Hello from Montana! It’s been way too long. So long that many of you may not recognize my words on the FP! When Viking Lars shared his Go-To damsel nymph imitations he and I got to talking, sharing ideas, and all the other great things that Sexyloops is all about. After a couple dozen back-and-forth messages he popped the question: Want to write a Frontpage for me?
How could I say no? Especially with the topic already decided, it feels good to be back.
What can be said about Go-To flies in general? A lot. Obviously no one has a go-to fly that fish hate to eat. But more importantly, I think Go-To flies often possess a certain X Factor that, in some way or another, make the angler using them better. I’m not talking about color, or UV, or the best hooks, or special materials, although all of those things can contribute. The real X Factor that all Go-To flies possess is that the angler has supreme confidence in them. That confidence is what really makes you fish better, cast farther, with more stealth, and maintain your focus unwaveringly. When that fish does take, you are ready, as if you knew it was all going to happen just the way it did.
The older you get, and the longer you have spent angling, the more Go-To flies that you accumulate. I’ve got quite a few myself. Each one holds memories of epic days fishing, or certain fish that I’ll never forget.
So, at Lars’ request, here are a few of my Go-To stillwater flies, along with when I like to use them. I hope they inspire your own fishing and tying this winter.
Take Care and Fish On,
Slow Sink Damsel
It was Lars’ damsel nymph choices that resulted in my re-emergence on the FP today, so I’ll start with one of my favorites. I tie this damsel, which I call the Slow Sink Damsel, to be slim, and sparse. It is unweighted, and incorporates some closed cell foam (Razor Foam) in the wing case for added buoyancy. I tie it specifically for situations where trout are feeding selectively on damsel nymphs, and are acting fussy because there are a lot of nymphs around. I tie it in colors that match the local nymphs here – bright green, olive green, and occasionally tan or chocolate brown. It is particularly useful for me in sight fishing situations. The entire point of this fly is that it sinks EXTREMELY slowly so that it can be fished either very close to the surface, in very shallow water, or deeper with a sinking line with long pauses between movements during the retrieve. When I want a damsel pattern for fishing faster, searching, and covering more water, I prefer something impressionistic like a small Seal Bugger (see below) or something more like an Arden Damsel that Lars presented the other day.
Rickard’s Seal Bugger
Denny Rickards is among the OGs of the stillwater game here in the western United States. His flies and approach to stillwater angling are well documented and have accounted for an outrageous number of trophy trout for many anglers, myself included.nDenny’s adaptation of the classic Woolly Bugger is perhaps his most famous fly, and in my opinion, is arguably the greatest stillwater fly of all time. Slimmer, sparser, and buggier than a classic Woolly Bugger, it is the ultimate in underwater impressionism. Tied in various color combinations and sizes, the Seal Bugger is suggestive of leeches, baitfish, crayfish, dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, and more. It can also be tied in colors that push it into the attractor category. Fish it slow or fast, deep or shallow. If I show up at a lake and am not seeing any clues about how to fish it, I tie on a Seal Bugger on an intermediate line and go from there. There have been plenty of days where no change was necessary.
Ice Cream Cone Chironomid
Chironomids. Buzzers. Gnats. Midges. Whatever you call them and wherever you lake fish, they are probably one of the most important trout foods. I can recall a time when I didn’t carry any chironomid patterns. I remember days where one or two anglers on the lake were dialed in, catching fish on every cast, while the rest of us sat there with slack lines and jaws. Now I know it was because those anglers were keyed into chironomid activity and the fish didn’t care about anything else. There are hundreds of chironomid pupa variations out there, and matching the specific bugs on your home waters is obviously the way to go. But for me, if I don’t know exactly what the fish are looking for, a simple Ice Cream Cone in black or red is what I tie on every time. I carry a few of them in sizes 6 through 16, with 10, 12, and 14 most frequently used. I fish them when I see chironomids in the air, or if I see the wriggling pupae or their empty shucks on or near the surface of the water. I also use them often “when all else fails”. They are super easy to tie so getting yourself ready for a new season on the lakes only takes a couple of sessions at the vice!
I like to present chironomid pupae under indicators and also “naked”, without an indicator, slowly retrieving them on floating or intermediate lines. The key is to get the flies to spend as much time at the depth where the trout are feeding as possible. Experiment until you crack the code each day. With either presentation, what I find surprising is how aggressively some trout will take a static offering of an insect imitation that has absolutely no means of escaping!
Chan’s Clear Water Callibaetis Nymph
Mayflies in the genus Callibaetis are widespread in the western US and make up the bulk of all mayfly hatch activity on most of my home stillwaters. I’ve encountered fishable Callibaetis emergences around here from May all the way into early October depending on elevation, weather patterns, and water conditions. They are multi-brooded, and hatch in sizes ranging from 12 to 18, with size 14 and 16 most common in my experience. Callibaetis are responsible for the phenomenon that is known as “Gulper Fishing”, where prolific emergences and spinner falls trigger feeding events where trout cruise in predictable patterns feeding heavily on surface insects with an audible “GULP! GULP! GULP!” Anglers hunt and sight cast to the feeding trout with much anticipation and mixed results that depend heavily on angling skill as well as some luck.
When the trout aren’t gulping, though, they still often will feed heavily on the nymphs of Callibaetis which live in weedy shallows. I tie and carry a number of Callibaetis nymph imitations, but most of them are some sort of variation on the themes incorporated into Chan’s Clearwater Callibaetis. I like that this pattern is unweighted so it can be fished shallow or deep, quickly or with long pauses. I like that it is sparse and skinny, like a real bug. I like that it can be easily color matched to naturals on different lakes, and I like that it includes a dark back and light underside like the naturals. Fish eat it confidently, just as they do a natural. I also like that it is a quick and simple tie. It checks all the boxes for a Go-To pattern in my book.
The balanced fly concept, introduced originally by Jerry McBride of Washington State, is nothing short of a revolution, bringing the effectiveness of jigging and drop shot presentations used by conventional anglers to the fly fishing universe. These leeches are designed and weighted to suspend in a horizontal manner underneath an indicator/bobber, imitating the swimming orientation of many stillwater food sources like leeches and baitfish.
Balanced leeches are especially effective when fished under an indicator in marginal or very cold water conditions in which the trout become less likely to chase a faster moving, retrieved offering. The approach lets you put the fly in the zone and keep it there while adding enticing action without rapid movements. For me, that usually means early and late in our stillwater fishing season - just after the ice melts and just before it freezes again. On the river, most anglers will quickly shift from retrieved streamers or swung soft hackles to dead drift nymphing when the temps drop and fish get lethargic, but for some reason the adjustment is often considered “cheating” in the stillwater environment. I consider it a Go-To method.
I carry a wide range of color combinations and sizes of balanced leeches. It’s fun to have choices but it’s also smart because there are simply days when one version clearly outshines the others. Classic stillwater colors and color combinations like black, brown, olive, rust, and claret are all good. So are lighter colors like tan and white, especially where trout are looking for baitfish. There are many “leech dubbings” available today that work great for balanced leeches when tied using a dubbing loop. Simi-Seal blends, in particular, seem to be a component of many effective variations. Dubbing can be used for the tail and the body, or another material like marabou or rabbit can be substituted for the tail. Experimentation is limited only by your own imagination!
When fishing any fly under an indicator, but especially a balanced leech, do not make the mistake of thinking that you are merely casting it out and waiting for a bite. Covering the water, moving, and incorporating retrieves that move the fly horizontally and vertically through the water are all parts of the indicator approach. Balanced flies work well cast and retrieved, too. They jig, dip, and pitch when stripped, creating a different action than a standard tie.