Carrying only a handful of flies can make you a more efficient angler. Especially when fishing small streams (like high-gradient mountain creeks), the less you carry can really make a difference. Wearing an overburdened vest into the back country just isn’t necessary. Furthermore, you’d be much better served to bring along water or food – not hundreds of fly patterns.
Efficiency matters. Whether you are hopping out of your car for an hour chasing brookies or spending a week out of a pack in the Colorado wilderness catching cutthroats, only taking what you need matters in small and large ways. If you lay out all your gear on a table, you’ll notice that fly boxes probably account for the most volume. A normal trout box is the size of a decent paperback book. A couple of those will fill up a sling pack quickly.
Moreover, boxes and boxes of flies just aren’t necessary. Consider your favorite high-gradient mountain creek. How many flies do you use? Outside of wild water conditions or sporadic hatches, is it four patterns? two? one?
I’d like to propose that you can get by – and get by very well – with only three flies in these conditions. Here are three patterns that I’d carry… the three flies that I would be comfortable with if they were all I was carrying:
Humpy I’ve sung the praises of the Humpy time after time. This big, buggy fly is a caddis, a mayfly, a stonefly, a hopper, and a strike indicator all in one. They float like corks and are easy to see. Pick your favorite color, but know that yellow is the best.
Parachute Adams If the Humpy is the machete, the Parachute Adams is the scalpel. If the trout are keying in on delicate mayflies, midges, or ants, the finesse of the Adams is a better play, You can still see it well, but it will be a change of pace for finicky or pressured fish.
I’d go with a “big” Humpy (14) and a “small” Parachute Adams (18) to help cover the spectrum of circumstances.
Woolly Bugger If its not a crime to neglect carrying Buggers in your fly box, it should be. Depending on the color, it can imitate fish, bugs, and whatever else lives in or around water. It is a streamer and it is a nymph. It can be dead-drifted and it can be stripped in.
It is also worth noting that carrying only a handful of flies can make you a more effective angler. Carrying fewer fly patterns encourages you to focus more on presentation. It is an old adage, but presentation does trump pattern in the majority of circumstances. So learning how to fish a fly can be much more important than picking precisely which fly to fish. Find a silhouette and a size, and you’re good to go.
If you could only carry three flies, what would they be… and why? Even if you don’t go to such extremes, it is worth considering… especially if you usually carry thousands of flies.