Life!

A Hendrickson dun and a 100-Year Dun: the mayfly is better imitated with a size 16 fly, though this size 14 was handy when the captured mayfly allowed me to take the photo.

An angler’s fly should offer a strong impression of life. It is a lesson I learned early in my pursuit of wild trout. In the early 1990’s I lived close to Maryland’s Gunpowder Falls, a lovely little river that boasted a good population of wild brown trout and, for a time, wild rainbows as well. The Gunpowder was my primary classroom, and I studied as frequently as possible.

During the colder months, I fished regularly, most often in the first mile below Prettyboy Dam, for the little river is a tailwater fishery that runs between two Baltimore City reservoirs. The bottom discharge from Prettyboy was cold, typically in the range of 42 to 45 degrees throughout the year and, in winter, that first mile of water had the warmest water in the system. I was fortunate to angle through the heyday of the short-lived rainbow fishery, finding pods of football shaped bows midging aggressively on mild winter days.

The Gunpowder had a good population of various midges and microcaddis in the upper reaches of its tailwater and those trout grew quickly on copious amounts of miniature protein. They could be maddeningly selective. Moreover, these trout averaged between fourteen and sixteen inches in length, quality fish that I very much wished to catch! Their difficulty spawned my first original fly pattern, a minute creation of CDC, ostrich herl and Krystal Flash that matched both midges and microcaddis. I already understood that the movement of the herl and CDC, coupled with the light reflecting body, made my little fly look alive, but I was to get further lessons in the importance of that fact.

There were afternoons when the trout refused my little size 22 dry fly, as well as the Griffith’s Gnats I carried for an alternative. On one frustrating day, multiple fish refused my flies right in front of me. At such close range I could clearly see them come up toward the fly and then turn away just prior to reaching it. Baffled as they continued to feed, I noticed a small, old soft hackle pattern I had purchased upon the fly shop owner’s recommendation, a Partridge & Orange. It looked nothing like the midges the trout were gobbling, and the size 16 fly was three times the size of the bugs on the water, but I tied it onto my 6X tippet, greased a couple of feet of the leader, and began to cast to those haughty rainbows.

Tha faithful old Partridge & Orange soft hackle, as simple a fly as any an angler might choose: orange Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, a pinch of rough dubbing, and two or three turns of a Hungarian Partridge feather. It looks alive in the water!

I could see the fly drifting in the surface film and was wonderfully surprised when a rainbow came up and took it cleanly. My rod throbbed and my reel spun as the smile on my face brightened! That bow was fifteen inches long, a great fish in a river where the browns averaged 10 to 12 inches. As I remember it, I caught two or three more like that on the wrong fly before the hatch subsided. It seemed that movement could overcome selectivity even when the fly didn’t match the hatch! Lesson learned.

Simple, classic trout flies can solve some interesting problems on the water if the angler understands the importance of the image of life.

Since that first winter on the Gunpowder, thirty years of experiences have proven the importance of fishing flies that look alive. Movement within the structure of the fly, and air bubbles and light reflections that can make a fly appear to be moving, are paramount in my own fly designs. My passion is hunting the most difficult wild trout in the rivers I fish. When there are insects hatching, I believe that a fly needs to be a good imitation of the stage of that hatching insect the trout are feeding upon, and it must appear to be alive and moving to fool the toughest trout.

An abundance of one natural food, a hatch of blue-winged olive mayflies for instance, is often responsible for trout selectivity, but it is not the only answer to the selective feeding puzzle. Wild trout that are frequently exposed to heavy fishing pressure can become very selective even when there isn’t a hatch. Pressured trout can be very selective to the image of life.

The three dry flies pictured above were all conceived as imitations of Hendrickson mayflies using my guiding principle of offering the trout a fly with a strong image of life.

My Translucense Beaverkill Hendrickson on the left is tied in the Catskill style, but it features barred and speckled Coq-De-Leon tailing, barred dun hackle, and specially blended silk dubbing tied using pure white silk thread on a Daiichi Crystal Finish hook.

The center fly features the speckled tailing, a color matched quill body, and dark natural dun CDC tied comparadun style. Lastly, on the right, my Drowned Hendrickson features softer barred woodduck tailing, a color matched blend of red fox fur and Antron, and is hackled with CDC and partridge in the soft hackle style.

While the Catskill dry fly won’t move on its own, the barred tailing and hackle will reflect light better and give an indistinct profile suggesting movement, while the high translucency of the silk body adds to the lifelike appearance. The CDC dun will certainly move, and its quill body is a strong imitation of the natural fly. The “drowned” style tie was designed to imitate stunned or drowned duns lying in the surface film with just the slightest quiver of life – alive, but as vulnerable as a mayfly gets.

Cultivating subtle differences in your fly tying can help you solve the puzzles of selectivity. Think about it…

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