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

Clouser Deep Minnow

Clouser Deep Minnow

This lead-eyed bucktail is the world’s best pattern.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Woolly Bugger

Woolly Bugger

Buggers work well for bass and myriad other species in fresh- and saltwater.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Black Ghost

Black Ghost

Something about the black, yellow, and white color combination make big trout want to kill it.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Zonker

Zonker

A formed lead-foil underbody acts as both weight and keel, keeping the fly running deep and upright.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Elk Hair Caddis

Elk Hair Caddis

This pattern was the brainchild of the great Montana guide Al Troth, who knew his trout flies.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Adams

Adams

This Michigan pattern is the prototypical trout dry fly.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Royal Wulff

Royal Wulff

Despite the name, Lee Wulff did not invent this fly.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Griffith's Gnat

Griffith's Gnat

The fly is best in sizes 18 to 22. I can’t see it on the water.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Muddler Minnow

Muddler Minnow

The Muddler in its present, trimmed form was refined by Dan Bailey in Montana.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Stimulator

Stimulator

Western tier Randall Kaufmann came up with this one, which is kind of a takeoff on the Elk Hair Caddis.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Sparkle Dun

Sparkle Dun

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.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Rusty Spinner

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

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.

   
RS-2

RS-2

The RS-2 is the most successful olive-emerger imitation I’ve used.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

March Brown Spider

March Brown Spider

This is one of several old soft-hackled wet flies that underwent a renaissance in the 1970s.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear

Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear

The pattern is useful in sizes 20 up to 8, but sizes 14 and 16 take most of my trout most of the time.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Copper John

Copper John

This wire-­bodied nymph sinks rapidly and stays deep, where many of the fish are.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

RELATED:

Prince Nymph

Prince Nymph

Tungsten beads are heavier than brass beads of the same size, so the nymph fishes deep easily.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Fur Ant

Fur Ant

Among the simplest of flies, the Fur Ant is also among the deadliest.Travis Rathbone

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.

Dave's Hopper

Dave's Hopper

Pay attention, because trout often sip these quietly.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Egg Fly

Egg Fly

By most accepted terms, this is not even a fly—just a ball of yarn on a short-­shanked hook.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Lefty's Deceiver

Lefty's Deceiver

t works perfectly well for bass, trout, and other freshwater fish, but the ties you'll find are all on saltwater hooks.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Sponge Spider

Sponge Spider

Catching bluegills and other sunfishes is some of the greatest sport, so here's a fly just for that.Travis Rathbone

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.

Deer Hair Bass Bug

Deer Hair Bass Bug

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.Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now

Dahlberg Diver

Dahlberg Diver

This drives bass nuts, and their reaction is usually violent.Travis Rathbone

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.

Blue Winged Olive

Blue Winged Olive

The naturals are tiny, roughly a size 18 down to a miniscule 26 (depending on species).Travis Rathbone

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.
Buy It Now