Exploring Around the Next Bend

This section is meant to encourage those who are searching for better methods to fool their favorite prey. It may be on flies, presentation, obtaining impossible drifts, casting methods, or rigging lines and leaders for special uses. As we come across articles and stories of special interest we will present them here. If you have a 'special' method which works for you, please feel free to send it to the publisher@flyanglersonline.com

January 10th, 2005

Flymphs Reconsidered
By William G. Tapply*

In the 1971 edition of James E. Leisenring's 1941 classic The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, Vernon S. Hidy added a few chapters in which he introduced the angling world to the flymph. Half nymph and half wet fly, the flymph imitated "that dramatic and little-understood interval of an aquatic insect's life: the struggle up to the surface as well as the drift (of some insects) in or just below the surface film."

The term "flymph" passed out of our angling lexicon without ever really catching on. But Hidy's astute identification of this important stage of the insect's life cycle—which we now call the "emerger"—sparked a booming little industry of specialized fly patterns and angling strategies.

The fly that Hidy used to imitate the flymph was a simple, wingless hackled fly. Nowadays it's called a "soft-hackled wet fly," although that's something of a misnomer. Anglers who fish with the Soft Hackle these days generally tie it and use it as an attractor pattern rather than to imitate an emerger (although the trout might think differently when they see it).

Hidy's flymph is basically a soft-hackle wet fly tied in sizes, shapes, and colors to match the insects that are in and on the water. As he described it, the flymph is "a wingless artificial fly with a soft, translucent body of fur or wool which blends with the undercolor of the tying silk when wet, utilizing soft hackle fibers easily activated by the currents to give the effect of an insect alive in the water."

The flymph, and the method Hidy used to fish it, imitated the emerger. He advised anglers to cast "upstream or across for the trout to take just below or within a few inches of the surface film ... to simulate the hatching nymphs of the mayfly, caddis fly, or other aquatic insects as they struggle up toward the surface or drift momentarily in or just under the surface film."

Despite all the attention that emergers and their imitations have received in the past few decades, references to the soft-hackle (or the flymph) as an effective imitation are rare. For example, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, in their important book Emergers (1991), provide an encyclopedia of lore on this stage of the insect's life. The authors give recipes and tying instructions for dozens of emerger patterns—and never even mention the Soft Hackle or the flymph or Vernon S. Hidy.

If the flymph were merely an historical oddity, Swisher and Richards might be excused. But flymphs work. In my experience, in fact, they usually work better than the fancier (and fussier-to-tie) emerger imitations that Swisher and Richards and others have invented.

Flymphs catch fish throughout the various stages of the hatch, when nymphs first begin to rise to the top of the water, when the half-hatched insects drift in and just under the surface film, -when duns (and cripples and stillborns) float on the water, and even when spent and dying spinners ride the downstream currents.

  • In the first stage of the emergence, mayfly nymphs, caddis, and midge pupae break away from the river bottom and begin to swim toward the surface, sometimes quite rapidly. Their legs and gills pulsate and vibrate with their efforts. Many never reach the surface, because nearby trout, whose appetites are activated by the appearance of the nymphs, gobble them.

    Dead-drifted nymph or pupa imitations will take some of these trout. But a flymph, fished to imitate the behavior of the insects, works better. "Big Jim" Leisenring specialized in catching these trout with wet flies. Although he didn't call the wet flies he used "flymphs" (his friend Vernon Hidy hadn't yet coined the term in 1941), Leisenring preferred wingless, soft-hackled wet flies. "I could always, and still can, catch more fish on a wingless imitation," he wrote.

    He cast his flymph upstream of a feeding trout, let it sink to the bottom and drift toward the fish, and as it came within the trout's vision, he "made it to appear alive and escaping" by stopping his rod, which had been following the progress of the fly, causing the fly to rise toward the surface. "The pressure of the water against the stationary line and leader," he wrote, ". . . causes the fly to rise slowly, opening and shutting the hackles, giving a breathing effect such as a genuine insect would have when leaving the bottom of the stream to come to the surface."

  • When the nymphs or pupae are near the surface but have not yet begun to metamorphose into duns, the classic tight-line, down-and-across wet-fly swing can be deadly. Fish your flymph this way and trout will hit it violently. The challenge is to avoid having your rod yanked from your hand or snapping your leader. Steer the nymph to the fish with your rod raised and be ready. The strike is usually visible—a splash or bulge or quick flash in the water—and when you see it, you should instantly lower your rod. The tension of the line in the water will cause the trout to hook himself.

  • The flymph is absolutely deadly during that time when the nymphs or pupae have reached the surface and are struggling to extricate themselves from their shucks. This is the stage that Hidy specifically targeted with the flymph. He called them "nymphs-about-to-be-born-into-flies" — what we now call "emergers." They drift in or just under the surface film, and with their desperately wiggling legs, their writhing bodies, their bursting wingcases, and their split and dangling shucks, they are shapeless and messy and vulnerable, and no two of them look precisely alike. For this stage, elegant and precise emerger patterns might imitate ten percent of the insects that are in the water. But the suggestive flymph, in the right size and color, represents them all.

    You can determine whether this mid-stage insect is on top of the water or trapped in the film or drifting an inch or two under it by studying the riseforms of the feeding trout. Bulges and head-and-shoulder rises mean that they're taking insects beneath the surface. A flymph, fished on a fine tippet and a floating line, will naturally drift at this level.

    When trout leave a bubble on the surface, it's likely they're eating floating emergers. Blow your flymph dry and dress it with dry-fly floatant, and it will drift low on the surface film where these trout are feeding.

    Whether they're eating off the top or just under the surface, fish the flymph as you would a dry fly. Cast it upstream of a feeding trout and let it dead-drift over him or fish it down-and-across with a reach cast. In either case, the water will cause the hackles to pulsate in a lifelike manner, although adding a slight twitch as the fly approaches a cautious fish might help him to make up his mind.

  • When the trout start eating the fully hatched insects that are drifting on tippy-toes on the surface, it's time to switch to a dry fly, right? Well, sure. But if those trout are picky—as they so often are—the flymph can be your problem-solver. Even when they're feeding selectively on floaters, trout can't resist a cripple or a straggling, incompletely hatched nymph or pupa. These insects, trout seem to sense, won't suddenly fly off the way healthy, fully hatched duns and adults tend to do. A flymph in the right color and size, dressed with floatant and fished with a dead drift in the film, has rescued me from many frustrating situations when the trout ignored my high-floating dry fly.

  • Trout can be agonizingly selective when they're picking off spent, lifeless spinners. They eat spinners leisurely, knowing that they're not going anywhere, and they take their time to study them. Perfect imitations, cast precisely and fished with no drag whatsoever, will usually catch at least a few of them.

    Surprisingly, the suggestive flymph often works better. Fished on the surface, perhaps the flymph suggests a mangled, broken-winged spinner. Trout are always suckers for cripples, even dead ones. Fished an inch or so under the surface, the flymph probably represents a spinner that has been churned and tumbled in the riffles, lost its surface tension, and sunk.

  • I like the term "flymph" to distinguish these flies from attractor wet flies, both winged and wingless, and from generic Soft Hackles. Flymphs are not complicated to tie. A few wisps of hackle fibers for a tail, a dubbed body, a gold rib, and a couple turns of hackle, that's all. But remember: Flymphs are intended to imitate specific insects and they should be tied with that in mind.

    The key to precise imitation is the insect's body. "My experience has taught me," Leisenring wrote, "that bodies of artificial flies are most deadly when, in addition to color, they imitate the texture, translucence, and flash of the natural fly as nearly as possible."

    For example, if you're fishing the early stage of a blue-winged olive hatch, when those little dark nymphs are darting and wiggling toward the surface, a properly sized flymph with a pheasant-tail body and a fine gold rib does the job. Later in the emergence, when the naturals have broken out of their nymphal shucks, switch to a dubbed-body flymph the color of the dun.

    For the right shape and translucence, dub your flymph bodies sparsely and make them slender. A fine gold or copper rib gives some flash and suggests the segmentation of the natural insect.

    Mayfly emergers come with tails and so should your flymphs. Caddis and midge pupae have no tails, of course.

    For most situations, the best hackles for a flymph are the breast and side feathers from a game bird such as a grouse or a woodcock. These are the feathers that gave the Soft Hackle its name. Strip the fibers off one side of the feather and tie it in by the tip with the shiny side facing forward. For flies sizes 16 and smaller, wind it just two turns around the front of the fly. For larger flies, three or four turns give the flymph proper balance.

    For fishing a flymph with a "Leisenring lift" or across-and-down on a tight line, hackles stiffer than those from game birds work better. The soft hackles tend to collapse around the fly, reducing its lifelike appearance. Carry a selection of flymphs tied with stiffer hen and cock hackles for these situations.

    "Future anglers,"Vernon Hidy wrote in 19711, "may well consider the three-dimensional flymph technique as more exciting than the dry since it requires a keener observation, greater finesse, and a more delicate touch at the fly-tying table and on the stream."

    Hidy was right and he was wrong about us "future anglers." Most of us have incorporated into our arsenal of trout tactics his wisdom about the important emerger stage in the life of aquatic insects. But few of us remember the word he coined for it or the fly he used to imitate it.

    It's time we reconsidered the flymph. ~ WGT

    Author Tapply

    About William G. Tapply:

    William G. Tapply is the author of more than thirty books, among them twenty-one New England-based Brady Coyne mystery novels. Tapply has written several books about fly fishing and the outdoors, including Pocket Water and Bass Bug Fishing. He is a contributing editor for Field & Stream, a columnist for American Angler, and has written hundreds of articles and essays on a variety of subjects for dozens of others publications.

    Tapply is a professor of English at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, where he teaches writing. He lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, with novelist Vicki Stiefel, his wife, and Burt, his Brittany spaniel.

    The above article is an excerpt from Gone Fishing, published by Lyons Press. We sincerely appreciate the gracious permission of the author to re-publish it here.

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