Every angler, no matter the time they’ve put into the sport, develops a set of confidence fly patterns that grows and evolves as they learn. At first, those flies could be based solely off appearance; perhaps they like color variety of a rainbow warrior, or the simplicity of a zebra midge. Maybe this angler has a background in conventional gear fishing, and as such prefers to use flies that mimic the lures they used then, such as squirmy worms and jig streamers.
As an angler develops, their list changes from flies that were simply appealing, to those that catch fish. Often just one or two fish caught on a pattern are enough to inspire some confidence, though it usually takes a few more to make it a true confidence fly. This is the period when fly fishers experiment greatly, but begin to identify a few key patterns that outshine the rest.
Finally, an experienced angler will not only have a list of patterns that they rely on, but will also keep in mind the common components of these flies that make them more effective. For example, someone may find they catch a much greater quantity of fish on articulated flies because of their increased movement. Another angler may find the exact opposite because articulated flies are often too big and bulky for the waters they fish. The commonalities anglers find are unique to their own style of fishing and the places they fish, and will occasionally contradict the experiences of another angler.
Personally, there are a number of things I look for in order to consider a fly one of my “confidence patterns”. First, it must have some sort of movement – whether that comes as an illusion in the case of mixed brown/grizzly hackle, or flowy materials, such as the brushed out dubbing in a hare’s ear nymph.
Another important aspect of all my confidence patterns is that they include some sort of “magic material”. Obviously there are no true magic materials (not that we know of, at least) but there are many materials I have found, that when added to a fly pattern, often increase angling success. A few of these materials include partridge, peacock herl, marabou, pheasant tail, hare’s ear dubbing, wood duck, and grizzly hackle. Anything with fine, dark barring or small, breathable barbules seem to work exceptionally well.
Below is a list of some of my confidence patterns, mainly for New England trout. As I am still learning and honing my craft, these patterns will no doubt change. In fact, one reason for compiling this list is to see how it compares to the flies I have confidence in at the end of the season. I’m sure as I fish in new spots, experiment with new techniques, and talk to other anglers, my opinions on which flies work best will be different. For instance, you may notice a lack of traditional wet flies in my arsenal. This is not for a lack of trying them, which I do occasionally, but I have not had enough luck with wet flies to consider them confidence patterns; perhaps by the end of the season, however, this could be different.
The pheasant tail nymph is a standby for many anglers around the world, myself included. I tie mine using components of both the English and American versions, using pheasant tail for the tail, thorax, and wing case, and peacock herl for the abdomen. I don’t include pheasant tail legs on my version of the fly because I find it adds little to its effectiveness, but some time to its tying process. One of my favorite variations of this fly is a flash back pheasant tail, which incorporates flashabou as the wing case. In many cases, I find the extra flash, usually with the addition of a red thread hotspot, to be even better than the standard pattern. I fish a pheasant tail anywhere there are mayfly nymphs, and vary the weight (unweighted, brass bead head, tungsten bead head on a jig hook) and size (20-14) to match the stage and size of the naturals.
A true attractor pattern, prince nymphs have everything you could ask for in a well-rounded fly. My favorite way to fish a prince is swinging an unweighted version on a sink-tip line or poly leader, although a brass bead head works as well for slightly deeper water. I will never tie a prince jig-style because I feel it detracts from the action of the hackle collar. Sizes 16-10 all work for this fly, though I prefer a size 12 to suggest a small stonefly nymph or juvenile baitfish.
Hare’s ear nymphs vary drastically from tyer to tyer, mainly because the color and consistency of the dubbing is completely up for interpretation. Depending on where one selects fur from the hare’s mask, the dubbing can range from nearly white, to tan, to dark gray, and can be as fine as synthetic dry fly dubbing or as spikey as squirrel dubbing. Alternatively, pre-mixed packages of hare’s mask dubbing are available to purchase, although I believe by mixing dubbing yourself, you can get the consistency you prefer.
I tend to use two unique dubbing blends for the thorax and abdomen. For the thorax, I use a light tan dubbing with more underfur and fewer guard hairs. The abdomen dubbing is a darker tan and uses more guard hairs than the thorax dubbing. Once finished with the fly, I’ll brush out the abdomen, adding movement to the fly and giving the impression of gills or legs.
I typically fish this pattern with a bit of weight, usually either a brass or tungsten bead. Hare’s ears imitate a wide variety of food sources, like mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, scuds, and dragonfly nymphs, and as such, are effective in a wide range of sizes. My favorites are 16-10, though you could go smaller or larger.
Pat’s Rubber Legs
Pat’s rubber legs, girdle bugs, turds; whatever you call them, these simplistic flies flat-out catch fish. Perhaps it’s just that: their simplicity lets you focus on fishing the fly rather than worrying about how well it is tied or the color you’re using. I believe the namesake rubber legs are what make this fly so deadly because of their unmatched motion in the water. My favorite rubber legs for this pattern are Hareline Grizzly Micro Legs, which include barring to make them even more seductive. I like to fish big, heavy pat’s, using large brass and tungsten beads on size 12-8 hooks. That being said, I’ve found an unweighted version to work exceptionally well for fish sitting in slow water that aren’t keyed in on a specific food source. A few subtle twitches of the rod tip are usually enough to undulate the legs and entice a fish to eat.
Though it has taken me a while to become familiar with the technique, euro nymphing has quickly become one of my favorite ways to catch fish. When I’m fishing a double-nymph rig, I almost always have a frenchie tied on, whether as the heavy point fly or as a lighter dropper. Frenchies are nothing more than a variation of the previously mentioned pheasant tail nymph, yet they have taken the fly fishing world by storm, and for good reason. These nymphs are the perfect combination of natural and attractive, with a plain pheasant tail body and a flashy shrimp pink ice dub collar. Perhaps the best part of this fly is its capacity to be fished in numerous sizes and weights depending on the forage present and the depths at which fish are holding. I typically fish a Frenchie in size 14 with 2.8 mm and 3.2 mm slotted tungsten beads.
There are few dry flies as simple as a purple haze, but there are also few as successful. This flashy little bug is my go-to on small streams, given the fish are looking up. Though it looks nothing like anything that would ever touch the water’s surface, small trout crush this pattern with abandon. Perhaps it’s the mix of brown and grizzly hackle that imitates the delicate motion of a mayfly drying its wings before taking flight. Whatever the case, there will always be a spot in my box for purple hazes in sizes 16-12, with 14 being my favorite.
No good list of flies is complete without the most popular trout fly in the world, the adams parachute. Like the purple haze, this fly features a mix of grizzly and brown hackle, though its body features a dull-gray muskrat dubbing instead of bright purple. Because of its body and hackle color, the adams is a great general imitation for numerous species of mayfly, and works in a variety of water types. Even the spookiest trout will often eat a gently presented adams. Sizes 20-12 should all be carried, though I typically find myself reaching for the smaller sizes.
Nothing says stonefly more than a stimulator, though it also works as a serviceable hopper and giant caddis imitation. A great number of color combinations will fool fish, but my favorite is a golden stonefly pattern not unlike the original orange and yellow. One thing I’ve found over time as I’ve fished this fly is that it can twist tippet like there’s no tomorrow. To remedy this, I go down two sizes for the body hackle and one size for the abdomen hackle, which creates less wind resistance and actually lets the fly sit lower on the water’s surface. Big stimulators can work, but I find if I’m fishing them in small streams, the little trout can’t fit them in their mouths. A size 10 is usually the sweet spot, not just for fish-catching ability, but also for floatability.
I was first turned on to the klinkhammer at the Rangeley Region Sports Shop, where owner Brett Damm swears by the oddly shaped bugs. I never got around to trying the flies on that trip, but on my first time up the next year, I learned why he believes in them. It was Memorial Day, and I caught the hendrickson hatch perfectly. Up and down a short portion of the Rangeley River, small brook trout were rising to the dainty mayflies. Noticing the naturals were rust colored like my klinkhammer, I gave the fly a whirl. Let’s just say I’m a firm believer in the pattern now as well. After putting a beatdown on the Rangeley brookies, it has become a favorite of mine not only for small stream fishing, but also any situation with spooky fish. Since the body sits below the surface of the water, and the parachute allows the fly to land lightly, klinkhammers will fool fish in even the slowest, clearest water. My favorite sizes are 16 and 14.
The woolly bugger (and its variations) may just be the most well-rounded fly in creation. It works as a suitable imitation for a wide variety of insects, baitfish, and crustaceans, not to mention as a great attractor pattern. I’ve always been super picky about the way I tie my buggers, more out of personal preference than effectiveness for fish. I prefer to dub the body to give it some taper, though on larger sizes this can be tedious (and unnecessary) work. I’m also particular about the hackle I use; I like hackle with softer fibers that flow nicely in mild current, which is tough to find, especially in smaller sizes. In moving water, I fish this fly on the swing before stripping it in to make another cast. In still water, I like to let it sink before stripping at various retrieve speeds to match the mood of the fish. Most often I use lightly weighted or bead head olive buggers in sizes 10-6, though I’ve found a tiny size 14 to work exceptionally well in small stream settings.
Wood Duck Heron
I believe the wood duck heron is an extremely underutilized fly, likely because its appearance to us is nothing special. Whether in or out of the water, these streamers don’t have any special shape or motion, but something about them drives the fish crazy. Personally, I believe it’s the fine dark markings of the wood duck flank feather coupled with the soft hackle head. I first experienced luck on this pattern during the fall in western Maine, where I caught my first ever wild brook trout and landlocked salmon on the fly. On subsequent trips back to the same area, I landed more salmonids and smallies than I could count. I have no idea what the fly may imitate, but it certainly seems to work, both stripped and swung. I only use a weightless version of the fly, mainly on a sink-tip line. Sizes 10 and 8 seem to work best where I fish them.
The golden retriever has taken northern New England by storm, and for good reason. Touted as a stellar pattern for landlocked Atlantic salmon, the Wood Duck Heron has also proved effective catching bass, brook trout, and other stocked trout on this streamer, even in the crystal-clear waters of the Swift. This fly works best when wrapped sparsely with estaz in order to let the red underbody show through. I have found the most luck swinging this fly, then stripping fast once I have caught a fish’s interest. Brass bead-headed versions in sizes 10 and 8 seem to work best for me.
This is not a complete list of the flies I have found success on, nor is it a comprehensive list of the flies I have confidence in. It is merely a list of flies that have worked under numerous conditions over multiple fishing trips for me, and I know others have had similar experiences with them.
I am most interested in seeing which new patterns I will have added to this list by the end of the season. As I mentioned, I hope to get better at fishing wet flies, but I’d also like to gain confidence in throwing big, meaty streamers, dainty CDC dry flies, and euro nymphs. I’m looking forward to doing some experimenting in the coming weeks as waters begin to escape winter’s icy grip and fish start becoming active once again.