July 16, 2013
Throughout the long history of trout fishing, relatively few fly patterns havespawned families of similar flies so versatile and effective that they quickly become essential. Certainly the buoyant hairwing drys developed by Lee Wulff qualify, and most anglers would agree that beadhead nymphs, Swisher and Richards No-hackle drys, Caucci and Nastasi Compara-duns, and Sylvester Nemes soft-hackled nymphs are among those that deserve their "super fly" reputations.
In recent years, my friends and I have been experimenting with a dry fly that may be a worthy candidate for admission into this exalted company. Called the Puff Daddy, Puff Diddy, or simply Puffie, it is a simple dry fly tied with a biot or thin dubbing body, and completed with a few sparse turns of a stemmed CDC feather wrapped just behind the head—no tail, no wing, nothing fancy whatsoever. The encircling CDC fibers form a somewhat ragged and nearly diaphanous veil that tends to make the fly float on its side, partially obscuring the hook, and keeping the hook point above the surface film.
This highly impressionistic pattern effectively imitates not only mayfly duns, but also many other floating aquatic insects. The natural water-resistant qualities of CDC provide ample buoyancy on all but the most thunderous currents. The flies only occasionally need refreshing with a desiccant like Frog's Fanny, especially after landing a fish. Most silicone fly floatants actually reduce CDC buoyancy, so don't use them on Puff Diddies.
I have come to think of the Puff Diddy as the mirror image and dry-fly equivalent of a Sylvester Nemes soft-hackle wet fly. Both are easy to tie and broadly representative of many naturals, and when they are tied in the appropriate sizes and colors, they are deadly imitations of several stages in the life cycles of specific insects. The only difference is that one is for dry-fly fishing, the other for subsurface fishing.
Not Much to Look At
To be honest, I wasn't at first impressed with Puff Diddies when my fishing buddy Cam Cantwell gave me a few to try on the South Holston tailwater in Tennessee. They didn't look like much. But our friends John Monroe and Jason Reep, both local guides, considered them their "go-to" secret weapons for selective trout on local waters.
The origin of these flies is a bit uncertain, but Monroe credits Terry Melvin of Elizabethton with developing a prototype about 15 years ago—a simple gray CDC, black-body pattern called "Dawayne." Monroe changed the colors of Melvin's fly to better match Sulphurs and Blue-winged Olives, and began calling his versions Puff Diddies.
Fly tiers in Europe have used CDC since the 1920s, and some patterns are quite similar to Puff Diddies, including Marjan Fratnik's F Flies introduced in France in 1980. Fratnik, however, uses CDC to form a wing rather than wrapping it to encircle the hook.
In recent years, Cantwell has further refined the Puff Diddy, creating more delicate and elegant variations, and testing them widely. He has become such a believer in their effectiveness that he now carries boxes packed with Puff Diddies specifically adapted for the waters he plans to fish.
They have proven themselves not only in Tennessee—where they're still largely unknown—but also in Pennsylvania's limestone streams and on Western rivers and spring creeks in Montana and Idaho. They passed their toughest test when they fooled those notoriously selective Harriman Ranch rainbows on the Henry's Fork in Idaho—including a 24-incher that ate one of my Puffies last June.
Flies tied with CDC are certainly not new. René Harrop and his wife Bonnie (and their daughter Leslie), have been tying wonderfully innovative imitations with this material for years, and René's articles in Fly Fisherman and his books—most recently Learning from the Water (Stackpole Books, 2010)—have spurred CDC's popularity in the U.S.
Puff Diddies represent an impressionistic approach to imitation. They are generalists rather than specialists, and they look so deceptively simple, almost amateurish, that I confess it took me awhile to appreciate their special qualities. I could understand why a high-floating Puff Diddy in the right size and colors might fool trout feeding on duns, but I was puzzled when trout also frequently seemed to pass up a pristine natural dun or spinner to take this fly.
The mystery unraveled one morning as I was fishing Harriman State Park during a heavy hatch of Pale Morning Duns and Flavs. Also in the mix were plenty of spinners.
As I expected, lots of these naturals were damaged goods, but I was seeing so many cripples that I stopped fishing to watch. Countless duns had a crumpled wing, floated on their sides, or still trailed a remnant shuck. Many spinners also had a folded wing, or drifted together in tangled clumps.
As the wind began to gust, the number of cripples and knockdowns increased dramatically until it appeared that easily half had suffered some calamity. Contrary to the cliché of "tiny sailboats" the water was covering in shipwrecks.
The trout were fully aware of this windfall, and were already conditioned to profit from all this misfortune by keying on those insects that couldn't possibly fly away—protein ripe for picking with no risk of unrewarded effort.
Several big rainbows began feeding nearby, sipping many more cripples and knockdowns than upright duns. The phenomenon is well known, of course, but I suspect we're often too busy casting to assess mayfly casualty rates. Even so, seeing such relentless adaptation play out around me was truly illuminating, and my PMD and Flav Puff Diddies—with their delicate surface footprint, indistinct form, and CDC fibers curling seductively—worked much better than more "realistic" duns and spinners.
Cantwell and I have also discovered that Puff Diddies in sizes and colors to match the naturals can successfully imitate caddis and craneflies.
We may not always be certain exactly what our flies represent to the trout, but when they lift their snouts confidently to eat one, it's not our immediate priority to question their motives. Tie these in the appropriate sizes and colors to match your local hatches and you won't be disappointed.
Tying the Sulphur Puff Diddy
- Hook: #14-18 Tiemco 100 dry-fly hook, or equivalent.
- Thread: Orange Danville 6/0 or equivalent.
- Body: Yellow goose biots.
- Thorax: Small ball of orange dubbing.
- Hackle: Stemmed tan CDC feather.
- Both dubbed and biot bodies work well, but you must take into account that dubbing often changes color when wet. For a biot body, tie the tips of two goose biots at the rear of the hook and then wrap forward together to form body. An (optional) rib of fine wire helps protect fragile biots.
- Cover the thread wraps with a small ball of dubbing. I use orange dubbing here because trout seem to like Sulphur patterns with a bit of this color. Use whatever colors are appropriate for the insect you are trying to match.
- Choose a stemmed CDC feather with fibers a bit longer than the hook. Do not use so-called CDC “puffs” because they lack stiffness and tend to absorb water like marabou. Tie the tip of the feather behind the hook eye, leaving room to wrap hackle and finish the head.
- Wrap the hackle three or four times over the same spot, smoothing the fibers toward the rear of the hook with each wrap, and tie it off. A few sparse wraps is better than a thick veil of CDC. Whip-finish the head and coat with cement. Fibers that are too long may be clipped, but keep a ragged edge, and avoid an unnatural “shaving brush” appearance.
Jim Dean is the former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. He lives in Raleigh.