My Top Ten Flies—What They Are and How to Fish Them—Part I

Writer’s Note: Over the next several months I will discuss flies that I consistently depend on when there is no hatch.

In How To Catch More Trout I stated that I felt there were four important ingredients to success in fly fishing. Those four central components are the pattern you use, the leader, the depth at which you fish that pattern and the drag or lack of it. One of the most important factors to consider is pattern selection.

Talk about fly selection—I made it easy in the beginning. For the first four decades that I fly fished I used dry flies almost exclusively. I hated fishing wet flies because I couldn’t see the strike. Besides I didn’t consider myself a good wet fly fisher. Most of the time I’d cast that dry fly only over rising trout. If no trout rose I’d sit back and wait—and wait--and wait. Some evenings I cast a fly only a couple times.

Then, on a fishing trip to the Bighorn River in Montana and with guide Richie Montella, the light turned on in my head. Richie set me up with a tandem—you know a large easy to see dry fly that I attached to a wet fly. In that setup the dry fly acts as the strike indicator. It floats until a trout strikes your wet fly, then it sinks. But, it’s much more than that. I call it a strike indicator with an attitude. How many times have you had trout strike your brightly colored indicator? Using the tandem forever stops this.

One day of fishing with the tandem on the BigHorn River in Montana changed the rest of my fishing life drastically, dramatically and forever. No more would I ever wait for rising trout. No more would I sit back and wait, and wait and wait. Now I felt confident that I could catch trout anytime—even when there was no hatch and even when trout didn’t rise. But, I had to develop a list of wet fly patterns that I’d use when I fished those two flies at one time. That list evolved over a decade until I felt confident with the patterns that I depend on. For the first few years that I used the tandem I switched form one pattern to another in a haphazard manner. I had little confidence in the patterns I selected. No more—now I have developed a series of patterns that work on almost every fishing trip I take. Do I use other patterns at all? You bet I do! In fact I set aside Wednesdays as my experimental day. Over the years—on Wednesday—I have fished many odd-looking flies that haven’t caught a fish. But on other occasions I’ve used new flies that caught plenty of trout. I added those latter patterns quickly to my select list of flies that I use consistently. What about those patterns that seem to be site specific? What about those flies that seem to work on one or only a few waters? There’s still room in your fly box—and time—to tie some of those patterns that seem effective for a particular stream or river.

As devoted fly fishers we constantly search for that perfect fly pattern. You know—the one that will catch practically every trout in that stream or river. But, many of us become frustrated in the process of finding that ultimate fly. We fill our fly compartments with every imaginable pattern that we think will catch trout. Perhaps you’ve heard about a great pattern in a recent article in a fly-fishing magazine. Possibly you’ve even tied a few of those. Maybe they’ll turn out the be the killer pattern. But, the more patterns we tie the more choices we have to make on the stream. And therein lies the problem. We change from one fly to another on those days when nothing seems to work, and we get more frustrated and more apprehensive as the days wears on. Add to that that we have little confidence in the pattern or patterns we use and we quickly get frustrated.

And the number of possible patterns to choose from is ever increasing. Donald DuBois wrote Handbook of Fly fishing Patterns in 1956. I met him a decade after he wrote his comprehensive book on Penns Creek during the famous green drake hatch. I wanted Don to autograph my copy of that invaluable book. He said he wouldn’t sign the book until he fished with me that evening. He told me to come back at 6 P.M. to fish the hatch. I couldn’t wait. I was excited. Finally I would get a chance to fish with the famous Donald DuBois. I knocked on his trailer door at 5:45 P.M. I was excited and anxious. He opened the door, and it looked like he had just awakened from a nap. He apologized and told me he didn’t feel up to fishing the hatch that evening. Now if Donald DuBois didn’t feel up to fishing the green drake hatch then he must have been ill. Dang it! I missed my chance to have him sign my copy of the book. That first edition is now worth more than 100 dollars—and more if I had had him sign the darn thing. I still have that unsigned copy in my library—and I still cherish it as one of the top books in my collection.

Yes, I still revere that book and consider it one of the most comprehensive and valuable books in my library. In the book Don lists every imaginable pattern created and tied up to the mid fifties. In all, he listed 6600 patterns and pattern variations in his extensive research. But, that was the mid fifties and this is the Twenty First century. How many patterns have been added to those 6600 in the past 50 years? I bet there are over 50,000 patterns as I now write this article.

Just look at one fly tier like Gray Hitterman of Casa Grande, Arizona. Gary ties commercially and is one of the finest tiers of small patterns that I have ever encountered. In his 50 years of tying I feel certain that Gary has created at least 100 new patterns. How many more Garys are there in the world of fly tying?

Many of us, especially those of us who tie, have attempted to keep updated with many of these patterns by tying and tying and tying. We keep box upon box of these patterns eager to try some of them when the proper opportunity arises. Sure some we’ll use—others we’ll just toss in a compartment and never use them.

Fly fishing—and especially pattern selection—can be extremely frustrating and highly intense. What I have done for several decades to prevent me from going mad is to limit my possible patterns. I test each one I receive and if they don’t produce—over a good number of waters I discard them. I try to limit the number of wet flies—when there’s no hatch to match to eight to ten wet fly patterns. I most often fish these patterns on a tandem setup using one of two productive dry flies. Add these eight wet fly patterns to the two dry fly patterns and you’ll see that I have 10 productive patterns that I depend on.

Does that list of 10 patterns ever change or is it carved in stone? At any given time I have two, three or four new patterns standing by, waiting to take the place of one of my regular patterns that has decreased in productivity.

Over the next few months we’ll look at some of these productive wet and dry flies and how to fish them.

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