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In Praise of Simple Flies

Without question, my favorite flies are simple ones. It's not that I have anything against the more complex ties - they can be fun to tie, provide a challenge, and some of them work quite well. But for day in, day out fishing, my favorite patterns are simple flies. Not just because I can tie up a dozen of a pattern for "tomorrow" - but that certainly helps - but they simply work. There is a reason the pheasant tail nymph, a number of soft hackles such as the Partridge & Orange, Sawyer's Killer Bug, the Catskill patterns, and a host of other rather simple patterns work so well and have withstood the test of time. They catch fish and have done so for many years.

It seems to be a common misconception that simple flies are necessarily easy to tie well. In many ways, they can be quite difficult because when you can't hide much, everything you do is there to be seen by all. The classic Catskill flies are great examples. A little off with the proportions and it is quite readily obvious that the wing is too long, the tail too short, the body not tapered correctly, the hackle is too large or too small, or the eye is too crowded. You can't hide any of it.

CDC and Elk
A stack of CDC and Elk flies - two materials, not counting the hook and thread and absolutely deadly.

Those that fish with me know I fish very few flies most of the time. I fish Hans Weilenman's CDC and Elk about 75% of the time from April 1 to about mid-June when caddis are at their peak. We are blessed with small streams with lots of trout which means if only a small percentage are "looking up", I can have a pretty great day fishing dry flies. I can catch fish the way I want to catch them. There are literally two materials - CDC and Elk - and I can tie one in 2-3 minutes. Most importantly, it has all the properties I like in a fly pattern. It moves on its own, it can be skated (do NOT overlook moving your flies), and it has a great caddis silhouette.

The CDC and Elk is a good example of a simple fly that is not necessarily that easy to tie well or at least consistently. I've probably tied this fly pattern more than any other fly pattern - including 10 dozen over a couple of days once for the Driftless Angler fly shop. CDC is not at all like tying with Whiting hackle where the feathers are breed for consistency. So one fly has fibers that are a little longer or denser and by the end, your 10 dozen flies look a good bit different from how you usually see flies in fly shop bins. Consistency is tough with natural materials but honestly if I'm tying for myself, I like a bit of inconsistency. Some flies get an extra wrap or two of hackle and get used in faster water or some days the less orderly CDC and Elk flies seem to do a bit better, other days those that look more like a standard dubbed fly might work better. Or maybe none of that really matters. Who knows?

Cricket fly pattern
"My Cricket" - a modified Wendelberg cricket pattern, a nice simple, effective summer fly pattern.

The Golden Age of Fly Tying

We are in the golden age of fly tying. There are more new materials, fly patterns, and amazing resources such as social media, YouTube, and books. It has never been easier to share the flies you have tied, to find flies others have tied, and more importantly to learn to tie just about anything. There can be a lot of BS to wade through - I am sure I will tackle that some day.

Let's face it, much of the tying we do is for ourselves and not the fishes. I'm sure the fishes do not really give a shit if you have used a Cree hackle or a "spotted Champagne" hackle. Maybe the 3 more steps added to the pattern or the wisp of a CDC collar tied with your fancy Swiss CDC potato chip clip (hey, I have one too...) matter, maybe they don't. They probably don't...

Mangrove Muddler, tied by George Close
A George Close tied Mangrove Muddler, an Aaron Adams saltwater pattern that is pretty effective in freshwaters too.

For fishing, I love "quick and dirty" flies. Flies that make me a couple of minutes to tie. Flies you don't mind losing. Have you ever lost a Game Changer that took you 45 minutes to tie? I thought Mike was going to shed a tear when that third one snagged up on a Lower Wisconsin River log.

So I like fishing flies, not display flies. Quick and dirty - streamers that take you 5 minutes to tie. Dries and nymphs where you can cut that number in half. They may not win you awards or draw the interest of many anglers but those that know, know. I like flies that move in the water which are not necessarily the ones that draw your eyes while sitting in a fly bin at the local fly shop, on Facebook or Instagram, or your buddy's fly box. A lot of this ground was covered in a styles of flies post a few weeks ago.

A few big streamers
Game Changers, sliders, and articulated streamers - the fun stuff

However, when I am tying flies for fun and not because I need to fill my boxes; I am tying articulated streamers, "game changers", poppers, divers and sliders, or trying my hand at something totally different - saltwater flies, musky flies, and other things I may never fish. There is a part of fly tying that is about creativity. There is an art to it. Again, not to say that art does not exist in simple flies, but there are different challenges.

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Simple trout flies are best, but they should be tailored to the tastes and habits of the trout. The tailoring is based on stream work, not on guesswork. I have a soft hackle pattern that I tie in size 12 with the same materials always, but on a regular weight hook, on a heavier hook that will sink deep without added wire or one of those terrible beads, and on a fine wire hook when I want to fish it as an emerger. I found a large fish in a long pool. I couldn’t fool her when she was in shallow water. I tied a sparse version of my soft hackle on a size 6 salmon fly hook and caugh…

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