The Rules Of Three And Fly Pattern Selection

The Rule of Three for Flies: The first place I saw mention of the Rule of Three was in the book: “High Sierra Fly Fishing,” written by Billy Van Loek. He noted using the Rules of Three for a number of fly fishing applications, but the first time it was mentioned was in conjunction with fly casting: i.e. The Forward Cast, the Side-To-Side Cast, and the Steeple Cast. But our purposes here are in dealing with fly pattern selection, so here is the Rule of Three As It Applies to Flies: “One for the rock, One for the tree, And one for the little Fishy”. What this relates to is the fact that it is a bad idea to carry only a single pattern that works well for you, because when you loose that fly (and you will loose it - Murphy is very much alive and well), that loss will ruin the rest of your fishing trip. And you should always have enough fly patterns in hand to see you through your time spent on the water, as there is no possibility for replacing lost flies when you are many miles into the back country.

The Rule of Three Applied To Hook Sizes: In fishing for trout and pan fish, 90% of all your fishing needs can be covered by using only 3 hook sizes: #12s, 14s, and 16s. You need 3 different sizes of hooks because the first emergence of the year’s aquatic insect populations will be the biggest in physical size in the spring, with each succeeding generation running one hook size smaller than the previous one did. Competition Hooks generally run a hook size bigger than standard hooks do, so you may have to adjust your hook sizing down a bit if you favor using that style of hooks. The big #12s are needed for cold, windy, low light, and poor water clarity and fish visibility conditions. The small #16s are needed for calm flat water, gin clear water, and in the warm water conditions of late summer going into fall. While the medium size #14 flies will do well all the rest of time in the water and weather conditions you will encounter during the high summer season.

The Rule of Three For Using Light To Dark Fly Patterns: Like the fish, aquatic insects are cold blooded creatures. Air and water temperatures in the spring will be brisk, and the bugs will be dark to almost black to absorb as much warmth from sun light as they can to speed up their metabolisms to get on with their life cycle functions. As things warm up going into summer, the bug’s body colors will change into much lighter shades of the various colors they will exhibit. As the temperatures begin to drop again in the fall, the bugs will turn dark again, one last time. So you will need to have both big and small dark colored fly patterns to fish effectively through out the whole angling season, with the medium and light colored patterns being especially useful and effective in the mid summer period, fished in the mid-range of hook sizes being most effective then.

The Rule of Three On Fishing Different Pattern Types:
Dry Flies: - This includes the Up Wings (Mayflies), and the Down Wings (Mostly Caddis and Stoneflies), and also the Terrestrial (Land Based Ant, Beetle, Hopper and Terrestrial Spider) Patterns.

Wet Flies: - These include Soft Hackles (including our Kebari patterns), Various Nymphs and Pupae Patterns, and your Streamer Patterns of choice, if any.

And Emerger Patterns, Of Any Kind: - An Emerger is an extremely short-lived life stage of an aquatic insect, where the nymph or pupal shuck splits open for an immature adult to break out of its husk, then make its escape into the open air above the water’s surface, or crawl up on structure or out on the shore. It is rather common for emergers to get stuck in their shucks. And when that happens, they stall out in the surface film and are called Cripples of whatever type of insect they are. So what we have here is both a wet fly and a dry fly, all bundled together in the same pattern package, with all the parts of both stages visible to the fish, above and below the water line at the same time. The emerger stage is The Stage that is most vulnerable to being eaten, so it is a very important imitative pattern for all anglers to be well prepared to offer up to the fish they are fishing for. However, I only fish emerger patterns when I actually see emerges being taken by fish.

The Rule of Three And Water Color: The Rule of Three also applies to the various colors of water to be found in the lakes and streams we are fishing, which will include many different shades of Blue, Green, and Red/Brown colored waters. The Decorative Hot Spot Trigger Colors needed to match up with those respective colors of waters are: FL-Orange, FL-White, FL-Blue and FL-Purple for Clear/Blue Colored Waters, with FL-Red and FL-Orange doing best in Green Colored Waters, while FL-Chartreuse, is used in combination with Gold, and Black proving to be the most effective color combination to use in Red/Brown Stained Waters.

The Rule of Three Applied To The Various Pattern Selection Schools:
The Exact Imitation School Of Angling - There has always been attempts made to tie flies that closely resemble the bugs trout eat, but Exact Imitative Fly Patterns really came into their own after the publication of “Selective Trout” (written by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards) in 1971. The book turned out to be a brilliant marketing tool for the whole fly fishing industry, used to promote a volume of sales that had never been realized to that level before. If you can convince most fly fishermen they need Exact Imitation Patterns to cover all the insects trout can feed on, and buy into the River Hatch Charts that multiplied exponentially after Selective Trout was published, just try to imagine how many additional flies, fly patterns, fly tying hooks, and fly tying materials were needed and sold to meet that prolific demand.

Bob Wyatt’s book, “What Trout Want” - The Educated Trout and Other Myths - was Published in 2013, and is now swinging the pendulum back in the other direction, toward simpler fly patterns to tie and fish, fewer numbers of patterns needed than what was previously thought, tied, being carried and fished, while still catching as many or more of the highly pressured, selective feeding trout we have today. Trout which are far more highly pressured at this time than they were back in the 1970s. But I digress…

The General Impressionistic School Of Angling: John Atherton, (who earned his living as a fine artist), wrote and published “The Fly And The Fish” back in 1951, and that book ushered in a whole new era of General Impressionistic Fly Pattern Designs. Impressionism is a fine art painting technique, where small patches of different primary colors of paints are applied to the canvas, without mixing or blending any of the colors together as is usually done, and that makes up an overall color value that is more than the sum of all those different individual color spots, which transmits the Qualities of Life, Depth, and Motion in a way no single, premixed paint color can ever match. Up close and personal, the individual colored spots are readily visible and create an image that looks out of focus and somewhat blurry. But as the viewer moves a distance away from the painting, your eyes will transform the multitude of blurry spots of individual colors in to a lively, uniform, overall richly colored image, showing a marvelous color tone rendition of the object being portrayed.

On a hook, its possible to create these same kinds of effects by mixing different colors of dubbing furs and fibers together, to form multi-colored dubbing blends that will project the overall approximate general tone of the insect being imitated. This is done by mixing both dyed and natural colors of furs and synthetic materials as well, together. Gold wire ribbing also adds a look of segmentation to the fly’s body, creating life-like sparkling highlights from within the dubbing blend that contributes greatly to the fly’s allure, adding an appearance of translucent depth to the body. Adding Speckled hackling, tailing, and winging materials to the fly adds even more convincingly to the pattern’s enhancing effects with the dubbed body blends, producing fly patterns that are much more life-like in appearance, in and on the water, than anything that had ever previously been produced, and which still holds true for today.

Flies tied using these techniques are used to make up a series of General Impressionistic Fly Patterns, that represent a class of insects (say mayflies for example, all of which having similar body traits held in common), rather than tiers having to tie endless numbers of patterns that are intended to be exact copies of each and every targeted individual insect species a trout could eat. And here is another place to put our light, medium, and dark fly pattern approach to work, in the proper sizes of course, to cover a wide range of varied insect fly types using only 3 patterns to do it.

Tying with Wool Yarn: While wool yarn is not an appropriate material to use for dry fly bodies, because water is too quickly absorbed by wool and wool holds on to the water it absorbs for far too long. But the large variety of variegated colors and textures that are commonly available in wool yarns makes highly Impressionistic wet fly bodies quite easy to tie, with the qualities of life and translucence we are seeking in the tying of nymph, pupa, and wet fly patterns that are all the more desirable because it frees tiers up from the drudgery of having to make up the more expensive and time consuming fur dubbing blends used in most of the popular, more conventional, fly tying methods we see at present. Wool is just a more efficient, quicker, and easier fly tying material to use for the tying wet flies than dubbing is.

The Attractor Pattern School Of Angling: With Attractor Patterns, no attempt is made to actually imitate any living or dead insect, fish, or other critter. Attractor patterns are what are called “Lures” in most of the rest of the world. Attractor patterns primarily employ bright colors and flashy materials to stimulate a fish’s curiosity, in the hope goading that fish into striking the lure presented. Attractor patterns often achieve unexplainable angling successes in what are often unbelievable numbers. This is a situation where some fly patterns just work, and work very well, with no one really knowing why or how they work so well. But, rest assured, they really do work exceedingly well at times. Attractor patterns may not look like anything to be found in nature but, every angler should carry a few Attractor Patterns to try when everything else is failing. And you don’t need a lot of attractor patterns to get the job done, just a few in light, medium and dark tones, in appropriate sizes, will do.

Our Rules Of Three Conclusion: There was a time when it was believed that if anglers could only fish flies trout could not tell from the real insects, then those patterns would be at the height of “Angling Perfection”. And success would surely be almost guaranteed on each and every cast, which turned out to be pure Hog Wash in the total scheme of things. Just look at all the real live bugs that are on and in the water that the trout do not take. And have you ever thought about what it would really mean if we could tie a fly that the fish couldn’t tell from real insects? All it would do would be to lower the odds for our catching fish to (1) : in however many bugs there are out there on or in the water for the fish to eat, which is clearly not very good odds for anglers to deal with.

If there is one Red Apple in a bowl of green ones, which apple do you think a child is going to pick to eat? And if there is a bleacher full of sexy looking brunette cheerleaders at a pep rally, and one platinum blond cheerleader walks across the floor and climbs up into the stand to take a seat among all the other cheer leaders, which one out of all of those cheer leaders are you going to be paying attention to? For a fish to take your fly, it has to notice your fly over and above all the other food forms there are out there to be seen. Exact imitation is not the right tool for doing that job, not without a lot of help from the angler fishing that fly. There are ways to get around that problem but, it is just a whole lot easier and more efficient to fish with a fly pattern the fish prefer to take over and above the natural ones on the water.

Natural food forms are naturally camouflaged to keep them from being eaten by predatory fish, in order to perpetuate their species in reproducing successfully by not getting eaten. As anglers, we do not need to camouflage our flies from the fish that we are trying to catch by making our flies look as much as possible like the natural’s appearance on the water. And what natural insect has a hook sticking out of its butt? There are definite, real limits to what can be accomplished with Exact Imitation patterns. And with the exception of changing over to using wool yarns and foam cutting tools in my fly tying here lately, and taking and recording the water temperatures and noting the colors of the waters I am fishing, (which are all fairly recent developments for me), I have been following these simplified Rules Of Three Recommendations for all my angling practices for more than 20 years now. Obviously, this has worked out well enough for me that I will continue to be doing the same things I have been doing for a long time, with no good reasons to change from my past angling practices in the future. Hopefully, learning about these angling techniques and tying considerations will also have some positive value and provide positive results for you, should you choose to take these techniques up.


So awesome, thanks Karl. I continue to learn so much from you. Will have to re-read this a few times to absorb all the information found here.

Thank you for the wonderful commentary

I’ll explain it in the old “Kebari”

Commentary on “Kebari” published in 1942
・・・Imitation of form

Trigger of hackles

Changes when wet with water
・・・Wild Cocoon

dscf6345 dscf6346

Hackles are valuables since ancient times

No fish can be caught if there is any “Kebari” on the desk :laughing:


It appears the people at Daiwa (perhaps most credit goes to Katayama Etsuji-shi, 片山 悦二師, who as far as I know is their primary developer of level lines, and rod) would agree with the light color in spring and darker colors later in summer.

スタンダード春用 standard for spring
スタンダード夏用 standard for summer
キジ , kiji. pheasant - open the below link to see more :

These are the type I always see him, Etsuji-san, fish with:

Standard for spring - スタンダード春用

Standard for summer - スタンダード夏用

The people at N-Vision - recommend a large variety of fly colors, types, and hook sizes, per months from spring to late summer. Honest advice or sales pitch to catch tenkara anglers more than fish?
3月〜4月中旬 March to mid-April
4月下旬〜5月初 Late April to early May
5月中旬〜6月 Mid May to June
7月〜8月 July - August
and so on.
Maybe a little different opinion or philosophy about fly selection that the sources you referenced.

テンカラ毛鉤の選び方 – How to choose tenkara kebari

"For beginners, the first challenge is what kind of kebari to use.
I don’t know what to choose, I just get lost.

I will explain clearly for such people.
The conditions of rivers and fish vary greatly from region to region, but I hope you can refer to them as an overall trend." How to choose tenkara kebari

I mostly use size 14 or 12.
But also a few Ō kebari [ 大毛鉤] Large kebari, of size 10, 8 or the occasional 6.


Simply stunning photographs, beautiful flies, (as always), and the picture of what happens to the colors of the tying materials after they get wet on the flies is Priceless. Thank you so much for the beautiful reply.

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Thank you Jason. All of these things are pretty simple and easy to put into fishing practice. They are not easy things to explain and write about. I hope you find them helpful…K.

Hi D, You have brought up an interesting point I had not considered - climate and how it may influence insect coloration and fishing practices. Here in California we have a Mediterranean Climate, which is characterized by Hot, dry summers with most of the rain and snow (at high elevations primarily) falling in the winter months. When is the Monsoon season in Japan? I believe it is in a warmer part of the year than our cool wet winter rainy season - if and when that happens here for us.

Living and fishing streams fed by water from snow capped mountains I assume you may also experience what I have read happens on many Japanese streams in the summer.

The stream water temperature is warmer in the morning hours than in the afternoon. This happens because the sun increases the rate of snow melt as the day warms. By the afternoon the freshly melted snow and the cooler water it produces - has had time to flow from the mountain tops to the lower stream areas by early to mid afternoon. Maybe fish are more attracted to different fly patterns in warmer or cooler water, between morning hours and afternoon hours, as well as the season.

This changing water temperature doesn’t happen where I live. Except maybe on a few streams into late spring. Only a couple of times, during summers following a winters with a lot of snow, have I seen some snow still laying in north side mountain ravines into late June or early July. But they were spotted during hikes and feeding streams that I do not fish.

Of course thumb rules for best kebari color choice for the season. Are just that, a thumb rule, that can often be ignored, and still have success catching fish.

I was looking at recent post on Saigō Kazumi-san [ 西郷和巳さん] blog. aka Tenkara-Ajari [ テンカラ アジャリ]. Who has a reputation as being a very successful tenkara angler.

Under 【当日のテンカラ道具】- Tenkara tools of the day - he list the rod, line, tippet, and kebari used.

The kebari choice was 毛鉤:
モシャモシャ毛鉤#16(黒・茶・オリーブ) = Moshamosha fly # 16 (black, brown, olive).

A small # 16 kebari, of dark colors, not light colors. There was no picture of the kebari.
But - moshamosha kebari - basically means a sloppy or chaotic looking kebari. Probably his choice of name for the kebari.

Perhaps a kebari in the same class theme as this Adam Rieger tied kebari:

2 Likes テンカラ毛鉤 3態 (Tenkara kebari 3 states・・・Unkempt-Kebari

Another interesting link found on a blog post Todoroki-san uploaded on his kebariandfly blog a couple of days earlier. Not ugly flies, but rather woven robust flies.

" [Potts] experimented in the 1920’s in his barbershop and produced the first woven hair trout flies. These woven hair flies became the dominant commercial patterns of the first half of the 20th century in the Rocky Mountains. George Grant stated that Pott’s Sandy Mite was Montana’s most successful wet fly for 50 years and “…outsold it’s closest competitor by at least five to one.” "

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