No one fly catches all the fish all the time. That's a fact of flyfishing, and it's why there are thousands of different patterns. Fish, ever whimsical, sometimes refuse to eat on Friday the fly they ate on Tuesday. Fishermen, ever inventive, constantly create new patterns to compensate. Despite this, some standard patterns have evolved. Tested by time, water, and fish, these are the flies that work more often than not. Most are trout flies because the majority of flyfishermen target trout. That's why my top 25 list leans in that direction. Compiling a top-flies list invites argument, I know. Meet me in the comments section below to join the fray. —John Merwin

best fishing flies
Name: Clouser Deep Minnow Style: Streamer The Skinny: This lead-eyed bucktail is the world's best pattern because it looks and acts like a small jig when stripped through the water. Its prime color combination is chartreuse over white, and it works on everything from trout and bass to stripers and redfish, in sizes 2/0 down to 10. The best retrieve is fast. It's also the only pattern name to have become a verb. To "Clouser" your rod means to hit and probably crack your tip with the weighted fly because of your sloppy casting.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Woolly Bugger
Name: Woolly Bugger Style: Streamer The Skinny: Although best known as a streamer fly for trout, Buggers work well for bass and myriad other species in fresh- and saltwater. The basic Bugger is all black, in sizes 2/0 to as small as 12 for panfish. Historians see this pattern as nothing more than an ancient Woolly Worm wet fly with a wiggly marabou tail. Often it is tied with strands of flashy tinsel or with a heavy metal cone head for a jiglike action, but the original unweighted version is the most versatile.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Black Ghost
Name: Black Ghost Style: Streamer The Skinny: Something about the black, yellow, and white color combination in this venerable streamer pattern seems to make trout—especially big browns—want to kill it. Created by Herb Welch, the Black Ghost is one of the last remnants of the streamer tradition developed by Maine fly-tiers in the years before and shortly after World War II. I often fish sizes ranging from a big 2/0 giant-killer on down to a size 6. I've had browns come to this fly that were so big I had to sit on the bank afterward to stop shaking. Really.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Zonker
Name: Zonker Style: Streamer The Skinny: This sounds like something from the menu of a Cockney restaurant, a side dish, maybe, with your bangers and mash. Such is the inelegant state of modern fly names. A formed lead-foil underbody acts as both weight and keel, keeping the fly running deep and upright. A strip of rabbit fur for a wing is what drives fish crazy. Use black, chartreuse, or white in sizes 3/0 down to 10 in fresh- and saltwater. It may be known as a trout fly, but an all-black Zonker in a larger size can be great for northern pike.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Name: Elk Hair Caddis Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: Here's the one dry to have if you're having only one. This pattern was the brainchild of the great Montana guide Al Troth, who knew his trout flies. In sizes 10 to 20, and in tan, gray, or black, this high-floating dry often works best when twitched, then dead-drifted. That motion imitates an emerging caddis trying to get off the water, and slashing strikes are often the response. They aren't just for trout, either. Smallmouths and panfish love them, too.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Adams
Name: Adams Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: This Michigan pattern is the prototypical trout dry fly. Or it was until contemporary tiers got all wussy over things like hopped-up, semi­suspending emergers with foam-bubble hackle. Nuts to that. The old Adams with its looks-like-everything gray body and two-toned hackle still gets the job done. A great searching pattern, it also lends itself to scissor work. Trim away the top and bottom hackle to turn it into a spinner imitation. Trim more and you've got a nymph.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Royal Wulff
Name: Royal Wulff Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: Despite the name, Lee Wulff did not invent this fly. It's based on a version of the hair-wing Royal Coachman called the Quack Coachman. It took Wulff's renown to make his adapted Royal Wulff a huge success. In sizes 6 to 20, the Royal Wulff is a trout-stream standard not because it imitates anything in particular but because the white wings make it easy for fishermen to see. Use the larger sizes when dry-fly fishing for browns after dark in the summer. You can see it. The fish can, too.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Griffith's Gnat
Name: Griffith's Gnat Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: To this day there are brook trout rising in Michigan's Au Sable River in front of George Griffith's cabin, where Trout Unlimited was founded in the 1950s. These fish can be unbelievably picky and there, as elsewhere, this midge pattern is often what fools them. Tied with barred grizzly hackle palmered over a peacock-herl body, the fly is best in sizes 18 to 22. I can't see it on the water, but when I see a rise where I think the fly might be, I set the hook.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Muddler Minnow
Name: Muddler Minnow Style: Streamer The Skinny: Tied as a scruffy-looking sculpin imitation by Don Gapen in the 1930s, the Muddler in its present, trimmed form was refined by Dan Bailey in Montana and popularized by the likes of Joe Brooks and A.J. McClane. In a wide range of sizes, it's deadly on trout, steelhead, and salmon, and it doubles as an excellent bass fly. Fran Betters first turned me onto so-called mini Muddlers 30 years ago on New York's West Branch Ausable. To this day, that diminutive wet fly style is still one of my first choices for targeting trout in rough pocket water.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Stimulator
Name: Stimulator Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: Western tier Randall Kaufmann came up with this one, which is kind of a takeoff on the Elk Hair Caddis but on a longer-shanked hook with more hackle and more buoyant hair for the wing. It's designed to be twitched hard on the surface to elicit strikes from trout; hence the name. Generally tied in sizes 6 down to 16, in various colors, the pattern imitates a variety of stoneflies. One tip: After twitching it on the surface, pull the fly underwater and fish out the retrieve twitching it as a wet fly. You will be pleasantly surprised.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Sparkle Dun
Name: Sparkle Dun Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: This dry traces back to Fran Betters's Haystack, in which a wing of splayed deer hair rather than hackle holds the fly upright on the water. Caucci and Nastasi used this concept in their Comparadun series, which was further refined by Craig Matthews as the Sparkle Dun: He included a synthetic-fiber tail as generally representative of a nymphal shuck. Sparkle Duns can be tied in various colors and sizes to match the pattern of the mayfly hatch of the moment.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Rusty Spinner
Name: Rusty Spinner Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: When trout are rising but you can't see what they're eating, they could be dining on a spinner fall. Trout usually take the flush-floating spent mayflies with gentle sips; their rise forms can be a clue. Spinners with rusty-red bodies are the most common, in sizes 10 to 22. Smaller sizes, in particular, work well for trout that are sipping intermittently. Most commercial patterns are overdressed. Thin the wings with scissors, without changing their length, to boost your score.Travis Rathbone
   
best fishing flies
RS-2
Name: RS-2 Style: Emerger The Skinny: Sure, this odd little pattern doesn't look like much, but it's indispensable during common small mayfly hatches. Bluewing olives, especially, emerge from spring through fall on most trout streams, and the RS-2 is the most successful olive-emerger imitation I've used. It was developed in the 1970s by Colorado angler Rim Chung for the trout of the South Platte (the name stands for "Rim's semblance No. 2"). Fish it deep or near the surface, depending on the hatch.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
March Brown Spider
Name: March Brown Spider Style: Wet Fly The Skinny: This is one of several old soft-hackled wet flies that underwent a renaissance in the 1970s. The concept of a small fur body surrounded by long, flexible hackle fibers is almost as old as flyfishing itself. Trout, however, still chomp these flies in thoroughly modern lust. Fish size 10 to 18 soft hackles upstream, and either dead-drift them or swing them down and across the current. These are also excellent subsurface patterns for bluegills.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear
Name: Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear Style: Nymph The Skinny: One of the bestselling nymph patterns worldwide, the Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear is buggy-looking in the same sort of generic way as the Adams dry fly. It roughly imitates a wide array of trout-stream insects and precisely imitates nothing. The pattern is useful in sizes 20 up to 8, but sizes 14 and 16 take most of my trout most of the time. Its performance can be enhanced by roughing up its surface with a toothbrush.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Name: Copper John Style: Nymph The Skinny: Created by John Barr, this wire-­bodied nymph has become a trout fishing sensation over the past 10 years. The reason is simple: It sinks rapidly and stays deep, where many of the fish are. Copper wire, lead wire, and a brass bead all add weight, while the nymph's overall shape is streamlined to aid sinking. In smaller sizes, from 16 to 22, that fast sink rate means it's an ideal pattern to fish under a strike indicator or high-floating hopper pattern.
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Travis Rathbone

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best fishing flies
Prince
Name: Prince Nymph Style: Nymph The Skinny: A size 16 Prince Nymph with a tungsten beadhead has probably accounted for more 20-plus-inch trout for me than any other fly in recent years. One reason is because tungsten beads are heavier than brass beads of the same size, so the nymph fishes deep easily. It has the buggy look common to many successful trout flies. Smaller versions (sizes 16, 18) have always worked better for me, with or without a strike indicator.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Fur Ant
Name: Fur Ant Style: Terrestrial The Skinny: Among the simplest of flies, the Fur Ant is also among the deadliest. It's tied in sizes 12 through 20. Fish the smaller sizes dry on a 6X or 7X tippet to gently sipping trout during warm summer and early-fall afternoons. Black is usually best, although there are times when cinnamon is worth a try. In the high-tech world of modern flyfishing, basic patterns such as the Fur Ant are often neglected. The trout won't neglect them, and neither should you.Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Dave's Hopper
Name: Dave's Hopper Style: Terrestrial The Skinny: It is the quintessential grasshopper pattern for trout, created at the vise of Dave Whitlock. Larger sizes work well for smallmouths, and sunfish love the smaller ones. Picking a size for trout is tricky—most people are inclined to go large on Western rivers. The problem is that trout in those waters see lots of hopper patterns every summer day. Smaller sizes may get you more strikes. Pay attention, because trout often sip these quietly.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Egg Fly
Name: Egg Fly Style: Wet Fly The Skinny: By most accepted terms, this is not even a fly—just a ball of yarn on a short-­shanked hook. It doesn't even imitate an insect, but a gooey fish egg. I know anglers who refuse to fish the things for that reason. I am not among them because they work so well. A California fly shop has trademarked the name Glo Bugs, so other outlets call them Egg Flies. They are tied on heavy-wire short-­shanked hooks, sizes 6 to 10, in an array of colors.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Lefty's Deceiver
Name: Lefty's Deceiver Style: Streamer The Skinny: I may take heat for not ranking this streamer pattern higher in the list, so here's my reasoning. Almost all major fly retailers include the Deceiver only in their saltwater fly sections. It works perfectly well for bass, trout, and other freshwater fish, but the ties you'll find are all on saltwater hooks. And, of course, the pattern excels in saltwater for just about all big fish that eat small fish. The design, by the redoubtable Lefty Kreh, is ingenious. The long, trailing feather wing extends only from the rear of the hook, which means it won't tangle with the hook in casting and you will thereby never waste a cast. I most often use this pattern in white, chartreuse, or all black (for stripers after dark) in sizes 2/0 to 4.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Sponge Spider
Name: Sponge Spider Style: Terrestrial The Skinny: Though not very popular among fly anglers at large, catching bluegills and other sunfishes is some of the greatest sport, so here's a fly just for that. The sponge spider has been wiggling its rubber legs on the surfaces of ponds, lakes, and warmwater streams for years, but it still pulls big bluegills as well as ever. When the sponge body becomes waterlogged, fish it as a wet fly; or simply squeeze water from the body and keep fishing it dry. A size 12 will do for most sunfish, while a size 6 is big enough to draw strikes from bass.Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Deer Hair Bass Bug
Name: Deer Hair Bass Bug Style: Popper The Skinny: It seems that every 10 years or so a cadre of flyfishing majordomos forecasts a renaissance for bass flyfishing. For all the periodic predictions, this has yet to happen. Bass flyfishermen are still a small minority, but they're also still having lots of fun. Deerhair bugs like this one are the best of it--soft wiggly things that draw explosive surface strikes from bass and are just a hoot to fish. The only drawback is that deerhair bodies eventually become waterlogged, heavy, and hard to cast. You'll want plenty of spares in your box, sizes 2 through 10. White, yellow, and black are basic, and there are numerous multi-colored versions.
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Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Dahlberg Diver
Name: Dahlberg Diver Style: Popper The Skinny: Larry Dahlberg is a clever guy, and this brilliantly designed bass bug proves it. The tapered deerhair head acts as a diving plate. Twitch the bug gently, and it wiggles enticingly on the surface. Pull hard, and the head and collar force the fly underwater, after which it bobs back to the surface. This drives bass nuts, and their reaction is usually violent. Notably, Dahlberg extends the concept to so-called mega-divers and rabbit-strip divers that can be 6 inches long or more and work well for both northern pike and muskies. His basic bass bug is available in sizes 2 and 6, in a variety of colors.Travis Rathbone
best fishing flies
Blue Winged Olive
Name: Blue Winged Olive Style: Dry Fly The Skinny: This important dry fly comes fittingly at the end of my list. Although the naturals hatch at least intermittently all year, the most intense hatches seem to come at the end of the season in September or even October, when I've seen the little olive duns flying among sporadic snowflakes. The naturals are tiny, roughly a size 18 down to a miniscule 26 (depending on species). Rising trout key on them and can be maddeningly difficult to fool. Of all the common dry-fly styles I've tried, I keep coming back to this thorax-style tie as being the most effective. Hackle is trimmed away from the bottom to make the fly low-floating, and I think that helps. The pattern is not infallible, though, and I'm still looking for a better one.
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Travis Rathbone