The Royal Wulff – Fly Fishing’s Designated Hitter

Royal Wulff
Royal Wulff. Looks like an alien, loved by trout everywhere.

I don’t want to say that the Royal Wulff is the only fly you need to catch brook trout on mountain streams in the eastern United States. It’s not. Some say other flies work better in certain situations and on certain streams. There are those who claim terrestrials are the only way in mid-summer. When hatches occur many insist matching the hatch is a must. When waters are raging nymphing could be your best bet. And so on. No doubt these are all valid views at various times.

The problem I have with these views is that I have caught brookies on Royal Wulffs in high water, low water, during hatches, when nothing’s happening, in the rain, in the sun, when it’s cold, when it’s warm, with a soft landing and with a big splash. I’m not so sure you need to load up your fly box with much else when fishing for brook trout on small streams.

I believe I can go fish any small mountain stream almost any time with nothing but size 14 through 18 Royal Wulffs and catch brookies. Though I think I can, I don’t. There are always some blue winged olives, some Mr. Rapidan dries and parachutes (those work well around here) and a mess of others crammed into a small fly box. Why go unprepared, eh? But the number of times I cut one of these off, tie on a Royal Wulff and start catching more brookies is a testament to its effectiveness.

People have very definite ideas about particular flies, such as in this overview of the Royal Wulff:

Wulff-style flies are attractor patterns that are designed for rough water. They are too highly-dressed to work well on slow, clear water or when trout are feeding selectively. But when you’re casting to eager trout in fast, riffly water– a situation where the fish want a floating fly, but where they don’t have too long to look at it–Wulff patterns make good sense.

For more selective trout this seems accurate. But if we’re strictly talking about brook trout, we’re over thinking things. My take on it is more like what the Orvis website says about the Royal Wulff, and maybe that has something to do with the western vs. eastern view (Orvis being the latter, of course):

A dry fly pattern first tied by Lee Wulff and fished with great success for decades. This buggy dry fly imitates many different types of mayflies and terrestrials, too. A great dry fly for prospecting, it can be fished in slow or fast water.

Go figure.

There is some consensus among the tenkara folks. Tenkara fly fishing is a style of fishing that uses a telescoping fly rod without a reel, just a fixed line and tippet attached to the rod. This style was developed in Japan over centuries, and probably shares a lot with other primitive fishing styles throughout the world. It’s eastern in an entirely different sense than eastern brook trout. A key aspect of tenkara is the use of a very small number of flies, or even just one. Proponents of this style of fishing claim that presentation is the most important thing, something all fly fisherman would agree is very important even though they may not agree that it excludes proper fly selection.

Anyway, one thing we know is that brook trout are typically not the most selective fish. In fact, in freestone mountain streams they tend to be pretty desperate to eat anything. So the Royal Wulff, with its bright red floss and peacock herl body, looks pretty much like an buggy alien. It’s categorized as an “attractor” pattern. It obviously looks tasty to the fish.

I will admit that sometimes things don’t work and you have to try something else. And I do. But I’ll keep throwing Royal Wulffs and let you know if something significant changes. It’s serious research now. No more fun out there for me. You betcha. Right.

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