Time to make a short list of fly patterns

Last week, I received an email from a friend of mine who lives in southeastern Pennsylvania. Like many fly-fishermen this time of year, he had been busy tying flies for the upcoming season, and that prompted him to pose a question to me – Of all the fly patterns out there, and if you could only fish five flies for all the streams in Pennsylvania, what five would you choose?

That’s a question I’ve heard many times and one I find surprisingly easy to answer. I’ve been an avid fly tier for more than 40 years. While still in my teens, I compiled a “database” on three-by-five index cards of almost a thousand fly patterns from every fly-tying book or magazine article I could find back then and have continued studying, tying and fishing countless fly patterns ever since.

When it comes to my personal fishing strategy, however, I tend to use a small handful of proven patterns most of the time with great success. Of course, I would never suggest that anyone limit himself to just a few flies, but if I were building a basic foundation of patterns, here are some I would start with.

I prefer to fish nymphs and subsurface flies most of the time. Hands down, the Pheasant Tail Nymph and the Walt’s Worm are my two best go-to nymphs for just about any stream and just about any time of year.

The Pheasant Tail is a well-known pattern that all fly shops carry, and its pattern recipe is available in many books for those who tie their own flies. I concocted the Walt’s Worm 29 years ago. It soon gained a large following because it worked so well, and most of the fly shops in this area have stocked this pattern for years.

It couldn’t be simpler to tie, because it consists of just a body of dubbing fur wrapped on the hook. I used to blend rabbit fur and clear Antron for the fly, but the preblended Hare’s Ear Plus in Natural Hare’s Ear works perfectly. Make the body somewhat cigar-shaped, tapered slightly at each end and a little plump in the middle, and that’s all there is to it.

I would round out the nymph selection with a darker pattern that has a body tied from peacock herl. There is something about peacock herl that can be magic on certain streams or at certain times. A couple of standard nymph patterns that use peacock herl would be the Zug Bug and the Prince Nymph.

I designed a simple all-around pattern years ago that really works when I need a dark nymph. For my Peacock Nymph, I use black hen hackle fibers or the tips of two or three peacock herls for the tail, which I keep fairly short. The body is several strands of peacock herl, of course, and I like to rib it with medium gold or copper wire.

The wingcase is made from a section of duck or goose quill dyed black. For legs, I add a couple of turns of short, black hen hackle at the throat.

I like to tie each of these patterns on a standard nymph hook in sizes 12, 14 and 16, and in both standard and bead-head versions. If you have the skill and experience to fish small nymphs, you might want to have a few of each in size 18 for situations like catch-and release areas or other locations that receive a lot of fishing pressure. The real “secret sauce” for those patterns, or virtually any nymph pattern as far as I’m concerned, is to build as much weight into the fly as feasible so that it gets to the bottom as fast as possible and stays there throughout the drift.

Wrapping the hook shank lead wire before tying the fly is the most effective way to weight nymphs. Choose the largest diameter of lead wire possible for a given size and pattern but not so large that it makes the fly look too fat or out of proportion. Even with bead-head nymphs, it won’t hurt to include a few turns of lead wire to the hook as well. The heavier the better, especially in the heavy springtime flows.

These three nymph patterns have probably caught more trout for me than every other pattern I’ve ever fished combined. I also have a similar selection of dry flies, but due to space limitations, I’ll pass them on in a couple of weeks.