Fly Tying The Trusty Rusty
January 08, 2014
I love flies. And with apologies only to an aging back, my vest is laden with as many fly boxes as its pockets will hold for at least six months of the year. For decades, any discomfort associated with this 15-pound burden has been offset by the confidence of knowing that the majority of imitative needs for waters within a 200-mile radius of Yellowstone are covered by its contents. But it is in the chill of a Rocky Mountain winter when my relationship with these revered essentials becomes truly intimate.
Fishing exists only in the mind when deep snow and frigid temperatures create a barrier to the pursuit of trout. It is usually around late November when I spread all my fly boxes around a large table, and the annual process of restocking fly tying begins. The systematic listing of flies I need to tie is like reliving the season just ended, as my memory associates the vacant spaces in my nearly 20 boxes with the reasons why the flies are gone. Images of pleasant days and memorable trout help to temporarily obscure the bleakness of Idaho's longest season, while my list of missing or damaged fly patterns begins to grow. At completion, this list provides a history of the successes and failures of the previous year, where the heroes are formed from fur, feather, and steel.
Because weather and water conditions are never identical year-to-year, there are always variations in the fly patterns that become casualties of the trout wars in any given season. This usually applies to situational imitations that depict an organism that shares few common traits with any other food source. Unseasonably cold temperatures are notorious for wiping out a Salmonfly hatch, and when this happens, my stock of imitations for this giant insect remains mainly intact for another year.
The tantalizing but fickle Green Drakes can bloom in fantastic volume under ideal water conditions, and then become all but absent when stream flow is too low. These are examples of hatches that can boom one year, and bust in another.
But within the list of several hundred flies that are replaced each winter are a handful of staples. Prominent among this small but esteemed group of patterns is a concept of imitation dating well back into the 19th century.
Well-traveled and altered many times by subsequent generations, the Lunn's Particular is the earliest representation of a Rusty Spinner that I know of. Tied in the popular fashion of the time, this reddish-brown fly with outstretched wings was originated by William J. Lunn, whose position as an English riverkeeper stretched from 1887 through 1931.
It was intended to address mayfly realities on the famed English chalkstreams, but the Lunn's Particular has served as inspiration for a host of Rusty Spinner imitations throughout the world.
One need only visit the pages of the Swisher and Richards classic Selective Trout to realize the broad application of the Rusty Spinner pattern throughout this continent. According to these distinguished authors, no fewer than 13 of the mayfly species designated as "super hatches" can be effectively imitated by a Rusty Spinner—when fishing that life stage becomes appropriate.
In the Rocky Mountains, seven key mayfly hatches can be connected to a Rusty Spinner when the insects appear on the water in their final phase of existence. On Eastern and Midwestern waters, five more super hatches are in the Swisher and Richards book, and it is reasonable to assume that they may have missed a few during their entomological investigation in the late 1960s.
Based on what I've read, and on personal discussions with visiting anglers, Rusty Spinners are also of some prominence throughout much of Europe and also in Japan. According to professional river guides who split time between Yellowstone country and Argentina, the value of a Rusty Spinner transcends many thousands of miles and is roughly equal in either location.
Listening to guides is a sound way of separating commercial hype from proven productivity. Pressured to get results on each of what often exceeds 100 days on the water each year, a competent guide is never susceptible to guesswork or fashion when it comes to the important tools of their profession. And in this regard, it is understandable that an artificial possessing a reasonable potential for success on any given day over a six-month season is held in very high esteem. Because a Rusty Spinner matches this description on a worldwide basis, it is one of the most trusted flies in existence.
With minor exception, mayfly spinners are fair-weather friends that appear during the most comfortable conditions of temperature and wind. Most are susceptible to cold weather, which means that a Rusty Spinner would not generally be an appropriate choice on frosty days. A notable exception are some Baetis species that hatch even in winter. Rusty Spinners in sizes 18 to 24 can be suitable imitations anytime these hardy little insects are on the water.
Wind or precipitation can disrupt the mating behavior and subsequent return to the water as mayflies approach the end of their life cycle. But a calm, warm morning or evening can provide several hours of opportunity for a Rusty Spinner to demonstrate its merit.
A trout feeding on dying or dead insects at the surface is not as difficult to fool as a trout feeding on rising nymphs and the variable images of emergers and floating duns. And because size and shape are generally considered the most important factors of imitation, a Rusty Spinner in the right size can be effective despite a deviation from the color of the naturals on the water.
In late evening when a spinner fall often peaks, a spent insect is viewed mainly in silhouette, which makes the color of the imitation less relevant than it otherwise might be. But on many waters, both moving and still, it is not unreasonable to expect a significant appearance of natural Rusty Spinners in one size or another throughout the prime season for mayfly hatches. The ability of a Rusty Spinner to be useful as a crossover pattern in situations calling for specific imitation is simply a bonus.
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The productivity of a truly versatile fly is not limited to the times when its natural counterpart is the dominant food source for trout. The "familiarity factor" explains why a trout resting in shallow water during periods of little or no insect activity can be tempted by a Rusty Spinner. Because they are creatures of opportunity, any identifiable food item is a source of interest to a trout if it is to survive. Consistent exposure to a single edible image over a sustained period of time inspires confidence.
On productive waters, it is a good use of time to search the shallow edges between major hatch events. Working cautiously upstream, it is not unusual to spot impressive individual trout in water less than 2 feet deep. While positive results are never guaranteed with any fly, a Rusty Spinner is a logical starting point when these opportunities occur. This is especially true when the memory of a Gray Drake or Flav spinner in size 12 or 14 remains fresh.
By necessity, river guides are often compelled to fill quiet hours of the day when surface activity becomes sparse. Covering productive water along the banks from a drift boat can yield meaningful rewards if the fly you are showing looks like what the trout are accustomed to seeing. A Rusty Spinner of suitable size—and tied to enhance its visibility—can be a viable searching pattern during a sizable portion of the season.
While the chances of finding a Lunn's Particular in your local fly shop are extremely low, it is quite likely you can find one or more descendants of this early Rusty Spinner. As key contributors to its evolution, Swisher and Richards recommend a Rusty Spinner pattern tied with a dubbed fur body and spent hen hackle tip wings. In keeping with their preference for extremely sparse flies, their Rusty Hen Spinner is tied without a supporting collar of cock hackle. While entirely satisfactory for gentle currents, a problem with flotation and visibility arises when using the Rusty Hen Spinner on quick, riffled water. Replacing the hen hackle tip wings with more buoyant CDC yields a higher floating fly, while retaining the basic shape of the original Swisher and Richards pattern.
It was William Lunn's contention that the inherent slender abdomen should not be discounted when imitating a mayfly spinner. The use of stripped hackle stems from a Rhode Island Red rooster for the body of the Lunn's Particular illustrates how this was addressed by the early European innovator, while also creating a realistic segmented effect at the same time.
Using a goose biot dyed to a reddish-brown hue creates a slender, segmented abdomen for a Rusty Spinner pattern that is similar and perhaps superior to stripped hackle stems, which take more time to prepare and are less durable. Biots are also more readily available than Rhode Island Red roosters, which have become mostly obsolete in the poultry business.
A rusty goose biot abdomen, splayed Coq de Leon fiber tails, and a dubbed thorax that matches the biot in color are the common components of my personal Rusty Spinner patterns. For calm water, light dun paired CDC wings tied full-spent or half-spent are deserving of the confidence I place in them. This is especially true on spring creeks or other waters that are shallow enough to permit a stealthy stalk to within 40 feet. Adding two or three turns of hackle to the thorax of a CDC Biot Spinner enhances its visibility and floatation in broken currents or for longer casts and longer drifts.
The difficulty of seeing any imitation that duplicates a natural with its wings lying flat on the water can inhibit its use even among the most committed fly fishers. The Rusty CDC Biot Paraspinner was conceived with the intent of retaining the vital components of realism—a flush-floating fly—while possessing enough floatation and visibility to make it a practical choice for fly fishers drifting in a boat.
Flies with hackle tied parachute-style around a white wing post float extremely well, and are easy to see on even choppy water. For this reason, patterns like the Parachute Adams become favorites of guides, who must be able to see the fly even when their clients cannot.
The oversize grizzly parachute hackle on a Rusty Paraspinner performs a dual role by providing extra support while replicating the outstretched wings of a fully spent mayfly spinner. A wing post of white CDC adds to the floatation, and the fly is remarkably visible despite being trimmed to about a third of the normal wing height.
Imperfect CDC feathers, which may be unsuitable for other use, are perfect for this purpose. Trimming the forward parachute hackle fibers to form a wide V over the hook eye creates the illusion of flush-floating wings.
Three or four turns of hackle on the Rusty CDC Biot Paraspinner are typically sufficient for most waters, but the rough current of rivers like the Madison may dictate a few more turns of hackle, and a slightly taller wing to function efficiently.
As fly fishers, we are compelled to acknowledge the individuality of trout waters. Whether lake or stream, every fishery possesses its own requirements with regard to the imitations that can be expected to produce results.
While there is no magic fly that can cross any boundary of time or place, there does exist a handful of patterns that can be trusted to perform over a broad range of situations and geography. In my opinion, the Rusty Spinner is a member in this esteemed group of unique versatile flies, and as such deserves a place in the vest of nearly everyone who fishes for trout with a fly rod.
Rene' Harrop is the author of Learning from the Water (Stackpole Books, 2010), and runs his own fly-tying operation, House of Harrop, from his home on the banks of the Henry's Fork.