One of the things that fly fishers seem to discuss endlessly is the best way to organize their flies and their fly boxes. There are about as many methods and ideas as there are fly fishers. Some of the most common systems, however, usually boil down to arranging by size, by color, by type of fly, or by type of fish or fishing. Many anglers also organize certain boxes by the certain rivers or locations they fish the most. Each of these methods has its pros and cons.
Over the more than twenty-five years I've been fly fishing, and the twenty years I've been guiding, I've gone back and forth between the various methods and finally settled on arranging by type of fly-most of the time, that is.
Most of the fly boxes I have in my storage container hold only nymphs, or only dry flies, woolly buggers, or streamers. That seems to give me the best way of arranging flies. My thought is to be able to take along only certain boxes and know that I'm going to have the right assortment of the kinds of flies we're going to use on a specific outing.
Some people try to cover all the contingencies of the day's fishing by including a variety of types of flies all in one box. Invariably when I've done that I've ended up with not enough of one kind of fly or not being able to find the fly I want. Besides, it's hard to match the different sizes and types of flies in just one box. Either the box is too big for the dries and nymphs or too small for the streamers.
Sorting flies out by color can be important in many situations. As a result, I tend to coordinate both color and size within a certain box. Many of my nymph boxes contain rows of tan nymphs in size 12-16 and then other rows that are all olive or black. Some of my nymph boxes hold flies of one color and/or size on one side of the box, with the bead-head version of the flies on the other.
A couple of my boxes contain just lake patterns, so I don't have to fill up the pockets of my float tube with lots of fly boxes. One such box contains different sizes of primarily brown flies, woolly buggers and bead-head lake leeches in the preferred color for many of our lakes. Another box containing chronomids, nymphs, and emergers in different sizes and colors covers lots of different still water situations.
Steelhead fishing is another type of fishing that may be suited to fly boxes of a grouping of certain flies. Most of us who steelhead learn which patterns produce best in different rivers or under different conditions, and then we don our warmest clothes and waders and head out for the metal-sides, we take only fly boxes containing those flies.
Since Alaska's salmon don't routinely take either nymphs or dry flies, many of my fly boxes contain only salmon flies. For the most part these flies are large, heavily weighted concoctions with lead eyeballs that take up a lot of room in a box. Therefore, those tend to be large boxes. Luckily, several salmon species like the same type of flies so I only have to keep separate boxes for the sockeye. I just include a variety of colors to satisfy different species' preferences or different water or light conditions and then carry boxes containing different patterns.
It's amazing how often the type or style of the box dictates the type of fly I have in it. A smaller, flatter fly box is best used for nymphs, while boxes with higher lids hold dry flies without flattening out the wings. Larger, longer boxes hold streamers like woolly buggers and muddlers better.
Large boxes may not fit in the pockets of your fly vest, or stuff easily down the front of your waders. You may need to carry more boxes that don't contain as many flies or end up putting the large boxes in the back of your vest and deal with having to remove the vest to take them out. Some anglers use fanny packs or back-to-front chest packs to help solve that problem.
As you can see, there's a lot to think about in systematizing your flies and fly boxes. Take the time to sort yours out thoroughly some cold winter day when you can't fish, and you'll probably find your own system or at least acknowledge that you fish just fine with fly-box-chaos.