The Adams. The Circus Peanut. The Boogle Bug. These are fly patterns that work in a wide array of situations—true go-to flies that get it done day after day over vastly different watersheds. They are the workhorses that make the flyfishing world go round. They are also not the subject of this fly story.
Today we’re here to showcase a clutch of special-situation flies—tactical offerings, you might call them. They can save the day whether you fish warm water or cold, or target trout, bass, or big toothy things.
1. Pheasant Tail
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: The first entry in a “special ops” fly article is a Pheasant Tail nymph? Yes it is. What makes this a tactical offering is all in how you tie and fish it. Forget the bead head, lose the wire ribbing, swap out the heavy-gauge nymph hook for a fine-wire version. Then tie it on mono tippet and add floatant. That’s right, you’re fishing this as a dry, in the film. Tie this pattern in sizes 14-20 and throw it at that one maddening riser that’s been rejecting all your duns and conventional emerger patterns. An unweighted nymph fished in the film will solve most cases of lock-jaw you can throw at it.
2. Cinnamon Ant
Ant flies, specifically Cinnamon Ants in smaller sizes (I like an 18), are another effective last-resort pattern to try out on rising fish that seem to be ignoring your more imitative offerings. Theories abound as to the ant’s effectiveness in these situations—some say trout just like that taste of terrestrials. Whatever the reason, try this change-of-pace fly when working difficult fish during smaller mayfly hatches, specifically blue-winged olives and tricos.
3. Syl's Midge
If you don’t fish soft hackles, you’re missing out on a very satisfying and effective way to cover water—especially in the hours before a hatch when the water column sees an uptick of nymphs and pupae moving toward the surface. This particular pattern was developed by Sylvester Nemes, the godfather of modern soft hackles (his book The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict is absolutely worth a place in your library). Tied on a size 20 dry fly hook and fished on the swing downstream, Syl’s Midge is a simple, two-material fly that excels on midge-eating fish when: 1) An upstream presentation isn’t possible… 2) Micro-drag is a problem… 3) You are simply having a hard time seeing your size 20 dry fly on the river's surface. Quarter this fly downstream and swing it right into the face of a rising pod of fish and hang one. Remember that when setting the hook with a downstream wet fly, less is more, and nothing is best. Let the darn fish hook itself.
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4. Last Light Caddis
One cold spring morning I was sulking around a campground in Wisconsin's Driftless when I spotted an older gentleman tying up some caddis imitations at a picnic table. He was an advocate of foam in his caddis patterns and had several good reasons for the position: 1) He could easily notch a V in the tip of the foam wing to cut a sharp silhouette that resembled that of a dead caddis… 2) The fly would lay flush in the film… 3) The bug floated like a cork. At the time I was also having success with tinsel-bodied dry flies a la Michigan fly designer Dennis Potter, so I threw all the ingredients together and came up with this pattern, which makes a great evening search fly anytime caddis are in the air.
5. Osthoff’s Nymph
This simple fly doesn’t look like much, but it’s terribly effective if you tie and fish it the way Rich Osthoff advocates in his excellent book, Active Nymphing. Rich was on the hunt for the perfect subsurface search pattern, which he found to be a size 12 small streamer—or is it a large nymph? Whatever you want to call it, you can fish this simple fly like either, which is why I deploy this pattern any time I am exploring new water on foot. I fish it with a floating line and tapered leader, with a small ball of Loon Biostrike putty as an indicator. Try it in brown, black, and olive.
6. Pass Lake Special
This special situation is a little different. It’s not for when fishing is tough—but rather when it’s off the hook. The Pass Lake Special is my go-to fly when the brook trout are on fire and you want to maximize angling joy. Whether you want to call this pattern a small streamer or a large wet fly, it all comes down to that hi-vis hair, which makes this just-below-the-surface fly easy to track during the swing and on the twitch, especially in tannin-stained water. So on those special days when the brook trout will shark over anything, tie this on and having fun exploring every nook and cranny of the river.
This year, Chuck Kraft joined the likes of Lefty Kreh and Joe Brooks in the Southern Appalachians Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, so what better time to celebrate one of his many excellent patterns, the Clawdad? Kraft is the O.G. of working with synthetic suede in its many incarnations—crawdad pincers, twister tails, etc. While natural materials might suffer a collapse of form at a certain stage of the fishing process, Kraft's suede-built flies always maintain a natural silhouette. And while you could fish the Clawdad all the live long day as a search pattern, I like it as a change-up fly when I encounter a bass with an ambivalent reaction to my minnow imitation. If you fish for smallies enough, you know what I’m talking about: the bass that follows your baitfish half-way to the boat like a bouncer walking some chump out of the club. When that happens, I like to follow that up with a vertical presentation that just sits there—and must be viciously evicted.
8. Gartside Soft Hackle
Everyone has a favorite smallmouth fly, and mine is Jack Gartside’s soft-hackle streamer, which I heretically prefer even over poppers. This supremely simple fly gains its fishiness from the fact that the palmered marabou is reverse-tied, which gives this fly a hollow, jellyfish-like action. This also means a little bit of marabou goes a very long way, which is perfect because a sparse fly is just what I’m looking for in the low-water months of July and August, when smallmouth water calls for quiet presentations. Tied on a Daicchi 2461, this fly is the subtlest smallmouth streamer I know of. Fish it on a floating line with a longer-than-usual tapered mono leader (hint: extend the butt, not the tippet), and prepare yourself for some very interesting streamer eats. Sure, you’ll get the standard fish waking out of shallow water to eat, but you’ll also see smallmouths rise to it almost like a trout taking a dry fly. My go-to color combo is peach and white, but experiment with what fish are responding to on your watershed.
9. Deep D
The situation? Lake fishing. More specifically, lake fishing in breaking waves and swells, where predator fish take advantage of all the commotion to herd and crash baitfish. This fly, which I call the Deep D, is basically a minimalist, jiggified version of Tom Lynch’s Drunk and Disorderly fly series. The goal was a meaty offering that got down fast to where lake trout, walleyes, and big browns roam, so I used only the bare-essential ingredients and gave it a heavy tungsten head—that tungsten head is the most important part of this fly. Over the years, I’ve tied it in all sorts of color combos. The hot pink fly pictured is my go-to Lake Superior brown trout fly. For walleyes and brown trout, try olive and copper. For lakers, go with white. Fish this fly on a sink tip and watch your backcast. You do not want this thing barreling into the back of your head.
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10. Muskie Murdich
On my favorite muskie river, the water is black and full of log jams, and the fish often ensconce themselves in the timber. I was having success invading the personal space of these barricaded fish by slow-swinging flies right across the face of the drowned wood from an anchored position—similar to how you might swing a fly for steelhead. But there was a problem: I was losing complicated articulated flies that took a lot of time to tie. And so I took a simple baitfish platform—the Murdich Minnow—made it bigger, removed a step or two from the tying process, and doubled the amount of flash. Voila. I now had a muskie fly that was effective but also so easy to tie I didn’t mind losing one.
Presentation notes: I’ve found fishing this fly on an intermediate line gives me the most latitude. It’s ideal for shallower water, but I can also still get it down to depth by casting upstream of my target and stack mending. As the fly swings, rattle it with your rod tip to set all that flash ashimmer—and hold on. The strike of a muskie on the swing is nothing like the tug of a salmon or steelhead. My best description is that it feels like someone with a subaquatic sawed-off shotgun just shot your fly in the face.