Tumbling clear waters. A patchwork of boulders and gravel bottoms. White chutes that open up into deep green foamy pools. The beautiful pulsating surround-sound of cicadas that seems to last till eternity. The delicate take of a trout as it slowly sips a dry fly. Sun rays struggling to break through the thick canopy of the mountain forest. These are all the memories I desperately try to re-create over and over again every time I visit a trout stream.
…then there are those other days.
You know them well. High winds creating whitecaps across the smallest of water. The elegant back cast that is promptly followed by an undulating heave of line propelling a laser-guided fly to the back of the head. Sub-zero temps that breaks down the specific heat formula of thermodynamics with how fast it can freeze the guides of a fly rod. Scorching heat that would cause campfire marshmallows to spontaneously combust. Water so high and dirty that you swear its a lahar from a not-so-distant volcano. These are the days many an avid fisherman would soon rather forget and avoid…but maybe not!?!
On these days growing up, my dad would always say: “Look at it this way, we’ll have the whole stream to ourselves. All you need is the right fly”. There was poetry in those words. Choose the right fly and you’ll have a day you can cherish for the rest of your life, regardless of the taunts of mother nature.
For me, that chosen fly was, is, and will continue to be the venerable Hornberg.
I was indoctrinated into the Hornberg club at a young age in much the same way that any son “adopts” a sports team…simply, his father was already a fan. I can’t complain on the results of my highly influenced choice. That fly has produced more trout at the end of the line than all the other flies I’ve ever fished with combined.
Some say “its not the fly, but rather how you fish it”. I cannot disagree with that sage advice. But, honestly, its definitely the fly as well.
I started out using the basic pattern. Black thread and tinsel wrapping the hook shank. Two wood duck feathers encasing s strand of yellow marabou for the body. And finished with some grizzly hackle for the head…why?…because all the flies used in the most fantastic fishing stories and lore throughout history have had hackle on them…that’s why!
Being a tinkerer, I just couldn’t let a good thing be. I knew I had to make it better and so I began my quest for the perfect ‘berg. I’ve tried putting wings on it and adding a tail to make it look like the worlds ugliest mayfly. The fish yawned.
Fish: 1, Fisherman: 0
Another venture was replacing the tinsel with mop chenille (I deeply apologize to the mop fly purists out there). And again, nothing.
Fish: 2, Fisherman: 0
Many more attempts followed, however, reversing the hook and tying everything on backwards was probably up there for the worst idea I ever had. The fly looked like pac-man in the water trying to hunt down the blue ghosts. The fish where amused and my hope of finding the perfect fly was shattered.
Fish: 3, Fisherman: -999
So, back to the traditional pattern I went for many years. That was until one day when I fished a stream that had been swollen from an ongoing torrential downpour. On this extreme day of fishing, I had just run out of lead line wrap to help get the fly down in the water column. I could see the fish looking at my fly, but I just couldn’t get it deep enough. At this point, I remembered that I had my fly tying kit in the truck as I was in the middle of a road trip to move and change jobs. I sluggishly left the muddy stream and retreated to the truck to see if I could find something heavy to put above the fly on the line. After searching, I came to the conclusion that I could not rig up anything with the materials I had. Disappointment set in immediately knowing that I probably would not have the opportunity to fish that particular stream ever again.
That is until I put two and two together and realized that I may have found the pattern I’ve been searching for all those years. I knew that I didn’t have any line weights, but what I did have was material for making heavy nymphs. The breakthrough: What if I created a nymph and dressed it up like a Hornberg? Would it work? Could it still swim in the water column or just sink like a typical nymph? Would this end up crossing the beams just like in the Ghostbusters movie? So many questions, so few answers. I had to try.
Twenty minutes later after multiple attempts at tying the fly on the tailgate of my truck in the pouring rain, I created my Frankenstein. A Hornberg that was constructed the same way with all the original feathers, however, it had the addition of a lead wrapped hook shank…and a bead!
At this point, all of the fly fishing purists out there would have rolled their eyes and probably remarked “that’s cute” in a mocking tone before moving on. But I didn’t care. I felt I was onto something. And sure enough, I was!
It behaved like a jig in the slow water and a minnow in the fast. The best part was that it got down to the fish without the oddity of a weighted line preceding it. Long story short, many fish where caught that day.
I think I found my new favorite fly for those not so perfect days. The aphorism expressed by my father was true. All you need is the right fly. For me, this was the right fly.
Since then, I’ve tied countless numbers of these flies and fished it across North America over the years. There hasn’t been a single place along that journey where I couldn’t get a trout’s attention with it. These days, I live where a river runs through it in Montana. In the west, the fish are abundant, but selective. Matching the hatch is the only advice given for catching fish. Hoppers, Chubbies, PMDs, Tricos and Caddis are in everyone’s fly box. In fact, I may very well be the only person in the whole state with a fly box adorned with hornbergs.
But I am fine with that. For me, my Frankenstein of a Hornberg continues to be my preferred trout slayer. My partner in crime. My go-to fly on tough weather days. Wherever I may stop to fish, the hornberg is usually the first fly I try and many times the only one.
My quest for the perfect fly is not over, but I will say that in my opinion, the Hornberg, in any style, simply rocks!