Dwindling Possibilities

Another week of watching the forecasts and checking river temperatures, as the cold season teases me; offering glimpses of hope, then whisking them away. Before the weekend, yesterday looked to be a fishing day, though it wasn’t, and this week’s other promises are likewise retreating with the forecast’s highs. Ah for a bit of sunshine and temperatures far enough above freezing to enjoy a couple of hours on the river! I don’t need a fish to attend, though I’d welcome the diversion.

Driving east yesterday I saw ice in the flow of the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, the snow still ruling the landscape, mountains and plains. Roscoe looked sleepy and quiet. I was headed to Dette Flies, deciding I’d rather get out for a drive than wait for the Postal Service to send my bag of tying materials round and round the northeast for another week. Livingston Manor is roughly thirty miles east of Hancock, but my parcels have travelled from the shop to New Jersey, the last one had multiple stops there, then Rochester or Syracuse and sometimes both, before making the turn toward Hancock. Modern “efficiency” I guess. I did enjoy the ride through the snowy Catskills.

Time to concentrate on a new challenge before me: choosing a favorite fly pattern to submit to the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild. There’s a call for members’ favorite patterns, and I have many, but picking just one requires thought. In twenty-eight seasons of fishing in the Catskills one of the chief facts I’ve learned is how variable the fly hatches are for me from one year to the next. Some years are caddis years, when a species or two will hatch in grand abundance, then nearly vanish the next season. Mayflies are the same. I can recall a number of seasons when I found very few instances of Blue Quills on the water, and barely any of a trout taking them; yet there are seasons when they came by the millions, and their imitations took the largest trout of the season, or nearly so. Change is the great constant in Nature. Truth be told, I acknowledge the flies hatch every year, simply not when and where I happen to be fishing. I thought that would change as I fish most days throughout the prime season now, but it hasn’t.

As a result, my favorite fly pattern depends upon the variability of the season at hand. Last year the sulfurs were the big ticket for me, bringing my best days and many of them, but there have been years when they seemed more like ghosts along the rivers of my heart. In truth, my favorite fly might well be a particular design, a style of tie rather than a single pattern imitating one species.

As I tie flies through the winter, I wonder which flies will emerge in abundance during my travels, when spring comes again. There are patterns in storage boxes from the past two seasons that have spent all that time there, as I found no reason to even put them in my vest. Saved for another time; perhaps next year.

The 100-Year Drake tied in my current, more or less, standard version.
A fly from a dozen years ago with a blended color CDC wing and biot body, hackled in Marinaro’s thorax style with yellow dyed grizzly. This one combined elements of my early 100-Year dun with the CDC winged flies I have loved for thirty years. Big browns liked it!

The other difficulty in such a choice is the fact that I experiment continuously, changing proven patterns to keep them fresh, or to expand upon an idea that’s been buzzing around in my head. The 100-Year Dun has certainly become a favorite fly of mine, but it has a long and evolving history since it first took shape in my vise.

I had studied the original Theodore Gordon flies in the Catskill Museum more than once, and the canted wing with a single clump of wood duck flank made a lasting impression: the picture that lingered in my memory is the same one that I saw countless times on the water. Gordon’s style was a century old, and had been quickly evolved to an upright divided wing style by a cadre of hallowed Catskill fly tiers, but his original spark of imitation still rang true.

I began my canted wing experiments with the Green Drake, our premier eastern mayfly hatch, and the one that offered the greatest excitement. I have always believed that the larger the fly the more critical the imitation, so I combined Gordon’s single clump canted wing with Vincent Marinaro’s thorax style some fifteen years ago. With my firm belief in color matching, I chose dyed mallard flank for the wing, but it absorbed too much water and lost its shape regardless of the floatant I employed, so I eventually returned to the Catskill tradition and wood duck.

An early 100-Year Dun, the original design circa 2005

The early imitations were successful, both with biot and dubbed bodies, and hackle variations from the original dyed grizzly to barred ginger and cree, but as always I continued to experiment. Perhaps a decade ago, I came across a book that made me aware of another Catskill angler and fly tyer with a similar idea. “The Legendary Neversink” included an article by the late Phil Chase entitled “The 100 Year Fly” in which Chase offered his thinking on Gordon’s legacy and a parachute hackled dry fly with a canted single clump wing. That fly used a post in addition to the wing to wrap the hackle in the horizontal parachute style. The book got me thinking about a parachute hackle, but I liked the way my thorax hackled flies sat in the surface film.

I decided to wrap my hackle around the reinforced base of the wing, canted to the rear. I moved the wing forward, somewhat ahead of the traditional position for a Catskill tie, and well forward of the mid-shank position for the thorax tie. The fly rode the surface just as I’d hoped, and the canted parachute hackle was easier to tie and more durable. I still experiment with the fly body, though turkey biots have become the standard material for the abdomen. The original synthetic tail fibers have been replaced by dark pardo Coq-de-Leon hackle fibers which offer a more natural appearance.

Barred hackles have always been paramount for this pattern. I have settled upon one of Charlie Collins’ Golden Grizzly dyed capes as my standard in the last few years. I like the way the light passes through these feathers, and the trout have proven they agree with with my choice. I carry a box full of Green Drake imitations during their season but the most difficult fish always seem to come to the 100-Year Dun.

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