look. I fish it as a nymph or an emerger. I even dust it up and fish it as a dry sometimes.
Dun Microfibbets, grey Fly Rite dubbing, dun CDC puff. #14-22
Here is another favorite trailer. The glass bead gives the Zebra Midge a different look than anything else in my box, and it has a unique attraction compared to the RS2 or WD40. I’ve caught so many trout on a Zebra Midge . . .
Black thread body, silver wire, glass bead. #16-22
The Other Stuff
The flies listed above are my go to nymphs — the core patterns. As the seasons change, one or two of these flies take over as the lead pattern while others fall off in production. But all of these stay in my box. Year after year, a predictable cycle emerges. I expect the WD40 to produce well for me in mid-March, and the Nuke egg takes over in December. But any of these flies can be the best fly any day of the year.
In slow times, I may cycle through these nymphs until I hit on one that works. Sometimes, nothing ever hits. But with this set of nymphs I never feel like it’s the pattern’s fault. Either something’s wrong with my presentation, or the trout simply won’t eat. It happens.
Sitting right next to these confidence flies in my fly box are a few other flies too. I carry Perdigons, Higa’s SOS, Cress Bugs, small buggers and a variety of soft hackles. All of them get some river time.
I also have a few new flies mixed in. I’m always testing. Because every angler is looking for that next fly to hit a home run. All of us are searching for the next confidence fly.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N