There are few flies that strike fear into the hearts of fly tiers like the Humpy. Popularized by Jack Dennis and his Western Trout Fly Tying Manual, the Humpy is the quintessential Western attractor dry but has a reputation for being difficult to tie.
The original, complicated tying process used the same hank of elk hair for the hump and the wing and left little room for error. Because of its inherent trickiness, the Humpy is frequently a fly that gets bought rather than tied, and as a result has fallen somewhat by the wayside with some anglers.
The Humpy, however, is still firmly in my top five favorite dry flies. I especially love it when I'm raking in so many fish people ask: "What are you using?" They often expect some technical answer about a half-spent CDC stuck-in-the-shuck crippled emerging Baetasaurus rex. When I answer "a Humpy" they seem to think I'm lying!
Lack of respect from match-the-hatch fly fishers probably owes to the fact that the complicated hair wings and folded elk hair hump do little to mimic the shape of any single natural bug. Its bushy silhouette is often frowned upon these days as too chunky or bulky to fool picky fish.
Well, I am here to tell you that this just ain't true. I have caught many large trout from some of Colorado's most technical waters using a Humpy as a fly finder along with a smaller, more realistic pattern.
I vividly recall floating down a tumbling section of river with my friend Matt Prowse when we came upon a long slow glide littered with fish rising to PMDs. Bank feeders were lined up in all the likely spots, so I changed the dropper fly I was fishing along with a #14 yellow Humpy to something a little more PMD specific: I knotted 6X to the bend of the Humpy and tied on a #18 PMD emerger with a CDC wing.
After selecting the best fish of the bunch, we positioned the boat for a long down-and-across cast to show the fish the PMD pattern first with no leader or tippet coming into its window.
After patiently timing the rises I launched out a (rare) nearly perfect cast, complete with S-curves and an in-air mend to line the fly up right in the trout's feeding lane.
We could hear our hearts beating as the fly drifted down to the fish, and Matt started his own countdown to when the fish would eat: "five, four, three, two, one, one, one."
The PMD floated directly over the fish and continued on unharmed. The words "he didn't eat it" rang silently in my head but I was jolted back into action when the fish rose confidently and sucked in the Humpy.
I've had so many similar experiences—many of them during caddis hatches—that the effectiveness of the Humpy no longer surprises me. I have seen the Humpy work in so many different hatch and nonhatch periods that I'm stymied about what it really replicates.
The folded hump and tail are reminiscent of many crippled mayfly and midge patterns, and the overall profile and variable colors lend themselves well to various smaller stoneflies and caddis, as well as terrestrial patterns like early season hoppers and beetles.
Perhaps it's this combination of attributes that makes the Humpy such a great attractor pattern. Like so many of the best flies, the Humpy doesn't look a lot like anything, but looks a little like a lot of things.
My favorite way to fish a Humpy is from a drift boat or raft on any Western freestone river. I often fish a double-dry rig with a #14-16 Humpy tied to a 9-foot 4X leader, with a 18-inch section of tippet tied off the bend or the eye of the Humpy to attach a smaller dry like an X-Caddis, Mugly Caddis, or Parachute Adams.
From the boat, I try to drift the fly as close to the bank as possible where large trout hold up in super skinny water. Shallow riffles are another favorite spot for a Humpy double-dry rig.
When wading I fish a Humpy on a shorter 7½' 4X leader with a small nymph dropper like a Two-Bit Hooker or Poison Tung dangling on a short 12- to 24-inch dropper.
Over the years I've pieced together my own bag of tricks when tying the Humpy (see steps). My method is not the original complicated measure-and-hope method of constructing the wings and the hump from the rear of the fly forward. It also allows me to remove some hair from the hump, while leaving the wings with an adequate amount of hair. The thicker, more durable and buoyant butt ends of the hair become the hump, and the fine tips for the wings are more easy to measure, making this technique infinitely more predictable than its predecessors.
While I am not opposed to the original idea of using floss for the underbody, I typically just use tying thread. Wapsi 70-denier Ultra Thread is flat, making it easy to build a smooth underbody.
The Humpy can be made even easier to tie by using closed-cell foam for the hump instead of hair. This version is perhaps more durable than the all-hair version and with all the colors of foam on the market, the variations are endless. A yellow underbody with a Japanese beetle green foam back is one of my favorites.
Rubber legs are also a welcomed addition, and possibly make this already high-floating fly more unsinkable. Add barred Centipede Legs to orange- or yellow-bodied Humpys during hopper or stonefly season and you may be surprised by what eats this fly.
Charlie Craven is a commercial fly tier with 30 years at the vise and thousands of dozens of dry flies under his belt. He co-owns Charlie's FlyBox in Arvada, Colorado, and is the author of Charlie Craven's Basic Fly Tying (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2008).