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The Heretic’s Guide to Fly Fishing

by Dave Karczynski


We’re at that in-between point of this angler’s year, a time of taking stock of the year that was, and of scheming flies and trips for the year that will be. It’s in the spirit of looking forward that we bring to you  a smattering of ideas to get you thinking outside the box, both for when you sit down at the vise and start to plan new approaches to familiar water. The techniques and approaches listed below have only one fundamental thing in common: their cross-over or hybrid nature.

#1 Sink Your Dries

It’s a fact that trout can be awfully ignorant of fly fishing’s rich didactic history and all the rules we’ve invented to corroborate our theories of fish behavior. If you’ve ever had a wild brown take a whack at your fluorescent pink indicator, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes it can be fun to throw caution and culture to the wind and start sinking something other than a nymph. If you fish small baetis and trico hatches, then you already know the merits of getting your smaller “dry” offerings beneath the surface of the water to avoid microdrag. But we can go deeper than just below the film. The success of flies like the RS2, an emerger/spinner hybrid most often fished as a nymph, is proof that trout respond to a variety of different shapes throughout the water column—not only the ones we anglers feel comfortable with.

This tying season, experiment with tying some of your spinner and emerger patterns on heavier-gauge nymph hooks. Or, better yet, try building their bodies with wire and deploying soft hackles and marabou instead of traditional dry fly hackle and CDC.

While you’re at it, it might be worthwhile to think about what other traditional dry patterns might be effective when fished down deep. How about ants? Anyone who’s spent serious time on ultra-technical spring creek sippers has had an ant pattern come to the rescue at least once. And ants aren’t exactly great swimmers. Come to think of it, neither are hoppers. See where I’m going with this?

#2 Try a Jack of All Trades

For our next cross-over item, how about a surface fly that works just as well sunk and stripped? Two all-purpose patterns from Wisconsin’s golden era of fly tying (did you know that Stevens Point was once the fly tying capital of the world?) are the Pass Lake and the Hornberg. Both come from an era when you didn’t tie on a new fly when you wanted to change the way you fished, you simply changed your presentation and retrieve. You can dead drift these flies, twitch them, swing them, and strip them back subsurface all on the same cast. If you’re a newer angler who spends more time casting and tying knots than fishing, working with these two Dairy State classics can help you keep your fly in the fish’s face longer. For more advanced anglers, these patterns are great for exploring new rivers, especially when caddis are present.


Golden pheasant fibers, peacock herl, calf tail and rooster hackle complete the Pass Lake’s ensemble of natural materials.

#3 Miniaturize to the Max

Our next outside-the-box idea involves taking traditionally large patterns and tying them in the miniature. If you fish muskies, you know that large, multi-shank flies with plenty of reverse-tied bucktail and saddle feathers swim like eels and push a ton of water. And if you tie these flies yourself you know that the sheer amount of material affords interesting options when it comes to stacking and combining colors. So how about we try downsizing those big Bufords into trout- and bass-sized portions? Our early forays into mini musky flies are indeed telling us that these flies have a place on the end of your 7 weight.

While we’re downsizing, take a look at your streamer box and ask what other patterns can be significantly downsized. A mini Sex Dungeon for spring creek trout and Great Lakes carp? A pine squirrel Krakken? What about a tiny Murdich minnow or the smallest feathered Game Changer of all time?  You may need to tinker around a bit with balance and proportion to get the right action, but once you do, fishing these smaller flies might give you a leg up on the competition, especially in the spring.

#4 Spey the Night

In number four we look at bringing a variation of our two-handed swing game to bear on brown trout fishing in the dark hours. That’s right: we’re asking you to spey the night. A lot of night fishing tends to revolve around the mouse, for the obvious electricity of the surface eat. But the reality of the situation is that alpha brown trout are primed to eat at night wherever their food might be found, and that is usually subsurface. This spring, don’t be too quick to stash away your tied-in-the round intruder-style steelhead patterns. Like mouse patterns, they offer a meaty silhouette. Also like mouse patterns, you can fish them slowly on the swing. Unlike many mouse patterns, however, the hook is right where it needs to be for fish that like to pluck and play with their food (night-time browns are notorious short strikers). Fish these flies with a tapered sinking tip like RIO’s Versileader series on a 6 weight switch rod or an overlined single-handed 7 weight and you’ve got a new system for dealing with subsurface night time browns. You may not be able to hear your eat, but getting your arm yanked in the middle of the night is a different type of heart-pounding altogether.

#5 Stay Weird All Winter

FusionLast but far from least, we’ll leave you with the most outside-the-box read of the winter season: Greg Senyo’s Fusion Fly Tying. (We profiled Greg about two years ago; you can read it here and here). If you tie steelhead flies, you know Greg as the brains behind many of Hareline’s brilliant synthetic materials, the latest of which are featured alongside natural materials all throughout Greg’s ouvre, and all throughout this book. Fusion Fly Tying is a trip through the mind of one of fly fishing’s most eclectic tiers—the type of book that will give you new ideas for updating and upgrading just about any fly you currently fish.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Dave Karczynski is the author of From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers, an Orvis Series book published by Lyons Press. He is also the co-author of Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Tactics, Tips and Techniques, published through Stackpole Press. A regular contributor to Outdoor Life, The Drake, and many other magazines, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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  • Fred Rickson

    Here’s another bit of heresy for you….with dry flies, color doesn’t matter. Against a blue sky background, I’d suggest, all flies appear black, or nearly so. For the past 15 years, my dries on Hebgen Lake, along with Salmonflies and grasshoppers on the Madison, and PMDs on the Firehole (Montana) have been all black. Sometimes with a thin gold rib for flash. I come in after catching fish, show the curious the all black fly in the keeper, and wait for the giggles. However, in the last few years, several regulars have said “I caught them on all black.” I smile, politely, and suggest it’s all about size and shape….not color.

    • Jim MacClean

      Not heresy, but pretty much known with experience you can fish all black, perhaps with more success, in the sun. With scattered clouds & full overcast I’d have yours colors ready.

      • Fred Rickson

        Actually, over the years, I think a black dry works better on overcast days. The image against the grey sky might be stronger, or it just might be the coming change in weather that sets fish off. One of the great aspects of fishing is that we will never know….and just keep wondering “why did the fish turn on today.”

        • Jim MacClean


        • Jim MacClean

          Been at it for over 25 years. You want colors in overcast. Overcast is always better fishing too. Only worry about the “all black” concept in the sun.

          • Fred Rickson


            I started fly fishing, at 10, in 1948. Don’t you just hate it when someone equates years doing something with level of knowledge attained. Seldom works.



            • Jim MacClean

              OK dude. You’re opinion that “black patterns” work better on cloudy days versus sunny proves your point.

  • Dave Kumlien

    Good article! I appreciate good fly fishing heresy…. I’ve been a guide and outfitter here in Bozeman for over 40 years, and every time I think I’ve seen it all, a trout does something totally unexpected. I once had client fishing the salmon fly hatch on the Big Hole flip a fair sized cigar butt (still burning by the way) off the bow of the boat only to have a nice brown come up an hit it. Must have been a cigar smoker. Lately, my own heretical fly fishing actions have been to go back to using old-school flies, specifically streamers like Light Spruce, Muddler Minnow, and Platte River Specials, and you probably guessed it, these sophisticated “modern” trout still crush these out-of-date flies. Once had an older gentleman, client from Boston come out to fish and insist on swinging Atlantic Salmon Fly patters off his 14′ Shakespeare Wonder Rod on the Madison at Raynolds Pass Bridge. Before I could rig up his buddy with a Dave’s Hopper (this was a few years back) old Elmer had landed 3 nice rainbow trout on a size 4 Jock Scott. Bring on the heresy….

    • Jim MacClean

      I’ve had got hook-ups in the winter when it was hard to get fish to even move using a Chicago with a steelhead/salmon fly dropper. They were hitting the salmon fly, but the Chicago was giving it the needed action in “frog water”.