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Purple Reign: The Allure of Purple Dry-Fly Patterns for Trout

A fascinating look at why trout like the color purple, and why you should have some in your fly box.

The Allure of Purple Dry-Fly Patterns for Trout

Patterns with purple in the mix are attractive to trout under a variety of light conditions.  (Shutterstock image)

The ribbon of blue water wound down out of a steep mountain range. Easy to cross or wade in almost any of its reaches and emerging from a deep gorge, this river held trout—rainbows and browns—that were seldom fished over. The river was new to me, but the trout were as old as time.

Someone handed me a Purple Haze to try, a dry fly tied for Montana waters. Resembling a Parachute Adams, but tied in purple, it could suggest anything from a Blue Winged Olive to a Green Drake.

Trout rose to the fly in every run that day, and the Purple Haze has been synonymous in my mind with prospecting for trout in clear, shallow waters ever since.


Ten years later, while fishing small streams in Utah, I thought about the Purple Haze when I tied on a J’s Purple Nurple for the first time. It's a small attractor pattern with a white foam indicator and a grizzly hackle tied parachute-style. On that trip, it quickly became one of my all-time favorite dry flies. Coming from my home waters—spring creeks and big rivers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho—I had always known purple as a good color for summer steelhead. Now I was a believer in it as a primary attractor when trout feed opportunistically.


Since Andy Carlson tied the first Purple Haze for Montana trout, a number of variants have emerged, and there is no excuse not to have a half-dozen purple parachute patterns in your playbook.

But why does purple work? After all, there aren’t many things found in nature that are purple, and very few of those are things a trout can eat.

The reason purple is attractive has to do with light. Hold a trout fly with a primary color of insect green between thumb and forefinger and look at the color of the body. What you see is an object reflecting light in a wavelength that lets us see it as insect green. The perception of color, in fact, is determined by how an object is lighted.

Now tie that same fly in dark red. Trout see red with a sensitivity range that includes longer wavelengths than humans can see. Where humans see a dark reddish color, the trout sees a much brighter color in the lower visible light underwater.

Anyone who has ever tried unsuccessfully to match a hatch with the right size and profile of a dry fly but the wrong color knows trout do distinguish differences in hues. What science tells us is trout discern differences most clearly in blues, then reds and then shades of green. But it probably only matters to a maximum depth of 12 feet.

GAF
The flashiness of a purple dry fly, especially one tied with a fibrous material that lets light through, makes it an irresistable offering for big cutts, ’bows and browns alike. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

WHY PURPLE?

A trout's ability to distinguish color is limited to clearer water, especially shallow water, at short distances. In tannin-stained flows, UV wavelengths filter out first, then the blues and greens. The wavelengths that contain red are not as affected. Color response diminishes with the falling light of evening until color goes away altogether, leaving black and white (and tinsel) as the best options after dark.

Purple could be any variety of colors between blue and red, which, as mentioned, are the most visible colors to a trout’s eye. What we see as purple, trout see as something brighter and flashier—something attractive—and this is why when you are fishing new water in the absence of a hatch, tying on a purple dry fly is a good way to find actively feeding fish. When trout are looking up, that bit of fur and feather catches their eye before, say, a fly in the green spectrum.

From the perspective of a trout holding in a feeding station, the surface may resemble anything from a sheet of glass to a braided mass of bubbles lit from above. The dry fly breaks the surface like a footprint in snow, but the response to color is enhanced if light filters through the body of the fly. To maximize the effect of an attractor color like purple, tie or buy dries that are tied with material that filters light through the body, like Antron dubbing or feathers instead of floss.

Purple Parachutes: Preferred Patterns

Mayflies

  • J’s Purple Nurple
  • Parachute Purple Rooster
  • Parachute UV Purple Haze
  • Purple Comparadun
  • Purple Haze
  • Purple Parachute Adams
  • Purple Para Wulff
  • Purple Spectral Parachute
  • Speedy Sparkle Purple Haze

Caddises

  • Bloom’s Parachute Caddis
  • Front End Loader Purple
  • Reece’s Surface Assassin (Purple)

Stoneflies

  • Chubby Chernobyl Purple
  • Purple Para Madam X

Midges/True Flies

  • Purple Para Black Gnat

Terrestrials/Attractors

  • Bloom’s Stealth Ant Purple
  • Hippie Stomper (Purple)
  • Juan’s Lil Hopper
  • Purple Para Crystal Stimi
  • Purple Para FethHopper
  • Schroeder’s Hopper (Purple)

WHY A PARACHUTE?

Parachute patterns, tied with domes or rectangle-shaped canopies, fall toward the water slowly at the end of the cast because the parachute creates drag and slows the fly's descent. Therefore, they light more softly on the water than do most other styles of trout flies. This is a positive attribute in slower, smoother portions of holes. Real aquatic insects do not weigh much. When they fall into the water, they do not make a big splash. They dimple the water subtly, and to a trout focused on finding and eating aquatic insects, that soft entry means food.

Whenever trout are spooky and suspicious, when a stealth presentation is required, a parachute pattern is one of the best options.

At the other end of the cast from the trout, the fisherman also has an advantage: Parachute flies float well because of the style of the parachute "wing," and that wing sticking up out of the water makes them easy to see in riffled water.




HOW TO FISH A PARACHUTE

Fishing a parachute dry is not much different than fishing a collar-style dry. However, because parachute patterns are often used in situations when a stealthy presentation is critical, it's a good idea to pay particular attention to the construction of the leader. The leader should be sized to turn a fly over so that the tippet straightens out and allows the fly to touch down softly instead of with a splash. Dependent upon conditions, leaders should be 8 to 10 feet long, including a 4X, 5X or 6X tippet.

Parachute patterns can be fished in tandem with other parachute patterns or smaller emergers. In any case, a lighter tippet will allow for a stealthier presentation.

In June and July, go with a sparkle parachute caddis dry and a smaller mayfly imitation like a Purple Nurple. In August, try a Purple Haze or a purple-bodied Parachute Hopper paired with a stealth parachute ant pattern.

If we are matching the profile, but not necessarily the color, of the natural food our purple fly is intended to imitate, using the correct size is critical. Most anglers are more likely to err on the side of fishing an unnaturally large fly for the insect they want to imitate than they are to fish a fly too small. Put some effort into getting it just right.


A WORD ON WING POSTS

So far, we've discussed fly patterns, body color, profile and size, but another important consideration is the color of the parachute portion of the fly. Wing posts can be crafted from a vast array of materials—foam, yarn, calf tail, poly, CDC, deer hair, elk hair, tinsel, mylar and other materials. The wing post helps establish the pattern's profile and serves as the spot to secure a hackle, which creates drag on the descent to the surface. The parachute wing and hackle, when properly touched up with floatant, can help a fly float remarkably well even when the its body breaks through the surface film.

In considering the color, profile and size of the fly, and then pairing it with a stealthy leader-and-tippet combination, you’re primarily focusing on what the trout wants. The color of the wing post, however, probably does not matter to the fish as much as it matters to us.

In some cases, the wing or wing post can be matched to the natural color of the imitated insect’s body, but in many situations the primary visual benefit of the wing post is to allow the angler to see the fly and know instantly when a strike has occurred. White is a good all-around choice for visibility against dark water.

When there is a lot of foam on the water, though, opt for a fluorescent option. In most cases, the wing or wing post should be sized no longer than the length of the hook shank. The parachute-tied hackle should be sized to reach from the wing post to the base of the tail.

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