“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau
One afternoon while at Avalanche I took off with Tom Mulford into the heart of the Driftless. He kept warning me that this spot he was taking me to was a good mile hike-in from where we parked, that it was going to be a rigorous journey beset with uneven terrain and frolics among barbed wire. I reminded him that in a previous life I was a field geologist; unless we were taking a mile-long hike straight up a rocky incline I would likely be just fine.
The next few hours we traversed a broad section of stream without another soul in sight, pulling large brown trout from the tip of Pink Squirrels and Scuds from the banks. Tom talks a lot while on the water; to himself, to the fish, and– when he ends a sentence by calling out my name– to me as well. All that time he’s still out-fishing me two-to-one. As Rich Lahti later told me, “Imagine how good he’d be if he would shut up!”
The other thing I discovered about Tom– aside from his stream-of-consciousness conversational style– was the simplicity to his gear. He wore a lanyard with some basic gear, a small fly box with about a half dozen fly patterns (and dozens of each), and a small hip pack just big enough to carry some water and other necessities. I contrasted that to my oversized sling pack, three fly boxes, hundreds of flies in various patterns and sizes and colors and whatnot. Used leaders spilled from one half-open storage compartment. At one point I had to sit down on the streambank and rummage through the mess to find the tool for my New Zealand Strike Indicator. During that time I’m pretty sure Tom hooked and landed another fish.
It was then that I began thinking that maybe my gear was a bit over-complicated. More specifically, my fly boxes. The next two days’ fishing bore out this observation. After catching dozens of fish I managed to wet only three fly patterns: Pink Squirrel, Elk Hair Caddis, and Parachute Adams. At times I tried others to no avail; other moments the fishing was too good to dare make a change for the sake of change. After every lost fly I popped open one of my boxes, looked at months’ worth of fly tying effort, and ignored most of it in favor of the the sure bet.
So that has got me thinking that my fly box needs to be given the Thoreau treatment. If I could put together a Top Ten list of trout flies, what would it look like? After some deep thoughts and soul searching, here’s my list (in no particular order) based upon a number of factors (real scientificky stuff like how often I fish ’em, how successful they are for me, how easy/fun they are to tie, etc.):
1. Woolly Bugger
2. Pink Squirrel
3. Beadhead Pheasant Tail
4. Beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph
5. Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
6. Bead Body Scud
7. Elk Hair Caddis
8. Parachute Adams
9. Griffith’s Gnat
10. Copper John
Whew! That went by fast, didn’t it? And notice I didn’t even mention particular size/colors for anything, either. It’s harder than it looks, because there are a number of flies not included here that I still use often under certain circumstances or times of year. Foam hoppers, for example, get no mention even though I’ll use plenty of those later this year.
No real surprises, either. Most of these are “classic” trout patterns, and they’re classic for a reason: they work in a wide variety of circumstances in a wide variety of places, and they’re (for the most part) supremely easy to tie.
What have I learned from this exercise? For all of the experimentation I do when tying, the traditional patterns are still what I turn to the most. If anything I should spend a lot less time trying to create the next big thing and instead spend a lot more time tying a surplus of the sure bet, and worrying more about fishing technique rather than tying flair.
What do you think? Is there something else that would/should make it to the Top Ten? Does the pattern matter as much as the angler who uses it? Let me know what you think!