The magnificent 7
Keep yourself busy this winter by restocking your fly boxes with these essential western trout patterns
What are the West’s top seven must-have flies for trout? To find out, I consulted several of the region’s top fly fishermen. And though opinions varied, I was surprised by how often the choices aligned. Even when there was disagreement, it was usually only about variations on a pattern. And there was unanimous agreement that western trout flies need to be general in appeal, representing a wide variety of insects. Enter the following seven essential patterns. If you plan on tying up a storm this winter, these are flies you should have in your vest once spring arrives.
This should be the first dry fly that all tiers learn. It has all of the classic elements of a dry: spun hackle, upright wings and a long tail. Once you master the Adams, all dry flies will be relatively easy to tie. While not a perfect imitation of anything, the Adams is the ultimate generalist any time mayflies are hatching. In fact, any time there are bugs on the surface of a lake or stream, the Adams will produce. It just has that ideal neutral shade that appeals to trout in a host of conditions.
When I first moved to Alberta and didn’t know about western hatches, I fished the Adams everywhere, from tiny brook trout streams to big rivers to high-mountain lakes. It was a good thing I didn’t know much, because the Adams caught fish everywhere, and it’s still my most-used dry fly. The key is carrying a wide range of sizes, and keeping the fly well coated in silicone floatant—the higher it rides on the water, the more effective it is.
HOOK: Standard dry fly, sizes 10 to 20
TAIL: Mix of grizzly and brown hackle barbs
Wings: Grizzly hackle tips
BODY: Grey dubbing
HACKLE: Mix of grizzly and brown, dry-fly quality
If you’ve never heard of this leech pattern before, don’t feel bad—it’s uniquely Albertan. It arrived in the mid-1990s and was an instant hit with lake anglers. It resembles a Woolly Bugger minus the hackle wrapped around the body, making it simple to tie. The fly gained its name from the manner in which it’s fished: motionless, as if it were in a catatonic state.
Fishing the Catatonic Leech is as close to bobber fishing as fly fishing gets. You rig the fly four to six feet beneath a strike indicator, cast it out and just let it sit. Some anglers twitch the line every couple of minutes, but that’s more about breaking the boredom than increasing their success. This is the ideal early-season fly when there’s little or no insect activity. Just after ice-out, trout have a frustrating habit of taunting anglers by aimlessly cruising around the lake, refusing everything thrown at them. But this fly seems to be just too much for them to resist. Although you can’t count on non-stop action with the Catatonic Leech, it sure can save the day on a spring outing.
HOOK: Streamer, sizes 10 to 14
THREAD: Olive, 6/0 or 8/0
TAIL: Olive marabou
BODY: Olive marabou dubbed onto thread
ELK HAIR CADDIS
No fly vest is complete without a caddisfly imitation, and this one is my favourite. Getting the elk-hair wing stacked properly on this fly is the greatest challenge for the tier, but when done correctly, the Elk Hair Caddis is an ideal imitation for a variety of caddisfly hatches. The hackle wrapped over the body makes the fly super-buoyant, helping it sit upright on the water. It also lets you skitter the fly across the surface.
My most memorable day with the Elk Hair Caddis was on B.C.’s Whitetail Lake. The action had been decent throughout the day, but it absolutely died as evening approached, despite the fact the fish were rising like crazy. As I lifted my rod tip to bring in my Elk Hair Caddis and try a new pattern, the fly danced across the surface and a big rainbow slammed it, breaking the tippet. I quickly tied on another Elk Hair, and instead of allowing it to sit motionless, I began to retrieve it. Instantly, I got another strike. That time I landed a big rainbow. And so went the action for the next couple of hours. Since that day, I’ve used this technique often, even on flowing water, skittering the fly across the surface on a tight line at the end of the drift. Just hang on, because strikes are explosive.
HOOK: Standard dry fly, sizes 8 to 20
BODY: Brown, green or grey dubbing
HACKLE: Palmered brown saddle hackle
WING: Natural grey elk hair
HARE’S EAR NYMPH
Just as the Adams is the ultimate generalist in the world of dry flies, its counterpart in the world of nymphs is the Hare’s Ear. It isn’t a close representation of any particular insect—it just looks buggy. This is a great fly on which the novice tier can learn the art of dubbing. And truthfully, it’s pretty hard to screw up. The gold-wire ribbing is optional, but I find that in stillwater, the additional flash elicits more strikes.
This is one of those flies you go to when nothing is happening on the surface and you have no clue what the fish may be eating. I’ve caught everything from golden trout in the highest reaches of the Rockies to whitefish and goldeye in slow-flowing prairie rivers. I’ve had some great days on Rocky Mountain whitefish with this nymph, too. Its soft, bulky body seems to encourage fish to hold onto it longer—if you’ve nymphed for whitefish, you’ll appreciate just how fast they can spit out a harder-bodied fly. If I find a good concentration of whitefish in a deep hole in the late fall or early winter, this is my go-to pattern.
HOOK: Wet fly, regular or 1X long, size 8 to 16
TAIL: Guard hairs from a hare’s mask (face and ears)
BODY: Coarse dubbing from a hare’s mask or a mix of hare and synthetic fibres
THORAX: Dubbing, either the same as the body or a different shade and/or a coarser texture
WING CASE: Fibres from a turkey tail or similar feather
RIB: Gold wire
THREAD: Black or brown, 6/0 or 8/0
No fly vest is complete without some sort of hopper, and the Letort is a classic dating back to 1960. The head can make this fly a bit challenging for the novice to tie, but once you master spinning deer hair, it’s fairly simple. I have a real affinity for big cutthroat trout, and this highly buoyant fly is ideal for fishing the fast-flowing freestone rivers that cutties call home. As August rolls around, terrestrials become a major food source for trout in these rivers. If you cast a Letort Hopper close to the bank and allow it to drift freely downstream, it’s usually not long before a greedy cutthroat inhales it.
While the Letort is a near-perfect hopper imitation, in a pinch it can also be used to imitate a big caddisfly. It can even be fished wet to make a serviceable minnow imitation. There are certainly better caddis- and minnow-imitators, but if the Letort is all you have, it will work.
HOOK: Dry fly, 2XL, sizes 10 to 16
BODY: Light olive dry-fly dubbing
UNDERWING: Turkey wing fibres
OVERWING: Deer hair
HEAD: Spun deer hair
THREAD: 6/0 Yellow
SAN JUAN WORM
I doubt there’s a simpler fly to tie than the San Juan Worm. It’s literally nothing more than a piece of chenille tied onto a hook. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. This innocuous-looking fly accounts for an incredible number of big fish each year, especially on waters such as Alberta’s famous Bow River. That’s where I was first introduced to the San Juan some 15 years ago. We were fishing where the Highwood dumps into the Bow on a cold spring morning, and a nearby angler was hooking more than his share of fat rainbows. After learning that most of them were coming on this strange-looking fly, I became a believer.
While the San Juan Worm—or Blood Worm, as it’s also known—can be fished like any nymph, it’s especially effective when fished in tandem with a generic nymph such as the Hare’s Ear. Rig your set-up so the Hare’s Ear drifts around the middle of the water column and the San Juan moves right along the bottom.
HOOK: Wet fly, 2X heavy, sizes 10 to 14
BODY: Red, tan, wine or pink Ultra Chenille
THREAD: Same colour as the body, size 6/0 or 8/0
Full disclosure: I hate fishing with a chironomid. To me, nothing is more boring than mindlessly casting one out, waiting several minutes for it to sink, then bringing it back to the surface a painstakingly slow inch or two at a time. But I’m also smart enough to appreciate that other anglers have success with this technique, and I’m not too proud to use it when conditions dictate. While the Zebra Chironomid is simple to tie, the hard-shell coating of superglue causes distress for some tiers. Just be sure to apply enough glue to saturate the thread, but not so much that it drips and runs.
Chironomid flies have become popular thanks to their success on the big Kamloops rainbows in the lakes of central B.C. The trout there can be finicky, and this subtle technique is often the only means to hook them. But the Zebra Chironomid in particular has now become a perennial favourite across the West. This is a great fly for hot summer afternoons when stillwater action slows to a crawl. And though it was originally meant for rainbows, the pattern is ideal for any lake-dwelling trout that feed on midge larvae. (Special thanks to the team at flyguys.net for sharing their Zebra Chironomid image.)
HOOK: Scud, size 12
BEAD: Black 3/32 ounce
BODY: Black tying thread, size 8/0
RIB: White tying thread, size 6/0
Long-time Alberta contributor T.J. Schwanky is also our western view opinion columnist.