Fly Pattern Classifications

by on December 24, 2010

For the angler who is just beginning to learn about fly fishing, hearing about things such as “dry flies,” “nymphs,” and “streamers” can be confusing. What do these terms all mean?

In a nutshell, they refer to a general method of classifying the fly patterns based on what they might represent and how they are fished. Let’s take a look:

Dry Flies:

Often, you might come across a fly angler who considers himself a “purist” and scoffs at anyone who uses anything but dry flies when fly fishing. Don’t let them get to you – you’ll probably catch more fish than the “purist” dry fly fisher.

Dry flies are those fly patterns that represent an insect that has matured to its adult form. Many aquatic insects start off as eggs in the water, and then hatch into a larva and pupa stage. As the insect reaches the surface, it develops wings and has a metamorphosis which drastically changes its body shape. As these insects “hatch” from the pupa stage to adult, they may sit on the water before taking to the air with it’s new found wings. As it sits on the surface, fish will very often rise in an attempt to eat the adult.

Interestingly, dry flies only account for about 9% of a fish’s diet. The other 91% comes from aquatic food below the water surface, hence one of the reasons why you might catch more fish than the dry fly purist if you choose to employ other fly fishing methods to enjoy your sport.

Wet Flies:

Often there is confusion between “wet flies” and “nymphs.” and other fly patterns that are fished below the surface. Although nymphs and streamers do get “wet,” they are not technically considered a “wet fly” in the traditional sense.

Instead, a “wet fly” is a pattern that represents an adult insect that has died or drowned, and instead of sitting on top of the surface, is now under the surface. There are many wet flies that are very effective on enticing fish to strike, and shouldn’t be overlooked.


In many fly fishing circles, nymphs are the most popular type of fly to fish with. There are likely thousands (if not tens of thousands) of different nymph patterns which are supposed to represent or imitate the pupa state of an insect – the state between a larvae and adult insect.

They are tied in a variety of ways; some are weighted in order to get the fly down deeper and some are meant to represent a variety of different classes of insect nymphs.

If you’re beginning at fly fishing or fly tying, you’ll definitely want to have lots of nymphs in a variety of patterns in your fly box to select from.


Streamer flies, sometimes also referred to as “lures” by some anglers, are flies that typically represent small fish and leeches. Fly anglers realize that a typical fish diet also includes life other than the various stages of insects, and even includes other fish. Some fish can even be quite cannibalistic with eating their own young.

To this end, some flies are tied up in shapes to represent these type of prey and are referred to as streamers.

Streamers are typically tied using feathers for a tail, although some patterns call for material like buck tail. Some anglers would then differ between a streamer and a “buck tail” fly.


Not all food that a fish will prey upon spend their life in water. Often, a fish will take things like ants, grasshoppers, and bumblebees and in the case of pike, even mice. These are life that normally live in the air or on the ground, but have found themselves in the water perhaps by accident. Flies that imitate this type of life that fish will prey upon are referred to as terrestials.

Not all fly patterns can be so easily classified. For example, many chironomid patterns represent the larvae stage of the midge fly, and don’t easily fit into any of the above descriptions.

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