The ultimate fly box – saltwater & freshwater

Globe-trotting fisherman Matt Harris puts together a selection of 12 flies that will catch anything that swims.

When editor Marcus Janssen asked me to come up with a ‘desert island disc' selection of just 12 fly patterns with which to tackle any fly fishing eventuality, I knew it would be a challenge. One of the central pleasures of fly fishing is in creating a pattern to imitate a particular item of prey or to solve a specific problem, and long may it stay that way. Wherever I travel to, 

I always try to squeeze in a skeleton kit of fly tying gear and some of my most rewarding days on the water have come using patterns that I've whipped up the night before after observing the need for a pattern not residing in my fly box.

I've spent some great evenings conjuring up flies to fool fish from Mongolia to the Bahamas, and while they haven't all been a raging success, they've often provided a very gratifying answer to a particular problem.

However, if I had to fall back on just 12 patterns to cover me worldwide, I think I'd be reasonably confident with the following...

Saltwater & freshwater

1 The Crease Fly

US angler Joe Blados originally designed this deceptively simple surface-orientated pattern to catch striped bass. It's a work of near-genius. Unlike most ‘popper' flies, it is a snap to cast, yet it creates a commotion that most predatory species seem to find irresistible. I've used this pattern to catch barracuda, striped bass, jack crevalle, giant trevally, tarpon, queenfish, golden dorado, mahseer, amur pike and taimen. 

Perhaps my greatest triumph with the fly was when I used it to catch 42 tigerfish in one long day on the Zambezi, after my guide had told me that the resident tigers absolutely would not look at a surface fly. Really?

2 The Clouser Minnow

Another fiendishly simple idea, the Clouser will catch everything from trout to tigerfish to trevally, and you can tie one in the time it takes to read this. A sparsely tied tan and white Clouser on a #6 is one of the best bonefish flies there is. A classic case of less is more.

Freshwater trout

3 The Wooly Bugger

There are few trout – whether resident or sea-run – that are able to resist a version of this fly in the right conditions. 

I have caught trout all over the world with this pattern, from Grafham water to Patagonia to Alaska. And the sea-run brown trout of Tierra del Fuego and the gleaming silver steelhead of British Columbia are both inordinately fond of it too. 

As a bonus, a big purple Wooly Bugger with an ‘egghead' of pink chenille is a killer for coho, chinook and chum salmon.

They ought to be banned – and often are – but if a trout is giving you a headache and you are allowed to use Woolly Buggers, then don't hesitate – they really are killers.

4 Klinkhamer Special

Hans van Klinken's brilliant emerger just screams “I'm in trouble” to any trout in the vicinity, and if your size, colour and presentation are all in order, this fly will rarely be refused. I remember a special day on a magical river in New Zealand's Fiordland, where I showed a Klink to my old mate, Dean Bell, one of the best Kiwi guides I've had the fortune to fish with. Dean was, as usual, skeptical, but 19 big trout later, I watched Dean's face pucker with anguish as he threw away his pride and asked with a visible flinch: “Er, mate… I wouldn't mind a few of those little Klinky whatnots if you've got any spare.”

5 Hare's Ear Nymph

If they're refusing to take a dry, then forget all those close-copy masterpieces: the simple Hare's Ear – tied full or sparse, with a tungsten bead or even smeared with gink to sit in the film – is a nailed on cert, nine times out of ten. 

I remember hearing a great story from Martin Cairncross – a former All England captain and one of the great fly fishers of his generation. Two of his England team had been out practising on a freestone stream prior to a big international. One, the irrepressible Yorkshireman, Olly Edwards – well-known in trout fishing circles for his incredibly realistic imitations, and for his encyclopedic knowledge of all things entomological – breezed in and announced to all and sundry that he'd cracked it. “I've had six!” he grinned. “Four ont' Ryacophila and two ont' Hydropsyche ont' point.” Olly's triumph lasted just a moment. It was drowned in guffaws as his colleague, Jeremy Herrmann, told him with a grin that he'd had 42 – all on a simple Hare's Ear.

6 F Fly

The F Fly is another two-minute tie that, depending on proportions, size and colour, can imitate dozens of adult insects – olives, caddis, buzzers and even mayfly. CDC (Cul de Canard – French for duck bottom) allows you to tie sparse and simple flies that float like corks. 

It can cover for a Bob's Bits on the reservoirs and I've had brilliant days from the Wharfe to the Colorado River using this ultra-simple pattern.

7 CDC Spinner

There are times when trout will look at nothing but the spinners that they are mopping up, whether they're on tricos on the North Platte, caenis on Corrib or rusty spinners on the Kennet. A CDC spinner pattern will match any small spinner if tied in appropriate size and colour. It lands like thistledown and unlike most other spinner patterns it will float all day long.

Atlantic salmon

8 Sunray Shadow

For Atlantic salmon, there are few flies that I enjoy fishing more than a big Sunray Shadow. Many think that its main use is to stir up tardy residents, but it will catch fish from the first day to the last and can be fished on any line from a fast sinker right up to a floater, with or without a riffle hitch. It is murderous on the gin-clear waters of Canada and Norway, and is a great ‘fish finder', moving fish that can then be targeted with a smaller, less conspicuous fly. 

9 Willie Gunn

If they won't look at a Sunray, they almost certainly will look at a Willie Gunn. This simple pattern can be tied on anything from brass tubes to #14 doubles. Tie it on a double gold Salar hook with a few strands of mirror-flash in the wing and a couple of jungle cock cheeks and you have an absolute killer in your box. It will catch salmon anywhere they swim.


10 Avalon

The Avalon fly is the brainchild of Mauro Ginevri, the lodge manager at Avalon's fabulous Cayo Largo Operation. He designed it after long months studying the local flats at Cayo Largo in order to work out what the local population of permit eat. The fly is not only murderously successful with permit, it is also an absolute killer, in various sizes, for big bonefish, jacks, snapper, snook, small tarpon, trevally and… well, you name it. Anything that eats shrimps will eat this fly.

If you're fishing for permit – or pretty much anything else on the flats of the Caribbean basin – try this fly. It will not disappoint.

11 Flashy Profile Fly

The Flashy is a must for the very biggest saltwater fish we target with a fly. Giant trevally, dogtooth tuna, marlin, sailfish and wahoo will all succumb to variations of this simple but deadly pattern. Tie it with black and purple EP fibres for an absolute killer tarpon fly. I used a Flashy Profile Fly to catch 27 giant trevally in one day in the Seychelles, and every fish demolished it with gusto.

12 Flexo-Crab

A crab pattern that can be employed to catch permit as well as bonefish, triggerfish, bluefin trevally and even bumphead parrotfish.

Crabs are almost impossible to imitate with any real degree of subtlety, but this fly uses a left-field approach. Throw it into the salty water and you'll see what I mean – the fly is almost perfectly camouflaged, as the seabed shows right through it. 

I believe that permit and other tough cookies like big, spooky bonefish and bluefin trevally fall regularly for this fly because they lose sight of it and then, when they do see it, they fear that it will disappear again, and rush into eating it. Believe me, it is deadly. 

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