The Magic of the Adams

The Magic of the Adams

A veteran angler rediscovers the very best of the good, old standbys

  • By: A. K. Best
  • Photography by: A. K. Best
The Magic of the Adams

Why an article about the Adams? Because I recently rediscovered the Adams as a lifesaver during what could otherwise have been a very frustrating day.

A few weeks ago, my friends Mike Clark and John Gierach invited me to fish some trout ponds not far from Boulder, Colorado that had been stocked with some rainbow/steelhead hybrids several years ago. We’ve fished these ponds several times over the past few years and knew the trout were large, very strong, extremely fast and would eagerly rise to midges. It was mid-April, so we assumed that midges would be the order of the day. I packed fly boxes loaded with midge adult, emerger and larva patterns in all the colors that had been successful in the past.

When we arrived the pond was glassy smooth, with no rises, so I tied on a size 16 Peacock & Black hackled wet fly, tossed it on the water and began to strip out line for my first cast. An enormous rainbow appeared from nowhere and inhaled the fly with such sudden viciousness that it snapped the 5X tippet as though it were 10X. I tied on an identical pattern, tossed it onto the water and the same thing happened again! I hadn’t made a cast, yet had lost two flies in as many minutes, and I was beginning to think it was either going to be a great day or I was going to be frustrated for most of it. I tied on my third and last Peacock & Black and carefully stripped off some line before casting. Of course, this time the fly was totally ignored.

Forty-five minutes later I was still casting without so much as a refusal look at my fly. It was then that I began to notice rises all over the pond. Notice? Hell, I could hear them. The trout sounded like bass slurping frogs! I looked for midges in the air and on the water but there were none. Instead, there were hundreds of small, gray mayflies riding the surface. Callibaetis? I wondered.

It was way too early in the season for Callibaetis. But when I carefully waded a little deeper and scooped an insect from the surface, it was a perfect size 17 Callibaetis! Great. I had left my box of Callibaetis duns, parachutes and spinners at home. All I had with me were some size 16 and 14 Adams. To condense the next six hours of fishing into a few sentences: I went home with only one of the six size 16 Adams I started with. I lost the first three on 5X tippet, the second two on 4X tippet, and was finally able to land my first fish (which I estimated to be somewhere in excess of six pounds) on a size 16 Adams and 3X tippet. I lost count of the number of fish I caught on that last Adams. The number of fish didn’t matter at this point, only their brute strength and what seemed like lightning speed. I likened the experience to hooking a BMW going 85 mph on my backcast.

I finally clipped off my last Adams long before the hatch was over and the trout had stopped rising. I didn’t want to lose it because I wanted to tie an exact copy when I got home. What was I thinking? An Adams is an Adams. Or is it?

I’ll bet everyone who has fly-fished for more than a week has a few Adams in their dryfly box. It’s a fly that has saved many a day for more than a few fly fishers. It has a special place in my fly box because I once lived in the state where the Adams was born. While I don’t often use them these days because I’ve become one of those types who likes to match what’s on the water as closely as possible, there are times when the Adams will work when nothing else will. In fact, sometimes the Adams works so well it almost seems like cheating.

Excerpt from Fly Tying Fly Rod & Reel Books, 2010. Available at your local bookstore or fly shop, of at

I once watched a guy catch trout after trout on some heavily fished catch-and-release water during a size 18 Blue-Wing Olive hatch by fishing a size 18 Adams dun. This was mind-boggling to me, since I was fishing the same hatch with a perfectly matched size 18 Olive Quill Dun and only doing half as well. Go figure. I kept telling myself that my neighbor was simply a better fly fisher than I—after all I did have the perfect fly, so what else could it be? Yet, his backcast was a little sloppy…

Some fly fishers and tiers believe there are magical qualities in the combination of materials used to tie the Adams. Others believe the magic is in the silhouette the fly presents on the water, and still others are convinced that presentation is the key factor. I’m of the opinion that it might be a combination of all three, with a little extra weight thrown toward the presentation theory. In a contest of skill versus equipment, skill is always supposed to win. But then again, there is that magical thing to consider.

Bobby Summers, formerly of the Paul Young Rod Co. and now building his own superb bamboo fly rods, took me to a pool on the Boardman River in Michigan years ago and told me, “The Adams was conceived here.” We stood on an old iron bridge that spanned the Boardman and, as we watched the downstream pool for risers he added, “I think it was first tied on this bridge and fished in this pool—at least that’s the local legend.” I could almost feel the excitement and anticipation that Charles Adams must have felt as he tied on a new fly pattern and tried to determine how to fish it on the slowly boiling surface of this wide, flat pool.

Leonard Halladay, of Mayfield, Michigan, tied the first Adams and gave it to his friend, Charles F. Adams of Lorain, Ohio. In 1922, Adams became the first to fish the new pattern; hence the fly’s name. Years ago I came across some very old, exquisitely tied dry flies at an estate sale near Michigan’s Au Sable River. Among the large collection of flies were some Adams that I believe were tied after the original recipe, which Bobby told me was invented to represent a gray caddis.

A.K.’s Adams:

Hook: Dryfly, size 10 to 22
Thread: Black 6/0 through size 18; 8/0 for size 20 and 22
Tail: Brown spade hackle fibers or brown dyed Coque de Leon
Body: Medium gray rabbit belly fur, very tightly dubbed and carrot-shaped
Wings: Pair of well marked grizzly hen hackle tips
Hackle: Brown and grizzly mixed

Given the number of possibilities for tying the Adams, coupled with the various hook sizes, we could easily fish an Adams and match damn near any mayfly hatch we’re likely to encounter. Isn’t that a wonderful tribute to Leonard Halladay?

And here’s the recipe for those “original” Adams I bought at that estate sale:

“Original” Adams

Hook: 2X long, such as Mustad 94831 or 9672
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail: Small clump of golden pheasant tippets, slightly shorter than shank length
Body: Dark gray muskrat dubbing, tight and slender with very little body taper
Wings: Grizzly hackle tips tied delta-win g style and flat
Hackle: Very dark brown and grizzly mixed

I acquired those flies nearly 40 years ago and promptly put them in a separate box and labeled it “Old Adams.” Alas, some damn little bugs got in there and chewed off most of the hackle. However, there is enough material remaining that I can give you the recipe and recreate the fly for photo purposes. It’s a very different fly from most of the Adams you’ll see today in that each of the flies the bugs chewed on had golden pheasant tippets for the tails, and all of them were also tied on long-shank hooks.

I have no idea if the recipe on this page is really the original pattern or merely an adaptation of the original. The old man who died 40 years ago and whose estate was being liquidated was 80 years old when he passed on, so he was born before Leonard Halladay tied the first one. I Figure if the old man had a cabin on Michigan’s Au Sable River, he must have been a devout trout fisherman and, if that is so, he was probably also aware of any new developments in fly-fishing just as we are today. I think it’s rather nice that there remains some mystery about all this. But then, a lot about what we do holds many mysteries!

Excerpt from Fly Tying Fly Rod & Reel Books, 2010. Available at your local bookstore or fly shop, of at

The same tail, body and hackle materials have been used on parachute versions of the Adams as well, with the exception that the wing post is usually white calftail, high-vis yarn or white turkey T-base segments. I’m not known as a mathematician, but if I remember correctly, to find the total number of possibilities for Adams dun variations using the list at right, you would multiply tails (9) x wings (7) x bodies (13) x hackles (5) for a total of 4,095 possible Adams variations, not counting hook sizes, parachutes or the female version! By the way, I was once given anatomically correct male and female Adams flies. I would never fish them because the identifying parts were made of monofilament and appropriately painted and I have this thing about using only natural materials on the flies I fish. I thought it very interesting that the identifying parts were more carefully constructed than the rest of the fly.

And of course we have all seen the Adams Irresistible. Incidentally, there are a number of tailing materials used for this fly as well. Some authors attribute the origin of the Irresistible to the creativity of Joe Messinger of Morgantown, West Virginia. Others say it was Harry Darbee of Livingston Manor, New York. I like to think it was Messinger, simply because I have become good friends with Joe, Jr., who ties them exactly as his father taught him.

There have been a few changes made in the way the Adams is tied since 1922, so I did a little research to try to find out how many different Adams pattern variations I could find in books, magazines, catalogs and Web archives. I even added some that I’ve seen in fly shops across the continent and in the fly boxes of fly fishers I’ve met along the stream. The list became so long I decided to construct a chart and list the various components. I’m pretty sure there are more than what follows, but I’d consider these (see right and above) the standard variations:

Golden/pheasant tippets
Brown/grizzly mixed hackle fibers
Grizzly hackle fibers
Brown hackle fibers
Ginger hackle fibers
Dun hackle fibers
Black moose hair
Elk body hair
Deer body hair

Grizzly hen tips
Light grizzly hen tips
Dark grizzly hen tips
Medium dun hen tips
Teal segments
White calf
Elk body

Light brown
Dark brown
Light grizzly
Dark grizzly

Dark dun muskrat
Light dun muskrat
Brown muskrat
Stripped peacock herl
Stripped & dyed hackle quill
Yellow dubbing
Brown dubbing
Black dubbing
Dark olive dubbing
Light olive dubbing
Tan dubbing
Spun deer hair
Royal (peacock & red floss)