Effective Dry Fly Patterns for Summer

If you are headed to the Rocky Mountain west to fly fish this summer, make sure your fly box is full of effective dry fly patterns. There are some obvious choices: Parachute Adams (for Blue-Winged Olive hatches), Elk Hair Caddis patterns (for the ubiquitous caddis flies), Pale Morning Duns (PMDs), and, of course, grasshoppers.

Don’t leave home without an ample supply of hoppers!

The Purple Haze (a variation of the Parachute Adams, but with a purple thorax) is an effective dry fly pattern, too.

Other patterns, though, get easily overlooked. Yet they can be highly effective. We suggest you consider including the following seven in your fly box:

1. Stimulator

This is a terrific all-around pattern for stoneflies.

My brother, Dave, has had great success with this in the small streams in the high country in Colorado. I like it in sizes 14-18, although a size 12 can work well too. I always go with orange — whether an orange body or an orange head with an olive body.

This fly also works during the salmon fly hatches on the big western rivers in June.

2. Spruce Moth

A couple years ago, my friend, Brand, put me on to this pattern while fly fishing the Boulder River south of Big Timber, Montana.

Since then, I’ve used Spruce Moths successfully on other rivers throughout the west—wherever Spruce and Fir trees are found. These moths can be bad news for the trees, but they are good news for fly fishers. Trout jump (literally!) at the opportunity to feed on them because, like grasshoppers, they provide a lot of calories in one gulp.

I’ve used Spruce Moths throughout the summer, but they work especially well in August when there are hatches. I prefer them in sizes 12 or 14. They can even imitate small grasshoppers.

3. Renegade

This fly has been around for a long time, and it’s one of the first patterns I used in the late 1970s when I started fly fishing.

It’s a classic attractor pattern, meaning that it doesn’t imitate a particular insect. It has white hackles on the front, brown hackles at the back, and a peacock herl abdomen in the middle. The white and brown hackles make this fly visible to fly fishers.

Now it doesn’t take a lot for it to get waterlogged and sink just under the film. When this happens, don’t get frustrated. Keep fishing it, because trout love taking it when it has been submerged.

Standard sizes are 14-18.

4. Beetles and Ants

Perhaps these terrestrials do not get ignored as much as I think they do. But I’m surprised how many fly fishers will fish a hopper pattern without dropping a terrestrial behind it. When I fish a hopper plus a beetle or a hopper plus an ant, I seem to catch as many on the terrestrial as I do on the hopper!

I prefer smaller sizes like 16 or 18, although a size 14 is fine.

5. H and L Variant

Dave, my podcast partner, has already sung the praises of this flythis fly. I like it, too, because it’s a highly visible fly which holds its own in rough water.

In fact, I think of it as a vanilla Royal Wulff. It has the bushy hackle without as much color. Once again, the standard sizes (14-18) work well.

6. Royal Trude

This is a cousin of sorts to the Royal Wulff.

Rather than two hair wings which resemble a fly in its dun stage, the Royal Trude has a long white down-wing. This gives the trout a different look. In fact, the Royal Trude can work both as a salmon fly and a grasshopper imitation. I have a friend who fishes nothing but this fly on the Yellowstone River in Montana. He always catches his share of trout. Some even fish this as a wet fly or a streamer. But it’s highly effective as dry fly.

I like it in sizes 12-16.

7. Humpy

This is another rough water fly, and perhaps you wonder “why bother?” since other attractor patterns like a Royal Wulff or an H and L Variant work effectively.

But the Humpy is so bushy that it seems to stay “dry” longer these two. The lower abdomen of the fly is either red, yellow, green, or even purple (the “Humpy Haze,” anyone?). As for sizes, I am partial to a size 16, although a 14 is fine, too.

What are some other overlooked effective dry fly patterns that work well for you? Please leave a comment and let us know!

My 6 Favorite Dry Fly Attractor Patterns

Sometimes you need the right dry fly pattern to catch selective trout. A couple years, ago, my son, Luke, and I were fly fishing the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon during a Pale Morning Dun (PMD) hatch. The brown trout would only rise to a PMD pattern. Nothing else.

But when there is no apparent insect hatch, it’s time to pull out an attractor pattern from your fly box if you insist on dry fly fishing. The strategy is to coax the fish to the surface rather than to match the insects on which they are feeding. It’s attraction rather than imitation.

And which dry fly attractor patterns do you want in your fly box?

If you are new to fly fishing, I have some suggestions, but let me first offer a few disclaimers.

First, this is not the definitive list. Another fly fisher’s list will be different, and that’s fine.

Second, don’t be fooled by claims of “the only fly that works” or the “best fly” for this river or that river. It’s all a matter of preference.

Third, size matters, though this post is focusing mainly on patterns. My default size is a #14 for an attractor pattern, though I’ll go smaller at times (see below).

Fourth, I realize that I’m blurring the definition between an attractor and an imitation with a couple of these patterns. So if you’re a veteran fly fisher, there’s no need to get your waders in a bunch. I realize that an elk hair caddis, for example, is an imitation. Yet I will use it as an attractor when there are no caddis flies on the water. Finally, I do most of my fly fishing in the west (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon). However, most of these patterns have worked for me in the Midwest, and I know fly fishers who have success with them on the east coast.

Alright, here is my list.

1. Parachute Adams

I’m sure this will land near the top of any fly fisher’s list of favorite attractors. I’ve used this greyish beauty in standard sizes, but a size #18 is my favorite. It can imitate midges or blue-winged olives or mosquitos. The white post, or parachute, is for you (the fly fisher), not for the fish. It makes a tiny size #18 visible to middle-aged anglers like me.

2. Elk Hair Caddis

If I had to select only two dry flies, it would be a Parachute Adams and an Elk Hair Caddis. This tan fly (and also comes in a black version) simply looks “buggy.” In a pinch, it can imitate a small hopper or a March Brown. I am fond of it because it takes longer to get water-logged than an Adams. So it works great in faster, choppy water.

3. Red or Yellow Humpy

The elk hair hump and the generous brown hackle at the front of the fly make this float forever—well, longer than a lot of flies which get soggy after getting dunked by a riffle. The red or yellow (or green or purple) underbelly makes it stand out as a trout gets closer to it.

4. Royal Wulff

There is a whole family of “Royal” flies, beginning with the Royal Coachman — America’s first great fly pattern according to Paul Schullery who wrote an entire book on it!

The “Royal” flies have a bright red silk floss middle flanked by two bands of peacock herl. Sounds stunning, right? It is. The Royal Coachman has white wings, while the Royal Wulff uses white calf hair which, in my opinion, makes it float a bit better. The white calf hair tufts protrude from the brown hackle at the front of the fly. Anyway, the Royal Wulff has been a standard pattern for years, and so it sometimes gets forgotten. But it’s still a great option.

Another variation is a Royal Trude — tied on a longer hook with a long white tuft of calf hair extending from the front to back of the fly. A friend, John, uses it almost exclusively on the Yellowstone River in Montana and always catches fish whether spring, summer, or fall.

5. Renegade

My last two flies are more debatable choices. I’ve included the Renegade because it’s the first dry fly I ever used and because it still works. It is an unusual looking fly with white hackle at the front and brown hackle at the rear. Some fly fishers actually fish it as a wet fly (beneath the surface). My friend Arlen swears by this fly when fishing the Boulder River north of Yellowstone National Park. After setting it aside for several years in favor of the attractor patterns I mentioned previously, I’m going to start using it again.

6. Spruce Moth

I fished with this pattern last summer for the first time at the recommendation of a friend.

Technically, this fly is also an imitation. The spruce moth, or Western budworm, returned to the spruce and fir forests of the West in the early 2000s. Even when there are no spruce moths on the water, I like this pattern as an attractor because it is big (easy to see) and has plenty of hackle (not easily water-logged). My podcast partner, Dave, and I did well with this fly last year on the Yellowstone, the Boulder, and on some smaller streams in the Bozeman, Montana, area.

These are my favorites, although I could have easily swapped out numbers 5 and 6 for a Stimulator, a Goofus Bug, or a Madam X with its rubber legs.

But I like to recall an observation which Bud Lilly made several years ago when he owned the fly shop in West Yellowstone, Montana, which bears his name.

During a typical day, he chatted with fifty or more fly fishers who talked about how selective the trout had been on the river that day. When Lilly asked them what they were using, they would say: “The only thing that worked was this little beauty.” Lilly said that by the end of the day, he had seen about fifty different “only things.” So you’ll be fine if you keep your fly box stocked with a few basic attractor patterns.

Unless there’s a hatch of PMDs or BWOs or Tricos, a standard attractor pattern just might coax a big trout from its lair.

Why Great Days on the Water Are Hard to Remember

Great days on the water are hard to remember. They just are. Last summer, Dave and I had one of our best days ever on the water. A friend invited us to fish a creek in a remote area of Montana. We fished a stretch that meandered through a large ranch, miles from any fishing access. In recent years, the ranch owners have allowed few people to fish on their property. They have saved it for veterans, particularly wounded warriors.

But thanks to our friend, Dave and I were invited to spend a day on the creek.

Slow to Crazy

The day began slow, with a trico hatch that, as Dave said, “I just didn’t have the energy to fish.” Tricos are so small, and we came prepared to fish terrestrials, the big bugs. This was one of the last days of July, and it was warm. The creek was small, but we wore waders, in case we stumbled across a sunning rattlesnake.

About mid morning, the trout began to rise to hoppers – and just about anything else that was big and floated. And they never stopped. By mid-afternoon, Dave and I had each landed over forty trout apiece. They were mostly browns and rainbows, most in the 14-16 inch range. We also landed a few brookies and a couple West Slope Cutthroat.

The crazy thing is that I can’t recall any particular fish I caught. That’s unusual. I usually remember the 17-inch brown that emerged from an undercut bank to attack my hopper pattern. Or the 16-inch rainbow that darted to the surface to snatch a Royal Trude as it drifted by a rock. However, I don’t remember anything like that. I have a couple photos of rainbows I caught. Both are striking fish with their crimson stripes against their dark bodies. But I don’t recall catching either one of them.

Great Days on the Water and Angler’s Amnesia

So why do I seem to have angler’s amnesia when it comes to those fish? I have some theories:

First, I think my inability to remember a particular fish was due in part to sensory overload. Catching 40+ fish is an exhilarating experience. I highly recommend it, and I would love to do it again. But the more fish you catch, the less any particular fish leaves an indelible mark on your memory. Maybe that’s the beauty of days when you catch only a half-dozen fish, and one of them is a plump nineteen-incher. I caught a rainbow trout like that a decade ago between Quake and Hebgen Lake. I fished all morning and only caught one other trout. Oddly enough, I remember that fish vividly, while 40+ trout I caught a few months ago have seemingly vanished from my memory.

Second, I think the surroundings had something to do with my case of angler’s amnesia.

I was more captivated by what I saw around me than I was by any particular fish. What I remember from that day is landing a trout right under the railroad trestle where a scene from “A River Runs Through It” was filmed, where Jessie drives her Model T through a tunnel with Norman hanging on for his life in the passenger seat. I also remember the sight of an old trapper’s cabin. And then there was the railroad bed over which the Ringling Brothers used to haul their circus equipment to their ranch for winter storage. The two railroad tunnels were stunning, too.

Third, I think the human imagination struggles to preserve sharp images of what moves us most, including our most poignant memories.

A few miles from the ranch where Dave and I had our banner day, the south fork of the little creek we fished curls by a knoll on which a sheepherder’s cabin is perched. Western writer extraordinaire, Ivan Doig, was in the cabin on his sixth birthday with his parents when his mother took her last breath.

Asthma claimed her life.

Doig writes about his struggle to remember the event in a haunting sentence near the beginning of his memoir, This House of Sky:

    Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which have me face about and forget, to feel into those oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.

Every momentous event in life is a bit like that for me. I try reach around the photos or the accounts of family members in an attempt to relive memories which are trying to elude me.

Beautiful Memory Loss

So the next time you have an unforgettable day but forget the details, be assured that you’re not experiencing memory loss. You might simply have sensory overload. Or maybe your day was full scenery or experiences more remarkable than the fish you caught. Or maybe it’s the common human struggle to recall vivid images of life’s most momentous events.

Whatever the case, your inability to remember the fish you caught adds to the mystique of your experience and makes it unforgettable.