I stared in horror at the fly my cousin, Jack, had just plopped on the desk in front of me.
“I’ve just been killing them on that,” he said.
“I can’t tie that!” I yelled.
I had the materials to tie the fly. I had the know-how. In fact, anybody with thumbs would have had the know-how. That was the problem. Fly tying was supposed to be graceful and elegant and so on, and I always strove for that in my tying.
This fly was anything but.
“I’ll show you how,” Jack said.
“No, no. That’s all right,” I replied.
We were sitting in Jack’s dorm room at Missouri State, Southwest Missouri State in those days in the late 90s. I’d driven down from trout-less Truman State up in the northeast corner of the state, and Jack planned to cut school to go fishing with me down at Lake Taneycomo come morning.
Jack was, and remains, mostly a bass guy, in fact he now guides on Lake of the Ozarks, but being near so much great trout fishing had prompted him to pick up a fly rod and even start tying flies.
A friend had given him some tips on fly casting, and those tips and a little on-stream practice had been enough for him to learn how to chuck and duck nymphs at Taney. Nobody had told him anything about tying flies.
He had the cheapest vise money could buy. He had some hooks. He had one spool of black thread. He had red and brown ultra chenille. He had some head cement. That’s about all he had, and the fly he’d dropped in front of me showed it.
It was a San Juan Worm, sort of. It had brown chenille sticking out all cockeyed at the back end and red at the front. In between, there was nothing but black thread. Thread and head cement, lots of it, gobbed on so thick that it looked like epoxy, so thick that it made the thread glisten and sparkle, though it wasn’t gobbed on evenly and the fly was lumpy.
I’d tied better looking flies when I’d been home alone at age 10 and decided to start screwing around with turkey feathers, sewing thread, and bluegill hooks, without aid of a vise.
I pulled myself together.
“They probably like that because of the combination of red and brown chenille. I’ll show you how to tie a San Juan Worm the right way, and do some with red and brown chenille combined.”
“I’ll do them my way,” he said.
Jack had caught a six-pound rainbow a couple weeks earlier, two months after he’d started fly fishing. I should have thought about that.
I set up my vise and Jack set up his, and we proceeded to tie. I condescended to tie some standard red San Juan Worms, even though they were awfully ugly compared to what 19-year-old me liked to tie, and even spun up a couple brown worms with little red tips. These were even uglier than the single-color worms, but I’d at least give them a shot.
“You see, this is how you tie a real San Juan,” I said.
Jack didn’t even look up. He had just finished covering his entire hook with black thread, and chenille stuck out at crazy angles from his fly.
“I’ll keep doing these,” he said.
He cut his thread without knotting it first and then soaked the fly in cement. He’d used a fillet knife to cut the thread, since he didn’t even have a pair of scissors. I shuddered and kept on tying my “regulation” worms.
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You can probably guess what happened.
The next day I used my pretty scuds and midges. I used my less pretty but proper red San Juan Worms. Finally, and with an edge of desperation, I tied on some of the brown worms with red tips, brown worms with red tips that didn’t have a shiny black body.
It didn’t matter. Jack slaughtered me. He used his red, brown, and black monstrosities soaked in glue all morning long and he caught two or three fish to my one, and bigger fish, too.
After lunch I couldn’t help it.
“Can I borrow some of those?” I said.
He gave me an appraising look.
“Maybe. I can give you two, I think,” he said. “Think you can pay for the pizza tonight?”
I hung my head and stuck out my hand. That afternoon I caught about as many as Jack did. That evening I paid for the pizza, and I stayed up late tying a bunch of red and brown worms with black midsections soaked in glue. I also ate plenty of humble pie, and I deserved it.
Jack called that fly a Tricolor Worm. I call it the White River Worm, and with one small modification it’s still one of my best worms.
That modification? A gold bead secured right in the middle of the fly. It makes the fly look even more ridiculous. I’d be lying if I said that I knew why it worked.
My best guess is that its effectiveness is a combination of the three colors combined, giving just about any fish something to key on, the attracting shine of the glue-soaked body, and the simple fact that trout in Missouri’s spring creeks and crowded, famous places like Taneycomo and other White River tailwaters see a lot of San Juan Worms, so giving them something a little different doesn’t ring their alarm bells so loudly.
I live in Montana now, and the fly doesn’t work as well on the wild trout we have here, but it does still work at times, particularly in tiny sizes (#16 to 18). I confess it fills me with glee to catch our big, spooky, wild trout known for being fussy eaters on my cousin’s ugly flies.
I do still fish the Ozark trout streams, especially in the winter and early spring during the lull in my guiding season, and when I do I’m never without a few of these worms.
I suggest you tie some up as well. If you’re smarter than I was, you won’t even feel horrified about doing so.
White River Worm
• Hook: Standard scud hook, #12 to 18.
• Bead (optional): Gold to match hook size, secured in the middle of the shank.
• Thread: Black 6/0 to 8/0.
• Tail: Dark brown ultra chenille or vernille, sized to match hook. Taper end of chenille with a cigarette lighter.
• Body: Tying thread coated in head cement or clear nail polish once the fly is tied. Use enough coats of cement to make the body appear almost smooth and to give it a great deal of sparkle.
Head: Red ultra chenille or vernille, tapered.