Fly Fishing Jazz: The Best “Improv” Flies

Fly Fishing Trout

Spring take. Photo by Clayton Stewart

I’M A BIG BELIEVER in fishing few flies many ways, rather than stuffing fly boxes with hundreds of variations. That’s partly because I’m cheap, and also disorganized.

But I honestly think that working the same bug different ways, sometimes even performing streamside surgery with scissors to change its profile or whipping out the Sharpie pen to make it darker, puts me in an improvisational frame of mind that leads to more hookups.

My favorite improv fly of all time is the Muddler Minnow. Strip it under the surface streamer style, and it looks like a sculpin or some other baitfish. Grease it up and let it float on the surface, and it’s a grasshopper. Dead-drift it at different depths, and it looks like a drowned hopper (which is an under-appreciated big-brown-getter for bright summer days).

Then there’s the parachute Adams. Not only is this fly a staple for matching any number of mayfly hatches, with a few snips here and there, it also becomes a deadly emerger in the RS2 style.

The elk hair caddis is also pretty versatile. Of course, you can skate those, twitch them, or let them float lazily in the current. And if you get creative with scissors and dry fly dressing, you can even fan those wings out straight, and make an impromptu mayfly spinner in a pinch.

I like to carry PMDs of all sizes, you can clip those and make emergers also, and the “Sharpie trick” turns them into Baetis in a snap.

My favorite nymph of all is the soft hackle pheasant tail. Again, with a little dab of grease on the soft hackle, the PT becomes a crippled mayfly, and I think trout like those more than I like M&Ms (which says a lot).

I still haven’t decided if it’s better to strip a black woolly bugger, or dead drift it so it looks like a leech. To a trout, that blob of protein is often too good to pass up (even if it’s also too good to be true).

Humpies rule—especially yellow-bodied ones. A lot of guides I know swear by Humpies, especially in faster currents, and they’ll fish them as yellow stoneflies, PMDs, or just a gaudy attractor.

I suppose it would be possible to pick 10 fly patterns, use nothing but those for an entire season, and if you improvise you’ll catch plenty. But I’m not recommending that you do so. I’m not that cheap, and besides it’s fun to try new patterns and innovate behind the vise as well.

But the point is, if you’re willing to put away the “sheet music” that tells you exactly how any fly should be fished, you’ll have fun, maybe surprise yourself—maybe even teach yourself a few lessons. And that, to me, is the true enjoyment of fly fishing.