January 02, 2023
When I was around 15 years old, I got my mom to drive me up to the Jackson River. Then (and now) it was a tailwater fishery full of wild browns and rainbows. It was a trout-fishing paradise right in my home state of Virginia. On that trip I met two guys who would change my life forever: Harrison Steeves and Steve Hiner.
Steeves you may know from his revolutionary fly design, and his book Terrestrials: A Modern Approach to Fishing and Tying with Synthetic and Natural Materials. Steve Hiner, at the time, was an entomologist specialist at Virginia Tech. Both guys shaped my early thoughts on fly design and fish behavior. They taught me the hard way—not just by giving me the information they had already learned, but by allowing me to learn through my own observations on and off the water.
The first time I ran into these guys on the Jackson River, they were fishing near me, and catching fish almost constantly.
I, on the other hand, caught only a few fish all day. I had previously only fished small brook trout streams and some mountain freestone rivers.
So after a few hours of watching them catch one trout after another, I summoned the courage to walk up to one of them and ask what he was using. Hiner was a very approachable guy, and was very nice, but he didn’t just give me the answer I was looking for. I was hoping he’d give me a look inside his fly box, and show me the pattern he was using. Perhaps he’d even share one or two with me? Instead, we walked to his Jeep, and he gave me some collection vials, and a book on entomology.
He told me to go flip over some rocks and to collect the bugs I’d find there. He said to go home and tie flies to imitate the insects I found along the stream bottom. I remember him distinctly saying, “The answers are all in front of you.”
That wasn’t really the solution I was looking for at the time, but I did what he said, and that was the start of a lifelong fascination with the things fish eat, the environments they live in, and how to fool whatever species I happened to be pursuing.
What I found out on that first trip to the Jackson was that there was a very predominant insect in that river that the fish were keying on. I’d never really seen them before, and I didn’t have anything in my box that was even close. I took my newly collected samples home, and began to study what I’d found.
The book Hiner gave me was Aquatic Entomology: The Fishermen’s and Ecologists’ Illustrated Guide to Insects and Their Relatives by Patrick McCafferty. Starting with that book and then expanding my research, I discovered that the insects I’d found were black fly larvae (Simulium tribulatum). I found that they have a very distinct body shape that resembles a bowling pin, and they have a life cycle that makes them vulnerable to trout. I read that these larvae create silk threads as they drift along the bottom, and they use them like grappling hooks to catch and hold the bottom so they can settle and feed. They pupate in a case under the rocks, and when it’s time to emerge, they cut their way out of the cases and rise to the surface in air bubbles.
Several things occurred to me while studying McCafferty’s book. I learned that observation was an important key to success, but also that research can greatly amplify your knowledge and help you understand what you’re seeing on the water.
Using what I learned, I tied several colors and sizes of the black fly larvae, and then turned my thoughts to developing an emerger. At that time of year, the black flies were emerging, and the trout were clearly selectively feeding on them. I wondered how I could imitate those air bubbles I’d read about. It was then that I had one of those “Aha!” moments. At that time, the girls in my school were using small beads to decorate their shoes, make earrings, and add glitz to their jeans. I convinced my mom to take me to a craft store, where I found every bead under the sky. I chose dozens of clear, silver, and abalone beads. I took them home, slid them onto the hook, and created what I thought were good imitations of the emergers. You have to remember, glass beads had not yet been seen or used in mainstream fly tying yet. Beads and flies with beads were not available at fly shops, or at least I hadn’t seen them at that time.
The following weekend I went back to the river and saw Harrison Steeves and Steve Hiner were already fishing. I got my waders on, rigged my rod, and decided to start with my larva imitation with a little weight and a strike indicator. It was very gratifying to see the results of my studies—I caught several fish in that first hour.
Harry and Steve noticed I was doing well, and came over to see what I was doing. I showed them my fly box, and they both started laughing. They finally opened their fly boxes and showed that we were using essentially the same flies. It felt rewarding that I had figured it out on my own, and they appreciated that I had come to the same conclusions that they had. They both took me under their wing from that day forward.
They shared with me many other life lessons, lasting friendships, and they sparked the beginning of a lifelong career in fly fishing. One specific thing they taught me that day was to trail an emerger about 12 to 18 inches behind the larva. They showed me how to fish it dead drift, and then swing the fly down below to set up the dangle below to make the fly act as though the emerger was rising. That technique was and has continued to be a “game changer” in my fishing career.
Since those early days 30 years ago, I have collected many samples of insects, other aquatic invertebrates, minnows, and crustaceans in both fresh and salt water. It has been valuable tool for me in my success at the vise and on the water as a guide and angler.
What’s always been obvious these many years is that matching the hatch as closely as possible in size, color, and profile is incredibly important. Movement is equally important, yet it is often overlooked or ignored by the fly-fishing community. Flies don’t only need to be about the right size, shape, and color, they need to move in the ways trout are accustomed to, and they need to have inherent life.
Lifelike Small Flies
I have spent the last 32+ years guiding and fishing for trout in my home waters of Virginia and Tennessee, as well as traveling out West, and throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Most of that time I focused on matching insect hatches or by triggering a predatory response through streamer fishing. With streamer fishing for trout—and for muskies, pike, bass, and saltwater fish—I quickly learned how movement triggers vicious strikes from large, predatory fish of all kinds.
With that learning curve, I’ve designed many baitfish flies that have 3D realism and natural swimming action. While pursuing the Game Changer quest for the ultimate swimming baitfish imitation, I’ve paid close attention to how all fish feed, whether they are eating a nymph, dry fly, or a baitfish. Adding appropriate lifelike movement to aquatic insects, invertebrates, and crustaceans seemed like the obvious next step. I just needed to downsize.
We have all seen articulated trout flies with a single joint. Carl Richards and Doug Swisher talk about articulated flies in their book Selective Trout, and the legendary Larry Dahlberg played with articulations back in the 80s with his Wiggle Nymph designs. These are the stair steps to my own designs of subsurface trout flies with a realistic appearance and movement.
Many fly patterns get their movement from feathers, fur, and synthetics like rubber legs. These help of course, but this only adds external movement to an object (a hook shank) that is inherently stiff.
I believe the future of realism in trout flies lies in multi-articulation, and you can still add lifelike materials to get the best of both worlds.
You don’t have to search long to see how aquatic insects such as midges, caddis larvae, mayfly nymphs, and cranefly, damselfly, and dragonfly larvae swim in the water.
Hellgrammites, aquatic worms, and many other creatures have incredible movement even if you wouldn’t actually describe it as propelled swimming.
My years of sampling in streams, rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans has brought me to understand that one of the most important features of all these different species is their movement. If you need convincing, it’s only a keyboard click away to see what I’m talking about. Google “swimming midge” or “mayfly nymph swimming” to see for yourself what happens underwater. Once you study these insects, you will understand my fascination with designing flies that mimic the real thing.
Some will say nymphs that move aren’t necessary, and that they do fine with the flies they’ve always used. That may be true with some fish and in some water conditions.
A hungry brook trout in rushing pocketwater may likely strike at anything that looks remotely like food. But whenever you have clear, slower water, larger trout will closely inspect the fly. And in my experience, flies that move catch more of these large, difficult trout.
All fish are samplers—they start out in life sampling everything that they encounter, and that’s how they learn to distinguish between what is food and what isn’t. As they grow, they learn to recognize living food items and they do less and less sampling. They become locked in on the food sources that are around them, and they can get very selective as they survive and experience more fishing pressure. Movement is the final step in the ultimate realism for flies.
Another criticism I encounter is that these flies require too much time at the vise, and the investment is too large when you have a chance of losing the fly on your first cast. If complex flies are not for you, that’s fine. I try not to consider the worst things that could happen. My time at the vise is an investment in making great things happen. If you look through a keyhole at life, then that view is all you’ll ever see and know. Opening your mind to future possibilities allows you to learn new things and apply them to all facets of your fishing.
I’ve seen many beautiful, artistic creations of mayfly and stonefly nymphs that look like frozen, 3D images of real aquatic insects. But they don’t catch fish because they are stiff and lifeless. Realism must include movement. By adding articulation and the correct materials, you’ll get more strikes.
I designed my Micro Shanks to provide a moving framework for realistic aquatic insect imitations. They come in sizes 8mm, 6mm, and 5mm, which is what I often use for the tail sections. You can also cut these down to smaller lengths if you want. These Micro Shanks (available from Flymen Fishing Company) are attached to the hook shank in sequence so the body bends and moves like the real thing.
One of the downsides to these micro articulations for subsurface foods is total size. As the food items get smaller, it’s much harder to add articulations and keep the imitation the correct size. For flies size 16 and larger, it’s not a problem, but for flies smaller than that, I have to depend on mobile materials to get the most out of the few articulations I can have. Midges and smaller nymphs are a problem in this area, so I’ve been focusing mostly on crustaceans and invertebrates size 16 and larger.
The lighter wire of the Micro Shanks, along with the triangular shape of the back end, and the loop eye create much stronger all-around shank. Having the loop eye with a return wire allows for easier tying at the vise, less weight for better castability, and a stronger connection to your leader.
With most flies, I believe from two to six joints gives me the movement I’m looking for. More Micro Shanks provide even more movement, but there is a point of diminishing returns, and you have to keep the fly in a realistic size range.
One other thing I’ve found through trial and error is that softer, water-absorbing materials help increase and accentuate the swimming motion, as they tend to have better water flow over the body of the fly, and greater weight transfer between the sections. With materials like rabbit, ostrich, or the Streamer Brush from H2O Fishent Fly Tying, there is greater swinging movement between the sections.
The final important design aspect is the way the fly is shaped. The thing I’ve observed about most insects in the water is that they swim much like a porpoise. What I mean by that is that they often have an up-and-down swimming action like a marine mammal, and less of a side-to-side swimming action like a shark and many fish. To simulate this in your swimming flies, tie in and lay the materials in a flatter, more laminar design. I call this the “directional flow” of the fly.
There are many aquatic insects—both adults and immature nymphs—and other prey species to match in both fresh and salt water, and I’ll address those in a future article and in the upcoming sequel to my book Game Changer (Headwater Books, 2020), which will cover smaller articulated patterns for trout and other species.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to discuss mayfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs, crayfish, leeches, craneflies, damselfly nymphs, and hellgrammites. With mayfly nymphs I’ll focus on the burrowing nymphs like Hexagenias and other large swimming nymphs, and the clingers and smaller nymphs that are large enough to imitate correctly, such as March Browns and Isonychias.
Damselflies live in many streams, rivers, and lakes across the world. They live in and around grass beds and leaf litter and they spend their aquatic lives swimming from place to place in areas where there is a lot of cover. When it’s time for them to emerge into bright blue adults, they must first migrate to the shoreline, where they crawl up on rocks and reeds. During this migration—which takes place over the course of many weeks—they are very vulnerable, and trout and other predators are eager to take advantage of them.
These are insects that actively swim, and predators eat them almost exclusively while they are swimming. They come in a wide range of sizes and colors and are a great food source for trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and carp. I tie them in several ways, but my favorite is using ostrich with four or five articulations.
Hellgrammites are widely overlooked in the trout world, but they are definitely not overlooked by smallmouth bass fishermen. These insects grow large in clean, free-flowing rivers and streams. They are big meals, and I use that to my advantage. They live in and around the river bottoms, crawling around from rock to rock and stick or log, making themselves vulnerable to predatory fish. Big predators simply can’t turn down a feeding opportunity with this many calories—as long as it looks real. I like to highlight the many leg parts and their prominent pinchers. The real insects are relatively flat, which helps in matching their swimming action in the water with my imitative design.
Burrowing mayflies (family Ephemeridae) are among the largest mayflies in the world and provide some of the best trout fishing on multiple continents. In Europe, Ephemera danica isn’t just a mayfly hatch, it’s the mayfly hatch. In North America, Green Drakes (Ephemera guttulata), Brown Drakes (Ephemera simulans), and Hexagenia limbata are just a few of the big, burrowing mayflies that trout are known to feast on. In many areas of the country, these hatches are the highlight of the fishing season, but you don’t have to wait until the evening hatch to catch fish.
These mayfly nymphs normally burrow in silt and debris, but when they move and when they hatch they are active swimmers. They have an amazing porpoising swimming action that doesn’t go unnoticed by predators, and their relatively large size makes them perfect for the Game Changer platform. These are perhaps the best examples of how nymphs swim in the water, and how you are missing the boat if your flies don’t swim and move like the real thing.
Stonefly nymphs (family Perlidae) come in a wide range of sizes, and while they are identified as crawlers, trout don’t normally feed on them while they are creeping under and between rocks and cobbles. Trout most often feed on them when the stonefly nymphs lose their grip on the rocks and are swept into the current. The stonefly nymphs can’t effectively swim back to safety, but they do curl and roll and twist and writhe in their attempts to grab hold of something. I wouldn’t call it “swimming” but this movement is an important trigger for trout. Size here again makes these insects perfect for a series of Micro Shanks. Some stoneflies like Little Black Stones and Yellow Sallies can be quite small, but Salmonflies, Skwalas, and Golden Stones range from a half inch to up to almost 3 inches and can be imitated with a framework of up to six Micro Shanks.
Cranefly larvae are a lot like stoneflies in that they don’t swim, but they do bend and twist in the water as they helplessly drift. Trout use that lifelike attribute to distinguish craneflies from sticks and other rubbish, so it’s important to have an imitation that moves.
The same can be said of aquatic worms and leeches. We’ve all caught fish on San Juan Worms, Squirmy Wormies, Woolly Buggers, and other leech imitations, and fly fishers have done a fairly good job of using materials that move to make their flies seem more lifelike. The problem historically is the pesky hook shank that doesn’t bend or flow like a drifting worm or swimming leech. Adding articulated segments can amplify mobility of the materials and make flies that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing.
Crayfish aren’t nymphs, but they are a important food source for many fish species including trout. You don’t find many crayfish in icy mountain headwater streams, but in the lower portions of many main stem rivers, crayfish are an important food source for big trout—particularly big trout that live in those crossover areas in trout streams where bass and warmwater species begin to appear, and the trout are massive. They often get that way from eating crayfish and smaller fish.
Having a great crayfish pattern in your box at all times is one of the most important things a trout fisherman can do to become a trophy hunter, and building these flies on a moving Game Changer platform can get you there. The crawling, defensive posture, and fleeing action of these critters really highlight why they should be articulated to match their natural movements.
Whether you tie your own flies or buy them, I suggest you take a really close look at what you are trying to imitate. Don’t just look at photos, watch videos of these creatures, catch them, and watch them in an aquarium, or spend some time peering into the water. I think it will quickly become apparent how important movement can be when you’re trying to imitate prey species of all kinds.
Do you want to have all factors in your favor? I know I do. My clients have benefited, and I have caught some of my most memorable fish by taking a few extra steps at the vise to create flies that truly move.
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s a Fly Fisherman field editor, and his most recent story was “America’s Fish: A southeast coastal giant that offers 12 months of primetime fishing” in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2022 issue. He is a signature fly tier for Flymen Fishing Company and the author of Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020).