Zen and the art of heavy nymphing

The fly-fishing world, much like my closet, is cluttered with useless crap.

Because of that fact, approaching the fly bin at any fly-fishing outfitter is a daunting experience. There are flies to imitate aquatic insects in all stages of their existence, from egg to nymph to bigger nymph to hatching nymph to almost-completely-hatched-nymph to mayfly-with-wet-wings to mayfly-with dry-wings. Moreover, there are hundreds of different versions, colors, sizes and materials used to represent each stage. And that’s just for blue-winged olives.

Keep it simple: The author says the size 14 hare’s ear nymph with a gold-bead head is the only fly you’ll ever need. illustration by Sam Wardle

I came to the conclusion long ago that I was never going to learn what all the different “parachute” and “compara” prefixes and suffixes attached to fly names signified. I mean, sure, the free market demands consumer choice, but isn’t this a little ridiculous?

That same free market has flooded the fly-fishing world with glossy magazines telling wannabe anglers which flies to pick, when, why, etc., etc. There are thousands of books, for instance, written specifically about fishing dry mayfly imitations in spring creeks. All of this may keep the squeaky wheels of industry greased, but it doesn’t do much for my fishing, and it never has.

Before you call me lazy, though, consider this: I used to spend hours peeking under rocks to see what stage the black stone nymphs were in. I would pluck hellgrammite eggs and take them home to see what the little nasties looked like right out of the sack. I cut fish stomachs open to see what they’d been eating. I dredged fast water to see what sort of living cargo it carried. I suffered for my art.

At some point, though, I realized that catching fish isn’t really all that hard. You don’t need the advice of a zillion “experts”; you don’t need a subscription to the “Quiet Sport’s Leading Magazine.” And you certainly don’t need 57 different designer fly boxes stuffed with lame imitations.

In fact, all you need is one size of one particular variation of one fly: the all-powerful size 14 hare’s ear nymph with a gold-bead head. As one fishing buddy put it, “That thing catches fish.”

To prove his point, he gave me a hare’s ear he’d tied himself (which, I must say, was probably the worst-put-together fly I have ever encountered). It looked like something a 3-year-old kid hyped on Kool-Aid would make during preschool art class. (If you’re thinking of trying this one out, though, I would recommend keeping the barbed hook well out of the little one’s reach.)

Despite the fly’s shabby looks, however, minutes after the transaction I caught the largest wild rainbow trout I’ve ever seen in the Laurel River.

Why trout love a hare’s ear so much is a mystery to me. It looks more like a lint ball than an insect, even leaving the tell-tale hook exposed. And while most flies lose their appeal to fish as they wear out, trout seem to love this one more with every torn thread and loose clump of dubbing.

My personal hypothesis is that trout are instinctive feeders, not CSI detectives, and they respond not to how beautiful but how “buggy” a hare’s ear looks.

Then again, they might be art lovers. One classic fly-tier whose name escapes me now virtually invented the flashback hare’s ear. This guy was heavily influenced by the French impressionists. He noticed that the hard back of a mayfly nymph—if nymphs can be said to have “backs”—takes on a coppery-blue tint when viewed from above the water.

Now, if you hold a mayfly nymph in your hand, it’s about as blue as the Yellow Submarine. There’s nothing flashy or coppery about it. But given the right light in the right environment, it changes into something else entirely.

So this fly-tier started stitching blue thread into the backs of his nymphs. The upshot? It worked marvels.

This was between 1940 and 1960, a period when fly-tying was at a crossroads. On the one hand, you had the impressionistic tiers who believed a fly should “evoke” an insect rather than copy it. On the other, you had folks who insisted that flies look exactly like the insects they were meant to imitate. Today, the second school of thought is about as extinct as the Yangtze River dolphin.

So what’s the point of all this?

I guess it’s simply to say that, when you walk into a fly shop and see a display case with fly imitations next to photos of insects, don’t be impressed by how “realistic” the flies look. What looks real sitting still in a display case under hot fluorescent lights looks hilariously fake being torpedoed through a churning current 3 feet under the surface of a green river.

During my fishing career, I have probably caught half my fish on big, ugly, nasty hare’s ear nymphs with a big, ugly, red strike indicator glued to the leader. There is hardly any artistry in such fishing. In fact, it’s about one step above pulling a nightcrawler from a Folgers can and jamming it, squirming, onto a big rusty hook. It does not require the subtle touch of dry-fly presentation. It doesn’t matter if your cast is more of a “chuck-and-duck” style than A River Runs Through It shadow casting.

Yet I find it strangely gratifying to catch trout after trout while my fishing partners fumble with the newest size 22 purple-butt-egg-laying-spent-spinner-elk-dubbed-caddis.

When you get down to it, trout fishing at its least graceful, least skilled and least beautiful is trout fishing at its most effective. I’m sure there’s a lesson here somewhere.

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