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Tying and Fishing Small Flies

How small do you go? I have to admit that as I get older, I am less and less inclined to tie and fish small flies. Getting old is not for the faint of heart! Maybe you are in the same boat.

Photo of me from 1999
Me and a Brown Trout - Timber Coulee 1999, in case you were wondering...

My eyesight has never been the best. I got my first glasses the summer before I turned 14. Between hitting the baseball like shit and routinely fooling the catcher with my pitches, it was time to see if I needed glasses, or so my coach - my dad - told me. I didn't know any better - I figured that everyone saw the world as I did - a little out of focus. Then, a couple of years before my 40th birthday, the eye doctor warned that we are going to be talking about bifocals soon. Sometime just before my 40th, I was fitted with progressive lenses, the somewhat less obvious cousins to bifocals. I have been tying with magnifiers for the past decade or more. Eyesight was the first indicator that getting old was not going to be a lot of fun.

This, I am guessing, is a story pretty familiar to a lot of you and a reason many are not tying and fishing tiny flies. I suppose small or tiny need to be quantified. Today, my idea of small is anything size #20 or smaller. I know many western anglers think of small being #16's and smaller. And many tailwater anglers might think of #16's as large and do not think of fishing #22's and #24's as being particularly small. Like many other anglers, I look at fishing small flies as a necessary evil sometimes. Like you, probably, I do it rather grudgingly, if at all. Others take great pride in catching fish on tiny flies.

West Virginia's Elk River
West Virginia's Elk River, not far downstream from Elk Springs where the stream re-emerges after having gone underground for about 4 miles.

It was not always that way. Many years ago, I hosted a small fly swap through the Wisconsin Fly Fishing Message Board, but that was decades ago and we were all so much younger, and presumably our eyesight was better. Before that, way back in the day, I wrote an article for a friend's Madison-based newsletter venture about fishing small flies. While in West Virginia for graduate school, the Elk River was my favorite stream - though trips to Seneca Creek were pretty special too. There was a bit of a sport around fishing the midge hatches on the long, slow pools with #32 flies and whisper-thin tippets. I have to say I did it mostly to see if I could - and to say I did it. So I hooked and even landed a few Elk River trout on #32 flies.

There is a bit of ridiculousness to fishing flies this small. It certainly is not easy - and I sometimes question if it is all that much fun. I talk about it as a necessary evil but even that I do not think is truly the case. On the Elk River pools we were fishing with #32 flies, I was also catching fish on nymphs and streamers. And once the larger bugs started hatching - the river had great sulphur, Eastern Green Drake, and Isonychia hatches, among others - trout would readily come up and hit dry flies as large as #8 and #10.

Why Tie and Fish Small Flies?

There are a lot of small "bugs". Not only midges but there are winter stoneflies that are #18 and smaller, microcaddis, and a number of species of mayflies that are quite tiny. During the first few months of the early season and again by late summer, small macroinvertebrates are what is available much of the time. A number of small mayflies - BWOs, tricos, Caenis, and a few other lesser known mayflies - can make for pretty good hatches.

Blue-winged Olives are a taxonomic hodgepodge of different genera and what we anglers call BWO's range from as large as a #14, maybe even a #12, down to as small as you want to bother tying and fishing. There are several different genera that comprise what we anglers refer to as BWOs. Plauditus, is part of the genus we all used to call Pseudocloeon which has since largely been placed in other genera. Tiny Blue-Wing Olives of the genus Plauditus are probably the tiny little things you are seeing fall trout rising to. If you want to catch those trout up top, you will probably have to go small. Likely very small - a #24 is on the large size. I will not judge you if it is not something you want to do, I get it. I often make a few halfhearted attempts at those risers and then walk away to look for fish willing to hit the much larger terrestrial, CDC and Elk, or Hippie Stomper I probably have tied on this time of year.

Defying Old Age

The key to tying tiny flies it to keep them sparse and simple - that and lots of light and a magnifier. Sure, you can fuck around and tie a #28 Royal Wulff but that is mostly just showing off - much like fishing that fly is. Sorry for the bluntness - but you know I am right...

"The Dries" of the Elk River, WV
"The Dries" - about a four mile section of the Elk River where the Slaty Fork of the Elk disappears into the ground and "pops" up through a number of springs at Elk Springs, WV.

I met Dave Breitmeier nearly 25 years ago while in graduate school through my friend David Thorne who is now the head of cold water fisheries in West Virginia. Dave was "the guy" on the Elk, nobody knew the river better. He popularized - he proselytized - the fishing of tiny flies on "The Lady". He wrote the book on fishing Elk River #32 - or more accurately chapter #13 in Holbrook and Koch's book, Midge Magic was about Dave and his #32 flies. Dave's flies are simple, a couple of materials at most; some thread, maybe a bit of dubbing, and a little CDC. Small hooks limit what you can do but let's face it, it is not as if a trout can be overly discerning when it comes to something about the size of a large flake of dandruff.

If you are of a certain age - old like me - and have been fly fishing around Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa for long enough, you probably remember Tom Helgeson's Midwest Fly Fishing Magazine. I am not a hoarder, in fact I quite readily get rid of stuff. Recycling my collection of Midwest Fly Fishing Magazines during a move is maybe the only purge I wish had not happened. It really was a fantastic magazine. Today, the Great Waters Expo is a big part of Tom's legacy with the proceeds benefiting Minnesota Trout Unlimited. This post came about because a friend, Herb Haines sent along photos of a Jay Johnson article about fishing fall BWO (Plauditus) hatches from Midwest Fly Fishing Magazine.

You will see that Jay's Plauditus flies are very simple, and like Dave Breitmeier's #32's for West Virginia's Elk River, they feature materials like CDC, poly yarn, snowshoe hare, and often lack much, if any dubbing. Tiny little hooks do not allow you to do too much on their shanks, so keep it simple. Hit the main points - an upright wing, maybe get fancy and split that wing; simple tails or shucks, and a thread body, maybe a bit of dubbing to make the thorax just a bit enlarged. With the help of a good light source and some magnification, you can tie these flies. Trust me, I do and my eyes are quite less than great.

That leads us to actually fishing these glorified pieces of dandruff. There are ways you can make this work - you have to decide whether or not you want to. The first two keys are keeping your casts short and over unbroken water. Cast that #28 into a riffle or run and you are unlikely to see it and it may or may not float - but that is OK because you will probably never know. Want to catch fish on tiny flies, stealthy wading and a bit of patience are necessary. On the Elk, I would slowly wade into position and then give it time - five minutes or more - before making a cast. Make short, accurate casts and you stand a chance of at least hooking trout. Landing them can be another struggle. These were lessons I learned many years ago on the Elk River.

There are some other things you can do to help you see your flies on the water. I will fairly regularly fish a tiny fly as a dropper behind a slightly larger dry fly. This point fly is usually a CDC and Elk or something else that is rather visible but not very large. While you do not have a ton of room on the fly, a bit of visible materials on the fly can help. A bit of white or even a brightly dyed CDC or a bit of hot pink Flouro Fiber or something similar may make fishing a #28 a little easier - or at least a bit less ridiculously difficult. The hardest part might be threading the hook eye. I have not succumbed to it it yet but some friends use threader fly boxes or tools. I do have to take my glasses off and find just the right focal distance to thread the hook eye. I assume I will soon be carrying magnifiers with me.

I certainly will not call it "impossible" but it is difficult. It is not for everyone - it is often not for me. But there are times that I am up for the challenge, though those days are fewer than they used to be. Even this dry fly snob is not above fishing the dark arts if the alternative is fishing a #30 to match the hatch. But your mileage may vary.

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David Stakston
David Stakston
Dec 27, 2022

One day on the stream on my dad's farm (now called stone quarry canal #2) I met my neighbor fly fishing under the black willow trees back in the 1960's. The brown trout were rising continuously but with the flies in his fly box he was having no strikes. I asked him if I could cast the fly I had on under the black willow trees to see if I could entice a strike from the rising brown trout. I had on a black #18 or smaller fly. On my very first cast I got a strike and landed a foot long brown trout from under the black willow trees. The only reason this encounter is remembered is because my…


Andrew Voorhees
Andrew Voorhees
Dec 26, 2022

I tend to go smaller in colder weather or when the only thing coming off are small no-see-ums (microcaddis, midges... small black stones). For midges, I will often first try cluster imitations but I remember when I first saw big browns feeding on midges by gulping mouthfulls... I must have spent an hour trying to time a cast to hit at the right time to no avail. Out West, WD40s in small sizes can be deadly on Spring Creeks in late summer/fall but as Jason stated, it's not always easy to land a trout on a baby hook. Yes at 50+, eye sight has something to do with it but I will more often than not use a stimulator/terrestrial on…


In my first 8-10 years of fly tying I fished in streams that didn’t need that little stuff. Then I moved for a job and fished the northern end of the Driftless, and had to learn to fish all over again. A guy I met on a stream gave me two flies that were nothing but a thread body and a very small thorax of fine fur. I thought the flies looked ridiculous. Then I encountered a not too large but interesting fish that would rise quickly three or four times, then let my little Adams pass over his head. The only approach to his rise was from directly downstream. On my second trip there I realized he was rising…

Jason G. Freund
Jason G. Freund
Dec 26, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, as always, Perry, for sharing your thoughts which are always insightful and interesting.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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