Traditional wet flies and streamers have been the mainstay for trout fishermen since the early days of fly fishing. Many of the classic fly patterns were colorful, flashy attractors, while others were tied to emulate insects and minnows, a trout’s natural forage.
Literature from the 1800’s and early 1900’s offer us a glimpse into the common flies and techniques used to trick this beautiful game fish of bygone eras. Thaddeus Norris, Charles and Mary Orvis, as well as Ray Bergman, wrote extensive books with hundreds of painted illustrations of these classic flies. Most of the early fly patterns were designed for brook trout in the east, rainbow trout in the Rockies, and salmon in the north woods. However, with the dawn of the railroad and the booming industrial era mass timbering and development, many of the warming forested streams and river ecosystems that were once ideal brook trout habitat would be changed forever. In the 1880’s came the introduction of the German brown trout (salmo trutta) in New York and Michigan. Better equipped to thrive in America’s cold waterways, the brown trout today can be found in nearly every state in America.
Classic Flies- Brown Trout Style
Brown trout have become the most commonly pursued fish with the fly. This beautiful and lively trout has a more particular taste than it’s cousins, preferring less gaudy flies and favoring more natural patterns that match the biology of the water in which they live. They will take an attractor fly, but less obtrusive, natural offerings will bring more fish to the net. Being a traditional fly fisherman for over 40 years, mainly in the Appalachian Mountain region of Pennsylvania and New England, I learned through trial and error how to effectively tie and fish for brown trout with classic flies.
Several common wet flies that have been around for hundreds of years, the Professor and Grizzly King have been typically been fished on size six wet fly hooks. These flies tied in smaller sizes can closely replicate a mayfly, but are typically tied larger and fished on the swing as an effective fly. Being perplexed by this contradiction, considering how finicky brown trout can be, I started to take underwater videos of the flies in the current. At first glance underwater this “bug” looks astonishingly like a minnow with its tinsel body, red tail and mallard wing. The fish are striking what they think is a minnow. Tying a classic wet fly that will readily fool brown trout requires a few simple changes to the more robust brook trout versions.
Professor and Grizzly King
Wet Flies Tied for Brown Trout Sparse Dressings
Hook~ A standard size wet fly hook. Considering that the hook bend and point effectively “disappear” and the silk, wing, hackle and tinsel are what the trout picks up in the current. This size matches the small natural minnows readily seen in trout waters.
Thread~ Light brown and olive color heads are more natural than black.
Tail~ Tie two or three red hackle barbules. Brown trout like red fibers on a fly and it is a natural attractor, but they prefer a very sparse presentation. Red attracts as the color of blood coming from an injured, sick minnow or the open gills of bait fish. Body~ Sparse is better. The thickness of the entire fly including wings and hackle should match the thickness of a small frey minnow... thin. Use real silk for the
body- it naturally turns darker and looks surprisingly natural verses the rayon bright floss used today which stays unnaturally bright when submerged. Silk has an altogether different presentation.
Hackle~ browns and grays tied long and tight to the body. This creates a mottled, more natural look to the silk and tinsel body. Ribbing, Gold tinsel has consistently caught more brown trout than silver for reasons unknown to me other than natural preference.
Wings~ Tied long, half way to the end of the tail. Mallard in bronze and white depending on the day and the fish. The wing should lay flat to the body. A flatwing style consistently produces more strikes than the traditional double slip method. Lay one mallard feather flat to the body and tie in. For bucktails, fur bearer wings (fox, raccoon, squirrel etc.) have more life and natural appearance than deer fur.
Small wet flies (size 12 to 16) fished during hatches work best with double wing slips. Thin and the length of the body or shorter works best. Brown trout prefer natural colors over bright. The Coachman, Yellow Sally, Gold Stork, Haresear, and Down Looker are excellent examples of attractor, match the hatch wet flies.
An Old Streamer and a Hungry Trout
Classic Streamers for brown trout~ Traditional streamer patterns fish very effectively tied with the same principals as wet flies. Sparse, thin and natural. I have created a number of traditional streamer patterns which have worked as well for wild brown trout as any contemporary streamer. Most times, simple is better. We are fortunate to have a sizable woodland wild trout stream just behind our home, which is wonderful for testing fly patterns. The following is a very effective brown trout streamer that I tie with the traditional methods. It’s natural colors imitate many of the native minnow species as well as brown trout fry.
Fox and Gold Streamer
Hook~ Partridge of Redditch Heritage Streamer hook Size 8 9x long
Thread~ 8/0 Camel
Tag~ silver flat tinsel
Body~ Build up a thin body then wrap with gold flat medium tinsel leaving the hook shank bare at the head. Start wrapping the tinsel at the head rearward then returning to the head leaving a shiny double layer of tinsel. (Optional gold oval tinsel ribbing)
Hackle~ White red fox fur to beyond the hook bend
Wing~ Red fox fur tied flat to the body and beyond the hook bend
Head~ Build a thread head starting at the eye and working back toward the crown.
Finish~ brush on three layers of lacquer with adequate drying time between coats
On the Waters
Fishing classic flies requires no special talent other than getting the fly to where the fish are, varying upon the season and conditions. Fish them on a dead drift casting upstream, mending your fly line into a swing.
Let the fly hang at the end of a swing for over 30 seconds, which seems to be the most productive part of the drift. I have hooked many wild brown trout with my fly hanging at the end of a run with my fly box in hand, while looking for a new fly! With an 8’ fly rod, you can swing the fly on a straight line, slowly ”swimming” across each section of stream up to 18 feet wide. This is the time to ready for a strike, which requires no set of the hook, as the trout does the work himself at the end of a tight line. It is critically important to keep your rod tip up at a 40 degree angle to allow a big brown trout a chance to run without the disheartening snap of your tippet. This is where a bamboo fly rod shines with its long bend and light tip. Retrieve the fly with painfully slow 6” strips. For slow moving water, a standard size hook works well, but in high, fast current use a strip of lead tied flat under the hook shank , which keeps the fly swimming upright, or my preference is a Partridge of Redditch Wet Heavy Supreme Sproat hook that quickly gets the fly into the trouts feeding zone. Swinging downstream has been the most effective method that I’ve used over the years. This style of fly also works well throughout the cold winter months, which I enjoy. In clear water, cast and swing the fly further downstream. Wild brown trout are constantly being hunted by predators and raptors and will spook at the slightest movement. Wear clothing that matches the natural environment. Swinging flies downstream requires tact, less movement and stealth. The trout are lying with their field of vision facing upstream. Movement is their signal of an approaching a predator. At the slightest sign of danger, they are quick to an alarmed retreat into a deep rocky hiding place.
If you’re an old hand at casting traditional flies or just beginning, there is something special about tying, casting and landing a brown trout on these beautiful, historic patterns that have stood the test of time. I hope that you too drift an old fly downstream.
Author: Fred Klein Fly tyer and fisher of early traditional flies; presentations, articles and videos on historical fly tying and fishing. U.S. Partridge of Redditch Pro Team. For tutorials, articles and fly gallery with over 350 classic flies, visit grizzlykingfly.com