Eye of the Guide

DESIGNING TROUT FLIES

Tom Travis - Jan 15, 2018

 

Skues, as we shall see, was to play a pivotal role in the development of nymph fishing, and the discoveries that he made while fishing Tup’s Indispensable were key. In his book Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, published in 1910. Skues recounted that for a while after he was first introduced to this fly he fished it only as a dry fly, but on one July day he “put it over a fish without avail, cast it a second time without drying it. It was dressed with a soft hackle, and at once went under, and the trout turned at it and missed. Again, I cast, and again the trout missed, to fasten soundly at the next offer. It was a discovery for me, and I tried the pattern wet over a number of fish on the same shallow, with most satisfactory results.”

All but the newest fly anglers have at one time or another experienced what Skues described in Minor Tactics, some like Skues realized what they had experienced while others never keyed in on the discovery.

By my own admission I am a fly fishing junkie, and this applies to fly tying and fly fishing history and I often find answers to present day questions in the pages of the pass anglers. Over the years I constructed all types of imitations, from the simple to the most complex and this is normal for many who tie flies and fish them. Fly anglers and fly tiers go through various stages in their growth and development. For those who are serious and passionate about the sport the growth and advancement of skills happens due to a number of factors.

First is time on the water, the second is observation of the trout, learning their feeding habits and the food forms they feed on. The third factor is the ability to keep an open mind about some of the “accepted truths of our sport”. Let me elaborate further on the last statement.

Careful observation may lead one to question certain published facts, such as the trout’s vision and their actions as it is related to their vision. Now over the years much has been published how the trout sees, this question has been sought after ever since fly fishing began.

In the present day science has dissected, diagrammed and analyzed all facets of the trout’s vision and all questions that can be answered have been answered. Therefore, there is much published speculation on how the trout’s vision affects their feeding habits.

Historically speaking is was the personal observations of anglers which began to figure out the feeding behavior of the trout along with time on the water and the experiences of both failures and success of various patterns and methods.

In 1912 Francis Ward published the “Marvels of Fish Life as Revealed by the Camera”, I believe this volume to be the first scientific endeavor to understand the vision of the trout and how it relates to their feeding activity. This volume caught the attention of both F.M. Halford and G.E.M. Skues who had developed their own theories on this subject.

Francis Ward followed up with “Animal Life Underwater” in 1920 in today’s world with the advent underwater cameras and Go-Pro’s there is little about the trout that hasn’t been photographed and documented. This was followed up by Colonel E. W. Harding and the publication of “The Fly Fisher’s and the Trout’s Point of View” in 1931 and he discussed light refraction and several other items dealing with the trout’s vision and feeding habits. As an interesting side note, originally Hardy’s book was not well received in the United Kingdom however it was much better received in the United States. Many others followed in the footsteps of Hardy and Ward leading to works by John Goddard, Brain Clarke, Colin J. Kageyama, Mark Sosin and John Clark and the newest work published by Geoff Mueller in 2013 entitled “What A Trout Sees”. All of this study, speculation and theories have led to advances in fly imitations throughout the past 120 years.

Besides the authors mentioned in this missive many others have weighed in on the vision of the trout. Much of the printed material is true, but much of it is unfortunately irrelevant unless the brain function of the trout is thoroughly considered!

Now back to the fly angler/tier, on the path to enlightenment the angler/tier goes through many stages. At first the new fly tier is looking to construct flies which are effective on the trout streams being fished. As the tier progresses they become more interested in creating food form imitations that are of a more exacting nature.

Partly, the tier does this because of the growing skill level at the vise and on the water and because it is believed that new imitations are needed, and the hobby or art of fly tying leads to creation. In all fairness the new patterns work, and it is partly because of the growing skill of the angler and partly because of the new patterns. I was not an exception to this series of events, as have many others.

However, after a life time of tying flies, observing trout and studying the history of the sport, I have come to different conclusions on certain subjects that deal with the trout’s feeding behavior and pattern designs.

First, let’s examine and discussed what the trout sees, the trout actually have excellent vision and much of the science on this subject has been published however I believe that far too much attention has been placed on the science of the Trout’s vision. The key is the Brain Function of the trout!!

Yes, the trout do have excellent vision now let us talk about this fact, if with their excellent vision they should see the leader as some claim, now consider this fine point, if the trout can see the leader then it would follow that they could see the hook! Now, if the trout can see all of this and their vision is so sharp why would they eat any of our artificial imitations.

If you have followed my reasoning and if you have studied the trout and more importantly the brain functions of the trout, you realize that two facts stand out.

Number one, the brain function of the trout is incapable of forming thoughts and number two what the trout actually sees is not as important as how the brain processes this information. It is the ability to examine all of the facts and think about the information that sets us apart from the other living organisms in the natural world. In my opinion the trout’s behavior is driven by instinct and this is not a conscious thought process.

In simple terms, if it looks like food and acts like food, then the trout will eat the natural or the artificial offering. Now, let’s discuss the subject of the selectivity of the trout as it pertains to feeding behavior. To understand this selective feeding behavior, you need to understand the water types and the trigger that induces the trout to feed. Now, there is no doubt that a poor presentation will be ignored or rejected by the trout.

We have all seen trout approach an artificial imitation and refuse it, and it is this refusal which causes anglers to change flies, tippets and they in turn give the trout all sorts of powers of thought and that is something that they are incapable of conducting.

There is no doubt that some refusals are due to the presentation angle, anglers often change the leader or tippets or change the imitation, however, they often fail to change their angle of presentation.

Now, there is another reason for the refusal. I have observed trout moving up to the natural insect which is floating on the surface in their feeding area and have watched the trout inspect the natural, which is drifting without movement and refuse it!

Now, why would the trout refuse a natural insect, when one has observed the feeding on those very same natural organisms. What I have observed in the situation like I just described is that there is a trigger which causes the trout to feed.

Often the trigger is movement, if the natural floats to the trout without movement it is often refused. However, if the natural moves or flutters in anyway, then the trout will take it immediately.

Now, the trout will key in on various stages of the emerging insects in a particular section of the water column, and each situation there may be a trigger that induces the trout to feed. An accepted fact is that the trout will feed the food forms which are most available to the trout. These situations can be solved through careful observation then the angler chooses the proper imitation and presents the imitation in the proper manner.

Now let’s return to the imitations that we choose, we as angler/tiers are always looking for the perfect imitation for the situation that is encountered. After studying thousands of pages of printed materials from anglers of the past, I have concluded that many of the ancient anglers fished their imitations either wet or dry depending on the situation encountered.

Before we delve into current imitations, we need to wander back through the pages of history and look at the types of patterns that have been proven effective down through the ages. After reviewing the pattern styles and my own notes from years of fishing, I arrived at the selection of Soft Hackles, Wingless Wet Flies and Flymphs along with a few other simple flies. There are several good volumes which chronicles the patterns of yesteryear however the two which I often use are Fish Flies, The Encyclopedia of the Fly Tier’s Art by Terry Hellekson published in 2005 and Trout Fly Patterns 1496 – 1916, The History of Fly Fishing Volume Two, by Andrew Herd published in 2012.

Over the past few years I have had remarkable success using simpler imitations which may be used either as Wet Flies or Dry Flies and as a matter of fact I haven’t used such simple patterns since I was a new fly fisher and fly tier. Remember the effectiveness of simple flies such as woolly worms, hare’s ear nymphs, feather streamers and simple dry flies.

The key for me are imitations that are soft and move in the water and on the water and flies that can be used in a wide range of places in the water column and on the surface of the water. That doesn’t mean that I don’t use patterns of a more complex nature, because I fit the pattern selection to the situation encountered on a daily basis on the water. Now let us return to the current discussion on designing trout flies.

Down through the years I believe that we as anglers have misread the signs that both the trout and the found forms have given us, and thus we have perpetuated certain statements which may not have been accurate.

Consider this, why is it we anglers believe that many of the imitations we fish both above and below the surface are fished dead-drift. My question is, why do anglers fish imitations of living organisms as a dead stick of wood?

Well that is because that is what has been drilled into us since our earliest days as fly anglers, we were told to dead-drift the dry fly or the nymph, and sometimes we enjoyed success but other times we were frustrated when the trout refused our imitations. There were angler both past and present that spoke of moving the imitations, but their method were either relegated to specific situations or ignored all together because the written word was DEAD-DRIFT!

Yes, sometimes the dead-drift method is the appropriate method and is successful but when it is unsuccessful we as angler begin to look for answers by changing tippets or imitations with even considering that subtle movements of the imitation regardless of the imitation being wet or dry may be the answer we are seeking.

Some anglers follow their teachings with dogged compliance without thought or observation of the situation encountered. I continually remind fly anglers that fly fishing is a thinking sport where the most successful anglers are observant and thoughtful.

Observation and success has shown me that subtle movement created either by the angler and/or by the construction of the imitation is indeed effective. Many of the past authors wrote about the insects moving on and in the water while emerging, yet most failed to put it all together. Now, that last comment is not an indictment, generally those observant anglers were generally concentrating on improving certain theories of their own. However, I am surprised that during more recent times the same misconceptions are still being followed with only a few angling authors challenging some of the theories of modern fly fishing.

What has always mystified me is that many angling authors discuss movement of the imitations dealing with caddis or sedges as the English refer to them. However, it is strange that this movement was never accorded to mayflies, midges, stoneflies or terrestrials.

I strongly believe that subtle movement is the key, this movement is created by the angler manipulating the imitation and/or the materials used in the construction of the imitation. By the way, most angler move and manipulations are too fast and rapid to actually mimic the movement of the naturals. Slowing down is the key when imparting movement to the imitations either below the surface of the water or in or on the surface film.

Soft Hackles, Flymphs, Compara Duns, Sparkle Duns, Woolly Worms, Feather Streamers are all simple flies that either move due to the materials used in the construction or can be moved on or it the water.

I might add that Woolly Worms have a long history and can be traced back to Thomas Barker who published The Art of Angling in 1651, Barker described his pattern as a Black Palmer Fly and furthermore described the tying of the pattern. Now it is assumed by many that this pattern was designed as a wet fly. But of that I am less than certain! It may have been fished both as a floating fly and just beneath the surface.

Many of the early fly tiers used wool in the construction of their imitations and at first glance on would consider this type of pattern to be a wet fly, however it is a known fact that wool is infused with lanolin which is a natural floatant and lanolin at that time period in history could be partially removed by the process of repeated scouring. I ask that you consider this fact, and this is that one of the main exports and items sold in Great Britain was water proof or resistant clothing made with wool. Therefore, how much wool was actually available to the early fly tiers that wasn’t infused with lanolin? Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1882 that a German Scientist, Otto Braun, developed a method for removing the lanolin from wool that could be used on an industrial scale.

Dubbed or wrapped wool bodies would offer a rather fuzzy or life-like body shape that would impart natural movement to the imitation regardless of being fished wet or dry.

Now we will jump ahead to 1826 and the publication of The Angling Excursions of Gregory Greendrake, authored by J. Cord. In his volume Cord reported using Hare Ear Fur in nine different patterns. Anyone who has tied with Hare Ear Fur knows its effectiveness and the fact that the bodies tend to be rough and create subtle movement in and on the water and some of fly fishing’s most long-lasting patterns (historically) have been tied with this material.

As an interesting sidebar Cord was not the first to use this material, in the written word the origins can be traced back to Charles Cotton in 1676. Cotton described sixty patterns which he felt were worth using and he never claimed to have invented them! Next, we come to 1857 and the publication of The Practical Angler by William Stewart, this is a landmark volume which would have great impact on the world of fly fishing for many years to come. Stewart made many contributions to fly fishing such as reporting on fishing his soft hackled flies upstream to trout that were visibly feeding, secondly report on the effectiveness of soft hackled imitations. His methods would influence Halford, Skues and a host of notable angling authors in the years to come.

Now, some will claim the Stewart was not the first to write of soft hackles or spiders as he referred to them and that is true, nor was he the first to write of fishing upstream to trout. But he was the first to write of this fact whose volume reach a large audience the other writing seems to be more localize in nature and were commonly known of outside their regional area. If you want a challenge as a fly tier learn to tie the Stewart Spider using the method that he developed, by the way Stewart’s book is still available to those who have an interest. In 2009 Roger Fogg published Wet Fly Tying and Fishing, in discussing Stewart Fogg stated that Stewart fished his patterns in the upper layers of the water and even at the surface!

Again, Roger Fogg’s deductions are not new, many of anglers of yesteryear fished their patterns on the surface of the water, awash in the surface film and beneath the surface of the water as the situation demanded and many of their creations offered subtle movements which created the like-like appearance to the trout.

Stewart by today’s standards fished a limited selection of imitations and believed that the correct presentation was the key factor in success over the trout.

Recent studies have concluded that Soft Hackled flies may have been created in the in Northern Italy in the 9th century and may have been imported to England by the Romans.

Personally, I fished Soft Hackled flies in all areas of the water column, including on the surface and have enjoyed a great deal of success with these simple patterns.

In 1885 T.E. Pritt published Yorkshire Trout Flies which was republished, and title of the volume changed to North Country Flies in 1886 which happens to be the year that Frederic M. Halford began to publish his many volumes on the fishing of the dry fly.

The truth as I see it, is that the popularity of the new advances in dry fly fishing thoroughly overshadowed other styles of fly fishing for the next few years.

Skues was to do important work on wet flies and fishing them just beneath the surface film on his way to the development of the nymph beginning in 1910 with the publication of Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and again in 1921 with the publication of The Way of the Trout with a Fly.

Now I am going slide ahead to the creations and writings of American, James E. Leisenring and his creation of the Flymph. The Flymphs or Wingless Wet Flies as Leisenring referred to them were created during the 1920’s and 1930’s on the Brodhead River and he published his finding in1941 entitled The Art of Tying the Wet Fly unfortunately this volume was latterly lost in the chaos of World War Two.

Leisenring developed his flymphs to imitate emerging insects, they were soft and movable and appeared alive while being fished beneath the surface of the water. Leisenring’s work was to be republished in 1971 by Crown Publishing and was entitled The Art of Tying the Wet Fly and Fishing the Flymph by James E. Leisenring and Vernon S. “Pete” Hidy who was Leisenring’s protégé during the original publication.

By the early 1970’s wet fly popularity had reached an all-time low and soft hackled flies were all but unknown in America, then in 1975 Sylvester Nemes published The Soft-Hackled Fly and reintroduced soft hackles to fly anglers in America and helped to increase their popularity on a world-wide scale. Nemes went on to publish several books on soft hackled flies.

By reviewing the historical information coupled with observation and years of experience on the water I began to take the creations of others and expanding on their patterns and their theories and developed both to cover the various situations on the waters I was fishing. I basically created nothing all I did was codify and expand on the works of others and modify the patterns to match the fishing situations. Any credit should go to those anglers of yesteryear to showed me the way and lead me to new adventures both on the water and at the tying vise.

The pages of history are full of simple patterns which have proven effective now I will share a couple of the pattern styles that I have found to be very effective when fished beneath the surface, in the film or on the surface of the water.

The first pattern is the soft hackle, in design and construction this is a very simple pattern to produce, however by mixing colors and materials you basically can construct imitations to meet any mayfly, caddis, stonefly or midge hatch. Furthermore, these imitations can be fished beneath the surface of the water, awash in the surface film or on top of the surface film as a dry imitation.

Caddis Hatches can bring up every trout in the river, however the egg laying flight may or may not generate any interest from the trout, depending on the conditions of the day.

CDC Soft Hackle Emerging Caddis

From the very beginning Caddis Flies have been on the angler’s radar however the main focus of the anglers was the May Fly. Slowly through the centuries the knowledge base of caddis flies grew. Again, for me it was the combination of Soft Hackle and knowledge of the insects put forth by Gary LaFontaine, Eric Leiser and Larry Solomon and many other and the CDC innovations I have seen at the vices of many of the great fly tiers of the world.

Caddis are without a doubt the most interesting of the emergers to imitate and fish, the imitations can be as simple soft hackles designed to match the colors of the naturals or they can be more involved, both styles will work.

The angler also faces the problem of coming up with a series of imitations which would cover the multiple number of different caddis hatches that can be encountered throughout the season.

Now the emergers that I will be introducing are designed to fish in and on the surface film and can be soaked to fish just beneath the surface film. Emerging caddis pupa are moving, swimming and drifting toward the surface and this swimming motion and change of direction is what makes some of the takes appear to be very aggressive as this is an organism that can escape the clutches of the hungry trout. The color selection I have chosen to present will cover most of the hatches found in Montana and the waters of Yellowstone National Park. Furthermore, I have excellent results on mid-west and eastern streams as well.


Black & Green CDC Soft Hackle Caddis Emerger

With the materials used in the construction of the imitation and by dressing the leader with floatant and applying floatant to the CDC portion of the imitation you have an imitation that can be fished as dry fly or awash in the film as either an emerging caddis or possibly as an egg laying caddis.

As for using Soft Hackles for emerging caddis pupa that is something that fly anglers have been doing for centuries. Simply select a hook which is suitable to the depth of water you will be fishing the imitation and begin by selection abdomen colors, thorax colors and soft hackle which mimics the colors of the caddis pupa you wish to imitate, nothing could be simpler nor are many patterns more effective when properly presented.


PMD SOFT HACKLE

PMD SOFT HACKLE DRY DUN/EMERGER

The PMD Soft Hackle I have chosen is designed for the Pale Morning Dun hatch which happens to be one the most prolific and widespread hatches in the Western United States. This imitation can be used beneath the surface of the water as emerger or drown spinner, in the surface film again as an emerger or on the surface film as a newly emerged dun. The pattern is simple to construct and very effective when used properly.

Many different mayfly or caddis insects can be imitated using soft hackles by simply following the basic colors of the insect I have found that the need for exact imitations of each stage are seldom needed regardless of the water type or the richness of the water being fished, more often than not the key is proper presentation at the proper angle.

Midges and stoneflies can also be properly imitated with soft hackles, just use your powers of observation and mixed and match the material to create a visual rendition of the naturals the soft materials used in the construction of your imitations will impart a subtle life-like action to the imitation making even more effective.

There are many other simple patterns that can be used such as the Student developed by the legendary fly tier and guide Frank Johnson or patterns such as the Flymph, the Fuzzy Nymph or the Feather Streamer you are only limited by your own limitations, so experiment and expand your fly tying and fishing world and enjoy the time you spend in those pursuits.

Enjoy & Good Fishin’

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