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At the vice


Upwing Usual

I’ve been a trout fisherman as long as I can remember. I count among my earliest joyful memories the days my father took me to trout streams and showed me where the trout lived and how to catch them. He was an unrepentant bank-napping bait plonker, and a good one. He used spinning tackle, a light line, a small hook and a big dew worm, which he drifted weightless under logs and deep into the bomb shelters where the big trout lurked.

My father taught me to love and respect nature, to love the trout we caught and ate (back then nobody talked about “catch and release”). What a gift he gave me.

At some point along the way, I became a fly fisherman exclusively. It was more interesting to me technically and I enjoyed watching what was going on with the bugs on the water, figuring out what bug and at what stage in its life cycle the trout were eating. I learned to tie my own flies from fur and feathers to imitate the bugs I saw in nature. At one point I tied quite a lot of flies – and I fished quite a lot too, far more seriously than I do today.

Last season I broke my ankle in March and at no time during the trout season did I feel I had healed to the point that wading a trout stream was anything like a safe activity, so I was not on a stream at all. In anticipation of changing that this season, I’ve been sitting down at the vice and tying up some trout flies.

There are a lot of fly patterns. Each year there are new ones that the fly fishing magazines promise are the cat’s meow. Although I’ve tied many different patterns, over the years I’ve pared down considerably to maybe a dozen go-to patterns. I tie an emerger pattern called a Usual in both upwing and downwing styles and in colours and sizes to match various mayflies including Hendricksons, olives, sulphurs and grey foxes.


Downwing Usual

I guess I could have only one pattern in my fly box it would be the Usual. The ones in the pictures are tied to imitate Hendrickson emergers. Although you can match the hatch with Usuals quite well, they are also very impressionistic and, well, buggy, so they make great searching patterns as well. In fact I tie some “messier” to use as searching patterns. Around here, the Usual is a popular pattern and I suppose it is in the Eastern US too. It is just as effective on western rivers but last time I was in the mountain west I didn’t see any in local fly shops.

To tie Usuals, you need a snowshoe hare’s foot. This unusual material is used for both the tail and the wings of the fly.  They are very simple to make. Tie in a little tuft of snowshoe hare foot as a tail. Next tie in the wings, either up or down wing. I’m not convinced one is better than the other so I carry both and use them interchangeably.  Add some dubbing material to your thread and wind on a body. The Hendricksons I tied tonight have a tan body. You can use a synthetic dubbing if you like. I have a bit of red fox fur and I use the underfur from that for my Hendriksons.

Tonight I tied half a dozen Usuals, a couple parachute ant flies (they look like black ants but have hackle tied on a post in the parachute fashion), a couple deer hair beetles, a few soft-hackle emergers and half a dozen streamers.


White Marabou streamer

The white marabou streamer is an old pattern, but one that continues to be remarkably effective in various conditions. I have some white marabou plumes that my brother gave me decades ago. Who knows how long he had them. The pattern is simple. I use a bit of something red at the tail end, and in my imagination this makes the fly more effective (or at least makes me more confident in the fly, even though minnows don’t have red butts). The body is peacock herl, wrapped around the shank of the hook. I run a wire through it in the opposite direction to add strength.  Then I tie in the marabou and add two or three strands of herl on top.  Simple, easy to tie, visible in the water, and effective.

I fill my fly boxes with the basic patterns I like to use, and if I’m traveling, I like to support the local fly shop (especially if they tie flies in-house) and I typically buy a dozen or more flies to supplement what I’ve tied up myself.

UPDATE: a note on spelling. A friend has suggested I should have spelled vice as VISE. I thought VICE was correct Canadian spelling for both vice meaning clamp and vice meaning bad habit and that using VISE for the gripping device is strictly American spelling. Right or Wrong?


  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    The folks at wikipedia say this:
    ‘For the two-jawed workbench tool, Americans and Canadians retain the very old distinction between vise (the tool) and vice (the sin, and also the Latin prefix meaning a deputy), both of which are vice in the UK and Australia.[185] Regarding the “sin” and “deputy” senses of vice, all varieties of English use -c-. Thus American English, just as other varieties, has vice admiral, vice president, and vice principal—never vise for any of those.’

    I have not bought any marabou feathers (which indeed come from the marabou stork) since 1965 so you are using some seriously antique feathers. If I had to catch fish or go hungry and could have only one fly I think it would be the marabou streamer. At one point as a teenager I was tying these flies and selling them. I used to make them just slightly differently. For the body I used silver tinsel and I was convinced that the silver was better than anything else because it added just a hint of flash. I also added a jungle cock eye feather to each side of the fly to simulate the eye of a minnow and I believed it was the eye that made the fly extra effective. I was able to buy packets of just the small eyes sort of ready to use but I dont know if you can still buy them that way. This website has some photos of streamers that use the jungle cock eye and I would tie them in the same way as this guy did in his marabou smelt pattern:
    I also kept the marabou feathers on top of the hook in the way you have them in your photo rather than along the side as shown in the smelt pattern and I think it makes a difference.

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