Every year it’s the same thing: I get the first whiff of spring and brush off the winter doldrums by rooting through the fly fishing gear in my basement. Sooner or later, I get around to going through my vest and fly boxes and discover enough flies to start my own fly shop. My wife, who never gives me a hard time about the time I spend fishing, does have her patience stretched to its limits by the hordes of flies she finds around our house. While she is right that I will never use all of these flies, there are some I just cannot live without. Here are my top six.
Fly fishing guide Jim Hickey originated this pattern for the giant brown trout of Patagonia, Chile, the land of the condor. In essence, Hickey’s Condor is a large damsel pattern. In warm climates, this fly is a killer on bass and other panfish. I have also used this pattern in Oregon to imitate Western salmon fly hatches, and it has proven just as effective for Oregon trout. Hickey’s Condor can be dead-drifted or fished like a popping bug. The large hackle collar pushes a great deal of water when stripped, and the fly’s colored body is like a giant indicator. If you like farm ponds and warm water rivers, Hickey’s Condor won’t let you down. Try blue, chartreuse, orange, brown, and black in sizes #6, #8 and #10.
When Bob Clouser dreamed up what would become the sport’s most ubiquitous fly, he was in search of a pattern that would produce vicious strikes on his home water, Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. The Clouser Minnow began as a pattern for smallies but has become the go-to fly for everything from panfish to permit. The last time I spoke to Lefty Kreh, he told me that the Clouser Minnow had allowed him to boat 80 different species of fish. Talk about effective! Lefty’s famed casting probably accounts for some of his success, but even he will tell you that this pattern is as close as you can get to a universal baitfish fly.
Strip the Clouser Minnow at various speeds depending on the current and the species you’re fishing for. Larger or smaller dumbbell eyes affect the fly’s sink rate. I prefer to fish this fly in chartreuse and white, all white, orange, and brown in sizes 1/0 to #6.
B.H. Goldilox Woolly Bugger
Next to the Clouser Minnow, this is perhaps the most universally fished fly in frehwater. Whether you’re a trout bum or a smallmouth fanatic, the woolly bugger usually brings nice fish to hand. The Bead Head Goldilox Woolly Bugger has tamed more than a few large trout for me in the past. This minnow pattern is fished in slow or fast water and can be fished with a bead head or a cone head (as well as non-weighted). I have found the most effective rhythm to be strip, strip, strip, and pause. Try sizes #6 to #10.
Howell’s Big Nasty
Kevin Howell’s Big Nasty is exactly that—a brute of a fly that just might intimidate fish not large enough to eat it. In creating this fly, Kevin sought a cross between a crayfish and a giant Hellgrammite. His native waters of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, are home to monster browns and bruiser smallmouths. Theses large fish often require something more enticing—and bigger—than a Blue-Winged Olive to get them to move. Fish the Big Nasty around such structure as large rocks and near blow-downs in rivers that have gravelly bottoms. The best thing about this pattern is that if you do get a bite, chances are better than even that you’ll catch something that’s even bigger and nastier than the fly. Howell’s Big Nasty comes in orange and gray. Try this fly in sizes #4 and #6.
Elk Hair Caddis
This pattern has proven successful time and time again landing everything from brook trout in my native Virginia to redsides in Oregon’s Deschutes. Elk Hair Caddis flies come in a variety of colors and should be dead-drifted along streamside banks and cast towards quiet trout pools. If the river has a bubble line or too much flotsam, throw a caddis with an orange or chartreuse indicator. If you can’t buy a fly with an indicator post, just use a felt tip marker to highlight the top of the fly. I like to use Elk Hair Caddis in tan and black. Try sizes #14 to #22.
Jay’s Patuxent Special
Jay Sheppard, the former President of the Potomac-Patuxent chapter of Trout Unlimited in Laurel, Maryland, invented this fly on the Savage River in Western Maryland. To my knowledge, Jay’s Patuxent Special has caught everything from bass to steelhead and almost every type of trout that swims. This pattern is considered the fly in my part of the country and has consistently been lauded in the pages of local fishing books.
The brown color and simple design belies the fly’s deadly effect. Most trout and other warmwater fish probably think it resembles a crayfish. This fly also comes in a cone head, which morphs the pattern into Jay’s Super Patuxent Special for deeper water levels. Strip this fly very briskly in 10- to 12-inch strips each—and hold on. You can fish Jay’s Patuxent Special in any color you want as long as it’s brown. Try sizes #6, #8, and #10.
And those are my deadly half dozen. Perhaps you’ve reached the end of this article and are thinking, “What a lame list. Why, he didn’t mention salmon, tarpon, or bonefish flies. This loser didn’t mention crickets or Lefty’s Deceiver. Heck, he didn’t even mention Prince Nymphs!” That’s the great thing about fly fishing: every angler can use as many neat fly patterns as he can find. I suggest that you try to make a list of your own deadly half dozen. You may find out that you don’t need as many flies as you thought you did. Do us both a favor, though—keep that insight to yourself and this article under wraps. My wife doesn’t need to see it.
Beau Beasley is a career captain assigned to Engine 431with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, and a proud member of Local 2068. He is also the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters.