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Book Review: The Orvis Guide to The Essential American Flies

5 mins read
orvis fly tying guide

I’m lucky enough to call Tom Rosenabuer a friend, so it’s a treat for me to review his latest book The Orvis Guide to The Essential American Flies. Much like when I reviewed Bob White’s fantastic book, I feel underqualified to do so, but I’m excited for the opportunity nonetheless.


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Of all the wonderful attributes The Orvis Guide has going for it, what you’ll likely notice first is the sheer beauty of the book. It takes a certain skill to find the right layout for a book like this, and the folks at Lyons Press knocked it out of the park. Between the photography – much of which Rosenbauer did himself – and the flow of instructions, this is the stick by which all fly tying guides ought to be measured.

With both fresh and saltwater fly patterns featured in the book, I love that no one felt the need to cram too many flies into these pages. Rosenbauer focuses on 20 flies, including dries, nymphs, streamers, saltwater, and steelhead offerings. This seemingly small collection – how can only 20 flies be essential for American fly fishing? – only reinforces what I so often hear from the best anglers I know.

Most of the fish you catch will be on the same two dozen or so patterns. So, you don’t need much more than what Rosenbauer offers here. Sometimes, it feels like simplicity is all but vanished from modern fly fishing. The classic, time-tested patterns in The Orvis Guide are refreshing.

Something else that separates The Orvis Guide from other fly tying books is the obvious time and effort Rosenbauer put into describing the history and development of each pattern. In many cases, the originators of these patterns spoke with Rosenbauer, giving us additional insight not only into how these flies should be tied, but how to most effectively fish them.

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I thought I knew quite a bit about flies like the Dave’s Hopper, but that fly’s creator – Dave Whitlock – sat down with Rosenbauer to share how this fly came to be. Interestingly enough, Whitlock created the fly to catch picky trout in the Yellowstone River. Picky eating often isn’t something we associate with fishing hoppers, a luxury for which we likely have Whitlock himself to thank.

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You’ll also find pictures and short descriptions of variants on these patterns. We all make tweaks to even the simplest of flies, but what’s fascinating is looking at the regional differences in flies. The Adams flies I buy in Fairbanks are bushier, bigger, and a bit more proper than the smaller, grubby ones for sale in Coeur d’Alene. All this is to say that you might find a variation of one of the patterns in The Orvis Guide more effective for your fisheries than the original.

Finally, what I enjoyed most in The Orvis Guide was the time Rosenbauer took to describe why he recommends using certain tying materials over others. I’m always skeptical when a pattern calls for ostrich herl, for example, opposed to peacock. Does it really make a difference to the fish?

Well, in some cases, those subtle differences determine whether you catch a fish. And if there’s anyone I’d trust to recommend certain tying materials over another, it’d be Tom Rosenbauer.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic foreword by the late Lefty Kreh. It’s a treat that we were able to read more from Kreh even after his passing.

Overall, The Orvis Guide is the most impressive tying manual I’ve ever opened up. I reckon it’ll do for this generation of fly tiers what Jack Dennis’s old Western Trout Flies books did for folks back in the ’80s.


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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He runs the Utah Fly Fishing Company, is the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with Spencer on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant. 

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