I dig fishing big dry flies with long ‘legs’ or rubber appendages for extra movement. The bigger flies are more buoyant and therefore also highly visible, they float longer than tiny dries and they can work charmingly well as ‘indicators’ when a dropper nymph is attached (I prefer ‘New Zealand style’ for this).

Big dry flies are also very useful search patterns. One can cover lots of water quickly with them and they work particularly well for big brown trout in my experience. Some Western Cape rivers are sparsely populated by browns and big pools (that can be over 3 m deep) are rather intimidating to approach with a 3 wt… The bigger fish in the river, whether a small stream or a large waterway, will readily rise to eat a big, bulky dry with a large profile, even in deep water. It’s also nice to watch a big dry bobbing tantalisingly over a deep inlet, the anticipation of a fish rising to eat it keeping me focused when the fish are scarce or not on the bite. In fact, Clanwilliam yellowfish and Natal scalies live with brown trout in some of our rivers and they also love eating big dry flies so you never know what you are going to get, which adds to the excitement.

Double whammy! A Clanwilliam yellowfish and brown trout caught in the same shallow run at the same time – photo by Philip Hills

RABs and other variants

Variants are some of my favourite dries for big rainbows and browns. The variants I tie are based on Tony Biggs’ RAB, in which case long ‘legs’, such as pheasant tail fibres, are included in the palmered hackle. These legs make the flies look very buggy, imitating a variety of invertebrates including crane flies, damsel flies and spiders (I believe that variants are also great attractors). The legs also give the flies great movement and help make them sit high on the water, saving them from drowning in fast runs.

Tom Sutcliffe has written much about the traditional RAB which has kept the legendary fly an ever present and also favourite number in many local fly angler’s boxes. Tom has also tweaked the pattern a bit by using Coq de Leon hackle and he also introduced the addition of grizzly wings to me – I never saw ‘modern’ commercial RABs with wings, it was only when Tom gave me one of his RABs that I realised how much better the fly looked with a set of wings (and according to Tom, Tony Biggs also liked to tie his RABs with wings):

TYING A HIGH WATER RAB – Tom Sutcliffe (The Spirit of Fly Fishing)

As Tom points out, RABs (or other variants) are great flies to fish when the rivers are flowing well. I fish them on 3X nylon or 4X fluoro, the thicker or stiffer line preventing the fly from spinning in the air and winding up the tippet.

Here is a general step-by-step on the variants I fish:

Step 1. I tie many of my variants on a #10 barbed hook as the large gape hooks fish better through the wide hackle and the barb ensures that a large, jumping brown trout doesn’t shake the fly out; you can’t go wrong by starting with fairly long white hackle fibres in the tail.
Step 2. I then add a few long red hackle fibres, equal in length or longer than the white hackle fibres.
Step 3. Add two pheasant tail fibres on top of the hackle fibres – I used golden pheasant tail fibres in this fly.
Step 4. Tie in a piece of 4X nylon – this will be used as rib to secure the pheasant tail body of the fly.
Step 5. Tie in two long pheasant tail fibres. These will be twisted and wrapped over the hook shank to form the ‘abdomen’ of the fly.
Step 6. Taper the body with thread and cover it with varnish to secure the pheasant tail fibres which will be wrapped next. This makes the fly much more durable…
Step 7. Twist the pheasant tail fibres and wrap them over the freshly varnished thread. Secure the pheasant tail fibres further by ribbing the abdomen with the 4X nylon – leave a nice gap for the hackle ‘thorax’ of the fly.
Step 8.  Tie in a wide, whitish hackle, shiny side facing you.
Step 9. You could add a second white hackle and then a blood red hackle on top, shiny side facing you.
Step 10. Tie in two wings.
Step 11. Position the wings vertical with thread and tie in a pinch of pheasant tail fibres in front of the wings – I used 6 golden pheasant tail fibres in this fly.
Step 12. Split the pheasant tail fibres so that they point in all directions by wrapping the thread through them;
Step 13. Palmer the white hackle.
Step 14. Then palmer the red hackle, tie off and put a drop of varnish on the thread. The large variant is now complete.

Gerald Penkler’s DDD/RABs

We were fishing the Witte River, one of the Cape’s most difficult brown trout streams, when I first saw Gerald tie one of these ‘things’ on, which also got eaten by a brown trout of about 21 inches on the first cast…I was sold!

Gerald combined Tom Sutcliffe’s juicy DDD body with the RABs wide hackle and ‘legs’ to create this deadly combo pattern:


When I started to fish the Cape streams, way back, I really struggled to tie a nice Al Troth Elk Hair Caddis (and man did that Elk Hair Caddis nail the fish on some days…); although we do get hatches of largish cream caddis flies in spring I’ve also often seen medium size cream moths fluttering around while fishing (actually almost always?). So I ended up messing around with white CDC and elk one day and Mot was born – I simply called it ‘Mot’ (moth) because of those creamy white moths that are abundant just about anywhere in our country most of the time (yes those that mess up your windscreen) – so it does not really imitate a caddis in my view. I’ve caught many trout and memorable fish on this stupid dry fly. It is a great search pattern and works particularly well as an indicator dry fly when a dropper nymph is attached.

Step 1. I use white Gordon Griffiths Sheer 14/0 for this fly and tie in three white CDC feathers above the bend of the hook before forming a thin, even white thread abdomen… Again, using a #10 hook as it’s a big fly and a barbed hook is handy for fishing dropper nymphs (the barb preventing the dropper rig from sliding off the hook while casting).
Step 2. Palmer the white CDC feathers and tie off leaving enough space for a biggish elk hair wing;
Step 3. Tie in a decent clump of elk hair on top of the hook shank, just in front of the CDC body;
Step 4. Trim the elk at the head of the fly – the fly is basically ready to use if whip finished at this stage;
Step 5. Split the thread and trap white CDC in the thread;
Step 6. Spin the thread to form a CDC brush;
Step 7. Wrap the CDC brush over the elk hair and tie the thread off under the elk hair head above the hook eye.
Step 8. Trim the CDC under the abdomen to finish the fly.
Adding rubber legs to Mot just before the CDC brush is tied in is optional, but adds even more movement to the large dry.
Mot dries tied with ‘cream white’ deer hair wings instead of elk.

Sawfin are opportunistic fish that will come up to the surface to eat a juicy dry fly at any time of the day.

Large hoppers

Yellow hopper patterns should be in every freshwater fly fisherman’s box in this country. I know from experience that rainbow trout, brown trout, largemouth yellowfish, smallmouth yellowfish, Clanwilliam yellowfish, witvis, sawfin, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, bluegills and most kurper species will eat a hopper pattern when they feed near the surface.

I used to fish only one hopper pattern, Ed’s Hopper (and with great success), but have also noted that plenty fish attacked a fat, yellow foam indicator while nymphing in the last couple of years. So I decided to tie a larger than usual, fat yellow foam hopper pattern to see if fish would try and eat it (like they did with the indicators). I was blown away by the aggressive takes I got from trout and witvis on this #10 fly. I can’t wait to throw it at other fish species this season.

Yellow foam hopper pattern sbs:

Step 1. I used a medium shank, barbed #10 dry fly hook for this pattern. Similar to Mot, this hopper is a great indicator fly when fishing a dropper nymph in rivers and dams. Cut out a fairly long, wide strip of yellow foam (I buy the big foam sheets at PNA) and fold it double. Wrap white thread to about two thirds down the hook shank and tie in the doubled foam strip.
Step 2. Tie the thread back along the hook shank underneath the foam strip before creating the second ‘segment’ in the foam body.
Step 3. Tie in a small pinch of golden pheasant neck feather fibres.
Step 4. Tie in two smallish Egyptian goose CDC feathers on top of the golden pheasant;
Step 5. Tie in a silicone rubber strand on each side of the hopper. Make the silicone strands long enough so that they could eventually form ‘hind’ and ‘front’ legs…
Step 6. Wrap the thread along the shank underneath the foam again and form the final foam ‘segment’ close to the hook eye;
Step 7. Trap the golden pheasant and CDC feathers on top of this last segment. Then trim the feathers off neatly in front of the thread wraps.
Step 8. Tie the silicone rubber strands in again on each side of the hopper to form the front legs.
Step 9. Trim the foam head and tie the thread off underneath the foam head. I add a bit of varnish to the thread underneath the fly to stop the foam from spinning around the hook shank. This makes the fly a bit more durable.
The completed foam hopper – this thing floats forever! Tip – make sure that the hind legs can pass through the inside of the hook bend without getting trapped. I’ve had refusals from fish when the legs got ‘wrapped’ like that.

Large, segmented hoppers tied with green and yellow foam.
Witvis (Cape whitefish) cruising near the surface eagerly chow big yellow hoppers.

Other big dry flies that work really well on our rivers include large Klinkhamers with rubber tails and extended body foam mayflies tied on Klinkhamer hooks:

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