The Value of Simplicity

North America is dotted with secluded little streams teeming with trout, make sure to take these overlooked fly-fishing gems.

by John Gierach

I still have the first fly box I got specifically for my small-stream f ies. It’s a 3 ½-by-47/8-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.

Elk-Hair Caddis

HOOK: Regular dry fly hook, sizes 18 through 12.
THREAD: Tan 8/0 (70 denier).
BODY: Brown dubbing.
HACKLE: Brown.
WING: Elk or deer hair.

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 ElkHair 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 fl y 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.

Parachute Caddis

HOOK: Regular dry fly hook, sizes 18 through 12.
THREAD: Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
BODY: Hare’s-ear dubbing.
HACKLE: Grizzly.
WING: Elk or deer hair.

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 fl oat 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 fi shed 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 fl y pattern: daily and seasonal timing, stream fl ow, 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?

Hare’s-Ear Parachute

HOOK: Mustad 94831, size 14 through 12.
THREAD: Tan 8/0 (70 denier).
TAIL: Moose.
BODY: Hare’s-ear dubbing.
RIB: Brown thread.
WING: Turkey T-base or a similar feather.

John’s Favorite Flies

My favorite small-stream dry fly—and possibly my favorite dry fl y 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 fl ow—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 longshank 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. (continued on Page 2)