Ramblings of a Catskill flyfisher

What’s in your fly box?

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 12/1/21

The other day, while contemplating a topic for this week’s column, I happened to pick up my old copy of “Matching the Hatch,” by Ernie Schwiebert. When I opened the little volume, …

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Ramblings of a Catskill flyfisher

What’s in your fly box?

Posted

The other day, while contemplating a topic for this week’s column, I happened to pick up my old copy of “Matching the Hatch,” by Ernie Schwiebert. When I opened the little volume, inscribed on the inside cover was my name and a date, March 1, 1959. I was 17 years old at the time. So it appears, based on that inscription, I became interested in fly fishing at a fairly young age.

I know I began to fish when I was around 10, trying for bass and sunnies with a casting rod, bobber, and some form of bait. Somewhere along the way, I started tying flies. My father had an old saw-sharpening vise mounted in the cellar. I found some large black hooks, a few chicken feathers in the hen house, a bottle of clear nail polish, along with a spool of black sewing thread, and began to make the most outlandish creations imaginable. I don’t believe one of those awkwardly tied monstrosities ever found its way to the end of my line.

Then, sometime in my early teens, dad introduced me to Bob Zigsby, a well-known Westchester fly tyer. Bob became my mentor and led me through the finer points of fly tying.         

All that being said, it was “Matching the Hatch” that got me interested in aquatic insects and the fly patterns that imitated them. However, when I read about all the species of mayflies and caddis that Schwiebert listed at the back of his book, I believed it would be necessary for me to match every one of the insects he referenced in order to be a successful fly fisher. So I feverishly began the process of filling my fly boxes with Quill Gordons, Hendricksons, Blue Quills, Pale Evening Duns, March Browns, Gray Foxes, Sulphurs, Green Drakes, Light Cahills, patterns for isonychias and tricos in all of their various forms, along with an assortment of caddis. By and large, I had success fishing those patterns in the Catskills, as well as some of the rivers in western Montana, and still carry some of those flies today.

While those patterns worked under certain hatching and fishing conditions, I found that most of the trout I caught, at least recently, were taken on spinner-type flies, fished at dusk. Traditional dry flies no longer seemed to work consistently. So why carry several fly boxes with so many patterns that may longer work? I believe that most fly fishers, myself included, had mentors that promoted fly patterns above all else when it came to rising trout. The theory was that if one pattern didn’t work, try another. In other words, keep changing flies.

From a historic standpoint, little emphasis was placed on the way aquatic insects hatched and trout fed on those insects. Instead, the angling literature promoted the concept that the fly itself was the issue when a trout refused a particular pattern. That philosophy is so deeply ingrained in fly fishers that more often than not, anglers fail to recognize that many other factors dictate the reason why a trout does not take a particular fly.

When I was researching my little book, “What’s Wrong with My Fly?” I checked to see how many different fly patterns were listed in the literature.

In the book “Flies,” by J. Edison Leonard, I counted 2,200 different patterns. That book was published in 1950! So why so many different fly patterns? Probably because they all worked.

What I’ve observed, the longer I fly fish, is that more and more trout are feeding on nymphs and emergers, not on mayfly duns. As a result, I’ve limited the number of patterns I use, finding that spinners and parachute nymphs are more likely to take trout than conventionally tied flies.

To learn if I were the only angler fishing with fewer and different patterns, I had an interesting discussion with Ed VanPut. Ed is one of the best fly fishermen in the Catskills and the author of “The Beaver Kill” and “Trout Fishing in the Catskills,” two beautifully written and well-researched books. So I was not surprised when Ed explained that when he checked his diary, he found that he caught most of his trout on the Adams dry fly. As most of you who fly fish know, the Adams does not represent any living insect. The question is, why was Ed so successful fishing one fly, while the rest of us try pattern after pattern with mixed success?

Ed knows when to fish, where to fish, and targets trout that are actively feeding at the surface. He is also an extremely good caster, placing his fly on target time after time. When I told Ed that I was rising most of the trout I caught on spinner patterns and parachute nymphs, he simply said, “The trout can see them better, because they float in the surface film.”

The fact that trout rise to these types of flies while ignoring traditionally tied flies makes a lot of sense. While Catskills-style dry flies, tied with a radial hackle, ride the surface on their hackle points, I believe they are less visible to feeding trout, and less natural-looking, than spinners and parachute nymphs. Based on my observations these last few years and my discussion with Ed, I’m adding a lot more Rusty Spinners, Pale Evening Spinners, Green Drake Spinners and an assortment of parachute nymphs to my two fly boxes. I’ll be fishing these patterns almost exclusively in the coming years. What’s in your fly boxes?

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