A San Juan Worm on the San Juan River.
An Ausable Wulff on the Ausable (not the Au Sable… but that might work, too).
An RS-2 on the South Platte.
A Letort Hopper on the Letort… during hopper season.
It all seems too neat and tidy, too conventional and stereotypical. At this point, haven’t these fish seen enough of these patters such that they can identify hook manufacturers? Sure, these patterns were created on these rivers. They bear their namesake. But like Robert Plant’s disdain for audiences screaming for Stairway to Heaven, aren’t the fish tired of anglers clamoring for them to bite on that fly?
Since these fish are so smart, fly fishers do their best to be a little smarter. I know I’m guilty of this. If there is a big emergence going on, I switch it up with the intention of surprising them with a little shock value. Or, I very well may die on the hill that is fishing the dry fly. That noble effort is worth something, isn’t it? I might fail miserably, but at least I’m not failing because I’m being boring.
This summer I was fishing the Driftless region in Wisconsin. Prior to my trip, I’d done a pretty good deal of requisite research. These fish were apparently pretty picky, spooky, and typical of spring creek trout. They would require long, delicate tippets and well thought out presentations. Part of that was figuring out generally what the fish would be eating, and what might be a good representation of said foodstuffs. One bizarre thing kept popping up: the pink squirrel.
You might be familiar with the pink squirrel if you were into cocktails at a time when calories were more important than alcohol, when you’d develop diabetes long before you’d get drunk. Like the Grasshopper, it is an ice cream-based “drink.” The inclusion of health-food stalwart maraschino cherries gives this squirrelly little drink it’s pink hue.
The fly that carries the same moniker is a nymph with a pink collar and a, you guessed it, squirrel-hair body. A gold bead and some sparkle fibers coming off the tail round out the subtle pattern.
Apparently, these hyper-aware trout love the thing. Everything I read praised the universal appeal of the pink squirrel:
Dark out? Pink Squirrel.
Sunny? Pink Squirrel.
Morning? Pink Squirrel.
Noon? Pink Squirrel.
Deep water? Pink Squirrel.
Hatch going on? Pink Squirrel.
Ice on the banks? Pink Squirrel.
Need a dropper? Pink Squirrel.
Need a name for your child? Pink Squirrel.
Consequently, I immediately spurned the notion of fishing such a ubiquitous pattern. Like the eponymous, frothy booze concoction, it had its heyday. But this was 2017. The trout had evolved. I, as an angler, had reached a new plateau of enlightenment.
So, I fished dries. I caught some fish. It wasn’t a lot of fish, but these were supposedly wary, intellectual trout. I was sort of satisfied.
Then I went into town for some food and to check out the local fly shop. The Driftless Angler is a great little store. A sign said that they were in the process of renovating, but you wouldn’t have known it. Flies, rods, reels, tying supplies, soft goods – you name it, they have it. Including the pink squirrel and various pink squirrel-themed merchandise. I grabbed a handful of squirrels in various sizes… just for kicks.
Later that day I was out on the water. Again, I was catching fish. Not as many as I should, I thought. This stream was super fishy. So on went the pink squirrel in size 14.
First cast, a trout. I kid you not.
What happened next was so drastic that I think that the good Lord was trying to teach me something about humility. For the following two hours, I could not not catch a fish. The pink squirrel was on fire. Browns and brookies, large (for the Driftless) and small. Runs, riffles, and pools. The pink stinkin’ squirrel, man!
Here is the takeaway: maybe it was a providential lesson for me about thinking I was smarter than a tried-and-true method. Maybe it was ironic circumstance. Maybe I downed five or six pink squirrel cocktails and dreamed the whole incident while in a sugary coma.
But perhaps there is some mileage left in some of the traditional patterns. Perhaps that fly that everyone is using is being used for a reason – and you ought to be using it, too. Perhaps the fly isn’t the variable we should be messing with so much, and we should be focusing on how we fish a fly that has worked enough to garner a famous name.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll have the kind of afternoon that I had on [redacted] Creek if you trail a size 14 pink squirrel behind a [redacted] fly. I am pretty confident that fishing the pink squirrel in the Driftless will work in some measure, because it has worked well across a pretty significant sample size. Other patterns across the country have the same pedigree and resume. They might give you an unforgettable afternoon, a great story, and reason to pick up some fly-related swag.