Best of the Paradise Valley Dry Flies

Discover the patterns that catch trophy trout on Montana’s famous spring creeks.
by Andrew Puls

Of all the types of waters where anglers cast flies to trout, few are as mysterious, notoriously difficult, or revered as spring creeks. The mere mention of some of our more famous spring creeks conjures images of impossibly clear water, undulating green weed beds, massive insect hatches, and brilliantly colored, slab-sided trout. Many of these streams have well-deserved reputations for being filled with fish possessing the equivalent of doctorate degrees in avoiding lip piercings. We call these “technical fisheries” because these wise trout often beat us at our own game. Spring creeks are quite different from the freestone streams where we more frequently play, but we can crack their mysteries.

One of the biggest attractions of spring creeks is that on any given day, at least some trout will be rising. Unfortunately, these surface-feeding fish are some of the most difficult to hook. Tying dry flies that imitate the insects on the water is of obvious importance, but equally important is selecting and customizing those patterns based on the characteristics of the particular streams—even specific stream sections—you plan to fish. The 24 dry fly patterns presented in this article, which I selected with considerable help from two very knowledgeable spring creek veterans, have proved themselves time after time on highly pressured and extremely demanding trout. These flies, when tied and fished following the philosophies outlined below, are guaranteed to make your next spring creek excursion more successful.

Basic Thoughts on Fly Design
Before heading straight to the vise, it is important to understand how some of the physical characteristics of spring creeks influence dry fly design. First, the crystalline waters, which provide us a peep show–like look into the fish’s watery world, also afford the trout a very good look at what we are trying to pass off as a snack. Further complicating matters, velocity and turbulence can vary significantly among stream sections; flat, slow water often requires exceptionally accurate imitations, whereas bumpier water demands balancing form and profile with buoyancy. Factor in the high angling pressure seen on many spring creeks, and you end up with trout that demand a fly that is morphologically accurate and rides naturally on the water.

Spring creeks, however, do possess qualities that aid tiers. Because insect diversity is usually fairly low and hatches are very predictable, you can pare down your fly box to just a few patterns. Most spring creeks are also very similar in water chemistry and temperature, and insect composition is similar from stream to stream. Therefore, with slight modifications in color or size, the dry flies outlined in this article are almost ubiquitous in their effectiveness.

Mayflies
Probably the most predictable spring creek dry fly fishing occurs during mayfly emergences. Due to the consistent water conditions and often staggering mayfly densities, hatches can continue for months. The sheer magnitude of these emergences means trout can become very selective to specific stages of the hatch, and it pays to be prepared with multiple patterns for the bugs you expect to encounter. When tying these patterns, carefully consider the materials you use, and match them to the species of insect you wish to imitate and the water conditions you will fish.

While they may not qualify as dry flies in the strictest sense, floating nymphs and emergers are often your best bet for success when mayflies begin popping. Rene Harrop’s CDC Captive Dun and the Floating Nymph, both designed to barely cling to the surface film, use two different techniques for creating emerging wings out of cul de canard. The folded CDC wing on Harrop’s pattern traps more air and therefore rides slightly higher than the Floating Nymph

Brant Oswald, Livingston, Montana’s local spring creek guru, has great success using two-tone emergers; his flies closely resemble mayflies that are breaking out of their exoskeletons. With its dark brown abdomen and tail, and its yellow thorax, the PMD Pullover is the perfect example of this realistic fly-tying effect. The Pullover also uses an unconventional hackling method, where a length of hackle is wrapped on monofilament and then pulled forward over the thorax like a wing case. (The English call this the paraloop style of tying.) The resulting ball of hackle, which rides on the surface while the abdomen hangs realistically below, can be easily incorporated into other patterns.

When fish begin lazily sipping fully formed adult mayflies from the surface, it is time to switch to dun imitations, and the bins at the local fly shop might not be the best source for models.

“Most of the commercial ties are either overdressed, overhackled, or both,” claims Oswald. “I want something simple, sparse, and subtle.”

Oswald relies heavily on trim, unhackled patterns, like Craig Mathews’s Sparkle Dun, the CDC Dun, and No-Hackle. Because these patterns don’t catch on the surface tension as well as their hackled counterparts, body and tailing materials are important considerations in design. Biot, quill, and thread bodies are excellent choices because they absorb very little water. Very sparse dubbed bodies of beaver fur or fine synthetic fibers can be blended to match any body color and are great when you want a fly to sit heavily on the water. For tailing materials, I prefer hackle or synthetic tailing fibers, which should be tied more densely for heavier water. Other options include CDC, synthetic fibers, feather fibers of other bird species, and hair. You can also combine many of these materials, like in the mallard flank and Z-Lon of the Captive Dun, or the Z-Lon and Flashabou on the Sparkle Dun.

Use hackled mayflies, such as a trim parachute pattern or Harrop’s CDC Thorax and Last Chance Cripple, to fish more turbulent stretches. Hackle density makes a considerable difference in effectiveness, and Oswald recommends adding or removing wraps of hackle based on the bumpiness of water in a particular stretch. You can also customize a hackled fly to fit a particular situation by giving it a quick haircut streamside: a V clipped in the bottom side of the hackle will make it sit upright more consistently, trimming the hackle even with the middle of the hook bend will cause it to ride slightly lower on the water, and clipping the hackle flush with the body makes the fly lie flat in the film.

Some of the best—and most frustrating—spring creek dry fly action occurs during spinner falls. A parachute pattern in the right size and color will often suffice, but more accurate imitations usually get more strikes. A thread- or biot-bodied CDC Spinner is a great choice, particularly on faster, bumpier water, where the support of the clipped hackle and CDC wings is critical. More discerning fish, however, often require more precise imitations.

I encountered some very difficult spinner sippers during a trip to Depuy Spring Creek. The prior evening, I crushed the fish in more roiling water with a parachute pattern, but this night, the hundred gluttonous fish in the painfully slow, flat stretch I was fishing paid no attention to the same fly. As darkness fell, I tied on a biot version of a Hen Hackle-Tip Spinner, which is a dead ringer for a sexed-out mayfly. Although it was difficult to see in the fading light, I immediately began hooking fish. Unfortunately, the wings of this pattern are very delicate, and while they do support the fly on the surface, it drowns easily, making this elegant fly most effective on only the flattest water.

Midges
During the cold, short days of winter, midges are the most likely candidates to get spring creek trout to look up. Ironically, their minuscule size, which intimidates many tiers, also makes these insects some of the easiest to imitate because you need only a couple of materials to tie the flies. And because they are so small, color seems to be only superficially important; therefore, I carry only black- and cream-bodied flies. And although real midges can be tinier, I find fishing flies smaller than size 26 frustrating due to bent hooks and lost fish; if I have to use anything smaller than a size 26 fly and 6X fluorocarbon tippet, I am better off fishing a soft hackle or nymph.

Successful midge patterns have exceptionally thin bodies tied using natural, nonbulky body materials such as biots or flat tying thread. Harrop’s Hanging Midge, which combines a biot body, forward-facing CDC wing, and sparse hackle, hangs almost vertically in the film. When visibility and flotation are considerations, the Para-Midge Emerger is a great choice. I tie a dynamite variation of the Para-Midge by simply swapping the parachute for a Pullover-style hackling. My favorite spring creek midge, the Convertible Midge, passes for both an adult and emerger. Based on a pattern from the book A. K. Best’s Fly Box, the Convertible Midge is tied with a mallard-flank trailing shuck trimmed to imitate an adult.

Caddisflies
For whatever reason, caddisflies have not been embraced in the same way as mayflies, and our fly boxes are not overflowing with species-specific patterns for fishing spring creeks. This doesn’t present much of a problem in mountain streams and rivers, but standard freestone fare, such as the Elk-Hair Caddis, are seldom the
best flies on spring creeks. But you should carry a few adult caddis and emerger patterns tied specifically for spring creeks. And while I usually don’t find it necessary to fish precise imitations of caddisflies, the same principles of fly design and use of materials apply.

Dave Goff is a spring creek veteran and co-owner of Livingston Montana’s Sweetwater Fly Shop, which is a mere Rajeff-length cast away from three of the West’s most storied creeks: DePuy, Armstrong, and Nelson. Dave is a big proponent of using Rene Harrop’s patterns on spring creeks, which he believes have the perfect color and proportion for the hatches he encounters. When he needs an emerger, Goff fishes Harrop’s CDC Bubble Back Caddis. Like the Captive Dun, Harrop’s Bubble Back uses the same folded CDC technique to keep it afloat. Another great emerger, Bob Brooks’s Hot Creek Caddis, employs a partial collar of elk or deer hair that allows the fly to lie flat in the surface film. Since neither of these patterns are very visible on the water and both are prone to sinking, fishing them behind a more visible dry or with a discreet indicator is a solid tactic.

For a medium- to large-sized adult caddis pattern, Goff says that Harrop’s Henry’s Fork Caddis is a great compromise between imitation and flotation, and I find Craig Mathews’s minimalist X-Caddis ideal for matching smaller caddisflies. Larger versions of the trim X-Caddis are also great for catching selective fish on flat water, especially when the fly is tied with a CDC wing. When I need greater accuracy, I reach for Mike Lawson’s Hemingway Caddis, which I simplify by omitting the wood duck underwing; clipping the hackle flat on this realistic-looking caddis improves its ability to float correctly on the water.

Odds and Ends
While mayflies, caddisflies, and midges are considered the mainstay of spring creek dry fly action, other types of insects pick up the slack when the big three aren’t coming off. Stoneflies are usually not major players on spring creeks, but many streams do have sizable yellow Sally populations. Imitate this beautiful little morsel with a sparse Stimulator-style pattern. My Super Sally employs an orange thread egg sac, mallard flank body, and, depending on the type of water, an elk-hair or CDC wing. You can tweak the color and size of this versatile formula to tie imitations of other small stoneflies and even caddisflies.

You’ll find damselflies in the slower sections of most spring creeks, and fishing imitations can create epic days of crushing takes. Although foam-bodied patterns float better, I prefer the realistically thin, extended deer-hair body of my Damsel-in-Distress. While not exceptionally durable, the body is more proportionately correct and seems to fool more fish than a foam fly. I also find that the fly floats and fishes best when tied with a sparse elk-hair wing, which to me resembles the fluttering wings of the natural. The eyes on this pattern really add to the “human” appeal of the fly, but you can omit them without sacrificing its fishing effectiveness.

During the heat of summer, spring creeks stay cool in spite of the unrelenting midday sun. Hatches are usually fickle on the hottest days of the year, but surface action can still be on fire. During the dog days of summer, terrestrials become important table fare for spring creek trout, often resulting in huge toilet-flush boils from fish rocketing from the depths to slam their unfortunate quarry.

Grasshoppers are perhaps the most charismatic terrestrials, and work fantastically well when drifted along cut banks, tall grass, and weeds, or even through midcreek troughs and buckets. Goff finds that an accurate profile and small size are paramount to hopper success, even when much larger individuals are buzzing through the grass. He believes strongly in the carved foam body of the Morrish Hopper, which has perhaps the perfect grasshopper profile. The large mass of foam also makes the pattern great for trailing diminutive nymph patterns off the hook, thus delivering a one-two punch for opportunistic trout during the summer doldrums.

Often overlooked by anglers, ants and beetles are also must-have summer dry flies. These little terrestrials regularly fall into the water and make for easy pickings. Many tiers shy away from the Fur Ant in lieu of foam patterns, but I still have great success with this heavy-riding, dubbed fly when visibility and flotation are less critical than a realistic profile. I tie this fly in black, cinnamon, and two-tone versions, which match the vast majority of ants I encounter. Once again, clipping the hackle flush with the bottom of the body makes the fly ride upright more consistently.

Like ants, the majority of successful beetle patterns are simple and incorporate very little of the glitz seen in commercially available patterns. My favorite, the Low-Rider Beetle, is simply a strip of Larva Lace Foam pulled over an underbody of peacock-colored dubbing and black hackle. I finish the fly with a small tuft of orange Z-Lon to make it more visible on the water.

If there is one message that these patterns should drive home, it is that they are only starting points in your own design efforts. Tailor these flies to the hatches and physical characteristics of the water you fish through subtle modifications in materials or grafting together the parts of different patterns. This is not only very enjoyable and rewarding, but also can result in your own unique series of flies. Some duds will come from your vise, but you never know: the next pattern might just be a winner.

 

______________
Andrew Puls brings a unique perspective to fly tying: In addition to loving fly-fishing for trout, he holds a master’s degree in fisheries management. Andrew lives in Montana.

 

Visiting Paradise Valley Spring Creeks

While there is never a bad time to visit any of the Paradise Valley’s spring creeks, a few specific hatches offer the best opportunities to cast to rising fish. Baetis hatches occur both spring and fall; usually March through May, and again from September through December. PMDs, which emerge from mid-June through August, are perhaps the most impressive of the Paradise Valley hatches. Their presence, along with the beginning of terrestrial season, makes early summer a great time to fish the creeks. Late summer and early fall bring grasshopper madness to the creeks, as well as the über-technical sulfur emergence, which is actually a summer Baetis.

There is great debate within the angling community about the concept of fee fishing: Some abhor the notion, and others say it is inevitable. The three prime Paradise Valley spring creeks are all on private land, and they are carefully managed to offer exceptional fishing—and an exceptional fishing experience. And the fees are not exorbitant: As of this writing, depending upon the time of year you wish to fish, fees range from $40 to $100 per day.

Armstrong Spring Creek: The glides, riffles, and pools of Armstrong spring creek are a sight fisherman’s dream. Prime insect and trout habitat are found throughout its 1.5-mile length, making it one of the most productive streams in Montana.
Phone:
(406) 222-2979
Website:
www.armstrongspringcreek.com

DePuy Spring Creek: DePuy spring creek is the longest of the three creeks and offers the most varied water. This three-mile creek is complete with long glassy runs, shallow riffles, deep buckets, and even a pond, more than enough water to swallow up the maximum 16 rods per day.
Phone:
(406) 222-0221
Website:
www.depuyspringcreek.com

Nelson’s Spring Creek: Approximately three-quarters of a mile in length, Nelson’s might be the shortest Paradise Valley spring creek, but it offers unparalleled dry fly fishing. This is definitely a match-the-hatch creek, and it is filled with fish that are more selective than skittish. The maximum number of rods are six per day.
Phone:
(406) 222-0221
Website:
www.nelsonsspringcreek.com

 

Paradise Valley Flies and Recipes

ImageHanging Midge

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 18 to 22.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Abdomen: Black goose biot.

Thorax: Black dubbing.

Wing: White CDC.

Hackle: Black.

 

 

 

ImageConvertible Midge

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 18 to 26.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Natural mallard flank.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Wing: White CDC.

Hackle: Grizzly.

 

 

 

ImagePara-Midge Emerger

Hook: Tiemco TMC2487 or equivalent, sizes 18 to 22.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Post: White Z-lon.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Rib: Ultra-fine silver wire.

Hackle: Grizzly.

Thorax: Black Dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageSparkle Dun (Baetis)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 16 to 22.

Thread: Olive 8/0 (70 denier).

Wing: Dun elk hair.

Tail: Olive-brown Z-lon and root beer Midge Flash.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Thorax: Olive dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageCaptive Dun (Baetis)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 14 to 20.

Thread: Olive 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Dun mallard flank and olive Z-lon.

Abdomen: Olive goose biot.

Wing case: Dun CDC (two to three feathers).

Thorax: Olive dubbing.

Legs: Dun CDC.

 

 

 

ImageLast Chance Cripple (Baetis)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 20.

Thread: Olive dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Dun mallard flank and olive Z-lon.

Abdomen: Olive goose biot.

Thorax: Olive dubbing.

Wing: Dun CDC.

Hackle: Medium dun.

 

 

 

ImageNo-Hackle (Sulphur)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 22.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Dun Betts Tailing Fibers.

Wings: Mallard covert feathers.

Body: Pale yellow dubbing.

 

 

 

 

ImageCDC Thorax Dun (Sulphur)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 22.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Dun Betts Tailing Fibers.

Abdomen: Sulphur goose biot.

Hackle: Dun.

Thorax: Sulphur dubbing

Wing: Spirit River Cahill CDC Oiler Puff.

 

 

 

ImageHen Hackle-Tip Spinner (Rusty)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 22.

Thread: Dark brown 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: White Whiting Farms tailing fibers.

Abdomen: Rusty goose biot.

Wings: White hen-hackle wing tips.

Thorax: Rusty dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageGray Dun Parachute

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 22.

Thread: Blue dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Post: Medium dun turkey T feather.

Tail: Medium dun Whiting Tailing barbs.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Hackle: Medium dun.

Thorax: Slate dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageCDC Dun (PMD)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 20.

Thread: Yellow 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Natural CDC.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Side wings: Natural CDC.

Top wing: Nature’s Spirit Cahill CDC Oiler Puff.

Head: Pale yellow dubbing.

 

 

 

ImagePullover Emerger (PMD)

Hook: Tiemco TMC2487 or equivalent, sizes 14 to 22.

Thread: Light Cahill 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Dark brown mallard flank.

Abdomen: Brown goose biot.

Post: 4X monofilament (two strands).

Hackle: Medium dun.

Thorax: Pale yellow dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageCDC Spinner (PMD)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 20.

Thread: Light cahill 8/0 (70 denier).

Wings: Nature’s Spirit Cahill CDC Oiler Puffs

Tail: White Betts Tailing Fibers.

Abdomen: Tying thread.

Hackle: Light ginger.

Thorax: Pale yellow dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageFloating Nymph (PMD)

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 14 to 22.

Thread: Light cahill 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Bleached pheasant tail.

Abdomen: Bleached pheasant tail.

Rib: Ultra-fine gold wire.

Wing: Dark dun CDC.

Legs: Partridge flank feather.

Head: Pale yellow dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageHenry’s Fork Caddis

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 18.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Abdomen: Olive goose biot.

Under wing: Dark dun CDC.

Over wing: Partridge back feather.

Hackle: Dark dun.

Thorax: Peacock herl.

 

 

 

ImageHot Creek Caddis

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 18.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Brown Z-lon.

Abdomen: Tan goose biot.

Wing: Bleached elk hair.

Antennae: Brown hackle tips.

Head: Hare’s-ear dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageHemingway Caddis

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 18.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Rear hackle: Grizzly.

Abdomen: Gray hare’s-ear dubbing.

Wing: Turkey tail treated with Dave’s Flexament.

Front hackle: Brown.

Thorax: Gray hare’s-ear dubbing

 

 

 

ImageX-Caddis

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 22.

Thread: Dark brown 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Olive Z-lon.

Abdomen: Brown dubbing.

Wing: Natural elk hair.

 

 

 

ImageCDC Bubble Back Caddis

Hook: Tiemco TMC2487 or equivalent, sizes 14 to 18.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Tail: Partridge wing and white Z-lon.

Wing case: Natural CDC (two to three feathers).

Abdomen: Peacock dubbing.

Soft hackle: Partridge covert.

Head: Hare’s-ear dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageLow-Rider Beetle

Hook: Tiemco TMC2302 or equivalent, sizes 16 to 12.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Carapace: Black Larva Lace Dry Fly Foam.

Hackle: Black.

Underbody: Peacock dubbing.

Post: Orange Z-lon.

 

 

 

ImageFur Ant

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 16 to 22.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Body: Black dubbing.

Hackle: Black.

 

 

 

 

ImageSuper Sally

Hook: Tiemco TMC2302 or equivalent, size 16.

Egg sac: Orange tying thread.

Tying thread: Light cahill 8/0 (70 denier).

Abdomen: Yellow mallard flank.

Rib: Tying thread.

Wing: Bleached elk hair.

Hackle: Light ginger.

 

 

 

ImageDamsel-in-Distress

Hook: Tiemco TMC2488 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 14.

Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).

Eyes: Black plastic.

Abdomen: Blue deer hair.

Rib: Tying thread.

Wing: Dun elk hair.

Hackle: Grizzly (clipped flat).

Thorax and head: Blue dubbing.

 

 

 

ImageMorrish Hopper

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or equivalent, sizes 12 to 14.

Thread: Rusty dun 8/0 (70 denier).

Body: Tan and brown foam.

Legs: Micro variegated rubber knotted in rear.

Indicator: Orange foam.

Eyes: Colored with a black Sharpie.

 

 

 

 

 
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