Fly & Tenkara, Freshwater, Trout

Simple flies: palmered hackle flies

Sometimes you don’t need much to make a deadly fly. Simple patterns catch fish. Some of the simplest flies (at least in theory) are palmered hackle flies. Whether they are fished dry or wet, on a dead drift or stripped, palmered hackle flies work. These flies have been around since the inception of fly fishing. Charles Cotton and Izaac Walton designed and fished various palmered flies such as the “hackle fly” and the “black fly” way back in the 1650s. These fly may be 350 odd years old but they are still catching fish, which is pretty cool(for more of Cottons creations check out this). Last season I used a “black fly” to great effect as a beetle pattern on some of my favourite small streams, the fish didn’t seem to care the pattern was simple and had been fished for centuries. From those first palmered flies a plethora of various patterns and variations of patterns have sprung up over the years, flies like wooly buggers, wooly worms, griffiths gnats, bivisibles and many many more.

While many palmered hackle flies don’t necessarily imitate anything, they are imitative of many many different forms of trout food. Their beauty and fish taking ability comes from their simplicity. Take the “black fly” for example. It can be mistaken for a midge ball, a beetle, a fly, a caddis or numerous other insects. The strength of these flies lies not in what they “are” but what they can be perceived to be. They imitate nothing and “everything”. So without further ado, a few of my favourites and a few that have a slightly different take on the “vibe” behind these successful flies.

The woooly worm

The cracklback. Fish it dry, fish it wet, fish it on the swing as an emerging caddis pattern. A super versatile and effective fly
The cracklback. Fish it dry, fish it wet, fish it on the swing as an emerging caddis pattern. A super versatile and effective fly

Originally designed as a caterpillar fly, the wooly worm can be imitative of a range of trout food. There are countless variations, two of my favourites are the crackleback and Mick’s scruffed wooly worm. The classic though is the black wooly worm with a red tag, a fly I used to great effect when I first started targeting carp with a fly rod. With the crackleback, I generally fish it as an emerging caddis pattern on the swing, but you can also fish it dry or stripped. The beauty of flies such as these is their versatility.

The wooly bugger

Some rubber legged wooly buggers from Manic tackle
Some rubber legged wooly buggers from Manic tackle

The wooly bugger is essentially just a wooly worm with a marabou tail, its also probably the most popular trout fly ever. There are countless variations on the theme, from thin bodied versions for wary trout, through to big monstrosities sporting all the trimmings such as rubber legs and copious amounts of flash. No trout box would be complete without at least a few 😉 The success of the pattern speaks for itself.

The griffiths gnat.

Essentially the griffiths nat is a very small wooly worm. Its also potentially the most well known midge dry fly and its a deadly one at that. It also works as an attractor and I’ve had success fishing larger models (size 14-16) as beetles during terrestrial season. So while it is primarily a midge fly, like most flies in this genre, it is surprisingly versatile.

The orange/yellow/rust palmer, orange asher

Whatever you want to call it, its an effective fly. I tie them both with and without tails. A great little fly for midging trout on stillwater but also an effective attractor pattern on streams and creeks. Like most of these flies, I’m not quite sure why they work so well, they just do. I’ve also used it to great effect as a wet fly trailing behind a heavy nymph- I suppose fished like that its just an orange wooly worm.

The renegade

The renegade
The renegade (tied and photographed by Brett Cirulis)

This pattern goes away from the full palmered hackle a little bit, but if you ask me, its from the same “family”. I have no idea what it represents, I can’t for the life of me think on an insect that looks like the renegade. It is also happens to be a super effective dry fly pattern. Be it on midging trout, as an attractor, on lakes or on tiny streams, this fly works. Its is one of the first flies I go to when I can’t seem to match the hatch. More often than not, for reasons unbeknown to myself, it does the job.  This is definitely a fly that deserves a lot more love.

Superpuppan aka “Super pupa”

Again, this fly is a little different. It is a swedish swimming caddis pattern, that attempts to imitate caddis as they try to break the surface film. Its an incredibly easy tie, simply a palmered hackle fly that has been clipped on both the top and bottom of the hook so it sits right in the surface film. I only started fishing this pattern late last season, I caught a few fish on it, it must be OK (origins on the fly).

Buzz fly

I haven’t yet fished the buzz fly originated by master fly tier Hans Weilenmann, only discovering it over the winter, but it just looks fishy as all get out. Its scruffy, its buggy, it will throw an great silhouette and I am sure it will catch lots of fish. It looks like its going to be one o those flies that is a great fly to tie on when you aren’t quite sure which fly to tie on. It takes the elements of the classic flies discussed above and tweaks and improves them, adding shape and a bit of all round bugginess. I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

The takeaway from this post is that with one basic technique, you can tie a raft of different flies that cover most trout fishing situations. They can be fished as dry flies, wet flies, on the swing, stripped as streamers, you name it. For people starting out on their fly tying journey, palmered flies are a great place to start. Once you’ve mastered the technique there are simply so many flies you can tie, flies that cover so many fishing situations. And while palmered hackle flies might not be the coolest or most sophisticated flies going around, I strongly believe their simplicity, history and general effectiveness mean we shouldn’t be too quick to move away from them. For me at least there is just something undefinable but appealing about them.

Good luck at the vice and good luck on the rivers.



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