Purple Flies

Purple or elk hair – which one will the fish prefer?

We had a rainy weekend so rather than go out and get cold and wet, I opted to stay home and tie a few flies to replenish my supply of big stonefly imitations.

When it comes to fly-tying, I really enjoy making imitations of smaller insects more than big stoneflies or streamers. That’s also my preference for the flies I like to fish with, as well. It’s not that I object to catching large fish, of course. I also prefer fishing with somewhat shorter and lighter flyrods. I have no issues with people who advocate using a 9-foot, 5-weight rod if that’s their preference, but I have more fun using a 2 or 3-weight rod.

Part of that is likely age, of all things. I’ve acquired a few aches and pains in recent years and my casting arm shoulder lets me know when I’ve done too much casting in a day, and that e comes a lot sooner with a heavier rod. This spring I also did a lot of pruning and trimming of shrubberies, and after squeezing a pruning shears a zillion times, my right wrist has been protesting. Currently, it protests most when I’m either casting a flyrod or swinging a tennis racket. Naturally, those are things I most enjoy doing.

Getting back to fly-tying, while I gravitate to little dry flies and soft-hackle wet flies, it’s kind of fun to occasionally assemble some big flies, such as big streamers for pike, or those big dry flies we use for the salmonfly hatch.

A few years ago I spent a morning with Butte flytier and retired flyshop operator Ray Babineau, learning to tie his variation of the salmonfly, which he whimsically calls the F-150. As to why he calls it that he said, “Well, I have an F-150.”

Ray’s salmonfly has bushy elk hair for wings so that’s what I usually use. In fact, I use a patch of elk hide that Ray gave me.

After I tied a few with elk hair, I thought to myself, “How about a purple wing?” I tied a few that way and I hope to give that a try and see if trout like stoneflies with purple wings. 

Lots of people tie flies with purple. Indeed, a staple in most people’s fly boxes is the Purple Haze, a mayfly imitation, usually a Parachute Adams with a purple body, along with other variations, such as purple nymphs and purple soft-hackle flies.

So, what’s the deal with purple? I went online and found one fly-fishing website, 2guysandariver.com, that had a feature on colors and that quoted Kirk Deeter, editor of Trout magazine, that trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Of course, the article also concluded that the number of variables that determine the ways trout see color can drive us crazy, so the bottom line was that the size of your fly and the pattern are more important than color. 

The article also suggests that black may be the most visible color because it contrasts with water. This might have been one of the factors for the long success of George Grant’s Black Creeper fly.

I love to fish with soft-hackle wet flies and one variation I’ve often used is a soft-hackle with a pink body. While I enjoy catching fish it still puzzled me why trout would like a pink fly, because I was pretty sure that trout don’t see many bugs with a pink body. In fact I once asked an entomologist about it, though he wasn’t a fly angler so hadn’t given it any thought.

In any event, one day I was chatting with Paul Redfern, who for many years operated the Fish On! fly shop in Butte and I asked him if he had any insight as to why trout liked my pink fly.

Paul thought a moment and responded, “I don’t know, but I do know that the Tups Indispensable (which originally had pinkish urine-stained hair from a ram’s testicles) has only been around for a couple hundred years.”

Addendum: I took both of those flies fishing and didn’t catch any trout on either fly. I did have one rise to the natural elk hair fly, though I’d consider than inconclusive.


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