Flies New and Old and Others In Between

Fly Fishing Experts

Patterns from earlier eras of fly design that can still catch trout as well as patterns from our present era do (because trout don’t understand eras, or flies). Clockwise from the top: Cowdung, Black Nose Dace, Irresistible, Renegade | Carol Ann Morris photo

Question: It seems between print and online magazines, vendor sites, fishing blogs, and YouTube there are new trout flies coming out all the time—but do I really need to be always adding new patterns?
— Walt B

Answer: Yes, of course you do, Walt. Since the first fly was tied and named, trout have been continuously and rapidly evolving. Today’s brown and rainbow trout bear almost no resemblance to the ones I caught as a teenager. By next year, they may have legs and the power of speech, and in place of tail fins, propellers.

Now, reality. No, of course you don’t. A lot of older, old, and very old fly patterns still catch trout. (A few even show up in the limited selections of today’s catalogs.) The Cowdung, the Irresistible, the Black Nose Dace, the Renegade: all were fine flies way back, all are just fine now.

The old patterns are fully as effective as the new ones, under the right conditions and at the right times. If conditions and timing are really right, they may out-fish new patterns. The Renegade, for example. According to my not-extensive research, it was born in the 1930s, so, definitely an oldie. But three years ago I spent a week watching a friend catch a lot of jaded cutthroat trout on Renegades. (Yes, cutts can wise up after enough hooking and releasing. Honest.) Just to remind us they were no fools, they locked onto flavinea mayfly spinners for a couple of hours most days. During those hours, only a spinner pattern would do. But the rest of the time? Nothing beat a Renegade.

In light of all this, why are new fly designs always popping up when the old ones can do the work? Here’s why: 1. new fly patterns create excitement about flies, which sells flies, 2. it’s fun to fish and tie new patterns, 3. in certain situations or regions or even rivers a particular fly design (which may be new) may fit and function best, and 4. some new designs actually come with a fresh twist of real value.

There’s another reason: flies that trout haven’t seen can work when flies they often do see, fail. There comes a point in a heavily fished stream where the trout slip up to a Bead Head Prince Nymph and think, Oh, look—a Bead Head Prince. They’ve got that one figured out. Then you show them some newfangled thing, different in many ways from a Bead Head Prince and they think, Interesting. . .

Old vs. New Flies

Top right: Smith’s Spinner, Brown Drake. Bottom: Bead Head Prince. Left: Chan’s Chironomid. | photo by Carol Ann Morris

Look, showing trout flies they’ve have never seen doesn’t require new flies—there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of established patterns around, some seldom fished, some very old, many unknown to today’s trout and nearly forgotten by anglers. Still, a spanking-new pattern, that’s one solution.

There’s yet another reason beyond the previous another-reason: new hook designs, new fly materials—this stuff really does keep coming. Sometimes a new dubbing or type of weight for sinking flies really does allow for the creation of new patterns with new advantages.

Finally, the final reason: new flies sometimes imitate previously ignored (at least by anglers) forms of trout chow. Long ago there were very few imitations of mayfly spinners. Turns out trout like eating mayfly spinners. Now there are lots of mayfly-spinner imitations. Once there were few imitations of the Skwala and Yellow Sally stoneflies. Trout like eating those too. Now imitations abound. When I was a kid it was hard to find flies imitating the chironomids that hatch from trout lakes. Yet chironomids have always hatched in trout lakes and trout have always loved eating them. Guess what happened to the business of developing chironomid flies once fly fishers figured that out?

But you can’t talk about fly patterns and ignore the absolutely inescapable and critical truth (which I express as follows): How you fish a fly is at least as important as which fly you fish. Do a lousy job of presenting any fly—old, new, or in between—and unless your trout are suicidal, the fly won’t do much. The perfect fly for the moment fished poorly is no match for the wrong fly fished well. Never forget that. It’s too important to forget.

So, Walt, there are monetary, practical and fish-catching, and plain fun and entertaining reasons for the ceaseless flow of new fly patterns. I suggest you keep yourself open to fly designs that are new or new, at least, to you, but also that you never feel in the least compelled to buy or tie them—do so if only you want to or feel you have good reason to. But hang on to the flies you’ve come to trust. Trying new patterns may lead you to replacing some old familiar ones. Or convince you that an old one is just as good as you thought it was: irreplaceable.