Dry Flies for Spring Fly Fishing

Spring is in the air. So are millions of flies. Mayflies. Caddisflies. Craneflies. It’s the time of year when dry fly fishing begins to work.

If you are new to fly fishing and wonder what dry flies to have in your fly box, here are the two basic patterns you need:

Parachute Adams

If the fly fishing authorities limited me to one dry fly pattern for spring, I would not think twice. My hands-down choice is the Parachute Adams. This pattern imitates midges and Mayflies — and especially the sub-species of Mayflies known as Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs). My favorite size is an 18.

However, last week in the Wisconsin Driftless, I saw trout rising to small BWOs. So I put on a size 20 Parachute Adams and promptly caught an 11-inch brown.

In the interest of full disclosure, the size 20 pattern I used was a Parachute Purple Haze. It’s the same fly as a Parachute Adams, only with a purple body. Honestly, I haven’t noticed that one works better than the other. Trout seem to like either one. Perhaps the Purple Haze gives them a slightly different look from the tried-and-true Parachute Adams. But that advantage is disappearing as more fly fishers give in to the “purple haze craze.”

What I like about the Parachute Adams – or its flashy cousin (the Purple Haze) – is the white post or “parachute” that makes it visible. Even a size 20 sticks out as it floats down the run.

The Parachute Adams works well in the West, the Upper Midwest, and (from what my friends tell me) the East as well. Wherever you find midges and BWOs, the pattern will work. Midges appear throughout the winter and into spring, while BWOs show up in March.

Elk Hair Caddis

My other go-to pattern for spring fly fishing is the Elk Hair Caddis. Caddisflies appear in mid-April in both the West and the Upper Midwest. Fly fishers in southwest Montana — on the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers — eagerly await the “Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch.” Of course, by the time Mother’s Day appears on the calendar, the rivers usually look like chocolate milk. However, late-April fishing before the spring runoff can be fantastic as Caddis hatches intensify.

The Elk Hair Caddis is a bushy fly, and the tan elk hair wing makes it quite visible. The only problem is that it doesn’t stand out among dozens of other Caddisflies on the surface of the water. You can solve this problem can be solved by tying (or buying) an Elk Hair Caddis with some red or pink fibers on top of the elk hair wing.

The best sizes range from 14-18. It all depends on the watershed you’re fishing as well as the time of year. The best way to figure out the size is … you guessed it … check with a local fly shop. Also, some rivers will fish better with certain body colors. When I’m on the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana, I like a green or a tan body. When I’m in the Wisconsin or Minnesota Driftless, I prefer a black body. I’ve even used some flies with elk hair that has been dyed black.

Other Patterns

I’m tempted to end the article here because these two flies will work in the spring 80% of the time when bugs are in the air and on the water. However, the later you get into spring, you’ll start to see some other flies that require other patterns.

In the Upper Midwest, Hendricksons appear as early as mid-April. Sulfers, March Browns, and Craneflies show up in May. I remember an evening on a little stream in the Wisconsin Driftless when the trout refused everything but a Cranefly pattern.

In the West, March Browns in a size 12 work well surprisingly early on the big rivers like the Yellowstone. There are Stonefly hatches as well that happen in the spring. Even a Stimulator can be effective at times — even though I tend to think of it as a pattern for summer.

Your best bet, though, will be to have plenty of Parachute Adams and Elk Hair Caddis flies in various sizes and — in the case of the Elk Hair Caddis — various colors.

While nymphs and streamers are always a sure bet in the spring, don’t neglect dry flies. You might miss out on the fun!

3 Replies to “Dry Flies for Spring Fly Fishing”

    1. If you’re looking to fish dry flies, Caddis should work well in the evenings. Terrestials should be good–hoppers, ants, beetles. Hopper season may be reaching its prime on the Yellowstone in the Park, and that’s always a blast. We suggest consulting a local fly shop to see what’s working best on the river or stream you’re fishing.

  1. Regarding the Parachute Adams, is there any practical difference between it and the standard Adams fly other than the parachute aspect? Does the parachute provide anything more than making the fly more identifiable in the water?

    Regarding the Elk Hair Caddis, I’ve read that some prefer the Low Rider CDC & Elk Caddis as an alternative because the normal Elk Hair Caddis sometimes rides too high. Any thoughts or experiences?

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