Sunday, February 16, 2014

(Wet) Fly Taxonomy ??

Hoo-boy.  I should be more careful about what I promise.  Taxonomy of fishing flies?  What was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking that there are more than a few patterns out there all of which are called 'soft hackle', and that doesn't seem right (although not the end of the world).  And, I was thinking about my statement that Dave Hughes, in his good book, "Wet Flies" names four types of wet flies, 'winged wets', 'wingless wets' or  'flymphs', 'fuzzy nymphs', and 'soft hackles'.  That's all well and good, but it seems fairly obvious that there are lot more kinds of flies that are fished 'wet', and so maybe these four groupings really only tell part of the story. 

Big parenthetical anecdote:  After many frustrating days being flummoxed on the Henry's Fork, I spent a lot of time with my nose on the water looking carefully at the bugs coming downstream.  Most of them (mayfly duns) looked like hell.  Wings, legs, and tails all askew and flopping all over the place, some in, and some out of the water.  Lots of struggling going on.  Very few of those bugs came sailing down the river like little sloops with jaunty sails set trim against the breeze.  So, i started tying my parachute dry flies (PMDs and Baetis, mostly) on curved hooks and with antron tails instead of nice straight hackle fiber tails, and with soft hen hackle instead of bristly cock hackle.  Thusly:

I will merely and humbly say, voila!  (But this ignores the other big part of successful fly fishing - presentation - which in my book is the more important part. Gauntlet thrown.)

But where would we put this dry fly that sits in the film and is tied using soft hackle in a classification scheme?  What would the taxonomists say?

Taxonomy, you'll recall, is the science of classifying organisms into groups that share similar characteristics.  Good old Carl Linneaus, a Swede, came up with the essentials of the system back in the 1700's.  That system groups living organisms into six hierarchies, from the most inclusive to the least inclusive -- Kingdom, Phyla, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  (Let's never mind the three 'super kingdoms' recently added).  The combination of Genus and Species gives all those fish that we love and the bugs that they eat, their 'scientific name'.  Hence the March Brown mayfly

is Maccaffertium vicarium.

Or is it?

For you folks west of the continental divide, the March Brown is Rithrogena morrisoni.  Evidently, Maccerfftium is the Eastern March Brown, whereas Rithrogena is the Western March Brown.

And, oh by the way, Rithrogena germanica, as you might guess from its name, is the European March Brown (probably the type specimen was collected in Germany).

Hmmm.  Three different animals (according to the scientists who study tarsi number, length, and hairiness) with the same common name.  Which is precisely why Carl Linnaeus came up with the binomial nomenclature thing in the first place.

All this esotery has little, if any, relevance to our shared objective, which is to tie flies that catch fish.  But I can't help trying to resolve something in my own head about wet flies.

I love the four wet fly types Dave describes.  For an exhaustive and gorgeous look at winged wet flies, you can check out the aforementioned 'Forgotten Flies'.  For flymphs, you should see the more readily available 

by Allen McGee (Frank Amato Press), which nicely brings to life the flies and techniques first introduced by Leisenring and Hidy, and illustrates in some detail dozens of contemporary flymph patterns.  Sylvester Nemes covers soft hackles, and frankly, i'm at a loss as to any other reference for 'fuzzy nymphs'.  Any suggestions out there?

Back to topic.  IF we were to adopt the taxonomic convention of most inclusive to least inclusive, then we could start with two 'Kingdoms' in fly tying - Dry Flies and Wet Flies.  Dry flies are fished 'dry', i.e. perched on top of the water where we can see them.  Wet flies are fished under the surface of the water where we can't see them (which is why dry flies and nymphs with bobbers are so popular - they are seeable, and we anglers like to be able to see what's going on). 

Right away, though, things get tricky.  Where do we put 'emergers'?  Hang onto that thought for a moment, if I haven't already lost you long ago.  

So if Wet Flies is the higher grouping that includes ALL patterns -- winged wets, flymphs, soft hackles, fuzzy nymphs, 'conventional nymphs, streamers, emergers, etc. -- that are fished wet, then the four pattern types that Dave Hughes summarizes would be lower groupings, somewhere down in the phyla-order-family area.  And then when we get below the general heading of, say, flymph, and get into all the possible individual patterns (i.e. genus and species level), then its just going to be bedlam.

Back to Emergers.  This is an emerger pattern tied by House of Harrop (and fished hard over several seasons)

and these are emerger patterns specifically named as such by Mike Lawson:

This is also an emerger pattern, conjured up by me (though closely modeled after other published patterns) and that fooled four large (18"+) brookies at a highly secret Maine locale:

And THIS is an emerger pattern than I came up with on my favorite landlocked salmon stream last spring during the time of Hendricksons.  The comparadun pattern that had been so effective the year before, for some inexplicable reason, was useless this last spring, so i cooked up this pattern one evening at the vise

and I could NOT keep the fish off this fly.

Now, all these emerger patterns are tied with the intent that they fish 'in the film', where so many of the adult insects shed their nymphal skin and are so vulnerable to the hungry fish below.  But we all fish these emerger patterns as wets, also, just under the surface, in that magic 2" of the water column.

That said, I might argue that THIS fly is also an emerger:

Its a Haystack, one of my favorite patterns.  Tied comparadun style, which means it sits low and in the film.  Which means (in my book) that from below, it offers a profile that looks as 'emerger-like' as anything else and which is why, I think, it works so well.  I've also hooked fish on this pattern while fishing it back after the drift while it is under water.  So, ALL the comparadun patterns become problematic in terms of a classification because they meet criteria for both the Dry and Wet fly Kingdoms.

Emerger patterns could be either wet or dry, depending on how you fish them.  So, maybe there needs to be a third kingdom in fly classification - Emerger.  The Hermaphrodites of the fly box.

I must point out one other coincidental thing. Look again at the Mike Lawson emerger pattern:

and then look at the "Transitional Flymph" from Allen McGee's book:

Pretty darn similar, save for lighting and background.  But one is a Flymph, and one is an emerger.

So the subtleties of classifying trout flies are likely no less maddening than classifying the bugs they are patterned after.


You figure it out.  I'm just going to keep tying flies that I think will catch fish.  And i'm not going to complain anymore if someone calls a pattern that clearly ISN'T a Soft Hackle (capital S, capital H) a 'soft hackle'.

Get a grip.


  1. In your last two photos, the emerger/flymph difference is just as described by Hidy? maybe ... "A wingless nymph" The top emerger has a poly 'wing', but the bottom 'flymph' has a dubbed collar. I think the collar imitates a young wing-casing, but because it is not tied in a 'wing' position, the fly passes as a flymph. looks like a wing, yet not a wing.- my .02 Great post!! messy flies always work best. When was the last time you got a 'non-sloppy looking' burger as a drive-thru? they never look like the commercials, but it's what we all eat.

    1. Exactly. These kinds of morphological subtleties are what taxonomists use to differentiate between and among species, subspecies, and even varieties. I love how these two patterns are so similar, yet because of one small difference, they are called different patterns. Even though they might be fished in the same manner. thanks for the comment.

  2. Love this. I think I'm in danger of learning something. Keep it up, and I look forward to the next post.

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