6 Ways to Organize a Fly Box

Organizing a fly box can simultaneously be very satisfying and extremely frustrating. Deciding how to group flies determines how many boxes you’ll have to carry and how quickly you can find a pattern.

There’s no single right way to group flies, and plenty of people have their own unique systems. In general, though, there are a couple tried and true ways to get your box ready for fishing. While one method isn’t inherently better than another, some may work better or worse for some people based on their preferences.

If you like to keep it simple and avoid lots of boxes, you’ll probably want a different organizational style than someone who wants to be prepared for anything. Similarly, a person who fishes multiple species year-round will have a different setup than someone who only fishes for trout during the summer. Don’t be afraid to test out multiple options before deciding on your favorite, either. What sounds good on paper might not be the best fit once you actually start fishing.

Here are 6 ideas for organizing your box to save you time and energy next time you’re looking for the perfect fly.

1. Seasons

Seasonal changes affect available insect species and the habits of fish, and organizing fly boxes to match these changes can be very effective. One of the major upsides to this technique is that you’ll usually only need to carry one box at a time, to match the current season. If you want to cut the total number of boxes down even lower, you can combine seasons. For example, spring and fall fly selections can be pretty similar, so having one box for the two is totally doable with a little tweaking.

This box isn’t the best choice for beginners, though, as is requires knowledge of the appropriate flies for each season, something that takes a while to learn. Additionally, some flies will overlap different seasons, making it tougher to set up for someone who’s less familiar with their local hatches. For the veteran angler, though, this can be one of the most efficient organization options.


  • spring
  • summer
  • fall
  • winter
  • spring/fall

2. Water type

For someone who fishes a variety of water types — lakes, large rivers, tiny streams, etc. — organizing by water type may be the way to go. This style can be as specific or as general as needed. Like the seasonal fly box, the water type fly boxes will probably overlap some flies. This is another style that usually only requires carrying a single box, a nice luxury on the water. Keep in mind that water temperature also plays a role: a warmwater river and a coldwater river are two very different things.


  • alpine lake
  • reservoir
  • panfish pond
  • warmwater river
  • tailwater
  • spring creek
  • large freestone
  • headwater creek
  • saltwater flats

3. Fly type

A popular way to group flies that’s quick and easy to set up is by fly type. “Fly type” can be interpreted lots of different ways. Generally, it’s categories like dries, nymphs, emergers, or streamers. For the hardcore fly junkie, more specific categories are possible: sparkle duns, soft hackles, beadhead nymphs, etc.

Fly type can also refer to the fly’s intended purpose. These categories include attractor patterns, imitative patterns, search patterns, and impressionistic patterns.

While this is a great option for lots of people, it can be especially useful for someone who often has short chunks of time to fish. Instead of matching the hatch exactly, it may be more important for them to quickly get flies in the water. Since it’s usually pretty easy to figure out right away whether you’re going to fish above or below the surface, having designated boxes for these will save time.


  • dries
  • nymphs
  • streamers
  • emergers
  • poppers
  • attractor patterns
  • imitative patterns
  • search patterns
  • impressionistic patterns
  • miscellaneous (worms, eggs, and other flies that don’t require a whole box to themselves)

4. Fish species

If you like to fish for lots of different species, organizing by what you’re targeting is a good choice. Like some of the other techniques, you’ll often only need to carry a single box for this one, for whichever fish you’re chasing. You may even be able to get away with a single box for multiple species if they’re similar. For example, most species of trout can be targeted in a single box. Small bass and panfish in your local pond can probably also be caught from the same box.

Organizing by species may help you exclude unwanted types of fish, too, if the water you’re fishing holds a variety of types. A “warmwater lake” box, organized by water type, may hold flies for both bass and pike, while a species box could limit you to only pike if you wanted to avoid bass in the same body of water.


  • trout
  • steelhead
  • salmon
  • bass
  • panfish
  • pike
  • muskie
  • carp
  • bonefish
  • tarpon
A box of flies labeled "Bass Flies"
Organizing by species is a simple and effective way to go.

5. Taxonomically

Probably one of the most popular ways to organize a fly box is by taxonomy. This is often an insect order, like the big three: mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. It usually also includes some wider groupings, like terrestrials or crustaceans. This is a good way to quickly match the hatch. If you see caddises hatching, you can quickly browse a box with nothing but caddises, saving time sifting through other patterns. The upside to this method is the ease of setting it up and deciding on groups. The downside is that you may end up carrying lots of boxes to cover your bases. For aquatic insects, one box usually holds all stages of that insect. For example, a mayfly box would include everything from a nymph to a spinner.


  • mayflies
  • caddisflies
  • stoneflies
  • midges
  • terrestrials
  • baitfish
  • crustaceans
  • miscellaneous (worms, eggs, and other flies that don’t require a whole box to themselves)

Bonus: for aquatic insect boxes, sub-organize by stage

A great way to make an aquatic insect fly box even more organized is sorting by stage within each box. This is one of the most effective styles for people who fish throughout the day during known hatches. The reason it works so efficiently is that the box is organized to match the transitions throughout the day, from nymphing in the morning to hitting a spinner fall in the evening. One box will not only supply you with flies for the entire day, but it will be very easy to move through your box and find appropriate flies as the day progresses.

Here’s an example of how to set it up. Remember, this is usually for a particular type of bug you know you’ll be fishing throughout the day. For a mayfly box:

1. Separate your mayflies into their different life stages: nymphs, emergers, duns, and spinners (in that order).

2. In your box, start putting your flies in from left to right, and top to bottom. Start with nymphs, followed by emergers, then duns, and finally spinners. Within each stage, you can group by size and pattern so each is easy to find. When you’re done, your fly box should read like a book, with the earliest stages first, fading into later stages as you scroll down.

3. On the water, you can now transition through the stages as the day progresses. In the morning, go to the top of your box and browse all your mayfly nymphs at once. When things warm up and fish start sipping emergers, you can move down a few rows and choose the emerger equivalent of the nymph you were using. In the early afternoon, move down farther and replace the emerger with the corresponding dun. And finally, in the evening, go to the bottom of your box and grab a spinner.

This is a great way to ensure you can quickly find the perfect pattern for your time of day, and it’s a good reminder to keep up with the changing life stages as you fish.

6. Favorites

This isn’t an organizational style so much as a single box that can be useful for seasoned anglers. This is a box you’ll have in addition to your other boxes, which will probably follow one of the other styles.

Most fly fishermen who’ve been fishing awhile have their favorites, and for good reason. Some flies are just plain effective, especially if you’re very familiar with your local water. Having a go-to box with the flies you always seem to choose anyway is a quick and easy option. Instead of going through your entire mayfly box to find the generic yet effective pheasant tail, you can open your favorites and have it right at your fingertips.


So what’s your favorite way to organize? Let me know in the comments!


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Shirley Carrillo

    Hey Katie Burgert!
    I read this blog. This is Very informative post. But, you did not mention what type of flies should have to use for each particular season like spring, summer and so other. I mean, what flies will be best if I follow a seasonal organization style?

    1. Katie Burgert

      Hi Shirley, and thanks for reading. What you use for each season is really dependent on where you live and what you’re fishing for, so I wouldn’t be able to cover that in a general organization post like this. Maybe down the road I’ll try to cover some suggested flies for different seasons and locations.

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