Decision time: How to choose the right fly to use |

Decision time: How to choose the right fly to use

Ray Kyle
Special to the Daily

As I think back to the first time I stepped foot into a fly shop, I distinctly remember the feeling of being completely overwhelmed.

Between the expensive rods and reels, racks of sun blocking clothing, and endless assortment of small tools and gear, I had no idea where to start. On top of all the new and interesting merchandise, there were hundreds of little bins full of hooks covered in feathers and other unknown materials. I was in over my head.

What happened to the days of picking a $10 Rapala that was sure to catch a fish? What did I get myself into? These hooks wrapped with thread and feathers are obviously known to the angling world as flies. Without these flies, we wouldn’t have fly shops and I wouldn’t have a job. I knew after that first experience of bewilderment in the shop — I had to do some studying.

Four groups

I began with trying to figure out what these feathered hooks were trying to represent. I knew they obviously were supposed to look like insects that trout love to eat but which ones? Knowing the four major groups of insects that trout gravitate towards in Colorado is a great starting place.

Most insects that we are trying to replicate fall under the following large groups: midges, mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies. I suggest going to the fly shop or library and grabbing a book or going online and doing some research. It’s amazing how much some of the flies in the shop actually look almost identical to the real thing. Once you have seen what the naturals look like on paper or a computer screen, you can now pick out the flies that represent what is hatching outside.

After figuring out what bugs are what, the next step is finding out when they are present in the trout’s diet. Looking at hatch charts is a great way to get an idea of what might be out there. These charts are a general reference, however the best way to really know what’s hatching on any given day is to get out on the water and start looking for clues. Look to see if bugs are flying around.

If they look like moths, then you’re most likely seeing caddisflies. If you can see a tail hanging down from the flies, then you’re looking at a mayfly hatch. Also, another helpful clue, look at the banks to see if birds are queued up to pounce on a hatch. Birds are a great indicator that something is about to happen.

Can’t see any bugs flying around? Don’t worry, 80-90 percent of a trout’s diet is taken subsurface, meaning larva and nymphs. Using a seine (a tight meshed net) is one way of seeing what is happening in the water. If you don’t have a seine, then flipping over rocks near the banks, or looking at sticks you might have snagged is a great way of seeing small larva, nymphs and/or cased caddisflies. Bugs are always going to be present in the water, going through their growth cycles, so knowing which ones are more present than others will help narrow down which fly to add to the end of your line.

One of each?

Now that you’re seeing the bugs on the surface, in the air, or in the water, you can now make an intelligent decision on what fly to put on the end of your line. The moment that you choose correctly will feel like you cracked the puzzle. I always make sure that I have at least one pattern of each of the four major groups of insects in my fly boxes to assure that I don’t miss a hatch if I’m in the middle of one.

We at Vail Valley Anglers keep an updated fishing report on our website to help with figuring out the water conditions and what flies to use. With the information in this article, and the information we provide on the reports, and the willingness to make confident decisions on what flies to use. Practice makes perfect. Always keep your fish wet and practice catch and release to promote a great future for our local fisheries. Fish First!

Ray Kyle is the shop supervisor and a guide at Vail Valley Anglers. He can be reached at 970-926-0900 or

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