This year, after 35 years, I retired from teaching fly-fishing seminars and lessons. All that experience taught me that serious novices generally want to learn three skills in the following order — fly-casting, knot tying and fly selection.

Many fly-fishing newbies often owned a rod, reel and line when they came to me, but sooner or later, most of them wanted advice on equipment choice beyond those three items — stuff like vests, sunglasses, landing nets, seining nets, waders, fly boxes, strike indicators, etc.

However, this fourth phase of the learning process often comes after tackling casting, knots and fly choice.

With the right instructor, reading material or video, fly-fishing seminars provide a grand place to learn casting, knots and equipment needs, so newcomers can master those three essentials.

In fact, some of my seminar participants approached casting so seriously that they eventually cast 100-plus feet. That takes dedication.

Fly selection proves far more difficult to learn. Sure, the basics can start in a classroom or book, but in-depth choices require experience, because the myriad options can change by the day or hour. Worse yet, folks can fish for 50 years and continue encountering new fly-choice problems.

These tips help greatly in making wise fly selections:

With astute observation, determine what insect or baitfish interests the targeted game-fish species the most. A fish autopsy, an aquatic-insect seining net or baitfish net to catch baitfish helps determine the prevalent forage. With nets and a careful eye to the water, fly rodders can often figure out what food interests fish the most without killing one fish — ensuring a future fishery with catch and release.

After deciding what forage a game fish is eating at the moment, match an artificial fly to the natural in size, color and silhouette.

Folks should do the color sequence step-by-step by asking what colors are the natural’s abdomen, thorax, tails, legs and wings and then matching the color of the artificial fly’s abdomen, thorax, tails, legs and wings to the real forage item.

Exceptions to the next rule exist, but that’s exactly what they are — exceptions. General rules for fly choice begin with the color of recently hatched insects (called “duns”) and of baitfish through the seasons.

Early spring duns often have black or gray bodies with dark wings, tails and legs. In mid- to late-spring, brown, dark olive and tan bodies with medium-dark appendages predominate, and by early summer, flies often have light olive, cream or sulfur bodies and light legs, tails and wings.

These colors for the seasons evolved because of, well, evolution: In early spring, aquatic insects fly ashore and land on trunks and limbs, where their dark colors give them a natural camouflage against bark.

Also, the gray or black body and appendages absorb weak radiant light, giving them a survival edge in unseasonable cold.

The browns of mid-spring help as leaves first start unfurling but still, plenty of dark objects such as trunks and limbs line shores.

summer, aquatic insects fly ashore and hide on the pale-green underside of leaves, hanging on trees and shrubs. In summer heat, these pale-colored insects reflect sunlight, nature’s way of aiding survival in hot temperatures.

At the end of June, fly rodders will see lots of hatches of blue-winged olives, often tiny flies with light-olive bodies and equally light, bluish-gray wings, tails and legs. They’ll also encounter cream and light-tan insects.

Knowing this aids in fly selection.

Two common color exceptions of summer duns include the huge, dark-brown Hexagenia recurvata (called “brown drake”) and mahogany Isonychia bicolor (called “Isony”).

Latin names may sound impressive, but for most fly-fishing, knowing the size, color and silhouette works great for proper fly selection.

However, identifying aquatic insects gives fly rodders a big advantage because they can read how larva behave and then duplicate that behavior without ever seeing an insect underwater. It doesn’t take much of a brain to figure out how well that step can help before and during hatches.

Say someone figures out the genus and species of a blue-winged olive this week. All he or she has to do begins with reading about the nymph’s behavior and duplicating it with a fly that matches in size, color and silhouette.

I can practically guarantee that success will follow. 

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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