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Between hatches, you basically have two choices: Sit around in the grass all day, killing time until the trout start feeding on the surface. Or tie on a nymph and start landing fish right away. Without fail, I opt for the latter. Opinions on the greatest nymphs abound, but here are the patterns that have proved effective for me west of the Continental Divide. A number of the flies are old favorites back East, too, so don’t hesitate to try them wherever you wet a line.
Any fly shop worth its salt will have tons of caddis-pupa patterns on hand, and any number of them will serve you well. I favor a basic beadhead version, with a fat body and a sparse turn or two of partridge fluff extending from the abdomen. This mimics a drifting or swimming caddis, and tempts trout from early spring all the way through summer. It’s also a good bet on Western streams during the October caddis hatch. Fish it for trout, but don’t forget that steelhead grew up eating this caddis, too, and may react instinctively to one drifting in front of their nose.
The pattern is killer during Western salmonfly emergences, when you can fish it in and around boulders or swing it toward shore with equal success. There’s no official tally of which stonefly patterns have accounted for the most 20-plus-inch browns and rainbows over the years, but my guess is that the Bitch Creek holds the top spot. But don’t get the idea that this fly is only productive during the spring salmonfly hatch. I’ve cut the white rubber legs off this pattern and deep drifted it during later summer, in crystal-clear water, for picky British Columbia bull trout weighing up to 14 pounds.
If you’ve got the time to sit behind a vice and finagle with a challenging and scientifically accurate pattern, more power to you. I don’t. So when I’m headed to the Missouri, Bighorn, Madison, or Beaverhead Rivers, I bang out dozens of classic Brassies. There’s nothing special about it—just a thin copper wire wound on a hook, with a wrap or two of peacock herl at the head with a whip finish. But this bug works wherever trout are feeding on midges, and if you tie it in a variety of wire colors, you’ll have midge hatches covered wherever you fish. Because of the wire body, this fly sinks quickly, which makes it a great choice for dropping behind a dry fly.
OK, technically a Woolly Bugger is not a nymph. But it serves the purpose when dead-drifted near the bottom during stonefly activity. And there’s no denying that this pattern, whether dead-drifted, swung, or stripped in, is one of the most effective flies of all time. What qualifies as a Woolly Bugger, at this stage in its evolution, is lax. But no matter how it is tied—with or without a bead head, on a long or short hook, etc.—fish devour it. I always carry a squadron of Buggers and fish them solo or in tandem, with another Bugger of a different color. It’s deadly, no matter where you throw it.
I’m not a big fan of the Czech nymphing technique, but I do like Czech nymphs. These patterns are tied on heavy, curved scud hooks that offer an extremely buggy representation of caddisfly and cranefly larvae, as well as freshwater shrimp. These flies are relatively easy to tie, and they sink like rocks, especially when wound with lead wire. This is exactly what you want a larval representation to do. You can fish these flies with traditional rods and techniques, or go with the whole Czech nymphing system, which means you basically only fish your leader and fly under the rod tip.
Greg’s Incredible Egg
There are countless egg flies on the market, but my favorite is, selfishly, Greg’s Incredible Egg. It’s my own take on this must-have, and you won’t find it in shops, because it’s so ugly that nobody would pay money for it. But remember, trout and whitefish don’t eat only perfectly round versions of trout, salmon, and sucker spawn—so you don’t have to tie the fly perfectly to get results. Once I have the materials in place, I can whip out a GIE in about 40 seconds. That’s important, because you’ll lose plenty of them as your split shot bangs this fly across the bottom. The eggs are especially effective during late fall and winter, and into the spring season.
This used to be my go-to mayfly imitation—before I opted for modern patterns, tied with synthetic materials—but there’s no doubt that it remains one of the best nymphs ever, and it still has a spot in my fly box. The Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear matches a variety of insects, ranging from stoneflies to green drakes, PMDs, and Callibaetis, depending on the color and size. It’s also a decent match for caddis in a pinch. When tying this pattern, make sure to pick the rabbit-hare fibers from the abdomen. The pulled-out fibers look “leggy” and get a trout’s attention fast.
The Lightning Bug is a trout-getter in high and murky water. That said, it’s productive through the entire season, even in clear water. Tied with a pearl tinsel body, a silver beadhead, and a silver wire rib, this thing shines—literally. The lighting bug is a good match for a variety of mayflies and can be tied in any number of sizes and colors, with pearl, red, and purple being standouts. Try fishing it in tandem with other nymphs.
This is a new fly on the block, but I fished it extensively last winter while matching midges on Montana tailwaters. The silver bead at the hook eye imitates the natural gas bubble that forms on midge pupa as they struggle to the surface. Fish key in on that visual in a big way. Plus, this fly is easy to tie, so you can bang out a dozen in an hour and be ready for a full day on the water, tricking technical-tailwater trout.
Super-realistic stonefly nymph patterns look really neat in a fly bin. But I’ll take my chances with patterns that mimic a stonefly subtly, and the best of the lot is Pat’s Rubberlegs. Also known as “The Pickle,” the pattern is similar to the original Girdle Bug, and it has become the absolute go-to pattern for Western guides when fishing two-fly setups under an indicator, or when dropping a stonefly nymph off an adult stonefly imitation. This pattern’s Super Floss legs wiggle in the current, and its simple chenille body, tied in any number of colors, offers a nice stonefly-ish silhouette. Since most stoneflies hatch on freestones streams, where the current is ripping, trout don’t have time to count segments or legs. So why bother with realistic patterns? If you lose a Pat’s Rubberlegs, you don’t have to shed tears or wonder why you invested two hours tying a fancy pattern now lost on the bottom.
Let’s say you’re lost and starving, or you need to provide protein for the family, or there’s a nuclear winter and there’s nothing left to eat on land. In any case, just tie on a Beadhead Prince Nymph and fish it along the bottom of a Western trout stream. In no time you’ll be overwhelmed by whitefish, which love flashy patterns. The Prince Nymph’s white, biot wings add to the attraction. But the Prince isn’t just for whities. Trout love it, too; I fondly remember catching the first good brown trout of my life on one while fishing between ice jams on Montana’s Rock Creek. On rivers, the Prince is a good match for caddis and stoneflies, and on lakes it can be fished without the white wings as a decent match for freshwater shrimp.
This pattern is said to be so productive that even a blind man could catch fish on it. Hence the name. Hyperbole perhaps, but there’s no denying that this bug is a top producer on tailwaters, and it’s one of several go-to bugs on Montana’s Bighorn River. I like to fish the Ray Charles in tandem with a lead fly, such as a pheasant tail, a scud, or an egg. The fly is tied with ostrich herl, which mimics the numerous legs found on actual sow bugs. Try this one when you hit the ’Horn, or any tailwater, and you’ll soon believe how the fly earned its name.
Ritt’s Tung-Syn PT
How many times has winter turned to spring in a single day, and suddenly you’re standing in the river with your pants down, so to speak, with nothing but a bunch of midges and worms in your fly box? Keep Al Ritt’s deep-sinking tungsten PT in your box and you’ll always be ready for that first wave of mayflies. It’s a simple but flashy pattern that drops fast, which is key, since trout may not want to move far off the bottom during those sudden spring days, considering the water is still likely to be winter cold.
The RS-2 was originally tied to imitate bluewing olive and Baetis mayflies, but it can also be tied in smaller sizes to mimic midges and Tricos. When matching the tiny bugs, you’ll have to fish it off a light leader, something in the 5X or 6X range, and you’ll not want to use a fast-action rod, or you’ll break off as many fish as you hook. One of the best ways to fish the RS-2—whether imitating little olives or those tiny Tricos and midges—is behind a larger dry fly. Sometimes it’s difficult to detect a take when fishing this smallish and hard-to-see pattern, but you’ll know something took it if the lead dry jerks across the surface or quickly dives. You can also drop an RS-2 deeper as part of a two-fly rig.
Nobody likes these things. A lot of anglers question whether they are even flies. But the truth is, their effectiveness can’t be denied. Freestone, tailwater, boulder pocket, broad flat—no matter where you throw the annelid, it’s going to take some trout. It’s widely believed that worms first gained popularity on New Mexico’s San Juan River, where otherwise picky trout couldn’t resist them. Word spread, and today the worm is ubiquitous. It’s often used in tandem with other flies; throw this pattern as the lead fly with a small Baetis, midge, or mayfly nymph trailing behind, or try it as a dropper off a high-floating foam stonefly, or terrestrial pattern. Either way, you’ll get bites. Today, there are numerous variations of the San Juan, almost too many to choose from. My go-to is a standard thin pink or red-chenille version, with a small bead in the middle. This variant offers a soft feel when a trout bites into it, versus a hard-wire, deep-sinking pattern that can break a trout’s tooth on impact. Ugly or not, you’d be crazy not to carry a few of these to the water every time you try for trout.
If you’ve ever wondered why a beat up Elk Hair Caddis works nearly as well (or maybe even better) sunken than it did when floating high and dry, look no further than the soft hackle. The pattern is made with minimal amounts of material and represents nothing in particular, but it sends a clear message to hungry trout: “I’m vulnerable and easy to catch.” This explains why such a shabby-looking fly can crush trout during a variety of hatches in a number of ways—dead drifted under an indicator, floating in the surface film behind a dry fly, swung on a tight line through riffles. Soft hackles are tied in a variety of colors and body shapes, but the simplistic thread, or pheasant-tail body versions, with a wire rib and just two or three turns of Hungarian partridge hackle at the head will usually do the trick. Any time you have trouble matching a hatch, or you are waiting for a hatch to begin, the soft hackle should be your go-to fly.
Before his untimely passing, Gary LaFontaine accomplished many great things, and one of the milestones was leaving the flyfishing community with the Emergent Sparkle Pupa. This pattern is lights-out when fishing spring caddis hatches, when most anglers use standard dry flies, believing trout are taking adult bugs. Here’s the thing: During spring caddis hatches, millions of adult caddis are flying above the water, or just dabbing their butts on the surface to lay eggs. Trout will eat those bugs, but they prefer taking vulnerable pupa drifting just under the surface or in the film. With a deer-hair wing greased with floatant and an Antron body that rides just under the surface, the Emergent Sparkle Pupa will attract tons of subsurface strikes. So, let all those dudes throw their Elk Hairs at those rise rings and wonder why they aren’t catching. When they see you hook one fish after the next, and ask, “What are you using?,” just tell them the truth—a caddis.
You can keep your beadhead squadrons tucked into their neat little rows. If I need a mayfly imitation, I’ll dig into my box, grab a sparsely tied traditional flashback pheasant-tail nymph from the clutter, and take my chances on any trout that swims. I am convinced that some of the wariest trout in the world will give this old classic a fresh look. Why? I spent six years fishing south-central Idaho’s Silver Creek with this pattern, and it destroyed trout during Beatis, pale-morning dun, and other mayfly hatches, when a beadhead version received only the cold shoulder.
Frank Smethurst developed the Stone Bomb for fishing high water in Colorado. He needed a fly to get down quickly, and didn’t want to attach split shot to his leader, so two beadheads of varying sizes did the trick. He also wanted a nymph that rode the current with the hook pointed up, like a Clouser, to increase positive connections. He achieved those goals, and absolutely crushed large trout, on this pattern. Enlist the Bomb when fishing the West’s major stonefly hatches—namely the salmonfly, Skwala, golden, and nocturnal—and you’re sure to get eats no matter how nasty the spring runoff may be.
By this point, you may have realized that I don’t like tying time-consuming flies—which is why I like the Zebra Midge. Again, you can whip out a dozen of these in an hour, and they absolutely crush trout, even on heavily fished tailwaters, where I sometimes imagine fish cruise around with 2.5 power readers on their noses and notebooks tucked under a fin. But this thing still tricks them. You can tie a Zebra in an array of colors to suit site-specific needs. Tie some with a bead, tie others without. See which works best. I prefer mine beadless, with a simple wind or two of peacock herl at the head, above a black thread body and wraps of silver wire.