Skip Morris: “My Top Five Nymphs”
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Question: I’ve already started tying your top five drys; how about your top five wets/nymphs? \
— Jack W.
Answer: Sure. I’d be happy to share with you and everyone else the five nymphs and wet flies I fish most often.
But sharing just five such nymphs (without the wets) would make me even happier. Five is such a small number—why shoehorn two kinds of flies into it? Maybe I’ll tackle the wet flies and soft-hackled flies I fish most in a future article.
To all of you who aren’t Jack W., here’s what’s going on: he asked me what five dry flies spend the most time on my tippets, and I narrowed that to just the five I fish on trout streams, and replied in an article for MidCurrent titled “Top Five Dries.” Jack later wrote to say Thanks and to pose the question above. His second question balanced out his first so neatly (especially after I decided to limit it to one topic, nymphs) that I couldn’t resist answering it.
So, let’s start by setting our parameters. Nymphs can be fished for bluegills and other panfishes, for smallmouth bass, even for largemouth bass and carp and steelhead. But when most fly fishers discuss nymphs, they’re talking trout. And most fly fishers fish for trout in creeks, streams, and rivers, rather than in lakes, so creeks, streams, and rivers it is. Thus we wind up with our topic: five nymph fly patterns for trout in streams (and creeks, and rivers, etc.), the five I fish more than all others.
Are my five the best five? Of course not. There are no best five, or six, or 20 nymphs. There are way too many fine nymph patterns out there for one man’s selection—for any one angler’s selection—to stand as the final word on the matter. And there’s a world of streams of all sorts holding trout of countless moods and preferences too—so many variations, so many possibilities. One small ideal selection to cover all that? No way.
Still, I know that my five to come are true fish catchers and I absolutely trust them. And I’ve been fly fishing for trout for (gulp) over half a century (reassuring for you, disturbing to me), so there must be something to the five I keep tying onto my tippets.
Only one of my five isn’t tied by fly companies and distributed for sale in fly shops and on-line (the Morristone), so I included its dressing in case you tie, and alternate patterns in case you don’t. The other four patterns should be easy to find and purchase. But, oh, why not—I’ll just include dressings for all five.
You’ll see my original fly designs here, of course. I write fly-tying books and magazine articles and design fly patterns for the Solitude Fly Company. It’s only natural I trust and fish my own patterns.
And now—yippee—comes my chance to yet again spout one of my original sayings! I’ve come up with a few, but this is my favorite: How you fish a fly is at least as important as which fly you fish. That was true long before I summed it up in my maxim. Long before I was born. For as long as there have been artificial flies, and they go back further than most would imagine.
So, having a really precise imitation of the Pale Morning Dun nymph just before the hatch is good, but you’ll catch far more trout on a barely passable imitation of a PMD nymph fished properly and well than on a near-perfect copy fished poorly. Again, How you fish a fly….
Worth repeating (even though I’ve mentioned it several times by now), because readers tend to forget what they just read (I do): Jack’s question and this article are not about which five nymphs are the most popular or the best. If I were to guess at the most popular five nymph patterns for trout streams, they’d be, in no special order, the Bead Head Pheasant Tail, Bead Head Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Copper John (which also has a metal bead for a head—sensing a theme here?), Pat’s Rubber Legs (for which we all hope Pat finds a cure), and probably some midge larva/pupa imitation or another. But Jack’s question is about… well, me (I say with all due humility), about my five most-fished nymphs.
So, here we go.
1. Ultimate Skip Nymph (standard)
This is a tan-brown all-around mayfly-nymph (and small-stonefly-nymph) imitation I came up with around 1990 or a bit before. The original, lightly weighted with turns of copper wire or not weighted at all, remains unchanged. The Ultimate version’s been around for well over a decade, and has a dark metal bead camouflaged into its thorax, along with a bit of fine, sparkly Mylar in its dubbed thorax and body.
Pheasant-tail fibers make up this nymph’s back, thorax, and two divided tails—real nymphs always have neatly parted tails, so the fly’s pair must count for something. The copper wire that so quietly and convincingly divides the abdomen into segments may get somewhat lost in the underside dubbing, but it appears plainly atop the pheasant-tail back. Like the Gold Ribbed-Hare’s Ear, my nymph uses a rough dubbing picked out in the thorax to suggest legs.
I tie and fish it mostly in sizes 18 to 12, though I’ve gone up and down a size at times. I like it also in all-dark-brown, and in olive.
You can find my Ultimate Skip Nymph in your local fly shop or on line, or perhaps both. It’s currently tied and distributed by the Solitude Fly Company.
A big nymph that imitates the nymphs of big stoneflies—the Golden Stone and Salmonfly (and probably the Summer Stone and Skwala if I can ever hit those hatches enough times to give the fly a proper testing on them). The Morristone was once tied by a big fly company but we respectfully parted ways, so alas, no longer. Therefore, you’ll have to tie your own if you want to try it, or instead substitute the Pat’s Brown Rubber Legs or Kaufmann Stone or such.
I like the Morristone for the way its yarn body catches in trout teeth and gives the fly an extra chance at a good hook-up, for its gleaming ribs that add segmentation, for its supple and distinct legs and tails all made from a single hen-saddle hackle. Trout like it too, probably for these same reasons (except for the first one).
I tie it mostly in size 8, a tad small for matching the big stoneflies but apparently big enough to convince trout, easier to cast than a size 6, and a comfortable fit for the mouth of a 14-incher. (I get the same thrill from hooking a 20-inch trout any other upright, breathing fly fisher would get, but I’m always happy to catch a 14-incher.)
3. Brick Back October Caddis
I hesitated on this one. I mean, sure, this really is the caddis-imitating nymph pattern I fish most. But during caddis hatches I often fish soft-hackled flies. The problem: soft-hackles aren’t nymphs. They’re soft-hackles—they make up their own category. Besides, I love fall fishing and that’s when that behemoth, the October Caddis, hatches here in the West. (The name’s a tad misleading: though it does hatch in October, it can start in September, and can continue hatching into November.)
The big October Caddis pupae emerge from their cases out in the river, swim in a rush to the banks, crawl out of the water, and hatch—so, not your typical open-water caddis hatching. I fish my Brick Back either dead drift, to suggest the faulty pupae or ones still getting their legs working, or by letting it sink and then swing across the streambed to the bank.
I tie my Brick Back in sizes 8 and 6, but most often I fish size 8 because, as I said about the Morristone, a perfectly respectable trout of modest size may have trouble taking a size 6 but none taking a size 8, and 8 is a bit easier to cast than 6.
Solitude markets the fly as the “B. H October Caddis” and I can live with that name.
4. Miracle Midge
Over a decade ago, Carol (my wife) and I spent a month in Colorado, fishing, fishing, and fishing. We knew Colorado trout were tough to catch before we arrived, and more convinced than ever by the time we left. During our first week, I was told in a couple of fly shops how effective the Miracle Midge could be on those mile-plus-high, air clear, streams and rivers. So I tied a bunch and tried them. They worked. They didn’t always work, of course—no fly does that. But I really came to trust the pattern.
Yes, it’s true—this is not one of my original flies. Shocked, are you?
I tie it mostly in sizes 20 and 22. It imitates a midge pupa or larva (who cares which? I don’t, and it seems that trout don’t either).
5. Hackled Dazzler
Well, back on course, of course: the Dazzler’s another one of my patterns. A simple fly, it imitates nothing. It’s an attractor. Montana, Washington, Idaho, and I’ll try it up in British Columbia this fall—it’s caught me lots and lots of trout on creeks, spring creeks, tail-waters, freestone streams. It works. (Again, not always. And again, no other fly always works either.)
I’ve tied and fished it in yellow and red and purple and pink and brown and probably other colors I can’t recall, but I tend to go mainly with purple and brown—one garish, one (sort of) natural. The hackle is always cream or white or pale ginger. (The original Dazzler, not “Hackled Dazzler,” is the same fly exactly as the Hackled Dazzler except for. . .well, the obvious.)
I’ve retrieved and trolled Dazzlers in trout lakes with success (attractor flies can occasionally work wonders on trout in lakes), but normally I fish it dead drift in streams under a strike indicator, or Czech nymphing style.
Sizes 18 to 12, for me, most of the time. Size 10 can be good. Never tried size 20. It’s another fly tied by Solitude.
That’s the lot of them: the five nymph patterns I fish most often on trout streams. Here are those dressings I promised.
1. Ultimate Skip Nymph Skip Morris
HOOK: Heavy wire, standard length or 1X long (I like the Daiichi 1560), sizes 18 to 10.
BEAD: Black, copper, or anodized-brown metal.
THREAD: Tan (or brown) 8/0.
RIB: Small copper wire.
ABDOMEN and THORAX: Natural hare’s mask, or hare’s-mask-color squirrel, blended with fine pearl, tan, and silver Mylar strands snipped short (or use Arizona Flyfishing’s Sparkle Nymph Dubbing in “Skip’s Tannish Brown”).
TAIL, BACK, and WING CASE: Natural pheasant tail.
COMMENTS: The tying of this fly is unconventional. With the bead pushed up to the hook’s eye, start the thread and then bind on the copper wire, dub the abdomen, bind on the pheasant tail at the front of the abdomen. Wind the wire forward half a turn forward into the dubbing, pull down the pheasant tips and bind them with a slightly firm turn of the wire. Tug half the tips out to one side, the other half out to the other side, and tighten the wire to truly firm but no tighter. Wind the wire in ribs up the pheasant and the dubbed abdomen. Make the wing case from the doubled-back-and-bound butts of the pheasant. Whip finish and cut the thread, push the bead firmly back against the abdomen and start the thread again in front of the bead. Later, trim out the center tail fibers leaving three to five per side—split tails.
2. Morristone Skip Morris
HOOK: Heavy (or standard) wire, 2X to 4X long, straight or slow-curve shank (I like the Daiichi 1260 or Tiemco 200), sizes 10 to 4.
WEIGHT: Lead-substitute wire.
TAILS: The tip of a mottled-brown hen-saddle hackle with its center snipped out.
BODY: Dark-gray or brown woven yarn (wool or fuzzy Antron).
RIB: Dark-brown or brown medium-thick rib material such as V-Rib or Larva Lace.
WING CASE: A section (or two, overlapped) of pheasant-tail fibers, dark-side-up.
LEGS: The body of the hen hackle used to make the tails. Bind the feather over the pheasant, wind the body and rib to the hook’s eye, pull the feather forward and down and bind it at the eye, and then trim out four slots in the fibers to create six legs. Now make the pheasant wing case over the legs.
HEAD: Brown rabbit fur, dubbed.
COMMENTS: Not a difficult fly to tie, but tricky. The yarn is wound all the way up the shank, and then so is the rib, before the hen-saddle hackle and pheasant-tail fibers are pulled forward and bound, one at a time.
3. Brick Back October Caddis (yeah, me again)
HOOK: Heavy (or standard) wire, 2X long, straight or slow-curve shank (I like the Daiichi 1260 or Tiemco 200), sizes 10 to 6.
BEAD: Black or copper, metal.
WEIGHT: Lead-substitute wire under the abdomen, a second short layer of thinner wire to fill out the plump rear end of the abdomen.
THREAD: Brown 3/0.
ABDOMEN: A hank of brown poly yarn bound between sections of amber and orange rabbit blended with fine Mylar (Angel hair, Lite Brite. . .) in silver, pearl, and orange (or just use Arizona Flyfishing’s Sparkle Nymph Dubbing in “Skips October Caddis”). The dubbing is applied thinly to one side of a dubbing loop and the loop is twisted into a thin rope. One long dubbed loop for the whole abdomen.
HACKLE: One grizzly-dyed-brown hen saddle or hen-neck hackle.
THORAX: Brown rabbit blended with fine Mylar (Angel hair, Lite Brite. . .) in silver, pearl, and brown (or just use Arizona Flyfishing’s Sparkle Nymph Dubbing in “Dark Brown” or “Rusty Brown”).
4. Miracle Midge
HOOK: Heavy wire (or light wire if you can’t find a heavy wire hook small enough), standard length (or short), humped or straight shank (I like the Daiichi 1120 or 1130), size 14 to 18 .
THREAD: White 8/0.
RIB: Fine gold (or silver or copper) wire.
ABDOMEN: The working thread.
THORAX: Black thread built up or black dubbing.
COMMENTS: Nothing tricky here. Replace the thread-or-dubbed thorax with a tiny metal or glass bead if you like.
5. Hackled Dazzler (care to guess?)
HOOK: Heavy wire, standard length or 1X long (I like the Daiichi 1560), sizes 16 to 10.
BEAD: Silver for purple, gold for a brown Dazzler.
THREAD: Purple or brown 8/0.
RIB: Silver wire for purple, gold wire for brown.
ABDOMEN: Purple, or brown, Flashabou or Krystal Flash.
THORAX: Purple or brown rabbit blended with fine Mylar strands (Lite Brite, Angel Hair…) in silver, pearl, and purple (or brown), cut to about ¼-inch lengths.
HACKLE: Cream or white hen neck.
COMMENTS: I often tie it on a Czech jig hook and use a slotted bead.