Fishing flies are bait designed to imitate insects, invertebrates, baitfish, crustaceans, small animals, and other fish fodder.
Traditionally, flies were “tied” with natural materials like feathers, thread, and animal fur or hair. Now, a range of synthetic and natural materials are used, sometimes on the same fly. Flies fall into roughly five categories: dry flies, wet flies, streamers, poppers, and saltwater flies.
Dry flies are fished on or at the surface of water and typically imitate adult or emerging insects like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, grasshoppers, and damselflies. Flies are tied in patterns, general recipes for specific types of imitations. Dry flies are thought by some (especially those in the Walton tradition) to be as good as it gets in fly fishing because the fish’s take is visual, requiring accurate casting and delicate presentation.
Most good dry fly fishing requires a set of very specific conditions, conditions which don’t always materialize. But when conditions are right, say a hatch of adult Blue Wing Olive mayflies coming off a western trout stream on an overcast day in early spring, the fishing can be electric. Medium- to slow-action rods put dry flies on the water more delicately than faster actions, and so a growing number of dry-fly purists prefer bamboo rods.
Wet flies are fished below the surface, and are tied to imitate things like pupal- and nymph-stage aquatic insects, scuds (freshwater shrimp), fish eggs, worms, and crayfish. ‘Nymphing‘ is a type of trout fishing using wet flies suspended in moving water, with weight added to sink the rig to the fish’s feeding depth. The strike happens below the water’s surface, so the fly fisher must see (more like sense) the strike by watching for line movement at the surface or fish flashing below the surface.
Some nymph rigs use strike indicators (flyspeak for ‘bobbers’), made of yarn, foam, or plastic, to help the fly fisher see the strike. Czech Nymphing or high-sticking uses weight suspended below the nymphs, with the fly fisher raising the rod tip as the line passes down current to keep the drifting rig relatively straight and in the feeding lane.
Casting nymph rigs is not usually graceful; because of added weight and strike indicators, the traditional backcast becomes more of a chuck-and-duck lob. Trout spend most of their time feeding underwater, so, graceful or not, nymphing is often the most effective technique for cold-water species, especially when conditions are off for dry fly fishing. One-handed rods 9 feet or longer make for easier mends (adjustments to the drift of a nymph rig by lifting the line in the current).
Streamers are larger wet flies tied to imitate baitfish, leeches, crayfish, and other small animals. Streamers are typically fished like lures; the fly fisher retrieves or strips in the lure to imitate prey. Fish hit streamers hard; strikes with streamers tend to be territorial or predatory, and usually violent. Think big browns ripping up deer hair mice patterns after dark. Doesn’t get much more fun than that.
Streamers are fished with one- or two-handed rods, and can be effective for essentially any type of fish in almost any condition. Even in the most technical dry-fly fishing, most fish will give a well-presented streamer a good look, especially larger, predatory fish.
Poppers are blunt- or scoop-headed flies fished on the surface of water with quick strips and twitches, imitating wounded baitfish, frogs, mice, and other small prey animals. Poppers were borrowed directly from the baitcasting crowd—bass and warm-water species love these flies. Largemouth bass are known for their explosive takes on poppers—the boil looks like a toilet flushing.
Saltwater flies are any flies used to fish for marine species of fish, and as such span a huge range of sizes and shapes. Most saltwater flies are wet flies tied to imitate crabs, shrimp, and baitfish. Saltwater patterns borrow heavily from streamers and poppers, though are typically much larger than their freshwater counterparts.
Within these five basic types of flies, there are several different types of patterns and thousands of pattern variations. The type of fly you choose will depend on the type of fish you’re after, the season, the region, and the water.