Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

Burnt Wing Adams

Burnt Wing Adams

When I was a little kid “Bugs” were any small thing that crawled around on the ground, dug under the ground or buzzed through the air. My friends and I used to collect bugs in mason jars putting a little bit of grass or dirt in the jar then punching holes in the metal top with a nail so the bugs could breathe. It was most fun to see who could get the largest number of Bumble Bees in one jar without getting stung. There were a couple of acres of Dandelions out behind the house often full of large heavily laden bumble bees or honey bees from nearby hives. Once collected you could get a satisfying buzz from the incarcerated bees by shaking the jar getting them all upset. If you shook the jar hard enough you could actually stun the bees and they would all take a little nap at the bottom of the jar until they recovered whereupon we would do it again. When these bees got home from their nectar gathering job at the end of the day I expect their spouses unfairly accused them of drinking too much.
As a University Student “Bugs” was the nick name we tagged our Biology classes with as in “Bugs 101, Introduction to Biology” or “ya, I have old so and so for Bugs 220 in the science building in 30 minutes, meet you after class”. There must have been some influence from all of this because I am now married to a “Bugs” professor who teaches at LeTourneau University but she doesn’t refer to her classes as Bugs classes. There are much more esoteric high sounding names for the things that she teaches and the names all pass over my left shoulder when she talks about them.
In recent years “bugs” for me have come to mean those things that Trout like to eat and I like to imitate; but there was a time when I fly fished without much if any knowledge of bugs. A typical trip to the fly fishing corner at Frenchy’s Wholesale Sport in Calgary involved hovering over the huge choice of flies trying to guess at what a trout might like to eat. It is very true that Flies are tied primarily to catch fishermen not trout. I was particularly attracted to the Adams, Catskill style, dry fly for several reasons. It was, to my way of thinking, pretty. I had seen my Dad use flies like it and, due to past experience, I knew that it worked. I would usually leave Frenchy’s with a dozen or so new Adams flies in size 12, 14 and 16, a new fishing license, some 5X tippet, two or three new leaders and some floatant. With these things I was ready for a season on the Oldman River in Southern Alberta.
The new flies would be placed alongside what remained of previous year’s flies in my Dad’s old metal fly box and then placed in my fishing vest. Mention needs to be made of the old flies. The fly box itself was a bit of a museum. It contained flies that were so badly trout chewed that the hackle was unraveled but still attached hanging to one side. Some of the hooks were rusted and left rust colored stains on the side of the box. There were flies with pieces of tippet still attached and there were even some that had desiccated chunks of maggot still attached attesting to one of the habits my father had of putting bait (as insurance) on a fly in the form of either maggots or Salmon eggs. So flies in this box ran from brand new to 40 or more years old. The advantage of this was to make me look salty. I could stand in mid stream bring out the fly box, open it and contemplate the wide variety of flies as if I knew what I was doing. The problem with this of course is if anyone asked “Hey what you using?” the only fly in the box I knew the name for was the Adams and I would answer in a wise sort of way “I’ve been doing fine on a #14 Adams”. If that same person came by a week later finding me standing in the stream in the middle of a heavy Stone Fly hatch asking the same question the answer would be the same with perhaps a change in size. The irony of all of this however is that I usually did fine using an Adams. The Cutthroat trout that I usually fished over were only too happy to bite on the flies that I offered no matter how clumsily presented.
A bit of a revolution occurred in my knowledge of flies when my brother In-law Stan quit working for World Craftsmen, a fly tying outfit based in Kenya East Africa. At the time he had a large inventory of flies that ranged in sizes and type from #18 Baetis dry flies to Streamers tied on some large long shanked hooks and he gave them all to me. I was set for years without spending another dime on flies. This windfall came in a large number of small boxes. Each box contained about 2 dozen flies and was marked with a name and a size. So I learned a little more about size, hook types and of course names. I even found a new favourite fly. It looked just like an Adams except that it had a fat tapered body made of spun deer hair and was called an “Irresistible”. I found that the trout in Dutch Creek where I usually fished really liked this fly. I reasoned that the Trout were getting a little of their own back by eating something that looked like a mosquito that had just finished gorging on a fat fisherman standing in a stream. Now when asked “hey mister watcha usin’ “ I could answer with “Oh, just an Adams Irresistible in size 12”. Really Salty!
My lack of bug knowledge became very apparent one summer when I met a young man who fished at night, caught really big trout and did it almost entirely on sub surface flies called Nymphs. Huh, Nymphs? I listened with rapt attention as he told story after story about getting monster trout out of the Bow River down stream of Calgary while fishing at night. In fact, it was taking up so much of his time that he said he had to quit because he was getting too tired and unable to do his day job.
Up to this point I had not mentally put the flies that I was using together with Stream Entomology. The thought process I used was more like that of a spin casting fisherman hoping to attract a strike to something totally unrelated to Trout food found in nature. I had not read any bug books, paid much attention to the fly fishermen that I knew or tried to understand what was really going on. Finding out about Nymphs changed that. I made a financially fatal error, I bought a book. Like my wife I am myself a University professor and it might be argued that books are the primary tool we use to teach and learn. University students in England would describe what they do as “Reading at Oxford”. It took me an awfully long time to begin to use books as tools to learn about fly fishing but once started I was like a freight train going down hill. I discovered the delightful and vast amount of material that has been written over the years about Fly Fishing and about Trout.
Now what to do with all that knowledge? There are some serious problems even a little bit of learning can create. I can imagine Adam with Eve in the garden more or less content with life and then making the mistake of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Not only did it make his boss, God, really ticked off Adam now had to contend with the knowledge that he didn’t have enough stuff to properly pursue all his interests. Leaning about bugs made me unsatisfied with my collection of stuff, in this case flies. I didn’t have enough of them. I didn’t have them in the right sizes, colours or types. As an example there are over 600 species of Mayfly in North America and I thought I needed an imitation for each of the phases of life for each species. With only one fly for each of the life stages: Nymphal, Emerger, Dun, Spinner and Spent Spinner for each species that’s over 2400 flies. Not only did I not have enough flies I didn’t have the fly boxes to carry them all, I didn’t have a light enough rod to deliver the smaller flies delicately enough nor the fly line to put on the lighter rod. I think you can see where this is going and we are only talking about Mayflies. There are Caddis Flies, Stone Flies, Midges and Terrestrials to worry about, and gear nuts like me could argue that there is an ideal rod, reel, line, leader, tippet system for each one of them.
What about matching the hatch, how do you do that? Well become an Entomologist of course. I don’t mean a formal degreed Entomologist (although that might help) I mean a well informed and educated fly fisherman. This of course means, you guessed it, more books, DVD’s and even classes to be taken about stream entomology for fishermen.
With all this education a metamorphosis begins to take place. You realize, slowly at first, that 10 maybe 12 different flies in a few different sizes and colors will match the vast majority of bugs you will meet on the stream. I am back down to carrying two medium sized fly boxes, one devoted to surface flies and another devoted to sub surface flies. You make use of experience and hatch charts to make fly choices before arriving on the stream; refining your decisions when you actually sit and observe what’s happening before rigging your fly rod. I even found out that pretty much all the fly fishing I do can be accomplish very well with a five weight rod and learning how to cast better.
Sadly however that is not the end of the story. At this point, if you are like me, you become a connoisseur, fly shops rarely carry exactly what you want. If they do the colors or sizes were not quite right. Only one solution, my wife bought me a fly tying course for my birthday. This called for more books and now tools and fly tying materials with which to practice my new found skills. An entire corner of the office in our home is devoted to tying flies. I am getting really good at tying Adams flies in a variety of sizes.
Something else has happened too, I am back to the habits of my childhood collecting bugs, often only briefly on stream as they fly by but also near my home. There is a large, dead, grasshopper sitting on my fly tying bench on a shelf just behind the vise to remind me that no matter how well I learn these skills I’m still not as good at tying bugs as God.

Note from J Stockard: You can purchase Phil’s Burnt Wing Adams photo here.

2 thoughts on “Bugs

  1. Mary Kuss

    In the mid-1970’s one of my fly fishing mentors kept a trailer at Twin Islands Campsite along the famous Beaverkill River, in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. Charlie carried a huge number of flies at the time, as most of us do. He decided to do a little experiment. On the first season of this trial, he fished with the usual wide variety of flies from his well-stocked fly boxes and kept track of how many hours he fished and how many trout he caught. On the second season, he fished with nothing but a #16 Adams dry fly. When he compiled the results, the per-hour catch rate was almost identical. Even so, he felt it would be too boring to continue to fish with only one fly pattern. So he went back to business as usual.

    1. Philip Rispin

      Hi Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to read this. I have often wondered about doing just that little test. Right now I probably fish with a size 14 Pheasant Tail Nymph and catch a large number of trout on it. I still carry a bunch of different flies with me but I think that’s because I enjoy tying them, talking about them and trading them with other fishermen.

      God Bless

      Phil Rispin


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