The Value of Simplicity
North America is dotted with secluded little streams teeming with trout. You need only a small selection of patterns to enjoy these overlooked fly-fishing gems.
by John Gierach

 

I still have the first fly box I got specifically for my small-stream flies. It’s a 3 1/2-by-4 7/8-inch aluminum Wheatley with ripple foam inserts. I’ve carried it in my right hip pocket for close to 25 seasons and I occasionally sit on it, so in addition to a few scratches from being dropped on rocks, it now bears a distinct butt mark like a well-worn leather wallet. Otherwise, it’s in surprisingly good shape, but then, the only way I know of to break a good fly box is to back over it in a car.

Just before I bought it, I met a man who’d had his name, address, and phone number engraved on all his aluminum boxes in case they were lost. I thought that was a good idea, but went the cheaper route by just taping a business card to mine with clear packing tape. A cynical friend asked, “You think someone would really return a whole box full of flies?” I said, “Well, they sure as hell wouldn’t if they didn’t know who it belonged to.”

I don’t remember what patterns I put in that box at first, although I’ll guess there were some Adams and Elk-Hair Caddis drys, and Zug Bug and Hare’s-Ear Nymphs, if only because those were everyone’s favorite flies at the time, including mine. But I do remember a distinct impulse toward simplicity as well as the example of some local fishermen who carried nothing but a rod, a pocketknife, and a handful of flies in a Prince Albert Tobacco tin—along with a few snelled bait hooks for emergencies. (In case you’ve never seen one, a Prince Albert Tobacco tin also fits neatly in a hip pocket.)

At the time, the leading edge of the sport was going full speed in the other direction: toward the hundreds of specialized flies it took to match every stage of every conceivable hatch. I liked that approach, too, and still do—if nothing else, it keeps professional tiers in work—but there’s something about small-stream fishing that makes a bulging fly vest seem superfluous.

The fact is, you usually don’t need much in the way of flies to catch small-stream trout. It’s not that they’re dumb; it’s just that a typical Rocky Mountain tributary creek is a steep, fast, cold freestone, and although it may have plenty of bugs, it won’t have a lot of any one kind, so the blanket hatches that can make trout selective are all but unheard of. A successful trout here has to be quick, aggressive, and curious enough to grab anything that looks remotely alive and edible simply because he can’t afford not to, while a picky fish in the same water would starve.

So with that in mind, some small-stream anglers choose patterns for nothing more than their visibility, durability, and buoyancy, leaning heavily toward dry flies with big, bright wings and synthetic bodies that float like corks. These flies work, they’re easy to see, they last through dozens of fish if you don’t lose them, and they don’t have to be constantly false cast and dusted to keep them floating. In a word, they’re efficient.

I’ve known other fishermen who simply recycled those odd flies we all end up with into their small-stream boxes just to keep them from going to waste; you know, the weird stuff you tie on a whim or buy on impulse, not to mention the monstrosities people now and then give you and you’re too polite to turn down. The snooty trout in your neighborhood tailwater wouldn’t look twice at these things, but as one guy put it, “If it’s a size fourteen, it’ll work okay on the creeks.”

Another friend once got an attack of nostalgia and decided to fish the flies of his youth, which at this stage of the game was quite some time ago. So one year, he tied some real pretty Royal Coachmen, Gray Hackle Peacocks, McGintys, Pink Ladies, and such, and he fished them all season on the local small streams. He said he did as well as anyone and also got it out of his system.

The apparent moral is, small-stream trout fishing is about everything except fly pattern: daily and seasonal timing, stream flow, water temperature, reading water, stalking, fly placement, and drift. But as tempting as it is to say it doesn’t matter what flies you use, it does matter. You have your ideas and opinions about flies, however foundationless they might be. You have pet flies you like to tie and think you tie well. Maybe you have a weakness for fur and feathers and—even at this late date and against all the evidence—you look askance at foam and rubber, secretly believing that trout prefer flies that are pretty rather than just utilitarian.

Whatever. In the end, you want what you want and it’s only fishing, so why shouldn’t you have it?

John’s Favorite Flies
My favorite small-stream dry fly—and possibly my favorite dry fly of all time—is the Hare’s-Ear Parachute. I tie them in four sizes: 14s and 16s on 2X-long Mustad 94831 hooks, and 16s and 18s on the standard-shank 94840. That odd choice of hooks gives me four sizes that match most of the common small-stream mayflies as well as different stream flows, from the higher water of late runoff to skinny water in the fall. Over time, I’ve convinced myself that matching fly size to stream flow—so both the fish and the fisherman can see them—makes more sense than copying particular insects.

I know I could get the same sized flies by tying them all on standard-length hooks starting at size 12, but I believe I miss fewer strikes on with size 14 hook gap than I do on a size 12. I also like the way the pattern looks on a longer shank hook, and the 94831 doesn’t come any smaller than size 16. Anyway, that’s my reasoning and I’ve given this a lot of thought. Possibly too much.

The Hare’s-Ear Parachute is probably the only mayfly pattern I’d have to carry, but I do allow myself one more specialized fly. It’s a flavilinea pattern tied on size 14 and 16 long-shank hooks. The flav is a smaller version of a Western green drake. It’s a beautiful grayish olive mayfly and a signature hatch on my home creeks, starting lower down in mid-July and ending by early September up at 9,000 feet or better.

The flav hatches are sparse and usually mixed with other insects, but when these flies are on, the trout seem more eager than usual. Of course, there’s no reason to specifically copy this hatch—a Hare’s-Ear Parachute in the right size works as well as anything—but I like the insect and I like the pattern, so I tie them and carry them. It’s my fly box, so I get to do that.

I still like the old Elk-Hair Caddis for practical as well as sentimental reasons, and I carry them in sizes 12, 14, and 16. Dressed heavily, with as much hair and hackle as you can gracefully get on a hook, these things float nicely in fast water and are less likely to be pulled under by a weighted dropper.

I also like a Parachute Caddis in the same sizes, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s something about how they sit lower in the water, but are still easy to see. And although the trout are almost never selective except to size, I still like to have a backup pattern so that if I miss a good fish on one fly, I can come back at him with something similar, but a little different.

I carry two all-purpose nymphs that I usually fish as droppers behind dry flies. One is a Hare’s-Ear Soft Hackle with blued bead-chain eyes; the other is a good old Pheasant Tail with a few turns of wire for weight under the thorax. I make both these patterns in sizes 14, 16, and 18 on Tiemco TMC200R hooks. If you backed me into a corner, I’d say the Soft Hackle is a caddis pupa and the Pheasant Tail is a mayfly nymph, but in practice, they serve as interchangeable sunken bugs for days when the fish seem shy about coming all the way to the surface for a dry fly.

I’ve been tempted by some of the neat foam hoppers I’ve been seeing and to which I might eventually succumb, but for now I still fall back on the Dave’s Hopper in sizes 12 and 14 for a grasshopper pattern. These work best on the lower, more open stretches of the creeks starting in August, when I notice I’m flushing small hoppers as I walk the banks. Hoppers are rare higher up on my home drainages, where it’s mostly spruce and fir forest, but I recently fished a meadow stretch of the West Fork of the Brazos way up at 10,000 feet in New Mexico and caught so many brook trout that I wore out two Dave’s Hoppers in a mile of creek.

I also carry a few Hare’s-Ear stonefly nymphs tied on size 8 and 10 hooks. I favor a slightly fancy pattern with split goose biot tails, a ribbed shell back, and drawn partridge hackle.

I hardly ever use these bigger nymphs in small streams, but I’ll sometimes try one in higher, early-season water or when I spot a good-sized trout holding deep and can’t get him to come up to a dry or dropper. If I fished these more often, I’d have long ago switched to a simpler pattern that would be quicker and easier to tie, but as it is, I feel I can get away with fishing the more elaborate flies simply because I like them.

That’s how the small stream box stands now, but it could well change because it’s changed before.

 

Patterns Tried and Discarded
I remember that for a few seasons, I carried some size 20 A.K.’s Olive Midge Emergers. I recall that because when I showed the box to my friend Ed Engle early one season when the flies were still all freshly tied and in neat rows, he nodded and said, “The midges are a nice touch.”

They were a nice touch, but they turned out to be more theoretical than practical. The fat little cutthroats dimpling in the quiet pool I’d envisioned either never materialized, or they did, but the fish were happy enough to eat a size 18 Hare’s-Ear Parachute. In any case, I eventually moved the midges into another box, where they’d see some action.

I also used to carry some Red Quills in a couple of sizes because they’re another common mayfly on these creeks, but I never seemed to use them. The same goes for PMDs and Blue-Winged Olives as well as assorted mayfly spinners that were too hard to see on fast water.

There have been other flies that came and went—but mostly went—and my small-stream selection is now approaching the bare minimum. I didn’t do this on purpose; it just sort of happened. At this point, I could probably get by with the Hare’s-Ear Parachute and the bead-chain Soft Hackle in the usual range of sizes, plus a few Dave’s Hoppers and maybe a stonefly nymph or two, just in case. In fact, based on the flies I’ve had to retie for that box over the last few winters, I come close to doing that now.

If it’s not already obvious, I should point out that none of this is intended as advice; this is just one of those stories that gives you a glimpse at another tier’s idiosyncrasies, for what it’s worth. I developed this small-stream selection—if you can call it that—gradually and haphazardly on a handful of small creeks here in northern Colorado. It’s at least regional if not downright local, although the same flies have also worked reasonably well at one time or another on small streams from northern New Mexico north into Alberta and British Columbia.

In the course of putting these patterns together, I’ve learned almost nothing about trout flies, a little bit about my own sense of appreciation, and a little more about the value of simplicity. But the real revelation was simply that if someone outfishes me on some little creek somewhere, it’s not because he has better flies; it’s because he’s a better fisherman.

__________________

John Gierach is the author of Trout Bum, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman, and numerous other best-selling books. The fly photography in this article is from editor David Klausmeyer’s upcoming book, The Master’s Fly Box (The
Lyons Press).

ImageElk-hair Caddis
Hook:
Regular dry-fly hook, sizes 18 to 12.
Thread:
Tan 8/0 (70 denier).
Body:
Brown dubbing.
Hackle:
Brown.
Wing:
Elk or deer hair.

 

 

ImageParachute Caddis
Hook:
Regular dry-fly hook, sizes 18 to 12.
Thread:
Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
Body:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Hackle:
Grizzly.
Wing:
Elk or deer hair.

 

 

ImageHare’s-Ear Parachute
Hook:
Mustad 94831, size 14 to 12.
Thread:
Tan 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
Moose.
Body:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Rib:
Brown thread.
Hackle:
Dun.
Wing:
Turkey T-base or a similar feather.

 

ImagePheasant Tail Nymph
Hook:
Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 16 to 12.
Thread:
Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
Pheasant tail fiber tips.
Abdomen:
Pheasant tail fibers.
Rib:
Gold wire.
Thorax:
peacock herl.
Wing case:
Turkey.

 

ImageFlavilinea
Hook:
Mustad 94831, size 14 or 16.
Thread:
Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
Elk hair or a substitute.
Abdomen:
Olive biot.
Thorax:
Olive dubbing.
Wing:
Dun hen hackle tips.
Hackle:
Dun.

 

ImageDave’s Hopper
Hook:
Mustad 94831, size 14 or 12.
Thread:
Brown 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail:
Red hackle fibers.
Body:
Yellow polypropylene yarn.
Hackle:
Brown.
Wing:
Bwron mottled turkey.
Legs:
Pheasant fibes.
Head and collar:
Deer hair.

ImageHare’s-Ear Soft Hackle
Hook:
Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 16 to 12.
Thread:
Olive 8/0 (70 denier).
Body:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Rib:
Copper wire.
Hackle:
Mottled hen soft hackle.
Eyes:
Black bead chain.
Head:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.

 

ImageOlive Midge Emerger
Hook:
Curved-shank nymph hook, size 18.
Thread:
Olive 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
Wood duck or mallard flank fibers/
Abdomen: Olive biot.
Thorax:
Olive hare’s-ear dubbing.
Hackle:
Mottled hen hackle.

 

ImageHare’s-Ear Stonefly Nymph
Hook:
Curved-shank nymph hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread:
Olive 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
Brown biots.
Body:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Rib:
Copper wire.
Back and wing case:
Turkey.
Legs:
Teal or wood duck flank feather.

 

ImageDamselfly Nymph
Hook:
Curved-shank swimming nymph hook, size 14 or 12.
Thread:
Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail:
mallard flank fibers.
Body:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Rib:
Copper wire.
Wing case:
Turkey.
Legs:
Teal or wood duck flank feather.
Eyes:
Black bead chain.
Head:
Hare’s-ear dubbing.

 
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