Practical and Useful

Practical and Useful

Big Mission for a Small Fly Box

  • By: Dave Hughes

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Preparing for the vast majority of hatches you’ll encounter on trout streams is remarkably simple.
I was on Penns Creek last year, near State College, Pennsylvania, when a hatch of size 14 mayflies started trickling off on a broad flat in front of me. Soon a scattering of brown trout began rising to nip at the duns. Judith Schnell and Jay Nichols, both from Stackpole Books, fished the same long stretch, but far enough upstream and down from me that I couldn’t depend on them for a fly that might solve this distinctly Eastern situation for a guy carrying nothing but Western flies. I didn’t want to bull out there to collect a specimen, thereby putting the trout down. From my view at casting range the insects appeared to be about size 14, and approximately olive.
I’d brought a single dryfly box on the trip, not anticipating any important chances to fish. I peered into that box and my eye landed almost instantly on a short row of size 14 olive-brown Hairwing Duns, a fly that I carry for the Lesser Green Drakes and flavs that pop up on quite a few of the streams that I fish. Again, out West. I tied one to a three-foot 5X tippet, presented it to the nearest trout with a cast that contained a combination of cross-stream reach and downstream wiggle. (An upstream cast on that flat would have lined the trout and put it down.) I’ll confess right away that the downstream drift, which showed the fly to the trout ahead of the line and leader, might have had more to do with fooling the fish than did the fly. The brown rose, sipped the dry, turned down, and thrashed around in surprise when it found itself tethered to my tippet.
The hatch didn’t last long, but that fly tied for a Western hatch continued to fool Eastern trout until there were none left rising to present it over. Then I thrashed around myself, and finally managed to collect a specimen of the dun that had caused the slight commotion. It was more reddish-brown than olive. Jay told me later it was a male Hendrickson.

There are two approaches to tying flies, or buying them, to match hatches. Each is successful. Your choice might depend more on your lifestyle than it does on the hatches. The first and most common way is to match every hatch you find important in your own fishing, and to tie or acquire flies for any specific hatch you expect to encounter on your next destination trip. The second and less common method is to select a small and broad-based set of flies that approximates any hatch you might encounter, wherever your travels might take you.
The first method is most effective for those lucky folks who fish consistently on a familiar set of home waters, and take occasional trips to places where the hatches have been worked out, and matching patterns have been figured out. The second method is best for peripatetic anglers whose fishing opportunities are scattered near and far, less predictable, catch as catch can . . . or can’t. I find myself perpetually in this latter rootless group. If you’re unlucky like me, you’ll catch a lot more trout if you’re at least somewhat armed against them, and what insect might hatch to interest those trout. A single medium-size box of carefully selected flies can prepare you for most situations.
That selection starts with the knowledge that within each order of aquatic insects, you’ll find variations in color and size, but little difference in shape, as you go from one species to another. Mayflies all have the same clichéd sailboat shape, caddis their pup-tent folded wings, stoneflies that flat-wing posture, emerging midges their dangling bodies beneath the surface and escaping wings above it.
The second bit of knowledge, one that is perhaps more important: Because all the species within an order of insects are the same shape, you can select a single pattern style, tie or buy it in a few colors, each in a narrow range of sizes, and you’ll have most species in the order covered without ever having to think in terms of insect identification, or imitation of specific species.
As an example, mayflies—which seem terrifying in their complexity and have had many books written about them—can be brutally condensed down to three most common colors: olive, sulfur and tannish-brown. This won’t work if you’re a stickler on exact color, but it’s my suspicion that most trout are not—remember the Penns Creek brown trout that accepted my olive imitation for what turned out to be a brownish insect? The idea does work if you believe, as I do, that size and shape are the most important aspects of an imitation, that exact color is secondary most of the time, and that proper presentation might outweigh all three of those anyway.
To assemble a core set of mayfly dun imitations, first you pick a pattern style (perhaps Craig Mathews’ Sparkle Dun; that’s my choice, because of all the luck I’ve had with the style in my past). Then tie or buy olives in sizes 12 through 20, to cover everything from big Green Drakes through tiny Blue-Wing Olives. Sulfurs and Brown Drakes, which include Pale Morning Duns and Mahoganies, are both more narrow: sizes 14 through 18. You will find exceptions outside those colors and size ranges, but my guess is that they’ll be fairly rare.
Most caddis hatches can be condensed to just a couple of the most common colors: tannish-brown bodies with the same color wings, and olive bodies with gray wings. If your pattern style is the Elkhair Caddis, you can tie it in its original light tan, and in a darker deerhair variation, each in a range from size 12 to 18, and you’ll have about 80 percent of caddis hatches covered. To make the smallest sizes more imitative—and not accidentally a bit easier to tie—omit the hackles on the size 16s and 18s. They’ll float with their bodies flush in the surface film, and will work much better on the smooth currents where you’re most likely to fish such small caddis imitations.
It’s heretical to say it, in an era when most folks want to split the hatches out and imitate them all, but among the stoneflies you can generally get by with imitations for Golden Stones, Yellow Sallies and salmonflies, the latter needed only if you fish a few famous rivers out West. I’ve fished these three hatches for many years, and have found that an ancient Improved Sofa Pillow in size 6 works well enough for the salmonfly; its variation, the Stimulator, solves the Golden Stone in size 8, and the Yellow Sally as well in size 18. They should all be on long-shank hooks. You can carry a lot more imitations for stoneflies if you like, but if you wait until you encounter a situation where the above flies fail, you might have to wait a long time.
Midges emerge in their thousands of species, and almost cover the color spectrum, but I’ve always found that both lake and stream trout will buy almost any color as long as it’s black (as Henry Ford said about his Model A). The famous Klinkhamer Special, with a slim black body, silver tinsel rib, white post and grizzly hackle, tied in sizes 16 though 20, will solve enough midge hatches to keep trout, and therefore you as well, pleased most of the time. If it fails, clip its hackle and wing post to stubs and fish it submerged as a pupa, doubling its devastation.
Add a black foam beetle in sizes 12 and 14, a black foam ant in sizes 16 and 18, and a tan foam hopper in size 12 to cover the most common terrestrials, and you’d have a fly box that, in my estimation, would catch trout in more than three-quarters of the hatches you would ever encounter, all over the world. That’s a lot of problems to solve with a single fly box.
You might want to choose different fly styles on which to tie your size and color variations, especially if you have a favorite that has worked wonders for you in the past. In fact, you’d be crazy to set aside all those flies that already catch trout for you, especially if they work in particular circumstances, over hatches you’ve already solved for yourself. But the pattern styles I’ve listed, in their narrow range of variations, will give you a good base to cover the core set of insect hatches. They’ll solve most situations, and allow you to travel with less risk of encountering a hatch for which you simply have nothing to offer rising trout.
Let me end with a couple of admonitions. First, never ignore local advice and simply rely on your own patterns or mine. Always visit a local shop, if there is one, ask them what’s working, and buy what they recommend. You’ll not only solve situations that fall into the remaining 25 percent that the minimalist box doesn’t cover, you’ll also likely encounter a pattern so good that it displaces something already in your box.
Second, never tie or buy just a single fly of any size or color. It will work, you’ll lose it, and it will be the only one that fools trout that day. Remember John Gierach’s great advice that you always tie flies by the dozen. I often cut that in half, and sometimes even reduce it to a dozen in three sizes. But never go fishing with just one. That would be fatal, and not to the trout.