Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Fly fishing, for me at least, carries with it an inherent aspect of curiosity. I think it’s one of the main reasons I was drawn to it and why it keeps me interested. If you’re a DIYer like myself, this curiosity often leads to disorganization and clutter, especially when it comes to my gear. I’m specifically speaking about my collection of flies.
If you’re a fly tier, this may sound familiar: You have hundreds of flies scattered about. Some in your fly boxes, some on your tying bench, and some lost to the same monster who eats your socks from the dryer. Because you don’t really know how many flies you have of any particular pattern, you end up just tying more flies, until you come across your stash and realize you now have 15 parachute BWOs and 1 klinkhammer. And worst of all, you just used all of your best hackle tying more BWOs. That lone klinkhammer will be so lonely.
If my wife knew how much money I spent on materials to tie patterns that I already had 25 of and didn’t know it, she’d probably decrease my allowance. Aside from buying material I didn’t need, I found myself looking in 28 different places to fill my fly box before heading out for a day on the water, only to realize I was down to my last “go to” fly for that specific stream for that time of year.
It might just be between my ears, but because I fish all seasons of the year, I feel that I need a fairly wide variety of patterns in several different sizes. But, I don’t want to have to carry all of them while I’m sneaking around those small spring creeks that I love. I usually only carry 2 fly boxes with me. One for dries and one for my Tenkara nymphs. Each box containing no more than 30 flies. The specific patterns that make the cut change frequently because of weather, location, or maybe I just want to change things up and try something new. Regardless of why, I realized I needed a system in place so I wasn’t spending an hour before each fishing trip rounding up flies.
I tried several different systems, and found that following this 6 step process works best for me.
Fly box organization step 1:
Purchase these 2 items:
*spending money on organization isn’t fun, but in the long run it will save you time and money.
1. Basic label maker (nothing fancy)
2. Plastic container boxes (start with 3).
You can usually find these at Walmart or Michaels or any sporting goods store.
Make sure these containers have:
- Large enough compartments that you can fit 5 or more large dry flies in each one without smashing the wings/hackle
- At least one compartment that is larger than the others (you’ll see why in later steps)
- At least 9 separate compartments in total
*there are some that give you the ability to change the size of each compartment, this can be helpful for different size flies, but it’s not essential.
Fly organization step 2:
Easter egg hunting time! Round up all of your fly boxes, fly patches, vests, hats, and anything else that has the potential to have a fly stuck in it. After you’ve ran around the house and garage finding these, remove EVERY SINGLE FLY and lay it on a large table. Make sure this is a table that won't be disturbed until you’re done with the next step, (it may take you a while, depending upon your seriousness of fly hoarding).
Fly organization step 3:
Take 5 paper plates and a pen or marker. Think of the 5 patterns you use the most including the size. Write the name and size of each on a separate plate and place the plates on the table.
You may have guessed it already, the next step is to look through ALL of your flies to find those 5 and put them on their respective plates.
WARNING: you will be tempted to organize others as you are looking for these 5. Avoid this if you can, we’ll get to it soon enough but doing it now is more distracting than helpful.
After you’ve been through all your flies and removed those top five, it’s time to set up “homes” for them. Leave all patterns other than these five in your fly pile on the table for now.
Fly organization step 4:
Making “homes” for each pattern. This next part might bring you back to your arts and crafts days of elementary school. Take out 1 compartment box and your label maker. Create a label stating the pattern and size. Example: “parachute Adams 16”. Place this label ON TOP of the upper left compartment so it’s visible with the box closed. Repeat with the other 4 moving from left to right across the top.
Probably not a surprise, but the next step after you have your five labels on the box is to place the flies in their respective compartments. Note: if you have more of one pattern than will fit into a single compartment, there’s nothing wrong with designating 2 compartments for 1 pattern. If this is the case, I would advise that your “A team” going in one and your “B team” in the other, unless you’re a much better tier than me and all of your flies are exactly uniform.
Fly organization Step 5:
Finding a home for everyone else.
Ok, back to that pile of flies. We’re going to gather up all sizes of your top 5.
Example: if one of your five was parachute Adams, sift through your flies and make a pile on a plate with your remaining parachute Adams in ALL sizes (other than 16, those are already in your plastic box.) Look for commonalities among sizes, So, let’s say you have 3 size 18’s, 5 20’s, and 1 14. Separate those onto separate plates.
Grab your label maker and make a parachute Adams size 18, parachute Adams size 20, and a “Misc Dry Fly” label. I like to organize by size, so I would place my Parachute Adams size 18 directly below my 16 and my 20 directly below my 18.
What about that single size 14? Choose a slot in your container that’s on the far right side, and slap that “misc dry fly” label on top of it and put that 14 in there.
Repeat this process for all of your top 5. When it’s all said and done you should have 1 plastic container that’s compartments are filled with your go to’s.
With all of the flies that are still laid out on your table, use the same process starting with a different box than your first 5. These other boxes may not as uniform as the first, but try to keep similar patterns close to each other.
Note: unlike some some people who like to organize flies by type, I prefer to separate by seasons. So along with my go to container, I have a spring, summer, fall, and winter container with various styles in each of them. You’ll see why I do this while I go through the final step.
Fly organization step 6:
Keeping them organized
With a little time and a process, getting your flies organized can be fairly simple. Keeping them that way seems to be the most challenging part.
My process for keeping my flies organized is based on a few simple (notice I didn’t use the word easy) principles.
Unless I’m fishing back to back days, ALL of my fly boxes are empty. And ALL of my flies are in the plastic containers.
I only fill my fly boxes once I know when and where I’ll be fishing, and I won’t fill it sooner than 2-3 days before the trip in case plans change.
After returning from a trip, I take all my flies that I either didn’t use, or the ones I did that are completely dry, and return them to their “homes” in their plastic containers. I’ll set the flies that need drying on a paper plate right next to where I keep my containers and once they are dry, return them to their homes.
If your like me you may have WAY too many fly boxes. Before my organization system, I was finding that each of my boxes were at most half full, usually far less than that. If I think back, my primary reason for buying so many boxes was for size variation and to have somewhere to store my flies when I wasn’t using them. Although most of them sit empty 99% of the time, I do keep them around in case I ever “need” to have more than 60 flies on me, but usually if I’m going on a longer road trip to new water, I’ll bring my container boxes with me instead of loading up all my fly boxes and restock/replace when I get back to camp.