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One fly for the rest of your angling life

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By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

The April of my existence is cause for envy: I’m on the water more than I’m not, guiding anglers whom I’ve been fishing with for more than a decade. The waters on which I spend my time are as varied as the conditions we face each day.

From the oh-so-easy consistency of the Bighorn to the scratch-your-head mystery of the Yellowstone, to everyone’s favorite trout river, the Missouri below Holter Dam, I’ve been getting around. And, to keep my sources of fishing intel happy and forthright in offering assistance when I need it most, I’m withholding all other fishing locations, save a world famous spring creek.

Last week on DePuy’s spring creek with one of my favorite clients, John from St. Paul, Minn., I made another chrome-laden rainbow trout come to net. I said to John, “The Zebra Midge might be the only fly one ever needs.”

At the time it made a lot sense, however on the drive home we were contemplating our next day – a potential Yellowstone River float. We’d only need one fly pattern for the day, a Pat’s Rubberlegs. I found myself saying, “If I only could fish one fly, it’d be a Pat’s Rubberlegs.”

So, here are the top three flies I’d choose from if I had to narrow it down to one fly from now to eternity. To leave out a dry fly breaks my heart, but eternity is a mighty long time and I’d like to catch some fish there.

Pat’s Rubberlegs. A fly that can imitate many insects and is crucial to have in your box. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOLITUDE FLY COMPANY

Pat’s Rubberlegs
I wish I could take credit for the creation of this pattern, however the bulk of the refinement goes to Pat Dorsey of Colorado. Also called a “turd nymph,” “Jimmy legs,” “pickle,” and many others, the premise is a stonefly imitation, and stoneflies inhabit most trout waters. I’ve caught fish with a Pat’s Rubberlegs on nearly every body of water in southwest Montana.

Pros: very simple to tie; amazingly durable; tied on a stout hook so landing big fish is easy; can be used to imitate a stonefly, crayfish, and possibly a damselfly nymph; tied in a variety of colors.

Cons: perhaps less effective in low, clear water fishing situations; primarily a nymph, fishing it as an emerger is difficult, and as a dry fly it’s nearly impossible.

The Zebra Midge. So simple, yet so very effective. PHOTO COURTESY OF GALLATIN RIVER GUIDES

Zebra Midge
If I had been exposed to this fly earlier in my angling, I would have caught many more trout. At its heart it’s a fly tied to imitate a midge pupa or emerging midge. Midges are prominent in every trout river and hatch year round.

However, the Zebra Midge is not just for imitating midges. I’ll fish this as a mayfly on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, as caddis on the Madison, and as freshwater shrimp on the Bighorn. Fish it as a dropper under your favorite dry fly and few rising trout can resist.

Pros: stupid-easy to tie; effective in a variety of colors; can be tied with a varying degree of weight and fished as such; works for numerous insects; ideal for clear-water situations.

Cons: ineffective during periods of high water; small hooks can make landing big fish more difficult; requires lighter tippets

Woolly Bugger
As a kid fishing the Gallatin, the Woolly Bugger was my fly. I’d cast as far as I possibly could and strip it back. As I fished throughout my teens and into college, I learned of the Woolly Bugger’s versatility. Today, the Woolly Bugger is ideal for imitating baitfish, stoneflies, crayfish, damselflies, and leeches.

Pros: works in all flows and water clarities; easy to tie and can be tied with numerous customizations; big hooks mean big fish.

Cons: less ideal for spring creeks and technical fishing; difficult to entice selective trout.

And the winner is… the Zebra Midge. Yes, it’s small, but its effectiveness on most trout water in the world is undeniable. It’s a very misunderstood pattern, as most people pigeon-hole it for midges in winter, but it’s ideal for mayflies and caddis, too.

For periods of high water the Zebra Midge may be useless, but over the course of an angling year, high water on most of our rivers rarely lasts longer than a month. Lower water conditions exist more often, therefore the Zebra Midge’s versatility reigns supreme.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the forthcoming Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing* *but were afraid to ask. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.

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