fisherman with wet pants

Fly Fishing Essentials, Part 2: Fishing Flies, Tools and Gear

April 30, 2020

Fishing flies

I wanted to collect fly patterns long before I even knew the difference between a streamer and a nymph. I couldn’t leave a sporting goods store without a dozen of those plastic condiment cups full of colorful hand-tied flies. I’d read that you’re supposed to “match the hatch,” and in my mind, that translated to having a collection that included patterns in every size, shape, and color.

That’s not the case. While you want to use a chart to match the fly size to your fishing line, your flies don’t have to match every detail of active “natural” insects. A fly box stocked with these versatile patterns gives you everything you need to mimic the most common species and life cycle stages found on inland trout waters, under the widest range of environmental conditions. Learn when to use them, how to fish them, and how to tie them.


These are juvenile insects that dwell under the water surface. You’ll fish them suspended in the water column, bounce them along the bottom, or let them drift in the current.

  • Pheasant tail nymph
  • Bead-head hare’s ear
  • Prince nymph
  • Gold-ribbed hare’s ear


Fish emerger patterns at the top of the water column, or within the surface tension. These flies simulate adult insects emerging from their “husks” during the hatch. Emergers are excellent starter patterns for anglers new to fly tying. Live emerging insects don’t look their best, and a lot can go wrong in the process. Sometimes, the biggest emerger tying fails are the most successful on the water.  Think low-hanging fruit, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Many emerger patterns are tweaks on popular dry flies.

  • Blue-winged olive (BWO) parachute emerger
  • Sparkle dun emerger
  • CDC mayfly emerger

Dry flies

Dry fly patterns play on top of the water’s surface tension, imitating invertebrates that have fallen off riparian plants, exhausted themselves from mating, or are in the process of laying eggs. These patterns produce results under a wide variety of conditions and are relatively easy for the new angler to fish.

  • Parachute Adams
  • Elk hair caddis
  • Blue-winged olive
  • Griffith’s gnat
man holding a box of fishing lure

A fly fisherman’s personal collection of streamers.


These are the fly angler’s counterpart to traditional lures. Streamers imitate swimming bait species such as crayfish, leeches, and minnows. They’re not intended to be spot-on replicas of the species they’re imitating. Color, silhouette, and action are more important than getting nailed in a lineup.  These are also easy and fun to tie. You can challenge yourself by improvising with materials found at home like bits of trash stuck in your truck’s cup holders, or bankside flotsam and jetsam. First, though, you might want to stick with tried-and-true basic streamer recipes:

  • Woolly bugger
  • Sculpzilla
  • Muddler minnow

Start with a mix of black and olive patterns, and throw in some dark purples, rusty reds, and pearlescent white themes as you grow your collection. I like to fish darker streamers when the water’s on the muddy side, and lighter streamers with a bit of sparkle when the sun’s out and the water’s clear.

Worms and eggs

Trout will chow down on eggs during spawning season (spring for rainbows, fall for browns), but they can be picky. Choose a variety of patterns that resemble single eggs or clusters, in a variety of bright pink, chartreuse, and salmon colors.

As for worms? Well, you can’t go wrong dead-drifting any simple worm pattern after a rain.

  • Glo-bug egg
  • Otter’s soft milking egg
  • Chamois worm (with bead, and without)
  • San Juan worm

Fly fishing tools and accessories

Here’s where things easily get out of hand. When newbie fly anglers buy their first fishing vest, they’re compelled to fill every pocket to capacity. I was one of them, and I blame it on that “I’ll only need it if I don’t have it with me” anxious feeling. I spent a ton of money straight out of the gate and spent half my time on the water digging through my vest looking for stuff I really didn’t need in the first place.

Here’s what I’d do if I could talk some sense into 25-year-old me: I’d pick up a waist pack with enough room for a fly box, a leader wallet, and these essentials:

  • Landing net: The most responsible method for securing your fish before release is with a net., and the net’s frame shape isn’t as important as the “bag”. In an article for the Chinook Observer,  research biologist Robert Lennox said, “we found that rubber mesh nets with large mesh were the best option after comparing fin fraying, scale loss, and mucous loss of brook trout landed with different net types and with bare wet hands.” Most of us buy nets with easy-release clips that will attach to a loop on our vest back panels, or to our belts.
  • Hemostats for holding hooks as you tie them to your tippet or dress the fly. I’ve found the best deals at army surplus stores, and I usually buy a few.
  • Sharp fingernail clippers for cutting line and trimming up hackles. Attach your clippers to a brooch-style retractable lanyard; you can use the pin to poke out clogged hook eyes.
  • Dry fly floatant is a liquid gel dressing that “waterproofs” your flies. “Gink” is a favorite brand name, but like Kleenex, the word’s become slang for any floatant solution. Just don’t mix up your floatant bottle with your eye drops; they’re about the same size.
  • Microfiber cloth for wiping down your fly line if it gets dirty. Keep your line clean, and give it a final squeegee before you put it away for the day.

Handy items you can stash in your gear without adding fifty cubic feet of storage space include yarn or foam strike indicators, a few tiny split shots, and a small file to sharpen your hooks. You’ll quickly learn the difference between essential and dead weight after a season on the water. Still anxious? You can always keep the kitchen sink on the bank.

man holding a fishing rod and landing net

A landing net is a must-have for fly fishing.

Personal gear

So far, I’ve covered everything you need to know to coax the fish from the water. You won’t want to leave dry land if you’re not comfortable, and if you might not make it back if you don’t make safety a priority. These are the must-haves for the fully-outfitted fly angler.

Polarized sunglasses: When you’re surveying the water for trout, wear polarized sunglasses to cut down on glare and reduce reflections.

Personal flotation device: You don’t need to be fishing from a boat to need a PFD. Slippery river rock is no joke, and anglers drown in shallow rivers every season. If you think you’ll end up getting a fishing vest, look for a design that’s a hybrid personal flotation device. Prefer that low-key waist pack? Self-inflating vest-style PFDs might be best for you.

Waders, boots, and belt: Wader material and style is a very personal preference. Just make sure your boot soles aren’t felt, which can harbor invasive plant and mollusk species. Most important of all, don’t wear waders without a belt. The suspenders keep ’em up, but a slightly elastic belt prevents water from rushing in and weighing you down if you take a dunking.

Trout love cold water, and you might too. If you decide to ditch the waders for some quick-drying fishing shorts or pants, don’t leave your boots or trainers on the bank. At the very least, wear river shoes with grippy, puncture-resistant soles.

Clothing made with UV-resistant fabric: It’s not enough to rely on long-sleeved shirts and pants for sun protection. Comfortable outdoor clothing and neck gaiters with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 25 or higher block 96% of sunlight’s harmful radiation.

Look for designs that provide full range of motion and have plenty of pockets.

Ball cap or brimmed hat: Yes, we want you to protect your face from sunburn, but a hat and glasses also protect your scalp and eyes from poorly-executed casts. Nothing will send you packing to the barbless hook camp like an impromptu eyebrow piercing!

Don’t over complicate things. Just go fishing.

The less gear you have to track down, maintain, and pack up, the more likely you’ll be to grab your gear and send your line over your local waters. You’ll avoid blowing your budget on unnecessary stuff that bogs down your experience,  and you’ll gain a better understanding of what you’ll want for your next rod, reel, and line weight combo—and which world-class trout rivers you’ll want to visit on your next vacation!


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