Understanding the variables that exist when organizing your fly box is key to your success at putting your own box together. There are many different variables that go into catching fish on any given day, and it’s our job to plan correctly for as many of those as possible with our fly selection and the way we organize our fly box. In order to catch a fish, you have to be there in the right place, right time with the right presentation and fly. The right place means the right region, right weather, right season, right river, right section, right run riffle or hole and right cast onto where the fish is holding. Then you have to be there during the right time of day making a good enough presentation with an accurate enough fly to catch the fish. I wrote a whole article on “the fly fishing equation” that you can check out to get a good understanding of the reality it takes to catch a fish. It really is quite impressive that we stumble onto it with luck a lot of times and the other times is where good timing meets good preparation.
In addition to all the variables around being prepared to catch a fish, think about the increased number of techniques available to us now. Dry fly fishing, traditional nymphing, euro nymphing, drop shotting, streamer fishing, emerger/wet fly swings and more there are many different flies needed for most if not all of those techniques. If that wasn’t enough we are now in an age where you can fish for just about anything on the fly. Trout started it, but now common carp, grass carp, permit, bonefish, redfish, albacore, stripers, bass, giant trevally and more are all noteable fish to catch on the fly and many require different flies in different weights and sizes and colors to catch successfully.
I think the point is made that when considering how to craft a fly box, there are a lot of variables. So let’s go over them now, understand their importance and how it matters when putting our boxes together. Keep in mind that these methods are not mutually exclusive, meaning they can be used within combination of each other and the best overall methods combine all of them in a hierarchy:
THE IMITATION METHOD
The first way you can organize a box is by insect imitation. Your midge nymphs on one row, your mayfly nymphs on another row and your caddis dry flies on another row etc. If you have a good set of knowledge in entomology or the insects trout eat, this is a pretty good way to do it. The benefit of this is that when trout are eating midges, you’ll have your box that has all your top midges and so on. The downside to this method is that it can get a little complicated and require you to fill in some gray areas for yourself. The gray area is around the four kinds of fly patterns that exist. Fly patterns can be designed in four ways:
- Imitative – designed to imitate an exact insect and stage
- Search – designed to imitate a wide variety of insects
- Attractor – designed to get a trouts attention and may or may not imitate anything natural
- Impressionistic – designed to imitate a small range of insects (mix between imitative and search)
Patterns can usually have one or two of these characteristics. A pheasant tail is meant to be an impressionistic pattern that imitates a wide variety of mayfly nymphs. If you put a red dubbed collar on the pheasant tail you can claim it is an impressionistic/attractor pattern. For more on this subject check out our free guide to the four kinds of fishing flies.
As an example, a hares ear nymph can imitate a small stonefly nymph, a mayfly nymph and even a caddis nymph with decent accuracy. So this gets tough when you are trying to put all your mayfly nymphs in an area and you can’t decide if a hares ear should go in there or if they should be in the stonefly section. This is the gray area you have to fill in for yourself. I personally think a hares ear looks more like a stonefly than a mayfly so I put it with my stoneflies. Regardless of your choices, just be consistent with it and choose a “primary imitation” per pattern so you know how and where it fits in your box with this method. The more search and impressionistic patterns you have in your box, the harder this method becomes.
On a quick side note, I am a huge fan of search and impressionistic patterns and only carry a small number of imitative patterns for very specific scenarios. So even though this is a great method for organizing your box and it is harder with search and impressionistic patterns, I still recommend a lot of search and impressionistic patterns along with this method. Don’t let it scare you away as you’ll see this is a method I use in my boxes later on.
THE PATTERN TYPE METHOD
Another way you can organize your patterns is by the type. There are also four types of flies: A nymph, emerger, dry, and streamer. In addition, you can do beadhead nymphs, brass beadheads and tungsten beadheads vs no beadhead within the nymphs section. You can do foam dry flies vs thorax-hackle style dry flies vs parachute dry flies in the dry fly section. Articulated vs single hooks in the streamer section and soft hackle vs foam backed emergers in the emerger section. In short, there is a pattern type and sub pattern type you can organize by with this method. This method is good when you are carrying a small amount of flies and you don’t have enough flies to fill a full row of midge nymphs but you do have 12-24 beadhead nymphs of assorted patterns that can all go on the same row. The downside to this method is that a box will get crowded and messy as you add more flies to it. It really only works as well when you have a few flies. This method works best in conjuction with the imitation method mentioned above. For example, I’ll put all my midge nymphs on one row, but on that row I’ll put all my beadhead midge nymphs on one side and all my glass beadhead midges on the other side. Within those sides, I’ll organize by color and within those color groups I’ll sort sizes small to large, left to right.
THE SEASON METHOD
If you missed the 3rd grade, there are four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. Organizing flies by season is a great way to fish more and re-organize boxes less. Flies that work in summer usually wont work in winter so having separate boxes really helps you specialize for the season and have a variety of flies that should be active within a grouped period of time. Seasonality if super important with fly fishing success and organizing your boxes by season is a great idea. If you don’t want to have 4 boxes (1 for each season) then you can combine a spring and fall box together since many of the flies will be the same due to common temps, flows and hatches. Summer boxes and winter boxes should usually be kept separate, but many don’t fish or can’t in winter so you don’t always need one.
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