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The Beauty in Simplicity: Why I Prefer Tying Flies I Don't Mind Losing

While I enjoy fly tying a lot and tie a lot more flies than I lose most years, I have a preference for flies I don't mind losing. While I enjoy fly tying, I HATE losing flies. I will never forget fishing with a good friend of mine, let's call him "Mike Kuhr" so to make him anonymous, on the Lower Wisconsin River for Smallmouth Bass. He tied about three "Game Changers" that he proudly brought to the river. They were gorgeous flies! It took "Mike" about 3 casts to lose the first one to a log jam. It is REALLY hard to retrieve a fly with a canoe in the current of the lower Wisconsin River. "Mike" proceeded to lose another Game Changer to the river - I can't remember how - and then there was one. This Game Changer never made it close to cover. That, in a nutshell, is my issue with "intricate flies".

As someone that really enjoys fly tying for fly tying's sake, I have absolutely no issues with tying complex flies. I mean, I tie musky flies for fun and have never cast one of them in musky waters. I enjoy tying a Game Changer or other articulated streamers once in awhile. However, most of what I tie are rather simple flies that I don't mind losing because more than anything, I am a practical angler.

CDC and Elk caddis
A pile of CDC and Elk Caddis - a two material fly that is super-effective.

I think one of the common misconceptions about simple flies is that they're easy to tie. Proportions are a TON of what a well tied fly is about. A simple fly that is poorly tied really stands out as there is so little there to hide imprefections. A winged wet fly with a poorly proportioned wing, a softhackle with an uneven body, a sparkle dun with a poorly tied wing, or any number of other "simple" flies stand out when poorly proportioned or tied.

Many of my favorite flies - Hans Weilenmann's CDC and Elk, Frank Sawyer's pheasant tail nymph, Al Troth's elk hair caddis, Fran Betters "The Usual", Mathews' and Juracek's sparkle dun or Caucci and Nastasi's Comparadun, a simple foam bettle or Crowe Beetle, Don Gappen's Muddler Minnow, or even the rather simple, yet effective Wooly Bugger, first by Russell Blessing. Softhackles and wetlies have been around for many decades now because they simple work - despite, or maybe because of, their simplicity. There is nothing all that complicated about Clouser's Deep Minnow, Lefty's Deceiver, the combination of the two - the Half and Half, or any number of exeedingly effective saltwater streamers. Flies for bonefish and redfish are often just as simple. The Crazy Charlie, Gotcha, Bonefish Bitters - are all effective bonefish flies and the redfish flies are quite similar. And the list goes on...

There are flies that are almost destined to be lost. The Mangrove Muddler, a fly I wrote about a while back, is one such fly. It is designed to fish around mangrove roots for snook and other fishes along the Florida coast. The design is simple and tied with "leftovers" - the backside of a bucktail. The George Close version above has no body and the white is tied about a third of the shaft back from the eye. The overwing and bit of flashabou, just a bit forward of that. And then the head is pretty simple spun deer hair head that leaves plenty of room for the hook guard. Clean, simple, and effective. I am much more apt to throw this towards a Lower Wisconsin River deadfall than I am a Game Changer.

Milwaukee Leech
A Milwaukee Leech - or at least my varation on it. I'm going to lose a few of these a year - they're meant to fish deep and slow.

There are any number of other flies that are quite likely to be lost - beaded nymphs that are meant to get down, a heavily weighted Clouser Minnow, the Milwaukee Leech above, or any number of weighted flies. These tend to be pretty simple flies - at least for me. I don't want to put 10 or 20 minutes into a fly that I am pretty likely to hook bottom with.

Why it is important...

Getting close to cover is often the difference between catching fish and just fishing. Nowhere have I fished that it is more important - at times - than the Lower Wisconsin River. Now, much of the fishing is relatively far from cover when they are crashing but outside of that, fish are typically tight to cover and out of the current. While the crash is amazing, maybe the biggest challenge on "the Lower" is when they are not crashing and are tucked up next to logs, under the foam that forms in little nooks and crannies of the abundant woody debris in the river.

Piece of woody debris, Lower Wisconsin River.
A bit of isolated woody debris on the Lower Wisconsin River at the tail of an island. My first cast was a pike - then we caught smallies.

My friend Ben fishes what he calls the "Harm's Way" popper - essentially a version of H.G. Tapply's deer hair surface bug. While the original is a deer hair fly, it is about as simple a deer hair fly as you can tie (another article on the pattern). The fly is simple - a tail of bucktail and a body of spun deer hair. And it is the sort of deep hair fly where you should not spend too much time and effort trying to create a tightly packed body. Afterall, this fly is meant to be put into harm's way.

I am mostly a trout angler that occassionaly gets a chance to fish warmwater, however there are many situations where you need to put flies close to cover to catch trout too. As a mostly dry fly snob, I have caught many fishes that would not budge from their secure lies and my cast had to be made close to cover, under a tree branch, over or around a log or rock, or maybe all of those at once. Maybe one of the "tells" of a good angler is that they are willing, and sometimes able, to make those casts.

And as mostly a dry fly guy that loves fishing terrestrials, the "Holy Grail" of terrestrial trout are the ones that hit the fly after you gently pulled it off the streamside vegetation. I might get one or two of these a year and each time, it's goosebump enducing. Some days, trout are not willing to chase and are only going to hit flies that are cast close to cover. I had a day like this several years ago when I was out playing with a terrestrial pattern I was developing (link) and nearly every fish was tucked up under the undercut banks and overhead vegetation. They would not move and casts that caught fish were almost always 6 to 9 inches from the bank. Too close and they didn't see them, too far and they wouldn't move that far to chase them. Of course, I have other days when fishing terrestrials when the fly just has to hit the water.

Don't let me disuade you from tying the Game Changer or other complex, involved, and/or time consuming patterns. They can be a lot of fun. In fact, I rather enjoy tying Game Changers and they swim like no other fly. But I am not about to spend 45 minutes tying a fly to lose it on the first cast. I'm going to be a little more "pragmatic" about fishing a Game Changer than I am about fishing Tap's Bug or similar flies.

On Another Note

Retrieve those flies you have lost! Three different times in my life, I have seen birds (twice) and bats (once) hanging from a power line or a tree in a very dead and desicated state. Since seeing this the first time many (many!) years ago, instillied in me that I should make every effort I can to retrieve the flies I've lost to trees. And not just because I am cheap but because of what I have seen flies inadvertently catch. I'm still not sure how someone cast over a powerline but it may not have been a fly, rather a baited hook. This one, I remember well, however as the bat hanging four feet below the powerline was a rather eirie sight.

I am a bit less dilligent about flies lost to the bottom but I generally try to retrieve those, if it is rather easy to do. Much of the time, it is not or I do not want to "trash the hole" by wading through it. If the fly is deep, that makes it harder to find.

Of course, if you're like me, you are probably losing more flies to streamside vegetation than you do to in-stream obstructions...

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4 opmerkingen

I’ve caught some bass, panfish, a couple of northerns, and a few walleyes on flies, but I am really only a stream trout fisherman. I fish the Driftless, Wisconsin’s Trout Free Zone (TFZ), and the Minnesota North Shore, with a few side trips to South Shore rivers.


I have tied my own flies since 1965. I am persnickety about flies, tweaking patterns for the streams that I fish the most. I have my old favorites, and I usually have a few experimental patterns in my box. I follow a variation of the “Game of Nods” that Vince Marinaro wrote of in his second book. Sometimes it seems that just a turn or two more or less of hackle will…


Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
18 dec. 2023

They way I fish - heavy leaders and wire bite guards - means I don't lose a lot of flies...I can't recall if I lost one, or two this year...and that was it. One of those was to a pike on one of the few occasions I fished without a wire bite guard. It's also pretty easy to maneuver a drift boat to a bottom snagged fly, or a fly snagged on riverside branch. It's even easier to maneuver a larger boat, with a trolling motor, when fishing lakes. That we're almost always using 8 wt. and up rods also helps a lot...we're not worried about snapping a delicate rod tip. All that said, I seem to finding that I'm catching more fi…

Jason G. Freund
Jason G. Freund
18 dec. 2023
Reageren op

I should have - and meant to - mention the Murdich Minnow as a favorite, relatively quick and simple fly. That tail isn't quite a "Game Changer" but moves about as well as any fly other than a Game Changer.

Your next challenge - scale up Bill's Tongue Depressor...the wobble on that fly is fantastic. Or based on your comment on that post, maybe you have.


john welter
john welter
17 dec. 2023

One of my rules of thumb is this: a fly shouldn’t take any longer to tie than it does to lose. There are exceptions, e.g., Prince Nymphs or Muddlers, but that rule helps keep things in perspective. Thanks for a nice piece, Dr. J.

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