The moment can be incomparably soothing: the fly line whispering through the guides, the long, tight loop shooting out beyond the rod tip at shoulder height, the gentle presentation of the fly upon surface, its tiny affirming ripples like a bullseye. It can be compounded by a myriad of sensations: the purling water pressing against and cooling the shins, the intermittent breeze that causes creaking in the heart’s core of the pines, the hawk overhead. Under a blue-bird Colorado sky the universe thrums, or so it seems, and it feels inevitable that a trout will take the fly. Often though, that tiny detail at the end of the line has all the power to temp or trouble a trout’s nature. All the casting and aesthetic beauty in fly fishing means nothing if the right fly is not tied tightly to the end of the tippet.
The Art of Fly Selection
Fly selection is its own beast. Other skills transfer from place to place, whether it be double hauling a nine weight rod from a flats boat somewhere in the Keys, or the slight tug on the line of a three wight bamboo rod on an impossibly narrow spring creek. The physics can be learned, honed, adapted. The Serpentine Cast, the Snap-T, hauling, each is added to the list of options. The skill sets accumulate through the years beginning with that day of the fly fisherman’s second birth, when the fly rod slipped its soft cork into a palm aching for purpose. The knots, line management, mending, all the casting concepts there are can stay in the mind and muscle memory of the angler. All, of course but the knowledge of fly selection.
With over 600 species of mayflies and 1,300 species of caddis flies in North America alone, just following the adage “match the hatch” can seem as daunting as a PhD in Entomology. The actual act of fly selection is less daunting, but still appears to be nothing short of divination. It is a religion closely studied by locals, prayers whispered from barstool to barstool or passed, like a note in class, from cupped hand to cupped hand along each and every riverbank. For fly fisherman new to an area, the same fly box that served them at home can seem no more useful than a paperweight. They may have all the skills to cast into every pocket, drift through every ripple, and tie up every rig, but the mumbling into their chins is answered only by the river babbling back. It will not always tell them what flies to use. One can look for evidence on the rocks, in spiderwebs, the current, or match the colors of river bottom, but sometimes it is simply a leap of faith based on previous experience.
Flies Everyone Should Have
There are the flies that everyone should have when fishing almost any trout stream in the United States. These are the likes of the ubiquitous pheasant tail nymph, the elk hair caddis, the parachute Adams, and of course any number of others. It should be assumed that these are stocked in the fly box with almost wasteful fervor. In the rivers around Breckenridge, there are other go-to flies, flies the guides depend on daily, that sell out frequently because of their practicality. Listen to the soft confidence of the guides at the bar, and the following might cross their lips.
In addition to the Parachute Adams, which has a fairly traditional silhouette on the surface, and which is always impressive in its range of imitative value, the Extended Body Blue-Winged Olive (sizes 16-18) changes up the conventional silhouette. Seeing a trout delicately sip a mayfly from the surface is one of the great pleasures in life, and Blue Winged Olives are indispensable in the Rockies because they are prevalent from the beginning of March to the middle of November, making them a common sight for trout. Any variety of the Blue Winged Olive will do, though there is something sexy about the extended body, the way the abdomen sits back beyond the hook, and the way is lays on the water casting a slightly curved silhouette. This curiosity seems to get the trout every time. The extended body is not in every shop, but when some guides find it, they buy the entire lot.
The Zebra Midge
The Zebra Midge (sizes 22-26) may not be as important in other parts of North America, but it is a go-to fly all year round in the Rockies. The midge becomes the primary food source in the dead of winter, especially the snow midge and chocolate brown midge. They come in a variety of colors, and purple is the new black this season, but all colors have great success. Its simplicity to fish makes it a blessing when fingers are numbing under the gray unappeasable skies of January. It is also easy to tie, and like ice at a party, one should never run out of it.
A third indispensable fly is the RS2 (sizes 18-24), a tiny mayfly emerger pattern that works best when fished as a normal nymph, at the holding level of the trout or along the bottom rather than close to the top. It was designed by Colorado angler Rim Chung over thirty years ago, though to those who do not know it looks just as fishy and fresh as anything the shops are pushing, the new flies with the witty names like Two-Bit Hooker, and Purple Haze, the slight variations on age-old patterns that seem to be “killing it” all over Colorado. Rim even has a webpage, www.RS2fly.com, a humble dedication to a fly that has quite possibly made everyone who has used it very happy. It is a great fly to drop below a heavier lead nymph. Something about landing a large trout on this small fly breeds confidence like a “that’a boy” from grandpa. Get it down deep and feel for the magic to happen.
The Double Down
The Double Down is a mix of several age-old classics. It adds a bit of cdc and gets down quicker in the fast water due to having two beads instead of one. It is a great top fly for a two-fly, or tandem, nymph rig and a great one to add to any North American fly box. A double tungsten bead nymph can be godsend when the water is fast and high and fish are deep and nothing seems to be getting down. The Double-Down to RS2 is a favorite of Breckenridge Outfitter’s guide Eric Zamudio, who has been fishing the local tail waters with clients for almost a decade.
There are no definitive answers in fly fishing, and fly selection, like any of the dark arts, takes time and knowledge of the local waters. Even when the most experienced guides travel beyond their sphere of influence, they search for ways to fill their fly box with whatever the fish are eating. Humility and an open mind are key, and buying a local Breckenridge guide a beer never hurt either.