Small Flies For Large Trout

Reprinted from The Fly Fisher Magazine

Maine Native Brook TroutAfter spending nearly three fruitless hours trying to imitate the assorted mayflies and caddis on the water, I finally laid down my rod and paddled to shore.  With fish still rising everywhere, I had to admit I simply didn’t have any idea what they were taking.

If this sounds familiar, don’t feel too bad.  Anyone who has spent much time with a fly rod in-hand has probably had similar experiences.  Fortunately, much can be learned from these frustrating encounters, and over the years I’ve found that minor adjustments can sometimes provide for dramatically improved results.

One simple mistake many anglers make during periods of selectivity is using flies that are too big.  Because larger flies are easier to see on the water and attach to the tippet, fly fishermen often have a tendency to prefer them over the small stuff.  Taking a few minutes to compare some naturals with imitations in your fly box however frequently reveals that the proper pattern is actually a hook size or two smaller than what you would have otherwise selected.  These seemingly insignificant few millimeters can make a world of difference in your fly fishing success.

Before going any further, I must admit that I don’t particularly relish fishing with or tying small flies.  But I do enjoy catching fish.  So, to help maximize success without having to get too elaborate, I rely on about a half dozen fairly generic patterns in assorted colors and sizes to get me through most situations in which small flies are required.

Matching The Naturals

Sulfur Mayfly DunA key to success with this approach is being able to recognize the major groups of natural food organisms that trout feed on.  Thus, whenever I encounter fish feeding on “micros”, I try to classify them into one of six broad categories based on their physical appearance and the fish’s response toward them.  Those categories are: nymphs, emergers/pupae, duns, spinners, midges, and caddis flies. Frequently, very simple characteristics such as the presence or orientation an insect’s wings is all that is needed to place them into a specific group.  And from there, it’s merely a matter of selecting the fly from that particular pattern type which most closely imitates the natural in regard to size and color.

To experienced hatch matchers, this will sound like an oversimplification.  And admittedly, there are times when I could have benefitted from a larger selection of small flies.  But for newcomers to fly fishing, or individuals simply not interested in carrying a lot of patterns, this approach offers a manageable strategy which allows you to catch fish in the majority of situations you will encounter.

Pattern selection alone, however, cannot be your only consideration.  In fact, I’m convinced that fly size is at least equally, if not more, important.  A good example comes from a trip I took to the alpine lakes of Wyoming’s Wind River mountain range a few years ago.  Armed with dozens of flies tied in sizes 6 – 14, the trout spent the entire 10 day period keyed in to feeding on # 18 to 22 midges.  After enduring repeated refusals to my larger offerings, I eventually rooted out one tiny midge from the deep recesses of a fly box.  Predictably, this fly produced consistent results until it finally fell apart.  With the nearest fly shop a two-day hike away, I resolved to always carry at least a small selection of flies in smaller sizes.  And since then, I’ve found that oftentimes just having “something” of the approximate correct size and color is all it takes to turn a skunking into a productive day.

Presentation Of Tiny Flies

Maine Trout StreamAnother element of successful small fly fishing is an accurate and natural presentation.  For most stream situations, this means casting your fly into the feeding lane of a fish and allowing it to dead drift down to it.  As simple as this sounds, it is probably the most difficult of the described elements to perfect.

One reason is because of the diminutive size and usual abundance of the naturals, fish aren’t willing to expend as much energy chasing a # 20 emerger as they would be for a meaty leech.  Thus, if your cast doesn’t bring the fly directly over the fish’s nose, it is likely to be ignored.  Additionally, because insects that small rarely exhibit much mobility against the current, any movement or drag will immediately identify the fly as an artificial.  The situation in ponds is equally challenging because the benefits gained from the lack of current are offset by the difficulty in trying to anticipate the feeding path a fish will follow.


A final point of importance deals with leaders and can be summed up with four words, “the lighter, the better.”  But, due an innate fear of losing fish, many fishermen find going lighter than 4# test to be a big step.  I came to appreciate the importance of fine tippets early in my development as a fly fisher; while sharing a stretch of Idaho’s Silver Creek with a local angler who was out-fishing me badly.  Generously, throughout the afternoon, he shared the secrets of his success; first the tiny nymphs, then the polarized glasses. Finally he handed me his rod outfitted with a long leader tapered to 7X or 8X and said, “Here, just use this for a while.”  Since then, my faith in the value and strength of light leaders has continued to grow and today I do almost all of my “micro” fishing with 7X (.004 / 2# test) tippets.

The bottom line for newcomers is that fishing with small flies is not as hard as you might think.  Frequently, all it takes is a handful of flies, a light tippet and a reasonable presentation.  So, next time you are confronted with a situation in which your standard repertoire is just not working, take a closer look at the water to see if using a smaller fly might be worth a try.