Russell has company hooked

Steamboat Fishing Company guide lands mayfly in national catalogue

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Perhaps the ultimate compliment a fly-fishing guide and fly tier can receive is to have his or her recipe for success picked up by a national company.

Paul Russell, who guides for Steamboat Fishing Company, is enjoying the recognition that comes with having a fly pattern of his own creation picked up and included in its catalogue by Umpqua Feather Merchants. Umpqua, based in Glide, Ore., is the world's biggest seller of fishing flies.

Russell earns a small percentage of net profits on sales of his patterns, known in the Umpqua catalogue as "Russell's Cripple," but he knows he'll never get rich off the proceeds.

"More than anything else, it's name recognition," Russell said. "It helps me become better known in the industry."

Before going any further, it's important to point out that Russell is not involved in the actual production of his flies, although he can crank out several dozen an hour when he wants to. Instead, workers in Cambodia who faithfully replicate his pattern tie the flies for Umpqua.

Russell's Cripple was created to represent a particular stage in the life of an aquatic insect that trout in the Yampa River commonly feed on. The fly, which is sold in town as "Pablo's Cripple," imitates a mayfly caught in the midst of its transition from an underwater nymph to an adult that flies in the warm breezes above the river.

At that point in their life cycle, the mayflies are struggling to shed their nymphal shuck in the surface tension of the water, and thus vulnerable to predation by trout, hence the name Pablo's or Russell's Cripple.

Russell was motivated to develop the pattern by exceptionally selective trout that inhabit the river at Fetcher Park and Rotary Park. The quality that makes trout fishing a never-ending puzzle is that the fish won't eat every available bug that floats by. Although they are not intelligent, trout have evolved to feed selectively -- theoretically, by feeding on the insects that are most abundant and most vulnerable at a given time, they increase their chances of contributing to the gene pool.

"There was one fish that used to live at Rotary Park that you could watch feeding, but no one could catch him," Russell said. He watched many anglers drift perfectly good flies over the trout's nose with no results.

Russell spends a good deal of time observing and studying aquatic insects. He has come to understand that certain aspects of an insect's appearance can trigger a feeding response from a trout. He began trying to develop a new pattern that would trigger a response in the finicky eaters on the town stretch of the Yampa.

First, he noticed that in mayfly nymphs that have begun to shed their nymphal shuck, there is a distinct color difference between the abdomen of the nymph and the thorax of the emerging adult. He also surmised that a trailing nymphal shuck triggers a rise from trout. Russell's cripple, tweaked and adjusted after several iterations, incorporates those qualities.

Russell said he knew he had succeeded when he presented the fly to rotary trout and it sucked it in without hesitation.

The next test came when Russell took Steamboat Fishing Company owner Jeff Ruff fishing. Standing in the same section of stream, Russell fished with his pattern, and Ruff used another pattern meant to imitate a crippled mayfly. Russell won hands down, and the boss asked Umpqua to produce several dozen for his shop.

The next step was to entice Umpqua's experts to pick the pattern from among hundreds the company is offered each year. After two years of trying, Russell was successful.

Russell is modest about the compliment -- he insists Russell's Cripple is similar to existing fly patterns.

"I'll admit I don't think there's such a thing as a new fly," he said. "There are just variations on old themes."

The fussiest trout on the Yampa River beg to disagree.

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