Rediscovering Old Fly Patterns

By Ethan Hollifield

There’s an old tin box of flies that sits tucked away in the corner of my fly tying desk that holds the magic of a bygone era. Flies that are as mesmerizing in their appearance as they are in their ability to fool trout on a regular basis. Some include your run of the mill Pheasant Tail and Wulff variants, while others such as the Yaller-Hammer, Tellico Nymph, Coffey’s Calf Tail are endemic in their origins to the Southern Appalachians. There are even a few given to me by famous local tiers that will probably never be found in any fly tying reference, and with that said there’s one in particular I’m under a blood oath by the creator to keep secret.

The art and intricacy that takes place in these flies is something that continuously draws my gaze from the vice and makes the allure of the waltz worm that I’m tying for guide trips seem dull in comparison. I often too look back in my mind’s eye to a world before tungsten nymphs and squirmy worms when flies like these were still commonplace in most anglers fly boxes. I compare what happened to the old school patterns in fly fishing to what also took place in the bass fishing world with baits like the jitterbug, creek chub, and many others that got thrown to the wayside over the last 20 odd years. These are flies and baits you’ll hear people swear by, but never see in a modern tackle or fly box.

I took it upon myself to try and see if some of these old patterns would still work, even though it seems as if every wild fish you run into anymore has a PHD in picking out our flies from the real ones. This resulted in me also learning and studying more about old fishing techniques such as swinging wet flies or achieving long drifts in pocket water. Neither are what I would call especially easy for most of the small mountain streams that are commonplace here, but I will say that they are incredibly effective. It’s amazing to watch a trout come out of a tight run to eat a size 12 yaller hammer wet fly with incredible aggression. This was in a stream where normally it’s difficult to convince any of the residential trout to eat something larger than a size 16 of any of the modern fly patterns found today.

I think it’s good for us as fly fishermen to not be so caught up in the constant search for the latest and greatest in fly patterns. Just because a nymph doesn’t have a bead head, or a dry fly isn’t tied with UV dubbing doesn’t mean it won’t catch fish. If anything, fishing with flies that lack these characteristics help to develop our skill sets as anglers even more.

I guess the moral of this, if there is one, is our ancestors knew what they were doing when they designed these flies. There is also something truly special about taking a fly pattern that was developed over 100 years ago, tying it on, and fooling a trout today. It’s a great way to connect ourselves to the incredible history of fly fishing and appreciate how far we’ve come today.

Ethan Hollifield is a member of a conservation organization called 2% For Conservation and a guide for Southern Appalachian Anglers