Favorite Flies from 30 Years (And Beyond)

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel
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Today there are many variations on old and new patterns. What has transformed modern tying is not a handful of patterns, but rather the wide and creative gathering (as well as the use) of tying materials. Now we have CDC feathers, gallo de Leon, epoxy compounds, metal and glass double-drilled beads, rubber legs in rainbow colors, tungsten body shapes, scintillating synthetics, colorful foams and so on. Our feather merchants, such as Whiting Farms, have introduced some new uses for feathers. Have you seen Whiting’s Bird Fur? And the Internet has made materials and tying techniques available world-wide. Finally, what is the shape and color of your hook? The choices are myriad. We have never had such innovative and rich tying. With that in mind, we asked FR&R writers and editors to pick some of their favorite trout patterns through the last three decades.—Darrel Martin, contributing editor

Ted Leeson

My top choice for the most influential fly of the last 30 years would without a doubt be a bead-head anything—probably a generic Bead-head Hare’s Ear, one of the first bead-head patterns to show up here in the West, though my personal favorite of the bead-head patterns is a Bead-head Prince (seen here). In terms of changing the way people fish (dry-fly/dropper combinations) and a style of fly that has become perfectly ubiquitous, the bead-head seems well beyond the others. I like the Sparkle Pupa, too. I might argue as well for the Quigley Cripple, since the dressing style is now widely used on a variety of flies. Something like the Zebra Midge is not a bad choice, acknowledging the small-fly/tailwater phenomenon of recent decades. I’m not sure when the Clouser Minnow showed up—not primarily a trout pattern, but one that does cross a lot of boundaries. I think that CDC flies have been very influential as well; the problem is that there is no archetypical CDC pattern, something that capsulates its importance over the decades. The Stimulator is a reasonable choice, though not a terribly original design, really just tweaking an older pattern, the Bucktail Caddis. But of course there’s nothing new under the sun.
—Ted Leeson is our gear-test maven

Seth Norman

One of first flies I learned to tie came advertised as a Warden’s Worry, which it is not. By most folks lights it’s a long, short or standard, thin, fat floating or weighted, minute or monstrous Renegade. Simple by any standards, it worked for me for years—still does—tied wet or dry. We could do this in one sentence; let’s not: Take two wraps of barred brown hackle at the hook bend, tie off. Follow with a body of peacock herl; rib with pearl Flashabou for dry, copper wire for wet. Add two turns of grizzly hackle up front. Drink, deeply, but wisely. You may wish to time yourself: For me, a pace of one Jim Beam per two pals per hour—it’s hard to describe—will pump out a spring’s worth of these in a period of time I forget. (Note: It does help to admire them at the end of the evening, because by the next morning the later ones may have gone off a bit. Humidity, I’m guessing.) I’m reasonably sure fish have taken tiny versions as a midge or midge cluster, size 18 to 8s as both mayflies (green drakes in particular) and caddis, especially in broken water; and a few fools will mistake fat floaters for snails in lakes. I also do love a parachute tie, and except in white water prefer these to standard patterns. But for me, the Compara-dun style addresses so many mayfly “issues.” To wit, it catches fish—even selective fish, often; also, I can usually see it on the water and tie it at the vise. I even use the wing for a foam-bodied Hex that will withstand an entire evening of toothy cutts and smash-jawed smallmouths. (Note: it helps to—lightly-lightly-lightly!—dab the wing base with a little Soft Tex.)
—Seth Norman is our longtime book reviewer
Jim Butler
I’ll start with the McMurray Ant: Essentially, two cylinders of balsa wood, painted, and strung on a short length of mono, then lashed to a hook; a few turns of appropriate hackle added. More than once, when I’ve been unable to adequately match what was hatching, a McMurray (or some other small terrestrial) has helped me camouflage my angling shortcomings and catch a few trout. Next, an Elkhair Caddis. Not just a fine imitation, but also a terrific searching fly (somehow, its jaunty attitude as it floats down a run almost gives it a personality). Thanks, Al Troth. Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear nymph: The bug that took my first fly-caught trout. Nuff said. Now, in a nod to modernity, I often fish’em with a bead.—Jim Butler is the magazine’s former editor-in-chief

Joe Healy
I’m partial to a Yellow Humpy or a Yellow or Orange Stimulator (hmm, is this sounding like a personal ad?) as searching patterns, or a Joe’s Hopper (of course). Also, a gray CDC Caddis has worked well for me throughout New England waters, and the combination of CDC and a turkey biot in an CDC Biot Spinner is another winner. Also the Compara-Dun is a favorite, particularly in the years since I had a tying lesson from Al Caucci.  —Joe Healy is this magazine’s associate publisher

Val Atkinson

My favorite flies from the last three decades: Quigley Cripple, Black Ant, Poly-Wing Trico, Monroe Leach, Dave’s Hopper. They’re still my favorites. First choice on the top: Quigley Cripple; first choice on the bottom: Monroe Leach. Get’s them every time.—Val Atkinson is a contributing editor.

James Prosek
My go-to flies are Elkhair Caddis, Caddis nymph and Caddis emerger—a la Gary LaFontaine. Also, the Woolly Bugger and Squirreltail Streamer.—James Prosek is a contributing editor.

Born in the Basement

  • By: Phil Monahan
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In the mid 1970s, Connecticut native John Merwin was living the back-to-the-land dream in northern Vermont, tending a herd of beef cows and growing his own food, when he came across an issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. A writer and lifelong angler, Merwin was intrigued. “My first thought was ‘This is awful,’” Merwin remembers, but he liked the idea of the magazine, which was edited by its founder, Don Zahner.

Merwin submitted a couple of fly-fishing articles to Zahner, who was impressed enough that he asked Merwin to become managing editor of the magazine. So, Merwin sold the farm and moved south to Dorset, Vermont, to begin a career as a writer and editor that has lasted more than 30 years.

A few years later, Zahner sold Fly Fisherman to publishing giant Ziff-Davis, and in 1979 Merwin decided to strike out on his own. His goal was to launch a fishing magazine featuring better writing and more diverse content, produced at “a higher level of intelligence” than the titles presently then on the newsstand. Thus was Rod & Reel born, in the basement of Merwin’s house, with the help of Kit Parker, whom he had lured away from Fly Fisherman as a partner to run the business side of the operation. Although at first the magazine covered all kinds of fishing, Merwin decided after a few issues that a more narrowly defined publication, devoted exclusively to fly-fishing, would work better.

Promising that his new title would be a cut above the competition, Merwin was able to convince authors such as Lefty Kreh and Charlie Fox to write for him. But his biggest coup was landing Lee Wulff, who at the time was a columnist for Sports Afield, one of the “Big Three” national sporting magazines, with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

When Tom Paugh, the editor of Sports Afield, told Wulff that he could not write for Rod & Reel, Wulff quit his prestigious post and took over the back page of Merwin’s untested startup—a testament to both Wulff’s stubbornness and his belief in Merwin’s ambitious vision.

From the beginning, Merwin tried to offer his readers something different from the standard fare. “It’s important to have a surprise or two per issue,” Merwin says, and his Rod & Reel included articles ranging from Robert Traver essays to an analysis of trout vision, as well as no-holds-barred reviews—even negative ones—of fishing gear. (See the All About… column on page 58 of this issue for Ted Leeson’s input on his decades of gear reviews.)

Merwin remembers those early days fondly, but he was working like a one-armed wallpaper-hanger: reading submissions, editing stories, designing and laying out the pages, and “running around New York City to raise money.” The son of a photographer, he also took many of the photos that accompanied articles. To add to the workload, Merwin also started a trade magazine called Fly-Fishing Retailer, which served the fly-fishing industry and offered a way for mom-and-pop operations and new businesses to get the word out on their new products.

The recession of 1981-1982 and grind of producing and financing two magazines took their toll, and Merwin sold both titles to Down East Publishing in 1983. He then served as director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing until 1986, when he returned to writing full-time. He is the author of more than a dozen books on fishing and has been writing for Field & Stream since 1994, and currently serves as the magazine’s Fishing Editor.

Phil Monahan is the former editor of American Angler magazine. He lives in southern Vermont.

A 30 Year View

  • By: John Gierach
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In my address book, Fly Rod & Reel Magazine is still listed under “R” for “Rod & Reel: The Journal of American Angling,” which is what it was called when John Merwin started it back in 1979. It was originally intended to be a high-class, thoughtful publication that would cover all methods of sport fishing. I appreciated that egalitarian ideal (fly casters don’t have a monopoly on a love of the sport) but it wasn’t until the word “Fly” was added to the title that the magazine found its true voice and its readership—although it never did make the move to “F” in my address book.

I wrote occasional articles for the magazine early on, and then signed on as a regular columnist in 1992 and went on the masthead as an “Editor at Large.” That’s one of those honorary titles that can sound more impressive than they really are, especially in my case, since I’ve never done a lick of real editing in my life. I’ve now lasted through 17 years, five editors and, as of this issue, 106 columns. To a freelance writer, that almost begins to look like steady work.

For the most part, my columns have been as well received as the rest of the magazine, but I have heard from some who I rubbed the wrong way. All writers secretly crave approval (that’s why we sign our work) and discouraging words always smart a little. On the other hand, I come from a newspaper background where it’s believed that if your columns aren’t pissing off at least some readers some of the time, you’re probably being too careful. So with that in mind, I treasure every critical letter. Of course, no one on the staff could top the great Ted Williams for sheer volume of angry mail.

I know the magazine has evolved over the last 30 years. The Kudos and the Traver Awards come to mind as once-new features and the look of the publication has changed from time to time, but most of the rest happened slowly and I barely noticed. The same goes for fly-fishing itself. There always seems to be something new, but at the same time rods, reels, lines, leaders and flies are all still entirely recognizable. Waders may be made from different materials now, but they’re still intended to keep the water out and you still put them on one leg at a time. Fish are still as fascinating and maddening as they’ve always been and people still go fishing without knowing if they’ll catch anything that day.

There was that big boom in the sport in the early and mid-1990s that brought more people into fly-fishing and changed the charming little fly-tackle business into a full-fledged industry. That expansion was widely attributed to A River Runs Through It (the movie, not the book) but I actually think it was the other way around. I think that by then fly-fishing had become popular enough in its own right that the movie would have an audience. Whatever the cause, fly-fishing gradually became fashionable and entered the mainstream. It began to show up in TV commercials for everything from credit cards to pain relievers—unfortunately, most of the supposed fly fishers in the ads dress too neatly and put too much wrist in their casts.

If the sensibility of the sport has changed over the last 30 years, I haven’t really noticed that, either. There have always been competitors for whom a fish was nothing more than a checkmark on a scorecard, but there have always been others who could go to great lengths to catch a few fish, only to spend the next hour sitting on a log wondering what it all means. There’s either room for all kinds, or at least there’s no sergeant at arms to eject people for wrong thinking.

For that matter, beginners still learn the ropes from older fishermen—in person, in print or electronically—and older, supposedly wiser fly casters still learn new tricks from the young guns. I know some older anglers who get grumpy when they’re having a slow day and some whippersnapper walks by and says, “Dude, we’re killing ’em on Girdle Bugs.” But most of us aren’t above accepting generosity from strangers and I, for one, have caught too many fish by taking that kind of advice. I no longer even wait till the guy’s out of sight before changing flies.

By all accounts, there are more people fly-fishing than there were three decades ago, but again, that happened gradually, so it snuck up on some of us. I have noticed a few more fly fishers on some of the small mountain streams in the Rocky Mountains, but I’ve been told I may have had something to do with that by waxing poetic about creek fishing every chance I got. Oops.

You do hear more about rudeness than you used to, but I don’t think it’s any more prevalent than it ever was, nor is it confined to any one group. It’s also not a recent development; so don’t let any geezers tell you that back in the old days everyone was a perfect gentleman. Honestly, I fish a lot and on average see maybe two or three cases of outright assholery in a season, and some of those are caused by ignorance rather than actual evil intent.

Bad behavior among fly fishers might seem more prevalent than it really is because we tend to vividly remember anyone who we think screwed us over on the water. What we don’t always recall—or even consciously grasp at the time—are the many other fishermen who get out of the river downstream, quietly walk around behind us and leave us three-hundred yards of water before getting back in. I guess that’s just a characteristic of the sport: as long as things are going our way, we’re oblivious.

John Gierach is…John Gierach. We’re honored to embark on our next 30 years with John as our back-page columnist.

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