Getting your bugs in order

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Allen Gardner

Are you confident in your fly selection, or are you just guessing?

Most anglers open their fly box, look aimlessly at the hundreds (maybe more) of dollars of flies and make their fly selection based on their past experiences or whatever “looks good” in their box.  “I did good on that one last year, guess I’ll try it out.” When is the last time you heard a guide say that?

You don’t, and it’s because they first ask the question, what are the trout eating today?  Once they have a strong, educated decision, they select the fly and begin to catch loads of fish.  The knowledge that helps them select the right fly quickly and more accurately is fly fishing entomology.

This article will help you understand the orders, stages, sizes and colors of 99.99% of all insects you will need to identify on the river. This is the first step in fly fishing entomology. With time you will learn to observe and identify the specific insects, and stages, which are attracting the trouts attention, but for now let’s just familiarize ourselves with the menu.  We’ve put together a complete list of orders, stages, sizes and colors that are important to the fly angler.

Bookmark this page, you will refer back to if often, it’s incredibly helpful.

Orders aka Insect Categories

Let’s learn quickly what we mean by orders and stages, then we’ll show the list of insects by order, category, size and color.

Orders are just a fancy and scientific way of saying a category of insect.  Remember in highschool biology when they taught Kingdom, Phylum, Class, ORDER, Family, Genus, Species? Of course you don’t, who listens in highschool biology? You should have listened though cause it relates to fly fishing!

All you really need to know is that as fly fishermen, nearly all of our fly patterns we use imitate orders of insects, not the specific species.  Aside from some mayflies (Hex, Green Drakes, BWO, etc) and some stoneflies (salmonflies, yellow sallies etc), we keep it simple and only focus on the categories.

This is great news for all of us, because instead of having to remember 10,000 insect species, we just need to understand 12 or so categories.  If you can identify the order of the insect, you’re more than 25% of the way to selecting the right fly.

Stages aka Insect Lifecycles

Stages of an insect simply refer to their current stage within an insect lifecycle.  Insects go through complete and incomplete metamorphsis.  Complete metamorphisis includes a pupa stage while incomplete skips that step and gets on with the story.

Most insects that you need to know for trout fishing go through a larva (nymph), emerger, adult (dry), and spinner stage. We refer to these plainly as nymph, pupa, emerger, dry, spinner when fly fishing and they often correlate to fly patterns.

Not all insects have these stages, and some have an extra pupa stage, and only some of those stages apply to trout feeding behavior… it gets a bit complicated, but for now hold on to the fact that this provides a list for you to digest, not the entire subject.  You’d need a fly fishing entomology course for that and is a great idea if you’re ready to take your fly fishing to the next level.

Let’s simplify and give you a framework you can use to start learning your bugs.  In it you will see all the major insect orders (categories), the stages of importance to the angler, and common hook sizes and colors you’ll want to imitate them with.  Book mark this page and refer to it often.  On the river, at the tying bench, whenever you need to match the bug.


The Complete List of Insects for Fly Fishermen

Photos by Jan Hamrsky


Stages: Nymph, Emerger, Dry

Sizes: #14-26

Colors: Any Color Imaginable


Stages: Nymph, Emerger, Dry, Spinner

Sizes: #6-26

Colors: Any Color Imaginable


Stages: Nymph, Pupa, Emerger, Dry

Sizes: #10-20

Colors: Blacks, Browns, Olives, Oranges, Tans


Stages: Nymph, Dry

Sizes: #6-18

Colors: Blacks, Browns, Oranges, Yellows, Olives, Tans


Stages: Nymph

Sizes: #12-18

Colors: Greys, Pinks, Oranges, Olives, Blues, Whites, Two-Tones


Stages: Nymph

Sizes: #12-18

Colors: Greys, Pinks, Oranges, Olives, Blues, Whites, Two-Tones

Sludge_worm_Tubificidae-480x319Annelids (Worms)

Stages: Nymph

Sizes: #8-16

Colors: Reds, Pinks, Browns, Tans, Purples


Stages: Nymph, Dry

Sizes: #8-16

Colors: Blues, Tans, Olives


Stages: Nymph, Dry

Sizes: #6-14

Colors: Reds, Blacks, Tans, Olives, Blues

Water_boatman_Corixidae-480x319Water Boatman

Stages: Nymph, Dry

Sizes: #10-16

Colors: Blacks, Olives, Tans, Browns


Stages: Dry

Sizes: #6-16

Colors: Browns, Olives, Pinks, Purples, Tans, Reds, Yellows


Stages: Dry

Sizes: #14-20

Colors: Blacks, Reds, Browns, Tans


Stages: Dry

Sizes: #12-18

Colors: Blacks, Olives, Browns, Purples, Blues


When you break it all down to these categories, it doesn’t look that overwhelming.  Contained within this list is 99% of all the insects you’ll need in your fly box.  Doesn’t look like much but when you begin adding up all the variations, it’s no wonder why we all have 15 fly boxes and still complain to our spouses we don’t have enough flies!

This information is an excellent guide to helping you stock your box, understanding the basics of fly fishing entomology and beginning to learn how to match that hatch whether it’s above or below the waters surface.


Allen Gaedner
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Getting your bugs in order

  1. Brilliant, so simple when explained in layman’s terms, I am one of those ‘that looks good’ although I do ask if anyone is available what they are fishing and is it successful.
    Thanks for a great site.
    Tight lines.

  2. Nicely crafted post Allen,
    Combine bug life cycles with reading the water and you have a formula for success! Then organize your fly boxes to quickly find what the clues are telling you.

    • Thanks David, I find that presentation + fly selection + location are the keys to catching fish. You need a little of al of them to succeed and every now and again, one of them can greatly outweigh the others.

  3. I don’t mean to be “that” guy, but the picture of the damselfly is showing a dragonfly. Damsels have upright wings when at rest.

    • I hear what you’re saying, and I can see why you get confused, this picture was taken with a high speed camera however and the photo is of him landing, so the wings are resting down. it is def a damselfly. just may look a little like a dragonfly in that pic.

      • Kind of ironic that Luke brings that up. Fundamentally, the issue is really that dragonflies and damselflies are actually both of the Order Odonata. Different Suborders but you classified this out at the Order level. I think actually listing the Orders out would have been helpful. And annelids do not belong to an Order but a Phylum.
        Midges – Diptera
        Mayflies – Ephemeroptera
        Caddisflies – Trichoptera
        Stoneflies – Plecoptera
        Scuds – Amphipoda
        Sowbugs – Isopoda
        Annelids – the Phylum Annelida
        Dragons and Damsels – Odonata
        Water Boatmen – Hemiptera
        Grasshoppers – Orthoptera
        Ants – Hymenoptera
        Beetles – Coleoptera
        Anyways, thanks for article. It’s great people know how taxonomy really works. People often misuse the terminology like calling Ephemeroptera a Genus or something. It’s okay though, not a big deal.

    • I agree with you Luke, however, for a different reason. The size of the eyes and the thorax are more the size of a dragonfly than that of a damsel.

  4. I’m 99% sure thats a rubber-leg stimulator or a fly that’s very close to that. It imitates best an adult stonefly, or a hopper, or a large legged creature of unknown origin 🙂 In that order 🙂

  5. Pingback: Gink and Gasoline helps out the beginner and beyond. – Grindstone Sabbatical

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