Attractor flies are instrumental, not only to getting visible to fish during spring conditions, but to beat the hatch year-round. Whether you use them to locate fish, pull them out of your box when nothing else is working, or rely on them as your go-to first flies of the day, attactors often save the day.
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If you love the idea of getting hard hits on flashy dry flies, gaudy nymphs, and streamers that look like Christmas tree ornaments, then we bet you will also love fly fishing with attractor.
Attractor fly patterns are formulated to be make themselves visible to fish that wouldn’t otherwise notice them, and otherwise would not take a swipe at your fly. At the same time, not every attractor is bright or flashy. In fact, some are classified more as general looking natural patterns. Either way, they can be used to locate fish when nothing is hatching, or otherwise working for you. In this context we call them “searching patterns,” when can often locate fish more readily than you would otherwise.
The first attractors that come to mind for many are big, colorful dry flies such as the Royal Coachman, Yellow Humpy, or many somewhat-terrestrial-foam-patterns. However, an attractor pattern can be any time of fly, including nymphs, emergers and other wet flies, and streamers. As long as they have bright and flashy characteristics – or really do not resemble anything real – they are are considered attractor patterns.
There is a gray line, because some attractor patterns are designed to emulate the outline of a natural bug, but not necessary the exact color or size. For example, some attractor dries look like the drying out wings of a mayfly, or emerging wing of a caddis fly. That said, these general imposters are not designed to try and specifically get the taxonomy correct – more so to generally emulate the shape.
Here’s a summary table of the flies that you will definitely want to carry in your box. We’ll cover these in more detail, after we first describe more about when & how to use these flies.
Why Fish Attractor Flies?
Simply stated, because attractor patterns are really good at filling in the gap when other flies aren’t working: Perhaps:
- It’s early or late in the season, or chilly and overcast and there really isn’t enough of a hatch going on enough to captivate the fish you are after.
- You’re just starting out for the day, want to observe the water or aren’t sure what to use yet.
- You’ve been skunked all day so far, and are looking for a hail mary.
- You’re fishing a new place, and are unfamiliar with what works, which can take some time.
In all these cases, attractors are are great to use, because they give you more arrows in your quiver.
If you are experienced, you already know attractor fly patterns often work when nothing else does. If you are just starting out, you’ll be really glad to know that it’s not always as complicated as being sure you exactly “match the hatch.” In fact, sometimes it’s better to not be so exacting.
Unless you have an underwater camera running 24 x 7 to observe insect and fish behavior, even for the experts it’s hard to know exactly what fish are feeding on. And, this can change throughout the day, which is hard to keep up with. All of us have had really slow days – and admit it – yes even have been skunked.
Hate to brake it to you, but the fly angler’s dream of fish rising everywhere actually happens less than you’d think. In fact, most of the time the stream flows by with very few cues as to what fish are feeding on – or not.
All the marketing hype about prolific insect hatches with fish rising everywhere is a seldom occurrence – or if you have access to where this happens you are incredibly lucky. This is especially the case during early season, where you can use attractors to get visible in silty and rapidly running rivers.
Of course, when a hatch is underway, you can observe it and try to match it. But even when that happens, there can be multiple hatches and variables, and figuring out which what to focus on before they change their minds or stop all together – is still a challenge.
Bottom line, attractor patterns make it a lot easier to locate, and often to catch fish of many types.
When Fish Attractor Flies?
We often start with an attractor fly, unless it’s immediately evident what to use. This strategy buys you time, to check out the stream, look under rocks, look for fish rising, fish following your fly. What many “match the hatch” purists may not actually buy into, is that attractors can actually help you figure out what to use for a natural imitation pattern, by “screening” what fish will chase first.
Of course, another time to pull them out of your box is when you’ve already been at it for a while. Are you just not getting any takers, after trying several natural imitations?
Ok just admit it, c’mon. A lot of the time fish aren’t really focused on anything at all. This can be the case even if there are multiple hatches, but they are not focusing in one one. When this happens, from the fish’s perspective, the criteria for deciding to eat is more akin to “what’s the easiest way to get my meal?” Trout in particular, but all fish need to weigh the energy they spend to get fed, with the number of calories they consume.
Now you know when to use attractors. They give you more options, so perhaps most importantly, be sure to change it up more often than you might normally.
Seem counter-intuitive? Especially if you focus a great deal on how to present natural imitations, but what if you aren’t just getting it the way the fish want it? Unless you have a guide or experienced fishing friend by your side, it’s actually quite easy to present a natural imitation unnaturally.
So get past the seemingly sage advice that a line in the water isn’t really fishing, and change over to an attractor. We like to think more along the lines of “variety is the spice of fishing” because fish are actually more versatile in what they eat than you might thing.
Are we suggesting you ditch natural patterns or matching the hatch? Of course not! It’s simple – in our experience, using attractors and switching flies when something isn’t working with increase your hits and hook up rate. It’s not always possible to forecast – or even figure out what fish are taking in the moment. Even if you have read a recent “fishing report near me” or have the local shop’s advice, fish can change their minds day by day and even hour by hour – so be ready to meet them with what they want!
How To Fish With Attractor Flies?
Here are our rules of thumb for how to fish with attractors:
- In general, fish ’em just like you would every other fly. Basic such as mending, drifting same speed as the current, placement in the water column, etc. are important.
- Use your “how to locate trout” skills of course (looking for eddy lines, figuring out where the channels are, drop offs, etc.) still applies. But focus less on sight casting to fish, and rather look for when they chase your fly but don’t take it – this is the process of “locating” fish.
- Once you identify likely holding spots that you are going to cast to, then systematically cover the water. Even as you cast the same as if approaching rising fish, be certain to cover more water faster. You can always come back once you find out what they want.
- Position yourself to avoid shadows, only take a minimum of false casts, and step carefully and slowly. Since fish that aren’t focused on a given hatch are actually being more choosy, make most of your casts across and upstream to stay out of the fishes view window. Then as always, minimize drag on your line, mend when needed, and you’re up and running.
- It’s often the case that larger and gaudier is better for attractors. If trout haven’t ordered their lunch yet (haven’t decided what to eat) sometimes it takes a larger entree to grab their interest.
- But at the same time, be flexible in your thinking. The other principle of using attractors is that it often only takes “just enough” flash to differentiate your fly. So, for example a smaller Flashback Pheasant Tail, or a Woolly Bugger with just a couple narrow strips of Flashabou worked it, may be all it takes.
- We can’t say it enough: don’t forget you are using the strategy of “locating.” This by definition means mix it up! Not only the type, but also size, depth, dry vs. wet, etc. until hits are forthcoming.
- A hint – carrying pre-wrapped tippets, using a tippet ring, and even pre-tying your rigs can really cut down on your change-out time. For more on this, check out 12 Tippet Tips.
- More on this – we want you to have all the tricks in your tool box. Remember, that when fish aren’t honing in on a particular bug, they are in an energy saving state. They are more discriminating, rather than losing their abandon. So, cover lots of water, and here’s the nugget we want you to take home – don’t let covering water more thoroughly mean that you let down on varying your retrieval, depth, and flies till you start getting hits.
- Getting fly specific not, for nymphs, usually better to use a bead head, not only to get down, but also for flash. We make it a point to always carry versions of the same fly both with, and without beadheads get higher in the water when conditions demand.
- Even if a fish may more farther to get an attractor fly than another fly, don’t give them any opportunity to refuse. What we mean by this is, cast at different angles, distances, and depths, combined with your water reading skills. Keep a mental note of each cast, and when you start getting hits, try to replicate what you casted below.
- When fish are really dormant, in the shoulder seasons and winter fishing, you’ll want to emphasize nymphs and wet flies, though some such as BWOs hatch year round. Fish it “low and slow” (this means lower and slower than you every probably thought you would). For a bit more on this strategy, check out our post on Euro-Nymphing, just apply the same strategy to your attractors. In fact, many many Euro patterns are attractors in of themselves!
All that said, let’s cycle through many of the best proven flies you can carry in your box.
Who knows why (we haven’t met anyone that does), but Amy’s Ant seems to make trout lose all their inhibitions. If you’ve been trying to exactly match the hatch, but they just aren’t buying it, then change it up to Amy’s Ant. They might not know what actually hit them!
Originally formulated by fly expert and legend Jack Dennis, his ant won the Yellowstone Angler One Fly contest back in 1999. After that recogntion, retailers started carrying it and many color variations have since evolved. Be sure to be ready for rapidly setting the hook as strikes on Amy’s Ant can be quick and hard.
Maybe the name reminds you of one of your fishing (and drinking) buddies. Or of a nuclear even in Russia’s history. Either way doesn’t matter, because the Chubby as we like to affectionately call it, is one of the original big foam “terrestials.” Some think grasshopper, but many think it doesn’t actually represent any living bug, it just works.
The Chernobyl is tied in many different pattern variations and colors, some of which actually do look like cousins of the grasshopper and other terrestrial attractors. The great news is, the Chubby, will float like a boat all day. If you’ve never seen a “tail slapping” strike, using this fly may be your first experience.
Be sure utilize the super buoyancy of the Chernobyl for fishing a dropper underneath. The materials of this fly are so great at floating, you can carry droppers under it larger than usual – like a size 8 or 6 that are practically streamers. Good colors to carry are not only the black & chartreuse, but also tan, purple, golden, and royal colors.
The CJ is reliable and widely used, that many anglers think of it as a standard pattern, even though it resembles nothing alive and was originally designed as an attractor pattern.
We actually rarely run into other anglers who haven’t fished them, or at least heard of them. But, we’ve encountered many who were wishing they had remembered to bring more with them. The phrase “this fly saved the day” is often attributed to the CJ, as much as any we’ve heard. Like many attractors, it’s kind of impossible to explain why (many do but don’t really know), they just work.
While the traditional wire color is copper, when it comes to variations, the CJ has as many effective variants as any fly. Red, dark green, light green, chartreuse, and more. It’s interesting that this fly has several different attractor elements, including wire bodies, the Flashabou covered in resin, and the bead head coupled with a more natural looking under body and emergent wings.
Otherwise known as the FPT, this variation on the original pheasant tail nymph good in small mountain streams and big rivers alike. Be certain to keep well equipped with several sizes, bead head and not. All this pattern does is add a narrow strip of Flashabou on top (not just to the thorax but to the entire body). If you decide to use a drop of resin for durability, just be certain to avoid the body wrap or peacock herl, or you’ll lose some of the look.
While we use this pattern primarily with a bead head for both weight and attraction, we also like it with the weight as a dropper and higher in the water column as the season wears on. A good strategy is to use a larger version of this fly up top in a double nymph rig, with a a more natural fly behind this one. Use a thinner tippet on the 2nd fly, to avoid losing both on a snag.
The bead head Prince nymph, is clearly one of the most-frequently-used attractor flies on planet earth. With a distinctive pattern and several elements of attraction at the same time, gold ribbing, white biots, bright bead – it nevertheless seems natural. All together, this attractor is hugely hard for many fish species to resist. Try it with rubber legs, and also be sure to carry it in several sizes.
If flies held a party, the head turners would be the Prince’s very close cousin, the Electric Prince. Just add the color purple, and “abracadabra” you have the Electric Prince, which is also often dubbed the “Psycho” Prince. We’ve never heard a cogent explanation of why purple works, because it resembles even less the natural world than most attractors, but it just does.
If fish could talk, perhaps the first question we’d ask them is why they seem to love purple. Have you ever seen any hatching insect, in any stream, ever, that is purple?
In the same vein as the Electric Price nymph, but tied in many more variations, the Purple Haze can be found as a traditional dry, parachute, soft hackle / wet, emerger, nymph, streamer, trude/stimulator, and more. Unlike most other attractor flies though, the Haze is always tied in purple, or at least other color variations are atypical.
Originating as a “purple Adams,” the Haze trout fly was invented on the Bitterroot River and has spread in popularity far beyond Montana. Usually tied with brown or grizzle hackle, this fly has made its mark as one of the best trout flies.
If the Rainbow Warrior was a person, they would probably be wearing a dress full of brightly colored sequins, and loads of oversized, ostentatious jewelry.
It’s one of those flies that works so well – for large trout in spite of its usually tiny-to-mid-size – in spite of not looking like anything natural, across the entire country that it’s just downright hard to explain.
The Warrior stacks up many types of attraction, from its glass bead head, rainbow dubbing for the thorax, plus a fully wrapped body of tinsel such as Flashabou for its body. That’s about as gaudy as it gets, and for trout, it’s turn-on! Now tied in a variety of colors, but what you see is the original timeless version.
A versatile and effective attractor pattern, tied in many forms (dry, wet, nymph, streamer, stimulator, & more!). Used primarily for trout, grayling, and steelhead. Actually does have a royal history starting in England, to modern day modifications made in the USA, this pattern must be in your fly box. One key variation is the Royal Stimulator, which merges features of the regulator stimulator and Royal Wulff. Read all about it at The Royal Coachman.
The Royal Wulff may have caught as many trout as any other attractor. First tied by Lee Wulff in the 1930’s, Wulff wanted a more buoyant version of the Royal Coachman pattern, with calf tail wings instead for feathers.
This dry attractor rides high on the surface, avoids being sucked under, and is nicely visible even in low light conditions. The larger sizes work as attractors (good for carrying at least small droppers), while smaller sizes are known to work well during a trico or Blue Winged Olive hatch. One of the best prospecting dry flies you can use.
There’s a lot to a name, especially for this fly. One way to think of the Stimulator is like an Elk Hair Caddis on steroids. When you fish the Stimulator, pay attention, because the strikes range from big slurps to tail slapping hits. The most common variations are orange, yellow, olive, and tan. The highly visible size and brightness of stimulators, especially when combined with a dropper, make it a great searching fly. Some also tie Stimulators to simulate large mayflies, or October Caddis depending on the river you are fishing.
Woolly Buggers are traditionally tied in black, brown, and olive. These natural colors simulate a variety of prey, as we describe in our article More About The Woolly Bugger. As an attractor though, Woolly’s are hugely versatile, tied in many increments from a few strands of tinsel (such as Flashabou) all the way up to the tinsel-dominated Crystal Bugger. A bead head or bug-eyes don’t only help weight the bugger, but also provide additional attraction. Common variations on the Crystal are white, orange, grey, and olive. This is one fly to make sure you carry in multiple sizes, colors, and weight variations in your fly box. Not to mention, if you are looking for easy flies to tie, this one fits the bill as one of the easiest fly tying patterns you can try.
The Yellow Humpy may not have a flattering name, but it’s a very likable fly and is good at pulling tentative fish up to the surface. The humpy is another searching pattern for a variety of large lighter-colored mayflies. Because it floats like a life preserver, almost as if it was made out of foam, it’s especially useful in pocket water. That makes it also good to carry a dropper, and act as a strike indicator for the dropper even while attracting fish to itself. If you are learning how to tie flies, and want to take a shot at your first dry fly, this is a good one because it’s awesome flotation is forgiving.