Designing Better Trout Flies
There’s nothing new under the sun, right? Wrong!
One of the country’s best fly tiers shares his ideas for creating new patterns.

by Dick Talleur

There are literally thousands of fly patterns in existence, but many tiers like to play around and create original dressings. I think this inventiveness is due to the avalanche of new materials on the market and the level of expertise of those tiers.

I fish with many of the old favorite patterns, as well as with flies on which I have made innovations. There is an enormous gray area between what is a truly new fly and what I call a “dust-off. ” An older fly that has been changed only slightly is a dust-off. For example, I often use Microfibetts, which are synthetic tailing fibers, in place of the traditional throat hackle fibers for the tails on conventional dry flies. Those are dust-offs.

ImageSalmon flies are ripe for innovation; there is virtually no limit to the new patterns we can create, especially Pacific salmon flies. I remember my first trip to Alaska; that was back in 1983. The silver salmon were running, and I soon learned that the most visible flies produced the best results. Flashabou had recently come onto the market, and we stayed up nights stacking various color combinations of the material onto hooks. I came up with one that Bill Harris, my traveling and fishing partner, named Michael Jackson’s Shoes.

Those sorts of unusual patterns are okay for fractious Pacific salmon, but what about trout flies? For our own convenience, we classify them as attractors and imitators, but to the fish, they are all imitators because trout eat only what they perceive as food.

It is now ancient history, so I’ll admit to a ploy I resorted to a number of years ago. I was a member of a private fishing club that had a lovely stream. It had pretty good hatches and a fair number of stream-bred trout. The river-keeper, however, liked to supplement the population of native fish with sizable trout from a private hatchery. He would carry a shoulder bag of food and feed them a couple of times a day, throwing in scoops of pellets to keep the fish in our pools. I was often on the water during a good hatch, but the trout hardly touched the insects. As you can imagine, I tied some pellet flies that consisted of nothing more than spun-and-trimmed deer hair. I would cast them on the water with a splat, and they worked great.

Of course, I didn’t show those “flies” around, and all the other patterns I’ve since created look more like something you’d find in your neighborhood fly shop.

Hook Notes
Let’s look at some of the more important considerations of fly design. We’ll start with hook selection. Today, there are hooks of just about every conceivable size and shape. They allow us to design flies that match whatever food the trout have in mind, as well as anything purely imaginative.

For typical dry flies, select hooks made with lightweight wire that will allow patterns to float. At the risk of getting overly technical, I weighed two batches of dry-fly hooks—10 to a batch—on my old gunpowder scale. Here are the results:

Daiichi 1180 (labeled “standard wire”): 0.82 grains per hook.
Mustad 94833 (labeled “3X-fine wire”): 0.67 grains per hook.

I know that seems like quite a difference in weight, but with today’s superior hackle and modern flotants, I find no problems with dry flies tied on standard-wire hooks. And, for catching heavier trout in swift currents, the added strength may be necessary. For sparsely dressed flies, such as No-Hackles and some spinner patterns, fine-wire hooks might afford a moderate advantage in flotation.

As for wire diameter, there is little difference between those sample hooks. Measured at middle of the shanks, the Daiichi hook measurers 0.024 inch and the Mustad just under 0.022, so there’s not much of a trade-off. By the way, always de-barb a fine-wire hook before tying the fly. This way, if a brittle hook breaks during de-barbing, you lose only that hook.

Here are just a couple more thoughts before moving from dry flies. I like a model-perfect bend because the semicircular shape helps position the tail straight off the rear of the hook. I also like a turned-down eye because I often tie a dry fly to the tippet using a figure-eight Turle knot. When properly tied, this knot forms a sort of noose behind the hook eye.

There are many non-typical hook shapes available for tying dry flies. For example, light-wire shrimp and scud hooks are good for tying floating emergers with bodies that hang below the surface film; the Klinkhamer Special is typical of these types of flies.

For subsurface hooks, heavier wire not only adds strength, but it also helps sink the flies. If you’re trying to imitate a particular bug, the shape of the insect is always a consideration. This accounts for the wide selection of shank lengths and also the unique shapes such as swimming-nymph hooks.

As a rule of thumb, I like standard-length shanks for tying soft-hackle wet flies. For classic winged wet flies, such as the Leadwing Coachman and Hare’s Ear, I favor 1X-long hooks because they seem to fit these flies better.
Standard-length hooks work okay for soft-hackle wet flies, although they do shorten the bodies a bit. Longer shanks offer the space required for bead and cone heads, which have become quite important in modern fly design. I like 1X-long hooks for bead-head and bead-thorax soft-hackles and some nymphs, and 2X-long hooks for longer nymphs. For really long nymphs, such as big stoneflies and large mayflies, switch to 3X- and 4X-long hooks.
Streamers are tied on hooks ranging from 3X to 10X long. Those extra-long hooks are made of fairly heavy wire because larger, stronger fish can bend them. My preference is for 6X- to 8X-long shanks for most streamer flies.
Sometimes it’s easier to tie a streamer on a looped-eye hook. As the wire returns to create the eye, it forms a platform that is perfect for positioning bulky materials squarely on top of the hook. The only drawback is that a looped eye may rule out using a cone head. But, of course, there are other methods of adding weight, or you might be able to use a slotted faceted cone head.

Bead Basics
Let me offer a few observations about beads as they relate to hooks. Some beads might not fit onto hooks with complex curve shapes, such as Sproat and Limerick bends. However, there are now slotted faceted beads that will accommodate these hooks. Faceted means a bead has flat spots like a geodesic dome, so it doesn’t roll around so much. Slotted faceted cone heads are also available.

Brass and tungsten are the two predominant metals used to make beads and cones. I’ve yet to see an accurate comparison of these metals in any fly-tying supply catalog, so I weighed them on my powder scale. I discovered that tungsten is 2.6 times heavier than brass. In other words, you would need to use two 1/8-inch and one 1/16-inch brass beads to approximate the weight of a single 1/8-inch tungsten bead. Obviously this isn’t practical, so use tungsten when you want a lot of weight.

Here’s a tip you’ll find helpful when handling beads. In the accompanying photo, you’ll see that I’ve added heat-shrink tubing to the jaws of inexpensive long-nosed hackle pliers. They hold beads securely while turning them to see which side has the smaller aperture, which is usually where you’ll insert the hook point. With really small-diameter beads, lay them on something soft, such as a little piece of foam, so that the jaws can grip the center of the bead.
As with hooks, there are lots of excellent threads available today. I usually choose the finest-diameter thread that is still strong enough to accomplish the task at hand, but there are exceptions. A prime example is my method for tying the Stimulator, where I use Uni-Stretch floss as both thread and body material until the final couple of operations.

Not long ago, the denier system for measuring threads was introduced. It’s based on the weight rather than the diameter of the thread. The intent is to describe the numerous tying threads more accurately than 3/0, 6/0, 8/0, and so on. This older system of numbering threads doesn’t account for differences caused by variations in materials. The new method is helpful—to a point—but I wouldn’t get too enslaved by it, and it’s better to select the appropriate thread based on your tying experiences.

The different materials used to make threads result in slightly different handling characteristics. For example, Uni-Thread 8/0 is made of polyester. It is very strong for its di-ameter, and is twisted, like the old silk threads. Danville Flymaster is nylon, and it is a little more slippery than the Uni product, and it tends to lie slightly flatter. These are two very popular threads for general tying, and the choice is yours.

For heavier work, such as spinning and stacking hair on bass bugs and mouse patterns, the new gel-spun threads are ideal. They have a very high strength-to-diameter ratio, and are quite slick, so that hairs spin over them almost as if you were spinning hair on a bare hook. Several companies offer gel-spun thread in several weights.
Uni-Nylon is another thread that works well for jobs requiring extra strength. Uni-Nylon comes in two weights: 7/0 (210 denier) and 12/0 (70 denier). This is a relatively new product that has not yet received the exposure it deserves. While not quite so strong as gel-spun, the 7/0 does a fine job of spinning deer hair on Muddlers, Irresistibles, and similar flies, and it is economically priced.

As for color, I prefer using a thread that matches or complements the overall coloration of the fly, especially the body. This is more important on a subsurface fly where the wet body allows the underlying thread to show through.

Body Materials
There’s virtually no end to what’s out there for tying bodies, so I can speak only in generalities. Dubbing ranges from soft, fine, and smooth packing, to rough, slippery, ragged, and gnarly. I generally use the smooth stuff on dry flies; I prefer the more coarse materials on subsurface flies, where I like to create a diffused effect. But, I’ll switch dubbing depending upon the effects I’m trying to create.

Dubbing is usually applied to either a single strand of thread or placed in a dubbing loop. The method you use depends upon the texture of the dubbing and hook size.

A dubbing loop is great for controlling rougher dubbings, but it takes up more space and is not practical for making smaller flies.

Both natural and synthetic dubbing have a lot to offer. You can create good-looking mixes by combining a natural fur, such as the ever-popular hare’s ear, with a sparkly synthetic. I like blends because real insects tend to be complex in coloration.

Flosses and yarns are still popular body materials. They generally correspond to smooth and coarse dubbings, respectively. Some yarns have complex coloration and yield attractive bodies. The stretch nylon materials, such as Uni-Stretch and Danville Nylon Stretch, are excellent floss substitutes and can be mounted in bobbins for easy wrapping.

Closed-cell foam is very useful for making the bodies on large dry flies. It’s cheap, easy to use, and comes in many colors. I particularly like a product called Locofoam, which was designed by master fly tier Harrison R. Steeves III.
Locofoam is a dense closed-cell foam that has a metallic sheet bonded to the surface. Locofoam is ideal for tying terrestrial patterns such as beetles, ants, hoppers, and crickets, as well as some larger aquatic insects. It is manufactured in two thicknesses: 1/16 and 1/32 inch. On the 1/16-inch material, the foam base comes in many different colors; the foam on the 1/32-inch material comes only in black, but is available with the metallic coating on both sides or the metallic coating on one side and adhesive on the other. Look for Locofoam in your local fly shop or fly-tying catalog. You’ll find a lot of great ideas for using Locofoam in Harrison’s book, Tying Flies with Foam, Fur and Feathers (Stackpole Books).

Whenever we talk about tying new trout flies, the subject of feathers is sure to come up. Today’s dry-fly hackle is simply fantastic. It has received sufficient attention that no detailed comment is needed here, but I will offer one important suggestion for tying a parachute pattern. If you’re going to tie a parachute, you might opt for a saddle feather because the high barb count results in your making fewer wraps, and the fine quill will make it easier to wrap around a wing post.

There are a number of interesting feathers for crafting wet flies. When tying the ubiquitous soft-hackle wet flies with collar-style hackles, Hungarian partridge is a great favorite. However, hen capes and saddles are also very useful and come in a wide variety of colors and markings. They are also quite affordable, and make excellent nymph legs.

ImageIn the Eyes of the Beholder
Imitating insects is a matter of designing them to appear as the trout see them, rather than as we see them. Creating close imitations is actually model making, and there are some extremely talented and resourceful tiers who do that. I’m in awe of their work, but their creations are to be admired, not fished.

It is important to be familiar with the insects that live in the waters you fish. You must know how they behave, and how the trout react to them. A good example is the Dorato Hare’s Ear, designed many years ago by my old fishing buddy, Bill Dorato. We were having an awful time matching the caddis hatches on the Vermont stretch of the Batten Kill River. Bill noticed that the bugs were never at rest after popping out onto the water; they twitched and hopped. So, he tied a fly that doesn’t closely resemble a caddis but can be induced to behave like an escaping adult. It worked then, and it still does.

The multitude of emerger patterns—both floating and subsurface—are prime examples of the burgeoning awareness of aquatic entomology that came with the information age of fly-fishing. The result has been the development of some wonderful fly designs, such as Hans Van Klinken’s Klinkhamer and Gary LaFontaine’s caddis pupa patterns.

Here’s another example of how the fish see an insect. Several of our best authors told us about the concepts of the “mirror” and the “window,” and how the fish see a drifting mayfly. Notable among them was Vincent Marinaro of the Pennsylvania limestone streams. In his book, A Modern Dry Fly Code, which was first published in 1950, he provided valuable insight into these visual phenomena. I borrowed from Vince’s photos when designing the Cut-Wing Thorax Dun, a fly that has served me well for catching picky trout on quiet waters.

The Brits who fish the chalk streams of Hampshire, notably John Goddard, Brian Clarke, and Neil Patterson, were obsessed with developing fly designs that would hide the hooks. A somewhat radical design called the Waterwisp emerged from these efforts. These flies ride hook-upward on the water. The Waterwisp is the brainchild of Giuliano Masetti, who spent a decade designing flies in Great Britain before moving to South Africa. It requires a unique hook of the same name, which can be purchased on their Web site at The tying methodology appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Fly Tyer magazine, and is also shown in my new book, Trout Flies For The 21st Century, published by Lyons Press.

If you’ve been fly fishing and tying for any appreciable length of time, you probably have the ability to put together patterns based on your own observations and experiences. Whatever you come up with, fish it with confidence until it proves to be unproductive. There is nothing more important to success in fly fishing than believing in what’s tied to the end of your tippet.

Dick Talleur is one of our sport’s leading fly designers and fly-tying teachers. He is the author of more than 10 books, and has appeared in many videos and DVDs. Dick lives in North Carolina.

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