Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fly Fishing NH: Top Ten Flies for NH Small Streams; A White Mountain Fly Box By Joe Conklin

Joe Conklin, a friend of First Cast Fly Fishing, a Great Bay Trout Unlimited member, the projector leader for the Greenland, New Hampshire wild brook trout and Thompson Brook restoration project, and fellow New Hampshire fly fishing guide, offers those looking for 'wild' northern New Hampshire brook trout, a glimpse into his sacred fly box.   

Eastern Brook Trout

We finally turned the page on the New England calendar to March, a welcome month of increasing daylight, crazy weather and NCAA Tournament Basketball. Most importantly for me, March is when I begin to fill the gaping holes in my fly boxes and although I enjoy tying and fishing a wide variety of flies, fully 90% of the patterns that I use for fishing NH's small trout streams are included in my White Mountain fly box. Join me in making the best use of time for the last dregs of winter-tie flies! 

1. Muddler Minnow: In the cold water streams flanking the alpine peaks of NH's Presidential Range, brook trout often seem to appear out of nowhere to attack a Muddler. Even trout as small as two or three inches have voraciously pounced upon my drifting Muddler. Although other flies will catch trout in these frigid waters, nothing, in my experience, works nearly as well. My best guess as to why the Muddler minnow is such a great fly to fish in high-elevation streams is because it looks and acts like possibly the trout's only large prey item, the slimy sculpin. Muddler minnows are truly effective because they cannot be fished wrong; they are perfect for the beginning fly fisher. Cast it upstream or down. Float it, sink it, swing it or twitch it. Wherever trout abound, particularly brook trout, a Muddler tied to your tippet will usually produce results. It is the Muddler's versatility that accounts for its deadly effectiveness. If I were restricted in my pursuit of wild brook trout to a single fly pattern, the Muddler minnow would be my choice--hands down. If you do not include a few Muddlers in sizes 6-10 in your small stream fly box, the trout will thank you! 

2. Woolly Bugger: When I graduated from worm-dunking to fly fishing back in the '70's, this most-ubiquitous fly had yet to be invented. Sure, Western fly fishermenoften used woolly worms to good effect, primarily as imitations of giant stone fly larvae in the West's great brawling rivers. However, it was not until an enterprising eastern angler decided to add a marabou tail to the established woolly worm that the killer fly we all know was born. A woolly bugger loosely imitates many important trout foods: leeches, minnows, crayfish and the larval stages of aquatic insects as exemplified by dragonflies, dobsonflies (hellgrammites) and stone flies. Various incarnations of the woolly bugger have caught everything from tarpon to trout; however, for NH upland streams I favor black, olive and white buggers in sizes eight and ten. A tungsten bead helps to sink the fly to the bottom quickly, especially in plunge pools. IMHO, a trout fisher should never be without a selection of easily-tied woolly buggers. 

3. Griffith's Gnat: Chironomids. Trout consume prodigious quantities of these tiny insects and in some environments they represent the only food upon which a trout may depend. Chironomids, commonly called "midges", are most available to trout in ponds and beaver impoundments; however, most New Hampshire trout streams, with the possible exception of high-gradient mountain streams, follow a serpentine course along at least part of their length. These "s" bends often contain ideal habitat for midges due to slower flows and sediment deposition. The Griffith’s gnat is a simple dry fly that imitates either individual adults or clusters of them. I often add an antron tail as a trailing shuck in hopes of depicting the difficult transition between the pupal and adult stages of development. As is common with most effective fly patterns, the Griffith’s gnat is easy to tie. It consists of a peacock herl body with a grizzly hackle palmered throughout. One should tie these in sizes 14-22. 

4. Royal Wulff: Sometimes I choose to fish a particular fly pattern for reasons that have little to do with how effective the fly may be. On a broader scale, this can explain why I generally prefer dry fly "fishing" to "catching" trout with nymphs and streamers. As Buddhists like to say, “it is about the journey", not the destination. Well maybe not all the time but often enough. When I am in the mood to fish a dry fly in our small waters, there is none better than the royal Wulff. It is easy to see on the water and it floats exceptionally well (especially when moose body hair is used for the tail). I think that it is truly a handsome fly, as befitting its name. Most importantly, despite a gaudy appearance, it somehow retains a bugginess that brook trout seem to love. 

5. Pheasant Tail Nymph: Frank Sawyer was a river keeper on the famed chalk streams of southeast England. He was also a keen observer of nature and an innovative fly tier. The pheasant tail nymph is his creation. The trout of England's chalk streams grow fat and fast on a rich soup of macro invertebrates. After countless hours watching the interactions of the trout and its prey, Frank devised a fly that mimicked the general profile of the various insects that comprised his trout's daily diet. He also tied his pheasant tail nymph with brass wire instead of thread. This allowed him to maintain the slim profile of the diminutive insects he was trying to imitate and also sink the nymph quickly to the level of the feeding trout. Today's version of the pheasant tail nymph usually includes peacock herl for the thorax and perhaps a bead head; otherwise it is very similar to Frank's original design. My fly box contains pheasant tail nymphs from sizes 14 down to 20. 

6. Soft Hackle Wet Fly: I love to fish soft hackles. The trout undoubtedly take these flies for caddis fly pupae or may fly emergers and long before the relatively recent development of realistic-looking emerger patterns, some fly fishermen did quite well fishing with soft hackles. The partridge and yellow and partridge and green are traditional examples of soft hackled wet flies whose origins are found in the upland streams of the UK. These flies are also tailor-made imitations for the alder fly and sulphur hatches of our larger trout streams. The soft hackle (a style of fly rather than a specific pattern) can also be a small stream angler's savior. Picture this: you are trying to reach a trout that is rising twenty feet downstream of your position. You can't get below this riser to make the normal upstream dry fly presentation because the bank is too steep on one side and the tag alders are overhanging the stream severely on the opposite bank-- even a roll cast is impossible. You could choose to cast a streamer downstream but that would likely spook the trout because he is locked in on surface food. A steeple cast with a dry fly cannot be managed because of the reach of the alder branches. What to do? Here is where the current and a soft hackled wet can be used to your advantage. Begin by shaking enough line through your fly rod's tip to cover the needed distance and then some, perhaps an additional 3 feet. The current will gradually take your line, leader and fly downstream to the waiting trout. Even if the fly does not arrive in the same feeding lane as the trout, it is a simple matter to begin slowly stripping the fly and then mending the line so that the soft hackle comes nearer to the trout. This technique does not work very well with a dry fly because the inherent bulk of the fly may slow down the drift too much and also creates too much commotion on the surface. The fish may not spook but he will rarely rise to your dry fly. This type of angling scenario is very common on many NH wild brook trout streams. The next time you are faced with a similar situation, give the downstream drift and soft hackle a try. 

7. Hornberg: this olde tyme New England fly is difficult to categorize. It can be fished as a dry fly, wet fly or as a streamer. It has probably accounted for more native brook trout than any other fly. Yet, for many years I never used it. Looking back, I was immersed in the hatch-matching phase of my fly fishing evolution and believed that attractor patterns could not be as effective as insect-specific imitations. I was wrong. Under the right circumstances, attractor patterns will out fish flies designed to imitate one type or even one life cycle stage of an insect. And in nutrient poor streams such as those encountered in the White Mountains, generalist patterns like the Hornberg excel because they either vaguely resemble many types of trout food or they provoke in the trout curiosity or territorial instincts. Although the traditional Hornberg calls for a natural mallard or wood duck breast feather for a wing, I prefer yellow-dyed mallard. Your Hornberg selection should include fly sizes 6-10. Feel free to fish them wet or dry. 

8. Hare's Ear Nymph: Robust simplicity. The hare's ear has been a popular nymph for a very long time. The spikiness of the hare's dubbing lends itself to the illusion of greater mass. Hence the larger or flatter-bodied nymphs can be imitated better. The hare's ear does a great job of representing the clinger family of may fly nymphs which fairly abound in New Hampshire's mountain streams. A bead-headed version drifted through a current seam directly below a plunge pool will often entice a beautiful, lavender- haloed native brookie into biting. Your NH mountain fly box should contain hare's ear nymphs in sizes 10-16. 

9. Mickey Finn: As far as I know, the Mickey Finn is the only artfully-tied fly named after a cocktail. The Mickey Finn was a popular drink during the 1930's and the favorite libation of Rudolf Valentino, the biggest movie star (silent) of the day. Notoriously difficult to deal with, it seems that the waiters at Valentino's favored watering holes in NYC and Los Angeles eventually decided that they not only were very tired of the star's behavior, they set out to do something about it. They surreptitiously added a dose of narcotic to each drink and over time, it killed the movie star. This is how the term "to slip someone a Mickey" came about. According to author Nick Karas, in Brook Trout, it was the famed outdoor writer, John Alden Knight who is credited with both popularizing and re-naming a curiously effective red and yellow bucktail--the Mickey Finn. A true attractor pattern, the Mickey Finn is indeed deadly on stream-bred brook trout. I have heard that it is also one of the best flies for early season "Salters" (sea-run brook trout) and for the giant wilderness brookies of Quebec and Labrador. I intend to tie some full-dress style on size 2 salmon hooks and use them this spring during high water on the Swift Diamond and Dead Diamond rivers in northern NH. Although difficult to locate and hard to catch, the wild brook trout of these rivers can attain lengths that occasionally exceed twenty inches. Smaller trout respond well to Mickey Finns dressed in sizes 6-10. 

10. Variants: High quality rooster hackle is the key to tying one of Art Flick's variants. Inferior hackle that would suffice for other types of surface flies simply will not float these high-riding dry flies. The hackle collar must be stiff enough to support the weight of the hook and body materials so that the former never touches the water. A properly tied variant will dance on top of the surface of the stream with only minimal manipulation necessary on the part of the angler. I can't think of a more sublime way to spend a warm late spring afternoon than to fish tumbling water with a variant, These flies are equally at home on NH's small, high-gradient streams or larger rivers like the Connecticut and Androscoggin. Because the variant tying style employs hackle collars that are two sizes larger than the hook, I find that sizes 12 and 14 are best. 

Joe Conklin is a licensed NH Guide and specializes in small stream wild brook trout fishing.  If you would like to get away from the crowds, cast delicately into picturesque clear cold northern New Hampshire streams to wild eastern brook trout, then please visit