Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

When you can’t fish flies, tie them

A wise man once opined that fly-fishing is the most fun you can have while standing up. At the very least, it’s the most fun you can have while holding a fishing rod. If that is true, then it stands to reason that tying your own flies is pretty fun, too.

This winter, I’ve stepped back into fly tying; something I’ve done since boyhood but let fall by the wayside in recent years. This winter, I had two motivating factors: successful cataract surgery and a pressing need for flies. The latter may seem a little crazy, because I have more than a dozen boxes stuffed with all kinds of flies. The only problem is that when rummaging through those boxes, often I cannot find the fly I’m looking for. I’ve used up the supply of my favorite patterns and have less confidence in the hundreds of flies remaining in my boxes. It’s no fun trying to choose a fly when you have little faith that it will fool a fish.

In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks wandering around Montana, where fly shops are as common as places to buy minnows around here. If you are looking for fishing information, it is standard procedure to look around the shop, ask the proprietor what flies are catching fish and then purchase some of them. Looking through the bins of flies offered for sale, rarely did I see any patterns that tickled my fancy.

This had more to do with my fly-fishing style than with the fly selections. I don’t often fish with small, traditional trout flies like the Royal Coachman or Prince nymph. My taste runs more to big, ugly and heavily weighted flies. This is partly because I was corrupted at an impressible juncture in my fly-fishing career by guys who fished for meat-eaters like smallmouth bass and monster brown trout. I discovered it is fun and challenging to fish with big flies. Best of all, you rewarded by catching good-sized fish.

After dinner most evenings this winter, I’ve sat down at my vise and tied a fly or two. While some tiers can knock out a dozen traditional trout flies in an hour, I am endowed with 10 thumbs. I take my time and build flies that will catch fish (I hope). If you keep at it, even with my tortoise-like tying pace, pretty soon you have a healthy supply of new flies.

Most of the flies I tie are designs of my own or modifications of well known patterns like the Muddler Minnow. A number of years ago, I spent a couple of winters tying flies with Grand Marais anglers, including local fly-fishing legend Dave Asproth. A gifted and creative tier, Asproth taught me (and the others) about the many ways you can incorporate deer hair into a fly pattern. Many of my flies include either deer hair or buck tail. I’m also fond of flashy tinsel and sparkly materials, rubber legs, marabou, soft hackle and weighted, dumbbell eyes. Some of my flies are actually jigs.

I’ve been replenishing my supply of a weighted crayfish pattern that works well for me. Tied on a #6 streamer hook, the fly has claws made of orange-tipped hair from a fox squirrel tail matched with a burnt orange chenille body overwrapped with an olive-brown hackle and embellished with black rubber legs. Weighted, dumbbell eyes pull it to the bottom and, like a jig, cause the fly to ride hook point up, minimizing hang-ups.

One trick to making effective big-fish flies is to use materials like rubber legs or marabou to create life-like motion in the water. While rubber legs are often equated with bass flies, they are darned effective trout-catchers, too. Nearly all of my subsurface patterns include materials that sparkle and flash, again to bring life to the fly. Some of my muddler patterns have a fish attracting flash that brook trout find hard to resist. My weighted Wooly Buggers have lots of sparkle and motion, too.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a fly pattern on the Internet said to be so good it really ought to be illegal. Of course, I had to tie some up. Called the Mop Fly, it is made from the grub-shaped fibers on a common dust mop. On a short-shanked hook, you add a metal bead for weight and a little dubbing for a collar, then you tie in the mop grub so it dangles, worm-like, beyond the hook. The mop head I’m using is chartreuse, but apparently this fly is so good that color doesn’t really matter. Chartreuse is a productive color in some places where I like to fish, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve tied a couple of Mop Flies with rubber legs that look interesting, too.

Still on the docket of flies to be tied are dries (floaters) imitating the big Hexagenia mayflies that hatch in July and some grasshoppers. I have two Hex patterns made from deer hair and sparkly materials that catch fish, are durable and dry quickly so you can keep fishing after landing a fish without needing to change flies. I’ve got some ideas for creating a grasshopper pattern with similar qualities. Many large dry flies incorporate closed cell foam, which makes them nearly unsinkable. In my experience, foam patterns are stiff and seem to get pushed away from striking trout rather than being taken. My new grasshopper will be foam-free.

Another incomplete project is going through my fly boxes to see if there are other patterns to be replenished. Then I need to do an inventory of fly reels and fly lines, perhaps adding to that supply. A run-down of fly rods is in order, too. These tasks are taking on an increasing sense of urgency, because I’ll soon be casting flies in Lake Superior and its tributaries. Another fishing season will be begin. I can hardly wait.

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