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Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

As a twelve-year old in 1948 growing up in Pennsylvania and a beginning fly tier, most of my early flies were poor imitations of the patterns described in an old book given to me. As I recall at that time, my flies were tied with materials I collected from the chickens we killed for the dinner table and various hair and feathers I collected from my trapline and hunting for deer, rabbits, Ruffed Grouse pheasants and squirrel with my father, a coal miner who was a veteran of WWII in the Pacific. My supplies for fly tying were largely poor materials. Those materials combined with my amateur fly tying skills produced flies that were ugly and didn’t float very long, if at all.  So, I started raising Banty roosters. They are smaller and much more aggressive buggers that seemed to know when I was looking to collect their hackles and the fight was on. While Banty rooster hackles were better than the standard hackles found on our chickens or in Herter’s catalog at the time they were nothing like the hackles we have today.

Sure, some of my poorly tied ugly flies caught a fish once in a while though I thought they should have had more success than I was experiencing. Because so few trout were hitting my quickly sinking “dry” flies, I concentrated more on tying wet flies and nymphs. Eventually my fly tying skills improved, and better hackles became available. With those improvements, I was able to tie some dry flies that stayed on top of the water long enough to attract fish. However, my primary focus remained with creating and discovering patterns that were more productive with insects under the water. To this day, now 70 years later, I still am primarily an under the water fisherman.

The biggest trout I ever caught in my life was when I was 16 years old. Dad took me to the famous Spring Creek near State College, Pennsylvania. I tied a few of my favorite patterns for that special trip and one was a grub larva, which is one of my favorite flies to this day. That pattern has been consistently productive in the limestone waters of central Pennsylvania, the Adirondack Mountain waters in New York, the Rocky Mountain country, in the backcountry streams and rivers of Washington State and in Alaska. I don’t remember what hook or the size I used when visiting Spring Creek, but it was probably a Mustad or Herter’s hook. Today I tie the grub on a Mustad 37160 hook in sizes from 12 to 6. I lightly weight the hook with wire on the first third of the hook just behind the hook eye. I use wool yarn to build the shape of the body and cover that with a strip of tan or white latex cut from a thin latex glove. For the segmentation, I rib the fly with 4 to 10-pound monofilament depending on the size of the fly being tied. Finish the head with black thread. Try this pattern with yellow latex as well, if you can find a thin yellow latex glove or you could color it with a permanent magic marker.

Of course, if there is a hatch on and you have the correct imitation dry fly in the right size, then that is when trout seem to lose their reluctance to strike. They strike with abandon and it becomes too easy to hook one fish after another. But, there are many times when you must encourage fish to strike whatever it is you are presenting.

In those instances, you need some “go to” flies which have proven themselves over the years to be special during those no action hard to fish days. The pattern described above is one of those special flies. Others, for me, have been the Prince nymph, Pheasant tail nymph, Kaufman’s black and golden stones, Adams dry fly, March brown, Sofa pillow  Stimulators, Red Quill, Quill Gordon, light Cahill, elk hair caddis and Royal Wulff. An excellent source for these and many other patterns is Dave Hughes’ book, Trout Flies.


  1. Thank you for your essay, I really enjoyed it. It brought back memories of my youthful days staring out.

  2. Isn’t that the truth Tom, I second your comment.

    My “go to” flies are all old school much like the author and are well received here in the Rockies to this day.

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