Dave Hughes is one of the big names in fly fishing. He is the author of more than 20 books about fly fishing for trout, has been a contributing editor to Field & Stream, written for Gray's Sporting Journal, and for eight years he was the editor of Flyfishing & Tying Journal. He has also written articles for such diverse magazines as Salmon, Trout, Steelheader; Fly Rod & Reel; and Fly Fisherman.Here's more about him, in his own words. Enjoy.
Fd: How did you first get into fly fishing?
DH: I started following my father and two older brothers, in the 1950s, fishing local small streams around Astoria, Oregon, for cutthroat trout. I was probably 10 when I started fishing with salmon eggs for bait, and 15 when I started fly fishing. I think I got the urge from watching my Dad casting an old Phillipson bamboo fly rod, his line cutting beautiful arcs in the air when he was backlit by the sun... For some reason I still have that memory of him, casting loops of fly line and lit by the sun along a rainforest stream; there wasn’t much sunshine... He wasn’t a great fly caster, and he always used bait if trout wouldn’t take his flies.
Fd: How was it that you became interested in entomology and fly tying?
DH: When I got back from a year and a half in Vietnam, I ordered some fishing books from the Outdoor Life Book club. Ernest Schwiebert’s Nymphs was one of them. At first I thought I’d made a mistake because the book was so technical... But as I started to read his beautiful prose, I became interested in the natural insects and crustaceans he wrote about, and eventually I went out to streams and started collecting them.Then I went to Oregon State University and, while there, audited a course in aquatic entomology for my fly fishing, and the professor’s assistant was Rick Hafele, studying aquatic entomology for a Master’s Degree, for his work in life and for his fly fishing. We began fishing together, then started teaching workshops together on insects and fly patterns, and finally started writing together... We co-authored Western Hatches in 1981.
Fd: What about the process of getting published, how did that go?
DH: Rick and I were teaching a workshop called Entolmology and the Artificial Fly. Our students were so busy taking notes that they would never stop writing to look up and see our slides; they just listened to us and scribbled... So Rick and I wrote a 43-page booklet to go with the workshop, and handed it out so people could relax and watch... The booklet was their notes.A magazine/book editor saw one of our booklets, said, “Flesh this out, and it’s a book. Get to work on it.” We did; it took three years; the photos of the insects were most difficult. The book did well, in fact is just going out of print now after almost 35 years in print.
Fd: Were you involved in fly design in those days?
DH: No, all of my research was in books and magazine articles; I have never gotten into designing my own flies. When Rick and I wrote Western Hatches, we were careful to find existing patterns and to give credit to originators, and we never did get into creating flies... There are so many out there and so many of their work. We’ve always considered it most important to figure out which patterns work for which insects, but now there is such a proliferation of patterns that it’s impossible to keep up with it. But I still don’t design many flies; my ego just isn’t cut out to need my name on flies.
Fd: Which are the aspects that you consider to be fundamental for a fly to be effective?
DH: Size, shape, and color, in that order of importance... I’m not the only one to say that. I think it’s important that a dry fly, when sitting on the water, out among naturals you’re trying to imitate, has the posture and silhouette of the naturals around it. If it looks good in your hand but somehow when afloat doesn’t look like what you’re trying to imitate, it usually won’t fool many trout.
Fd: What are your thoughts on the future of fly tying and new kinds of materials?
DH: I think it continues to expand, perhaps exponentially... There are more new materials all the time, and there are more new experimenters all the time. It’s all fun, and it’s all important. I just want experimenters to spend time on the water, fishing their flies, making sure they work. I suspect a lot of new patterns get from the vise onto fly shop shelves without being proved before they’re sold... Perhaps that’s why I use more old standards to this day than I do new inventions... But those standards were once new inventions themselves, so I want everybody to keep experimenting.
Fd: You have written books on how to fish with dries, nymphs, and all kinds of flies and techniques but, personally, do you prefer a particular way of fishing, or certain waters?
DH: I want to be able to respond to what the trout want: if they want dry flies, I’d prefer to fish for them with dries; that’s fun. If they won’t take dries but will take nymphs, I want to know all the ways to fish nymphs. I have a lot of fun with wet flies, and fish with them often. I don’t use streamers very often, for some reason, except in lakes and ponds. My favorite is fishing hatches over rising trout... I like that best. But I want to be versatile, to be able to figure out the best method for the moment; and as we all know, all fishing moments are shaped differently.
Fd: Any favorite spots or places you’d like to fish?
DH: I’d like to fish anywhere in Chile or Argentina, because the fishing is always exploring, and I always love the people. I’ve never had a float trip on rivers in Argentina, and I think that is what I would most like to do next... I float so many rivers in the western U.S., camping along them... I’d like to see Argentina that way, it wouldn’t even matter if the fishing was good, though I know it would be.
Fd: You have already fished Patagonia, what are your memories from the place?
DH: I remember fishing Lago Bueno with Coco Hassan out of Esquel so long ago... I don’t know how the lake is now; Coco was gone not long after I fished with him. Once, I was taken to a secret spring creek by a friend and guide out of Bariloche. It turned out the place we went was owned by a friend of mine in the U.S., and it was also possible we weren’t supposed to be there. We had excellent fishing, but I wasn’t able to write about it, and I never did tell my friend I fished his water in Argentina. The first day I fished the Futaleufu -which is the Rio Grande in Argentina- I got too near the edge of a steep, sandy drop off, and slid down it into deep water. I managed to claw my way back to shallow water, but just downstream in that huge, powerful river was an eddy against a log jam. I probably would have gone down under it, and I would probably still be down there... I drowned a camera and my pride and a few other things. My guide said, “Don’t tell the owner, he’ll fire me.” I didn’t, and the guide is still a friend.
Fd: After so many years fishing, is there anything you’d still like to try?
DH: In truth, as I get nearer the end of it all, I find myself longing for leisurely shore lunches, that and exploring... It’s hard to name a bucket list, because I’d like to fish places that haven’t been figured out and fished a lot and have lodges alongside them. I want to fish places where the exploring is good, where it won’t hurt any fish populations to keep a fish and grill it alongside the stream... Maybe I’m thinking of small streams and perhaps small lakes and ponds in Chile and Argentina. I remember once spending a couple of days hiking the backcountry of a vast Chilean estancia, looking at small lakes, to tell the owners which waters already had trout in them, which would hold trout if they were planted in them... I didn’t see anybody for two days. Maybe what I want to do is exploring like that again, and helping to transport trout fry into waters that don’t have them yet.
Fd: As a well-known author, what do you think about the information about fly fishing in the internet?
DH: First, authors have had their incomes whacked by the internet, so very few of us are happy to talk gleefully about its benefits. Second, the internet offers a lot of information, but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s right or wrong. Third, there is a wealth of information on the internet that is helpful, and fun... I think any beginning fly tyer, intermediate fly tyer, or even professional fly tyer should be watching Hans Weillenmann’s short videos on tying specific patterns... There is no way such information can be presented in a better way, and he does it, so far as I’ve seen, the best. Google him and there he is, bless the internet.
Fd: How do you envision the future of this sport?
DH: The number of places where it can be done is finite, and there’s shrinking/logging of my home rainforests, overgrazing of my favorite desert streams, I would say global warming but not everybody believes in it yet... So the simple fact is that more fly fishermen are going to be fishing fewer fly fishing locations. That is why I consider it so important that folks find smaller and more enjoyable niches, small streams, remote waters, maybe in their exploring not be looking for the biggest and best places to catch the biggest and best trout, rather to find beautiful small waters where the trout are plentiful but not always large, where it doesn’t hurt to sit alongside the water and fry a fish once in a while... To keep touch with the nature that is so important to preserve. I do a lot of my exploring now with a tenkara rod, one fly box, a tippet spool, nippers, and a hemostat to release fish. It reflects back to the stick and string that were my earliest fishing for bullheads and catfish before I began fishing for trout at age 10.
Fd: Many anglers are taking it back to the basics. Do you consider it important to know about fly-fishing history?
DH: I think that for those who will stay with the sport, History is a large reason... It gives a continuity, a past to attach to the present and to help shape the preferred future. Those who plug themselves into a moment of fly fishing will often regard it as a fad, and will not always stay with it, will often abandon it for the next fad.
Fd: As a final point, what does fly fishing mean to you?
DH: It has become what I do, what I write about... What my life is built around... Rick Hafele and I went fishing together yesterday, drove to a pond we’d never fished, took a kayak and a pontoon boat we’d never fished from, found the pond not productive. I caught two small bluegills and he caught one, neither of us caught a trout. We had an excellent picnic, the pond was beautiful, we talked all day when we weren’t off fishing in different directions, in different ways... And then we had dinner in a small pizza place with our good friend Richard Bunse, who has always illustrated our books, though he couldn’t go fishing with us that day.And at the end of the day, Rick said, “That was a good day.” It wasn’t the fish, or the fishing, that made it so, but it was fly fishing that caused us to be out there, exploring that pond, enjoying what we were doing, in that place in nature.
More about Dave and his books at: dave-hughes-fly-fishing.com/books
Cover photo by Bob Krumm.