August 12, 2016
For everything from Skwalas to Salmonflies
Designing a fly pattern rarely starts at the tying bench. For me, it most often starts with a vague idea, a spark, that glows and gets kicked around a fair bit in my head before I ever even sit down to try it. Sometimes, that spark turns out to be a complete dud, and thankfully, those make themselves apparent pretty quickly. Other times, the prototypes show a bit of promise and through some technique tweaks and material replacements I can come up with something that is, very often, much better than what I originally imagined. The Morningwood Special is one of those flies that traveled a lot of miles through my head before ever coming to fruition, but (knock on wood) it turned out to be one of my best fly designs ever.
The premise for a new foam stonefly came when my good friend and former colleague at Umpqua Feather Merchants, Brian Schmidt, mentioned developing a Charlie Boy stonefly pattern based on my Charlie Boy Hopper. I liked his idea, and brazenly thought to myself, "Well, this ought to be easy!"
The Charlie Boy Hopper was one of my first commercial patterns and frankly, is one of those flies that took too long to develop into the simple, effective pattern it is today. My brain has a way of complicating things and that dang fly took me a whole summer, fall, and winter to polish up. Reasoning that so much of that hard work was already done, I foolishly thought that I could just sit down and tweak a few parts and have a killer stonefly adult pattern magically fall from my vise. Wrong again, Craven.
I now have a rather large fly box overflowing with about 75 prototype flies showing the progression of what has turned into a pretty craftily designed fly pattern. A change here, a tweak there, a discovery of a new material, and suddenly one day I woke up, and there it was. Arranging all those prototypes in a timeline shows me how far off I was at the start, and how much has changed since its conception.
It also showed how far removed this is from the Charlie Boy Hopper.
Far from just an adaptation, this stonefly is so different that I am now thinking of designing a new hopper pattern using some of these techniques and materials just to come full circle.
I love to sit down at the vise with an end in sight and a solid idea in my head, but the design process isn't often pretty, and this box of junk sitting here is a testament to that. I won't bore you (or ruin my reputation) with the ugly missteps along the way, but just focus here on how all those pieces came together.
All adult stoneflies have robust bodies, and Salmonflies are probably the largest aquatic insects most of us will ever encounter. The Salmonfly version of this fly is on a size 4 hook, while the smallest Skwala version is on a size 12. That's a pretty wide size range, and creating a pattern that would scale down to smaller sizes was a pretty big bump in the road.
In the beta versions of the Charlie Boy Hopper, I toyed with foam extended bodies built on a needle and as it turned out, I needed to come back around to that idea for this fly.
Moving to the wings, I have noted over the years that so many fly patterns are tied to match a happy little hopper or stonefly with the wings neatly folded over its back like it's posing for a glamour shot. The reality is, these critters always seem unhappy and ill-prepared for any crash landing on the water, and they are often bent, broken, and splayed while trying to extricate themselves. I wanted to create a fly with splayed wings to match the foul mood and panic of the naturals when they find themselves struggling to get back to dry ground.
I originally used 3-D EP Fibers in gray for the wing, then Brian Schmidt showed me a new proprietary mix of fibers called Umpqua Stonefly Wing. The material stands out with just a bit of UV Flash, and is something the fish (and fishermen) haven't seen before. I knew it would be perfect. As of right now, this material is unavailable, but will be soon.
The legs started off so simply, tying them in the same way as the Charlie Boy Hopper but I wasn't happy with the fact that a real stone has six legs, and my prototypes only had four. I stayed awake a few nights trying to solve this one, but I'm happy to say I woke up with an epiphany that solved the problem.
In a fit of "looking out for the other guy," I added a bright pink hot spot to make the fly a little easier to find on the water, but in the process I created a hurdle. The short tuft of cerise McFlylon was visible from the top and served the purpose wonderfully, but as it turns out, was also completely visible from the bottom of the fly as well. A bit of tinkering resulted in a pink-over-black staggered indicator that hides the pink from the bottom view, and from above does double duty as a contrasting indicator for flat-light situations. Sometimes these things really do work out for the best.
And finally, I opted to get a little artistic for the coloration on this fly to better match the natural. While the belly of the fly remains somewhat monochromatic, I do mottle it a bit with a few smears of marker and then use a black marker to add the variegation to the top and sides of the body, as well as eyes.
Someone asked me just the other day why I bother to marker up the top of a fly, and the simple answer is "I do it because it makes me happy." I love the finished look of this fly, it gives me confidence in the pattern, and it makes me happy. If plain, drab, and boring make you happy, go ahead and skip the marker. And I add the eyes because it's just the right thing to do if you're trying to make a critter that looks like it might crawl away on you.
As an explanation of the name of this fly, it's kind of a funny alliteration of an old stonefly pattern called the Norm Wood Special. Norm Wood was a guide on the Deschutes for 30 years, and the Norm Wood Special was a hackled but closely trimmed dry fly that sat flush in the surface film. Norm Wood's bushy fly came before the popularization of modern materials like foam and rubber, but he had it right: Stonefly patterns need to land with a belly flop and ride flush in the surface film. I didn't know Norm Wood, but I think he would have admired this Morningwood Special.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the featured tier in two Fly Fisherman DVDs: Warmwater Fly Tying and Saltwater Fly Tying. His latest book is Tying Nymphs: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns, available from Stackpole Books/Headwater Books (2016).