Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

Wet Flies - Rediscovered

By Mark Libertone

I do not know any fly fisherman that would not like to be able to take trout fairly consistently. I also do not know of any trout fly fisherman that would not like to extend his fishing time a little as the day draws to a close. Likewise, I know few trout fly fishermen that use wet flies, and herein lies the ambiguity. Trout are primarily subsurface feeders, but I find this fact is often forgotten in favor of the dry fly. I also know many trout fly fishermen that use nymphs, but ignore the staple wet fly.

Historically, the wet fly, in its varied forms, is the basis for fly-fishing, as it is known. Fly fishermen of days gone by relied heavily on the wet fly as their means of taking fish. For a time, except for some dappling with long rods and horsehair leaders, the sunken fly was most productive, and I lament the fact that it goes unused and somewhat unappreciated today.

Over the years, I've taught beginning fly fishers how to participate in the sport via the wet fly. This is not because wet fly fishing is easy. Far from it, as many wet fly techniques require great skill.

Wet fly fishing, is, however, a logical first step in the learning process. Fly fishing roots are centered in wet-fly tradition. With a fairly simple wet fly technique, beginning students offer the fish an imitation in a place where trout are most at home, in the water.

I'm sure many will ask, "Why use wet flies, when nymphs work well below the surface?" I suggest using nymphs for specific fishing situations when it can be determined the fish are taking nymphs. I know there are other situations when trout feed underwater but do not feed on nymphs. The most widely known of these times is during emergence, and yes, there are specific patterns developed especially for this, too. I find, however, that wet flies work just as well, if not better.

I know certain species of mayflies and caddis actually hatch underwater to swim to the surface. The naturals are best imitated by winged and wingless wets. I also am aware of the fact that certain species of mayflies and caddis swim below the surface to deposit eggs. Winged and wingless wets also do a great job imitating these, too. Why ignore them?

There is a plethora of wet flies from which to choose. Many patterns come from the early days of fly-fishing in the British Isles. Most of these flies are of the imitative type. The early American wet flies are often derived from their British counterparts, but others were especially tied for fishing to the native brook trout. These flies are very colorful and still are effective, today. For those that would definitely like to try fishing wets, I suggest narrowing the selection of patterns down a bit until the techniques and selected fishing spots are learned. The following patterns are the ones that I feel will start any fisherman wanting to try wets, on the path to success.

At the top of my list is the Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear. The Hare's Ear is probably one of the best-known wet fly patterns ever tied. Definitely an immigrant from the British Isles, I find it simple to tie and deadly when fished in various sizes. By far, however, the larger fish like it in sizes 10 and 12. In fact in early spring I often fish the pattern in size 8 on a sinking line. The fly shown here, is a variation of the original. The original pattern was tied using only the guard hair of the fur as legs. I have added a partridge hackle, and to me, this makes the fly even more successful.

Hares Ear

    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 8-14

    Thread: Yellow

    Hackle: Brown partridge or woodcock

    Tail: Hen pheasant

    Ribbing and Tag: Flat gold tinsel

    Body: Natural Hare's Ear taken from the lobe of the ear dubbed Leisenring style.

    Wing: Grouse Primary

    Note: The wings are tied on first, then the hackle is wrapped last. After tying the wings on, I dub and tie a little more fur in front of the wings, then wrap the hackle.

My next choice is the Leadwing Coachman. I consider it part attractor, part imitative, and while it can be fished in various sizes, larger trout seem to like it in sizes 10 and 12. Because of the peacock herl body, this fly can be weighted easily to get it deep.

Leadwing Coachman

    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 10-14

    Thread: Black

    Hackle: Red-brown hen

    Body: Peacock herl

    Wing: Gray goose primary

    Note: The wings are tied on after the hackle is wrapped.

The Cowdung, my next choice, is another import from the British Isles. I've found this fly in a number of variations. Some are tied with floss bodies, but I prefer a version tied with fur. This fly works great in sizes 10-14.

Cow Dung

    Hook: Standard wet fly 12-16

    Thread: Orange

    Hackle: Red-brown hen

    Tag: Flat gold tinsel

    Body: A mix of olive, yellow, tan, and orange rabbit fur. The overall appearance is olive-orange. This is dubbed Leisenring style.

    Wing: Cinnamon Turkey

    Note: The wings are tied on last, after the hackle.

My next selection is the March Brown. This fly, which is like its cousin the Hare's Ear, is a great fish catcher that will attract larger fish when fished on sizes 10 and 12. Also like the Hare's Ear, a version tied on a size 8 hook often brings in big trout.

March Brown

    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 8-12

    Thread: Orange

    Hackle: Brown partridge or grouse

    Tail: Brown partridge fibers

    Ribbing: Doubled tying thread

    Body: Fawn colored Hare's Ear on orange thread dubbed Leisenring Style

    Wing: Partridge Tail or cinnamon turkey

Note: The wings are tied on first, then the hackle is wrapped last. After tying the wings on, I dub and tie a little more fur in front of the wings, then wrap the hackle.

Anyone that knows me knows I am a firm believer in the wingless wets developed in the British Isles and adapted by Leisenring and Hidy to America's waters. I find these flies are very versatile, and I have written articles on these flies alone because of their fish catching abilities. I'd be remiss if I did not include some of them in my selection.

By far, one of my favorites is a Black Gnat as tied by Leisenring. This fly has taken numerous fish for me and for others I've fished with. I like this fly tied in size 14, but I had it work well in smaller or larger sizes.

Black Gnat

    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 12-18

    Thread: Red

    Hackle: Purplish starling

    Rib: (optional) Fine green wire

    Body: Three fibers taken from the V-shaped dark brown-black section of a turkey tail

Note: Leisenring's original pattern did not have the wire. I added it for strength.

The Orange Fish Hawk is a real favorite of mine. It catches all types of trout. I found the pattern in Trout and Ray Bergman has nothing but praise for it. While I employ it wet, It can be tied and fished dry as well. I suggest it in sizes 12 and 14. I tie it soft-hackle style.

Fish Hawk

    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 12-14

    Thread: Black or dark brown

    Hackle: Badger hen

    Ribbing and Tag: Flat gold tinsel

    Body: orange floss

Lastly, I must suggest a fly I put together, myself. It is similar in nature to the old favorite Light Cahill, but there are some differences. It's fashioned after a Hare's Ear in style and it has worked well when cream-colored flies are around. I suggest it in various sizes from 10 through 14. I call it the Genesee Jewel because on my home river, there are many hatches of light colored flies.


    Hook: Standard wet fly sizes 10-14

    Thread: Pale yellow

    Hackle: Dark cream or pale ginger hen

    Tail: same as hackle

    Ribbing and Tag: Fine pearlescent tinsel

    Body: Cream colored hare's ear dubbing done Leisenring style

    Wing: Lemon wood duck

Note: The wings are tied on first, then the hackle is wrapped last. After tying the wings on, I dub and tie a little more fur in front of the wings, then wrap the hackle.

Before I get into techniques, I feel I should note wet flies can be fished in teams, two or three flies at once. This, to me, makes them especially effective because flies can be offered at three levels in the water column. I fish my flies both as teams and as single flies. When fishing flies in teams, it is not uncommon to hook two trout at once. One of the techniques I'll discuss actually requires that the flies be fished as a team.

Team fishing can be accomplished by rigging leaders with droppers. I suggest that anyone considering fishing teams of wets learn to tie their own leaders. I often can teach a student to tie leaders in no time. It's just a matter of getting some leader formulas and learning how to tie a blood knot. This is all that's needed. I create my dropper tags simply by leaving the tag ends of the heavier of the two pieces of leader material. These tags should be no longer than four inches. For a team of three flies, I tie one fly on the tip, one fly up near the knot that connects the tippet to the body of the leader, and then one more fly on the next knot up.

Team Illustration

I find fishing wet flies can be very easy at times. In fact I find it very relaxing. One of the easiest methods I teach new students is called, appropriately, the "downstream swing." I find many fly fishermen are quite familiar with this term. It is really nothing more than making a quartering cast up river to a spot where the fly or flies will be introduced to the water. I choose the spot to cast to by judging the speed of the water and the depth I wish the flies to sink to when they reach the point where they come alive. I select the point by looking for fish or a spot where a fish might be. Often, to insure that the tip or single fly reaches the depth I want it to be, which is usually below midwater, I may mend the line to give the fly even more sink-time.

After I make the initial cast upstream. I allow the flies to sink following their progression with the rod tip, usually rotating my stance toward the fly. I usually hold the rod parallel to the water. The line will move down river. The flies/fly should begin to "swing" in the current as it gets hold of the line and the flies will rise to the surface, naturally. If I judged the depth, speed and distance correctly, the flies come alive at the point where the fish is or should be.


Of course, this procedure could be done in a searching manner without any specific target or fish in mind. It will often trigger a response from fish sitting, waiting for food. I prefer to cast to likely spots or to fish, directly, but that does not mean I never use a searching fly. I prefer to use the search method as the light fades at the end of the fishing day. I can cover a stretch or pool without having to see the fish, and can often fish past dark.

I have also perfected a variation of the swing, which I feel needs to be noted. Often times, as the fly/flies begin to swing and come alive, I employ and "hand twist retrieve." This method is also called the "hand over line" retrieve. I also gently wiggle the rod tip. This method is deadly more often than not, and also works extremely well doing the searching swing in the evening.

The next method I like definitely requires a team of flies. The number of flies in the team is determined by water depth. For deeper stretches, the three-fly team is better. It works extremely well in faster riffs and runs and in the faster water of springtime.

I execute this technique much like the swing. The flies are cast either across or slightly up and across on a fairly short line. When the flies hit the water, the flies are only allowed to sink partially. The top fly actually remains at the surface. There, it should flutter and constantly flick in and out of the water. The retrieve is quick, pulling the flies in, with the top dropper working its magical jig. The rod is held high to the flies, and the line hand uses the hand-twist to help bring them in. Again, I rock my hand, gently, to add action to the flies. This method is deadly when caddis are fluttering near the surface. I've never seen any method in dry fly fishing that can duplicate the action of egg-laying insects. This method does.

Fast Fly

When fishing large waters, I suggest using fairly large flies for any of the wet-fly techniques. I find smaller streams can effectively be fished using smaller flies, too. For leader lengths, I like short leaders of about 7 feet for the quick retrieve method with a team of flies. I find the swing method works best on regular leaders fitted for the depth and clarity of the water. For normal conditions I use a 9 footer.

These flies and the techniques to fish them are not new. The few techniques I've mentioned, here, are just the beginning. I try variations of these dependent upon circumstances, and I've not even begun to discuss the upstream wet fly, which is also effective. What I hope I've done is persuade some of those fishermen that shun the wet fly in favor of the dry to give these historical and deadly flies a try.

Authors Note: I would be remiss if I did not say that I learned about these flies and techniques from years of reading about them and fishing the wets. Other great anglers have successfully used these flies for years before I was even born. I believe that anyone that wants to learn more could reach back across the years via the printed pages of books, some of which are out of print, but still available. My teachers were many, and I list some of them, here, and thank them all for sharing.

    The Art Of Tying The Wet-Fly and Fishing The Flymph, by James Leisenring and Vern Hidy.

    The Sports Illustrated Book Of Wet-Fly Fishing, actually written by Vern Hidy.

    Trout, by Ray Bergman.

    Taking Larger Trout, by Larry Koller.

    Fishing The Dry Fly As A Living Insect, by Leonard Wright, Jr.

    How To Take Trout On Wet Flies and Nymphs, by Ray Ovington.

    The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict, by Sylvester Nemes.

    Wet Flies, by Dave Hughes.

About Mark:

I began fly fishing and tying at the age of 14. I had no one to teach me as my father was not a fisherman. My maternal grandfather, however, was. While he was not into fly-fishing, he did inspire me to seek the wary trout. I then became infatuated with the idea of fishing the fly after seeing Bing Crosby fly fish on the TV show The American Sportsman. Since then, I have taken my fly rod wherever I go. It came with me to Germany when I was stationed, there. It has given me hours of pleasure through my 58 years, and helped me meet and appreciate a lot of fine people along the way.

I look at fly tying as an art. I do this because I am a trained artist and art teacher. It is my belief that tying can be and is a creative process, very much like sculpting, yet with soft materials. Innovative tiers are constantly amazing me with new ideas and creations. It is, like any art, a never-ending process.

I am married, with five grown children and nine wonderful grandchildren. I have only one son, who fly fishes, but two of my four sons-in-law enjoy fly-fishing. I have a grandson and granddaughter that want to learn. We fish together, often, and while I have enough skill to get by on the stream, I never stop learning more about this great pastime. ~ ML

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