Emergers Decoded

Emergers Decoded

Fish "film stars" in this fashion and get ready to say, "There's another!"

  • By: Bob Wyatt
  • Photography by: Carl McNeil

Fish “film stars” in this fashion and get ready to say,
“There’s another!”>


by Bob Wyatt


Emergers Decoded


WHERE YOU ARRIVE AFTER A LIFETIME OF FLY-FISHING depends to a large extent on how you start out. By the time I was into my late teens and tying flies that looked like the ones in the books, I reckoned that a fly riding half-sunk in the surface was at least as effective as a well-cocked dry fly, even if I didn’t know why. Over time, that hunch strengthened into a conviction that a fly in the surface film is far more deadly than one perched on its tiptoes.

I gained that opinion by fishing Gerry Avoledo’s “bucktail” in 1958. It was a big, orange, wool-bodied fly with a deerhair wing and a brown, collared hackle, and it became our go-to pattern when Pteronarcys stoneflies were on the water. It had the attributes of a chunk of raw pork belly, sank just under the surface, and caught plenty of trout.

Gerry Avoledo’s bucktail evolved into what I call the no-hackle Deer Hair Sedge (DHS for short). It’s basically the same fly without the collar hackle, and I now use a dubbed body of hare or seal fur instead of wool. Fifty years on it’s still the most reliable surface fly I know.

In due course, with some theoretical support from inquisitive anglers such as W. H. Lawrie and Gary Lafontaine, I eventually backtracked my way into understanding just why trout prefer emergers, like the bucktail and the DHS, to duns.

Courtney Williams wondered about the same thing when he wrote about the great old Grey Duster in his 1932 book A Dictionary of Trout Flies. It puzzled Williams why this simple, tail-less hackle fly should work so well in a hatch of mayflies when so many superb imitative mayfly patterns often fail.

The answer to the mystery, of course, is that the body sinks. The combination of that fur body with no tail to support the hook means that the Grey Duster hangs arse down in the film—like an emerger. Its collar-style badger hackle acts as a kind of life ring for the fly, keeping it at, rather than on, the surface.

Sometime around 1985, Hans van Klinken incorporated what he termed the “iceberg” posture into his flies after surprising results with large, semi-sunk Red Tags and Kenneth Bostrom’s Racklehanen Caddis. The result of Hans’ research and design was his LT Caddis, soon refined and renamed the Klinkhamer Special—it caught a hell of a lot of trout, grayling, even salmon. Hans’ Klinkhamer Special was the theoretical armature, if you will, for the design of my own go-to iceberg fly, the DHE, or Deer Hair Emerger.

This fly and its little sister, the SHE (Snowshoe Hare Emerger), have stood the test of time and are both mongrel pups from the same kennel as the Klinkhamer Special, Caucci and Nastasi’s Comparadun and Fran Betters’ Haystack. Over the years the DHE has been tidied up a bit, but it remains pretty much the same fly—essentially a Hare’s Ear Nymph with a wing—and it continues to catch fish.

A little success is a big motivator, so on the strength of the DHE I really got stuck into this emerger thing. The Klinkhamer Special raised some issues though, and it was clear that there was more going on here than just imitating the posture of the natural emerger. Van Klinken’s remark about his fly working in extremely large sizes got me interested, and I began poking my nose into behavioral science: stimulus-and-response stuff by Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Here my whole fly design program really got traction, and the “trigger” concept took over completely from the idea of trout being cunning and fussy critters with eating disorders. Terms like “behavioral releaser,” “supernormal stimulus,” “optimal foraging strategy” and “fixed action pattern” entered my angling vocabulary.

Where we get with this behavioral business is the understanding that trout are, in fact, not cunning or fussy at all. But they are efficient. The simplest explanation for why emergers usually work better than dry patterns is simply that trout key onto prey that is most abundant, most visible and most vulnerable. Repeated encounters with a specific prey item allow a trout to form its “searching image.” Things that fit the trout’s searching image, more or less, almost always get a look.

The natural emerger struggling at the surface, with part of its body and shuck penetrating the surface film, is spotted sooner and at longer range than the dun or spinner. The trout notices a fly like the big semi-sunk Klinkhamer Special, locks onto it, and completes its behavioural response to a potential prey item by eating it. To a trout, charged up and in feeding mode, the fact that outsized fly doesn’t look exactly like the other bugs on the water is outweighed by its built-in behavioural releasers, especially the way its body hangs below the surface film.

Even when a hatch is absent and an angler is simply “searching” for a willing fish, it makes sense to use a semi-sunk fly rather than a high and dry pattern, such as the Royal Wulff, Humpy or Elk Hair Caddis. For me, the old dry hackle jobs have been moved well down the bench, even for fast, broken water.

I truly believe that many famous dry flies would be even better if they were tuned a little to present a simpler and stronger stimulus. For me that means getting that body or abdomen into the surface film and even below it. Tie a Parachute Adams on a curved hook and you get a radically different fly, in terms of the fly’s behavior, even if the materials remain the same. The same goes for any number of classic patterns.

Developing your own killer “film star” is a lot of fun. If you go beyond convention, shift the emphasis from color and superficial detail to silhouette, shape and posture in the surface film, you’ll be playing a whole new ball game.


Bob Wyatt writes, paints, but mostly fishes from his base in Middlemarch, a semi-ghost town situated on the Taieri River on New Zealand’s South Island. His new book is What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and other Fly-Fishing Myths.




Tying Flies in the Film

No-hackle Deer Hair Sedge (DHS)

A great all-around ‘bug’ that is a snap to tie and covers any mayfly or caddis hatch, and any number of terrestrial bugs. Tie it sparse or bushy for different situations and keep flotant away from the body.

Hook: Light wire, wide-gap dryfly hook.

Body: Dubbed hare’s mask or seal fur. Mix a little Glister with the fur for a bit of ‘bling.’ Dub the fur back from the eye toward the rear, then spiral the tying thread back to the eye as a rib for more durability.

Wing: Deer hair; clip the butts to form a Muddler-style head/thorax.

Snowshoe Hare Emerger (SHE)

Identical to the DHE except for the wing of fur from the foot of a snowshoe hare, this fly is designed so the body hangs well below the surface film. Apply flotant to only the wing.

Hook: Down eye, curved emerger style.

Abdomen: Dubbed hare’s fur, wound back around from about the one-third point of the shank to leave room for the thorax ahead of the wing.

Rib: Spiral the thread back toward the eye as a rib.

Wing: Snowshoe-hare foot fur, tied in tips forward. Clip the butts into a wedge shape so they form a backstop for the wing.

Thorax: Spiky hare’s-mask fur with plenty of glossy guard hairs. Dub the fur from the eye back against the wing base. This forces the wing into an upright posture. Then spiral the thread through the thorax for extra durability.