Okay, it has been awhile since I postulated confusingly (at least in print, otherwise its a daily occurrence). Lately I have been thinking about winter nymph patterns, which makes sense in the middle of winter, I suppose. Mostly I have been thinking about these nymphs that are odd colors. You know what I am talking about, the colors that generally don’t show too often up in nature like bright pink, fire orange, and powerbait green (okay, I made that last one up, sort of). I have been wondering why I have been seeing so many of these flies (and others that are purple and blue) lately. Specifically, I have been wondering why I have seen a good number of them stuck inside the lips of trout.
Now before the masses come at me with the “pink flies imitate eggs” stuff, let me just say: “I know, I know.” I get it that pink flies imitate eggs, especially in winter when the egg count goes up considerably. I think that explains some portion of why pink flies work, but I am not convinced it explains everything about pink flies. And I am not sure it explains why so many of these other odd colors also catch fish. My interest in this stuff was piqued when the author of the Poudre Canyon Chronicles (the appropriately named Midgeman) wrote about adding a bit of blue to your good old fashioned midge patterns when tying for winter fishing. Midgeman is a very knowledgeable tyer who writes very interesting pieces about the history and tactics of flies that are really small and really lethal on the end of a line wielded by a good small-fly/big-fish angler. So with that in mind, here is Midgeman’s comment about blue flies:
“I haven’t got the slightest idea what prompts the trout to be so eager to chase bugs with a little blue tied in and I’m also at a complete loss as to why they seem so show an even stronger preference to blue as the winter settles in.”
When something like this stumps somebody as smart as Midgeman, I find myself intrigued. Also, this blue midge stuff jives with my own winter fishing experiences, even though my experience in this regard is more dumb luck than any kind of knowledge (story of my life).
Because my mind is prone to odd and often incorrect connections, I began thinking about firebead nymphs, which I discovered in the last couple of years via the always excellent Headhunters blog. After fishing with these firebead flies last spring (and catching some serious fish), I tied up some of my own, and I abandoned the pink just to see what would happen. I tied some grey firebead scuds and some firebead caddis pupae. Results so far have been mixed, but there have been times when the firebead worked better than a standard pattern (and vice versa).
Really, I didn’t have a theory at this point. I just knew that sometimes really bright nymphs worked. And not just in winter. I caught a lot of fish on firebead scuds and purple zebras this past spring. And I didn’t know why. Lafontaine makes the claim in “The Dry Fly” that a true attractor nymph is impossible because nymph patterns always imitate some kind of food source. Now I am sure there are some prince nymph devotees who would probably argue against that, but there is no doubt that the number of attractor dry fly patterns far outclasses the number of nymphs one might argue fall into that designation. But are we seeing a new era of attractor nymphing? Or at least some hybrid of imitation and attraction that draws fish to take the fake over the natural because of bright colors? I have turned over my share of stream rocks and I can safely say that the primary color for most nymphal-stage aquatic insects is river-mud brown, which makes sense considering such a color makes it easier for said insects to hide from rainbows big and small (though dark brown likely makes a good silhouette during emergence, making it easier to get ate on your way to the top of the world, but hey, you can’t have everything you want when you are a mere mayfly nymph). Could it be that flies tied in bright colors that also mimic the tasty silhouettes of common trout foods can sometimes trigger a fish to strike, simply because the fly is easier to see? This became my working theory.
One of my favorite fly companies is Idylwilde flies. Their patterns are generally unique and deadly and they have a great stable of innovative tyers. I subscribe to their blog’s RSS feed. Last October they posted a details of a new pattern, a baetis emerger called Baetis for Dummies (BFD). Since I am a serious dummy and the BWO is my single favorite mayfly (yes, I have a favorite mayfly, so what?), I was intrigued. The fly looks like a suped-up version of the RS2, which–it turns out–is exactly what it is. The blog post showed photos of the pattern in olive, gray, and (wait for it) purple. Well everyone is tying flies in purple, I thought, as my mind slowly tried to connect the dots to the blue flies suggested by Midgeman, the firebeads of Headhunters, and the green caddis pupae so popular on the Madison. Then I read this couplet at the bottom of the post:
“Believe it or not, the purple BFD can actually out perform the grey and the olive. I’m telling you to fish and believe in purple.”
I do believe in purple. And blue and fire orange and pink. And I was coming around to the idea that there is something besides blind faith and that tug of life on the end of the line that ties all these crazy-colored flies together. So I tied up some BFDs in purple and olive. Then I went in search of a good blue-winged olive hatch, which in October in Idaho is not exactly a search for buried treasure. Standing in a good run with a few blue wings hatching but very few fish rising, I began rigging up emerger nymphs, my standard tactic prior to the hatch. I fished a purple BFD and an olive BFD. And you know what?
The olive fly won hands down.
Hey, I never said these posts would make sense. I mean right there in the title you will note the word “confusingly.” Oh and an explanation about not trusting small sample sizes and all that. What do you want from me? Go tie some flies. It’s the middle of winter.