Fly FIshing 101: Introduction to Freshwater Flies

United Women on the Fly - Type of FLies

As a new fly angler, or even intermediate, one of the most intimidating parts of the sport is choosing the right fly.  Sometimes the perfect, most unique, fly is the ticket.  Other times you can fool a fish by tying on a pink attractor pattern and cast it out there.  I personally feel learning how to read water, set-up your leader and understand how to fish the fly, is more important than choosing the correct fly.  This is why the Intro and Fly Fishing 101 classes have less emphasis on entomology and more time spent on the subjects mentioned above.  

The bugs will come.  When I first started to learn how to fly fish, I had several mentors suggest different hatch textbooks.  I opened the first page and felt completely overwhelmed. The books stayed closed on my bookshelf for two years until I had enough knowledge under my belt to open them back up.  SUGGESTION – Get something with pictures!

We discuss and go into great detail , the fly types, fly examples, leader set-up for each fly type and how to fish each type of fly in our Online Recorded Courses.  You learn anywhere at anytime.  Register HERE.  Join the Reading Trout Water Live Online class on Thursday 7/29/21 from 5pm – 6:30pm.  These classes are gender inclusive and scholarships are available.  Email for a scholarship.

Fly Fishing takes patience and an incredible amount of time on the water to understand the many components.  You’re not going to learn it all at once.  Even those who have been fishing for a lifetime are still learning.  This is not a fad diet, it’s a lifestyle. Enjoy the journey.

Entomology defined is the study of insects.  At its most basic level, fly fishing entomology is understanding the category of insects and what stage of life the bug is in. Understanding the hatch comes with experience, studious habits, observation and most importantly time on the water. 

What is a fly?

Fishing flies are artificial bait designed to imitate insects at different stages of their lives, aquatic baitfish,  small animals,  invertebrates, crustaceans and other fish food.

Types of Freshwater Flies - Dry, Terrestrials and Emergers1

Fly Types

In order to choose the correct fly, you must understand the different fly types.  The difference between not catching fish and tight lines is having a solid understanding of the different fly types and when to use them.

  • Dry Fly
    • Float
    • Mature Stage of Adult insects
  • Terrestrials
    • Float
    • Land Dwelling
    • Grasshoppers, Critics, Beetles, Ants, Etc.
  •  Emerger
    • Above and Below the Water
    • Float
    • Mature Stage of Adult Insects
  • Wet Fly
    • Sink
    • Fishes Just Below the Surface
    • Imitate Drowned, Drifting or Hatching Insect
  • Nymph
    • Sink
    • Any Immature Stage of Aquatic Insects
  • Streamer
    • Sinks
    • Mimics Bait Fish or Other Large Aquatic Prey

Imitator vs Attractors

Flies can be further broken down into different categories.  Some break them down into more sections but to make it easier we break the flies down into two types. 

  • Attractor
    •  Weak to little resemblance of a type of insect hatching or baitfish.
    • This fly has been designed to attract the curious, sometimes less educated, fish. 
    • Flashier, bright colors, legs, sparkle and synthetic fibers.
  • Imitator
    • Imitates or resembles a type of insect that is hatching or an aquatic baitfish.
    • Less flash, more natural materials.
Attractor Dry Flies
Attractor Dry Flies
Imitator Dry Flies
Imitator Dry Flies

Match the Hatch

Often times you will hear the term “Match the Hatch”.  In this case you’ll probably choose a fly that mimics the actual species or baitfish that the fish are feeding on.  Examples of species you will might imitate are: Caddis, Mayfly, Midge, Stonefly, Terrestrials, Leeches, etc. 

Attractor patterns are often used to search for fish.  You might have great success with attractor patterns all day.  There will be times when fish are feeding on a specific insect at a certain stage.  This is when you’d switch to an imitator pattern.

Dry Fly Eat - Green Drake - United Women on the Fly
Dry Fly Eat - Photo By: Heather Hodson

Dry Fly

A dry fly is the mature stage of any species of insects. The fly floats on the surface of the water.

A downfall to Dry Fly fishing is they only feed on the mature stage or adult flies a small portion of the time.  That means most of the time, fish are feeding under the surface.  Although your odds are less, there’s nothing quite like watching a trout rise from the depth of the water column to eat the fly you presented. This type of fishing will keep you coming back for more!

Dry Fly Fishing Technique – Anglers tend to fish dry flies on a dead drift.  Dead drift is the fly moving at the same speed of the current. This can be obtained by moving the fly line up or down stream, also known as mending.  Occasionally there are times to twitch or skate your dry fly.

Terrestrial Flies - Grasshopper
Grasshopper - Photo By Canva


A terrestrial is land dwelling and floats on the water.  Examples are grasshoppers, crickets, Beetles, Ants, Etc.

Terrestrial Fishing Technique – As terrestrials are land dwelling you’ll want to fish close to the banks.  Have an accurate cast helps with this type of fishing.

Brooks Sprout Fly - Cutthroat Trout - United Women on the Fly
Emerger Eat - Photo By: Heather Hodson


An emerger is an aquatic insect that is transitioning from their subsurface life to become an adult.  The fly sits on top with part of it’s lower half just below the surface.  Most emerger flies imitate certain emerging insects such as Mayfly, Caddis and Midges.

Emerger Fishing Technique – Limit the amount of drag you have by fishing with long, small diameter tippet, leaders.  Emerger flies can be small so consider using the dry-dry droper leader set-up with the emerger as the dropper or consider using tight line or high sticking techniques with an emerger.

Subsurface Flies
Subsurface Fly Examples

Subsurface Flies

Most insects have several stages to become an adult.  A nymph is a ‘catch all’ term for these immature stages of their life taking place under water.  These flies are fished just below the surface or deep within the water column.  Again, fish tend to feed subsurface (under water) MOST of the time.  This significantly increased your odds of being productive by fishing with a wet fly or nymph.

There can be several immature stages of different insect species happening at once. This creates a tremendous food source for fish under water.  Depending on the stage of the insect, nymphs can be found in several water columns at a given time.

A nymph is a ‘catch all’ term for these immature stages of their life taking place under water. 

Wet Fly Eat - Photo By Heidi Lewis

Wet Fly

Over 150 years ago, trout fishing was fished soley with what we would now call traditional wet flies.  A wet fly is just below the surface and imitating a drowned, drifting or hatching insect.

Watch the Orvis Wet Flies Vs. Nymphs Video HERE.

Wet Fly Fishing Techniques – Wet flies are more often swung in the current versus a dead drift.  Fish your wet fly in shallow water with a gentle riffle.  This technique can be very effective when you see the occasional rise.   The slower your flies swing, the better.

Nymph Fly
Nymph Eat - Photo By Heather Hodson


Again, a nymph is a ‘catch all’ term for these immature stages of their life taking place under water.  A nymph is any immature stage of an aquatic insect.  The Fly is fished under the water.

Nymph Fishing Technique – The most common technique to fish nymphs under water is to use an indicator. An indicator allows you to visualize when a fish has taken a nymph. There are several indicator types such as Strike Indicator “bobber”, Airlock, Yarn, Tabs, Colored Monofilament Line, etc.  Like fishing a dry fly, most anglers will fish their nymphs on a dead drift. The indicator will either go under water, stop or head up stream.  Basically, if your indicator does anything different, set the hook.  “All hook sets are free.”  Another subsurface fishing technique is European Nymphing.  This is beyond the basics and we’ll address this technique at a later time.

NOTE – There is some lag time from a fish eating the fly to the indicator moving.  The more you fish this technique, the more you will recognize a subtle take and become more successful.

Streamer Eat - United Women on the Fly
Streamer Eat - Photo By Heather Hodson


A streamer mimics a bait fish or other large aquatic prey.  The fly sinks and can be very effective for all types of fish.  A streamer take can be very aggressive and addicting.  The tug afterall is the drug!

Streamer Fishing Technique  – Streamer fishing can be done with a floating, sink tip or full sink fly line.  The flies are larger and heavier, so a short (2-5’) leader of heavier weight tippet if recommended in order to turn the fly over.

Most often, the streamer is casted out and stripped back in.  Stripping lines means to pull the fly and line back towards the fly rod.  The strip can consist of short or long pulls, with a combination of different speeds and an occasional pause.  Each day might be different, and you’ll have to explore which rhythm of stripping line the fish are attracted to.  When stripping a fly, the fly is changing profiles and mimicking the movement of a bait fish.


We discuss and go into great detail , the fly types, fly examples, leader set-up for each fly type and how to fish each type of fly in our Online Recorded Courses.  You learn anywhere at anytime.  Register HERE These classes are gender inclusive and scholarships are available.

Intro to Fly Fishing – FREE

Fly Fishing 101

Fly Fishing 201

Fly Box Organization

Reading Trout Water

Online Entomology Course

These classes are gender inclusive and scholarships are available.  Please email for scholarship.

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