Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”
by Rusty Dunn
Tie an Iron Blue Nymph on a #16 hook, and you’ve recreated the most famous fly of perhaps the most famous angler to ever cast a wet fly before trout. Walk into a fly shop and ask for an Iron Blue Nymph, and the clerk will probably look at you funny. “A what?” he might ask, to which you should reply, “Young fellow, perhaps you know it instead as a Dark Watchet, Dark Whirling Dun, Little Blue Dun, Iron Blue Drake, Little Purple, Little Dark Blue, or Iron Blue Quill. Got any?” You won’t get the flies you’re looking for, but at least you will have made the point that nymph fishing was refined long before the Pink Squirrel reigned supreme.
An Iron Blue Nymph and its dry fly counterpart, the Iron Blue Dun, are fly patterns nearly lost in antiquity. “Muddled by antiquity” might be a better description, because almost every author who wrote a fly fishing book prior to about 1900 included a favorite recipe, often several recipes. The names varied widely, as did the materials. You’ll find Iron Blue recipes with condor quill, Tomtit tail, horsehair, mouse fur, swift feathers, cormorant, and rat whiskers … not exactly everyday fly tying supplies. The first unambiguous pattern for an Iron Blue appeared in 1681 in James Chetham’s book The Angler’s Vade Mecum, but the most famous pattern of all is undoubtedly the 1921 fly of G.E.M. Skues published in The Way of a Trout With a Fly.
Skues (1858-1949) is rightfully credited as being the father of modern nymph fishing. Generic subsurface wet flies had been around for centuries, but Skues pioneered hatch-matching patterns and methods of presentation that mimic natural behaviors of nymphs during progression of an emergence. Skues was keenly observant of both mayfly and trout behavior, and his writings educated turn-of-the-century anglers on things we take for granted today. For example, trout feed on nymphs underwater long before they look to the surface. Bulging rises identify fish taking nymphs just under the surface. Fish take duns on top of the surface only late in a hatch. And, wet flies are deadly when fished upstream and manipulated to mimic a nymph’s natural behavior. Skues drew great satisfaction from the challenges of subsurface fishing:
“In the effort to divine the indications which call for striking with the wet fly, I confess I find a subtle fascination and charm and, when success attends me, a satisfaction beside which the successful hooking of a fish which rises to my floating fly seems second-rate in its sameness and comparative obviousness and monotony of achievement.”
Skues’ writings were very popular, and he introduced soft-hackled flies, which developed in the English North Country a century or more earlier, to a much wider audience. His Iron Blue Nymph is an excellent pattern for darkly colored blue-winged olives. BWOs are mayflies of leaden skies, blustery winds, drizzling rain, and cold fingers. Fish an Iron Blue as a swimming nymph early in a hatch, allowing it to swing deeply and then rise to the surface as would a hatching nymph. Fish it in or just under the surface when trout are bulging. Skues called the Iron Blue Nymph “good medicine for bulgers“, and indeed it is. When casting to sighted fish in clear water, watch closely for a sideways glance, a flick of the tail, and a quick little nip — Skues’ “cunning brown wink“: Then, lift your rod tip, draw in the steel, and quietly say thanks for Skues and his insights. Historic flies yield memorable fish, and Skues’ Iron Blue Nymph one of history’s finest.
Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn
Iron Blue Nymph
|Hook:||Wet fly / nymph hook, #16-22|
|Thread:||Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, crimson, cardinal, or claret.|
|Tail:||Three fibers of soft white hen hackle, tied short.|
|Body:||Dark mole fur spun thinly on tying silk, with 2-3 turns of silk exposed at the tail without dubbing.|
|Hackle:||Nearly black hackle from the throat of a jackdaw or starling, tied short and not exceeding 2 turns.|