If you like tying flies, it stands to reason that you would prefer complicated patterns, since they require more tying. There’s not much sense of accomplishment in making a fly out of just one material in a matter of seconds.
But that one-material fly may out-catch the complex patterns.
A few weeks ago, the famed fly designer Bob Clouser posted a photo on Facebook of his nymph fly box. In the box were three rows of the simplest fly I’ve ever seen — no tail, no hackle, no wingcase, no bead, just a body of peacock herl.
Could such a simple fly actually work? The answer is obvious — a man who is among the world’s best-known fly-tiers isn’t going to carry three dozen copies of a fly that’s not effective.
“Possibly the best in the box,” Clouser replied when I inquired about the fly — and the box included all the standard patterns, like the Prince and the Copper John.
I found out for myself that it works.
A friend and I caught three trout between us in a half-hour of fooling around with the Peacock Herl Nymph a few weeks ago. In fact, I was secretly pleased that the one-material fly (I don’t count the thread) outfished a Copper John, which has nine different materials and involves something like 15 tying steps.
Maybe the Peacock Herl nymph suggests an insect larva or pupa or some kind of small worm. Maybe the segmentation that comes from winding on the herls reminds the fish of other things it eats. Maybe the iridescent sheen of the peacock herl appeals to the fish, or as my friend, Chris Stewart, said, maybe peacock reflects an ultraviolet color that humans can’t see but triggers a feed response in trout.
Or maybe the trout just picked the fly up out of curiosity. But it happened more than once, so it may mean something.
There are other examples of ultra-simple flies that catch fish like crazy. The Usual, designed by the late Fran Betters up in the Adirondacks, consists (again, not counting thread) of a tail, body and wing/legs clump, all of snowshoe hare’s foot. Chris Stewart is partial to the Killer Bug, designed by Frank Sawyer, the English angler best known for the Pheasant Tail nymph. The Killer Bug is made of nothing but yarn — whatever you can find that looks like Chadwick’s No. 477 darning wool, which is no longer made and the recipe for which was reportedly lost in a fire. The yarn is held to the hook (and ribbed, almost invisibly) by fine wire instead of thread.
Sawyer’s original Pheasant Tail was a one-material pattern; touches such as a thorax of peacock were only added when the pattern was Americanized. As with the Killer Bug, Sawyer used wire to affix the feather fibers to the hook.
Clouser reports that a nymph made of nothing but thread dubbed with muskrat fur is another killer. There’s a one-feather CDC (cul de canard, an especially buoyant feather from a duck’s behind) pattern in circulation now, and there was a one-feather dry fly in the heyday of the Catskills that was something of a stunt, but elegant nonetheless. The ever popular Glo-Bug is made only of yarn, tied on, pulled tight and then snipped in such a way as to form a little fish-egg-colored sphere. And an awful lot of trout have been fooled by the San Juan Worm, which in its purest form is nothing more than an inch of thin chenille tied to a hook, with the tips burnt to a point with a cigarette lighter.
Each of these flies can be tied in well under a minute. You could tie a whole season’s worth in one afternoon. But then what would you do? What good is a hobby that doesn’t take up your time?
Better stock up on the materials for Copper Johns. There are a lot of cold afternoons between now and Opening Day.