Simplifying Fly Selection

Tom Jarman narrows down his river-based nymph and dry fly choices

After so many years of guiding, competition and social fishing one would have expected my fly boxes to be teeming with many different patterns from around the world. Surprisingly, the exact opposite has happened and my fly choices have become quite refined and select.
Instead of a wide range of different flies unique to specific rivers or parts of the world, my fly boxes contain a handful of core patterns in a wide range of sizes and, in the case of nymphs, a range of weights and bead colours. This variation in size and weight makes these flies versatile across most situations.
I aimed to refine my fly boxes for a few reasons. I wanted to simplify decision making around what fly I tie on. This is because I don’t believe the specific pattern is the be-all and end-all. I would rather focus on other factors that increase my catch rate, such as the quality of the drift, body positioning, reading of the water, time management and leader constructions for different water types.
Fishing abroad and competing at world championships in the USA, Italy, Slovakia and Australia has also given me the confidence to simplify my fly choice. The same core flies that I and other anglers have found successful in all of these countries work just as well on our local Australian and New Zealand rivers.
Anglers of all abilities need to have a system and follow a process when they go fly fishing. A simple example would be using the same fly rod, reel and line. It makes everything easier, from casting to striking and playing fish. Essentially you will have a better understanding of how your gear will behave. Another example is leader construction and tippet choice. Knowing exactly how long your leader is and how it will turn over and lay out on the water is so important.
Understanding how each fly will cast and fish, and where they are most applicable, is a must. An example of how two styles of dry fly will fish and behave differently would be a Parachute Mayfly versus a CDC Mayfly. Parachutes will typically present with more slack as there is greater resistance in the air as a result of their parachute hackles. They also tend to spin in the air if fished on too light a tippet as a result of this resistance. Now a CDC dry fly with no hackle will turn over better and won’t spin even when fished on the lightest tippet. Both these styles of fly have a time and place, and the angler needs to understand when they work best and then fish them in the appropriate situation.
When nymphing a river, one of the main keys to catching fish is achieving sufficient depth with your flies. I like to use tungsten beaded nymphs to do this. Essentially, the larger the tungsten bead, the heavier the fly is and the deeper you can fish it. Trying to keep your nymphs relatively slim will also help to get deeper as there is less resistance in the water as they sink.
Tungsten beads are generally measured in millimetres of diameter. The bead sizes I find myself using most often are 2.5, 2.8, 3.0, 3.3 and 3.5 mm. You don’t need to carry or use all bead weights, but having a nice range of nymphs in different weights allows you to fish the range of water depths you will encounter on a river.
I also try to keep my fly size and bead weight independent of one another. For example, if I am catching fish on a size 16 Hare & Partridge nymph with a 2.5 mm tungsten bead in shallow water, and suddenly come to a deep run and need a heavier fly, I still want to be fishing a size 16, but with a heavier bead.
Often you will find as the bead size on a fly gets bigger, so does the hook and fly itself. This is counter-intuitive unless you have a reason for it, because if the fly gets bigger when the bead does then you are fishing a very different fly, and you are inhibiting sink rate as the larger fly will create more resistance as it sinks through
the water.
Having a range of nymphs with a mix of bead colours in your box is also a great way to add variety to your flies. It is amazing how on certain days and at different times of the year trout will prefer particular bead colours over others. I find in low water and on challenging fish, copper beads are fantastic. Also, after rain, I like gold beads when there is some colour in the water.
When nymphing up a river, never underestimate how much changing the colour of your bead can turn your day around and improve your catch rate. Gold, copper, silver and metallic pink are my core bead colours.
In my nymph box you could separate the nymphs into three broad categories — Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears and Tags. The Pheasant Tail Nymph is such a proven and reliable pattern. As nymphing techniques have developed, so have the variations. My favourite Pheasant Tail is one with a hot-spot collar and a tungsten bead. It is an incredibly consistent pattern that is subtle, with a hint of colour. They are a simple pattern, and slim, which helps them sink quickly in small bead weights. So many Australian mayflies are small and dark, so a small PTN is a must-have pattern for any angler. I do like mine small, so I fish them generally in sizes 18 and 16.
The Hare’s Ear Nymph is such a great buggy-looking fly pattern, and under the water they look alive. They are a good caddis lookalike, but could imitate anything depending on the size of the fly. They are typically more heavily dressed than a PTN, so sink a little slower with the same bead weight. Walt’s Worm, the Hare’s Ear Grub, Hare & Partridge and CDC Hare’s Ear are all great variations that work all around the world. I fish these flies in all bead sizes because they look great tied larger, though sizes 16 and 14 are my favourites.
Tag nymphs are great fly patterns that have come about through modern nymphing techniques. We all know and love a Red Tag as a dry fly, but don’t tend to fish a Red Tag Nymph or other colour variants as much as we should. The Pink Tag, Orange Tag and Peeping Caddis are all effective variants that catch the fish’s attention because of their bright hot-spots. I like to fish these flies early in the season and in high water when the fish are fresh. They are also great in dirty water when you want a big hot-spot. They are effective in a range of sizes, and remember, if the tag on your nymph is too big or you think it is too much for the fish, you can always cut it shorter or cut it off completely!
Within a simple group of nymphs such as these, you will find you have covered so many bases. I was once told by an angler in the French fly fishing team that when it comes to nymphs you only need slim flies, bushy flies, light flies and dark flies. It doesn’t matter what patterns they are, as long as you have these bases covered in your fly box you will be able to catch a lot of fish. This is such a simple system to follow, and he is so right.
In my dry fly box I try to carry a selection of flies that will cover me when fishing a range of different water types. Being overly imitative is not my aim with most of the patterns I use. Instead I try to fish a fly of the right size and proportions. You will find that there are some hatches and locations where a very specific fly is required, however, these occasions are rare. Most of the time anglers will be fishing representative or searching patterns, rather than imitative ones. The Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff are two of the most universal and commonly fished flies that don’t aim to imitate anything specific. One is an arbitrary grey mayfly, the other seems to be some sort of trout lollipop.
When I go to tie a dry fly on, I generally consider the type of water I am going to be fishing it in. If I am fishing a dry fly in fast, bubbly or turbulent water, I choose a fly that is going to ride nice and high in the water, is visible and will float well. In this scenario, I will look to a Parachute Caddis, Parachute Mayfly or Klinkhamer, all with high-vis posts. These flies float beautifully, and with a fluorescent post you can see your fly easily. This helps your confidence and ensures you don’t miss any takes, but it also helps you to see how good your drift is. These three patterns have very different profiles on the water, and in a mix of sizes cover you for a range of situations.
These patterns also lend themselves to being used as indicator dries when fishing nymph-below-dry. The parachute hackle helps suspend a lightly weighted nymph, such as a 2.5 or 2.8 mm bead. To ensure my dry holds the nymphs up, I simply up my fly size slightly. If I was searching with a single size 16 Parachute Caddis, then I would upsize to a size 14 if I needed to fish a nymph below it through some deeper water.
Some of the hardest trout to catch on a dry fly can be those painful fish sipping and mooching in glassy flat water or slow pools. Unless these fish appear to be eating larger food items, which is rare, you will need to go small and subtle, and often lengthen and lighten your tippet to improve your presentation.
This is where CDC fly patterns stand out from the rest. Plume Tips, CDC Sedges, the F Fly and Splitwings are all amazing patterns that can crack these challenging fish. CDC flies cast very accurately due to the lack of resistance and hackles. They also land very softly on the water. A very small amount of CDC tied on a hook will float deceptively well, and when the fish are wary and are looking to eat small food such as blue-winged olives and midge, they are perfect.
You will also find that because CDC is so soft, when a fish eats the fly the material slicks down and you get fantastic hook-sets compared to a fly with hackles obscuring the hook point. I like a small F Fly or Plume Tip in a size 18 or 16 in very flat water for spooky fish, but I am never afraid to fish a larger CDC Sedge or Splitwing in a 16, 14 or 12 when searching mid-paced water such as slow runs.
Just as with the nymphs, if you have a range of dry flies with a mix of profiles that fish well in a range of water types, then you will be able to catch a lot of fish all around the world.
Learning from and building on the knowledge and experiences of other anglers is what fly fishing is all about. Flies and fly tying are no different. These are just examples of a few fly patterns I have found success with, and have confidence in.
The most important thing is to build up a fly box that suits the conditions and range of water types you will be fishing. Keeping it simple will help take the stress out of fly choice, and hopefully help you to focus on other areas of the sport, and enjoy your-
self too.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.