In recent years, the shake-out-the-long-underwear-and-grab-the-sling-pack frenzy of the skwala stonefly hatch has been accompanied by another phenomenon unique to fly fishing: the experimental fly. A long winter of tying and flipping through dog-eared fly fishing magazines leads to a whole lot of what I’ll lovingly refer to as “speed thinking” at the vise for many fly tiers. It starts with a late-night call from a buddy who just got off the river, and then piles of the crazy, flashy, Hot-with -a capital-H materials begin appearing around the vise, thread spinning madly, layers of leg, wing, more wing, dub the thorax, whip finish and… Masterpiece! Or not quite.
More often than not, what falls from the vise has all the bells and whistles, but little of that fishy simplicity that makes a classic fly last for decades. Most likely, you’ll be trading these gotta-haves streamside for an old reliable sure thing like the Royal Wulff, the Red Quill, or the Sparkle Dun. Why? Because they flat work.
Classic flies have been through the process of hundreds of versions and in most cases, simplification that makes them easy to tie, and “all-killer, no-filler” punk fish catching abilities. You can hate on the Ramones all you want, but you can’t argue with the three chord beauty of “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I bet even Dick Cheney taps his foot along with that. (And that dude is super not cool.) Simple, killer classic patterns are perfect for March fishing, when low flows and clear pre-runoff water calls for flies with the right profile to tempt fish to take. Over the next few days we’ll look at some classic patterns that turn fish when that leggy Whatchama-Skwala heads back to the drying patch. The first of these essential patterns for March in western Montana is the Royal Wulff.
|Like an old farm truck, the Royal Wulff gets better the more it’s worked. Photo via flyshack.com
The Royal Wulff comes from regal bloodlines. It’s grandfather, the Coachman, hailed from England and reigned supreme among wet flies in the late 1800s. It’s father, the Royal Coachman was first written about by Mary Orvis Marbury in Favorite Flies and Their Histories, in 1892.
The Coachman featured a duck quill wing, and the hallmark brown hackle and peacock body. The Royal Coachman, has one highly distinguishing feature, as Orvis Marbury tells us. The beautiful red band of floss that really gives the Royal Coachman it’s title was added by John Haily, for a customer who wanted a more durable fly for the north woods. When Lee Wulff and Dan Bailey got hold of the Royal Coachman, the Royal Wulff was born. Lee’s signature bulked up hair wing flies were already the go-to flies in the Catskills and Adirondacks. When Wulff and Bailey put their heads together on a version of the classic Royal Coachman, the closest thing to a sonar fish finder in fly fishing was born. Dan Bailey’s new Livingston, Montana fly shop was the perfect place to market the winner.
The Royal Wulff ditches the duck wing for a calf’s tail pair of upright wings surrounded by hefty chunks of wound brown hackle, and adds a bucktail tail. But what it really has going for it is the way it stays afloat in any water, and an efficiency of materials that almost seems too simple. But each of those materials adds up to a fly that works in practically every situation. Sippers in the skinny gulping tiny mayflies? Size it down and drift it dead. Active fish feeding in the fast water? Grab a big and fluffy Royal Wulff and dress it up special with some floatant. Fish eating whatever the hell on the far bank? Bet they’ll take a skated Royal Wulff right over their heads.
As many anglers can attest, the Royal Wulff also has an added bonus of seeming to get better the more it gets mangled. Rather than tie a new fly on when the old is beaten by fish, I’ll fish them until there’s little resembling the original left- and it seems more fish want to give it a ride that way. In March, I always carry the Royal Wulff in a variety of sizes. While the most common sizes, 12-14, work great, I like to keep a few all the way down to size 18 in the box for those skinny water times, and I never hit the water in March without some in larger sizes. I’ve seen fish come four feet out of their feeding lanes to gulp a size 6 Royal Wulff twitched through the skinny inside bends when a similar leggy foam fly was simply ignored. If that ain’t enough to make you a believer, nothing is. The large sizes work, the small sizes work, and it’s up to you to identify the water you’re fishing and pick a size. Couldn’t make it more dummy proof, and that’s what makes the Royal Wulff such a nasty option this time of year.