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Fly Fishing Fads - in praise of old flies and ways of fishing

This in not an anti-technology or anti-progress rant but more of a reminder that the old stuff still works too. Pheasant tail and gold-ribbed hare's ear nymphs never really go out of style, at least not with the fishes. Soft hackles fished down and across still work, as do "old school" wet flies - most of us, myself included - just don't fish them. The muddler minnow did not stop working. Clouser Deep Minnows are still about the fish-catchingist fly on Earth (OK, everyone is still fishing that one...). While fly fishing and fly tying progress, there is no need to ignore the old tried-and-true patterns. They work for a very good reason - they look like food!

Ed Haaga and Hans Weilenmann flies
Some "old school" flies tied by Ed Haaga - and a couple of newer school from Hans Weilenmann - which are also simple, well tied flies. I'm sure they'd still work - but they'll never get fished.

It seems that fly fishing is prone to fads. Nymph fishing is now "Euro" and "tactical", whatever the hell tactical means anymore. And we are moving back to more "normal sized" streamers (somewhat...) after the pendulum had swung pretty far to the "bigger is better" side. The twelve inch streamer with three hooks and seven articulations is fun to tie but it may scare more trout than it catches. But boy do folks ever look cool fishing them. And they photograph really well for Instagram and Facebook (I know, I tie and post a lot of them myself).

No small part of this innovation are the economics of fly fishing. In the fishing world, fly fishing is small potatoes. Growth comes in attracting new anglers or coming up with new "have to have" gear, materials, flies, etc. every year. If everyone were still fishing the Sage rod they built in 1995 like I do fairly often, fly shops would sell a lot less "cool stuff". The streamer "game" and "Euro nymphing" have brought innovations and provided new ideas and tools for catching trout. And it has sold a lot of rods, fly lines, leaders, flies, and other gear. I have no interesting in Euro nymphing but tight line nymphed before it was "Euro", "tactical", or cool. It is much the same on the conventional gear side of things where electronics evolve at this crazy pace. Money drives innovations - and a lot of these innovations are pretty damn cool, others are not my thing. So be it.

A tiny bit of my foam collection
Foam, synthetics, foam cutters - I am a sucker for new and innovative materials - which includes the foam shelf liner to tie a simple and effective ant pattern.

I have a bit of a confession - I am a fly tying tool and material junkie. Not much of a confession, I know. I like trying it all. I have the fancy chip clip (YouTube video) - #1343 in case you were wondering. I've tried who knows how many different hackle pliers (these are my favorites). I have more gadgets and gizmos; more synthetics and crazy new materials than most anyone I know. For me, experimenting and trying new things is part of the fun in fly tying. I enjoy playing with the newest threads, tinsels, wires, hairs from Mongolia or elsewhere mostly because I have the attention span of a five-year-old and if I only tied flies I know I will fish; I would probably tie 10% of the flies I do now. I enjoy tying and part of that enjoyment is learning to use new and different materials and tie new fly styles.

Bob Clouser tied Clouser Deep Minnow
A Bob Clouser tied Clouser Deep Minnow - if it ain't chartreuse, it ain't no use...

Everything that is old now was once new. I heard Bob Clouser talk about how the development of his deep minnow took a few years after he was given dumbell eyes to try. Theo Bakelaar - Mr. Goldbead - of Holland and others introduced much of the world to the beadhead nymphs that are commonplace today. The parachute style of tying dry flies dates back probably 100 years but certainly became more common around the 1980's. Any number of synthetics were created for other purposes and adapted to fly tying by enterprising fly tyers.

flies for Project Clouser
A pile of Closer Deep Minnows I tied using a variety of natuals and synthetic materials.

So my point is that new materials, techniques, and all that are cool but do not ignore the old tried and true. I look at newer nymph fly patterns and about half are "new" because they put a hotspot on a pheasant tail, replaced pheasant tail with Coq de Leon for the tail, or it is a pattern borrowed from another place. I remember before Euronymphing and Perdigons became all the rage, it was Czech nymphs. A lot of the nymphs that are introduced to North America are things that were "discovered" by competitive fly anglers (Yes, fly fishing has competitions - for better or worse - mostly worse...). Thanks to John Bethke's Pink Squirrel, hot spots have been en vogue in Wisconsin long before they were cool elsewhere in the states. We treat centuries old Japanese flies (Kabari) as "new" because they are new to North America.

There are a bunch of patterns we all know as they have stood the test of time - the Adams, elk hair caddis, Clouser Deep Minnow, woolly bugger, and the previously mentioned pheasant tail and gold-ribbed hares ear nymphs. How do I know they have stood the test of time? They all have Wikipedia pages. And we can add in a number of soft hackle and wet fly patterns that are well known and probably under-fished today. My question for today is why? Trout probably have not gotten a whole lot more intelligent over time. I mean they still have not figured out that hook thing and how to avoid them so let's not elevate their intelligence too much.

Donated fly boxes and wallets
Fly boxes and leather wallets (thanks, Sarah!) with flies I tied and donated to Coulee Region TU. A mix of old and new.

It seems to be a bit of a trend that flies have evolved to be increasingly colorful and less realistic. Put a pheasant tail nymph, a Perdigon, and a live Baetis (BWO) nymph next to one another and the PT nymph is a much better match for the natural, but does it matter?. Some have observed that the less realistic flies seem to work better than those that look more like the naturals. I do not pretend to know exactly why that happens but I can come up with all sorts of untested - and maybe untestable - hypotheses. Trout see colors differently than we do, what they are seeing are often backlit, they may be looking for something that sticks out - they have evolved to capture the easiest of prey item, or any number of other reasonable explanations. What I do know is that pink and purple flies work and hotspots on nymphs seem to really work, quite often better than a more realistic pattern does.

Purple Hippie Stomper
Andrew Grillos' Hippie Stomper - a Driftless standard - in purple. Why does it work? I am not sure I know.

In any case, I am regularly fishing pink or purple parachutes and foam terrestrials like Andrew Grillos' Hippie Stomper or Morrish Hoppers. Why do pink and purple work? I don't know but they do and I fish them enough that a friend e-mailed me to ask if I lost a pink hopper in a trout he landed. It was not mine - but it could have been. But purple flies are nothing new - the Snipe and Purple Softhackle dates back to at least 1858. Modern fly tyers did not invent "crazy" colors.


I can't say I have figured out the whens and wheres of fly selection. When and where are less realistic, more colorful flies advantageous, I am not entirely sure. What I do know is that as often as not, the nymph you are using to imitate a BWO nymph does not need to look all that much like a BWO nymph for you to be successful. When does a pheasant tail nymph outperform a flashier nymph? I am not entirely sure.

Clost Carpet Fly
The Close Carpet Fly - now an "old fly", I suppose, was based on an even older fly - the Hairwing Adams.

Back to the original premise - try those old flies, they still work! They really never stopped working. Not every fly needs flash or beads or new synthetics. Last year I had a New Year's resolution to fish more down and across flies - softhackles and wet flies and I have to say that I failed pretty miserably at that resolution (as I do with most resolutions). Maybe this year is the year...

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