“The Eternal Debate,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply drifts a dry fly on a mountain stream.
Photo by Phil Monahan

It happened again last winter, this time in the form of an e-mail from my friend Skip Rood. “Just got home from a long and inconclusive—and at times acrimonious—discussion at the Boston Fly Casters,” he wrote. “To settle it once and for all, I’m conducting a survey of my most trusted angling compatriots. It’s time to settle this eternal, infernal debate once and for all. I aim to compile the definitive list of the ten best trout flies. I hope you’ll participate.”

Several years ago, out of deference to a chronic cervical injury, I discarded my weighty fishing vest in favor of a small fanny pack. This required me to heed Thoreau’s dictum to “simplify, simplify.” No longer could I carry a dozen fly boxes, my lunch, my foul-weather gear, a pair of sneakers, emergency repair kits and streamside fly-tying kits and first-aid kits, tippets and leaders, spare reels and flashlights, fly floatant and insect repellent, split shot and strike indicators, and all the other junk that gave me a backache. My fanny pack holds two small fly boxes, a few spools of tippet, a couple of spare leaders, dry-fly floatant, bug dope, sun block, a stale Granola bar, a spare cigarette lighter. Everything I need to get me through a day on the water . . . provided I have the right flies in with me.

Stocking those two fly boxes has forced me to debate the “best flies” question every day I go fishing.

I always resolve those debates by recognizing one important fact: It all depends.

So I shot an e-mail back to Skip with these questions:

  • Eastern or western trout? Moving or still water? Early or late season?
  • When you say “flies,” are you talking about specific patterns? Or do you mean designs? Do different sizes and colors count as separate flies?
  • Why ten? Why not a dozen?
  • And what the hell do you mean by “best”?

Skip’s reply was succinct: “All-round trout flies. Anywhere, anytime. Patterns. Ten because I said so, the ten patterns you’d have with you if that’s all you were allowed. Rank ’em one to ten.”

Okay, fair enough. Silly, but fair.

In the real world, the ten flies I’d want for a Montana spring creek in August would not be the ones I’d take to a Catskill freestoner in June or a Colorado tailwater in September, and none of those assortments would be what I’d choose for a Cape Cod pond in April.

But if I were forced to pick just ten . . .

First, dry flies. I start with drys because I enjoy surface fishing the most. I go to places that promise dry-fly fishing at times when I expect trout to be rising, and I do not want to be without the flies I’ll need to fool them. Since trout are generally more fussy about the surface imitations they’ll take than subsurface flies, the choice of dry-fly patterns is most crucial.

Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, terrestrials. Midges, for heaven’s sake. Not even to mention spinners, emergers, cripples, floating nymphs. The well-prepared angler needs more than ten dry-fly patterns (each in several sizes) alone.

My father, in the spirit of experimentation, once spent two entire trout seasons using just one dry-fly pattern (his generic Nearenuf) and claimed that he wasn’t particularly handicapped. I know guys who fish with nothing but a Parachute Adams. Others stick to a Royal Wulff. It strikes me as a pointless affectation, this stubborn refusal to try to match real insects, but these guys seem to catch their share of fish.

In fast-moving freestone, pocket-water streams, where hatches are sparse, bugs are scarce, and cautious trout go hungry, any old high-floating dry fly will work. But Skip said, “Anywhere, any time.”

Imitating mayflies alone . . . Eastern Light Cahills. Western Pale Morning Duns. Hendricksons. Tricos. Blue Wing Olives. Drakes. Callibaetis. March Browns. Sulfurs. Dozens of hatches that, at least sometimes, must be matched.

Just considering PMDs . . . at different times and on different waters, the trout seem to demand body colors ranging from pinkish to tan to olive to orange to yellow, and sizes from 14 to 20. Sometimes it seems to me they prefer quill bodies over dubbed, and parachute or hackle or comparadun or no-hackle designs.

Well, usually they’re not that fussy. Get the size right and the color approximate, and I can take some fish.

I’ll get by with two mayfly patterns, I think, provided I can carry them in a full range of sizes. One tan/yellowish and the other grayish. Light Cahill and Adams, then. In tiny sizes, they’ll take care of my midge needs, too.

Elk-hair Caddis makes three.

Stimulator for stoneflies and hoppers. Four.

Foam Beetle. My favorite “searching” pattern on slow, smooth water. Five.

Sparkle Dun. My go-to emerger pattern. Number six.

Seven: Rusty Spinner, for that crucial last stage of the hatch.

Seven surface patterns. I’m comfortable with that.

Which leaves three subsurface patterns. That’s about the right proportion for me. I do about 70 percent of my trout fishing on the surface.

When nothing’s cooking on the surface, and anytime it’s apparent that trout are eating them, I tie on a nymph. I could get by with two nymph patterns, one dark and one light. Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear, both beadheads. In giant sizes, one or the other will work for stoneflies. Midsize for mayfly nymphs and caddisfly pupae. Tiny ones for midge pupae.

Nine patterns so far.

Number ten, when nothing else works: what anglers everywhere call “the good-old” Woolly Bugger. The Bugger catches fish anywhere, anytime, which is what earned it the right to be called “the good-old.”

I submitted my list—in that order—to Skip, and a few weeks later he sent me the results of his survey:

  1. Woolly Bugger
  2. Parachute Adams
  3. Elk Hair Caddis
  4. Pheasant Tail Nymph
  5. Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear
  6. Foam Beetle
  7. Stimulator
  8. Muddler Minnow
  9. Mickey Finn bucktail
  10. Prince Nymph

Are you kidding me? What were these people thinking? Who needs a Prince Nymph? If you’ve got a bugger, what do you want a muddler or a bucktail for? What about all the tan/yellow mayflies you’ve got to imitate? And what’re you going to do during a spinnerfall? Or when they’re eating emergers? Huh?

Before I could compose a message to Skip that adequately expressed my outrage, I got a phone call from my friend Marshall Dickman in the Hudson Valley. “Just got home from a meeting of the Angler’s Club,” he said. “Had a stimulating discussion, trying to agree on the four best trout flies. What do you think?”

Hm. Four, I thought, was a more interesting problem than ten.

“Am I allowed to bring a pair of scissors with me?” I said.

“Well, sure. I guess so.”

“These four flies. Can I carry them in different sizes?”

“Yes. That was stipulated.”

“Okay,” I said. “It’s easy, then. Light Cahill, Adams, Elk-hair Caddis, Woolly Bugger. Nothing to debate.”

“What about nymphs, emergers, and spinners?” he said. “What about stoneflies and terrestrials and scuds, for heaven’s sake?”

“That’s what the scissors are for,” I said. “Cut, snip, slice. See?”

“Clever,” said Marshall. “Though in the spirit of our debate, I’d call it cheating.”

“The spirit of your debate,” I said, “was to conduct a meaningless midwinter debate, if I’m not mistaken.”

Whenever I sit down at my fly-tying table to restock my fly boxes for the upcoming season, I gaze out my window at the snow-filled woods and recall the rivers and hatches and difficult trout of previous years, and I daydream about the places I hope to fish in the future. A winter afternoon of fly tying always promotes these reveries. If it didn’t, I’d probably buy my flies.

The memories and daydreams help me to think about what flies to tie. Should I really devote a precious compartment in my fly box to gray-drake spinners? I sure needed them that evening on the Henry’s Fork. What about those early black stoneflies? And then there was that Hexagenia hatch . . . .

Whether you carry two fly boxes in your fanny pack or a dozen in your bulging vest, you cannot be prepared for everything. One way or the other, we all have to pick our ten—or four or twenty or one hundred—“best” flies.

It may be a debate with no answer. But it’s not meaningless.

* * *

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.

12 thoughts on ““The Eternal Debate,” by William G. Tapply”

  1. This is a great piece by Tapply and one, I think, that tackles a somewhat annoying but pervasive question among anglers: the proverbial Top [random number] list. As a fly-tyer, and someone who likes to fish different waters, species, geographies, etc, it’s nice to be reminded how lucky we are to not have to rely solely on 10 or 12 patterns. As Tapply alludes in the conclusion, much of what we keep/replace in our boxes is tied to memories of past and hopes of future fishing.

  2. I would have enjoyed this more if I didn’t have that stupid pop up appear asking me to sign up for the Orvis email. It’s very annoying especially since I have been on your email list for years!

  3. Prince nymph caught 14 of 18 rainbows yesterday on Lower Illinois River in eastern OK. Other two flies were an olive size 18 zebra midge and a size 12 olive woolly bugger.

  4. Nothing is more entertaining than a group of crusty old fly fisherman conducting
    a ” meaningless midwinter debate”. Tapply was a piece of work.
    Thanks, Phil

  5. I have zero interest in competition fly fishing – other than what the competitors choose to use. It tends to be 80% (give or take) nymphs. Why? Everything I have read (and heard from Jesse on the Orvis podcast) quotes the anglers noting that he is likely going to catch the most fish with a nymph. From what I’ve read, they’ll occasionally use a streamer or dry.

    With that in mind, I am wondering when this was originally written. …I don’t go anywhere without a few Lance Egan nymphs. I like the Red Dart and Tungsten Surveyor in particular.

  6. Based on my experience this year fishing a small creek near Denver with my 8′ tenkara rod, my list has only 3 flies on it. A small dry like a #20 scotty’s midge, a #14 tan soft hackle with a gold-wired tan body, and a mop fly jig (tan or fluorescent green). I’ve never fished in a “one fly” tournament but if I did my one fly would definitely be the tan mop. I discovered it this past spring just after all the ice had melted. I fished small zebra midges with an indicator all morning and never even saw a fish. It was time to try something different. I tied on my tan mop and proceeded to get take after take in every likely spot on the creek and landed more 10″ browns than I had ever landed in the early season on “my” creek. I still carry three or four small fly boxes in my vest but I think I’ll swap them out for more snacks next spring!

  7. Tapply was one of my favorite New England authors. I loved his Dad’s work, too. Great stuff. Tapply always looked up to his parents and shared bits of his family life with us through his writings. His mother’s woodcock sauce recipe is still the one I use the most… Fly fisherman, duck hunter, upland gunner, Harvard graduate, star high school basketball player… A classic New England gentleman sportsman in every way.

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