This week’s Thow Back Thursday Fly is a Griffith’s Gnat encore. I’m calling it an encore presentation from the original TBT post in October 2014.
I’ve since purchased and thoroughly enjoyed reading The Founding Flies by Mika Valla where he dedicates four pages to George Griffith.
As I mentioned in my initial post, Griffith (1901 – 1998) was one of the founding members of Trout Unlimited. He and 15 others created TU on July 19, 1959, at the Barbless Hook, George’s cabin on the Au Sable River, MI.
Many people assume George created the fly, but that was not the case. Originally called the Gnat, it was tied by one of his fishing friends and was fished by both with great success. His friend suggested the name and by mutual agreement, the fly became known as Griffith’s Gnat.
They fished it dry on a size 14 hook or when that didn’t work, attached a small split shot to the leader.
In the 1960s, Griffith fished with Ernie Schwiebert on the Au Sable and introduced him to the Gnat.
He explains the effectiveness of the fly in his book Nymphs …
“There is another aspect of the smutting-rise problem that I discovered totally by accident. Several years ago, I was fishing the main Au Sable in Michigan with Art Neumann and George Griffith, two early pioneers in the movement that ultimately evolved into Trout Unlimited.
It was the opening weekend of the season, but in spite of the raw weather, there were some fishable hatches of Ephemerella and tiny Paraleptophlebia flies. However, our talk in the evenings covered the full range of the season, and for smutting rises both men were high on a pattern unfamiliar to me at the time. George Griffith gave me a half-dozen.
It’s called Griffith’s Gnat, Art laughed.
George flushed slightly with embarrassment. It is called Griffith’s Gnat, he admitted, but it works!
During the midge activity? I asked thoughtfully.
Exactly! said Art. It’s really good.
It was puzzling, since the tiny flies were simple grizzly palmers dressed on size-twenty hooks with a body of thin peacock herl. The silhouette bore no resemblance to the configuration of the Chironomidae, and it made no sense in terms of imitation.
You fish them dry? I frowned.
Barely, Art crawfished slightly, but we do fish them awash and drifting in the surface film.
I’ll give them a try, I said.
The half-dozen midge flies were forgotten in the corner of the Wheatley fly box for more than a year, until one evening on the lower Musconetcong with Arthur Morgan. The river seemed lifeless during the afternoon, and we caught a few hapless sunfish and rock bass, but at twilight in the flats below the meadow the trout began feeding everywhere.
The rises were soft, dimpling swirls typical of feeding to minute insects, but nothing in my special box of minute dry flies moved a single fish. We tried jassids, tiny beetles, ants, midge larvae and pupae, and tiny conventional dry-fly patterns. Nothing seemed to work until I tried one of the tiny Griffith’s Gnats, and suddenly I was catching fish after fish.
Why this pattern? It was puzzling.
Finally I stopped fishing to study the river and see if it concealed the answer. The collecting screen interrupted the quiet backwater currents while the solution to the puzzle gathered in a translucent little scum against its meshes-hundreds of delicate little pupal shucks and sometimes there were blackish little pupae still entangled in their skins.
It was quite simple. The tiny halo of pale grizzly hackle, awash in the surface film with its body core of dark peacock herl, looked different to the fish. The conventional dry-fly midge offered another light pattern indenting the surface and a totally different silhouette to them. The little black pupa fished in the film represented the midge before its pupal skin began to split and loosen. The grizzly hackle and its dark body core imitated a subtle stage of the hatch between the migrating pupa and the adult-the Chironomus pupa before its complete escape from its pupal skin.”
Schwiebert created variants using different body materials and colors to resemble the multitude of midges found in the waters he fished.
Other well-known anglers popularized the fly in sizes smaller than 14, like 16 to 20 I’m used to seeing these days to imitate a midge cluster. Having said that, I’m somewhat confused between Valla’s mention of a size 14 and Schwiebert’s story receiving several in size 20.
The following image is of a midge cluster from my home water, the Metolius River.
Here is an individual midge from the Madison River.
In Ed Engle’s Tying Small Flies, he talks about tying the Griffith’s Gnat with a lower quality grizzly hackle to allow the fly to sit in the film, not what he calls “float like a cork” by using today’s genetic hackle. Using a lower quality hackle does a better job of imitating a pupa riding lower in the water.
Lastly, if you are interested in purchasing The Founding Flies or Tying Small Flies, here is are Amazon links:
Enjoy…go fish, stay safe!