Types of Fly Fishing Flies & Their Uses – 5 Main Types Explained


If you are new to the world of fly fishing, then you’ve probably noticed there is a huge amount of choice around, especially when choosing flies.

There are literally thousands of types of fly fishing flies, and their uses vary.

I’m going to help you decide which is right for the job. Today I’m going to go through common fly fishing flies and when you can use them.

Disclosure: At BonfireBob, we recommend products based on unbiased research, however, BonfireBob.com is reader-supported and as an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases if you shop through the links on this page. For more information, see disclosure here.

The 5 Different Types of Flies for Fly Fishing

Check out any fly fishing store, and you’ll see that there are countless numbers of flies to choose from.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. It is great to have so much variety, but it can be a little overwhelming for those just starting out.

Don’t worry. I’m here to help.

Here are the general types of fly fishing flies that you will encounter and where you use them.

fly fishing rod and fly box full of flies

Dry Flies

Oh man, this has to be my favorite type of fly!

Dry flies are designed to imitate any life that lives on top of the water’s surface. They are generally designed to float on top of the water (and when they don’t, it is super annoying).

Some dry flies are designed to replicate insects. However, they aren’t limited by this criterion. You’ll also find dry flies that are made to look like little fish, frogs, and even mice!

Here’s how it works.

You cast out your fly on a floating line, and if you’ve done it right, it should sit on top of the surface film.

Aggressive predatory species such as trout spend a great deal of time looking up for (real) flies landing on the surface. When they spot one, they swim up and sip the fly out of the surface.

Here’s a quick video of what trout look like when they eat dry flies:

Some dry flies are fished stationary and left to float wherever the current takes them. Sometimes you can invoke a take by giving the fly a slight twitch. This fools the trout into thinking the fly is struggling in the surface film. A surefire bet for an easy meal for a hungry fish.

Dry fly fishing is super visual and exciting. There’s nothing that gets your heart racing faster than watching your little dry fly drifting along before a trout rises up and smashes it!

It should be noted that there is a crossover between some types of flies. You can have a streamer that is designed to be fished on the top or a nymph. These are still dry flies.

Confused?

Don’t be. Here’s a simple rule of thumb.

If your fly is designed to be fished on the surface, it is a dry fly.

Simple!

Here are a few examples of dry flies so you can get a good idea of what they look like (links to Amazon.com):

Wet Flies

Wet flies are designed to be fished sub-surface. They can be made to replicate a whole host of different species. You’ll be able to tell what some are designed to look like. Others are a little more obscure.

Here are some things that you’ll find represented in a wet fly:

  • Small baitfish and fry
  • Tadpoles
  • Larvae
  • Grubs
  • Drowned insects
  • Crayfish
  • And many more…

And here’s the good news.

To fish wet flies, you don’t have to have a sinking line. 90% of flies can be fished on a floating line. Check out my guide here for everything you need to know about floating lines.

Here’s another rule of thumb…

If it is fished anywhere other than the surface film of the water, it’s a wet fly.

With it so far? Great, let’s carry on…

fly fishing rod and reel with different types of fishing flies

Nymphs

Nymphs are a specific type of fly that deserves a category all of their own.

Why?

Because nymphs form the bulk of a trout’s diet.

Great… Wait, what is a nymph?

A ‘nymph’ refers to any fly designed to look like a fly in the larval stage. Nearly all flies found around bodies of water will have been a nymph at some point in their life. Here are a few creepy crawlies that lay their eggs in water:

  • Mayflies
  • Dragonflies
  • Daddy Longlegs
  • Mosquitos and Midges…

Speaking of mosquitos and midges, buzzers are a fly that you definitely want in your fly box. They are really easy to fish. All you do is cast it out and retrieve it super slowly.

And how do you know if you’ve got a bite?

Well, some guys will tell you to use a strike indicator. But I have a different opinion.

When a trout takes a buzzer, you won’t be able to miss it. They practically yank your arm out of its socket!

Nymphs are great because they are found in all kinds of water, from tiny streams all the way through to huge lakes. If I had to choose only three types of a nymph, here’s what I’d go for:

The above list will cover you on most days.

Streamers

Streamers are another type of dedicated wet fly. They have a couple of key features that set them apart from other flies.

Like what?

Here’s a very quick list. Streamers tend to be:

  • Tied on large hooks.
  • Have a substantial and mobile ‘tail.’
  • Have a weighted head.

Streamers work well for a couple of reasons. They are often created to imitate baitfish. If the season is right, then the trout are going to be hunting them with extreme enthusiasm.

But what if the season isn’t right?

Well, that’s the thing. Because streamers have a distinctive mobile tail, they tend to invoke an instinctive and aggressive response from fish, even when there are no baitfish around.

If there isn’t much showing up top, a streamer can be a great way to magic up a bite. Generally, they are fished with a fast retrieve. This helps to get that tail really fluttering.

Streamers can be fished on a floating line; however, use a sinking line for the most devastating effect.

Attractors

Attractors are a hybrid of sorts. They are basically a mashup of different fish-like elements, all tied into one, easy to eat package.

Attractors, as the name suggests, are designed to pique the fish’s interest. Here are some key features that tend to do exactly that:

  • Moving and highly wiggly legs.
  • Bright colors.
  • Bushy tails.
  • Large eyes.
  • A cupped face section that ‘pops’ or spits.

Take a look here to see what an attractor fly looks like.

As to how to fish them. Here’s a quick video…

How do You Identify Flies for Fishing?

OK, listen up.

I’m about to tell you the key to being successful at fly fishing…

If I said to you, “match the hatch,” would you know what I meant? If not, then here’s a quick guide as to what it means.

“Matching the hatch” means choosing the fly that most closely resembles whatever the trout happen to be eating at the time. Here’s how to do it:

1) When you arrive at the swim, don’t tie on and start casting right away. Sit and have a look around.

At what?

Well, here’s what I ask myself before I even open my fly box to start my session:

  • Are there fish rising and eating insects on the surface?
  • What are these insects likely to be?
  • Are there any larvae casings in the water that give me a clue?
  • Can I see any easy-to-spot bugs, such as moths or mayflies?
  • If there’s no surface activity, what would the trout likely be eating down below?

Once I’ve answered a few of these questions, then it’s time to identify a fly.

2) Matching the Hatch

I’ll try and pull a fly out that resembles something I’ve seen in or on the water.

Now, here’s a tip. Size matters just as much as color. So, if there are clouds of tiny midges on the stream or lake, you don’t need to be tying on a huge fly.

The aim is to present your fly in the most natural way possible. If its artificialness is hidden as it’s one of the hundreds of other ‘real’ flies, that’s a really good thing.

Now what?

fly fisherman fishing in river

3) Match the Behaviour

Choosing the right fly is only half the battle.

How you fish is also vitally important. If your fly is ‘acting out of character,’ this will be enough to spook a wary trout. Try and fish your fly so it matches the behavior that the trout would expect.

Here’s a quick and easy guide with some basic rules for what flies to use and when:

If there are no rises or fish eating off the surface.

Go straight for a wet fly or nymph. The fish are likely to be deep down.

If you see shoals of tiny baitfish breaking the surface.

Its highly likely that beneath the surface, packs of hungry trout are tearing into these shoals. Use a wet fly. Streamers, in particular, work really well in these situations.

If you see lots of surface rises.

I’d opt for a dry fly straight away. Try and match your fly in both color and size. Sometimes going slightly bigger and smaller can work wonders too.

If you’ve been fishing both wet and dry with little success.

I normally use an attractor as my ‘when all else fails’ option. Sometimes that mixture of movement and obscurity is enough to tempt even the most reluctant fish!

If the trout are only just breaking the surface.

This is a great sign that the fish are feeding on nymphs. Some larvae rise to the top as they prepare to turn into a fly.

You’ll often hear these types of nymphs referred to as ’emergers,’ and they are absolutely deadly.

If you see the trout swimming with just their fin poking out of the water, it’s prime time to give a nymph or buzzer a try.

If it’s approaching the evening.

I’ve always found the evening a magical time to tie on a big old dry fly. Daddy longlegs and moths always work fantastically well. You’ll often find the ‘golden hour’ is about an hour before sunset.

Here are some great suggestions for the best trout flies for those summer evenings.

close up of fly fishing flies in fly box

What Kind of Flies do Trout Like?

Now that is a good question!

When you find the answer, tell me!

No, joking aside, that’s a question that has a different answer every time you ask. Trout can be fickle, and what works one day won’t work the next. My advice would be to have a well-stocked fly box, then you can have a good go at matching the hatch.

I said I’d help you, so here are the fly patterns I’d expect any great fly box to have:

Dry Flies

  • Black gnats
  • Adams
  • Parachute Flies
  • Griffiths gnats (this is my all-time favorite fly)

Wet Flies

  • Black and peacock spider
  • Bibio
  • Diawl Bach

Nymphs

  • Pheasant tail nymphs
  • Black buzzers
  • Hares ear nymphs

Streamers

  • Cats’ whisker
  • Orange fritz
  • Blob Flies
  • Wooly buggers (these are lethal!)

Attractors

  • Take your pick! The whackier, the better!

Conclusion

There’s plenty of flies out there to choose from (many might catch more anglers than fish).

Knowing the basic steps to choose the right types of fly fishing flies is the first step on a never-ending journey.

From your first cast, you’ll spend the rest of your days looking for that ‘magic bullet’ that catches fish every time. Does it exist? Well, I’ve not found it yet. Have you? Why jot let me know in the comments below?

If you’ve got time, why not make sure you’ve got flies and other essential fly fishing gear in my dedicated gear guide?

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Recent Content