Our Top 10 best dry flies for trout, as well as a dry fly FAQ, tips on fishing dries AND an entomology overview!
Floating, Fluttering, and Falling
Dry flies are for most anglers, an absolute dream. Casting out to that brown trout sipping of the surface at dusk is the moment you think about when asked about your most memorable fish.
In this article, I’m going to examine some patterns that are tried and true classics, as well as some patterns that I never leave home without. I’m going to include Youtube tutorials on all the patterns mentioned here so that you can get to work spinning them up as Spring approaches faster every day.
Best Dry Flies For Trout
1) The Royal Wulff
Lee Wulff is a constant source of inspiration for me. He was a fearless pilot and dedicated conservationist, an artist, a premier fly dresser, and arguably one of the most dynamic “rockstars” of what I consider the heyday of adventurist fly fishing.
Possibly his most famous fly, the Royal Wulff uses the same classic royal coachman color scheme (red floss thorax segmenting two parts peacock hurl) with high visibility hair wings. This fly excels in rough water, and it is my preferred searching pattern when I’m fishing water I’m unfamiliar with.
Normally tied a bit larger than your standard Catskill-style dry fly, these flies are more than capable of being used as the float on a dry dropper rig, with a small unweighted nymph or emerger attached with tippet to the hook bend.
The fact that Wulff tied these in the hand with no vise is just another reason the pattern is so cool. I have consistent success with this fly from tailwaters to the Susquehannah.
Tightlinevideo is a treasure trove of valuable information, and their tutorial on the Royal Wulff, below is fantastic.
This fly should be in your box. Once you’ve mastered this, get started on the truly numerous variations that are out there today.
Learn to tie the Royal Wulff
2) The Parachute Adams
The Adams is arguably the most popular dry fly in existence.
There is something truly effective about the Adams’ ability to mimic a host of flitting fluttering bugs. I have many variations of this in my box in a variety of sizes.
The parachute variation of this classic fly has been a notable producer for me in a variety of conditions. I like parachute flies. The post can be made high-vis, and depending on the material used (I’m a fan of polypropylene in various colors) it keeps the fly floating all day.
With the hackle spun around the post, this fly sits both in and above the film, and I do think this makes it more enticing to the trout. I struggled at first when learning how to properly post and hackle this fly, but Fly Fish Food, as always, has created a streamlined and easy-to-understand tutorial to simplify this process.
Once you’re satisfied with your ability to tie this fly a bit larger (I started out with a tiemco size 10 dry fly hook), start sizing down for pickier trout. I’ve seen this fly tied and fished effectively down to an 18.
Don’t be intimidated by the profile of the parachute, it’s worth learning. The only way you’ll get better is through repetition, so get spinning!
How to Tie this Easier Version of the Parachute Admas
3) Olive X-Caddis
When I found this pattern, I pretty much stopped tying traditional Elk or Deer hair Caddis flies. This fly is a go to caddis imitation for me.
I really like the fact that it includes a “stuck-shuck” and imitates an emerging caddis fly having trouble extricating itself from it’s little shell. Using polypro fibers for the shuck keeps this fly floating, along with the deer or elk hair that you like for the wing.
I find that although this is a dry fly, these things work great when drowned as well.
Caddis flies are a must-have in every box of dries, and another reason I find this pattern (and the great tutorial from tightlinevideo) so great is that I can crank out a dozen of these flies in a relatively short time, regardless of size. For that reason alone you should really check this pattern out, it’s a versatile masterpiece from Craig Matthews and just as effective in PA as it is out west.
Learn to Tie the Olive X-Caddis
4) The Renegade
This Renegade is another classic dry fly that I really don’t think gets enough attention with all the modern types of dry flies out there today (and there are a lot!). It is simplistic, effective, and like the X-Caddis, is another fly that can be repeated to fill your box’s empty spots.
When tied small this is a great fly to throw inline, behind another attractor dry (I frequently tie one behind a Royal Wulff).
No exotic materials are necessary here, just two different hackles and some peacock herl and you’ve got yourself a fish-catching machine.
Sometimes I will add very fine tinsel around the peacock herl body for added durability (trout teeth are sharp and abrasive), but this pattern is good no matter how you tie it.
Barry Ord Clark has never made a bad video and is one of the first fly tiers that I point people in the direction of because of his consistent quality and expert explanations.
Learn to Tie The Renegade By Barry Ord Clark
5) Griffith’s Gnat
The Griffith’s Gnat is one of those flies that may lack the detail of other flies but is a relentlessly effective impressionistic pattern. Whether it’s meant to imitate a midge cluster, falling spinners, or just the bugs that you can’t quite identify while on the water, this fly is extremely productive and useful regardless of where it’s used.
I believe the Griffith’s Gnat works best at smaller sizes, and I have found it particularly effective when used when throwing two flies at once.
It doesn’t get much more simplistic than peacock herl and grizzly hackle which is a plus when you’re tying in bulk. InTheRiffle produces great videos on numerous subjects far more complex than a Griffith’s Gnat, so give their Youtube channel a look on your way to the above tutorial.
How to Tie The Griffith’s Gnat from InTheRiffle
6) The Black Foam Ant
I’ve never personally witnessed an ant fall while on the water, but I’ve read about them extensively, and they seem to be the stuff of legend. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon an unfortunate blanket of migrating ants blown onto the water, you’re going to want a few imitations handy.
Bigger sizes are also great as a searching pattern in the Summer months when the bugs are back and established. Fish them near the banks and next to shrubbery and overhang.
The utilization of closed-cell foam means this fly floats like a cork, and it makes a great, realistic segmented body as well. Davie McPhail is another one of those fly tyers that I respect a lot, and that had a major influence when I was newer to the vise, and all his videos are top quality.
How to Tie the Black Foam Ant by Davie McPhail
7) The Half Chernobyl
I am not alone in thinking every box of dries needs at least a brace of meaty terrestrial/hopper patterns. The Chernobyl Ant pattern and the numerous variations of it are effective at imitating hoppers and other creeping, crawling things that sometimes get caught in water that’s full of hungry trout.
The Half Chernobyl is just a sized-down variant of the Chubby Chernobyl, and I feel like its smaller size allows it to be even more versatile–it could be a cricket, a small grasshopper, a big beetle, or even a cicada.
The use of closed-cell foam is again used to great effect here, and having a few of these flies in your box gives you access to fishing a hopper/dropper rig if you need to switch tactics away from solely using dry flies. Drifthook Fly Fishing has a lot of instructional fly-tying lessons on their channel and I tie this pattern often, using their tips. Make sure to check their other videos out!
How to Tie the Half Chernobyl by Drifthook Fly Fishing
8) The Stimulator
This is another impressionistic dry that mimics several different bugs. It can represent an adult stonefly, a caddis fly, any number of daytime moths, and more.
I have had a ton of success with Stimulators tied small when I’m fishing spring creeks and high mountain streams. When tied a bit larger they work great as the float in a hopper/dropper rig, or alone as a searching pattern. Mixing up the dubbing and hackle selection is easy, meaning you can tie this fly in multiple variations to match the natural colors of flies in your neck of the woods.
I have also seen the deer hair wing substituted with bleached elk, polypro, and many other materials, so once you have this pattern down to memory, start messing around with it.
Charlie Craven is a fly dresser that should need no introduction. His videos are on point with his reputation as a master-class bug spinner.
How to Tie the Stimulator by Charlie Craven
9) The Klinkhammer
The Klinkhammer is a fly that took me a while to master. I started out tying this fly long before I tried my hand at a Parachute Adams, and I’m sure I still have some of my ugly first attempts floating around in some of my boxes.
Learning this fly well not only affords you a fantastic, productive fly that walks the line between dry and emerger but will also get you more comfortable with making a parachute post and horizontal hackling. When you’re able to tie this fly small, they’re perfect for numerous different bug falls, and I am a firm believer that every box should have at least a dozen of these, in varied colors and with various hackles.
Tightlinevideo hits a home run again with this video, and I think it is one of the easiest to understand and follow on Youtube. Check this out.
How to Tie the Klinkhammer by Tightlinevideo
10) The Mosquito
As Spring gets closer and closer, soon the mosquitoes will be out in force again in Pennsylvania, and while their very existence frustrates and disturbs me every year, I cannot deny, this pattern works from the Susquehanna River to the highest of mountain streams.
Tied small, and only using grizzly hackle, this fly is easy to tie and endlessly productive. This is another fly that I feel just gets a bit more the smaller you can tie it, so as always, get established on a larger size hook (I started with a 10) and move on to the smallest size your fingers and eyes can handle.
Barry Ord Clarke does what he does best here again, with a cracking good pattern explained in the simplest and most succinct terms.
How to Tie the Mosquito by Barry Ord Clarke
Types of Dry Flies
I’m going to break down some of the different types of dry flies here, with some brief explanations and references to some good patterns.
A midge is any small fly. And boy do they get small. They are found practically everywhere outside of the Arctic Tundra and the aridest deserts and are prime feed for everything from arachnids to anadromous fishes. The sheer volume of midge species means that you need some tiny dry flies that imitate them in your box because even the pickiest trout will often rise to a correctly presented midge. Tied small enough, a Griffith’s Gnat or Renegade (see above) are impressionistic enough to represent them. I enjoy tying the Reaper Midge pattern, as it incorporates flash and light hackle well
The caddis (order Trichoptera) are primo trout food all over. The caddis has 14,500 species, so it behooves you to have some replicas in your box. These bugs start out as nymphs in the water, emerge and become terrestrials, so the discerning fly dresser can imitate practically their entire life cycle. Goddard’s Caddis is a great adult caddis fly pattern, but because caddis hatches can cause even lazy trout to spring into action on the water, having a few different caddises in your box is very important. The X-Caddis in the above list is my go-to, mostly because of how easy they are to tie in bulk, but the Missing Link is also a great pattern to learn well.
Mayflies are of the order Ephemeroptera, and these flies are just as fun to fish as their Latin name is to say. These are truly ancient insects, related to bigger predatory bugs like damselflies and dragonflies, and their profile is stark and imitated with a host of extended-body mayfly patterns. They are a bear to tie at first, but you just need some, especially as Spring marches closer every day.
I fish a lot of stonefly nymphs because these flies spend most of their time on earth in the nymphal stage. These emerge in late winter/early spring, so they should be fished right about this time of year, and to great effect. If you’re looking for a great adult imitation, a size 12 stimulator in a natural color works great, but another pattern that has produced well for me is an Early Black Stone dry. These flies are found all over the world, and they drive trout nuts, especially right about now when they begin to emerge.
Terrestrial flies mimic land-bound bugs that find themselves unluckily stranded out on the water and within the eyesight of hungry trout. This includes hoppers, ants, beetles, cicadas, and even centipedes. I have already explained the great advantages having some ants in your box can provide, but the same is to be said for hopper/cricket imitations and other such crawling bugs. I have found that terrestrial dry fly patterns work well for me in the summer when these creatures are most active and numerous.
Tips and Tricks for Dry Fly Fishing
The old saying that, “a properly presented fly will catch fish even when proportions or color are a bit off” is something I’ve proven to myself many times on the water. You want to get your dry fly to drift with no drag, right into the areas where trout are rising first. This comes with practice. Matching the particular hatch is important, but presentation always trumps the fine details of getting an ephemeroptera or terrestrial exactly anatomically correct.
Once, I was lucky. I got to witness caddis flies falling in big blankets onto the surface film of the Bald Eagle creek, and slack-jawed and misty-eyed, I soon saw the water begin to boil, signaling the movement of multiple hungry browns about ten feet in front of me. I changed flies from a coachman to a caddis and tried my luck. In this instance, there were so many flies dropping to the water, even though I was using the correct fly to match the hatch, It was almost as if my fly was getting lost amongst all this surface activity. I could not get a strike. Under pressure, I switched out the caddis to a larger and more colorful klinkhammer, and only then did I manage to catch a few fish, near the end of this quite miraculous sight. There is something to be said for “unmatching the hatch” like this. Yes, ideally, matching the hatch should be your first goal, especially when you are on the water at the right time to witness a sight such as this. But, when your current dry fly tactics aren’t working, do not be afraid to change flies and change your methods. Yes that means tying knots on the water, and yes that can mean frustration especially when you’re under pressure to get a fly back on your tippet, but a fish in the net can often beat witnessing a rise.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What’s the deal with dry fly floatant? Do I need it?
A: For a long time I fished without floatant. In my opinion, if my fly couldn’t float drift after drift, it wasn’t tied right. After repeatedly drowning my flies and having to switch out or dry my bug after only a few casts, I began to understand fly floatant’s appeal. Even the best tied bugs can become waterlogged and drowned, and it happens faster in rougher water. A good environmentally friendly fly floatant (I prefer Orvis) can bring your bug back to riding high on the water even if it’s been heavily used, drowned etc.
Q: Can I successfully fish dry flies even when I don’t see a rise?
A: The answer here is yes, but it is more difficult. Getting a trout to rise and take a bug off the surface is no small feat! Trout eat the majority of their food underwater, and it takes energy and precision to grab airborne bugs. Dry fly fishing is more productive when there’s more fly activity, but I still see the dedicated few fishing tiny midges and early Blue Wing Olives while there’s still snow on the ground, and insects are in short supply.
Q: What should my leader/tippet look like?
A: For trout, I like long leaders with fine tippet. The finer the better, especially when throwing smaller dries. In general, I don’t use leader over 5 lb test, and my tippet is usually 4.5 or 3 lb. Dry flies are delicate, tiny things. Leave those tippet rings off and learn a good leader to tippet knot so these flies stay floating naturally on the surface.
Reeling it in
Nothing beats dry fly eats, and there is something to be said for the anglers that strictly only use them. I use all types of flies in all types of conditions, but as the weather gets warmer and the bugs resume their business, dry flies become useful tools to bring trout to the net. There is much nuance and skill involved in using dry flies, but the results are worth the practice. I hope that this article has shed some light on dry fly fishing, and I hope that the provided patterns and Youtube tutorials are useful to you both on the water and at the vise. Spring is coming! During the countdown to opening day, try your hand at spinning up some of these flies. Best of luck, and as always, tight lines!