Learn The Fly Fishing Basics and How to Fly Fish!

The Three Main Types of Flies to Fly Fish for Trout – Fly Fishing Basics

You probably can’t do much fly fishing without the fly.  But which one do you choose?   When learning how to fly fish, that question is one of the tough ones, but to help you determine just what to tie on the end of your line, we’ll discuss the three main fly types for trout:  the dry fly, nymphs, and streamers.  Fly fishing for trout includes vast varieties of flies available for you to try and catch that elusive fish, having a solid understanding of each different type and when they are used can mean the difference between catching the most fish of your life or heading home skunked.

The Dry Fly

The dry fly is probably one of the most exciting types of flies to fly fish for trout with.  A dry fly is a type of fly that floats on the surface of the water.  This makes it exciting because the fish has to come up to the top of the water and eat the fly off from the surface.  This gives you a first-hand view of the fish feeding and makes for a very visual presentation.  It also helps you know just when the fish has taken your fly, compared to nymph fishing.

Elk Hair Caddis Dry FlyDry flies are designed in many different varieties.  The most common are those that are created to “match the hatch”, or to closely resemble the types of insects that hatch from the nymph stage into insects that fly through the air.  These types of bugs are the ones that you can typically see when you are out on a river or lake.  Species of these types of bugs include the mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, etc.  You can also have a dry fly that resemble a terrestrial type of bug, those being grasshoppers and ants that float along the water as well.  The other variety of dry fly is that which is called an attractor.  Flies in this category are not designed to look like any specific type of insect.  You’ll see them with flashy colors and rubber legs dangling off from them.  The reason is that with fish being an opportunistic feeder, they see some sort of floating insect above them and it looks close enough to be a food they have eaten before so they eat it.

Royal Wulff Attractor Dry Fly

The downside to this exciting type of fly fishing is that dry flies are not always a productive pattern to use.  Depending on the river or lake where you are fishing and just how much pressure those fish receive can have a huge impact on the fish rising to the surface to take a fly.  Some fish are so cautious that unless there is a specific reason, that being a hatch of insects, they will not come up and take a dry fly.  Also, talking about trout specifically, they feed 80% of the time under the surface of the water.  That gives you a 20% chance on being super successful with fishing a dry fly.

Don’t get discouraged about that last part though.  Dry fly fishing can still be productive and is probably one of the most enjoyable types of fly fishing you can have.  Seeing a fish rise up out of the water is a sight every angler should see and will keep you coming back for more.

The Nymph

The nymph is considered to be the most productive of all of the flies to use to fly fish for trout due to the fact that fish, trout specifically, feed approximately 80% of the time underwater.  And that is just how you fish the nymph, under the surface of the water.

The nymph is one of the stages of insects such as the mayfly, caddis, or stonefly.  As with most insects, they transform through various different stages until they reach the end of their life-cycle.  The nymph is the stage in which the insects live their lives under the surface of the water, along the stream beds, in the lake bottom, an other such areas.  Because of this, they become very abundant for the fish to feed on.  That is precisely why trout feed primarily on these types of insects.

Hares Ear Nymph

With this being a fly that is fished sub-surface, it is necessary to use certain fishing techniques in order to detect the strike of the fish and catch them.  Since you cannot see the fly as it floats under the water, detecting when the fish takes the fly is a problem.  That is why many anglers use an item called a strike indicator.  This is essentially a small float that is attached up on your leader above the fly and floats along the surface as your fly drifts along.  When a fish takes the fly, the indicator can do a few different things.  It will either stop, slow down, move upstream, or even some other slightly different action that is not normal.  The downside to fishing with an indicator is the lag time from when the fish takes the fly until you notice the indicator movement.  You can still catch many fish this way though, but it does take some practice.

Pheasant Tail Nymph Fly

Another option is one of the various European Nymphing techniques that are becoming popular.  These techniques do not utilize a strike indicator and are typically very close-quarter fishing techniques.  Many times you are no more than a rods length away from the fish you are fishing to.  They also can utilize a colored section of leader somewhere in your leader setup to act as a strike indicator but without the drawbacks.  European nymphing is a specialized form of nymph fishing and something that will be discussed later on.

The Streamer

The streamer can be one of the funnest flies to fly fish for trout with, along with one of the most productive, second only to the nymphs.  Most strikes to a streamer tend to be quite aggressive and explosive as the fish attempts to eat the fly as fast and hard as possible so that it doesn’t get away.  Make sure you use a heavier weight of tippet when fishing these!

Woolly Bugger Streamer Fly

Streamer flies tend to imitate foods such as leaches, minnows, sculpins, and other types of larger underwater fish foods.  A streamer is fished by casting your line out to a likely looking spot in a lake or river and stripping, or pulling, your fly line in in short pulls or longer pulls.  This stripping method moves your streamer through the water in short or long bursts.  Combine that with the materials used to create these types of flies and you get a fly that looks alive due to the movement underwater from the material.  It almost creates a pulsing type of action that most fish simply can’t resist.

Marabou Muddler Streamer Fly

There are a variety of methods in which to fish a streamer.  The methods mentioned above are the basic that will get you fishing a streamer in no time.  This method also most closely resembles fishing with a spinning lure that you would use with conventional fishing methods.  You cast the fly out and retrieve it, but instead of the lure creating the action, you are creating the action in the fly by the type and speed in which you strip in the fly line.  In the future I’ll post a video showing this basics streamer fishing technique.

Final Thoughts

Those three types of flies are the backbone flies that you may use while out on the water.  Differences in where and when you fish determine just what type you are going to use and becoming familiar with those differences takes some practice and time out on the water.  When you are just starting out though, you can effectively fish with any of these to help you gain basic fly fishing experience and before long it will be second nature.  In future articles I’ll dig deeper into specifics of the type of fishing you may do from multiple fly rigs to streamer techniques.  Stay tuned for more!  And be sure to share this article with your friends and sign up for my mailing list.  Tight lines!

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 25+ years, web developer, and Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

  • Joe

    Good info very helpful

  • TuRuu

    Very good article. I remember struggling to know which flies for what purpose while i was learning. BTW do you have any plan to write how to choose line, leader and tippet for pike in lakes? Because I found out that pike fishing is the most incredible fight (at least i felt it that way) for me and badly want to fly for pike this July. Thanks buddy

    • Thanks again for the comment TuRuu! A quick tip for you in regards to leader choices that I’ve learned in fishing for pike and musky is using a hard mono tippet section to attach to your fly. I found that using steel leaders, as would typically be used with spinning equipment, tends to either scare fish off or not allow the proper action to the fly. I’ve use RIO’s Hard Saltwater Mono in the 20-30lb range with great results. Just make sure to keep an eye on it for abrasion and change it out when necessary. Tight lines!

  • Mark

    What’s good Clint! I Just wanted to say thanks for writing this, honestly I can’t tell you how helpful it was. I just picked up fly fishing this past October and I started only for steelhead, but now I can’t stop fly fishing! I’ll chase anything I can! But when it came to flies haha I didn’t know shit about them! This really helps man, I can’t thank you enough. I’ll definitely be in touch as I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions!

  • Jeffro

    Thanks for the great info. I have recently taken up fly fishing and am at a total loss, your articles have been very helpful, I’m gonna head out in morning and try out some of your advice
    Thanks again

    • Glad they’ve been some help to you Jeffro. Let me know if you have any questions after trying out some of what you’ve read.

  • Eben

    Hi there thanks for a great article, I have a question,
    What is a tipet and what is its use?
    Im realy a beginner and only caught my first trout last week without a tippet.
    Could you please give some details about this tippet?

    • Hi Eben! Thanks for the comment. My best advice is to check out the article I wrote here -> Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet. I covered a lot of aspects about leader and tippet within that article that I think should help you out. If you have any questions afterwards, please send me a message and I’d be happy to try and answer them. Tight lines!

      • Kevin

        Just found this article… and I do have to add… I fly fished WITHOUT a leader for, like, EVER… and just the other year, I decided to get one… OMG, a leader makes one hell of a difference!! Not to mention, make sure to practice on water too! It will not hurt anything except your lack of experience… I’ll hurt my lack of experience any day! I only adds to your exp points!!! – – – btw, just got off the Tuolumne river in CA. super deep nymphing in Merrel Pool. Came home with a 10″… first catch of the season! Early evening. (I know, I work too much… but now, the hook is set! I’ll be hitting the smaller streams soon with my smaller rod/line… ) Extra good thing to know is that in exam of the stomach, this guy was hitting 1/.4″ or smaller dark bugs… … next time… … … Thanks for the info Clint!!! May your days be filled with bent rods!!!!!! \ Nadacop…………………

  • Jeff Down

    Your articles have given me insight into the details involved in proper fly line setup. Your article on the three types of flies was also very good. Please keep the great articles coming. Tight lines also to you my fellow fisher!! Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff! It’s always nice to hear that the articles are a help to those out there.

  • Tony

    Great articles just learning, not been on the water yet, I have identified a commercial trout lake nearby Melton Mowbray and will be giving it a go soon. Now time to practice casting on a field.

    • Thanks Tony! I’m glad you enjoyed them. Tight lines on that new water you found!

  • Jon

    Great article Clint. I’m venturing out in the next few weeks to begin my fly fishing adventure. Never done it before and I love articles like this that help me to get a better understanding of what I need.

    • Thanks Jon! I’m glad the articles have helped you out. Good luck when you get out there in the next few weeks. Let me know if you have any questions or if there’s anything I can help you out with. Tight Lines, Clint.

  • KP

    Just found this article through Google. I was fishing a new to me lake using a streamer, or leach pattern and got broken off with 5lb tippet. Now I understand why. The fish were bigger than I normally catch and the strike was very aggressive. Thanks for the article!!

    • Thanks KP. I’m glad you liked it. Fishing streamers can certainly be tough on leaders. I’ve had what I consider small fish break me off before when fishing streamers. They tend to slam into those flies, which makes it all that much more fun!

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