Idaho is a fly fisherman’s paradise. This great state has it all from small freestone, pocket-water streams to raging rivers, warm-water reservoirs to alpine lakes, and meandering meadow streams to ultra-technical spring creeks. You can pretty much pick your passion and go with it. That’s what I love about this state.
For someone who is just starting out, this smorgasbord of fly-fishing goodness may seem a bit overwhelming. A good selection of flies for your fly box is an excellent place to start. While my boxes contain hundreds of other patterns, below are ten tried-and-true patterns for Idaho that I never leave home without:
Indisputably, the Adams is one of the most effective patterns ever devised on a fly-tier’s vise. The Adams sports a brown hackle fiber tail, a gray dubbed body, and grizzly hackle wings with brown and grizzly hackle wound around the hook shank near the eye of the hook in Catskill dry fly fashion. The Adams is pretty darn versatile. You can fish it as an attractor pattern or during a hatch. I actually caught my first trout on the fly with an Adams on the Henry’s Fork during a caddis hatch.
2. Red-Butted Double Renegade
The original Renegade is still a favorite pattern of mine, but I’ve found that its crazy cousin, the Red-Butted Double Renegade is even more effective. This fly is tied in a fore-and-aft pattern with red thread wrapped half way down the bend of the hook, brown hackle wound near the end of the shank of the hook, peacock hurl body, white hackle wrapped in the middle of the shank of the hook, and brown hackle at the eye of the hook to finish it off. Based upon my experience, the red on the bend of the hook triggers the strike. The Double Renegade represents nothing specific in nature, but could be suggestive of many things. I have often hypothesized that the fish are taking it for a big ant pattern, but admittedly, I am not sure. I typically fish this fly on small freestone and meadow streams. Brookies, rainbows, and cutthroats go nuts for it, especially when you fish it downstream and then skate the fly back upstream in short jerks. For whatever reason, fish leap up out of the water to hammer it. Fun stuff, indeed!
3. Pheasant Tail Nymph
If I had to guess, I would say that more fish have been caught on the Pheasant Tail Nymph than any other nymph. The fly gets its name from the simple fact that the nymph is tied primarily with the fibers of a pheasant tail feather. Creative name, eh? I like to tie the fly with a gold bead head, a flash-back wing case, and, last but certainly not least, a red wire wrapped down the lower half of the body. Tied in different sizes, the Pheasant Tail imitates anything from stone-fly to mayfly nymphs. A few weeks ago, I fished a glassy spring creek loaded with rare, Bonneville Cutthroat and simply casted a little bead-headed Pheasant Tail Nymph to the visible trout and twitched it back to me. Of course, the Bonnies attacked it with reckless abandon or I wouldn’t be telling you about it.
4. Red Fox Squirrel Nymph
This fly was invented by Dave Whitlock, a famous fly tier, author, and artist from Arkansas. It is called the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph simply because most of its components come from the fur of a red fox squirrel. I actually prefer this fly over the more popular Hare’s Ear Nymph. When you start tying and fishing this nymph, road killed squirrels begin to take on a certain appeal as potential fly tying material and neighborhood squirrels are no longer safe in your backyard. It’s that good! I like to tie mine with a red wire wrapped through the lower body. There’s just something about the color red that triggers fish aggression.
5. Black or Brown Rubber Legs
While their names are plain and they aren’t much to look at, the Black and Brown Rubber Leg Nymphs work. The simple flies are tied with lead weight wrapped around the shank of the hook to make the fly heavy, a black or brown chenille body and black or brown legs that vibrate as they drift downstream. Fish dig them! The simple truth behind their effectiveness is that stone-fly nymphs, which they represent, are an essential part of a trout’s diet, a big chunk of protein that is hard to pass up. I like to fish this fly as part of a two-nymph rig with a rubber leg nymph as the lead fly because of its size and weight and a smaller bead head nymph like a Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Red Fox Squirrel as the dropper. I have experienced excellent days using this combo on Idaho rivers including the Bear, Henry’s Fork, South Fork, and Big Wood.
This simple pattern is a dry-fly, attractor pattern tied with a deer hair tail, a yellow or orange body with rubber legs protruding from the shank in the shape of an X, a white post for visibility, a deer hair wing and grizzly hackle wrapped horizontally around the post. While the fly does not imitate any specific bug, in different sizes it is suggestive of a caddis fly, a stone fly, or a grasshopper. I tend to have the most success with this fly on small streams during July and August when the grasshoppers are in full force. However, I caught my biggest brown trout ever (a twenty-four inch bruiser I affectionately named B.B. King) on the Snake River with an orange PMX in late August. Oh, and did I mention it was on a three weight rod? What a ride!
7. Crystal Flash Woolly Bugger
I am convinced that Woolly Buggers are one of the most effective patterns ever invented. With their marabou tails wiggling sumptuously in the water, they have literally fooled millions of fish. The versatility and possibilities of the Woolly Bugger are truly infinite. As a result, if I don’t know the water I am fishing and no bugs are hatching or fish rising, this is one of my go-to flies. I’ve used the Woolly Bugger to fool big, wily brown trout and super-aggressive bass and sun fish. One of my favorite patterns is a brown crystal-flash, cone-headed Woolly Bugger (boy that’s a mouthful), which could imitate a minnow, crayfish, a leech, a stonefly nymph . . . heck, it could be just about any morsel of aquatic food. This fly is effective on medium-sized rivers like the Big Wood and on big rivers like the mighty Snake.
8. Circus Peanut
The first time I saw the Circus Peanut I was in Kelly Galloup’s fly shop, the Slide Inn near Quake Lake, Montana. I carefully picked through his voluminous streamer selection and observed the stupidest looking fly that I had ever seen. The fly was actually made with two hooks tied end to end. This type of streamer is called an “articulated fly” and its jointed body actually allows the fly to sway back and forth life-like in the current. The crazy fly had yellow dumbbell eyes tied near the eye of the front hook, with black schlappen (a marabou-like hackle) tied just below the eyes. The head and body of the fly was wrapped in yellowish-green crystal flash chenille. Protruding from various places along the shank of the fly were eight long bright green rubber legs. Off the bend of the front hook was a loop that connected it to the eye of the second hook. The second hook also had black schlappen tied near the eye, crystal flash chenille wrapped around the shank and eight long rubber legs projecting from different locations of the body. To finish it off was a black maribou tail with a few strands of copper flashabou. This four-inch, freak-show fly looked like a Woolly Bugger on crack.
Based upon Kelly Galloup’s recommendation, I skeptically fished that goofy fly on the Madison River later that same morning and my negative assessment of the Circus Peanut was quickly quashed as large brown trout ripped up out of the water to smash this streamer. Guess what, big trout in Idaho love this fly too! Olive green with red dumbbell eyes is my favorite Circus Peanut pattern. As a word of warning, fishing this fly early in the morning or just before dark can be downright terrifying because of the shark-like attacks it generates. This fly is not for the faint of heart!
9. CDC PMD
Okay, for those who want to get technical, the CDC PMD is for you. PMD means Pale Morning Dun, which is the mayfly that this pattern imitates. CDC stands for Cul De Carnard, which is just a fancy French name for a waterproof feather from a duck’s behind that is used to create the fly’s wing. If it is a bright summer morning and you happen to stumble into a PMD blanket hatch on the Henrys Fork or Silver Creek, you will want to use this fly. Honestly, I sometimes cannot tell my fly from the originals floating beside it. It simply does not get any better than fly fishing during a bona fide blanket hatch whether it be mayflies, stone flies, or caddis flies. While other styles of fly fishing are fun, there is nothing more aesthetically pleasing than watching a fish slurp in a well presented imitation of the natural bugs on the water. This fly will help you get the job done.
Kauffman’s Stimulator is an excellent pattern which can represent anything from a caddis fly to a grasshopper. This fly typically wears an orange or yellow body, with a grizzly hackle palmered along the hook shank, a laid-back, deer hair wing, and a different colored head palmered again with grizzly hackle. Lately, I have been fishing the patterns with yellow and black striped rubber legs protruding from the body in the shape of an X like a PMD. No cutthroat trout can resist!
In my experience, this selection of ten flies will work effectively throughout Idaho’s copious fish-filled waters. I have no doubts that newcomers to the sport will find success with these flies at some of the most special and beautiful places in Idaho. Enjoy the journey and tight lines!
Andrew M. Wayment (“Andy”) is an attorney by profession and an outdoorsman by passion. Andy has written for the Upland Equations Blog since 2008 and has published numerous articles on upland bird hunting in various magazines, including The Pointing Dog Journal and The Upland Almanac. Also, check out Andy’s first book, Heaven On Earth: Stories of Fly Fishing, Fun & Faith. When Andy is not at work or writing, you will probably find him wading in a river flicking a fly or in the field toting a shotgun and following his three bird dogs.