Should I follow the fly tying recipe or improvise?

The answer, of course, is yes.

This weekend, I received a question about tying Leisenring’s March Brown Nymph. The reader wanted to know if I thought three pheasant tail fibers for the body was enough. As you can see from my original writeup, I had a few initial questions (or opinions) about the recipe as well. Here’s a little more about my M.O. when I’m tying a pattern for the first time.

I always like to honor the original recipe — at least in the beginning. I want to see what the the tier had in mind, what his or her vision of the pattern was, and perhaps try to figure out what they were trying to accomplish in terms of materials and look. In the case of Leisenring, a giant in the pantheon of American wet fly fishing, respect to the original was surely due. If Big Jim liked the pattern enough to include it in his book, that carried a significant weight. But, even if the pattern creator isn’t on the fly fishing Mount Rushmore, I still like to stick to the original design.

Now, there’s nothing that says you can’t improvise. Indeed, countless patterns have been improved upon because other tyers asked, “what if I?…” So, for example, if there’s a stone fly pattern I’m tying and I think — do I really need that wing case? — I might leave it out after a few iterations. If you’re really curious about discovering the necessity of certain elements or materials, use droppers. Tie one fly according to the original, and then tie one fly your way. Place them on droppers, change the positions frequently to keep it a fair fight, and see if the fish have any preference. Droppers are always the fastest way to find out what the fish want.

I hope this helps. Tie on, ladies and gentlemen.

The Steelhead Hammer (shown here) recipe I found all those years ago specified stretch floss for the underbody. I hated the stuff, so I don’t use it anymore. The original Tom’s 60-Second Redhead called for a mix of beaver, Angora, and flash. I use plain black rabbit fur, and the steelhead seem to like it. And so on…

9 comments on “Should I follow the fly tying recipe or improvise?

  1. George Baldwin says:

    Great advise on using the dropper to compare, Steve. Also good about starting with the original pattern. Often, the originators developed that fly through years of variation and experimentation to fine tune it to the successful model as we learn it.
    But… adding different successful features of different flies, or other variations might work better on different waters or use materials that work even better. Keep the advise coming. I know I’ve benefitted greatly.

  2. Toby Lapinski says:

    Oh man, I really like that tie (Leisenring’s March Brown Nymph), not sure how I missed it before today. Without any Bruins games airing this week on regular TV I’ll have to add her to the list!

  3. Mike O’Mara says:

    It’s interesting that Mr. Leisenring used a very short sparse tail. I’ve always thought that heavily tailed nymphs, like a hares ears spiky tail, looks more like an extension of the abdomen, and in effect just increases the overall size of the fly. Same thing on a dry. Tails on a conventional dry fly I think more simulate a trailing shuck than the wispy upturned tails on the natural. I will sometimes eliminate the tail altogether, for instance on a parachute Adams, if I’m concerned about size.

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Mike, and thanks for the comment. Yeah, I found that tail configuration curious, but who am I to argue with Big Jim? I do agree that tails make good shucks; keep in mind that with some mayflies in the spinner stage, the tails are sometimes much longer than the body.

  4. William Giokas says:

    Always try something new! That’s how great flies evolve. Bill

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