Tiny Flies

By Jeff Morgan

Most anglers can't look at small flies without tinges of Fear and Doubt: Fear that they won't see them on the water or have trouble tying them on; Doubt that such a small fly would either interest or hold onto a large trout.

Put away Fear and Doubt! Of the trout over fifteen inches that I land each year, 75% of them succumb to a pattern that is size 18 or smaller.

Why Small Flies?

If you look at the insects that drift in a stream or if you examine the contents of a trout's stomach, you'll find plenty of small bugs. A size 12 Hares Ear looks pretty awkward when compared to much of what trout actually eat.

The food chain teems with small insects. This is particularly true in the fall, when all the large insects except October Caddis have emerged. You'd be hard pressed to find anything larger than size 18 drifting in the current.

The other reason small flies work is that most anglers don't use them. On high-pressure waters, a trout that follows and rejects a husky size 14 imitation will inhale a size 20 without hesitation. Trout on premier Western tailwaters and spring creeks such as the Green, San Juan, or Silver Creek have learned that it is much safer to focus on small prey items.

The other good thing about small flies is that they expand your menu of imitations. With a selection of size 18-22 flies you can mimic whitefish eggs, blue-winged olives , small saddle-case caddis , micro caddis , tricos , sulphers, midges , scuds , sowbugs , black flies , ants , and terrestrial beetles . Many of these foods will elicit selective feeding that requires precise imitation.

Another advantage is that you can use small flies with equal success throughout the season. The big flies--salmonfly imitations, green drake mayflies, grasshoppers --all have a short window of effectiveness, but small prey items are always present and available.

Tying Small Flies

Small flies can be intimidating to tie, but there are advantages to them. For example, they consume a fraction of the materials that larger patterns require. Further, their small size requires fewer wraps of thread, dubbing, or hackle, so they can be significantly quicker to tie than big patterns.

The key to tying small flies is to avoid overdressing. In the past, many small commercially-tied patterns looked like escapees from a fat farm. Bloated thoraxes, thick tails, and oversized materials made these imitations twice or thrice as thick as the naturals.

When tying small flies, it is important to remember that even tiny deviations seem proportionately outrageous.

Another reason to keep your flies skinny is to keep the hook gape--the distance between the hook point and the hook shank--open. Too narrow a gape will mean fewer hookups and more lost trout. You can also increase your "bite" by using straight-eyed hooks. A straight-eyed size 20 hook has a 25% greater gape than a down-eyed hook of the same size.

Five Tricks

Here are five little tricks to prevent overdressing.

1. Use thread for bodies instead of dubbing. Today there are nearly as many thread colors as dubbing colors. It should be thin thread as well. For my small flies I love 14/0 Sheer thread (from England) but anything that is 8/0 or smaller should work well.

2. Use artificial materials for wingcases and legs. Thin products such as Nymph Skin or Body Stretch can make great, shiny wingcases without the bulk of turkey quill or pheasant tail. For legs I love nothing more than a few strands of Antron. This material is shiny, sparse, and proportionally more suited than natural materials.

3. Minimize thread wraps. Make no more than three wraps to secure anything. Also use a whip-finish for the head; half-hitches make too much bulk on a small fly.

4. Use spiky dubbing instead of hackle. Spiky rabbit or squirrel dubbing can be a great alternative because it allows you to dub thin, but still provides an illusion of legs.

5. Use CDC for wings. The cost, labor, and bulk of standard hackle on tiny patterns is not worth it when you can tie in a tiny clump of CDC and just be done with it. Little flies hardly need anything to keep them afloat--hackle is overkill. Very good tiers can create tiny hackled patterns that are well proportioned, but most of us tend to bulk-up the head or tie-down points on hackled patterns. CDC is almost foolproof and will tie down with three wraps of thread. CDC also floats low in the water and can offer a more realistic profile than a standard hackled fly. Another advantage is that the downwing allows you to imitate several foods at once. A size 20 black CDC Everything can match a black caddis , a little small black stonefly , and a black midge .

The expanding tying material market means that brass beads are now available in 5/64 and 1/16 sizes, which are perfect for tiny nymphs. There is also an array of diminutive synthetics, from Mini-Flash (a finer form of Krystalflash) to micro-sized ribbing materials, which are suited for little flies.

Will the Hook Hold?

Anglers need no longer fear the weak holding power of small hooks. Old Mustad and Eagle Claw hooks had a reputation for bending in their small sizes. However, I have never had this happen when using any of the modern Japanese steel hooks: Tiemco, Dai-Riki, Daiichi, or Gamatsaku. If you fear a weak hook, simply use a "scud hook" (Dai Riki 135, Tiemco 2487) for all of your small nymph patterns; these are 1X heavy and have a slightly curved shank.

Tippet Choices

When fishing small flies, it is essential to use a fine tippet, usually 6X and perhaps 7X. This helps your flies drift as naturally as possible. A 5X tippet attached to a size 20 fly is like an anchor rope and will drag the fly lifelessly through the water. Finer tippets will give your small patterns greater freedom of movement and allow for better drifts.

Mix Them with the Meaty Flies

Most anglers have little confidence in a pair of size 20 nymphs in a 200-foot wide trout stream. To overcome this reluctance, use tiny nymphs behind something a little meatier, such as a Pupatator . My standard "starting" rig on new waters is a size 8 Pupatator, a size 16 rusty or olive beadhead Hares Ear , and a size 20 blue-winged olive nymph, Brassie , or scud . This allows me to cover an array of foods in a spectrum of colors and sizes. Once one fly outshines the others, I can then retool my approach with whatever the trout are keying on.

Three Tiny Patterns

CDC Everything
Tiny Tan Scud
Pale Baetis Nymph

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.