Thoughts on Dry Flies


I inspect the skwalla dry fly at rest in my vise. It still smells of head cement. The pattern is a bit too big for my taste. There are two pieces of foam, dubbing, and six rubber legs hanging off its sides. A mixture of flash, poly yarn, and wing material make up the wings of the imitation. I use a felt tip marker to put some spots on the foam to help break up the solid color. A pattern that has been very successful in the early spring days on the Yakima River. A pattern however, that I have grown tired of using and I feel that a better more precise imitation of the natural has yet to be created.

The dry fly is a very peculiar concept for tying. The angler and the trout are add odds during the creation and tying process.

A trout views the airy world above much differently than the angler. A trout sees an imprint in the meniscus, a particular silhouette that resembles the proper insect, for that time of year, for which the trouts natural instinct tells it to eat because it looks right. Trout do not smell the insect, they do not sense it with bio electric current, they merely see it. A trout has very specific eyes. Eyes designed to see underwater. While they can see the air above their eyes see mere shadows, shapes, and washes of color, light, and dark. They can see just not very well.

The angler sees a dry fly much differently. We see the natural rising off the surface with a flutter of color and movement. We see the insect stretch and dry out its wings before lifting off. We see them fly above the river mating, catch them in our beards while fishing, or see them on the foliage that lines the river banks.  We see the dry fly much differently indeed.

An angler peruses the fly bins searching out the most intricate pattern that looks the most realistic or has the best matched color. I even catch myself picking out ridiculous fly patterns from the bins interested in their make up and effectiveness. A trout just looks for the right looking shadow. I learned over much trial and tribulation; that a simpler, more trouty approach to dry fly tying was needed.

I have maybe 7 actual dry fly patterns that I use. Now I may carry way more in my boxes and for other people, but I tend to settle on the same 7 dry flies patterns every year. The reason for this, is because the trout told me. Trout see dry flies very simply but also incredibly specific. They see a black shadow or outline of the insect from below at upward angles. They operate in a 3D world like we do but their sky has this divider between water and air like a visible, transparent, permeable, ceiling that moves. Its crazy to visualize and think about sometimes.

A trout doesn’t see all the intricacies that the angler does. Instead they see a much more subtle set of details. The most important is the imprint in the meniscus but also, the way the legs set out from the body, the way the wings lay above the body of the natural, the way it moves along the surface, or its lack of movement, is it big enough, or too small, is it in a place that it should be, is there anything about it that is off compared to what the instinct of the trout says it should look like. All these things go through the mind of a trout in an instant as it rises to the surface to snap a dry fly or rises to the surface only to refuse.

As an angler and a tier, learning this was key to my dry fly success. I really listened to the old literature from the early days of fly fishing, the 20’s and 30’s, and then more that came out during the resurgence in the 70’s. They all lead to the same conclusion for me: Match the natural, from the trouts perspective. Certain materials do this best, especially when it pertains to the mayfly.

A mayfly is a tricksy quarry for the tier and the angler. Imitating such a small and intricate insect is a test of both mental fortitude and tying ability. One improper placement of hackle or tail could mean the refusal from the epic trout that haunt the riffles. I have seen it. The big trout coming out from its den. Lurking in the dark slow water in the best spot out of the current and hidden from the eagles and osprey. A perfect cast, the lightest and most unobtrusive drift, the sight of the trout rising underneath, tracking the fly….and then….the big refusal. Utter failure. Complete disappointment in oneself. Absolute encouragement for the next time.

In all reality a simple Adams or Wulff will do the trick most of the time. I have caught some of the most finicky large trout in the riffles of the farmlands and the upper river shallows during the mayfly hatches, with a small and properly tied Adams. The Wulff works very well on bright days for large winged mayflies. The Adams for just about everything else.

An Adams tied in the correct size, proper type of dubbing, correct tail material such as pheasant; that has the correct number of turns of hackle will give the proper silhouette of the majority of mayfly species. Trout see a mayfly, an angler sees an old traditional fly. Not the most colorful and exciting thing in the fly box. But flies are for trout not anglers.

I have found that with some of the smaller mayflies; in particular the Pale Morning Dun of the upper Yakima and Cle Elum Rivers, require a slightly different tying method for more productive results. The PMD of the upper basin of the Yakima is almost a whole size smaller in most cases than its lower canyon counterpart. I find that a size 18 or a short shank 16 are more effective than the larger 16 and 14 of the lower river. Its not so much the length as its the fatness. The upper river insects just seem to be a daintier version. A common thing for upper stretches of watersheds I found after doing more research.

The standard dubbing body flies are just too fat for the upper stretches. I began to tie mine with a quill body. I use a special technique on a dyed feather from a peacock. I tie specific tails that curl the proper direction which helps with the proper shadow upon the surface. I then build a small thread body and then wrap the peacock feather forward creating a segmented quill style body that looks good to a trout and the angler. Simple duck wings tied light and soft, and 4 turns of slightly smaller hackle than proper size and the fly is finished.

The results from this simple change made a huge difference in my refusal rate. The patterns work well on the lower river as well but the quill body does not look as large as the lower river natural. This whole process led me to tie a more effective mayfly pattern in the end. All because of a little difference I noticed in the PMD of the upper river.

My mayfly box is mostly filled with Adams patterns of various sizes and colors and a matching set of quill body patterns.

When I was a younger angler I had every new and awesome looking fly pattern there was, whether I tied it myself or bought it. Perks of working at a fly shop. I have a much different looking fly box now, and less of them.

Concerning the larger dry fly patterns for stoneflies and hoppers. I tie the same foam pattern stonefly dry in the correct sizes and colors. Same with the hopper, in yellow, tan, olive, and pink.

Caddis are a simple matter really. LaFontaine’s Dancing Caddis is the only dry fly caddis pattern I fish. Tied in correct sizes and on the right hook; there is no need for any other caddis dry fly. Except when referring to the October Caddis. The large orange sedge of the fall requires nothing more than an orange stimulator tied in the correct size. I tie mine with a much more subtle dark color and typically use moose hair for the wings.

The Cranefly is the only other insect that isn’t covered by the patterns described above. I have two patterns for that hatch, one with foam. They are of my own design with the help of an old mentor, that has proven effective for many anglers who have had the luck to get some from me. I also tie a standard dubbing body one as well. The trick to the cranefly is the legs. The trout sees a very interesting and specific shadow with the cranefly. To my knowledge there is only maybe 3 patterns on the market that do a proper job in imitating the cranefly.

As I finished off another foam filled stonefly pattern this evening, the tier in me pondered at what new designs I could come up with that could eliminate foam. I am not the biggest fan of foam flies. They plunk on the water like foam, natural insects don’t plunk like foam does.

Even though I personally tend to settle on the same patterns when I fish alone I have several different patterns that I tie and purchase for dry fly fishing when with others and running my boat. I love to try new patterns, incorporate new things in my tying. I am always open to new things and patterns and sometimes fish will let you know what they want.

Right now I am working on new patterns for the Skwalla Stonefly that are a throw back to the stonefly dry patterns of the old days with new materials and techniques incorporated. There are days that I look forward to working at my vise as much as I look forward to getting on the river.

Nymph tying on the other hand…whole different ball game.



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