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3 Tips for Creating Imitations of Impaired Insects

3 Tips for Creating Imitations of Impaired Insects

In this previous post, I talk about reasons to fish imitations of impaired insects, including both aquatic insects that are struggling or dead and terrestrial insects that have fallen into the water. In this post, I give three easy tips for creating imitations of impaired insects. Since all terrestrial insects are by their nature impaired, since no grasshopper or ant or whatever chooses to drop into the water for a dip, I’ll focus on aquatic insect imitations.

1. Tie Patterns to Float Low in the Water

Imitations of impaired aquatic insects don’t float high and perky. They float low in the surface film or even slightly underneath it. All flies tied to suggest these insects should do the same. There are a lot of ways of accomplishing this.

For mayflies, caddisflies, and midges, tying flies that either have hackle only above the hook (parachute and paraloop flies), have the hackle trimmed underneath, as in my Hazy Cripple series and most other cripple-style patterns, or lack hackle entirely, as in the Sparkle Dun or No Hackle flies, is the easiest way of accomplishing this.

Here’s an Improved Sparkle Dun, for example:

With stoneflies, use predominately natural materials such as hair and synthetic materials such as acrylic yarn rather than foam, or tie patterns whose back ends lack foam so they ride underwater while the front half is above. The Parks’ Salmonfly is a good example, as is the more-popular Sunken Stone.

Here’s a Sunken Stone:

Image of Sunken Stone Fly Pattern Serving as an Example in a Blog Article.
Image courtesy Fly Tying New and Old.

2. Include Nymphal or Pupal Shucks or Elements Suggestive of Egg-Laying

Impaired insects that are emerging often get trapped in their nymphal shucks, and through natural selection the trout have “learned” that these insects are easy prey and won’t fly away anytime soon. Likewise, insects that are egglaying have to dip their abdomens in the water and often get sucked under in doing so. The Sunken Stone pictured above features a brown egg sack suggestive of egglaying for just this reason, and is a good example of how to accomplish this for stoneflies.

Both egg sacks and nymphal/pupal shucks can be imitated by using a tuft of sparkly synthetic yarn in place of a tail. On mayflies, this shuck is usually brown, but olive or gray are good choices for some insects. The shuck should be paler than but otherwise match the general coloration of the nymph. On midges, gray is almost always a good color. On caddis, amber or ginger are good colors most of the time, one reason my Clacka Caddis has a ginger tail regardless of the overall color of the pattern. Tan and olive can also be good. Match the general color of the pupa.

Here’s my Clacka Caddis, in pink, an attractor color. Note the shuck, and also the fact that the hackle is trimmed underneath as I note above:

3. Tie Wings Either Spent or “Damaged.”

Dead insects or living ones with bent, broken, or otherwise damaged wings aren’t going to fly away. Match these features with “spent” wings tied to either side of the fly or a short “butt” wing. All species of common aquatic insects except stoneflies can be tied with butt-style wings. All insects can be tied with spent wings, though their orientation should be slightly different with mayflies vs caddis and stoneflies.

Here’s a good example of a wing butt for a mayfly or midge, as illustrated by the short bit of white yarn protruding from under the hackle on my Purple Hazy Cripple. Note also the trailing nymphal shuck. The hackle is trimmed short under the fly as well, though this is not obvious from the pic:

Purple Hazy Fly pattern to illustrate a point in a fly fishing article about tying mayfly wings to suggest crippled insects

The common feature of spent wings on all aquatic insect imitations is that they should be splayed out to the sides of the fly. With caddis, stoneflies, and midges, these should have a rearward orientation, with the wings protruding in a general “vee” shape. With caddis and midges, the wings should be at least roughly divided to either side of the fly at about a 45-degree angle. Here’s my version of a Caddis Cripple dry showing this feature, as well as clipped hackle to help the fly ride low:

With stoneflies, which normally carry their wings folded flat over their backs and only spread them to fly, there’s no need to “split” the wing, though you may if you like. Instead, simply splaying the wing completely over the top of the fly works fine. You can do this on an already-tied fly by mashing your thumb on top of the wing at its tie-in point to give it a crumpled appearance.

With mayflies, a truly spent fly, whether a drowned dun or an egg-layer that has dropped its eggs and died, lays with its wings at almost 90-degree angles to the sides. This is shown in all of the popular spinner patterns, as well as this image of the real thing:

spent mayfly showing wing orientation for a blog article on fly tying
Image courtesy Frosty Fly

That said, fishing imitations of spent mayflies underwater is very effective, and when spent mayflies are sucked under, their wings will splay backward somewhat. This can be matched by tying the wings back at 45 degrees as noted above for caddis and midges, or by using soft hackle that will naturally sweep back and pulsate in the current.


There are certainly other ways of matching impaired insects, but the above tips will put you on the right track, and are the three I use the most. Happy fishing and tying!

Four Reasons to Fish Imitations of Impaired Insects

Four Reasons to Fish Imitations of Impaired Insects

Four Reasons to Fish Imitations of Impaired Insects

While giving fly tying demonstrations over the weekend at the Wasatch Fly Tying and Fly Fishing Expo in Salt Lake City, I mentioned to several people observing me tie that I almost always fish imitations of insects that are in some way impaired. What do I mean? I am referring to flies imitating or at least suggesting aquatic insects that are emerging, crippled, spent, drowned, or waterlogged, or of any terrestrial insects that fall in the water (since land insects in the water are by their nature in trouble). Here are five reasons to fish flies meeting one of the above criteria.

Trout Prefer Them

This is the most obvious and important reason to use such flies. Various studies on trout feeding behavior find that they prefer to feed on insects during their life stages in which they’re in trouble, or on individual insects that are experiencing difficulty. For example, they’ll emerging or crippled insects in preference to adults, and they’ll eat dun mayflies that have been knocked over in preference to those riding “like little sailboats” upright, as they’re often described.

The reason trout prefer insects that are in trouble is simple. They’re less likely to get away. Each time a trout rises to eat an insect and it flies away, that’s a calorie the trout has wasted. Over evolutionary timescales, it has made more sense for fish to key on bugs that are less likely to get away and more likely to prove an easy meal. The smaller the insects, the more important this is. So trout really prefer spent, crippled, emerging, or otherwise distressed ants, PMD, BWO, midges, and tiny caddis over their healthy brethren.

Flies Will “Behave” Impaired Anyway

This is a more esoteric reason. Look at a healthy dun mayfly. It rides up on its tippy-toes, above rather than in the surface film. Many flies were nominally designed to match this behavior. The classic Catskill-style mayfly dry is a perfect example. Drop it dry on a glass of water and it’ll ride high, just like the real bug.

Yet in fishing situations, no fly pattern will ride as high as healthy naturals, at least not for long. All flies get waterlogged, ragged, chewed-on, and otherwise stop looking like they do in the fly shop display within minutes or seconds of being tied on the end of your line. In other words, they start looking and behaving more like distressed insects, no matter what you do. This partially explains the common phenomenon of a fly working better the more beat-up it gets.

If your fly is going to look and act distressed anyway, why not emphasize these attributes, rather than trying to minimize them?

They are Fast and Easy to Tie

Look at any fly intended to represent a mayfly emerger, cripple, or spinner. Look at spent caddis patterns. Look at most traditional “fur and feather” ant imitations. They’re all dirt simple. Even many foam grasshopper imitations likewise aren’t very complicated, even if they’re large. Most utilize less than a handful of materials, and often rely on synthetic materials with hints of flash or sparkle that are easy to work with and cheap to buy. Here are some examples, none of which take me more than three minutes to tie:

caddis cripple

This caddis cripple pattern uses three materials (in addition to thread and hook): dubbing, a synthetic yarn, and hackle. When tied to match the important Nectopsyche caddis on the Firehole, it’s my #2 dry on that river. When tied in tan, it imitates both emerging and egg-laying tan Hydropsyche caddis, the most important summer caddis in the entire region. In pink, it’s a great attractor for bright summer days on the Yellowstone.

purple hazy cripple

This attractor suggestive of a mayfly cripple uses five materials: a synthetic yarn for the tail, spandex for the body, a different synthetic yarn for the wing, and two colors of hackle (Adams-style). Since both bunches of synthetic yarn or tied in as clumps and then trimmed to shape, this is a much faster fly to tie than the original Purple Haze Parachute on which it’s based. It’s also three times as effective. It has been our top dry fly period since the fall of 2009.

flying ant

This is our top-producing terrestrial pattern most seasons. It uses three materials: acrylic yarn chopped into dubbing in a coffee grinder, synthetic yarn, and a brown hackle. We use these everywhere, from little mountain creeks to the roaring Yellowstone. I can whip one out in about two minutes.

I went a little long in this point, but it’ll tie in with my next post on the subject (expect it around April 20-22), which will be about designing and tying patterns that match impaired bugs.

Most Anglers Use Something Else

Think about the dry flies that fill fly shop bins, especially those considered classics and standbys. They’re generally bushier and more complicated. This applies to everything from mayfly imitations and attractors suggestive of mayflies (Adams, Royal Wulff) to caddis (Elk Hair Caddis) to stoneflies (big foam monstrosities and Stimulators) to terrestrials (big complicated foam hoppers and most ants). These flies generally aim to suggest healthy dun or adult aquatic insects and terrestrials that haven’t started to succumb to their unplanned swim. While it doesn’t matter on lightly-pressured waters, opting to suggest something else will earn you more confident strikes and more fish.

As noted briefly above, my next post will cover tips on how to create flies that match impaired insects.

Fly Tying Vid: Mayer’s Mini Leech and Discussion of New Fly Design

Fly Tying Vid: Mayer’s Mini Leech and Discussion of New Fly Design

Mayer’s Mini Leech and Discussion of New Fly Design

This one is a little different. I first tie a basic leech pattern, Mayer’s Mini Leech, then go through the steps I’ve taken to develop this basic idea into a different pattern imitating a small sculpin. This is the process I typically follow when designing new patterns, and I thought viewers might be interested in my mindset as I work out a new fly.

Here’s the basic pattern recipe:

Hook: 1x short, 1x strong scud, #12-16.

Bead (optional): Black or copper brass or tungsten to match hook size.

Thread: 6/0 or 8/0 to match overall fly color.

Underbody/Flash: One strand of Flashabou doubled back on itself at tie in, then wrapped forward. Good colors can match the wing or contrast it: olive, red, brown, etc.

Wing: Pine squirrel strip in leech, baitfish, or flesh colors. Good colors include: olive, black, rust, chocolate, wine, purple, tan, and gray.

Head: Single strand of ostrich herl to match wing.

I am still working out the sculpin derived from this fly (and don’t know if it will work), so no recipe for that one just yet.

Fishing Tips

In lakes, fish the fly either twitched or drifted under an indicator, or with a slow retrieve on a sink-tip line. In rivers, it can work dead-drifted under a large dry fly like a foam hopper, or as part of a nymph rig. Don’t hesitate to fish the pattern behind a larger streamer as your “second chance fly.”

Top Three Missouri River Flies for Late February and March

Top Three Missouri River Flies for Late February and March

Top Missouri River Nymphs for Late February and March

Late winter and early spring are “pink season” on the Missouri. Whether the fish are taking these assorted pink bugs as eggs or dead scuds and sowbugs probably depends on the specific fish. Nonetheless, they work. The key is generally getting them down. These flies should be ticking bottom just on the edge of the current seam in 5-8 feet of water in slow walking-speed runs.

Rainbow Czech Nymph

rainbow czech nymph
Rainbow Czech Nymph

This is a great multipurpose nymph that can look like a sowbug, scud, egg, or even a caddis larva. Also try it with the bead replaced with a fluorescent flame “fire bead.” Another good similar pattern is the AMEX, which basically just swaps the abdomen and thorax colors around and replaces the shellback with a tinsel wingcase over the thorax alone.

  • Hook: #12-18 scud. Note that you can also tie this fly as a “jig nymph” with the proper hooks and beads.
  • Bead: gold brass or tungsten
  • Thread: 6/0-8/0 black, pink, or tan.
  • Shellback: clear scud back.
  • Rib: black wire or midge/micro tubing.
  • Abdomen: Wapsi rainbow sow-scud dubbing (note that the Wapsi product is far better than others for this fly).
  • Hotspot/Thorax: Bighorn pink sow-scud dubbing, or other hot pink dubbing.
  • Head: one or two turns of rainbow sow-scud dubbing.

Pink Firebead Soft Hackle Sowbug

soft hackle sowbug
Pink Soft Hackle Sowbug

Various bright pink sow/scud patterns are always favorites on the Missouri at this time, and some get surprisingly complicated. Most years, I do better by following the KISS rule. You’ll use up a lot of firebead flies, mostly because the beads get banged up and lose their effectiveness, and it’s easy to fill your box with this pattern. Experiment with different shades of pink on the body (I typically carry four subtle shades) and tie some of each with light dun and some with cream or white hackle.

  • Hook: #16-18 short shank nymph.
  • Bead: fluorescent fire orange brass or tungsten “fire bead.”
  • Thread: fluorescent fire orange 8/0
  • Body: pink dubbing blend.
  • Hackle: one or two turns of light dun, cream, or white hen.

Pink Lightning Bug

pink lightning bug
Pink Lightning Bug

This one likely crosses over between eggs, scuds, and Blue-winged Olive mayfly nymphs. There are many competing variations of this fly. I’ve given the recipe for the one I use the most. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different tail materials, bead colors, metallic or translucent pink body materials, and dubbing blends for the thorax.

  • Hook: #16-18 scud.
  • Bead: nickel brass or tungsten.
  • Thread: hot pink 8/0.
  • Tail: A few strands of shell pink Antron yarn, or similar yarn.
  • Abdomen: pink Holographic Flashabou.
  • Rib: extra small red Ultra Wire.
  • Wing Case: tag ends of abdomen Flashabou.
  • Thorax: pale pink dubbing blend