The Great Impostor

The Great Impostor

Tying the world's greatest brook trout fly -- the classic Hornberg -- and a few of its variations

  • By: Mike Martinek Jr
  • Photography by: Richard Procopio
In the gathering dusk of a perfect early July evening the boy made a rollcast into the pocket water across the stream. This was to be the last cast of the day. His father stood nearby and watched as the fly completed its swing. A solid strike and the bend of the rod signaled a fish on. A few moments later, a fat, 15-inch trout was landed, much to the joy and amazement of 11-year-old Paul Andrick, son of my best friend. His first fly-caught trout. The scene could have been of Paul's father, Steve, or myself, 40 years earlier.The fly pattern was a favorite of our New Hampshire summers past-the Hornberg. The Hornberg, a "go-to" fly for many fishermen, and an absolute essential for the brook trout angler, is a multifunctional offering. Truly a "general imposter" that mimics trout food of several types (while not specific to any), it can be presented dry to represent the caddisfly or the odd terrestrial, or fished subsurface as a small fry or struggling insect. It has worked its magic for me in New England and also in the Rockies, where a skeptical guide once watched, slack-jawed, as I used it to strip several trout from a tough section of a Wyoming stream. The pattern was the concoction of Mr. Frank Hornberg, a Wisconsin conservation warden. The Weber Tackle Company of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, helped tweak the fly design and began offering it as a commercial pattern. The earliest version was dressed in the late 1920's and the Weber entry was catalogued in the early 1940's. The Hornberg's popularity can be attributed to a combination of Weber's expansive distribution and the fly's uncanny effectiveness. In New England, the fly has a huge following and time-honored track record. It is fished in the North Country as a landlocked salmon and brook trout fly, but rainbow trout also fall to it with great frequency. In the smaller sizes, it may be cast upstream, allowed to drift dry and then twitched on the retrieve. In larger sizes I prefer it for subsurface fishing, letting it swim cross-stream, under banks, along seams and through pockets. Stripping a bunch of line out and letting it hang directly downstream, or using a lively rod-tip retrieve in riffles and pocket water can also be extremely deadly. One day on the Moose River in northern Maine, I received a particularly powerful lesson on the Hornberg's effectiveness. I had thoroughly fished (or so I thought) every prime zone of a run and pool without success. Meanwhile, blackflies had begun attacking me without mercy, so I decided to move to shore for a cigar, and to regroup and plan my next move. As I made my way across stream, my fly line trailed behind me some 30 feet. Then, out of nowhere came a jolting strike, and I ended up playing and landing a heavy 17-inch brook trout. Just one more reason to trust in the Hornberg. The original dressing for the Hornberg called for the mallard-flank wing to be stroked to a point. The yellow hackle points (the under-wing) are sometimes replaced by a small bundle of calftail or marabou. The original hackle was wound on dryfly style in four or five turns. But, for a strictly subsurface dressing, a soft grizzly hen hackle can be wound on and pulled back with a few wraps of thread. Hook: Streamer or long shank nymph. No hard rule, but sizes 4-12 are favorites. Head: Black Body: Flat Silver Tinsel (can be coated with lacquer and allowed to dry before proceeding) Under-Wing: Yellow Hackle Points, tied in on top of shank and extending slightly longer than hook. (Yellow hair or marabou can be substituted.) Wing: Two Mallard breast feathers, lightly marked and tied in one on each side of shank. Once set, a small amount of cement can be worked into the tips of the wings, stroking them to a point. (A variation using a wing of mallard flank tied in flat on top of the hook shank with yellow hair or marabou underneath is also effective). Allow room for hackle collar in front of wing. Cheek: Jungle cock (somewhat long and narrow looks best). A very thin coating of cement may be applied to the back of the nail to adhere it to the wing. [See Ask FR&R in this issue for information on how to obtain jungle cock.] Hackle: The original uses grizzly hen neck hackle, wound dryfly style. For surface use, cock grizzly hackle, four to five turns in front of the wing, leaving room for a head. Hackle should be fairly wide ahead of the wing. For a subsurface version, soft grizzly hen hackle can be used. Variations are endless and imaginative, however these are worth mentioning: Teal Wing-Strongly barred teal flank tied over yellow marabou Wood Duck Flank Wing-With yellow or orange hackle points or yellow marabou as inner-wing, with front wound hackle of ginger. Conehead/Beadhead-Styled and fished as a swimming or submerged insect or fry Spun-Deerhair Head-tied Muddler style. Good as a hopper imitation Tying the Hornberg 1. Use a light-wire, long shank nymph hook or a wetfly hook, size 4-14. 2. Using black 6/0 thread, attach medium flat silver tinsel to the hook and cover three-fourths of the shank with abutting wraps. 3. Tie in two slender yellow hackle points, upright on the top of the shank, about a quarter of the way behind the hook eye. 4. Place a mallard flank or breast feather on either side of the hackle points along the shank. Gently shape the ends to a point with head cement or dubbing wax. 5. Add narrow jungle cock nails on each wing. 6. Hackle with good, stiff grizzly hackle, covering the forward quarter of the shank with approximately six wraps (standard dressing). For strictly wet fishing, use a softer grizzly hackle and tie back slightly at head. 7. Alternate winging approaches can be used by tying flank feather flat on top of calftail or yellow marabou.