If you could fish with only one fly for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That's a question that had probably been asked since the beginning of fly fishing, which originated somewhere in Macedonia at the end of the second century.
There is, however, another way to ask the question.
"What is the world's greatest fly?
Ask 20 different fly anglers and you might get 20 different answers.
My vote for the greatest all-around fly would be the wooly bugger.
There is not a species of gamefish I can think of that cannot be caught on a wooly bugger.
They are absolutely dynamite on all of the trout species. Even in demanding tailwater situations where trout are keying on tiny, tiny crustaceans or aquatic worms, the wooly bugger will usually take some fish.
A size 10 or 12 bugger in olive or black is often a recommended option for these waters.
One the reasons this fly is so effective is that it can be tied in so many different sizes. I've tied them as small as size 14. Another reason is that this fly can represent so many different forms of fish food from leeches to baitfish to large nymphs, crayfish and more.
It is a very simple fly to tie and even a beginner can soon be turning out respectable buggers.
Here's the basic recipe. The tail is marabout, the body is chenille with a hackle feather palmered throughout.
It's generally tied on a long-shanked hook which can be weighted with wraps of lead. Lately, bead heads and cone heads have grown in popularity and give the fly that up and down motion on the retrieve which may even improve its success rate.
It's not really known for sure who tied the first wooly bugger. It's thought to have been originated in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. But the fly is definitely based on another highly productive fly called the wooly worm. Wooly worms can be traced as far back as Izaak Walton, and the wooly bugger incorporates a marabou tail which gives an already effective fly a lot more fish catching appeal. No one can question the fish attracting ability of marabou.
Although the wooly worm has been around a long time, it really didn't gain significant popularity until the past 10 years or so. Today, I'm guessing, it is probably the best-selling fly on the market.
What about some other flies? Well, there are always regional favorites which will outfish anything else on home waters, but nothing I am aware of has the universal fish catching appeal of the wooly bugger.
Let's go back 20 years ago or so. The fly which would take the top honors then was probably the muddler minnow. Originally tied by Don Gapen to catch huge brook trout in Ontario waters, the muddler minnow was thought to imitate a kind of sculpin which is found in most cold-water rivers where trout live. But it can also represent a lot of other fish food and it appeals to just about all game fish species.
Again, it is a fly that can be tied in many different sizes. I've tied them as small as size 14 where they probably best imitate a caddis fly or small grasshopper. Other sizes may imitate larger grasshoppers or minnows. It can be fished on the surface like a dry fly or submerged like a steamer or nymph.
I think it interesting that both the wooly bugger and the muddler minnow are streamers. However, when tied in the smaller sizes they began to cross over to other types of flies.
The muddler minnow can also be tied in many different ways, just as the wooly bugger can. It can be tied with a marabou wing. It has spawned many other patterns which are based on the original.
Bottom line is, both flies should occupy a prominent place in your fly box, no matter which species of freshwater fish you attempt to catch.
So, that's my two cents on the two greatest flies of all time.
However, when it comes to favorite flies for individual species of fish, I have other picks. Again, you may or may not agree.
But there goes.
I love to catch largemouth bass on the surface. So my top pick for the world's greatest bass fly will be the Dahlberg diver. It's a deer-hair bug that will dive a foot or so under the water with each strip of the line. A lively tail of feathers and flash tinsel of some type give it an action shallow bass just cannot resist. It's easy to cast and accurate so you can put it in those pockets along the shoreline that largemouth like to haunt.
Bluegills are also a fly rod favorite and plentiful throughout Siouxland. My best bluegill fly is a black ant. I tie it on a size 10 wet fly hook. A butt of red silk, a body consisting of two humps of black thread, one just ahead of the butt and the other behind the eye of the hook. I coat both humps with five-minute epoxy before tying in a black hackle feather in the middle and tying it off after two wraps.
A lot of flies work great for bluegills, but this one sinks fast so it gets on their level quickly and a 'gill just can't resist anything falling through the water column that looks like food.
When it comes to northern pike, you want a big fly which can be easily cast and has plenty of action. My pick is a Lefty's deceiver. It's a big streamer tied with a wing of saddle hackles, bucktail and flash tinsels. You epoxy the head and add an eye. I've taken several northerns well over 20 pounds on this fly. I tie it about six or seven inches long on a size 1 hook in a variety of colors. Some of them include chartreuse and white, red and white and red and yellow. Again, northerns can be caught on a lot of big flies but most of them cast like a wet mop and the deciever doesn't.
There's one type of fly tying feather that crappies just can't resist and that is marabou. No fly takes crappies like a white marabou streamer tied with a flat, ribbed silver tinsel body and a beard hackle of red hen feather fibers. I often tie in three or four peacock herls above the marabou, just for looks.
So those are my picks for "best flies." Yours will be different, I know. Next week we'll look at the world's best spinning and casting lures for a variety of gamefish.