August 02, 2022
My favorite coach of all time, John Wooden, once said, “Perfection can never be obtained—only strived for.” Wooden led UCLA basketball teams to ten national championship wins, and continuously sought better ways to organize his practices till the day he retired.
Many fly fishers are similar in the ways they strive to organize their flies. That is, many continue to buy new fly boxes and perfect new methods of organizing their fly patterns. Beginners going into their second year begin acquiring more flies and look for additional boxes to store the surplus, while veteran anglers are looking at ways to downsize their selection.
Having the right fly for the job at the right time (and being able to quickly find it) makes your hours on the water more enjoyable, and while there is no perfect system that works for everyone there are several concepts that can create greater efficiency and flexibility throughout the seasons, and for different waters and species.
After a seven-year stint working at TCO State College Fly Shop, I have come to appreciate the frustration beginners feel when faced with the question of “what fly box should I get?” For example, I recently got the same overwhelmed sensation when looking for a new pair of running shoes. There were dozens of options that covered everything from trail running to indoor track.
I would have been lost if left on my own to make a decision without direction from the sales staff. Luckily, one of the staff members approached and began asking me a variety of questions as to exactly where and how I planned on using the equipment. After answering a handful of questions, the salesman went into the back room and I had a pair of running shoes to fit my needs.
As with running shoes, the key to finding the right equipment—whether it’s a fly box or a fishing pack—is being able to ask the right questions. Luckily, most specialty fly shops have staff members who are skilled enough to ask you the right questions and match you with the right fly box. Also, if you are looking to purchase a box on your own, then it will be your responsibility to think about some of the items listed in the following paragraphs to help you find the fly boxes best suited for your needs. It’s also important that you don’t merely ask what the fly shop employees use personally, as they may fish different flies in different seasons.
The key is to remember that you may need some general guidelines to get you started, but you need to eventually build your own organized fly box system tailored to your needs. Stream conditions can change in a wink—specific insects may start to hatch or a rainfall quickly changes water clarity—both scenarios force fly fishers to change their approach, not to mention their flies. And if your fly box system is not adequately prepared to deal with these changing conditions, your fly-fishing outings may become less productive.
Mark Twain wrote, “Good judgment is the result of experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” Like most anglers, I have transformed my fly box selection dozens of times hoping that my new selection would solve an organizational problem. At other times, I bought a new box on whim, without much thought, which resulted in only using the box a few times before moving on to the next box. On the occasions where my fly box selection was productive and long lasting, I put considerable thought into the purchase, and often the assistance of a fellow fly fisher steered me in the right direction.
Let’s face it, buying a fly box isn’t like purchasing a car or a new house, where a significant financial commitment is required. In theory, the higher the price tag, the more thought that should be put into purchasing an item. This might be the reason why most anglers put little thought into purchasing a fly box that costs less than $50.
Earlier in my fly-fishing career (and when I was single), my thought was, “If the box doesn’t work out, then I’m only out $50. But after 25 years of fishing and working with a family budget, I’m finally becoming a little wiser, and now realize that I have wasted plenty of time and money purchasing fly boxes merely because I thought they looked cool. Now I realize that fly fishers need to spend a significant amount of time at the planning stage before plopping money down at the cash register.
Write it Down
A few winters ago, I wrote down on a yellow legal pad all the flies I thought I needed for the coming season. Based on this list, I began researching fly boxes that could carry and organize all my essential flies and still fit into my packs and gear bags.
I spent three weeks reviewing and editing this yearlong fly selection. Several times I crossed a pattern off the list, only to add it back to the list just a few days later. The process allowed me to think critically about what flies were truly essential and which ones were frivolous. Eventually I came up with a system that has worked brilliantly, and allowed me to make fly box choices that persist through many seasons, not just a few weeks.
While you’re making your own list, break down the actual time you spend using wet flies, nymphs, dry flies, and streamers. Let that be your guide as to how to decide how many of one particular style of fly you carry. If you find yourself fishing more wets than any other style, then carry more wet flies. I know guys who carry dozens of old Grey Ghost streamers, but haven’t fished streamers at all in more than five years. Personally, I carry more nymphs than all other flies combined because that’s how I do most of my fishing.
Successful anglers always have a fly system. It’s not always neat and tidy, but they know where each fly box is located and where to find each pattern. Some fly boxes are cluttered messes (aka controlled chaos) while others are meticulously arranged. Personally, I work best in a clear, clutter-free environment.
Recently I was invited by a friend to listen to Mike Ritland (a former Navy SEAL who now specializes in training security dogs) speak at a local university. Ritland closed out his talk with several great talking points. The message that struck home for fly fishing was “make your bed.” Ritland encourages everyone—whether they are a Navy SEAL or not—to maintain a high level of organization and preparedness in every aspect of their lives. He shared several examples of the variety of missions Navy SEALs may go on over a short period of time. For example, one trip may be working the jungles in Central America, while the next mission may be in the mountains of Afghanistan. His point was they never knew exactly where/when their next mission would take them, so they had to finish each mission by organizing their equipment in a manner that allowed them to quickly locate and pick the essential gear before leaving for their next mission within minutes.
While fly fishers don’t have missions, there are times when you suddenly find yourself with a couple of spare hours to fish, and it pays to be ready. In the past, I’ve turned away plenty of short 30-minute fishing opportunities because I couldn’t locate certain flies, or boxes of flies. However, I’ve been able to capitalize on more recent trips because my fly box system has become more organized over the years.
You don’t have to fill every empty slit or empty space in your fly box. I leave open spaces in my boxes for several reasons. First, there’s a section in my box where I leave space for patterns I purchase at fly shops. I am not one of those guys who only fishes with flies I tie myself. I fish with patterns that I feel will catch the most fish. When I travel to new areas, I stop at the local fly shop and pick up the flies they recommend.
I like to support local fly shops but I also enjoy the thrill of finding the next hot pattern—sometimes they also work on my home waters. Patterns like the Split Back Nymph, Sparkle Minnow, and the Puff Diddy are all patterns I found while traveling, and now are staples in my fly boxes.
Second, as the late George Harvey wrote in a letter to me over 20 years ago, “Most fly fishers are good people,” which explains why you’ll find so many of them wanting to share their favorite patterns with you at a fly-fishing show, in a parking lot, or along the stream.
Anytime you ask a fly fisher, “What pattern are you using?”—you’re often the recipient of several flies. I am never too proud to ask anyone what they are using, and as a result I often have additional flies in my box at the end of the day.
Third, like most fly fishers who tie their own patterns, I like to experiment with new patterns. However, I don’t test enough patterns to justify a separate box. I usually tie three of that type and place them in a corner of the box designated for experimental flies. Most often they fail and I simply take them out of the box, which leaves space for the next set of experimental flies.
Spring Fly-Fishing Cleaning
Apply the “spring cleaning” concept to your fly box. Purge your fly box of useless patterns during the off season. At some point during the winter, I take several days to look through all my fly boxes and determine which flies stay and which flies are coming out. I use a general rule when looking at most of my boxes. If a particular style or pattern/size hasn’t been used in over a year, I normally take it out of my box and put it in a pile of flies to donate or give away.
The reason why so many fly fishers purchase new fly boxes every year is because they never purge their old boxes of useless flies. Their fly collection grows and grows, and they constantly need new boxes even though they have rows upon rows of flies they never use, and likely never will use.
It’s no wonder some fly fishers have dozens of boxes packed with old, nearly useless flies. If you haven’t used a type of fly pattern in more than a year, it’s likely you never will. Get rid of those rows of Royal Trudes, Goofus Bugs, and Hornbergs. They are still good flies, but you’ll never use them. This reduces the number of both flies and fly boxes you carry, which creates a whole new level of organization.
Choosing Your Flies
You do not need 50 Shades of Sulphur yellow in your fly boxes. Yes, it is true that Sulphurs along with other trout insects do vary color from stream to stream. Factors including the type of vegetation the insects eat, may create one insect with varying shades from one stream to another. Some anglers are adamant that you must match the exact color of Sulphur for each stream you fish, but that type of thinking is total overkill unless you like carrying a lot of boxes, or you only fish Sulphurs and stay indoors the rest of the year. Instead, I suggest you carry a single color shade that loosely resembles Sulphurs everywhere.
Focus on technique and casting accuracy, give up on the idea of a “magic fly,” and the number of fly patterns in your boxes will fall dramatically. Too many people switch flies and blame a fly pattern for being ineffective, when in reality the trout haven’t seen the pattern presented at the right depth and speed—perhaps the trout haven’t considered it at all due to inaccurate casting.
Use suggestive versus imitative patterns. Most experts use flies that imitate a wide range of insects instead of patterns that closely imitate a specific insect. This simplifies everything.
I prefer suggestive patterns because it allows me to carry fewer flies, yet I commonly find I have the right fly for the job. For example, a Pheasant-tail Nymph imitates a wide range of mayfly nymphs. By carrying several different sizes, I can imitate most major mayfly nymphs.
This concept can be more or less effective depending on the types of waters your fish. For instance, small mountain streams are often sterile with sparse bug life, and aggressively feeding trout. Basically, a small-stream fly box should have a short variety of attractor dry flies including Stimulators, Wulffs, and Elk-hair Caddis, along with similar patterns. A small selection of suggestive nymphs along with a couple Woolly Buggers should be all that you need to tackle most mountain streams.
On the other hand, if you plan on fishing heavily traveled tailwaters or spring creeks and the trout are much more sophisticated, you’ll have a much more specific set of fly patterns tailored to that water.
How many of each pattern do I need to buy or tie?
At speaking engagements, I’m often asked, “How many of each pattern do I need to buy or tie?” There is no right answer, but here are several variables to guide you. First, are you fishing around heavy overhead cover in the form of trees and shrubs? I don’t care how good of a fly caster you think you are, we all get our flies stuck in trees from time to time. If I’m fishing small streams with lots of snag potential, I carry at least a half a dozen of each style of fly.
Also, think about how you use your flies. For example, I rarely lose streamers due to the fact that I use 15-pound-test tippet. Therefore I only carry two or three of each style of streamer. When I’m nymphing, I may carry close to a dozen each of my favorite nymphs due to the high probability of snagging the bottom with lighter tippets and breaking off. With dry flies, I may try to keep six of each pattern as I lose far fewer dry flies than I do nymphs. Again, this is simply a suggestion as to how many patterns I carry with me.
Fly Box Advice
Before purchasing a fly box, first establish what kind of pack you plan on using, as your choice will influence what boxes you eventually purchase. For example, if you plan on using a small/minimalist chest pack, then you may want to consider using ultra-thin boxes, as you’ll be able carry several boxes compared to a single bulky waterproof box. If you already own a pack, then take it to a fly shop and see how it accommodates certain fly boxes.
I haven’t met a waterproof box that is truly 100 percent submersible. When a box is empty, a soft rubber gasket works fine to keep moisture out but grit, sand, or hackle and tail fibers from your fly can act to breach the barrier and allow water into the boxes.
This is why every time I fall in the river or believe any moisture might have entered my box from rain or snow, I take out all of my boxes indoors and allow them to air dry. This is especially important in salt water because just a little bit of salty moisture can start the rust process.
Whether you’re in fresh or salt water, never place a damp fly in your box. This is especially important if your flies are made from poor-quality steel. It doesn’t take much moisture to rust an entire box of steel hooks. This is one reason I like Umpqua’s concept of putting Zerust tabs into UPG fly boxes.
Also, think about the color of the box and if you would be able to find it if you lost it along the stream. If you own a dark fly box, consider placing a bright section of duct tape on it with your name and contact information.
When (not if) you lose your fly box, you’ll want to have complete contact information on it. Most fly fishers are honest folks and will return lost items to the original owner.
Although I have preached the concept of simplicity, I am not saying that you should only carry a single fly box or completely reduce the number of flies you carry on the stream. I have simplified my fly box system many times over the years, but I still carry up to 10 boxes during the peak season. They key to success with this many boxes is to carry a working box with the flies you plan to fish with during the day.
My working box is a C&F Chest Patch hanging off my lanyard. I have modified it by adding foam strips on the inside, so it allows me quick and easy access to over 120 flies. The foam on the outside acts as a drying pad for used flies.
Based on conditions, I will move flies in and out of this working box and therefore rarely have to dig for storage boxes in my pack.
The point here is you need to find a working box that fits into your system and only carry flies in the
working box that are relevant for the day you are fishing. For example, don’t have terrestrials in your box when you are fishing during the coldest winter months.
What you’ll notice from my photos is that I don’t carry a lot random patterns. There may be a few, but usually I carry multiples of patterns I call “confidence” flies.
Throughout the years I continue to narrow down the types of patterns I use, but I make sure I have good quantities of each. I also vary the size or alter a color of each confidence fly.
This system has been a successful one for me over the years for no other reason than I have confidence in my fly selection and know exactly where each pattern is. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to locate a specific dry fly when you have fish rising all around you
It will take you time, but eventually you’ll develop a fly box and fly system that you have confidence in. Start simple and eventually build up your system, but only after putting in serious consideration. Good luck!
- In the off season make a written list of all the flies you’ll need through the year. Go back through it several times to winnow down the flies to only the ones that are truly essential.
- While you’re making the list, break down how you normally spend your fishing time, and make separate lists of nymphs, streamers, and dry flies.
- Carry fewer streamers. With heavy tippet, you’ll lose far fewer of them, and they take up valuable space.
- “Make your bed.” After each day on the water make sure that you replace missing flies, dry and replace used flies, and prepare your boxes so they are ready for the next day on the water.
- Leave empty spaces in your boxes for flies you buy on road trips, or for those experimental patterns you’ve been tying.
- Once a year, do some spring cleaning to get rid of the chewed, mashed flies. Even more important, if you have fly styles you haven’t used in a year or more, get rid of that unwarranted clutter.
- Use imitative rather than species-specific fly patterns. A Pheasant-tail Nymph is a serviceable imitation of many mayfly nymphs.
- Use a working fly box for the patterns you plan to use that day.
- Make sure your flies are dry before you replace them. After rainy days or surprise swims, open all your boxes and dry the contents.
- Choose your pack or vest first, then buy boxes that are appropriately sized.
George Daniel is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor.