Generally, I meet two types of fly anglers—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 myself, the purely functional fly tyer. I’ve never smuggled exotic bird feathers to save up for a rare golden flute, invented my own fly, or even taken a vise on a trip for that matter. In other words, I don’t even consider myself a “fly tyer,” but I do tie some flies. There’s a difference.
While some flies are admittedly much easier (and sometimes cheaper) to buy from your local fly shop, there are a few I think every fly angler should know. These flies (and countless others, I’m sure) are easy to tie, use fairly inexpensive materials, are highly effective, and perhaps most importantly, they can be modified. The beauty of tying your own flies is that you can experiment without needing to head to the fly shop. Add some flash to that Pheasant Tail or throw some rubber legs on that Woolly Bugger. It’s easy and could result in more catches.
So, here are 10 flies that meet the criteria to qualify them as “must-know flies” for every non-tyer. If you’re vise averse, just give them a shot. You’ll thank me later.
We’re kicking off with a broad category: worms. If you’re a fly purist, you may be skipping past this section, but there’s no arguing that a San Juan Worm can be the most effective fly you can tie on a leader, especially when other options aren’t working. The best part? They’re incredibly easy to tie. I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m a master of tying a piece of chenille to a hook and you can be too in about ten minutes. If you’re feeling bolder, say first-grade level, try out the Wire Worm, another great option that adds a bit of weight. Try ‘em in dozens of different colors, sizes, and with or without beadheads, go nuts.
Eggs work. Enough said. And the Glo Bug is one of the most effective and simple-to-tie trout patterns out there—they’ve also been known to fool a carp or two. In just a few simple steps, you can have a fly box full of deadly options at your disposal.
The Pheasant Tail Nymph may not be the easiest fly on this list, but it’s not all that difficult. As I said, I’m no expert and I got pretty good at tying these flies up in just a few attempts. I love this one (as well as the Hare’s Ear Nymph, which almost made this list) because it’s just so darn fishy—it’s a killer mayfly midge imitation, as well as just general trout food. It looks buggy and tasty. Add some 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 about as easy as the San Juan Worm, and can be tied in as many colors you can dream of. Any fly angler knows that the 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 just about any depth, with tungsten beadheads, copper beadheads, or lightweight variants. Let’s face it, you’re going to have this fly anyway, so you may as well learn to tie it.
While it’s ubiquitous in fly fishing, the Woolly Bugger is a bit more difficult of a fly to tie well, or at least I think so. But because it can be used effectively in so many different scenarios, it’s essential for any fly angler. I’ve caught more fish on this fly than maybe any other, from browns and rainbows to bluegill, bass, carp, and even a speckled sea trout. It’s just a great streamer, and the one I tend to reach for when I get sick of watching my nymph rig float by.
The Clouser Minnow is maybe the best investment you can make at the vise. Much like the Woolly Bugger, it’s effective in dozens of different environments. But, unlike the Bugger, you can probably master this fly on the first or second try. It’s easy. It’s so effective that I’ve even had a fly box dedicated to Clousers and their variations, of which there are plenty. If you want to catch a bunch of fish anywhere in the world, this is a must-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’s my favorite largemouth and smallmouth fly that imitates baitflies, crawfish, leeches, and just seems to be irresistible when twitched in front of reeds or a lily pad. And, if you drop it against a cutbank, chances of a big brown are in your favor. Unlike many other big streamers, this one isn’t too hard to tie, either.
To kick off the dry fly category, we have an all-time classic. It’s hard to pick dry flies because they tend to mimic very specific insects, but an Elk Hair Caddis is just a great-looking and great-performing fly. It’s also a great introduction into working with elk hair or deer hair and hackle, which will open the door to plenty more flies. Plus, it just seems like a right of passage to know how to tie an Elk Hair Caddis.
Maybe 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 plenty of them in your fly box and once you’ve learned how to work with elk hair, dubbing, and grizzly hackle, it’s not all that hard to put together. Tied in smaller sizes, like 16 or 18, it can be a great caddis fly imitation, or bump it up to a size 8, 10, or 12 to imitate stone flies or even some terrestrials. It’s also a great option for a dry-dropper combination.
We’ll end on a fun one. The Chubby Chernobyl may not always work, but when it does, there’s nothing quite like it on the river. Watching a cutthroat nail a size 10 will make your heart skip a beat and it can be highly effective during certain times of the year. It’s great for a hopper imitation in late summer or for a stone fly imitation during the hatch. Also, if you’re introducing new anglers to fly fishing, it’s a good way to show line drift and mends because it’s easy to spot on the water. Lastly, it’s a dry-dropper go-to because the foam will keep it afloat all day long.
There are dozens of different flies I could’ve thrown on this list. For someone who fishes the Southwest and South primarily, these came to mind as some of my favorites, but this list could look entirely different for someone fishing in the Northeast or Northwest. Either way, if you’ve been hesitant about picking up the art of fly tying, rest easy, because I still am, but these 10 flies are definitely a great place to start.