By Sam Larson
I love a Blue-Winged Olive, dressed in gray-green and dun. They look buggy, but rare. Exactly the way something as transient and improbable as a mayfly should look. Streamlined and minimalist, my Blue-Winged Olives are impressionistic, a sketchy rendering of the barest outlines of an insect: hackle, body, and tail with no fisherman-pleasing upright wing to complicate the pattern. I use standardized proportions, with tail fibers as long as the hook shank, measured from the front of the eye to the barb using old, dull scissors as calipers, and hackle just larger than the hook gape. Quill bodies are preferred for their segmentation and slim profile, their bugginess without the bulk and hassle of dubbing. And I test every single fly on the pedestal base of my vise, balanced on its tail fibers and hackle with the hook bend grazing the surface.
I rarely tie traditional flies,“Catskill” or “Western” patterns that bludgeon the water with a heavy load of tradition on every cast. But my BWOs are an exception. I like the way these flies balance, as if they’re poised for flight, tipped head up ready to erupt from the water’s film, wings abuzz with frenetic, fatal mayfly energy. I own deep respect for whoever saw the humming, buzzing essence of a mayfly in something as mundane as feather, fur, and thread. If I hold my palm above a well-tied dry I can almost feel the barest breath of air wafting from tiny, furiously pistoning wings. The best tied flies capture life and flight, or at least enough life and flight to attract the interest of a passing fish.
I still remember the first time I saw a natural Blue-Winged Olive. I had read all about the major summer hatches and the orgiastic trout frenzy that accompanied them, conditions that made for unbelievable tales of fishing excess. And I’d read about the tiny midge hatches of winter, when the cagey angler could eke an hour or two of dry fly fishing out of an otherwise unwelcoming and nymph-ridden season. But I had never heard about the average hatches, the daily business of life on a small stream, where you might find a few small, slow eddies steadily tossing out mayflies and a bare handful of trout daintily sipping around the edges. I was trying to approach a rising trout that I had seen from across the stream and a pair of mayflies landed on my hand. I stared at them, tiny and perfect, until they rose and flew off across the water. I looked in my fly box and knew that nothing in there came close to what I had seen that day. The split tails, the wings, the color, the movement. Every fly I had suddenly seemed wooden and heavy in comparison, an insult to a natural Blue-Winged Olive.
I love Blue-Winged Olives because I love trout, and I love trout because they make rivers their home, and I love rivers because they are uniquely suited to house, nurture, and protect those same trout. My Blue-Winged Olives, sparse and utilitarian, are an extension of my love for clear, running water and the fish that live there. On gentle summer waters, watching the sun sink behind the canyon rim and hearing nothing so much as water and wind it feels somehow right to tie on a classic dry, a BWO, an Adams, or a Cahill. On the water the fly bobs on gentle river swells, tipped eye-up in the same posture it held on my desktop, frozen in its pre-flight stance. Between casts time crawls, stretched endlessly thin for the length of a drift, as I watch for a delicate boil on the surface and a delicately sipping trout.