Most fly shops would have a hard time selling this fly to the right — one of several gold-ribbed hare's ear nymphs I just finished tying. It's scruffy and not very neat.
But the fact is it will catch fish just fine.
One experienced fly angler I know summed it up beautifully when he said, "It's absolutely horrible; I love it."
While it doesn't imitate any specific mayfly nymph, it does a passable impression of many due to its size, color and shape. And this is exactly what an impressionistic pattern is meant to do. It even goes one better because the scraggly guard hairs and dubbing will move in the water, trap air and create bubbles. All this helps bring life to the fly.
I'm told there was a time when some anglers would take a new fly and actually chew it up a bit before fishing to make it look a bit rougher and therefore buggier. I'm hoping that time has passed. (Please don't do this. It's dangerous and you'd have a hard time explaining your visit to the emergency room triage desk. Worse still, they might ruin the fly on extraction.)
Whether this is an old wives' tale or not, it does illustrate the fact that many anglers believe a fly fishes better after it has been roughed up a bit, whether by you or the fish. I think this is because most veteran fly anglers have experienced success with a fly that's been beat up almost beyond recognition.
The up side of scruffy flies is that they are more animated. But, as a fellow angler recently pointed out to me, they don't enter the water or sink as quickly as more streamlined, slimmer patterns might. And this makes all the difference in some fishing situations, so you need to keep those sage words in mind — or add weight.
Still, there are definitely times when a fly like this does the trick. And, fortunately there are ways to make a fly scruffy (and therefore buggier) without chewing on it.
The best way is to use material that is conducive to the goal. A hare's ear nymph uses hair and dubbing from the mask of an European hare. This material has a reputation for scruffiness and liveliness in the water.
I actually substituted the under fur and accompanying guard hairs from a woodchuck pelt in this case because I had it on hand and wanted to see the result. So technically that's not even a gold-ribbed hare's ear nymph but rather a gold-ribbed woodchuck.
Other materials, such as beaver, squirrel, mink and muskrat, will also do fine and so too will antron dubbing and other synthetic blends. A quick study of proven nymph patterns from this impressionistic school will clue you into some of the better materials for the job.
Another way to ensure that you get that scraggly look is to pick out material with a needle or run Velcro across it to tease it out. In some cases, you might need to apply a little more material than you normally would, too.
Scruffy nymphs like this are not the be all and end all, but they are one more valuable tool to reserve space for in your fly box; their generic appearance makes them quite useful as searching patterns too.
They're certainly not the pretty boys of the fly world, but sometimes looks aren't everything.