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Saltwater flies

There are thousands of saltwater fly patterns, so which ones are best?  It can be helpful to know what fish are eating so we can choose fly patterns that match their food.  This page lists the most common prey items along the Texas coast and some of the flies that imitate them. These patterns are easy to tie and are commonly available at many fly shops.

The most important attributes of a fly are, in order: 1) shape, 2) action, 3) size, and 4) color.

Shape and action.  A fish's eye is adapted to see movement and contrast at the expense of detail.  Exact imitations are not necessary, but general shape and movement is important.  Hence, a fly that is a perfect replica of a baitfish but isn't moving won't get any strikes, but a moving fly with a more general shape will get strikes.  A fly tied with excruciating detail has more appeal to the angler than to the fish.

Size.  Flies should be about the same size as the prey they are trying to match.   Most food items of red drum and spotted seatrout are between 2" and 4" in length, but exceptions are noted below.  Patterns tied on #1, #2, and #4 hooks will suffice, and can be cast with 7- or 8-weight lines.

Color.  Fish can see color, but they use their color vision to help them find prey, not to identify prey.  Chartreuse is a color that does not occur in nature, but fish will not hesitate to strike a chartreuse fly.   See Can fish see color for more detail.  Having contrasting colors in your fly pattern is important if you want a fish to see your fly.  

MenhadenMenhaden flyMenhaden flyMenhaden fly
Gulf menhaden
(Brevoortia patronus) are the most abundant fish in Texas waters and an important food item for many species.  Juvenile menhaden are found along shorelines in the spring while adults occur in open water year round.  Every saltwater fly box should have a menhaden fly, and the EP baitfish and high-ties are good patterns to match their deep body shape.  The eye and eyespot are prominent and should be included on the fly.

Bay anchovyStriped anchovyClouser minnowSurf candy
are the second-most abundant fish in Texas waters; the bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli) is common in the bays, while the striped anchovy (Anchoa hepsetus) is common in the Gulf.  Dusky anchovies (Anchoa lyolepis) migrate along south Texas beaches in the fall and provoke feeding frenzies for many predatory fish.  Every saltwater fly box needs an anchovy fly, and Clouser minnows and surf candy are good patterns to match their long narrow bodies.  The eye and horizontal silver stripe are prominent and should be included on the fly.
Scaled sardineSardine flyCrease flyPhoto by Chris Windram/Saltwaterflies.com
Scaled sardine (Harengula jaguana) are common in the Gulf and in the bays near passes.  They cannot tolerate low salinity and are not found in the upper parts of the bays, nor are they found in low salinity bays, like Sabine.  Good fly patterns are simple bucktail streamers and crease flies.
Striped mulletWhite mulletSeaducerLefty's decieverDahlberg diver

are the most visible fish in Texas waters.  There are two common species, striped mullet (Mugil cephalus) and white mullet (Mugil curema).  Striped mullet are the largest and have horizontal grey stripes; white mullet are smaller and are plain.  Mullet are best imitated with large bulky flies, like deceivers, whistlers, seaducers
and Dahlberg divers.
Gulf killifishLongnose killifishSheepshead minnowBonefish sliderPopperGurgler
Killifish, aka mud minnows, cacahoe minnows and mummichogs, live along shorelines in and around Spartina grass, where their vertical bars provide good camouflage.  Three common species are Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis), longnose killifish (Fundulus similis) and sheepshead minnows (Cyprinodon variegatus).  These fish stay near the surface and will "pop" the water when spooked, so poppers, gurglers and other subsurface flies are good imitations.
SilversideCypert minnowEZ minnowSilverside streamer
Silversides (Menidia beryllina) resemble anchovies, but instead live along shorelines and eat small crustaceans.  Long narrow flies with a horizontal silver stripe are the best imitations, like a mylar minnow or Cypert's minnow.
PinfishPolar baitfishPhoto by Chris Windram/Saltwaterflies.com
EP pinfishPhoto by Chris Windram/Saltwaterflies.com
Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) are colorful baitfish found around seagrasses, pilings, jetties and reefs.  Good imitations should include the bright colors and vertical stripes.

Gobies are small fish that sit on the bottom around oyster reefs and seagrass beds.  They kick up a puff of mud when they dart away from predators, so good imitations are small, weighted flies that tick the bottom and kick up a puff of sediment. Most dark colored bonefish flies are good choices, like gotchas, crazy charlies, and horrors.
Shrimp eelSand eel
Shrimp eels (Ophichthus gomesi) are common, but stay burrowed with only their head exposed.  Red drum have the ability to root them out.  Fly imitations should be weighted, long (6" +) and skinny, like sand eels or the EZ sand eel
Brown shrimpShrimp flyShrimp flyCrazy charlieBrooks shrimp
Shrimp are one of the most important food sources for many predatory fish.  The three common species are brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus), white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) and pink shrimp (Farfantepenaeus duorarum).  There are more fly patterns for shrimp than any other species, and every saltwater fly box needs a few.  
Grass shrimpCrazy charlieGotcha
Grass shrimp (Palaemonetes sp.) are small, year-round residents found along shorelines and grass beds.  Small bonefish flies (#6, #8) like gotchas and crazy charlie's are good imitations.
Blue crabDime crabFelt crabMerkin crab
Blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) are an important food source for red drum.  The Merkin crab is the most famous and easiest to tie crab fly pattern.
Mud crabMud crab flyCritter fly
Mud crabs (Panopeus sp., Rithropanopeus sp. and Sesarma sp.) are dime- to nickel-sized dark colored crabs that are found in and underneath objects, like oyster shell, debris, etc.  Red drum will turn things over with their nose in search of these crabs.  Good imitations are small, dark and weighted, like Merkin crabs or critters.
Atlantic brief squidLongfin squidSquid flyEZ squid
Squid are the most underutilized bait among fly fishers, but they are an important food source for many predatory fish.  Atlantic brief squid (Lolliguncula brevis) are common in the bays, while longfin squid (Loligo pealeii) are found in the nearshore Gulf.  Atlantic brief squid are small (4") so these flies can be cast with 8-weight rods.  Squid flies are good choices for the surf, jetties, and deeper bay water, like channels. The sea arrow squid, Bailey squid and EZ squid are simple patterns. 
LugwormLugworm burrowWooly bugger
Lugworms (Arenicola cristata) are common on shallow flats.  They burrow, but form volcano-like mounds that are easy to spot.  Black wooly buggers and bunny worms are good imitations.
Common prey found on shallow flats and along grassy shorelines, and suggested fly patterns to match:
These patterns also cover the entire water column (surface, subsurface, midwater, and bottom).
Common prey found in the surf and along the Gulf jetties, and suggested fly patterns to match:
Recommended References

Saltwater preyBonefish Fly PatternsEssential Saltwater FliesSaltwater NaturalsPresenting the Fly