An artificial fly pattern is an abstraction of a natural aquatic insect that trout eat.

It’s no mystery why I start thinking about fly tying every year around this time.

The nights are getting longer and longer and I’ve convinced myself the fishing in December is never very good; although I’m not sure my fishing journals totally support that. I can remember decent December Blue-winged Olive and midge hatches from my angling youth, but I was tougher then. I’ll admit I find it harder to amp myself up for a frostbite fishing trip nowadays.

Pat Cohen at the 2019 International Fly Tying Symposium in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Whatever the reason, December just always seems to be my fly tying month. I start off with expectations of replenishing all my fly boxes and usually end up well short of that goal by the time I start itching to fish the South Platte River midge hatches on warmer days in February and March.

My inclination to tie flies this December is stronger than ever because I’ve just returned from the 29th International Fly Tying Symposium in Parsippany, New Jersey. Chuck Furimsky, the Symposium director, asked me to demonstrate my questionable fly tying skills.

Each year the Symposium is like a family gathering of some of the world’s great fly tiers and I always stand in awe of the skill they bring to the event. I ended up spending most of my time walking around to the other tiers booths and picking their brains for new ideas and tips.

This year I got to meet custom fly tier Pat Cohen ( Pat lives in upstate New York and specializes in tying deer hair bass bugs, but he’s gaining a reputation for his large streamer flies. I got hold of him last summer to custom tie the 6- to 10-inch long flies I used when I fished for taimen in Mongolia.

Pat Cohen’s Rainbow Trout streamer fly.

I also ran into my long-time friend, Pennsylvanian Tom Baltz. No one in the universe ties a better parachute dry fly than Tom. Another Pennsylvanian friend, Bob Clouser, who just turned a youthful 81 years old, was on hand, too.

“I wonder if he’s learned to tie the Clouser Minnow, yet,” someone teasingly said. Bob just smiled.

None of us say it out loud, but I think we’d all agree there’s a lot more to tying a fly than just catching a fish. We know a trout doesn’t count the number of tails you tie on a size 22 trico spent spinner imitation, but we still tie the number we observe on the real insect because we are fly tiers and that’s what we do.

We’re tying the fly as much for ourselves as the trout and somehow in the process we end up learning more about the trout and ourselves. I can’t explain it. We sit in a room on a dark, cold December night and tie this abstract version of an insect that the trout eats. We hope somewhere in that artificial fly there is a trigger that makes a trout take it for the real thing.

Ed Engle with a Siberian Taimen he caught in Mongolia on Pat Cohen’s Rainbow Trout streamer fly.

I can recite all the biology behind why I tie this or that to a hook to look like a wing or a tail or the abdomen of the aquatic insect a trout eats, but there’s more to it than that.

The very best fly tiers seem to have this innate ability to look at the natural insect and translate it into an abstraction that consistently fools a trout. The rest of us muddle around trying this and that and occasionally stumble onto a fly pattern that works better than we ever imagined. It may happen just once in our lifetime, but it’s a milestone.

I won’t be thinking about any of that when I sit down at the fly tying desk this evening. I’ll probably start off with some goal. Maybe I’ll try to tie a dozen traditionally hackled Adams dry flies or some Pheasant Tail nymphs. With luck I’ll get into a groove when I’m tying the flies and all I’ll be thinking about is the work. It will be as close as I get to a winter night’s meditation.

A fly tier’s goal is to find the elusive trigger that induces a trout to take a fly and incorporate it into the fly pattern.

Maybe that meditation will break down when I notice a mistake I’ve made on a fly pattern I’ve tied a hundred times. I’ll look at it and see something I’ve never thought about before. I’ll think this fly may catch more trout than the one I’ve tied year after year. So, I tie half a dozen flies that incorporate the mistake and daydream about that day on the river when one of them performs beyond my wildest expectation.

I’ll remind myself to save one of those “mistakes” to make sure I don’t forget the pattern when I sit down to tie flies the next time. I’ll also remind myself that there is magic in all of this.

Visit to see Ed Engle’s blog, “The Lone Angler Journal.”

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