November 26, 2015
When my final day comes and I've caught my last fish, made my last cast, and it's my turn to deal with Nurse Ratchet, I think that beyond the memories of the fishing, the people, the travel, and the great scenery, I'll remember the days spent in my screened-in porch on my little ranch in British Columbia. That's where I've spent countless hours tying flies and feeling the excitement and anticipation of my next fishing trip.
Tying and fishing my own flies not only adds another element to the chase, but it lets me fine-tune my patterns to match the seasons of my favorite waters and the wants of discriminating feeders. We all do this to some degree. Even steelhead and Atlantic-salmon fly tiers, who generally don't imitate natural foods, develop their own flies for their particular waters. Older steelhead fishermen come to mind; I run into a number of them every year on the B.C. Steelhead Trail. I see them with floating lines and just a couple of flies stuck in their shirt. At the end of their fishing lives, they've found their patterns and places.
I remember the spring of 1980 when my wife Ginny and I moved into a cabin in West Yellowstone, Montana, where I began the first of four summers impersonating a fishing guide. The cabin was located right on Yellowstone National Park's boundary and we fed lots of hardcore fishing bums during those summers. Ginny kind of became the Mother Teresa with Mexican food and margaritas for the needy.
Early that first summer, when a huge thunderstorm made the tin roof roar, I stepped out on the front porch just as a wind gust lifted an old straw hat out of the loft. In the hat's band were flies of another time — huge Royal Wulffs and Humpies in #8s and #10s, #2 Sofa Pillows, and old rusted Woolly Worms the size of my thumb that made me wonder what the big days on Henry's Lake in the 1960s were like.
Four years later, after we hosted our last season's-end blow out dinner party, we loaded the car for British Columbia. Just before we left I found that old straw hat and added the flies of our stay—a #12 Elk-hair Caddis that ruled the evening slicks and pockets of the Madison, a #18 Royal Wulff that still fooled the biggest fish on the Henry's Fork, a #16 Gulper Special for Hebgen Lake, and a #10 Partridge-and-Orange Soft Hackle that produced those wonderful, heavy, wet-fly-swing takes on the Barnes pools in the Park on September mornings.
Next summer, when I make my Montana road trip, I'm going to stop into Craig Mathews's Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone to look into the fly bins and scope out all the new tying materials. After that, I'm going to stop by our old cabin and try to find that old straw hat. I'd like to add some new patterns.
Cutthroat trout—the ones that pull me every summer to the little streams that drain the west slope of British Columbia's Canadian Rockies—are not the fish you want to base the "I've found the magic fly theory" around. Cutthroat like to bite and take about anything reasonable that you toss at them—presentation over pattern to the extreme.
Four years ago, when I parked myself in Fernie, British Columbia, for a month of exploration, I was reluctant to burn up my time and best capes tying elaborate dry-fly patterns for the cutts. I had this in mind when I stopped by a local fly shop and found a nylon wing material called McFlylon. I bought a pack of it and that night experimented at the vise. A couple of days and streams later, I returned to the shop and bought all of the McFlylon in various shades of gray.
With a stacked clump of moose and a few strands of Krystal Flash for the tail, split moose butt ends for legs, McFlylon for the wing, and a dubbed body, the Dazzle Dun is one of the easiest, quickest ties you'll come across. It almost always lands perfectly and is easy to see. As a Kiwi friend said about them, "They stand out like balls on a bulldog."
Since that first summer in Fernie, the Dazzle Dun has done a great job on the Pale Morning Dun hatches on Montana's Armstrong's and Sheep spring creeks, and on late-season browns on New Zealand's South Island. I usually skip the few strands of Krystal Flash in the tail for the second half of the Kiwi season.
The River Spider
In retrospect, I've been a bit slow on the uptake on the usefulness of foam and rubber for drys. Dave Engerbretson gave me some impressive demos in the 1970s with a small foam beetle that he used on the Henry's Fork's after-the-hatch bankfeeders, but I always found the patterns hard to see with their low profile. Then a couple of years ago on a late-spring trout trip, I was browsing through the tying materials in a fly shop in Bend, Oregon, and found some black sheets of foam in thicker sizes—3/16" and 1/4". So with a looming summer-run steelhead season just over the horizon, I bought a few packages, along with some black rubber-leg material.
When I got home, I experimented with different shapes and used the little creek behind my horse barn to see how the flies tracked in different current speeds. After three or four prototypes and some quick clips with a pair of scissors, I found what I was looking for—a simple, quick pattern that plows water while its rubber legs beat the surface.
That summer I watched my River Spiders struggle across pools on several different rivers, usually with a little one- to two-inch rooster tail rolling off the front blade. They mesmerized me. Fishing them is like having some fabulous little remote control toy on a long string that spits up 8 to 10 inches of water with the twitch of your wrist.
The River Spider has also helped me finally break free from the powerful grip of the Teeny line and "Girdle Bug from Hell" (hot-pink body with white rubber legs) technique that should be saved for off-colored water or the last pass on a large pool. Now the best drift of the day on a summer steelhead river is just after sunup, wading ankle- to knee-deep, maybe less, and watching a River Spider struggle over two to four feet of water. And every time it looks like the bottom dropped out of the river as 10 to 20 pounds of steelhead seeks deeper water along with maybe 100 uninterrupted yards of my backing, I can't help but wonder how many fish over the years I've blown out of the shallows by charging into the top of a pool too deep, too quickly, and with too long a line.
I tie River Spiders on short-shank hooks like a Tiemco 105 or a Daiichi 1510. For most steelhead rivers, I use a #6 hook with 3/16"-thick foam and medium black rubber legs. On rivers like the Babine, where 20-pounders are common and expected, I often tie up a batch with 1/4" foam on a #4 hook. River Spiders have also crawled their way into my trout boxes, usually on #10 or #12 hooks with 1/8"-thick foam and thinner rubber legs. On upstream casts, you'll also need to include some sort of indicator post or the flies will simply disappear before your eyes. I like red or lime green, but on tough fish or in New Zealand, I do better with light gray.
New Zealand Academy
If you park yourself in New Zealand and watch a full season's worth of water slide by year after year, it's hard not to conclude that this country's rivers are the best fly-pattern testing grounds on the planet. To walk up a New Zealand river with a friend, taking turns casting and watching the reaction of large, visible fish, is like watching Trout TV.
A typical day down there consists of hiring a professional guide with good fish-spotting skills and a positive outlook toward life. We follow the guide up a river, often with three rods strung. The first one, usually a 5-weight, is set up with a #12 Adams or one of my favorites, a #12 or #14 Mahogany Dazzle Dun. The second rod, usually a 5- or 6-weight, is loaded with a #10 or #12 weighted nymph that can be drifted three to five feet below an off-white/grayish indicator that looks like another surface bubble drifting in the feeding lane.
The third rod, usually a 6- or 7-weight, is set up for casting larger flies, getting flies deep, and for blind casting into the heavier rainbow water at the top of the runs and pools, where spotting fish is often a waste of valuable time. On this rod, I usually tie a stonefly nymph and place the indicator eight to ten feet above the fly and close to the tip of a dyed fly line. However, the thrill of making long casts with heavily weighted nymphs wears thinner for me every year, and by January I'm very happy to switch this third rod over to a large dry-fly setup, like a Cicada pattern or a steelhead-size River Spider.
Any fine-tuning of these rod setups and their patterns revolves around three factors—season, water clarity, and to a lesser extent, insect activity. Early-season fish are far more relaxed and fluid in their feeding and will often move six to eight feet to intercept a larger, flashier nymph that wasn't dropped close to them. But not long into the season, these same flies will "over-amp" the fish with their flash and you'll be left looking at the early stages of rigor mortis and a good time to tip your hat and head upstream. These same flashy nymphs hold their own all season on other rivers, especially on the North Island, that naturally flow a bit off-color and often over dark, algae-covered river bottoms.
Over the years and seasons the following three nymph patterns have evolved, emerged, and been fine-tuned through a unique game of nods, winks, and bites.
As fish continue to get smarter, I think that more nymphs with black beads are on their way. Tied with rubber legs, a vinyl abdomen (oval side out), a dubbed thorax, and a durable epoxy wingcase, the Titanic Stone is an accurate imitation but not too time-consuming to tie. I tie it on curved-shank hooks, like the Tiemco 200R, in #8 or larger. The bigger versions are good on steelhead rivers like the Umpqua in Oregon that lend themselves to spot fishing. I weight them all and shape the underbodies with slightly flattened wraps of lead. The vinyl ribbing comes in all sizes and colors and you can add different thread colors under this semitranslucent body material for greater effect.
A weighted Cadillac Stone is a good pattern to cover deep, heavy water. I tie it in #10 and #12 and weight it so that it will straighten my tippet. The nice thing about this fly is that you can cast it comfortably with a 5-weight. You can also easily adjust the flash factor by using smaller-diameter Mylar on the fly's back. The gold bead is usually the smallest bead I can get around the hook bend.
If you have difficulty casting weighted nymphs, try a shorter leader. You will be surprised what you can get away with, especially in broken water. Floating lines with the first 15 feet dyed some earth/river color also work well with shorter leaders, and I often use my New Zealand dyed lines on heavily fished rivers like the Beaverhead or Bow. It's an effective approach to most trout waters and one in which a well-paced line retrieval after your upstream cast is as important as good casting. Following the natural drift of an indicator and responding quickly to its disappearance is often a narrow path.
Cadillac Pheasant-tail Nymph
I opened my mailbox in the spring of 1992 and found a letter from John Goddard suggesting that I stop by for a week of fishing the English chalkstreams on my way to Russia for Atlantic salmon. Well, I sucked this invitation up like you would grab 1986 Microsoft stock, and a month later I was walking through the wildlife-rich water meadows of "The Wind in the Willows," and along smallish rivers like the Test and Kennet. I also walked in Skues' footsteps on his beloved Abbots Barton stretch of the Itchen, which he fished for 56 summers.
Mostly we worked with mayfly hatches and cast to spotted browns up to three pounds. At the end of the week, I could see how the legendary riverkeeper, Frank Sawyer, learned to combine fine English hooks, copper wire, and a dead pheasant into maybe the greatest nymph of all time—the Pheasant-tail Nymph.
But using copper wire as tying thread, as Sawyer did, is no longer required. Thread works better. My bastardization uses durable moose for the tail, wingcase, and legs; a dubbed thorax; a black bead; and a small (#16) strip of copper Mylar over the back for bit of flash, but not too much. I tie it lightly weighted and in #10 to #18. It has become my favorite trout nymph for anywhere.
I love fishing Pheasant Tails on New Zealand spring creeks, and my favorite scenario is to take the indicator off and quietly position myself about 25 feet below a fish. From there, I let out 20 feet of fly line and 12 feet of leader from my downstream-pointed rod tip. When the fish becomes totally absorbed with intercepting some morsel at the outside limit of its feeding cone, I cast and hope it won't notice the blip and spray of the delivered fly. Then, with my heart in my throat as the fish re-centers itself, I watch for the wink. If I do it right, I get a chance to see just how much a 5X tippet can take.
Aside from the satisfaction that comes from creating and fishing your own patterns and the great quiet time you get when you slip away to the corner of your office, den, or screened-in porch, fly tying seems to make fishing bigger and rivers more friendly. And when you stand in the middle of some ultra fishing situation and peer into your fly box for a Silver Bullet, I think it's good to remember that on many waters the following phrase still applies: "It's not the arrow, but the Indian."
As for the five patterns I've described, I wouldn't worry about trying to make exact duplicates. Change them, make them better, and make them yours. Then one day you may want to put them into an old hat of your own.