Flies for the Trouts

Choosing Flies for Trout

Art by Carol Ann Morris

Question: “Do you consider the species of trout you are targeting when deciding which flies to take along to a particular river? And would you target different places to fish in a river or stream based on the type of trout that inhabit that water?”

Glenn D.

Answer: Yes. And yes. Sort of… I’ll explain.

But first I must say that normally I answer only one question in this column because two or more answers each get half or less treatment. In this case though, it seems a good answer to your first question naturally touches on your second.

Since we’re essentially talking about how trout differ, let’s meet the trouts. There are four main trouts in North American waters: the rainbow, cutthroat, brown, and brook trout. (Technically the brookie is a char, a relative of the true trout and so far as most fly fishers are concerned might as well be one.) Each species has its own amazing color scheme.

But the trouts vary by a lot more than coloring. In my experience, the brown is inherently the fussiest of the four, and a lover of soft currents. The rainbow can be just as fussy as the brown if well fed and tutored by anglers, and likes quick currents on the whole. The cutthroat tends to like the same easy water as the brown but is regarded as a pushover, despite that he can turn nearly as fussy as the brown (trust me…). The brookie is another lover of lazy currents who’s supposed to be as easy to catch as the cutthroat, but although the brookie’s the species I know least among the four, I have doubts that he’s always easy. I know he can be moody.

All these trouts (including the one near-trout) can thrive in standing water—lakes, beaver ponds, etc. And they’re all stunningly beautiful.

Clues to the answers to your questions lie among the descriptions above, Glenn—did you catch them? Take a shot. Done? Okay, here they are. Let’s see how you did. That quick water loved by the rainbow is also choppy water, so bushy buoyant dry flies make sense for this fish. The slow water of the brown trout (though I’ve sometimes caught browns in screaming currents), cutthroat, and brookie logically call for lightly dressed dry flies—not much buoyancy required on smooth water. The smarts of the brown and rainbow suggest especially convincing flies, accurate imitations of the prevailing feed; the supposedly simple minds of the brookie and cutthroat make sense with general and showy fly designs.

The rainbow’s nature raises problems, at least in theory. As I said, it often holds in or around quick currents, quick currents try to drown floating flies in the chaos, yet the bushy flies that suit quick currents tend to make less-convincing imitations than sparely dressed flies—yet convincing flies are required for the rainbow because he’s smart. Compromise is the solution. For picky quick-water rainbows (or browns or cutthroats—despite their preferences, both will feed in such water) we fly fishers try to use flies that convince despite their bulk. So, especially if there’s a hatch going on, we turn to such reliable hatch-matchers as the Parachute Adams and Henryville Special but tied on the heavy side, and if the trout won’t take those, we throw sparser flies (Compara-duns, Thorax Duns) and do the best we can to keep them afloat. If all goes well, they won’t need to float long.

If there’s no hatch, no insects for those discriminating rainbows to compare with our flies, we can try Humpies and even Renegades. And with the difficulties trout have with seeing a fly through a choppy surface, they may work.

Nymphs and streamers, since they’re not supposed to float, are easier than dry flies to figure out—pretty much, anything goes. Still, in soft water, neat, lightly tied nymphs and streamers are the norm while rougher, fuller patterns are common where the water sweeps and tumbles through, where trout have little time to consider each potential bite as it swiftly passes.

There’s truth behind everything I just said, but something of great importance—make that two somethings—are missing. Specifically: when choosing flies for a particular river and its trout, the characters of that particular river and of its particular trout are critical, which is only partly about trout species, and then there are the bugs to consider.

Each creek, stream, and river is unique—elevation, volume, the infinite ways riffles and pools and runs configure themselves, and a hundred other variables may account for that. I don’t know. But I do know that in that water live trout that are also unique, for reasons I also don’t know. My point is this: no two trout streams fish quite the same, and some fish not even nearly the same. Weird, eh?

I know two cutthroat rivers only a valley apart where in one the well-fished nymph is always deadly while in the other it’s typically useless. I know rivers where the larger rainbows simply won’t come up for a dry fly except on the rarest of occasions and others where they do often. In different rivers trout hold in different kinds of water, feed differently, respond to different flies. My point: it’s wise to know the river you’ll be fishing before choosing flies for it—you could easily collect scads of plausible dry flies for a river where nymphs are almost always best, or just scads of flies that absolutely kill on another river but not on the one you’re fishing.

Beyond their individual natures, rivers (streams, creeks…) come in broad categories, and those categories can dictate which flies work best. Most free-flowing waters (undammed, which fly fishers call “freestone”), especially back up in the mountains, tumble and rush. But some, especially through high meadows and in and below the foothills, wind and coast calmly along. Freestone rivers can be near-sterile to feed-heavy or anywhere in between. “Spring creeks,” flows of any size that are fed by springs, usually meander at a snail’s pace (though some rush downstream) and are typically rich in aquatic insects. “Tailwater” rivers emerge from dams, and that’s the only thing they all have in common—some are quick and wild, some are peaceful and unhurried. A tailwater river can run insect- thin to bug-heavy, and is typically of the same makeup as it was before the dam was built.

Fast currents, slow currents, boulders or cobble or beds of water plants, fertile or infertile, tinted or clear—all these factors of your target river may influence the flies you’ll bring, regardless of trout species it contains.

A month ago I fished a river containing browns, cutts, and rainbow trout in about equal numbers. How do you select flies by species for that?

On to the bug business I mentioned. Trout feed mostly on insects in nearly all rivers, streams, and creeks. Any trout—brookies, rainbows…—will likely want you to offer them flies that look like the bugs they’re eating if those bugs are ample. So if the river’s full of scuds (a puttering little shrimp-lookalike that’s actually a crustacean rather than an insect), for example, or puts out a heavy hatch of Western Green Drake mayflies, better bring flies that imitate them. Doesn’t matter if those trout are brookies or browns. Get it? You’ve got to consider what the trout in your river feed on when selecting flies for your trip there.

Streamers, of course, imitate small fishes that sport-fish, including trout, eat. All trout, especially big trout, eat little fishes including their own young, so imitations of baby brown trout for a brown-trout river is a logical strategy. (That logic extends, of course, to imitating baby rainbows in a rainbow river and so on.) But a trout river may hold dace, sculpin, sticklebacks… Knowing what small fishes inhabit your trout river is a real benefit when it comes time to selecting flies to bring to it.

Finally, there are the attractor flies to consider—the Royal Wulff and Chernobyl Ant dry flies, the Copper John and Prince nymphs, so on, and so on… You’d expect these peculiar, unnatural flies to suit the supposed dunderheads of the trout world, the brookie and cutthroat, and they do, but they are also deadly, when the time is right (whatever time that is… It’s up to the trout), on wise old browns and rainbows. Attractor streamers? All four of the common North American trouts love them (that is, again, when they’ve decided they’re in the mood for them).

Okay, I’ve really made this longer and deeper than it needs to be—but I couldn’t help it: you asked a question that intrigues me.

Time to sort everything out and simplify. So,

  1. In general, simpler, showier, and bushier flies make sense for the simpler trouts (cutthroats and brooks).
  2. In general, sparser and more-convincing flies make sense for angler-trained browns and rainbows.
  3. All trout tend to become open-minded when no hatch is happening. All trout can go for attractor patterns, especially when no hatch is happening.
  4. As important as trout species is the particular river you’ll fish—the flies and techniques and strategies that work on it. So get on-line, call a fly shop in that area and drop by when you arrive, buy a fishing guidebook that covers your river—in other words, do some research.
  5. While you’re researching all that, also check out the river’s feed, the bugs and other critters the trout eat, and then consider those when you select your flies.
  6. What I haven’t quite said yet is that if I were heading to an unfamiliar river, I’d bring some flies to suit the species of trout, some of the locals’ favorites, and some to imitate that river’s feed—the predominant feed for the specific time of year I’ll be there. That’s what I’d do in your shoes, Glenn. In fact, that’s exactly what I do every time.