Ever since Roman author, Claudius Aelineas, known simply as Aelian, described the first use of artificial flies in Macedonia around 200AD, the search was on for the ultimate fly pattern, and it is still on-going. Fly tyers all over the world are constantly tweaking old patterns, using new materials, and creating completely new patterns. Some work, others… well, maybe not so much. Some are created just for the artwork, while others are made with one, and only one purpose in mind… to catch fish. For those of us who tie flies, it is a lifelong pursuit.
Occasionally, someone creates a pattern that is so successful that every fly angler needs to have a few in their arsenal. In this article, I will describe what, in my opinion, are the 10 greatest flies ever created, so far. I realize this will undoubtably create controversy, and readers are free to comment all they like, and contribute their own thoughts. It is impossible for one person to rate any fly absolutely, simply because no one fishes for each type of fish equally. I don’t get to fish for steelhead or salmon very often, and many angers never get to fly fish in salt water. I have selected these flies not only because they catch a lot of any particular species of fish consistently, but also because they catch a wide variety of fish species as well. With these 10 flies, you can fish in any water, anywhere in the world, and have a very good chance catching some fish. For instance, the Lefty’s Deceiver is a classic saltwater fly, however, it also is very good for largemouth bass, and freshwater striped bass.
I purposely did not include delicate dry flies, or any other patterns that are not very durable. I also left out patterns that are specific for any one species of fish, such as most classic trout and salmon flies. I did not include patterns that are unnecessarily difficult to tie, or require exotic materials, or materials that are no longer available, such as seal and polar bear fur.
These flies are in ascending order, but again, that is relative. I rated the flies on how successful they are, how many different species they can be used for, how easy and cheap they are to tie, and how durable they are. So, here are my picks for the greatest fly patterns ever created:
Bass bugs, or poppers, are a completely American invention, and a very old one. We can thank Native Americans for coming up with this great method of catching your limit. No one knows how long Native Americans had been catching fish with hand-made fly rod poppers, but they were first described by William Bartram in 1741. He wrote about how Florida Native American tribes would tie 3 hooks together back-to-back (inventing the ‘treble’ hook), affix deer hair and feathers to them, and floated them on light line from a 9’-14’ pole (reels had not been invented, yet) in much the same way as modern Tenkara-style fly fishing. They were called ‘bobs’. He noted that they caught great numbers of largemouth bass, which he mistakenly referred to as “green trout”. It didn’t take long for European immigrants to catch on, and soon, there were many different patterns of deer-hair poppers. Later, some took to whittling poppers out of cork, and painting them. It wasn’t until the 20th century that attempts were made to market bass bugs commercially. Some of the early pioneers were James Henshall, Emerson Houg, Ed Peet, and the Weber Like-Like Fly Company (I know, but yes, it is a real name!).
Whoever did it first, bass bugs became more widely available in the early 20th Century. The popularity of bass bugging really took off in the late 1970s, and fly fishing, in general, has been experiencing a new renaissance. Modern bass bugs can be made of cork, deer-hair, or even closed-cell foam. They are durable, and they catch bass and panfish by the bucket load. In larger sizes, also known as crease flies, they are outstanding saltwater flies. They can imitate insects, frogs, fish, and even small mammals. They are almost indestructible, easy to tie, cheap to make, cheap to buy, and readily available. No fly angler should be without a few of these in their fly box.
9. Fur Ant
A fly pattern does not have to be complicated to be successful. In fact, some of the simplest patterns are the most productive. A case in point is the fur ant. Basically, it is two little balls of dubbing with a small hackle in-between. It can be tied in all black, all brown, black and brown, black and red, red, or (to be honest) in any other colour combination you want. If you use a dry fly hackle, it’s a dry fly. If you use wet fly hackle, it’s a wet fly. If you make the head smaller than the abdomen, it can function as a spider. You can substitute a pair of rubber legs for the hackle, or even use both. As you may be thinking, it is a very versatile pattern, which consistently caches trout and panfish, sometimes when nothing else will.
The origins of this pattern are lost to antiquity, but a similar pattern, which could well be a fur ant, is described in one of the oldest known fly tying books, ‘A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle‘, written by Dame Juliana Berners sometime in the late 15th Century. Izaak Walton also described a fly that could be a fur ant in his book, The Compleat Angler, written in 1653. Pick up almost any fly tying book, and you will find a recipe for tying a version of the fur ant.
The fur ant dropped a bit in popularity during the waning years of the 20th Century, being over-shadowed somewhat by the new ant patterns tied with closed-cell foam, Gorilla Glue, and similar products. But the traditional fur ant is still alive and well, and works as well as any of its more recent progeny. It’s cheap, easy to tie, and is a proven fish-catcher.
8. Crazy Charlie/Gotcha
Look in any tackle box that belongs to someone who fishes saltwater flats, and you’re sure to find a selection of Crazy Charlies, and Gotchas. They are both basically the same fly. The Gotcha is just a Crazy Charlie with a tail added. The Crazy Charlie is tailless.
The history of the Crazy Charlie is shrouded in controversy. It was invented in 1977 at a fishing lodge in Andros Island, Bahamas, by either Bob Nauheim, or Charlie Smith, depending on which story you believe. Bob said that he was on a guide trip with Charlie, and that Charlie pointed out that the bonefish were hitting on glass minnows. That night, Bob supposedly tied up some flies roughly imitating the glass minnows, and they were a wild success the next day. According to Bob, Charlie said, “Dat fly is really nasty…”, so Bob called it the Nasty Charlie. Later, he ran into Lee Perkins of Orvis, showed him the fly, and gave him a diagram on how to tie it. The next year, Orvis had the fly listed in their catalog as the Crazy Charlie.
Charlie Smith tells a different story. In 1977, he had a surprise charter with Prime Minister Trudeau (Canada) and Prime Minister Pindling (Bahamas). He was out of crabs, so he quickly fashioned some flies with chicken feathers and chain from a set of military dog tags. The flies worked like magic for permit and bonefish, as well as many other species. Prime Minister Pindling dubbed the fly the Crazy Charlie. A few years later, an oil driller named Jim McVay added a tail to the Crazy Charlie, and the Gotcha was born.
The origin of the fly may be in question, but its effectiveness certainly is not. It catches every species of flats fish: snook, tarpon, bonefish, and many other inshore species. But what a lot of people don’t know is that by tying it on freshwater hooks, and adjusting the colors a bit, it is also an outstanding freshwater fly for smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, carp, drum, catfish, and even trout.
7. Lefty’s Deceiver
The Lefty’s Deceiver is one of the best producers for large predatory fish in both salt and fresh water. Invented by Lefty Kren in 1965, this pattern has stood the test of time.
Lefty Kren was a guide for Fly Fishing Master Joe Brooks during the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1965 he moved to Miami, Florida and pioneered modern saltwater fly fishing techniques and flies. One problem that quickly became apparent was that traditional streamer patterns, when tied in larger sizes suitable for marine fish, became very wind-resistant, and hard to cast. The materials also had a maddening habit of fouling around the hook bend. Lefty went to work designing a fly that overcame all of these shortcomings, and the result was the Lefty’s Deceiver. It can be tied in a myriad of colour combinations, and in different sizes. It is also an effective fresh water pattern for large fish like brown trout, bass, and freshwater stripers.
6. Bunny Leech
Most bass fisherman will agree that the number 1 bass lure of all time is the purple plastic worm. Although this pattern was originally intended to catch steelhead trout, with a few modifications it is one of the best black bass flies there is. It is a fly rod version of a plastic worm.
No one knows who invented the Bunny Leech, but it seems to have made an appearance sometime in the 1990s. Originally tied with a red bead-head as a variation of the Egg-Sucking Leech pattern, using Zonker Rabbit Strips, it has been modified into an outstanding pattern for bass and even large brown trout. It is super-easy to tie, using only two materials (or 3, if you tie on a weed-guard).
I modify mine to make it virtually weedless for catching bass in heavy cover. First, I use a set of Clouser, or barbell eyes to make it ride, ‘hook-up’ in the water. I use a wide-gap bass hook. All you do is tie on a pair of barbell eyes to the front, wrap to the back, and get a purple rabbit strip (regular, or cross-cut – either one works), about 2-1/2 times the length of the hook shank. Run the hook point through the leather at about the halfway point, leather side towards the hook shank. Let the back half just hang. Next, coat the hook with a little super glue and palmer the front half of the rabbit strip forward, and over the eyes. Tie it off and trim the end. Lastly, tie on a monofilament weedgaurd, whip finish, and go fishing. This pattern will produce bass when almost nothing else works.
5. Puglisi-Style Minnows
It was a great day for fly fishing when a Sicilian chef with a passion for fly fishing decided to move to the US in the late 1980s. Enrico Puglisi grew up fishing the waters around his Sicily home. When he came to the US, he quickly adopted fly fishing, caught a few trout and became hooked. He was obsessed with why fish bite flies, and began to develop ultra-realistic fly patters, mostly for saltwater. It started when one of his children said of his fly, “That looks like one of the fish in our aquarium”. Enrico replied, “That’s why it catches fish.”
Puglisi flies are a variation of a fly tying method known as the High Tie. What Enrico really did for fly fishing was to invent new, stiffer 3D fibers, known as EP Fibers, which make this style of fly really shine. He began marketing his flies and materials in the 1990s and now they are a staple of fly fishing.
By modifying the size, shape, and colour of materials, and by using markers, this fly can be tied to imitate any fish that swims anywhere in the world. In fact, it can be so realistic that most anglers might struggle to differentiate between the fly and the fish it is imitating! It undulates through the water just like a real fish and makes one of the best shad imitations there is. It’s also outstanding when tied in bluegill colours, for large bass and freshwater stripers. For saltwater, it can be tied to imitate menhaden, porgies, blue runners, mackerel, and other deep-bodied fish. This pattern is one of the top producers for really large predator fish.
4. Dahlberg Diver
Floating-diving minnows account for a lot of fish. Some of the more well-known lures are the Hellbender, Rapala Minnow, and Floating Balsa B, to name but a few. These all work by sitting on the surface, then diving when you pull them. When you stop, they go back to the surface.
Sometime around the 1960s, veteran bass guide and avid fly angler Larry Dahlberg designed a clipped deer hair fly that worked in much the same way as a floating-diving lure. It has now become one of the go-to bass flies when lunkers get lockjaw.
3. Chernobyl Ant
Panfish and bass love anything that floats, especially if it has squiggly legs hanging about. The Chernobyl Ant has all of this and more.
This fly would not be possible without the invention (or failure, depending on how you look at it) of closed cell foam. In the 1960s, NASA was trying to come up with a cushioning material for the seats in the Apollo Command Module that would be used to go to the Moon. The astronauts would have to lie/sit in these seats for a week or more, without getting bedsores or similar problems. Closed cell foam was tried but was found to be unsatisfactory. Fortunately an enterprising person got hold of some of the material and began marketing it as ‘Craft Foam’. It was a huge success. Today, there are several dozen fly patterns that use this wonderful material. It is durable and floats well, without soaking up any water, no matter how long it is used.
The Chernobyl Ant was born on the shores of Utah’s Green River in 1991. Trout guide Mark Forsland was having a difficult time catching trout one day, so he tied some black cell foam to a hook and, “way over-hackled it”. The trout responded favourably, and the pattern soon became a nationwide hit. Today, it is a must-have pattern. Although it was originally designed as a trout fly, it also catches bass and panfish like there is no tomorrow. The secret to its success may be that it doesn’t look exactly like anything, but outwardly resembles a floating ant, cricket, grasshopper, or other generic insect. This is one fly you never want to be without.
2. Clouser Minnow
Few flies have made more impact on the fly fishing community than Bob Clouser’s creation. In 1987, Bob was a guide on Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River, while also operating a fly shop. He was looking for a better streamer for smallmouth bass than traditional patterns. By adding weighted barbell eyes to a simple streamer pattern, he created one of the most productive flies of all-time – the Clouser Minnow. Since then, there have been multiple variations, such as the Clouser Deep-Minnow for saltwater, the Clouser Crawfish, and more. It can be tied in any colour combination and on any size hook. Pretty much any pattern that uses barbell eyes can trace its pedigree back to Bob Clouser. If you could only have 2 or three flies, this would be one of them. It catches any fish that eats minnows, in fresh or salt water.
1. Woolly Bugger
I believe that there is absolutely no other fly, anywhere in the world, that can out-fish the Woolly Bugger. It catches virtually all species of freshwater fish and a lot of saltwater ones as well, more or less anywhere on the planet. If you could only have one fly, this is it, hands-down. The Woolly Bugger catches fish when even live bait doesn’t work.
The invention of this fly is usually credited to Pennsylvania fly tier Russell Blessing in 1967. He was looking for something to imitate the local hellgrammites that the trout and smallmouth bass were so fond of. He decided to add a marabou tail to an older English pattern called a Woolly Worm, which is itself a variation on the ancient Palmer Fly, that dates back to the time of Izaak Walton. The results were spectacular. He began catching fish left and right, and soon, word of this new fly got around. It was discovered that few fish would turn this fly down under any conditions. You would be hard-pressed to find any angler’s fly box without a few of these in it.
The secret to this fly’s success may be that it doesn’t represent anything exactly, but it looks like a lot of things a fish may want to eat. Drifting it with the current, it can look like a hellgrammite, or large nymph. Hopped across the bottom, it can look like a crawfish. Swam, it can look like a baitfish, leech, or just something edible. It can be tied in any colours, although the most common are all-black, brown and olive green. My version is usually tied in brown and orange to imitate a crawfish. It is hands-down my best fly. I use Fantasy Yarn for the hackle, instead of a feather, and craft fur instead of marabou. In the water, this thing looks so good I want to bite it myself……
There you have it. My picks for the 10 most outstanding flies ever tied. If you have never used any of these, give them a try. Your success rate will increase significantly.