As anglers head out to the streams and rivers this fishing season, they will once again be presented with the age old question, “What pattern should I use?”
There are literally thousands of patterns that today’s fly anglers can choose from, and one can spend hours on end trying to decipher just what might be the right trout fly, let alone which patterns are right for smallmouth bass, stripers, shad, pike, bluegill or carp, just to name a few species fly anglers pursue. To make things easy for me, I try to carry a few patterns with me all the time that I refer to as “crossover patterns.” For the purposes of this article, a crossover pattern will be one that allows anglers to fish for more than one species of fish with a single fly effectively, even though it was originally created for only one species.
One of my all- time favorite crossover patterns is Hickey’s Condor. Fly fishing guide Jim Hickey originated this pattern for the giant brown trout of Patagonia, Chile, the land of the condor. Jim had seen the large browns striking at the surface of the river and tied this pattern to mimic the local fly. When Jim returned home to his native Virginia, he decided to try the pattern on his local waters, the Shenandoah and James Rivers, and it proved devastatingly effective.
In essence, Hickey’s Condor is a large damsel pattern. In warm climates, this fly is a killer on bass and other panfish. I have also used this pattern in Oregon to imitate Western salmon fly hatches, and it has proven just as effective for Oregon trout. Hickey’s Condor can be dead-drifted or fished like a popping bug. The large hackle collar pushes a great deal of water when stripped, and the fly’s colored body is like a giant indicator. If you like farm ponds and warm water rivers, Hickey’s Condor won’t let you down. Try blue, chartreuse, orange, brown, and black in sizes #6, #8 and #10.
When Bob Clouser dreamed up what would become the sport’s most ubiquitous fly, he was in search of a pattern that would produce vicious strikes on his home water, Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. The Clouser Minnow began as a pattern for smallies but has become the go-to fly for everything from panfish to permit. The last time I spoke to Lefty Kreh, he told me that the Clouser Minnow had allowed him to boat 80 different species of fish. Talk about effective! Lefty’s famed casting probably accounts for some of his success, but even he will tell you that this pattern is as close as you can get to a universal baitfish fly.
Strip the Clouser Minnow at various speeds depending on the current and the species you’re fishing for. Larger or smaller dumbbell eyes affect the fly’s sink rate. I prefer to fish this fly in chartreuse and white, all white, orange, and brown in sizes 1/0 to #6.
Barr’s Copper John
If there is such a thing as an all-around bead head nymph, this is it. Umpqua Feather Merchants’ Copper John is just the thing to toss when dealing with lockjaw trout who refuse to come to the surface to feed. Most streams and rivers are teeming with insects in the spring; the Copper John blends in as one of those immature insects. Whether you’re a brook trout junkie or a guy who likes chasing bluegill in a farm pond with a 3-weight, this fly is a sure thing. Try sizes #12 to #22.
Next to the Clouser Minnow, this is perhaps the most universally fished fly in freshwater. Whether you’re a trout bum or a smallmouth fanatic, the woolly bugger usually brings nice fish to hand. Woolly Buggers have tamed more than a few large trout for me in the past, and although I have not yet tried it in saltwater, I am curious to see how it performs this season. This minnow pattern is fished in slow or fast water and can be fished with a bead head or a cone head (as well as non-weighted). I have found the most effective rhythm to be strip, strip, strip, and pause. Try sizes #6 to #10.
Popping bugs are my favorite flies to fish. Just watching the fly plop and gurgle across a pond or river is exciting for me. I know that at any minute, a fish might give in to the urge to eat the crippled fly struggling across the watery surface.
I prefer to strip poppers in a few inches at a time and cast them under tree branches and just wait for the big take. Poppers are also used for saltwater fish like stirpers that feed on the surface during the spring and fall migrations. Few things are as exciting as watching a school of stripers actively feeding and then throwing in your popper. Try poppers in chartreuse, white, black, yellow, orange, red, and blue in sizes from 3/0 to #6.
Howell’s Big Nasty
Kevin Howell’s Big Nasty is exactly that—a brute of a fly that just might intimidate fish not large enough to eat it. In creating this fly, Kevin sought a cross between a crayfish and a giant Hellgrammite. His native waters of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, are home to monster browns and bruiser smallmouths. Theses large fish often require something more enticing-and bigger—than a Blue-Winged Olive to get them to move.
Fish the Big Nasty and similar crayfish patterns around such structure as large rocks and near blow-downs in rivers that have gravelly bottoms. The best thing about this pattern is that if you do get a bite, chances are better than even that you’ll catch something that’s even bigger and nastier than the fly. Howell’s Big Nasty comes in orange and gray. Try this fly in sizes #4 and #6.
When you’re on the stream this spring you might not have the perfect pattern, don’t sweat it. Just keep a good supply of cross over patterns like the ones I’ve mentioned and you should be able to take on a variety of fish and situations.
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is a full time captain with Fairfax Country Fire and Rescue and a member of Local 2068. His new book Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters can be ordered from his website.