My 5 Favorite All-Purpose Dry Fly Patterns

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.

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.

The Mayfly Life Cycle

mayfly life cycle

There’s nothing more exciting than reflecting on the life cycle of a mayfly. Well, actually there is. It’s catching trout—and lots of them. If you want to catch more trout, it’s helpful (though not necessarily exciting) to think about the life cycle of a mayfly. It will help you know what you’re trying to imitate.

1. The Nymph stage

A mayfly spends all but one or two days of its life underwater as a nymph. It’s no wonder, then, that 85% of a trout’s diet comes from beneath the surface. It’s why fishing nymph patterns is almost always a sure bet. Nymphs move about the stream as they feed and molt and then drift into the current or dart from place to place.

If you want to get technical, there are four categories of Mayfly nymphs. Dave Hughes, in his Pocketguide to Western Hatches, classifies them as swimmers, crawlers, clingers, or burrowers. You could vary your strategy if you’re trying to imitate a certain kind of mayfly. However, most of the time, the tried-and-true dead drift method will work. Standard patterns include Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail. A Prince Nymph works fine, too, even though it was originally designed as a Stonefly nymph.

2. The Emerger stage

In this brief stage, the child becomes an adult when the skin splits along the back of the nymph and the winged dun escapes. This happens as the emerger rises to the surface and sheds its skin underwater. Some nymphs, however, crawl to the edge of the river where they shed their skin on the rocks or grass. This explains why you often see empty “casings” on rocks near a river’s edge.

It’s often a good idea to trail your dry fly with an emerger pattern, which you fish just under the film. Sometimes you’ll even see “rising” trout which don’t seem to be feeding on the surface flies. If so, definitely switch to an emerger pattern.

3. The Dun stage

Now the fly has become a young adult. The dun stage is a favorite for fly fishers, and many standard patterns—such as the Parachute Adams, the Comparadun, and attractors like a Royal Wulff—imitate this stage. Mayfly duns ride the surface until their upright wings are dry and hardened for flight. This ride can last for ten to twenty feet.

Fortunately for fly fishers, most mayflies hatch (technically “emerge”) during daylight hours. Prime time is 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., depending on wind and water temperature. Overcast, cool days are ideal, especially for Baetis flies and Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs).

4. The Spinner stage

This is the fully formed adult stage in which mayflies are ready to mate. As Dave Hughes says, “Mating takes place in the air, another bit of incomparable grace.” At this point, the females are spent and fall to the water. This creates a “spinner fall” — another opportunity for the trout to roil the surface as they feed. Anglers who see mayflies with flat wings like an airplane – rather than with wings sticking up – should switch to a spinner or “spent wing” pattern.

On some days, you might be able to catch a trout on a pattern that imitates any of these stages. But other days, trout are more selective and zone in on a particular stage. Switching to a pattern that reflects a different stage in a mayfly’s life cycle might trigger some superb fishing.