Great Quotes from “A River Runs Through It”

In 1987, shortly after I moved to Helena, Montana, I bought a copy of “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean.

A River Runs Through It

I was browsing in a little bookstore in Last Chance Gulch, looking for the next Montana author to read. The movie had not yet popularized the novella, but a friend had recommended “A River Runs Through It.” So I picked up a copy. Ivan Doig, A. B. Guthrie, and other Montana authors would have to wait. The first paragraph captivated me, and I found that the book touched me deeply. Both the first and last lines are classic.

    “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

    “I am haunted by waters.”

There are, of course, several other lines worth pondering. Here are a few of my favorites, along with my musings about them.

It’s a Rod!

    “Always it was to be called a rod. If someone called it a pole, my father looked at him as a sergeant in the United States Marines would look at a recruit who had just called a rifle a gun.”

The funny thing is, I was looking at high-end Orvis rods in a fly shop a few weeks ago, and the clerk (obviously a newbie) said, “Those are some really pricey poles you looking at.” I bit my tongue, but thought of the Rev. Maclean and how he would have frowned on this.

On Casting Technique

    “Until a man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air.”

Been there, done that. I also witnessed it a few weeks ago while helping a new fly fisher with his casting. Bringing your rod back too far on the back cast will also result in hooking brush or tree limbs or in slapping the water behind you if you are casting straight upstream.

The Montana Mindset

    “My brother and I soon discovered [the world outside] was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.”

Residents of Bozeman, Montana would beg to differ!

There is a heated rivalry between the University of Montana (in Missoula) and Montana State University (in Bozeman). I won’t repeat some of the names fans from each city have called each other!

Bait Fisherman Take One on the Chin

    “When [bait fishermen] come back home they don’t even kiss their mothers on the front porch before they’re in the back garden with a red Hills Bros. coffee can digging for angleworms.”

This was the younger brother Paul’s line. He was no fan of bait fishermen!

I’ll admit that I started out catching brook trout with worms. I have no qualms with this method if an angler is trying to catch dinner and honoring the limits set by a state fish and game agency. But there is no place for bait fishing — or spin-casting with treble hook lures — when it comes to catch and release.

The Glory of Nature

    “Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory.”

This is simply beautiful prose, and it comes from one who has interacted deeply with nature. Fly fishing is not just about catching fish (although I’m all about catching fish!). It’s about experiencing nature and seeing its patterns reflect that way the Creator has designed life.

The Twists and Turns of Life

    “The fisherman even has a phrase to describe what he does when he studies the patterns of a river. He says he is ‘reading the water,’ and perhaps to tell his stories he has to do much the same thing.”

This quote comes right after Norman Maclean observes that “stories of life are more often like rivers than books.” I think he is saying that stories of life are fluid and take twists and turns that we do not anticipate.

The Big Idea of A River Runs Through It

    “You can love completely without complete understanding.”

This is what Norman said to his father when they were discussing his younger brother Paul’s death. I believe it is the big idea of the book. Maclean’s novella is about more than fly fishing. It’s about family and about living with and loving those who elude us. And yes, it’s about how all things eventually merge into one and how a river runs through it (per it’s last full paragraph).

And yes, like Norman Maclean, I am haunted by waters.

What to Wear When You Wade

Every fly fisher knows what to wear when you wade the river. The Simms and Cabelas’ models have shown us. We need to don a pair of chest waders and pull on our wading boots. But sometimes, the conditions dictate another approach.

wear when you wade

If you’re new to fly fishing, here is a guide for when you wade the river.

1. Chest Waders + Wading Boots

This is the default approach.

A good pair of chest waders will keep you dry and warm as you wade a cold river. They will also keep you safe if you fall in, provided you use a wading belt. Please, don’t leave home without a wading belt! Some fly fishers tell us they use two for added protection. A wading belt seals the waders around your waist or chest so that they cannot fill up with water and weigh you down.

A good-quality pair of wading boots are a must, too.

This is where it gets a bit tricky because the best sole for traction is felt (in my opinion). But conservation-minded fly fishers frown on felt because it can trap the microorganisms and thus spread invasive species as a fly fisher moves from one river to another. So I don’t use felt, ever.

Frankly (and unfortunately), rubber-soled alternatives do not work as well as felt.

But Dave, my podcast partner, and I are sold on Patagonia Foot Tractors (we receive no kickback for recommending them). The aluminum bars on the sole really do provide good traction. But you’ll want to wait until you get to the river to put them on. Your local fly shop will appreciate you for waiting — especially if the shop has hardwood floors; the aluminum bars are meant to dig into bottom of the river.

So when should you wear chest waders and wading boots?

The most obvious answer is any time you will be wading in water above your thighs. By the way, the term “chest waders” does not demand that you wade in chest-high water. I highly recommend that you do not do this for the sake of safety.

You can also wear chest waders if the weather is cold or cool — even if you’ll will only wade in ankle deep water. You could “layer up” with other kinds of clothing, but if you sit on the bank in the early morning when the dew is on the ground, you’ll be thankful for your waders.

And obviously, you always using your wading boots with your chest waders.

2. Waist Waders + Wading Boots

Sometimes, though, the weather is too hot for chest waders.

We wish a large gentleman we saw a few years ago would have gotten this memo. He was fishing a spring creek on an 80+ degree day and was wearing chest waders. There was no need to wade the little creek except to cross it at a few points (in ankle deep water).

No need to sweat profusely.

One alternative is waist waders plus your wading boots. This works well if you want to stay dry but want to avoid over-heating. I ordered an inexpensive pair from Cabela’s and they seem sturdy enough.

I’ve wondered if waist waders provide a safety risk to those fly fishers who wade into thigh-deep water. Could they fill up with water more easily if you slip and fall in the river?

I suspect that the belt around your waist would keep them from filling up with water. But I haven’t fallen in with my waist waders (only while wearing my chest waders!), so I’m not certain about this.

3. Wet Wading + Wading Sandals (or Wading Shoes or Wading Boots)

If it is a hot day in the summer, wet wading is an alternative.

I’ll talk about clothing alternatives in a moment, but this means your clothing will get wet — yes, soaking wet. Footwear for wet wading is either wading sandals, wading shoes, or your wading boots.

I prefer a pair of Simms wading shoes. They are light. The downside, of course, is the rubber soles (see above). Some older wading sandals have felt soles, but these are going the way of cassettes, VHS, and CDs (for the environmental concerns mentioned earlier).

Wading boots work fine, although they are a bit heavier.

If you wear wading boots without waders, you’ll want to use Neoprene wading socks. Almost all the major manufacturers of waders make these. However, don’t expect that these will keep your feet dry. I’ve never had a pair that really sealed around my calf so that water didn’t seep down into them. But these socks will keep your feel from slipping around in your boots — even if your feet get wet.

What Clothing to Wear When You Wade

While we’re on the topic of wet wading, let’s address clothing. One alternative is a pair of frayed, cutoff shorts, which you make from your worn-out jeans.

Oh wait, it’s not the 1970s!

A better alternative is a pair of nylon pants or shorts. Go to your local sporting goods store and buy the cheapest pair you can find. They work as well as the high priced wading shorts and pants you’ll find in your local fly shop. The reason you want nylon is because it doesn’t feel as heavy when it’s waterlogged, and it dries out fairly quickly. If you’re wondering how well jeans work, well, try it once. We guarantee you’ll never do it again!

Downsides to Wet Wading

One is more exposure when you are fishing in areas where there are venomous snakes.

We talked recently on a podcast about a fly fisher who got bit by a copperhead in Shenandoah National Park. Now we’re not guaranteeing that waders will protect you sufficiently (unless you can figure out how to make a pair out of Kevlar!). But loose waders and a pair of wading boots may protect you a bit more.

A listener of our podcast also recently reminded us that wearing chest waders is a deterrent to ticks in the summer. Good point!

Also, you can’t store your wallet, car keys, and cell phone in your pants pockets if you are wet wading.

However, you’ll be relieved to know that neither Dave or I have discovered that our white legs scare away the trout when we wet wade in nylon shorts. Sorry to leave you with that image!

Whatever you wear when you wade, wade safely.

7 Big Ideas to Catch More Trout

catch more trout

Three years ago, in our second podcast ever, Dave and I identified “5 Ways to Catch More Trout.” We still stand by what we shared then. Plus, now that we are much wiser and much better fly fishers (insert laugh track or an eye roll emoji here), we have added a couple more ways to help you catch more trout. If you’re new to fly fishing or tired of the same old results, these insights might make all the difference.

1. Learn the art of nymph fishing

We all love to catch fish on the surface with dry flies. That’s the reason many anglers take up fly fishing.

Yet as every expert says – 85% of a trout’s diet is under the surface.

To catch more trout, learn how to drift a nymph (or a two-nymph rig) along the bottom of the river or stream you’re fishing.

2. Fish the banks

I’ve watched a lot of drift boats over the years on the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in Montana.

Guess where they fish? The bank!

Trout often lurk at the river’s edge — not necessarily in the middle of the river or stream. Savvy fly fishers who are wading will sometimes walk out a ways into the river and cast back towards the bank. To catch more fish, fish the bank.

3. Improve your casting

You don’t have to be a great fly caster to catch fish. But you’ve got to get better. Short casts are more than adequate.

Some of the biggest rainbows I’ve caught in Montana during the spring on the Madison River and during the fall on the East Gallatin have been about 10-15 feet in front of me.

The key is accuracy and presentation. So watch fly fishers who are better than you — whether in person or view their instructional videos (on YouTube).

4. Go where the other fly fishers are not

This means walking a mile further than the next fly fisher.

Dave and I have been doing this for years on the Yellowstone below Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park. We’ve had some tough scrambling to do in order to get up and over a cliff that stops many fly fishers.

However, going where other fly fishers are not does not always require a longer hike. I’ve learned to fish upstream from fishing accesses in Montana. A lot of fly fishers in drift boats are getting ready to take out, and so they skip some good water as they get close to the access.

5. Hire a guide

There’s some expense here, but every time we’ve fished with a guide, we have learned something new. Good guides help us with our casting skills, fly selection, and reading water. Split the cost of a guided float for a day with a friend, and you’ll be surprised and how much you improve — and how many more fish you catch than usual.

6. Fish with streamers more often

Both Dave and I got so infatuated with fishing nymphs and dry flies that we neglected streamer fishing for a few years. But about the time we started out podcast, we started slinging and stripping streamers more frequently, and the results have been fantastic. We’ve caught more fish and even bigger fish.

There’s nothing like a black or olive Woolly Bugger for getting the attention of a trout.

7. Hang out in your local fly shop more often

In the Age of Amazon and online shopping, it’s easy to order all your gear online.

But while ordering online might be more convenient, a trip to your local fly shop allows you to pick the brains of the fly fishing experts and guides who work behind the counter.

Make sure to buy a few flies and some of your more expensive gear from the shop. It needs your support. And you’ll be surprised at the intel you can pick up and use on your next trip.

10 MORE Items for Your Fly Vest

I like to travel light when I fly fish. So instead of packing my fly vest tighter than a German sausage, I try to be a minimalist. Recently, I shared “10 Must-Have Items for Your Fly Vest.” But there are more items for your fly vest to consider clipping to your lanyard or packing in your vest or satchel.

items for your fly vest

The following ten items for your fly vest are mostly suggestions you (our readers) added to my initial ten:

1. Hook sharpener

Honestly, I’ve never carried one of these in my vest.

But our guide-friend, Glen, says they are a must: “Fishing nymphs and ticking the bottom can really dull your hook point.”

He argues that a sharp hook is a must if you want to catch large fish.

2. Thermometer

In the past I have clipped a thermometer (with a retractor) to the inside of my vest. Some fly fishers use a Carabiner clip to attach a thermometer to the tip of a fly rod for placing it in the river to get a reading.

Why bother with a thermometer?

Well, knowing the precise temperature might help you anticipate when a hatch is about to begin if you know a particular river well enough. Then, on any river, if the water temperature nears seventy degrees, it’s better to stop fishing. Temperatures this high will exhaust and endanger any trout on the end of your line.

3. Sunscreen

I’m all for protection from the sun, but I rarely carry it sunscreen. That’s because I always wear a long-sleeved microfiber shirt—even on a 90+ degree day—and a neck gator. I always wear a hat, too, and often one which will shade my ears from the sun.

But sunscreen is a great alternative and a “must” if you’re wearing short sleeves and don’t have a way of protecting your nose and neck.

4. Whistle and compass

A whistle is a terrific idea. It’s light, and the sound can be heard a long way off. I can see how a compass would make sense in certain situations, although it’s not really necessary where I fish in the west. It’s hard to get lost on a river or stream. Simply follow it one way or another — especially downstream.

But if you’re hiking a long way to get to a stream or a river, then a compass could help as long as you know how to use it. A GPS might be better.

5. Gloves

Yes, I always stash a pair of gloves in my vest when I’m fishing in the fall or spring. I like a thin wool pair for keeping my hands warm when I’m not fishing, and I’ll even carry a pair of waterproof gloves to wear when I’m fishing.

6. Lighter

I carry a small butane lighter if I’m hiking in a couple miles during late fall or early spring. Some kind of fire starter is a good idea, too.

I usually fold a piece of newspaper and put it in a plastic bag. Real cotton balls work well, and there are commercial types of tinder you can purchase at an outdoors store.

7. Two-way radio or Satellite Tracker

Dave, my podcast partner, and I frequently carry two-way radios when fly fishing in the backcountry — especially in bear country. Cell phones work in some situations, but if reception is not good, you’ll be glad you brought a set of two-way radios.

One of our listeners recently commented about carrying a satellite messenger tracker: “I subscribe to a relatively inexpensive satellite messenger system (SPOPT) [which] can ‘pop smoke’ [as well].” Trackers are especially important if you are fishing alone in remote places.

8. Zip-lock bags and a garbage bag.

I like to bring along a couple pint-sized bags to keep certain items dry — cell phone, key fob, wallet.

Of course, your waders will keep anything in your pants pockets dry. But in the summer, I often wet wade in nylon shorts or pants. That’s when a pint-sized plastic bag (which has a sealing lock) comes in handy. A small garbage bag or plastic grocery bag in a large back pocket of your vest can be handy for hauling out trash.

9. Light rain jacket

Alright, these final two suggestions are mine.

Even on warm summer days, I always stash a light Simms rain jacket in a large pocket in the back of my vest. It has saved the day a few times when I’ve gotten caught in an unexpected rain storm or when the temperature suddenly drops.

10. Hook threader

This is a sign of my aging eyes. These little hook threaders are amazing tools! They hardly take up any space, but they take a lot of frustration out of tying a size #18 Parachute Adams onto a piece of 6x tippet. Another option is a small pair of reading glasses or clip-on magnifying lenses.

I don’t want my fly vest to weigh as much as a flak jacket. But it may be worth a bit more weight to carry a few of these additional ten items.

Tie Tippet to Leader with the Infinity Knot

Tippet to leader – that knot is the most at risk part of your dry fly or nymph fishing rig. How many fish have I lost because of my poorly tied knots? The very question makes me curl up into the fetal position.

Infinity Knot for Tippet to Leader

Adding tippet to the end of your leader requires a knot (unless, of course, you use tippet rings, which still require the clinch knot). And it’s this knot between leader and tippet that makes me nuts.

There are unlimited knot possibilities, of course, but not long ago, one of our listeners sent me a link to a video about how to tie the Infinity Knot. I won’t say the knot has transformed my life, but it has transformed my knot tying.

The Infinity Knot is quick, easy, and strong. Yes!

10 Must-Have Items for Your Fly Vest

All the gadgets dangling from a fly fisher’s vest or lanyard may bewilder someone new to the sport. The bulging vest pockets or compartments may seem mysterious as well. Do fly fishers really need all that stuff?

fly vest

If you’re new to fly fishing, here are ten must-have items for your fly vest or lanyard or satchel. If you’re a veteran, perhaps the list will remind you why you clip on or carry these items:

1. Fly Box

Obviously. But it’s worth giving this some thought.

You want a sturdy, waterproof fly box to hold your flies for your fly vest. Go with one box if you can. Traveling lighter has its advantages. For a single box, I like something with double compartments—one for dry flies and one for wet flies (nymphs and streamers). As much as I like to travel light, though, I’ve succumbed to two boxes.

2. Nippers

This is one of those dangly items clipped to your fly vest or lanyard.

Ideally, it will be connected to a retractor so that you can pull the nippers away from your fly vest. So what do nippers do? Well, they “nip” the excess line from your knots or “nip” off a piece of tippet.

Nippers also have a pointed piece (think needle) which you can use to punch out the head cement from the eye of a hook or to help you untangle a knot.

3. Forceps

These are also known as hemostats (or hemos). You need a pair of these scissor-like devices so you can remove a hook from a fish’s mouth. Trust me, using forceps does a lot less damage to a fish’s mouth than reaching into it with your fingers. The corollary is that using forceps does a lot less damage to your fingers if you’re dealing with an 18-inch brown with sharp teeth!

You can pinch these to your vest or lanyard. But I still prefer to connect a pair of forceps to a retractor. Otherwise, you’ll accidentally drop them in the river or get them plucked off by the brush.

4. Spools of tippet

Some fly fishers have five or six spools of tippet hanging outside their fly vest or (like me) tucked away in a pocket. Tippet is the material you tie on the end of your leader so that it corresponds properly to the size of your fly.

The more I fly fish, the fewer tippet sizes I use. I go with 6x (lighter) for tiny flies like size #18 or #20. I’ve even used 5x successfully on these sizes. Then, 3x or 4x (heavier) for larger flies—particularly large stonefly nymphs and streamers. Thus, I’m carrying four spools at the most.

5. Leaders

A few fly fishers I know go through leaders like chewing gum. Others claim to use the same leader for an entire season, tying new pieces of tippet on it as needed. Whatever your preference, it’s always good to carry a few spare leaders. You never know when a vicious tangle or wind knot will make a new leader make sense.

Plus, if you’re fairly new to fly fishing and a bit slow at tying on tippet, you can always put on a new leader if you need to go from 4x to 6x tippet in a hurry—especially in low light at the end of the day!

6. Strike indicators

These are imperative for fishing nymphs unless you’re one of the few who goes by feel. I do not. I need to see the little plastic bobber (sorry, that’s what it is) “bob” or disappear to know that I have a strike.

You’ll find different varieties of strike indicators — including the little plastic ones I just described. Have someone at a fly shop show you how to attach and remove them quickly.

7. Weight

Unless you use weighted flies exclusively, you’ll want some small split shot to add to your nymphs and streamers. Even when I use beadhead flies or even streamer patterns I’ve weighted with wire as I’ve tied them, I still occasionally add a small split shot or two.

Please use environmentally-friendly split shot (no lead). In some watersheds, they are required.

8. First Aid Supplies

You can buy a first aid kit, although I prefer to assemble my own (to save space). At the very least, carry a few band aids, first aid cream (such as Neosporin), and some pain reliever. Mosquito repellant is a good idea, too.

9. Dry Fly Floatant and Drying Powder

You need to keep those dry flies as dry as possible!

While a couple of false casts can help, it’s important to put some kind of floatant on them before you fish. You’ll also want a small bottle of powder or crystals into which you can insert your dry fly after it has gotten water-logged (yes, the floatant only works for a while).

The options for these products are legion. Go to a fly shop to see what’s available.

10. Headlamp

I’ve recently started putting a small headlamp in my vest. It works must better than a flashlight because it’s “hands free.” It’s a safety device, but it also helps in tying on a size #18 parachute Adam in the dusk when you come across a run with rising trout.

There are other gadgets. You’ll want to carry water, and you may pack a lunch. But go as light as possible. If you have the items above, you’ll have everything you need for a good day on the river.

Summer’s Greatest Danger for Fly Fishers

Summer’s greatest danger for fly fishers may be the least obvious one. I typically worry about rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, and drowning when I head for the river on a hot summer day. But summer’s greatest danger for fly fishers is lightning.

summer's greatest danger

It’s a danger that can strike almost without warning — although there are usually some advance signs such as dark skies and a drop in temperature. Here are a few tips I’ve read over the years for staying safe from summer’s greatest danger:

1. Stay alert when a storm is brewing or ending.

According to outdoor writer Keith McCafferty, most lightning strikes occur near the start or the end of afternoon storms.

“This is when positive and negative charges,” he says, “which collide to produce the flash between clouds and the ground, build up the most electricity.”

2. Put down that “lightning rod” (a.k.a., fly rod).

It’s no secret that that a graphite rod serves as an effective conductor of electricity. So put it flat down on the ground —not leaning up against a tree.

While you’re at it, avoid metal fence posts and tall trees.

3. Stay in your vehicle, not outside it

Mark Leberfinger, a staff writer for, says the notion that rubber tires protect occupants of a car is a myth. It’s the metal frame on which those tires sit that makes the difference. Lightning charges typically go around the outside of a vehicle (the reason why you want to be inside).

Plus, the metal frame directs lightning to the ground. Keep those windows shut, though. Backhoes and bulldozers with enclosed canopies are safe, too, during thunderstorms. But I’m guessing most fly fishers don’t use heavy equipment as their mode of transportation to the river.

4. Go low and get down.

Are you standing on a ridge? Get down! Take cover in low shrubs — not under tall trees.

Keith McCafferty recommends squatting like a baseball catcher. This gets you low to the ground but with minimal body contact — just your two feet. This works especially well for folks like Yadier Molina, All-star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.

However, middle-aged folks can’t do it for too long. Believe me, I’ve tried it. But do it if your skin tingles, your body hair stands up, and your mouth tastes metallic. Those are signs of an impending strike. Don’t get too low, though. By that I mean, avoid damp depressions. These act as conductors for lightning as it travels along the ground.

5. Row to shore

If you’re fly fishing from a drift boat, row to shore at the first sign of a storm. Then move away from the boat and take cover in small shrubs. If you get caught in a storm, stay as low in the boat as possible, keeping your arms and legs inside. Make sure your fly rod is lying flat.

According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills an average of 47 people in the U.S. per year. Hundreds more are severely injured. So don’t worry about being overly cautious.

When a storm approaches, do what you can to stay safe from summer’s greatest danger. The trout will still be there when the storm passes. Make sure that you are too.

When to Get Sideways with Your Fly Rod

It’s never a good idea to get sideways with people (or your fly fishing partner). But sometimes it’s okay to get sideways with your fly rod.

sideways with your fly rod

Most photos of fly fishers casting or fighting fish show the fly rod pointed up—vertical, perpendicular to the ground. But there are three times when it makes sense to get sideways with your rod:

1. The sideways cast

Dave, my pod-cast partner, and I like to fish a little trout stream in the Timber Coulee area of Wisconsin. One of the better stretches has three runs which are covered by low-hanging tree branches. If you look closely, you can see a couple strike indicators hanging from the branches.

One of them may or may not be ours.

But we’ve been able to fish this stretch successfully by using a side-arm cast.

It’s not that difficult. The main challenge is your back cast. If you have tall grass or low-to-the ground obstructions, it won’t work. But if you’re close enough to the run for low-handing branches to interfered, you probably won’t need a long back cast.

2. The sideways hook set

We use a sideways hook set for nymphing under two conditions:

First, the strike is right in front of us — not downstream. Second, the strike is just a few feet in front of us. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The rationale for a sideways hook set is simple. Rather than pull the nymph up and possibly out of the fish’s mouth, we pull it to the side so that it goes into the fish’s mouth. Fish face the current. That is, they look upstream. So when we set the hook, we pull to the side in a downstream direction.

However, this technique does not work well when the strike is downstream from you or twenty feet or more in front of you. In both cases, you have a lot of fly line on the surface. The surface tension will slow down your hook set. It will feel like trying to run fast in a muddy field. You’ll simply get bogged down.

So, it’s best to keep your fly rod vertical in these instances.

You’ll be surprised how a quick straight-up lift of your rod will get the line off of the surface before you can say “Trout!” Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish on the other end. Your line will lift off the surface so quickly that your strike indicator will come shooting at you. It shows how effective this technique really is.

3. The sideways fight

Holding your fly rod high and pointing it to the sky makes for a great photo when fighting a fish. But when you’re trying to land a fish as quickly as possible (for the sake of its health), pulling it from side to side works best. This forces a fish to use its lateral muscles, and it tires it out in much less time.

Perpendicular may look right. But sometimes, getting your fly rod sideways is the most effective way to cast, hook, and fight fish.

My 5 Favorite All-Purpose Dry Fly Patterns

Pardon the overused pun, but I’m hooked on dry fly fishing. I love watching a trout rise to take a fly off of the river’s surface. My dry fly box is stocked and already in use for this spring and summer season of fishing. While I definitely carry more than five dry fly patterns, here are the five all-purpose flies, in various sizes.

dry fly patterns

I like these in sizes 14-18, with some size 20s in a couple of these patterns:

1. Parachute Adams

This is where it all begins for me.

If I could only use one dry fly, I’d choose a Parachute Adams for sure. This fly serves double-duty. I use it during a Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatch, but I also use it as an attractor pattern. It works equally well in Montana, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I carry some size 20s in this pattern because it has worked on days when trout stubbornly refuse a size 18.

2. Elk Hair Caddis

Like the Parachute Adams, the Elk Hair Caddis serves well as both an imitation and an attractor pattern. My dilemma is always the dubbing. I like black for the spring creeks in Minnesota or Wisconsin Driftless creeks, but green or tan works well for the Yellowstone River in Montana.

I’ve even had success with a larger Caddis pattern (size 12) during hopper season.

3. Light Cahill

I always make sure my fly box has an ample supply of Light Cahills to imitate Pale Morning Duns (PMDs). I’ve run into a lot of PMDs on the spring creeks in Montana and tailwaters like the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. Like a BWO, and PMD is a another mayfly species.

While the BWO has darker (gray) color, a PMD is much lighter pale color—as its name suggests.

4. Comparadun

I’m being a bit non-committal here as the Comparadun is a rather general pattern rather than a specific fly. I’ll go with gray if I want to imitate a BWO or light tan if I want to imitate a PMD. The key is that the Comparadun floats a bit lower in the film than a Parachute Adams or a Light Cahill.

This makes it look more a cripple or a dun that is struggling to take flight.

5. Royal Wulff

My final go-to fly is an attractor pattern. While I’m selecting a Royal Wulff as my fifth fly, my favorite attractor varies from week to week and from river to river. I like something with bushy hackle which can handle a lot of water.

So I’m also fond of an H & L Variant and a Red or Yellow Humpy. Occasionally, I’ll return to one of the first attractor patterns I ever used — the Renegade. It doesn’t stay “dry” quite as well in rough water, but even when submerged, it produces well.

You only need a few basic patterns for spring and summer dry fly fishing, but make sure you fly box is full of them in different sizes.

Second Thoughts on Barbless Hooks for Fly Fishing

Fly fishers often frown on barbed hooks. One guide and blogger wrote: “Barbs are barbaric.” The rationale is that a sharp barb on a hook damages a fish’s mouth when removed. Barbless hooks for fly fishing, however, slide out like a greased pig through the hands of its pursuer.

barbless hooks for fly fishing

I was on board with moving to barbless hooks until a friend made an observation that caused me to question the whole idea.

Post-Release Survival

My friend observed that a landed trout’s survival depends more on how quickly it is released — and kept wet during the release – than on whether the hook is barbless. In fact, he argued, it’s easier to land a trout more quickly on a barbed hook than a barbless one. That is, the time that it takes to reel in a trout on a barbed hook is less and thus enables the fly fisher to release the fish more quickly.

The quicker the time from the hookset to the release, the better.

What Studies Suggest

Of course, advocates of barbless hooks cite studies that suggest such hooks lead to a lower post-release mortality rate for trout. Simply “Google” the topic, and you’ll find plenty of articles discussing these studies.

You might be surprised, though, when you discover a few biologists and fly fishers who question the results of these studies.

Two decades ago, Doug Schill, an Idaho Fish and Game research biologist, looked at several studies done over the years and found that barbed hooks led to a negligibly higher mortality rate — 0.3 percent. He noted that a particular creek in Idaho had an average annual mortality rate of 30% to 65%.

“It is normal for fish to die at that rate,” he said. “So that 0.3 percent makes no difference.”

If he is right, that is well within the margin of error. Some studies simply show little correlation between barbed hooks and higher mortality rates.

The Larger Problem

I think there is an even larger problem related to fish mortality research.

Many studies simply do not and cannot account for enough variables to determine their accuracy. A family friend is a leading medical genomic researcher — probably one of the top five in his field in the world. He conducts prospective and retrospective studies and analyzes large data sets as his day job.

Yet he frequently scoffs at the confidence people have in the data. For example, the accuracy of any large pharmacogenomic study of cancer patients is determined by the gritty details, such as “Did the patient take the pill every day for three years,” and “How can we verify that she did?”

The problem almost always lies in the data, how it is collected, and whether it can be fully trusted. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” problem.

So many scientific studies are simply not conclusive. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in good science. I’m not a Luddite. It’s often non-scientific people, however, who talk the loudest and express the most emotion about the conclusiveness of scientific research. My podcast partner Dave has a saying, “Always confident, sometimes right,” to describe such people.

Personal Experience

Some anglers base their conclusions (understandably) on personal experience. But this does not come any closer to solving the problem.

I have read and listened to passionate accounts of how barbless hooks are the only way to go. Isn’t the issue common sense?

Yet others insist, from their experience, that barbless hooks for fly fishing create more problems than they solve. One angler claims that barbless hooks actually penetrate further than barbed hooks, creating more damage on their entrance than barbed hooks do on their exit.

This is why I have not jumped on the barbless hooks bandwagon.

I respect those who use barbless hooks for fly fishing, of course. And I always use barbless hooks when the law requires them. When in Yellowstone National Park, for example, I definitely use barbless hooks. I respect the laws of the land. I pinch down the barbs.

Fish-friendly and Conservation-Minded

But as conservation-minded as I am, I currently do not use barbless hooks when I have a choice. I’ve notice that other conservation-minded friends and fly fishing guides don’t either. I’m certainly open to changing my mind on this, though it will take more than the latest study to convince me.

In the meantime, I will land fish as quickly as possible, use forceps to remove the hook, and release a trout as quickly as possible. And always with wet hands.