Intro to Montana Attractor Flies

Montana attractor flies, meaning any fly patterns that are designed to look like a wide range of food items at the same time, or to look generally “lifelike” but matching nothing in particular, can often be far more effective than patterns designed to imitate only one insect or other prey item. On many waters, they will be the only category of flies you need.

When to Fish Montana Attractor Flies

The following locations and situations are good ones in which to try Montana attractor flies:

  • Small, Steep and/or Low-Productivity Streams: On such waters, the trout simply can’t afford to fixate on any one type of bug, since there either aren’t enough insects of any one type to serve as a meal or the water is so swift that to make a living they must feed on anything resembling food that comes by. On such waters, fish medium-sized Montana attractor flies that are easy for both you and the fish to see and concentrate on accurate casts rather than fly choice. Odds are the trout will eat anything you throw at them provided it behaves in a lifelike manner, even if it doesn’t actually match anything in nature.
  • Rough Freestone Rivers In Early Summer: On such rivers, many varieties of insects typically hatch all at the same time, but seldom overwhelming numbers of each. As such, the trout tend to eat a wide range of insects equally well. Choose nymph or dry fly patterns that match the silhouettes of the predominate insects, but run slightly larger and probably a bit more colorful.
  • Fall-Run Brown Trout: Fall browns strike out of aggression or irritation rather than a feeding impulse. Even pre-spawn trout (which are what you should target, rather than actively-spawning fish) follow this pattern. As such, they respond better to flies that “get in their face” rather than those that look like food. Choose medium-large nymphs with a lot of movement, egg patterns, ugly, flashy streamers, or even steelhead and salmon flies to best annoy such fish.
  • You Aren’t Sure What the Fish are Eating: If you are getting frustrated trying to figure out what a trout is eating, whether it’s rising or feeding visibly subsurface, it’s sometimes best to forget about precise imitation and to use something that looks like several of the possible suspects. Try to choose something in the right ballpark, but that is flashier or more noticeable than realistic flies: a Purple Hazy Cripple when the trout are probably eating mayflies on the surface, a Coachman Trude or Clacka Caddis when they are making splashy rises suggesting of emerging caddisflies, a Prince Nymph on rivers where caddis and stoneflies are common, or a Lightning Bug in a location where the trout eat a lot of mayfly nymphs, for example.

When Not to Fish Attractors

There are quite a few situations in which attractor flies are not appropriate. In a general sense, the smaller the range of prey items available in the body of water, the heavier a specific insect hatch, the gentler or lower-elevation the stream, the clearer the water, the more fertile the water, and the heavier the fishing pressure, the more likely you will need to match specific prey items.

In general, the places where attractors are least-likely and even downright unlikely to work are the following types of waters or situations:

  • Spring Creeks
  • Tailwaters
  • Meadow Streams or Sections of Streams
  • Any River in Late Fall, Winter, or Early Spring
  • Heavy Insect Hatches of One Specific Insect are Taking Place, Regardles of Water Type
  • Heavily-Pressured Roadside Water of Any Character

That said, the fact of the matter is that many patterns that at least nominally resemble one particular food item also have attractor qualities. The popular Soft Hackle Sowbug nominally resembles sowbugs, but it can also be taken as a scud, an egg, or even a caddis pupa. Probably the single most popular and effective color of the Lightning Bug mayfly nymph is pink, which resembles no known mayfly. In addition, many patterns are good imitative patterns for multiple food items. The popular Chubby Chernobyl serves as a grasshopper, several species of stoneflies, or even a big caddisfly or a mouse equally well, for example. Many nymphs, wet flies, and streamers, in particular, would probably qualify as attractors if you looked at them closely enough. For these reasons, there’s a great deal of overlap between imitative patterns and attractors, even between the following lists and patterns mentioned on other pages within this section of the website.

Good Attractor Flies

I’ve divided Montana attractor flies into five categories: #12 and larger downwing attractor dries, #12 and smaller attractor dries of all types, attractor wet flies and soft hackles, attractor nymphs, and attractor streamers. Each of the following entries includes notes on common characteristics of the flies in each category, notes on when and where each type of fly is most effective, and five suggested patterns within each category.

#12 and Larger Downwing Attractor Dries

Very large attractor dries are not so popular in the Yellowstone area as they are down on the Snake or further west in Montana. Nevertheless, it’s important to have a few in your box, especially in July and early August, when there are scattered emergences of large aquatic insects that can excite the fish, plus a few grasshoppers, but not enough of any one of these insect types to make most of the fish key on any one type.

There’s a great deal of overlap between this category and flies discussed on the Terrestrials page, so make sure you take a look there, too.

  • Description: Large downwing attractor dries generally resemble oversized caddisflies, stoneflies, or grasshoppers. Most contemporary patterns in this category feature various fish-attracting but non-realistic elements like rubber legs, peacock herl, or flash materials, while some older flies in the category appear more natural. A key example of the former fly type is the Chubby Chernobyl in various non-realistic or only marginally realistic colors, while the latter type is represented by large Stimulators. Hallmarks of all flies in this category are natural or synthetic hair wings, durable construction, fat, often fuzzy bodies, and long, heavy wire hooks, often hooks typically used on streamers and large nymphs rather than on dry flies. These long and heavy hooks make a #12 fly in this category appear much larger than a #12 in the following category, which generally use standard-length hooks. Most flies in this category also make heavy use of foam to aid in flotation.
  • When to Use: Use patterns in this category primarily on large freestone rivers that don’t see overwhelming pressure, particularly the rougher sections of the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater, as well as the lower Gardner. They are best from the end of runoff through July or early August, after which either smaller attractor dries or patterns that more closely resemble large terrestrials are better. They also aren’t bad choices on the Madison during and immmediately after the Salmonfly hatch, though their effectiveness there will be brief.
  • Five Favorite Patterns: #6-10 Tan Turck’s Tarantulas, #6-12 Chubby Chernobyls in various colors, #10-12 Gold Carnage Attractors, #8-12 Peacock Perry’s Bugmeisters, and #10 Synth Double Wings are our favorite patterns in this category. We really dislike big Stimulators, which are another very popular choice.

#12 and Smaller Attractor Dries

Smaller attractor dries, whether upwing or downwing, are probably the single most important category of dry flies. Certain patterns within this category can work on all waters, including spring creeks where attractors are normally a no-no. In a general sense, patterns in this category tend to look like mayflies, caddisflies, and small stoneflies, as well as (perhaps) midge clusters. They are therefore good choices whenever there are small to medium-sized insects present.

Because these insects are often present when the weather is ugly and the visibility for both anglers and trout is poor, they make great choices even during relatively heavy insect hatches, particularly on freestone waters that might not be crystal clear. You can also use them in slightly larger sizes ahead of an imitative fly in such situations, so they serve as an “edible strike indicator” helping you spot your tiny fly, without making a big enough splat to spook the trout.

You should use small attractors more or less the size of the dominant insects present, or perhaps one size larger. This usually means using #12 or #14 flies right at the end of the spring runoff, then sizing down steadily so that by late autumn you might use a #18 Purple Hazy Cripple to suggest the afternoon BWO and other mayflies and a #16 Coachman Trude to suggest midge clusters.

  • Description: Patterns in this category are generally tied on either straight standard-length dry fly hooks or curved, slightly long-shank hooks. These factors make a #12 fly in this category look much smaller than a #12 in the preceding category. Small attractor dries generally lack significant foam elements, though they typically float well anyway due to lighter hooks than larger attractors, coupled with heavy hackle and wings of either water-shedding synthetics (on newer flies) or hair (older flies). Most use hackle, wings, and body materials to provide movement, rather than synthetic elements such as rubberlegs, though some flies in this categoery do have very fine legs. There is some overlap between this category of flies and imitative patterns in the same size range. A small Yellow Stimulator does a good job matching Yellow Sally Stoneflies, for example, but it also looks enough like a little grasshopper or a caddis and also features enough subtle motion that it attracts curious fish. Therefore it can be either imitative or an attractor, depending on how you fish it. For my purposes, I consider a fly to be a small attractor when its most noticeable characteristics appear to human eyes to be non-imitative, no matter what the fish might think. My Purple Hazy Cripple works great when small mayflies are hatching, but as the name suggests it is purple. That makes it an attractor, since I’ve yet to see a purple mayfly.
  • When to Use: As already noted, patterns in this category are good choices whenever the most common natural insects present are small. Use upwing patterns when mayflies are about. Use downwing patterns when most of the bugs are caddis, stoneflies, or perhaps small grasshoppers. Certain patterns in both categories can work when heavy numbers of midges are present. Patterns in this category work in a much wider range of situations than larger downwing attractors. As such, they’re worth a shot even during heavy hatches on tailwaters and spring creeks, normally situations that are very poor for attractors. That said, they’re still best on freestone rivers and streams, particularly when insect hatches are sparse and/or there are several different types of insects hatching all at once.
  • Five Favorite Patterns: #12-16 Coachman and Pink Clacka Caddis, #12-16 Coachman Trude, #14-20 Purple Hazy Cripple (Copper can be good too), #12-18 Royal Wulff Cripple or standard Royal Wulff, #14-16 Olive and Yellow Stimulators.

Attractor Nymphs

Most nymphs are attractor nymphs, to one level or another, since even a dedicated PMD Nymph looks enough like numerous other types of mayflies to get some bites. Most aquatic insect larvae and nymphs are 3/8″ long and sort of brown at some stage in their lives, after all, which also covers most nymph patterns.

That said, there are some nymphs that qualify more as attractors than others. For purposes of this page, we’re considering flies that imitate not only several species of one insect family but multiple families of insects as attractors.

Nymphs that meet this definition typically feature relatively few materials and bodies of natural or at least “lifelike” synthetic materials. Popular are peacock herl, hare’s ear dubbing, and new synthetic materials such as Krystal Flash, Flashabou, and Ice Dub. Nymphs in this category should be your go-to flies for dropper nymphs, and on pocket water and canyon rivers, they should be your go-to subsurface flies, period.

Note that many “junk bugs” such as Girdle Bugs and San Juan Worms are not discussed below. Girdle Bugs at least nominally resemble stonefly nymphs, while San Juan Worms are worms (surprise). Nevermind that the trout probably see them as big tasty mouthfuls of whatever just as often as they take them as matching some particular prey item. Basically if it’s at least supposed to look like some fairly specific group of real critters, the pattern is discussed (if I mention it at all) in one of the more specific pages in the Flies & Hatches menu.

  • Description: Attractor nymphs come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colors. As such, no one fly is representative. What can be said is that most are durable, easy to tie, and suggestive, lacking such things as wing cases, precise legs or tails, etc. that would mark them as specific insects A notable exception to this rule is the Copper John, but other popular nymphs such as the Beadhead Prince, Serendipity, and Minch’s Bead, Hare, and Copper all match the rule perfectly. Another possible identifying characteristic of most attractor nymphs is moderate size. Typically larger nymphs can suggest only stoneflies, even if they don’t look precisely look like them, while particularly small flies are taken by the fish only as small mayflies or midges. Most attractor nymphs are useful in sizes #12-16, where they can be just about anything.
  • When to Use: Attractor nymphs are useful in all types of water, all year long. That said, they’ll be somewhat less useful in tailwaters, spring creeks, and geothermally-influenced waters than in freestone streams and rivers. Attractor nymphs are especially useful when you’re covering a lot of water, either on foot on faster streams or out of a boat, since these situations are less likely to require you to closely match one particular insect, at least for long stretches. Don’t neglect trying an attractor nymph behind a streamer. Even if the nymph is moving, a fish that refuses the streamer will often take a dropper nymph instead. Also don’t neglect using larger attractor nymphs (#10-14) for fall-run brown trout. Often these “minor annoyances” work better than the larger stonefly nymphs, streamers, and San Juan Worms that are the stereotypical flies these fish are supposed to eat.
  • Five Favorite Patterns: #12-16 Bead Hare and Copper, #10-18 Prince (and variants), #14-20 Serendipity (many variants), #12-20 Copper John (assorted colors), #16-20 BLM Nymph (assorted colors).

Attractor Soft Hackles and Small Wet Flies

A majority of wet flies and soft hackles qualify as attractors, because they imitate numerous things and have a generic “bugginess” that fish find irresistable. In the Yellowstone Area they are most useful on the Firehole and other riffle-pool type rivers, stripped deep in lakes, or fished as “second chance” flies behind streamers. They can also work as droppers beneath dry flies.

Note that flies specifically designed to imitate caddis pupae and sowbug/scud patterns including soft hackles are discussed on the relevant pages, while larger soft hackles and wets that suggest baitfish or function in much the same way as steelhead or salmon flies are discussed in the next section.

  • Description: Wet flies come in two general categories, winged and wingless or “soft hackle.” Nowadays soft hackles are much more popular, but winged wets often work just as well. “Small” soft hackles, for purposes of this page, tend to run #12 to #16, with the small end probably more popular. While some classic wet flies are extremely complicated designs, most of those used in our region are almost aggressively simple, utilizing one to four materials in addition to the hook and thread. This simple design philosophy makes them suggestive imitations of a wide range of aquatic food items, and even some drowned terrestrials if fished dead-drift. Wet flies, especially soft hackles, rely heavily on the natural fine “breathing” motion of their wing and body materials to catch fish. Because of this, most wet flies use natural materials, especially for their wings, because natural materials feature a wider range of textures, and spotted, barred, and motted patterns. If synthetics are used, they feature glow, shine, or other suggestions of “life.”
  • When to Use: Wet flies are the most important flies to have on the Firehole River, and also work great on the Madison and Gibbon. While not as critical elsewhere, it is important to always have a few in your box. Use them as caddis emergers, as droppers behind large nymphs, or as shallow droppers behind dries. Wet flies are particularly good choices when only occasional, splashy riseforms are seen, and when you want to cover a lot of water. Fish them on a slow cross-current swing, dead-drifted, or stripped slowly through deep pools or lakes.
  • Five Favorite Patterns: #14-16 Glasshead Pheasant Tail, #12-16 Peacock and Black, #12-16 Hare’s Ear, #12-16 Partridge and “Color” (orange, yellow, red, and chartreuse are all good), #14-16 Tan Nick’s.

Attractor Streamers and Large Wet Flies

Streamers that resemble nothing in particular as well as large wet flies resembling and even including smaller steelhead and salmon patterns are most useful when targeting browns, especially in the fall. These fish are generally not striking any pattern out of feeding behavior, so any fly that pushes the “aggression” button will serve you well.

Note that most streamers qualify as attractors, as do large wet flies of any type, so the following discussion is pretty limited. Don’t hesitate to use any other streamer I don’t discuss here in an attractor situation.

  • Description: Attractor streamers that make sense–like Woolly Buggers–usually look like many possible fish species, as well as leeches, crayfish, and large nymphs. Some others look like nothing at all but have flashy or bright features that attract fish, like the Joffee Jewel. As to large wet flies, most fall into the latter category (and there’s a great deal of crossover). Both good large attractor soft hackles and streamers that are unequivocally attractors have design features that make them move well in the water, such as abundant natural hair or marabou and other soft feathers, as well as elements of flash or bright colors to attract attention.
  • When to Use: As noted above, flies in this category work great for targeting fall browns, but they can stand in for more-standard streamers whenever the fish are feeling aggressive, as well. In particular, smaller, bright streamers as well as many large soft hackles are good choices for any aggressive trout, such as spawning brookies.
  • Five Favorite Patterns: #2-14 Assorted Woolly Bugger, #2-6 Kiwi or Marabou Muddler (or similar), #10-14 Joffee Jewel, #8-12 Shakey Beeley, #6-10 Gartside Soft Hackle