“Match Game” first appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of American Angler. I’ve included several of the original wet fly portraits; you can find most of the recipes by doing a search on this site.
Match Game by Steve Culton
Next time your attempts to match a hatch with dry flies fail, try matching it with one of these time-tested wet fly patterns.
The words “match the hatch” conjure up images of dry fly aficionados patiently sifting through their boxes, searching for the perfect fly, achieving Nirvana when they make the correct selection. Indeed, there’s nothing I like more than fooling a trout on a dry – unless it’s fooling a trout on a wet fly.
The more I fish them, the more I recognize that wet flies are often the best match for a hatch. That’s because wet flies allow you to fish under the hatch – where the trout are feeding – as insects emerge or lay eggs. You’re fishing, as James Leisenring said, “at the point where the trout is most likely to take his food.”
Matching the hatch with wets isn’t rocket science. Most days, all you need to do is duplicate the size and color of the natural, then drift or swing the fly over the trout’s position. The takes on wets are among the most aggressive hits you’ll experience. What’s more, the fish also tend to be larger (big trout get that way, in part, by being shy about showing themselves).
Here are eight popular, widespread hatches, matched with a proven wet fly pattern, so you can look like a trout savant the next time you’re on the water.
Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up. It’s kind of like that with the Dark Hendrickson. In the initial stages of this hatch, trout wantonly gorge on the emerging mayflies. The surface erupts with their frenzied slashes and frantic boils. The dry fly will often be ignored, and those casting them can be identified by their grim countenance. This classic American wet will turn those puzzled frowns into mile-wide grins. Target a feeding fish, time his rise pattern (if he has one – I find that trout get reckless during a strong Hendrickson emergence), and drift your fly over his position. Trout will hammer this fly on the dead drift, the swing, and on the dangle (the fly holding in the current below you). Sometimes a slow, hand-twist retrieve on the dangle will draw a strike.
Don’t wait for the mayflies to be visible to fish the Dark Hendrickson. I like to start working it through runs and transition water a good two hours before the duns are scheduled to appear. If there’s going to be an impressive hatch, you’ll know long before anyone else. I like a 12, but go up or down a size if you need to match the profile of what’s hatching. If necessary, a bead head will help sink the fly; fish it as the point fly in your team of wets.
There will come a time late in the emergence where the wet fly is no longer effective. You’ll notice fewer splashy rises, and the trout will stop throwing themselves at your fly. That’s the time to switch over to a dry, like a Hendrickson Comparadun.
Tiny Blue-Winged Olive
Wet flies are incredibly versatile creations. For proof, look no further than the Tiny BWO. Pat Torrey describes the logic behind his design. “Almost every afternoon from mid-October until the first week of December, the Farmington River has a very consistent hatch of small Baetis mayflies. The extended time frame of the hatch allows the fish to get pretty familiar with this food source. Most anglers fish this hatch with standard dry fly and emerger patterns, which become less effective as time goes on.”
Pat’s use of a soft-hackle on a small fly is traditional and proven. (Sylvester Nemes devoted eleven new chapters to tiny soft-hackles when he revised his masterwork The Soft-Hackled Fly.) While Pat prefers to fish his diminutive wet just under the film, I like to present it as a dry-wet hybrid. Start by giving the hackle a gentle dusting of silica powder. This creates an emerging wings and legs profile on the surface, with a body and shuck just beneath it. As the dusted hackle loses its hydrophobic properties, the fly beings to sink a little deeper into the film. That’s usually when the fun begins.
Flies this small can be a difficult sell in fast-moving, broken water, so try presenting it to rising trout in a glassy pool. The pattern template also works for midges; try black thread and white hackle.
Squirrel and Ginger
Dave Hughes said, “Trout aren’t interested in neatness.” I’ll add that ugly, buggy flies catch fish. This fly started out as a fuzzy nymph called the Caddis Larva. I played around with adding a traditional feather hackle, but it wasn’t until I gave the fly a sparse collar of fox squirrel that the fly took on a dramatic new energy. The first time I fished the Squirrel and Ginger was a steaming hot July afternoon. The sun was high, and there was precious little hatch activity. Yet I took trout after trout as I walked the length of a swift two-foot deep run.
Besides being a reliable searching pattern, the Squirrel and Ginger excels at matching the caddis hatch. I like it on a 2x short scud hook; my default is a size 12, but you should alter its size and body color to match the naturals. A few notes about tying this fly: The hero is the fur hackle, so keep the body thin. Less is more with the squirrel. Use a quarter of what you think you need to start, and pull out the longer guard hairs. I like to spin the fur on a dubbing loop, then stroke the fibers back as I wind the hackle. Don’t fret if you end up with a messy head – remember the wise words of Mr. Hughes.
They have a seemingly endless parade of names. I just call creamy mayflies Light Cahills, after the old-school American pattern. Like the Dark Hendrickson, the Light Cahill uses a seductive wood duck wing. Its banding pattern whispers to trout, “I’m alive,” and offers an enticing contrast to the pale fur body and hackle.
Selectivity in feeding trout has always fascinated me. I don’t think trout are picky eaters (in the sense that you can’t get your kids to finish their broccoli); they are simply eating what’s hatching. It’s up to us to find out what that is, then properly present it. That’s where droppers become an indispensible tool. One evening I was fishing a hatch of Light Cahills with three flies: Light Cahill winged wets on the top dropper and point, and a soft-hackled bead head Pheasant Tail in the middle. Of the dozen fish I caught, none chose the Pheasant Tail. They were keyed on the lighter colored flies.
Follow Ray Bergman’s advice: “If it were necessary to confine my assortment of flies to only two or three, this would be one of them.” Tie the Light Cahill in sizes 10-20, and you’ll be ready for any virtually scenario.
Pale Watery Wingless Wet
I don’t believe in magic flies; that is, if you fish with Fly X you’ll become an instant expert. But this fly makes me want to believe. Based on an old English pattern, I dispense with the original’s gold rib, tie it on a 1x fine hook, dust it with silica powder, and fish it like a dry.
Sulfurs are another in a long list of hatches that leave anglers muttering, pondering the error of their ways on the long drive home. But once you examine the science of the hatch, the magic behind this fly is revealed. Sulfurs take a long time to emerge from their nymphal shucks. This is significant for two reasons: it results in a high percentage of stillborns and cripples; and the emerger is sub-surface for an extended period. Absent duns on the water, those rise rings are from fish feeding just below the surface. Like the Usual, the Pale Watery Wingless Wet has a spikey body, and its soft hackle absorbs water, causing the fly to ride in the film, rather than on it.
If you’re getting refusals, try fishing this fly one size down from what’s hatching. Alakazam! Magic ensues.
Hackled March Brown
There are so many wet flies – both caddis and mayfly patterns – called “March Brown” that the name reads like a generic label. This particular March Brown comes from an English book published in the 1930s, Trout Fishing From All Angles. It lists a winged and a wingless dressing; this is the wingless. The recipe calls for a “red ant colour” hare’s ear body; I have been tying this with rusty fur.
While we do get some March Browns on the Farmington, it isn’t a major hatch. There is, however, an impressive late summer Isonychia showing. Since it is likely to be the largest on my three-fly team of wets, I tie the Hackled March Brown on point. Because of its size, this fly shines in swift water: deeper riffles, pocketed slots, and boulder-strewn runs. If there’s no hatch, it also makes a fine searching pattern. I’ve taken some substantial trout on this fly while fishing it on the dangle. The hits are the rip-the-line-from-your-fingers type, the kind that make you wish it was August right now.
The Starling and Herl has been fooling trout for centuries. It possesses the alchemy created by the natural iridescence of starling and peacock. The fly represents any number of insects, from beetles to dark caddis to little black stones – and maybe ants? Let’s make sure. To create an ant-like profile, I’ve simply added a segment of working thread to the middle of the body.
Each summer, I catch a hefty percentage of my trout on this fly. To increase its durability, I reinforce the herl with a strand of thread, twisting the herl around the thread to form a chenille-like rope. If one of the herls happens to break, the entire fly will not be compromised.
I especially like to fish this fly along shaded wooded banks – prime territory for ants to take an accidental tumble. The dangle seems to produce an inordinate number of strikes. Curious, considering I’ve never seen ants tread water in a three-knot current. Sylvester Nemes said, “Any sunk artificial fly, to be good, must transform itself in the water into something alive, something suggestive and moving, something that looks good to eat.” That is clearly the case with the Drowned Ant.
The Hopper Hammerdown
A consistent theme of wet flies through the centuries has been impressionism. Wets do not attempt to carbon copy an insect; they simply match its general size, color, and profile. With so many hopper patterns available, why the need for another? In three words: Simple. Impressionistic. Effective.
The Hopper Hammerdown is based on a steelhead fly called the Golden Stone Hammerdown. The fly does not give the fish, as Bill McMillan said, credit for being “more complicated than the rather primitive animal it is.” And it promises a calorie-dense meal to the trout, well worth the fish’s effort. This is another fly I’ll fish near the surface, usually as the top dropper. Sometimes I’ll treat it with floatant and fish it on a dead drift like a dry. It plays well along grassy and wooded banks on warm summer days when the trout instinctively know that something large and yummy might come struggling along at any minute.
No hatch? No worries.
What do you do if you get to the river and there are no signs of a hatch? You fish. With confidence. Wet flies make excellent searching patterns, and with a team of three, you can cover a lot of water quickly. Remember the first rule of droppers: they are the quickest way to find out what the fish want. Give the trout a choice: different sizes, colors, species, or life stages. Hedge your bets by choosing flies that are most likely to be hatching when you’re fishing. For example, on a late summer afternoon, you might fish a Squirrel and Ginger (caddis) as the top dropper, a Drowned Ant as the second dropper, and a Hackled March Brown (Isonychia) on point.