AS A YOUNG BOY AND NOVICE TO THE ART OF FLY FISHING, I relied heavily on fooling trout into eating poorly presented Hare’s-Ear, Pheasant-Tail, and Prince Nymphs. At that stage of my life and fly fishing career, I knew nothing else. I mean, these classic patterns scored fish for decades, and I wasn’t about to tamper with the fly selections of my forefathers. That is until an old, rugged-looking man let me look inside his fly box while fishing a fine southern tailwater one summer day.
It’s possible he was watching my failed attempts and careless casts into fishy pocket water without results. Or the man was simply kind enough to let me in on one of his most prized fly fishing secrets—a roughed-up, wire-stricken fly he called the Copper John. His box was glowing with them; so many, the reflection of the wire had an illuminating effect on my face as I peered with amazement.
But the color of the flies wasn’t limited to copper. There were red, white, black, brown, green, and purple variations of the same pattern. He plucked some from his inventory, handed them to me with a smile on his face, and gently waded back to shore, and eventually out of sight.
After attaching one of the flies to the end of my line, I landed a beautiful trout in the same pocket water I had beaten to a froth on my first run through. Although I don’t remember the gentleman’s name, I’ll never forget how he managed to change the way I approached wire-bodied flies.
Color and Shine
Similar to the radiant colors blended into today’s modern dubbing, you can find fly tying wire in almost every color—from the darkest black to the brightest green and chartreuse. It may seem overwhelming to have so many options, but it helps prevent getting locked into specific shades and allows anglers to better mimic circumstance or fish preferences on particular waters. For example, in clear water conditions, I prefer natural wire colors like brown and olive. However, there’s going to be times when you’re fishing murky or muddy water and want a fly that I like to call outlandish and outstanding—patterns with bright colors like pink and chartreuse. These patterns might not make sense to the eye, but can be just “ridiculous enough” to gain a trout’s attention and trigger a strike. If you keep your boxes stocked, even with patterns fish normally turn a cheek to, you’ll be ready for anything.
“Red, copper, chartreuse, brown, and black are probably the most popular in sales. Purples and blues are great colors for nymphs and certainly have their place in the water column. Fluorescents are also popular, but not necessarily year-round,” says Umpqua Feather Merchant’s former fly manager, Brian Schmidt. “Typically more so during runoff and spawning seasons. They get seen in high dirty water and are often ‘mistaken’ as eggs during the spawn.”
Aside from color, wire bodies also provide something else most fly tying materials don’t: a shine. Dan Sheppard, previous owner of the Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop in Missoula, Montana, says, “As the flies tumble along, they give off reflections that imitate the shiny, wet, and rigid body of a nymph.” When light shines through the water column, it reflects off a wire fly and the shimmer is hard for trout to resist— especially if you’re nymphing fast water where fish don’t have a lot of time to examine your fly. A fly with a slight shine in those situations can be a game changer.
Combined, color and shine help form what I call the “reality” of a fly. Aaron Frey of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PAFBC) sums it all up nicely. He says, “Aquatic insects have an exoskeleton which is hard and shiny. Fish likely key on the flash as a quick way to determine insects from debris.”
Nymphs that tumble or swim through a river’s water column have a distinct appearance that separates them from drifting debris. Wire mimics a mayfly or stonefly’s ribbed abdomen well, and oftentimes helps convince a trout it’s the real deal. Combine this with color and shine, and you have a nice complement to an aquatic insect’s unique exoskeleton.
Over the years, I’ve asked numerous anglers what they believe is the most beneficial attribute of wire-bodied flies, and 9 times out of 10, I get the same, simple answer—their weight! Wire offers what no dubbing or light-body material can when it comes to density. To put it simply, the weight of wire quickly sinks to reach a trout’s strike zone, which is usually near the river’s bottom, and ultimately gives you a better chance at more hookups. Nymphs created with dubbed bodies, for example, need bead heads or lead wire to increase sink rates, whereas wire-body flies often don’t, though some tiers add bead heads and lead if they know they’re going to be fishing especially deep. It also helps avoid using split shot and lead putty, which have a tendency to cause knots and slow anglers down.
Peter Skidmore, a knowledgeable longtime guide for Headhunter Outfitters on Montana’s Missouri River, says, “When talking about wire-bodied flies, they seem to be so effective on the Missouri because of the sink rate. I feel so confident knowing the sink rate of the fly. I also like the fact that I can avoid using split shot with wire-body flies.”
When I asked Jim Mauries, the owner of Fly South Fly Shop in Nashville, Tennessee, why trout love to eat wire-body flies, he responded by saying, “I think it is because a fly like the Copper John gets down to where the fish are. They sink well, provide a good, segmented appearance, and are tough. Most modern anglers today have forgotten about split shot.”