By Sam Larson
Hampstead’s Knockabout is a nod to fly patterns bearing glorious names that belie the real-world simplicity of feathers and fur tied to a hook shank. Lefty’s Deceiver, the Silver Doctor, and the Royal Wulff; these names are so rich in angling history, so evocative of evenings spent crafting these fabulous feathered creations at your tying desk, of the flashing, silver-sided lunge that is a fish on the line, that it’s difficult to hear them and not feel a reflexive tightening of your fingers, a mild adrenaline rush at the memory of the last time a fish tore off downstream and peeled the line from your reel.
Hampstead’s Knockabout may not give you the same nostalgic tingle in your nethers, but I encourage any discerning angler to give a Hampstead’s a try for the following two reasons: it has compelling though erroneous pedigree, and it really works.
Oliver Stuart Hampstead may have been a distant friend of my grandfathers, or possibly an unspecified, vaguely Italianate, non-blood-related “uncle” who would appear several times a year at family events or join us up at our fishing lodge in the Colorado Rockies. He would have been a long-time resident of the Western States by way of the East Coast where he was raised fishing proper Catskill dries. I’d never know exactly how old he was, of course it would be inappropriate to ask, and any questions about his age would have been fended off with, “Old enough to know better,” or “Still young enough to out-fish any man in this damn camp!” (though only after a few stiff drinks, see below).
He’d likely appear in a cloud of dust and cigar smoke, looking thoroughly down at the heels, and promptly sneak me a pocketful of some old man’s candy, Werther’s Butterscotch or licorice all-sorts. When we got down to the serious business of fishing he’d surely have swung dries on a cane rod and refused to wade any deeper than the tops of his waterproof L.L. Bean boots. Later that evening he’d get glowingly and gloriously drunk in front of the fire with my extended family arrayed before him, conceivably regaling us with oft-told and familiar tales of epic fishery. From my patch of rug in front of the fire, chin perhaps resting on cupped palms while I stared into the flames, I might have dozed fitfully and dreamed about joining Uncle Hampstead in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, standing by his side while he swung a paddle at the furiously angry and very much alive pike that he had dropped into the bottom of the boat. In this story a man like Uncle Hampstead surely would have grabbed the pike by the tail and cracked it like a bullwhip over his head. Beneath the hot, yellow gaze of that imaginary pike’s eye I’d have simply stood and shivered.
The morning he left, always in the pre-dawn haze before I got out of bed, he would have left me a half dozen perfect Hampstead Knockabouts pinned in a row to the fly patch on my fishing vest. Brindled like calico cats, crafted from whatever feathers and thread were laying around in the top of my uncle’s tying desks, I’d harbor those flies all season, only deigning to use them when the conditions were perfect, my backcast was clear, and the fish were bound to rise.
Hampstead’s Knockabout has a number of similarities to Bob Wyatt’s Deer Hair Emerger, a wool-bodied Kebari fly, and an Elk Hair Caddis. Smash the three of them together and you get what we could call a dry-merger, a nearly unsinkable dry that triggers strikes in the film like a true emerger pattern. The functionality of the fly depends on three things: the curved shank of the scud hook piercing the film, the imprint of the hair wing on top of the film, and the dry hackle speckling and dotting the water’s surface. It’s best fished dry-ish, with floatant on the hackle alone, maybe on the wing if you’re particularly worried about sinking the fly. If you are using a wool body and you get floatant on it the fly will never sink again, not an ideal situation for a fly that depends on sitting low in the water. The hair wing should be tied so the tips are even with the curve of the hook and the fibers fanned out laterally, so when the fly hits the water there is a good, visible wing print on the surface. Tie it somewhere between a size 14 and 20, use whatever combination of natural colors you’ve got laying around, and substitute the hair wing for mallard feather, or Antron, or poly-yarn on anything smaller than a 16. Brookies love it, as do brown trout. I typically tie two colors, brown hackle with a brown body, and grizzly with a cream body, and two sizes, 16 and 18. Since it’s impressionistic and not a hatch-matcher by any means you can afford to be a little loose on your interpretation. I’ve tied in trailing shucks, Krystal Flash under the wing, used various colors of wire rib, omitted the wing altogether, etc., etc.
The honest truth about this fly is that I stole the pattern from Jeff, who either invented it or modified it, I can’t remember. I contributed almost nothing to the development of this pattern, except for the name, the erroneous pedigree, and the verbal abuse I offered up to Jeff whenever he was catching fish on it and I wasn’t. In the truest spirit of angling espionage I snuck some covert glances, casually inquired about it, and then wholeheartedly lifted the pattern from him. Over the months that I’ve used this pattern I’ve had few, if any, regrets about this.
- Hook: Curved scud hook, size 14-20
- Rib: wire, whatever color suits your fancy
- Body: Moorit Shetland Spindrift wool yarn, one ply, biot, thread, etc.
- Wing: Coastal deer hair
- Hackle: Any dry fly hackle, colored to suit your needs