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I believe most fly fishers have a favorite or “go to fly”—that would be my claim for the Rusty Spinner.
Why is this particular fly so versatile? It’s a pattern that I use in a variety of sizes, mostly at dusk, when spinner falls occur and large trout are on the feed (spinners are the imago, i.e. adult, reproductive stage of mayflies). My personal history of success with the pattern goes back many years, to a fall afternoon, while fishing on the Catskill River.
At that time of year, on some waters, there are good afternoon hatches of Isonychia mayflies. That was the case that day. We were fishing a section of river, where two old bridge abutments remained from another time. As the river flowed around those abutments, it created nice holding areas where some sizable rainbows stopped to feed on Isonychia duns. I cast to those fish several times with my imitation of Art Flick’s Dun Variant, with no results. Then, for a reason I can’t recall, I knotted a number 12 Rusty Spinner to my tippet. On the second cast, a very nice rainbow took and was landed. A short time later, a second fish came to the fly, was hooked and lost. Both of those fish refused the Dun Variant, but immediately and greedily, took the Rusty Spinner.
The following May, I was fishing the same river, only well upstream. I arrived at a favorite pool at just about dusk to find a large number of March Brown spinners in the air. As night closed, those spinners began to egg lay, fall to the water and die. Soon, I could hear but barely see the soft rises associated with trout taking the spent flies. I tied a size 10 Rusty Spinner to the 4x tippet and cast across and down to where I heard the rises.
While I could no longer see the fly, I had a good idea where it was by following the tip of my fly line. As the line angle approached the rises, there was a slurp—I tightened, and was fast to a substantial fish. After a 10-minute struggle, a 20-inch brown came to net.
Years later, I was invited to go to West Yellowstone, Montana, and fish the waters around the park. During that trip, the fly proved very effective on the Henry’s Fork, Yellowstone and Madison rivers.
On every river I’ve chosen to use it, this fly has worked well. That’s because the Rusty Spinner is tied to lie flat, float in the surface film and look like a real, dead mayfly. As a result, it’s eagerly taken by large trout on the prowl at dusk, during short windows of feeding opportunity.
Is there a downside to using the Rusty Spinner? Yes. It’s tied with blue dun hackle and rusty, brown dubbing, making it extremely difficult to see on the water. And, fly fishers should keep in mind that large trout, feeding at dusk, will take flies very deliberately, including spinners. More often than not, your artificial will end up well inside the mouth or deeper in a hooked trout. That’s why it’s best to use micro-barb, barbless hooks, or pinch down the barbs on the flies you use. Should you happen to hook a fish deep, with any hook, don’t try to remove it; just snip the tippet.
Hopefully you will accept the challenge that late-day spinner fishing has to offer. It takes some effort to learn to fish “blind” as I describe this type of angling, but those who do will be well rewarded.