The worse this fly looked, the more fish I caught

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In case you didn’t know, a Hornberg is a commonplace artificial fly used by some trout addicts to seduce their prey. Once a “go-to” fly in any fly box, it is less used today by upscale fly fishers – especially the elite sophisticates of the fly fishing community. Some that I have shared a stream pool with do look down their noses at this utilitarian fly. It is so effective on trout, quite frankly, that the stuck-up fly fishers deem its use as akin to putting a piece of worm on a parachute Adams or a Royal Coachman. “Not really fair chase, my good man.”

There are no such compunctions or aversions guiding my personal fly-fishing ethics when it comes to tying on a Hornberg. In fact, in my book, “Á Maine Angler’s Logbook,” an entire chapter is devoted to “The Heavenly Hornberg.” In it, it is noted that Wisconsin game warden Frank Hornberg created this famous, once-vaunted fly in 1920. Frank was reportedly a colorful guy and proud of the fact that his utilitarian fly could be fished dry – as a caddis or stonefly imitation – or wet as a streamer bait imitation.

Stay with me.

In early June, my sons and I conducted our annual three-day pilgrimage to our favorite trout pond in northern Maine. Fishing was good. No feeding frenzies on big hatches, but steady and productive angling as schooling, empty-bellied brookies patrolled just under the surface foraging for any protein they could find in the surface film.

Through trial and error, we learned that hunting the fish was the best strategy. My stern man, son Scotty, whose visual acuity makes me look like Mr. Magoo, could actually see the trout tailing under the surface. The way they moved, like snorkeling little submarines, they left dimple patterns that signaled their direction of travel.

We would spot some activity and paddle to it.

“There, Dad,” Scotty would say from the stern. “Fish moving left to right. Cast ahead of it.”

Smack! Fish on. We did this time after time. A seasoned trout angler, my habit has always been to simply watch for the fish’s rise form on top and try to target a fly on top of the dimple. But these trout, apparently ravenous, were fast movers. A dimple cast, we learned, wound up where the fish had been, not where it was.

The three best flies were: a #16 olive-bodied elk hair caddis, a #16 black-bodied elk hair caddis and, yes, the Heavenly Hornberg.

But there’s more. As evening came on, a # 16 Hornberg began to prove itself on every cast. Smack, Smack, Smack. As you might guess, flies take a beating from the teeth of feisty 12- inch brookies. After releasing a dozen or so trout, I checked my fly. The palmered hackle had unwoven, part of the tinsel wrap was askew and the wing was simply gone. It was a train wreck, a willy nilly monstrosity that soon became unrecognizable as a Hornberg as more and more fish were hooked.

Clearly, the worse the fly looked the better it worked! No kidding. Some trout bum once told me that when the conditions are right, a brook trout will hit anything – even a lug wrench. This had to be one of those nights. It makes me wonder, sometimes, if trout flies are tied to attract the angler as much as the trout.

There are always lessons to be learned on trout waters. You would have had to see this mangled excuse for a fly to believe this story. Perhaps it would pay to empty my dry fly collection into Diane’s whirling blender, along with a cup of Gink, and then dry them in a closed mixing box fed with high pressure air.

Or better yet, maybe I sold the tying vice and feather collection too soon. Come to think of it, the flies I used to tie did have an uncanny resemblance to the aforementioned mangled Hornberg .

Hmmm. Back to the tying bench?


The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books.Online purchase information is available at

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