First published in Rod and Reel: 2/15/1985
Of the 364 four pound (or larger) trout painted on the walls of DanBailey's Fly Shop in Livingston Montana:
7% were taken on small wet flies.
12% were taken with small dry flies.
15% were taken with large dry flies such as grasshoppers, Wulffs and adult Salmon Fly imitations.
24% were taken with Woolly Worms, Bitch Creeks, Girdle Bugs, and Montana Nymphs.
42% were taken with streamer flies.
Using the small wet flies and dry flies as a starting point it is clear the size of the fish attracted to any given pattern increases with the size of the fly. The "Wall of Fame" represents a history of Montana Fly Fishing during the catchem and eatem days of the 1950's and 1960's. Hardly anybody kills a four poind fish anymore, and if they do they don't bring it in to put on the wall.
The figures above become even more impressive when you consider most Montana fly fishermen were fishing with dry flies Montana Nymphs or Woolly Worms in those days. A minority of streamer-fly fishermen were catching a disproportionate number of large trout. They still are.
Big streamer flies do catch most of the large trout in Montana. Anybody who lives and fishes here will tell you that. But how big is too big? If a #2 Muddler Minnow, Spruce Fly or Mizzoulian Spook is more likely to catch a four pound fish than a #18 Blue Winged Olive, what about a #2/0, #6/0 or #10/0 streamer fly? Would a fly that is a little bit smaller than too big catch a very small number of very large trout?
Every time I hear a story about a ten or twelve-pound tiger-shark brown trout that smashes a twelve-inch Brookie off the end of a dry fly fisherman's leader I think I really ought to devote a few hours to twitching a twelve-inch streamer fly along the bottom of a foam covered bank somewhere.I haven't fished with any twelve-inch flies yet, but I have fished with fur-strip flies as long a seven and eight-inches--with surprising results.
A few years ago I received a sample assortment of hooks from Partridge Hooks that included a 9\0 salmon iron as a curiosity. I decided to make a six or seven-inch Zonker with it. "This will be a lot like steelhead fishing" I told myself. "I'll have to fish with this thing for weeks before I catch anything."
I waded across a wide shallow stretch of river to a secret cattail spot that was home to long spooky brown trout. I had been casting over this fish on and off for a few months without much success. I waded the last thirty yards as quietly as possible. Using a slow exaggerated overhand rhythm I cast the huge white fly right up onto a gravel bank about thirty feet upstream and then pulled it gently into the water. After the third or forth time I drifted the great weasel-like fly into the deep water in front of the cattails, the old brown trout swirled out of his hole and swallowed the fly in a half a second. He hit so hard I didn't need to set the hook. I played him quickly but carefully brought him to the net and then released him. Twenty years ago he would have made a fine addition to the Wall in Livingston.
"I've got a fly that only catches four pound fish," I thought.I waded downstream casting here and there thinking how disappointing it was that I had already caught my fish for the month when I felt another tug on my line. Thinking it must be another big fish I set the hook hard and pulled an 11" brown trout right out of the water. This was really perplexing. The fish wasn't much bigger than the fly. Worse yet the huge, spear-like point had punctured him so deeply the trout was dead before I could get my hands on him.It was nearly dark. I decided to make my way back to the car drive home and figure out how to make a six or seven-inch fly with much smaller hook.
On the way back to my car, while crossing narrow brush covered island, I stumbled an nearly stepped on a nest full of speckled Marsh Hawk eggs. I caught my balance looked up and spotted a Marsh Hawk diving in on me with her wings tucked in and here claws stretched out in front. With a surge of adrenaline I leapt about ten feet--waders and all--and landed in a clump of willow bushes at the edge of the river. I couldn't stand up; it was all I could do to keep from falling head first into the river.I grabbed a willow root and twisted myself back around just in time to see a dozen Red Winged Blackbird come to my rescue. Just as the hawk spread her wings and pulled out of her super-sonic dive the blackbirds swarmed over her like a cloud of fussing chattering magnum mosquitos.They chased her off in a flash of wings.
Half a red sun was shining back at me over the western mountains. Thousands of startled caddis flies were buzzing around my head landing on my face and running across the lenses of my glasses. My heart was pounding my leg hurt and I could see a sharp beaver-chewed willow branch sticking through the foot of my waders. The hawk was an omen I thought. None of this would have happened to me if I hadn't used thatfly!
A few months later my friend Jim and I found ourselves hiking down a trail in Yellowstone Park to fish a cutthrout creek. Jim and I were both working as carpenters, remodelling an old and very exclusive dude ranch on the edge of the Absoroka Beartooth Wilderness Area.The ranch was right on the Park boundary, right next to the creek, at the end of an eleven mile buckboard ride.
The work schedule was ten hours a day ten days on and four days off, three squares a day. After work you had your choice of poker and shots of George Dickel with the ranch hands or fly fishing down at the creek. Cutthroats have a reputation for being dumb that they don't always deserve, particularly here, where the fish were fat well colored and heavily fished.If you drifted a grasshopper into the choppy broken water at the head of each pool you could take two or three hefty cutthroats in a half a dozen casts. But if you tried to take a rising fish from the miles of glassy-smooth runs between the riffles, it was a different story. When fishing the smooth water a small mayfly caddis or ant imitation worded better than the grasshoppers. You had to stalk the flat water fish wade quietly and make a perfect cast.You could watch the fish rise up slowly from the deep air-clear water along the banks to casually inspect your fly, and then drift slowly back to their hiding places.
When I packed my tools and gear for the buckboard ride up to the Lodge I chose and old split cane five weight rod. I had recently tied some funny-looking parachute caddis flies I was anxious to try and thought the creek was a great opportunity to do some real fly fishing after months of slapping streamers around.Once we reached the upper meadow, two-and-a-half miles downstream from the lodge, Jim and I sat down to stretch our weary bones and share a hand rolled smoke.
We both dipped in the creek to wash off the salty sawdust and made plan to head off in opposite directions. Jim would fish down. I would fish up. We would meet at dark at the Park boundary gate. I was searching the pockets of my fishing vest for a rubber leader stretcher when I stuck myself on a hook and accidentally jerked out two six-inch white Roadkills. Jim's big brown eyes got even larger.He said. "Is that some kind of long underwear, or do you wash down your truck with those things?"" Here," I said. "Try one of these at dark. You'll be surprised."
The dry fly fishing was great. I tried to concentrate on the tougher fish in the smooth water. The riffle fishing was just too easy. Yellowstone Cutthroats are such exquisitely beautiful fish. I had to lie down on the bank for a while--just to take it all in.The sky had been hazy for the past few days because of a forest fire near Big Timber. The sunset was wild. The sky was glowing with shifting patterns of orange and red. A pulsing sun was skewered deeply on a mountain peak like a throbbing, incandescent, blood red tomato. Brilliant beams of evening light were streaking down the coolies on the far side of the valley. Coyotes howled while a big bull moose grazed in a phosphorescent pool of sparkling yellow light. Heat lightning flashed and sputtered behind huge late summer thunderheads.
Images bounced around my brain and vibrated at the corners of my eyes like the flickering lights in the projection room at the movies. I remembered the big Roadkill and thought I'd better get after it. There would be only ten or fifteen minutes left.Such fishing I've never seen before.
Cutthroats were swirling behind that fly on every cast. Big vee-shaped wakes came shooting across the fire-orange surface of the water like demons in a river of lava--some of them charging six and seven feet like blood-crazed barracudas. And these were big fish: seventeen to twenty-inches long! I lost the big fly to some sunken beaver sticks and decided to call it quits. It was suddenly so dark I had a hard time finding the trail. There would be a moon coming up in a about an hour but in the meantime I couldn't see my hands in front of my face. I had to navigate my way up to the boundary gate through the tips of my fingers and the soles of my feet.
As soon as I reached the gate I realized we'd made a big mistake. The ranch dump was only about three hundred yards to the east and I could here ominous sounds drifting over from the that direction: a faint static-like crackling at first and then louder rumbling noises like voodoo drums in the dark timber--something crunching up the cab of an old Dodge Power Wagon. Silvertip! Grizzly bears!
Holy shit! I remembered the hawk and wondered if there was going to be a retribution for using the big fly again. This could be really big trouble. It was too dark. There would be no escape. I thought about my wife and daughter. A band of moonlight was starting to show over the southern mountains. I heard Jim galumphing up the trail. Jim had a rhythmic cowboy swagger to his walk that reminded me of tough guys in New York. Sort of a bob-and-weave to his left side with his hands swinging like those of a jive cross-country skier. Long step, short step, long step, short step.
"Hey," he said. "That you? How about that sunset?"
"Quiet," I said. "There's grizzly bears over in the dump."
"Aw, you flatlanders are all alike," he said. "Always bearanoid!"
Jim was silhouetted against the waxing moonlight in the southern sky."How was the fishing?" I said.Jim nodded his head slowly and deliberately. He said, "Hey--we gotta get some more of those things!"
Making RoadkillsThe fly I have developed for this kind of fishing is a fur strip from 2" to 8" long, with any #6 short-shank hook threaded through three holes in the middle of the fly. I used to place the hook near the rear end. But it turns out trout (at least) attack bait fish "near the center of gravity" of the prey. In other words they tend to bite bait fish right behind the shoulders of the gills. I doubt a roadkill looks like a baitfish. But I do get fewer missed strikes with the hook mounted at mid-strip.To the eye of the hook I attach an eight to fifteen pound-test shock tippet with an improved clinch knot. Then I poke a hole in the fur strip half-way between the eye of the hook andthe front end of the fur. I thread the shock tippet thought the hole in the middle of the fur strip, and then throw an overhand clinch knot around the front end of the fly.This fly can be tied in your hands, without thread or the aid of a fly tying vise. I carry a box of hooks and a hunk of fur in my tackle box, and never have to worry about running out of flies.Because the bulk of the fly is tied around a flexible piece of monofilament, a Roadkill Streamer swims and corkscrews through the water with a more lively and critter-like fashion than a fly that is tied on a straight-shank hook. More complex patterns are also possible. Additional clinch knots with the monofilament shock tippet, or fly tying thread and a thread bobbin can be used to add yarn, flashabou, hackle or chain-bean embellishments to the front end of the fly. Double fur strips can be used to create a two-tone fly.