August 04, 2016
The flies all trout fishers should carry imitate broad insect groups like caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, minnows, leeches, worms, and crustaceans. Decades ago, this meant using hair and fur creations like the Elk-hair Caddis, Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear, Brooks Stonefly, and Mickey Finn.
All these classic patterns still work today for aggressive trout in wilderness streams that don't see much traffic. But in many pressured waters, trout get caught, and released, many times over.
While that's a great thing from a conservation standpoint, the trout become conditioned to refuse flies that don't look quite right. Some of us even believe they become trained to avoid certain fly patterns, just because they have "seen that one before."
That's why fly tiers are constantly experimenting with new designs and modern materials to come up with flies that are more exacting, or more attracting, and most importantly, patterns the trout haven't seen before.
This constant evolution is creative and engaging, and makes fly tying an artistic pursuit worthy to stand on its own. On the water, these new flies give us an edge that is partly psychological, but it is real nonetheless. When you arrive on the water with new flies you may also have extra sparkle, a sharper hook, wings set in a more realistic position, legs that are more lifelike, and hackle that moves and breathes. And if there's one thing I've learned in 25 years of fly fishing, guiding, and catching trout in streams around the globe, if you believe in a fly, it works better. If you lose faith in it, you should replace it.
That's why when you're fishing with a guide, and things turn cold for a period of time, the guide will suggest replacing your fly. It's not that he tied on a lousy fly in the first place, it's just that a new fly will inspire you to cast more accurately, mend the line attentively, and strike with confidence. It's just human nature.
But that doesn't mean it's all psychological–far from it. Flies that don't work quickly fall by the wayside, while others become mainstays in fly boxes across the country.
The pursuit of making a "better" fly is not an illusion, it's a constant reality and it happens all the time. That's how Gary LaFontaine brought us the Sparkle Pupa, Randall Kaufmann created the Stimulator, and John Barr came up with the Copper John.
In that spirit, what follows are 12 relatively new patterns tied by the leading minds in fly tying and fly fishing today. They fill your needs in broadly important categories–a streamer, a mayfly dry, a caddis dry, a midge pupa, an attractor beadhead nymph and so on. There's no duplication of effort here, so if you're a beginner, you can't go wrong with starting your first box with six of each type.
If you're an experienced fly fisher, you're likely to enjoy these flies even more. If you fish these, you'll want to replace the flies you've already got in your box because these are simply better. Passage's Crippled Parachute is better than the Parachute Adams you've got in your box, Egan's Tungsten Dart will catch more fish than the Prince Nymph you've used all these years, and Cathy's Super Beetle is light years ahead of the old hair beetles collecting dust at the back of your box. These are the best of the best of a crop of new flies. Enjoy!
Ramsay's Swimming Isonychia Nymph
East of the Mississippi, Isonychias (pronounced eye-so-nick-ee-uh) are likely the most important mayflies of the–entire summer because of their relatively large size, and the fact that they have two broods. This mayfly nymph swims and darts, so twitching the fly with movement from the rod tip is a key strategy.
Passage's Crippled Parachute (Adams)
Mayflies don't always stand up proudly on the water like little sailboats. Just a little gust of wind can sometimes tip them over or sometimes they just don't hatch effectively, leaving one or both wings trapped at the surface. Fly tier Chris Passage tied this parachute with two wings–at a 90-degree angle–to imitate the crippled mayflies that trout identify and feed on. A perfectly hatched mayfly flies away in seconds, while a cripple often becomes trout food.
Passage's Magic Fly (BWO)
What's magic about this fly is that there's very little to it. Most of the flies we prefer are overdressed so they float high, and we can see them easily, but that's not always what the fish prefer–especially in flat, clear water. Use this fly during Blue-winged Olive hatches in the spring and fall, for midge hatches all year, and anytime you see trout rising but don't see much on the water.
Maktima's Low Water Baetis
Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) are delicate mayflies and in flat water, they make just slight indentations in the surface film with their tails, abdomens, and spindly legs. Norman Maktima captures this surface signature perfectly with his Low Water Baetis–use it with confidence anytime the water is slow and flat, and trout are nosing at the surface.
Takahashi's Mini Minnow (Rainbow)
If you want to catch big trout, it sometimes pays to take advantage of their cannibalistic tendencies. Fort Collins fly tier Rick Takahashi tied this pattern to imitate small rainbow trout on the Big Thompson River, and it's especially deadly in the early morning and late evening hours when predatory trout prowl shallow water.
Maktima's Feast-Beast Caddis
A distant relative of both the Elk-hair Caddis and the Letort Hopper, Norman Maktima's buoyant fly is a perfect searching pattern for tumbling riffle water in big rivers, and pocketwater in mountain streams.
Mayer's Tube Midge (Red)
Landon Mayer catches more big trout than anyone I know, and he hunts them mostly on small tailwater fisheries in Colorado where midges are a critical food item. The Tube Midge is simple to tie and durable, but you'll still need to stock several versions because midge pupae come in all different colors, and trout can become picky feeding on them.
Cathy's Super Beetle
If I have a secret weapon in my fly box, it's my wide assortment of Cathy Beck's Super Beetles with grizzly (shown) or orange or metallic green Sili Legs. If there isn't much hatching, and I still hope to bring a trout to the surface, this is almost always the first fly I tie here.
Egan's Bionic Ant
It's hard to know if trout have a sense of taste like we do since their sensory organs (not to mention their brains) are so different than ours. But whether it's taste, texture, or nutritional value, trout seem to prefer ants over most similarly sized aquatic insects. Use Lance Egan's Bionic Ant as a searching pattern when you don't see much going on, or try it in the middle of a Trico hatch when trout are rising everywhere and refusing your best mayfly patterns. They will munch this oversize ant every time.
Egan's Tungsten Dart (red)
Lance Egan has competed in ten world championship fly-fishing events, making him one of America's best competitive fly fishers. While most of his success can be attributed to skill and good technique, having the right flies can't hurt either, and the Tungsten Dart is quickly filling all the spots in my boxes formerly filled by Prince Nymphs.
Daniel's Czech Catnip (Chartreuse)
As George Daniel points out in his article "Organizing Your Fly Box," your fly boxes become simpler if you decide to carry mostly suggestive patterns that can imitate a wide range of food items. His Catnip patterns in olive or chartreuse adhere to this philosophy–it's a killer caddis larva but also does a fair job of imitating scuds and dark mayfly and stonefly nymphs along the bottom.
Howell's Trip Saver
Every fly box should carry some meaty, rubber-leg weighted nymphs to imitate larger aquatic insects like stoneflies and many kinds of mayflies, and Kevin Howell's Trip Saver fits the bill. Use it in high, discolored water in the spring when stoneflies are migrating, or later in the summer in fast riffle water.