Dry Flies

The fly I call The Beaverkill Hendrickson, tied as a 100-Year Dun and as a Catskill style dry fly. My own thoughts and beliefs, and lessons of experience characterize my tying of both styles: wings tied to full hook length (a bit longer on the 100-Year Dun) as are the splayed hackle barb tails. I tie dubbed bodied flies with blends of natural furs and a touch of Antron, often with barred tails and hackles to heighten the fly’s image of life!

I have finally begun working on dry flies for next season, something I tend to shy away from during late autumn and early winter, once the current dry fly season has ended. I tie throughout the season, working up new patterns or even modifications to my usuals as observations on the rivers dictate. Since my Catskill residency began, I have added new hatches to my notes each season, and sizes and coloration of the well-known mayflies and caddis sometimes change from season to season and river to river.

Being anything but a trained entomologist, I cannot say whether some of these perceived changes are indicative of encountering different species, or changes due to Nature’s will, her variations in water temperatures and chemistry. I think that not knowing may be better for the serious fly fishermen, as expounding upon our own theories and observations gives life to many interesting conversations and much enjoyment both on and off the water.

That 100-Year Dun is a design I have been fooling with for something like fifteen years, its single wing tied from a wood duck flank feather inspired by my first studies of Theodore Gordon’s original flies in books and as displayed in the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum. I have been reading Father Gordon again recently and have taken note of comments included in some of his notes and little talks on fly fishing. He wrote of the single wing that he seemed to prefer, though he admitted that he tied flies with split wings as well. In the British publication The Fishing Gazette, from October 13,1906 he writes: “The wings of a dun are really more natural when not split, and if the hackles are put on right the fly will be found to cock well.”

Examining a few of Gordon’s flies has revealed some variations in his hackling. The sparsest example I have seen exhibited no more than two turns of a relatively long fibered hackle wrapped in front of the canted wing. I surmise that fly was intended for very clear, flat water, where he wished for the most natural presentation. Other Gordon ties have had a few turns of hackle to the rear and an equal number of turns to the front of the wing, obviously a better pattern for fishing broken water. We must assume from his comments that both styles “cocked well” when presented with suitable sizes of gut.

I have grown partial to the canted parachute style hackle, wrapped about the very bottom, posted portion of the wing. I tend to wrap from five to seven turns of barred hackle depending upon the size of the fly. The fly sits serenely on the water with the tips of the first couple of turns of hackle fibers in touch with the surface in flat water, and the additional turns provide more support in faster, broken currents. The additional turns have not proven to be a deterrent to the natural appearance of the fly on clear, flat water, a fact I attribute to the properties of barred hackle. I believe they add to the impression of life and movement, and indeed help sell the imitation to selective trout.

The 100-Year Green Drake with quill body. The soft focus on the canted parachute hackle highlights the motion effect of the golden grizzly hackle.

My preference for adding Antron to my fur dubbing blends should not be taken as any sort of detraction from my respect and admiration for the classic Catskill patterns. My dubbing dispenser boxes contain traditional blends as well. My classic Hendrickson dubbing blends various shades from a Red Fox skin, including a touch of the gray underfur, as I have handled many freshly hatched Hendrickson duns with hints of gray on their tannish abdomens. The traditional flies have been proven over more than a century of angling.

I fondly recall the first afternoon of a past season, wading the Beaverkill. It was a rather raw day, and just a handful of Hendrickson duns appeared. I carried my 6 weight Thomas & Thomas Paradigm bamboo rod with an ancient Hardy Perfect. Knotted to my tippet to complete this classic, vintage outfit was a traditional Catskill Hendrickson in size 14. I found only two trout willing to rise, each for a short time. The ancient fly brought sucess, as I landed a remarkable pair of wild, twenty-inch browns with the tackle I had chosen to pay homage to a new Catskill season on the region’s most storied river.

Gordon wrote often of his belief in the importance of color, a facet of imitation still debated enthusiastically today. My own experiences convinced me of the trout’s abilities to discern color very early in my fly fishing, and subsequent decades on the water have reinforced the beliefs lying at the heart of my penchant for blending dubbing. Debate if you will, for certainly there are times when fish will pay little attention to the color of our flies. Be certain however that there are many times when they will respond well only to a fly matching the color of the natural.

I feel that color, size and form are all important factors in the imitation of aquatic insects with the priority of those attributes varying under different conditions. Most vital of all the characteristics that make a good trout fly is the essence of life! Real mayflies, caddisflies and what-have-you move, and dry flies that move and reflect light give the appearance of something alive.

My best Hendrickson pattern during the 2021 spring season? My CDC Sparkle Dun, tied with an Antron trailing shuck, my multi shade fur and Antron dubbing blend, and dark natural dun CDC puffs. Why did this fly fool the largest and wariest brown trout I angled for? Quite simply because it checked all of the boxes: size, form, color, light reflections and movement, beautifully imitating a struggling dun emerging and vulnerable on the surface.

My top producer is a messy fly, and it is intended to be that way. A vulnerable mayfly struggling to fully emerge and fly from the surface of the river is not a perfect little model of insect mimicry. The fly’s Antron shuck will be clustered with air bubbles, as will the rough blended fur dubbing with its trailing guard hairs and Antron filaments. Tying the CDC wing comparadun style places CDC feathers in touch with the surface of the water, where it moves with subtle undulations of current and also traps air bubbles. Does that combination remind you of a wiggling bug you might have seen? Think about it.

Theodore Gordon appreciated the importance of color and the image of life, as he wrote in his “Jottings of A Fly Fisher III” on April 4,1903: “I have, when not able to make a good imitation of the fly upon which the trout were feeding, contented myself with a body of the right color and a few turns of almost any feathers of the right shade.” “This will kill better than a well-formed fly of the wrong color, though greater accuracy is desirable.” He thus advocates matching the color of the natural and, in my understanding, adding a little feather for form and movement as the most important criteria.

A part of my collection of barred hackles, with the natural colors flanked left to right: Barred Rusty Dun, Barred Ginger, Dark Barred Dun, Dun Cree, and Barred Dun, with the dyed Golden Grizzly below.

As the photo of some of my favorite barred hackle capes suggests, I believe heartily in dry fly hackle’s ability to offer an impression of movement; and yes, I am a major fan of Charlie Collins’ hackle. Now if I could only find a goose with a barred bottom and naturally barred dun CDC! Years ago, I bought some CDC feathers that had been barred by dying or printing, but I found the feather quality to be rather poor. To provide both a visual and physical impression, I once tied CDC comparadun wings with a center strip of wood duck flank feather. The method makes an attractive fly, though at the cost of an extra step in tying.

I experiment throughout the season, though new patterns and designs generally require several years for proofing to determine if the new fly produces better than my current patterns. The last two seasons of working with silk dubbing are an example of the process. Flies like my blended silk sulfurs and Halo Isonychia have become staples, while others have had too few trials by fire for their fates to be decided.

It will be a long winter, and I have promised myself to better organize some of my experimental patterns to help with their trials next season. Of course, there are those ideas that seem instantly to be destined for regular use, and go straight into my hatch boxes.

A wish for all of the tyers out there: may your New Year bring inspiration that energizes your trout fishing next spring!

One thought on “Dry Flies

  1. It’s very interesting to read about your experiments with dry fly styles and materials. Of all the different flies I tie, sometimes for different purposes, I enjoy tying your Catskill style dry flies the most.

    I’m quite envious of all the infamous waters you test them out on. My experience had mainly been in the south central states – OK, MO, and AR. In that area I have only encountered March Brown and BWO hatches with any formidable extent or frequency. For the March Browns I have had good success with a very traditional Catskills fly in size 12 with divided wood duck wings, a fawn-dyed beaver dubbed body, and the traditional brown and grizzly hackles. More frequently I encounter BWO hatches. For those I have had great success with a size 18 fly that has dun hen hackle tip fan wings, an olive dyed beaver dubbed body, and dun hackle. I occasionally adults the colors of the hackles from light to dark dun but generally prefer medium dun. I have a Whiting Genetic that has some brown speckling that gets results. For the dubbing though, I have used different colors many times – from tan to gray and different olive dun colors – but always revert back to plain olive when nothing else is working.

    I like the looks of your sparkle dun quite a lot but I must say that I have never had a single strike with one. Not one. Very surprising.


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