The Attractor Dry Fly
By Brian Stewart

Fly fishing for trout is a sport filled with nuance, variation, and style. Each angler’s measure of success or enjoyment can be split an infinite number of ways and is highly dependent on individual personality. Some will identify with a specific technique: Are you a dry fly fisherman? A meat chucker? A bottom dredging nymph fisherman? Of course with every different technique, variation and specialization, there is a category of fly, and within that category there’s infinite variatio.

While I generally don’t consider myself a specialist of any kind, I definitely have my preferred ways of approaching this sport. I much prefer fishing a dry fly. But I like to split the hair even finer, I prefer to fish attractor dry flies, big ones. Ones that pull fish from across a stream or up from the bottom of a deep pool. These flies defy the traditional dry fly fisherman’s credo of “matching the hatch.” The more puritanical practitioners of our sport might even call the newer, foam-based attractors abominations.

My obsession with fishing attractor dry flies started pretty early on in my fly fishing adventures. This was due primarily to the influence of one book, and one VHS video tape.The book was “Prospecting For Trout” by Tom Rosenbauer. First Published in 1993, this book was still fresh when I found it in the Red Wing library just a few years later. Tom’s book is packed full of useful information for the beginning fly fisherman. One of the last chapters in the book focuses on “prospecting” or fishing the water rather than fishing to a rising or spotted fish with dry flies. Of course most of the flies in this chapter are attractor style flies, and I learned several new patterns from it. But the most important thing I learned was that fishing with a dry fly is an effective technique. Even to this day, many fishermen do not consider using just a dry fly to search for trout and when they do, it’s used more as a strike indicator than an actual fly that may catch a fish!

The video tape was an old copy of a 3M production from 1987,  “Strategies For Selective Trout with Doug Swisher” and featured numerous dry-fly techniques. One section of the tape, titled “Dry-fly Attractors” had a particular influence on me. In it, Swisher mentioned several attractor patterns, and featured a fly pattern known as the  Madam X. After making several casts with the fly, he hooked into and landed a very large rainbow trout. After watching this video, I started tying and fishing the Madam X pretty much to the exclusion of all other attractor dry flies.

I have a very vivid memory of one of the first times I fished with a Madam X. I casted the fly into a deep corner pool that I knew held some good trout. Shortly into the drift, a good sized brown slowly rose to inspect the fly. The big brown followed my fly, its nose just under my fly for what seemed like forever. Then, just as slowly as it had come up, it went back down. Up to that point I had never seen a trout swim so far and so slowly to inspect a fly. It was mesmerizing. Since then, I’ve experienced that slow rise (and often a take!) of the big dry fly many times, but that first time is burned into my memory more than any other.

I categorize attractor dries into two general types, old school and modern. The old school patterns were primarily developed back in the 1920s and 30s and many are still available at most fly shops. These include the Wulff series: Royal Wulff, Grizzly Wulff, and Trude Style flies like the Royal Trude, Lime Trude, or even the Pass Lake dry fly. There are many more, but they all share common traits having all natural materials (feathers, fur, hair) and a traditional dry fly formula consisting of a tail, body, and a wing (either upright or trude style), and a vertically wrapped dry fly hackle. Some “newer” designs that I would also consider old school are flies such as the Humpy Series, Randall Kaufmann’s Stimulator, and perhaps even the Madam X

Modern attractor flies are much different than their old school predecessors. The most popular of these do seem to share a common ancestor, the Chernobyl Ant. This fly was created in 1990 on some famous Western River. Regardless of where it came from, it has spawned some very popular variants like the Chubby Chernobyl, Mini Chernobyl and Micro Chernobyl. Another popular, and much more recently developed attractor dry is the Hippie Stomper. All of these modern attractors share several traits such as  rubber or silicone legs, bodies made primarily of closed-cell sheet foam and synthetic winging material.

I think many fly fishermen associate large attractor style dry flies with fishing “out west” on large rivers with less selective trout, and that these types of flies don’t work on our small streams that are full of  wary brown trout. Or, they see these big flies in the bins at the fly shop and assume they are for imitating grasshoppers. I’m of the belief that large attractor dries do work well on our local streams for most of the season, regardless of what may or may not be hatching.

Generally speaking, I consider May to be the month that these flies really start to produce. I believe there are three basic reasons for this. One is that the water temperatures are getting into the ideal range for the trout, so they are just more active than earlier in the year. Secondly trout at this time are more prone to looking up for some of their food. Various aquatic insects have been hatching pretty regularly since March, with April bringing significant hatches of Blue Winged Olives, some Hendricksons and even some Caddis flies.

A third reason for May being a good time to start trying attractor dry flies is an increase in terrestrial insect activity. As the ground warms, more and more of this incredibly diverse range of bugs find their way into the water. Many attractor style dry flies are designed to mimic this abundant food source. If you ever harvest a full-bellied trout in mid-summer and examine its stomach contents, you may find a wide array insects of different sizes and shapes. Commonly, many are terrestrial insects. 

Because I simply find joy in casting and drifting the large, rubber-legged dry fly, I tend to fish them anywhere and everywhere along the trout stream. That being said, I find them to be most effective in flat water pools and along the stream banks. Trout will often move several feet to take the big dry fly in these circumstances. If you’d like to see a trout make a V-wake to take a dry fly, tie on a big Chubby Chernobyl and go fish that shallow looking flat pool you always walk past to get to your favorite riffle.

Much like most “imitator” dry flies, attractor dries, large or small, are best fished on a dead drift. While there are occasions where twitching or dragging/skittering the fly will bring a strike, I have found that just the “splat” of the fly hitting the water is enough to attract the fish, and any “unnatural” movement of the fly after that has a negative effect.

Fishing a dry fly allows the angler to fully enjoy the fly cast itself. In my opinion, it’s the pinnacle of the sport of fly fishing. Line, leader, rod and fly working together in the most elegant way. It’s also simple. Many fishermen tend to use these attractor dry flies as a strike indicator in what has become known as the “hopper dropper” set up. Every time I give in to this particular temptation, it doesn’t take long for me clip that damn dropper off and go back to the simple attractor dry fly set up. You may not catch quite as many fish, but do you really need to?

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