Less is more when it comes to fly-tying

By V. Paul Reynolds

Like so many other dimensions of life, the fly-tying community has its disparate schools of thought. Which is better or more effective, a sparsely-tied artificial fly or a gaudy, heavily dressed creation? Since I no longer hover over the fly-tying vise, my credentials when it comes to debating the pros and cons of modern fly dressing may be open to question.

But I do fly fish. And I do studiously observe during my time on the water. By trial and error, you do learn what flies entice fish and what flies do not.

Increasingly it occurs to me that artificial flies are designed more to please the angler than to seduce the fish! My friend Bob Leeman, a die-hard trout and salmon angler and a consummate tyer in his own right, likes to joke somewhat chauvinistically that “a fly is like an attractive woman, it must have form, style and flash.” Most of Bob’s tying creations measure up to his definition of a “killer fly.”

Although there is some purported data or science that informs us about fish-striking behavior, the answer to the basic question “What makes a fish hit a given fly?” remains mostly shrouded in mystery.

My anecdotal observations from years of fly fishing remote trout ponds and moving water have taught me this:

1. When it comes to hand-tied bug imitations, sparser is better. Less is more. If your fish isn’t hitting your small, colorful streamer or work-of-art dry fly, give it a high and tight haircut before you swap flies. If it’s a streamer, strip it almost clean of hackle and feathers; if it’s a big, bushy dry-fly trim down the hackle with fingernail clippers.

2. If the trout are hitting your #14 Hornberg with gusto and in so doing tearing your fly to ribbons, do not switch flies! Often, what looks hopelessly gnarled and disheveled to you nonetheless still looks like a meal to the fish.

Jason Klass, a highly respected Colorado fishing guide, has some insights into the debate over sparse versus heavily dressed:

Sparse Flies

These flies are wispy and impressionistic, leaving the fish to use their imagination and fill in the gaps between materials. In my experience, sparse flies work well in the following conditions:

  • In clear, slow moving water such as meandering meadow streams or spring creeks
  • Where the fish face a lot of pressure and see a lot of bulky store-bought flies
  • When the fish are spooky and highly selective
  • Shallow water

Heavily-dressed Flies

 I’ve found more heavily-dressed flies to be better suited to the following conditions:

  • On big water as a searching pattern
  • In stained or muddy water where visibility is low
  • When fishing large, deep pools
  • In high water
  • When targeting larger fish (though sometimes the opposite is true)
  • In streams that harbor larger caddis or stoneflies

At Grand Lake Stream in late May, my son witnessed the ‘sparser is better” lesson on a number of frisky salmon that turned up their snouts at all conventional offerings, until his presentation featured a Joe’s Smelt with nothing left on it but two strands of white bucktail and a twisted silver ribbing. This they liked.

Go figure!

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 or Contact email —

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