Multi-day river trips often leave limited space for excess fly fishing gear, especially when fishing isn’t the primary motive for the trip. Putting together a “catch-all” fly box that covers multiple species and environments is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you will find yourself hurriedly cramming random flies into a box as your float partners demand you shave off some gear to make everything fit.
Know your species and have some flexibility
While these six flies will cover almost any western or midwestern river trip, know the species present and have some flexibility. You don’t need musky flies on the Salmon River and you don’t need an adams in pike country. Take a few hours while packing your fly fishing gear for a river trip and customize your box to suit the situation.
1) Buggers, buggers, and more buggers
You can catch just about anything on a bugger. Stuff your box with big ones, small ones, coneheads, and rubber legs in a variety of colors. You can retrieve or dead drift a bugger effectively for trout, steelhead, salmon, bass, pike, carp, etc. If I could only have a single pattern in my box, this is the one.
2) Parachute Adams
Floating remote areas typically comes with a lack of educated and selective fish. That said, it’s good to keep a few parachutes in the mix. They will save your butt when the trout turn selective on a mayfly hatch. The parachute style also imitates caddis in a pinch.
3) Elk hair caddis or stimulator
The two patterns are similar enough to choose either when options are limited. The stimulator has a longer shank but either will work as a caddis, small stonefly, or terrestrial when needed. The primary advantage here is noticeable at your campsite. Head to the bank after dinner and fish the last hour of light when caddis is most active. Don’t worry about a perfect drift as caddis are erratic and your most exciting strikes will come on a twitch or skate.
4) Foam dry flies
Foam is not for the fly fishing purist but it flat out works. Pick your favorite hopper pattern or throw in a few chubby chernobyls. Foam is durable and extremely buoyant, making it the ideal choice for limited space. Cutthroats love pink and purple foam bugs but olive and brown are also effective. I’ve gone three consecutive days without changing my foam fly.
5) Prince nymph
When your foam dry fly isn’t moving fish, drop a beadhead prince nymph. It’s the go-to, do-all nymph that has and will likely always produce. Carry a few different sizes with a couple of large-size 8’s for deep water on really slow days.
6) Articulated streamers
As a general rule, I always keep 2-3 very large, articulated streamers. There are numerous patterns out there, so test a few and take along your favorites. These will catch the larger trout, pike, bass, and aggressive, predatory fish. If you enjoy hunting for the big ones, always have a big streamer on standby.