The Necessity of GRAY

Open your fly box. What’s inside? If you don’t have some gray patterns, you should.

[by Bill “Bugs” Logan]

Gray flies aren’t attractive or clever. I’ve never found one that was hard to tie. Overlooked and underfished, good, basic gray flies are often unappreciated—until we need them.

It always happens on days when fishing should be easy. I’m not talking about the times when there are no definite hatches going on. If we’re lucky enough to be there and are wisely prepared, we might cycle through our arsenal of carefully crafted imitations: nymph, emerger, cripple, dun, spinner, and back again. But how often have you tied something onto your tippet, immediately caught a trout, and then found your fly cursed? Change to a new fly, and the curse is lifted—for a single fish. Over and over it happens as the dimples and rings keep appearing on the surface of the water. This is especially challenging fishing. The task is clearly laid out before us, and it’s up to you and me to meet it as best we can. Long afterwards, we’ll wonder what was going on, and in our mind’s eye, we will be back on the water.

Those days and such thoughts take care of themselves. It’s the rest of our fishing that begs for closer attention. All too often, while there is no predominant hatch activity, enough is going on to keep the fish looking up; they see a few of this bug and an occasional one of that. Or maybe it’s a lovely afternoon, long after spring insects have vanished. Look into the slanting sunlight then, and you’re sure to see the flittering sparks of insects above the river. In this collective view, there seems to be plenty for trout to eat, but right in front of us, little is on the wing.

I’m just describing an average day, and therein lies the problem. None of us spends enough time fishing. We don’t wish to have average days, yet we still find ourselves in many of them. Each fish has to be earned, and there are no miracle patterns.

Ponder This

I want you to think about something: If you have to use the term sort of to describe a fly, it may be one you should always have with you. For example: “This fly is sort of gray, and sort of cream, or perhaps sort of both.” That pattern just might be a winner!

The very fact that it’s not an exact match for any one thing will increase your odds for success when you need to spread your bet. Gray is really a mess of many colors, and you can make it lean one way or another if you wish. And there’s your clue: Don’t tie solid gray flies. Mix things up a bit. Make sure you have a few small upwing gray lookalikes, and never, ever be caught without a size 16 gray Elk-Hair Caddis; it’s hands down the best standard-duty floater ever devised. And a gray Humpy is a chubby fly that will play a whole cast of bugs.

For the most part, gray flies are too plain to excite admiration; you can tie clever, pretty patterns for that. And you should love using your fancy flies. But keep your failsafe dingy flies close because there will be hard days ahead when you will when need nothing else.

Once, a long time ago, I found myself with a good friend hiking up a high mountain valley in Southwest Colorado. The little creek that chattered below us was a charmer called the Big Blue, which was a very funny name for something so small. It kept splitting into channels that got lost among the willow bushes before finding their way back together again. Here and there were beaver ponds. Before very long, we dropped down into the meadows and caught as many little brook trout as we could wave our rods at. Just look at the dazzling fellow in my photograph! No bigger than my hand, it’s the prettiest fish I’ve ever caught. It had an old-looking head, and I gingerly released it to continue living its short, hard life high up there in that tiny breath of water. I look at its picture and think about how it was still warm enough one early autumn day for uncomplicated fishing. A simple gray fly had all the colors in the rainbow snapping at it.

A Gray Elk-Hair Caddis

East or West, I haven’t found water in the United States where this fly didn’t perform well, especially in sizes 18 and 16. And it’s the only trout pattern I’ve needed during my last four trips to Norway. Next time, I may take no other. I’ll have to let you know whether I have the guts to go through with it!

Learn from the Pros

The Parachute Adams (top left) remains one of the most popular commercially tied flies in the United States. Even with all those fancy patterns to tempt us, this old gray mare still wins by laps!

I always have several sizes of the second fly (on the bottom), which has clever tricks in it. Gold Mylar tinsel underlies the body; when the saturated dubbing turns translucent, this fly has an inner glow. The mixed dun and barred-dun hackle is tied with two different sized feathers. I’ve skipped the wing in favor of a cream-colored foam post attached up front. This is a practical, effective fly you can easily see on the water.

Have you ever taken a peek inside a good fishing guide’s fly box? These are the kinds of patterns you’ll find there: simple, deadly, and easy to knock out fast by someone with little time for tying

A Great Mixer

Although solid gray provides a lovely finish to many serviceable flies, it comes into its own when employed as a modifier. A plain dun hackle with slightly short fibers is at the rear of the hook. Continue forward and you find the same dun underlying golden grizzly, cream, and then honey dun feathers.

Using one feather with short fibers in a mixed hackle collar creates a dense center that adds a lot of flotation while reducing overall bushiness. And just look at the complex colors! All these hackle collars could be called “grayish.”


Bill “Bugs” Logan writes and ties flies with a panache all his own. He submitted this article a couple of days before winging off to his cabin in Norway. Ah, the life of an artist! When he’s not out knocking about a trout stream, waving a dainty rod and casting his gray flies, you’ll find him in his studio in New Jersey. For more information about Bill’s fine art, go to his website, www.billloganart.com.