Ramblings of a Catskill Flyfisher

Artificial versus natural flies

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 2/13/20

Whether you call them patterns or (in the new vernacular) recipes, things change with fly fishing and fly-tying nomenclature over time—only the natural flies and trout stay the same. One of the …

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Ramblings of a Catskill Flyfisher

Artificial versus natural flies

Posted

Whether you call them patterns or (in the new vernacular) recipes, things change with fly fishing and fly-tying nomenclature over time—only the natural flies and trout stay the same. One of the phenomena that I observed over many years of casting my flies is how delicate the actual mayflies and, to a lesser degree, the caddis and stoneflies are. Yet, when I look at a lot of artificially tied flies, particularly the commercial variety, it is not hard to see how heavily they are dressed. I’ve seen some that are actually gaudy! This type of tie may work early in the season during high water, or in Labrador or Alaska where the trout are a little less finicky. Heavily dressed flies aren’t very effective on the clear freestone rivers, tail waters and spring creeks throughout the world, especially where brown trout are found and especially under low flow conditions. So before you all poo-hoo something as simple as using a more lightly dressed fly as a means of rising more trout, read on before you condemn me.

I suppose one could make an argument that because dry files need to float, they should be dressed accordingly. They do need to float, but how much hackle is required to float a fly and still provide some semblance of realism? As I evolved as a fly fisher and fly tier, I found that one hackle from today’s high quality necks was enough to provide flotation without looking like a giant insect on the water. I’ve also found that it is absolutely unnecessary to tie in wings on a standard Catskill-style dry fly. I know this sounds like heresy; most disciples of this historic and proven traditional method think I’m a little nuts. If anything, I’m a little lazy and tend to minimize my fly-tying technique whenever possible. Time has proven that my no-wing versions of standard fly patterns works just fine and saves a step at the vise. Plus, wood duck flank feathers are not cheap and not always easy to come by! I’ll leave the wings or no wings argument to others; I know what works for me. And the next time you compare an artificial to a real mayfly, note that almost all mayflies float along with their wings together while most hand tied versions have separated wings.  

So whether you opt to fish a pattern developed by the Catskill School of fly tiers, including Theodore Gordon, Harry and Elsie Darbee, Walt and Winnie Dette, Rube Cross, Art Flick and others; parachute; or comparadun styles, think that less is more when it comes to tying or buying your flies. From my observations and the feedback I’ve had from others, there is no question that all of these different tying techniques work. Just keep in mind that lightly dressed flies work better than heavily tied versions, regardless of the style. 

The next time you are on a river and find a hatch of natural flies, pick one up and compare it to the artificial flies in your box. Do the flies in your box look anything like the real fly when it comes to delicacy or not so much? Comparing a natural insect to your artificially tied flies should tell you a great deal about how well they will work during an actual hatch.

So when you find that you are casting a heavily hackled fly to rising trout and it’s not working, try a more lightly tied version of the same fly before changing patterns. You might be surprised just how well that might work.

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