Why ID’ing Insects When Trout Fly Fishing DOESN’T MATTER! 18

We all know the stories. Heck we were taught to fly fish right alongside them. A bespectacled trout chaser of yesteryear minutely examines an insect luckily caught in hand streamside. They note the flaxen rump, not straw or golden or even just yellow, but FLAXEN. Two tails, not three, are noted along with a dozen other tiny details. The flybox opens to expose row upon row of fly choices that to the lay flyfisher ALL look identical to the insect in hand. Not our expert though. A finger travels along the row slowly, back, then back again. Brows furrow and a mustache twitches… time passes. The finger stops. A fly is chosen. Not A fly, but THE fly.

Does the story above sound familiar to you? Have you been there? Staring at an insect, then in the flybox, then at the insect, then back to box as if that EXACT insect fly will magically appear… all the while NOT fishing. I have. Whether or not our friend (who somehow looks a lot like Teddy Roosevelt given the description) goes on to actually catch a fish isn’t relevant here. Of course in the story they always do. They have a banner day right alongside fellow fly fishers (read as ‘former friends’) who enjoyed refusal after refusal because they missed that ONE little detail, that ONE special thing about that specific insect. Does this happen? Definitely, and rarely (super large volume hatches are an example). Is it relevant to you? Probably not.

What is this insect, specifically? Do you REALLY need to know to catch fish?

What is this insect, specifically? Do you REALLY need to know to catch fish?

It’s important to note I am not saying the FLY doesn’t matter when trout fly fishing. The fly is tremendously important. We all accept that and pursue it with passion and relish. It’s what makes MonthlyFly.com Match the Hatch fly subscriptions special! The thesis here, in our opinion, is that precise, in depth insect analysis and identification is not necessary for a great day on the water. Relax. Let it go. For the majority of flyfishers it’s just not necessary. As well, we’re not downplaying or disrespecting entomologists their hobby or passion. If you enjoy it, go for it with our respect and gratitude!

The reason for our recent bug ID contest on our Facebook page was absolutely a lead in to this piece. It illuminates a number of problems inherent in truly identifying insects for trout fly fishing purposes:

1) It’s difficult and time consuming
2) You can’t really be confident you’re right
3) What is the point? Do you carry millions of flies, 3-5 for each life-cycle of each species you might encounter? I sure don’t. In fact I am trying to carry fewer!

What was the insect in our bug ID contest? I don’t know definitively. As well, I am not interested in being positive about what it is either. That’s why we neatly put choosing the winner on other posters’ shoulders by acclaim (number of likes) than us assessing right or wrong. We’re not opening that can of worms! If I were pressed, it does look a lot like a Female Hexagenia Limbata Spinner. Location and time of year seemed to support that. Even so I noted some subtle differences researching it and in comparable photos. Other guesses from our Facebook community included simply Mayfly (which technically is correct!), Green Drake, Sulphur, Cahill, Yellow Drake, Willow Fly, the list goes on and on from general to specific. Depending on which region you’re in, which watershed, which water body, heck which side of the mountain you’re on those could all be correct! Depends on what Grandpappy called ‘em right?!?

How do we choose which flies to buy and then which flies to fish? Well we can handle the choosing of flies for your area, and send them to you automatically each month, at the right time via our subscription packages (www.MonthlyFly.com). After we do our part, it is still up to you to reach in that box and select the most viable flies for that location, that day, water and weather conditions, etc. Not to mention presenting and fishing them in a way that triggers a strike. What we strive to achieve personally, and what we’re sharing with you today, is this:

Strive to understand what is CLOSE ENOUGH, and what is GOOD ENOUGH

CLOSE ENOUGH and GOOD ENOUGH for this pretty wild rainbow!

Kind of sounds like the battle cry for mediocrity doesn’t it? Well it takes a lifetime to acquire that wisdom in my opinion, and none of us carries endless flies. You already do this I’m sure. Probably every time you go fishing. Before being an expert at specifically ID’ing insects I’d rather be proficient at presentation and placement, drag free drift on all casts, perfect knots, perfecting 4 or 5 different casts for different situations, etc. For most flyfishers, it’s about the return of fish on the investment of time.

What do CLOSE ENOUGH and GOOD ENOUGH mean here? Well in the case of our big yellow insect friend up top, a yellow to brown inch long stonefly (note it’s NOT a stonefly) nymph for subsurface because I’ve always got those in the box. For up top whatever large, inch long dry I have that could vary in color from cream, light yellow, yellow, light brown, and so on. I’d be willing to try big Yellow Sallys, Cahills, Sulphurs, Drakes, etc. Whatever I judged was closest, and close enough, in my box. So many times I’ve thought ‘This is too far off but it’s the closest I’ve got. There is no way this will work’. Yet sometimes the trout oblige. As I noted before I no longer carry many hundreds of flies in multiple boxes. I’m down to 150(ish) and that includes multiples of patterns, nymphs, dries, and all else. I do adjust them seasonally and locally to the water body for a given trip.

GOOD ENOUGH means that while we know it may not an exact match (great if it is!), does it fall within what I believe to be the spectrum of variables that I believe will trigger a strike? Those variables are size, body color, and wing color, with general body shape being a distant fourth.

Which insect, specifically, is this well known and phenomenal fish catcher?

Which insect, specifically, is this well known and phenomenal fish catcher?

For example- fish small ant patterns in the winter. If there are midges in your area, but no ants, you’ll catch fish (all else being equal). Those little ant patterns are CLOSE ENOUGH and GOOD ENOUGH to winter time trout feed. Small, black, and buggy. The Griffith gnat is another great example- it looks like everything and nothing. The mind bending question(s) I’ll leave you with to answer on your own are these: If the above works, should you only carry ants and fish them (tiny ones) as midges as well? Or carry just midges and fish them as ants? Or just Griffiths gnats for both? That’s up to you. Apply the above, in GENERAL to the major bug TYPE hatches in your area and compare it to what you’ve got in your fly box and/or received from us!. Fish your choices with confidence and a fair number of casts (more than 1- you know who you are) with the best presentation you can. Enjoy the process. We do.

Tight lines from Josh@MonthlyFly.com!


Note: We would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this blog post. I expect there will be enthusiastic and strong opinions on both sides of the coin. There is a reason we avoid Latin names on our descriptions and fishing tips in the fly keys that accompany our fly subscriptions, and in any other writings. We’re presenting an approach and philosophy we believe will work for the majority of flyfishers out there. We understand you may want to go deeper into the fascinating world of insects and trout feeding behavior! To the bug enthusiasts out there, you have our respect and gratitude!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Website Protected by Spam Master

18 thoughts on “Why ID’ing Insects When Trout Fly Fishing DOESN’T MATTER!

  • Eric Lindmeier

    I really like this article! I have always wondered when fishing out west in Glacier and Yellowstone Nationa Parks or back home in Minnesota if the exact match is key. I have always felt that fly stores that say this is the fly it’s hot right. You need it when fishing so and so spot. If it’s their way of making a little extra money by jacking the the price 20 cents here or there, where a mere identical fly 2 feet away that’s almost the same would be just as great. Thanks again great article great read and sharing on Facebook.

  • Kit Brown

    When I first learned to fly fish some many years ago. I learned 10 and 2 and dry fly only. One day I broke away from that and started fishing nymphs. I remember the river and location of the river very well some 40 plus years ago. Back then we would match the color of the fly for each section of the river. It taught me that color does mater.
    Since then I have found that close enough will work most of the time. Presentation in my mind is the key.
    I once caught my biggest brown on a river I fish. Some 6 lbs of brown. It was picking off midges from the surface. I put on a size 18 black caddis and nailed the puppy.
    So to me close enough will do just fine as long as you get it in the zone.

  • Brian Herndon

    I agree with Adam, I have select fly’s I use. I do however carry more than I need…..streamers, woolybuggers to drys, attractor, emerger, midges/lavre/pupa….I have way more then what I need ,just in case, but still try and keep it simple and just enjoy the experience of catch and release as well as all the beautiful scenery.

  • Glen Bamforth

    This is pretty much how I have fished for years now. With one exception. I seem to notice with some terrestrials, namely hoppers, the closer the tye is to the live ones on the banks, the harder the takes are. And usually the bigger fish are more easily deceived. With mayflies, I’ve never been all that particular. Just close enough in size and color works for me.I’ve also known for some time now that sometimes, more often
    than you may think, going with the complete opposite of the hatch can produce good results.

  • Larry F

    Good article. I often wonder why I had some epic days back when i had few flies and now i have lots of flies and waste time pickin the “right” one. Color and size are more important to me than “what”.
    Found myself in the midst of a great Stonefly hatch and tried so many stoner patterns with no luck. Caught one of the flies from my face and it had an orange stripe on it’s belly. Found a pattern with an orange stripe on its belly and bingo! Thought fish were color blind by the way………guess not.

  • Steven Leete

    i agree. I fish mainly smaller fast moving streams. The fish don’t have time to visually inspect each bug that goes by. Close enough works pretty well.

  • Wes Johnson

    This is why a Prince Nymph is identified as the nymphal stage of a Royal Wulff – neither of which really look like any insect or other water borne creature.

  • Rick

    Great article. Should be handed out to every person interested in fly fishing and especially beginners. I happen to be a “bug enthusiast” by profession but even I got caught up in the perfect match being the enemy of good enough.,

  • Steve Nippel

    Great article!
    My most used fly is a Wooley Bugger which does and doesn’t look like a fish, leech, bug ……….. But it can drum up the Big Fish almost every time.

  • Terry Clapper

    Am a very novice to fly fiishing. Am retired and looking forward including this in my travels.

  • Bob hersey

    Thanks for a close to home article. Fishing on and around feeder streams and brooks to the Battenkill river, New York mostly, I’ve been in this scenario of what fly to use. Color, size, time of year stump me at times, not having the exact specimen that others on the water, or in conversation say were what they were hitting. I’m more inclined to use your advice to use the closer example of flys, color shape, to entice them to the line, again thanx.