Last November on a Sunday, I arose in the dark and let our yellow lab out for her morning duty and, much to my surprise, snow was falling softly and scantly coating the lawn, walk and steps. That tracking snow made deer hunting flash to mind, but hunting on Sunday is illegal in Maine and in five other states.
So fly-tying popped into my head. As soon as snow flies, fly rodders start thinking about tying a slew of flies to refill fly boxes before spring, and a snow day feels ideal for participating in our unofficial winter fly-tying season.
I look at New Year’s Day as the real start to fly tying, but a November snowstorm on Sunday may send me to the vise, and other tyers have told me the same story.
Constructing flies on a wintery morning offers great joy, particularly while sipping coffee or tea and thinking of spring’s blue water and green shores. When finishing – say a dry fly or emerger – I wonder what adventures that floating fly will bring me a few months from now.
Maine winters may be long, even for folks who love skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and hare hunting, but fly tying in the white season gets us thinking of spring blossoms dotting verdant shorelines, a pure existential experience, living for a purer moment despite harsh weather.
What flies make a good choice for winter tyers to construct?
The patterns must include three crucial pluses to make the list.
• The fly must be relatively easy to tie – more on this later.
• It must catch fish with relative consistency.
• It must possess exceptional durability.
When I say “easy to tie,” these words come from a man who has tied classic, feather-wing wet flies for Atlantic salmon. However, for day-in and day-out fishing three seasons a year, flies that take three to five minutes to tie earn a place in my box. Construction ease means everything when fly-tying itself eats up so much time that it’s difficult to set aside tying moments until winter.
“Easy to tie” goes beyond a single fly, too. The term refers to a series of the same pattern in different colors. A perfect example would be Compara-dun dry flies that are really easy to tie once the tyer gets the hang of making the perpendicular wings that fan out in a half circle.
John Kenealy once owned a fly shop in Solon. One day I watched him tie a half-dozen Compara-dun Hendricksons for a Ephemerella subvaria hatch on the Kennebec, tying one Compara-dun every three or four minutes.
I tie Compara-duns with a tail that makes a V-shape to help them float upright, but Kenealy tied a slightly spread mono-tail like a classic Catskill dry fly. He gave me two of the Hendrickson Compara-duns that floated perfectly upright, but I still cannot bring myself to abandon the V-tail step.
When Kenealy built the perpendicular fan-shaped wing, a tying trick made a perfect job of it. After attaching the deer-hair on top of the shank, he pushed against the upright wing with his thumb, leaning the wing slightly backward and flaring the fibers into a half circle. The outside deer hair of the fan-shape helped the fly float upright.
With a light coating of silicon paste, this fly rides on the meniscus like a cork because of the Microfibetts tail and deer-hair wing. Texas deer for the finer fibers makes a small dry fly look much neater.
When trout sip the fly and soak it with water and slime, a few hard false-casts restores it. When this doesn’t work after catching a half-dozen fish, a desiccate powder really puts a Compara-dun back in tiptop shape like new, before reapplying silicone paste.
In contrast, a Henryville Special, an olive-caddis imitation with dun wings, offers just one example of a pattern that I avoid, because this fly includes several tying steps: An olive, fur-dubbed body, an underwing of wood-duck, flank-feather barbules, an overwing from dun-colored, primary duck feathers split into two wing-shaped sections, grizzly palmering and ginger hackle. Some tyers like me use fine silver wire for ribbing.
In caddis hatches I stick with a Compara Caddis or Elk Hair Caddis. They fool fish, prove simple to tie and float like corks, thanks to deer hair and synthetic dubbing.
For dry-fly hatch matching, a winter of tying Compara-duns, Compara Caddis and Elk Hair Caddis in a variety of colors and sizes make a fly rodder ready for most mayfly and caddis hatches come spring.
Nymphs in light, medium and dark in a range of sizes and baitfish in rainbow smelt, blacknose dace, alewives, common shiner, etc. round out the collection for a day on Maine’s waters.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: