How to Identify a Dry Fly or a Nymph

Dry versus Wet Fly Identification1

Dry fly or die! Swinging soft hackles! Fish feed 90% subsurface!  Great, now what fly do I use? And how do I know it’s a dry fly or wet fly or nymph?

Dry Flies

Dry flies imitate the adult phase of an insect. These flies tend to have materials designed to float on the water’s surface.

These materials include:

  • Hair
  • Foam
  • Stiff Feathers Called Hackle


Flies are often tied with elk, deer, or moose hair. This hair has hollow fibers allowing the fly to float. Wings such as that on an Elk Hair Caddis will allow the fly to stay above the water’s surface. Other haired patterns include a Comparadun, Royal Wulff or Stimulator.

Dry Fly Identification - United Women on the Fly - Liz Simpson


Foam flies are made to float! The foam is made with teeny pockets of air allowing the fly to float almost forever. Common foam flies are a Chubby Chernobyl, Grasshopper, Ants and Beetles.

Dry Fly Identification Foam - United Women on the Fly - Liz Simpson


The feathers most commonly used on a dry fly come from roosters bred for long, stiff barbed feathers. These feathers have stiff barbules (think uncooked spaghetti), the individual strands, that allow the fly to stand off the water. This feather can be wrapped vertically along the hook shank, vertically at the thorax of the bug, or horizontally around a post or parachute. Common flies include a Parachute Adams, Griffith Gnat, Renegade and a Brooks Sprout.

Wet Flies

Wet flies are made to imitate the immature phase of an insect or baitfish. These flies are subsurface and sink.  Wet flies typically have something to help them sink.  Sometimes you can see this addition as in a bead head or wire.  Other times there will be lead or a lead alternative wrapped at the hook shank then covered with materials. Wet flies can also be made with feathers but this tends to be a webbier feather.


Beads not only help a wet fly or nymph sink, but they can also be a flashy bright spot on the fly. Most nymphs can have a beaded version in gold or silver bead colors. Other beads are neon orange, pink, or green creating bright attraction for fish. Common bead head flies are a Pheasant Tail, Copper John, Bead Headed Stone and Euro Nymphs.

Wet Fly Identification Bead - United Women on the Fly - Liz Simpson1


Most commonly a nymph will have wire lead or lead alternative wrapped under the body, where you cannot see it. This weight also helps get the fly lower in the water column. There can also be a smaller diameter wire wrapped on the outside of the body to imitate the segments in an insect. This outer wire may also be used to help hold the materials together longer. Prince Nymph, Hare’s Ear and Zebra Midge Nymphs will demonstrate this wire wrapping.  Pat’s Rubber Legs usually have lead wrapped onto the shank of the fly under the chenille material.

Wet Fly Identification Wire - United Women on the Fly - Liz Simpson1

Webby Feather

Wet flies often have a webby or softer hackled feather in use (cooked spaghetti), that has no resistance to pressure if stood on the end of the barbule. This helps the fly to sink and creates movement of the fly in the water column. Imitating the swimming legs or nitrogen bubble of an emerging insect.  This is where the term “soft hackle” originates. These softer feathers can be seen on a Partridge and Olive or a bushier fly like a Wooly Bugger.

Wet Fly Identification Webby Feather - United Women on the Fly - Liz Simpson


Look at the flies in your fly boxes and ask yourself- what ingredients (hair, feathers, foam, beads) do I see on this fly? What is it supposed to imitate? If you are not sure use a search engine, if you know the name, or just start looking at images. There are many flies with slightly “off” names. Guides Choice Hare’s Ear, Psycho Prince Nymph, X Caddis, and Hippie Stomper to name a few. Three of these fly names tell you what it is, just an altered version. And a Hippie Stomper if you see one is made of foam. Again, it’s not necessary to know the names of each and every fly, but a general idea will always help you on the water and in conversation!

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